It’s Simply Marbleous

Ashgabat Travel Blog

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Wedding ceremony
Getting into Turkmenistan from Uzbekistan is quite the process; After driving up to the border, having my passport checked, walking about 100 metres into ‘No Man’s Land’, I walked to the building where the officials were waiting. Metal detectors and x-ray machines were all part of the process, as was finding out if I am married. I’m not sure how this related to the process except these were the people who could make my life difficult, so I answered every question as best I could. Yes I was married. Yes of course I had children. Yes, I had several boys and girls - five boys and four girls. Yes my husband was waiting for me in Turkmenistan. Yes, I answered each question as truthfully as I could.

After this process, I loaded up my backpack and walked through another section of ‘No Man’s Land’ to a waiting vehicle that would take me to the Turkmenistan section of the border followed by more security checks but finally the noise of the stamp falling onto the passport page meant I was in Turkmenistan.
The fabulous buildings - this one is the Ministry of Health
I was excited to be here.

This country has a population of approximately five million and with an area of 488,100 km2, it is the world’s 52nd largest country but what surprised me the most is how empty the place felt.

The capital city of Ashgabat is a bizarre mixture of white marble, impressive fountains, inventive architecture, fir trees and golden statues. The former leader of the nation, President Turkmenbashi decided that he would change the environment of the country and introduced a programme of fir tree planting. Now although it does get very cold in Turkmenistan, which is good for fir trees, it also gets very very warm - like an oven warm, which is not good for fir trees.
The man himself - Turkmenbashi glittering in gold
I know all about how hot it can get from experience. When I arrived the temperature gauge told me that it was 55 degrees and this was in the shade. I’m not sure if I’m getting used to it, but I’m starting to really enjoy this kind of heat. Imagine walking into an oven, not only is the temperature hot, the sun is out in the cloudless blue sky, but also the wind that blows brings a heat that is all consuming. There is no reprise from the heat and late in the evening it is still in the mid 30s. Hmm, upon reflection I’m not sure if I am getting use to this.

The country of Turkmenistan is obsessed with their former ruler or rather the former ruler was obsessed with himself. Prior to his death in December 2006, he had erected many statues of himself, renamed cities, roads and highways after himself and his parents and had decided to create many buildings and fountains in his image.
The Flag of Turkmenistan

Around Ashgabat there are monuments and buildings constructed in marble, which each cost $8 million USD to marbleise, and are in the shape of what they house. For instance, the building in the shape of a book was a publishing house (Turkmenibashi House of Books), or the building in the shape of a snake with a gold statue at the top with Turkmenbashi’s face on it was the Ministry of Health (the snake image reminiscent of Asclepius) (Turkmenbashi Wellness Centre). But I think one of the most impressive buildings he created was the ice rink. Yes, you read correctly, an ice rink in Far East Europe where the temperatures are near human melting point. Fortunately it wasn’t an expensive building …. Only $18 USD million.

Turkmenbashi is an interesting personality though and while there you can purchase his book.
Azadi Mosque - built by the Turks to be a replica of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, but on a smaller scale
Indeed, not only was the man Head of the Nation, but he was also a published author as well. His best seller ‘Ruhmana’ topped the 1995 Turkmen bestseller list. Admittedly it was compulsory to purchase this piece of prose and was taught in kindergartens as well as all levels of school. The book is about how to live; he writes about how to raise your children, how to practice your faith, how to respect your parents - it has a myriad of useful information for everyday people.

What I found so fascinating about the man himself was how assured he was. When the book was made compulsory for 50,000 mannat in 1995 he stated that if you read this three times, you would reach paradise. I found this fact interesting as not only was he an architect, an author, a President, a city planner - he was also a soothsayer. How useful in a political career. Unfortunately he couldn’t foretell his own death and died of a heart attack. Still I did learn of a joke that they tell in Turkmenistan, which goes like this;

A satirist who wrote negative things about Turkmenbashi and his reign was killed.
After a few months his wife dreamt of him coming back to see her and asking for 50,000 mannat. The wife being so confused by the dream spoke with her neighbours about what it could possibly mean. The next night, she dreamt again of her deceased husband coming to her asking her for 50,000 mannat. This time she asked him what does he need this money for. The deceased husband’s reply was ‘Oh wife, Turkmenbashi is up here with us, and now we too need to buy the book’. This was quite the popular joke, as heard it on three separate times but it does reflect how focused Turkmenbashi was on getting his readership high.

Still there were good points to his reign, the streets were very clean and the fountains were lovely to look at (but unlike Uzbekistan, you couldn’t cool off in them). Furthermore I had a few interesting facts or observations I noticed whilst in Turkmenistan which were:
- Each driver is given 120 litres of petrol free each month and you can save it up if you require and you can buy more if you need to.
- The woman reminded me of the Caribbean with their beautiful big wraps of fabric around their head. The place was very colourful.
- The Police had incredibly large hats on. Perhaps this was so they were not to be outdone by the woman?
- Nisa Fortress was a Parthian settlement from 3BC - 3AD and it is just out of Ashgabat. Well worth a visit and you can see some of the Italian excavations that are ongoing.
- Unfortunately the Turkmenistan people support Spain and did so in the final of the World Cup. I spent a lot of the game with my head in my hands, yelling at the screen and pacing around the bar I was watching the match in. Every time Robben tried to score I had to listen to the entire room tsk tsk at the tv and when Spain scored in the four minutes before final whistle, there was an upsurge of cheering. Not a good place to be Dutch.
All in all Turkmenistan is a good place to visit. Although there are hardly any souvenirs shops and the gold statues everywhere remind you the President is all knowing and all powerful, the food is still is delicious, the markets lively and the architecture is simply marbelous.

Salom from Ashgabat
vances says:
Great entry. Have you read Paul Theroux's "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star"? That was my introduction to Turkmenbashi.
Posted on: Dec 11, 2010
mountaingirl says:
Interesting blog! Thanks for sharing :-)
Posted on: Sep 02, 2010
Saskia007 says:
Hartelijk dank Frans. Ik ben blij dat u het interessant vond
Posted on: Jul 22, 2010
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Wedding ceremony
Wedding ceremony
The fabulous buildings - this one …
The fabulous buildings - this one…
The man himself - Turkmenbashi gli…
The man himself - Turkmenbashi gl…
The Flag of Turkmenistan
The Flag of Turkmenistan
Azadi Mosque - built by the Turks …
Azadi Mosque - built by the Turks…
photo by: Vlindeke