One of the great pleasures of traveling abroad is returning to regale friends with stories about the great food, nightlife and tourist attractions you discovered. It is a pleasure that will be denied you if you travel to Ashgabat, the political and cultural hub, as it were, of the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. The standard image of Turkmenistan, to the extent that there is a standard image, is that of a remote and somewhat strange nation headed by a nasty neo-Stalinist regime. It’s an unfortunate perception, though having recently returned from a trip there this spring I can say that this reputation is pretty much dead on. Despite all that, Ashgabat is not without its charms and remains an interesting and unique place that is well worth a visit.
Until about a decade ago, Ashgabat was, even by the standards of Central Asia, an undeveloped backwater that still had never rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1948 that killed tk people and leveled virtually the entire town. Then oil and gas money started flowing in and the government — headed by President-for-Life Sapurmat Niyazov, the self-declared “Great Turkmenbashi” and easily a top-tenner on the list of the world’s major ruling lunatics of the post-World War II era – embarked on a massive construction spree that transformed the city from head to toe.
Imagine that your craziest uncle held dictatorial powers as town planner and had vast billions to do as he pleased, and then you can begin to envision Ashgabat. There are still, of course, plenty of traditional concrete-block Soviet apartment buildings and barely developed neighborhoods. But the landscape of Ashgabat is now dominated by mammoth, hastily erected marble façade government ministries, hotels and apartment buildings that look like giant white wedding cakes. (Though impressive from a distance, don’t look too close. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that the buildings are poorly constructed; at several I found cigarette butts stuffed between cracks in the marble tiles.) The city’s other most notable features are countless golden statues of the Turkmenbashi, most famously the one sitting atop the 225-meter Arch of Neutrality which rotates so that the Great Leader always faces the sun, and giant portraits of a smiling, benevolent Turkmenbashi that adorn virtually every public building.
Niyazov died suddenly of a heart attack in December of 2006 but the building boom continued under the new leader, Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the Turkmenbashi’s personal dentist. Berdymukhamedov (pronounced: cray-zee) had previously served as health minister and had been responsible, according to the BBC, for implementing Niyazov’s 2004 health care “reforms” – like sacking 15,000 healthcare workers and replacing them with untrained army conscripts — which had left the system “near collapse.”
Like Shanghai, construction cranes and work crews are everywhere in Ashgabat, building newer and ever bigger marble tombs, even though most of the old ones are greatly under-occupied. One new development is that giant portraits of the new leader are replacing ones of the old ruler. However, the two men look so much alike —sparking rumors that Berdymukhamedov is the Turkmenbashi’s illegitimate son – that even locals can’t tell them apart, so from an aesthetic point of view it doesn’t matter much either way. What you don’t see much of are people, at least in the central part of Ashgabat, which can be eerily devoid of any signs of life. There were times when I spent hours walking around the city and saw almost no locals, other than for the omnipresent government organized clean-up crews.
Like most places, Ashgabat has its pluses and minuses. On the upside, expenses are minimal. Even the top-end, five-star President Hotel, located near the cigarette lighter-shaped Ministry of Oil and Gas, will set you back only about $100 per night (or $150 for a suite). On the downside, most everyone staying with you at the President will be a dreary foreign businessman or member of one of the many low-level foreign delegations passing though town, possibly a group from Outer Mongolia’s Ministry of Agriculture, sub-department of water.
On the upside, the city is easy to get around – cabs can be flagged down on any major street and you’ll never pay a fare of more than 20,000 manat – and there are no lines at major attractions. Downside: There are almost no major attractions.
Upside: Turkmen are an extremely friendly, outgoing and generous people.
Downside: Talking to locals, especially anything about politics or asking their opinion of the ruling authorities, endangers their well-being and safety because the police and security service don’t generally approve of contact with tourists. Oh, and if you are a man and meet an extremely friendly, outgoing and generous woman, she will almost certainly be expecting payment by the end of the night.
Upside: Ashgabat sits in a valley surrounded by the Kopet Dag Mountains and its unusual architecture, monuments and other exotica provide for numerous photo opportunities. Downside: You might unwittingly snap a picture of something that is deemed to have national security value – a category that includes most government buildings – and be arrested.
What follows is a brief guide to the best and worst of Ashgabat.
There aren’t a lot of must-see attractions in Ashgabat. The main mosque, built by a Turkish firm, is modeled loosely on Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque. With its four minarets and marble courtyard, it’s impressive from a certain distance, but there’s less to admire the closer you get. The green and white dome, which looks tiled from afar, is actually painted and looks chintzy from directly below. The Ruhnama monument is a gigantic green-and-pink mock up of the Turkmenbashi’s sacred text. (I was told that the book actually opens periodically and shows videos of the Great Leader, but it remained shut during my visit.) Granite pillars topped with small blue domes line the path to the monument, and the whole place had a certain sanitarium feel owing to the lulling background noise emanating from dozens of fountains (a prominent feature at almost all of Ashgabat’s sites) and the fact that the park was virtually empty save for a very few locals. They wandered along the path silently, as if speaking in such a holy spot would constitute sacrilege or, more likely, a crime.
The Turkmenbashi believed that his native land deserved the best of everything, including amusement parks, so he built Ashgabat’s very own Disneyland, called the Land of Turkmen Fairy Tales. For the equivalent of $5 (locals pay a tiny fraction of that amount), you can buy a day pass and enjoy traditional rides like the Ferris wheel and Merry-Go-Round. Also make sure to catch (near the central café) the mechanical crocodile that sits in a pool of water and periodically emerges to snap its jaws. I also enjoyed the wall paintings in the tunnel leading to a revolving tower ride, which offers quite a nice view of the city. The paintings show the world’s most famous landmarks: the Tower of London, the Statue of Liberty, the Kremlin, the Eiffel Tower – and Ashgabat’s very own Independence Monument, a white column sticking out of a marble dome with the requisite golden statue of Turkmenbashi. The monument looks like a toilet plunger, which it has been nicknamed by some locals.
There are, however, a few must places that tourists should make sure to visit. These include the Walk of Health, a 35[?]-kilometer concrete path cut atop the slopes of Kopet Dag Mountains. At the base is the Garden of the Great Turkmenbashi, a park and playground that features a fountain with a huge, perpetually spinning marble ball. Across the road is another monument to the Turkmenbashi, which is graced with my personal favorite statue of the Great Leader, in which he is chiseled in marble wearing a jogging suit and running shoes while holding a cup of tea. Curiously, the Turkmenbashi himself was not much of a health nut. He urged all citizens to make the walk at least once a year and ordered his ministers to do so, but he merely offered encouraging words to his minions before they embarked on their ceremonial annual hike before being whisked away by helicopter to the presidential palace. The he would reappear at the end of the Walk of Health to greet those crossing the finish line and to berate laggards.
Not many Turkmen seem to actually hike the Walk Of Health, but it’s a routine stop for bridal parties to have pictures taken on their wedding days. When I was there, an old silver car sporting red, white and green ribbons, and fake flowers on the trunk, pulled into the parking lot and out popped the groom (in a suit) and his bride (wearing traditional Turkmen garb, her face covered by a head scarf). Several other cars soon followed and in short order a photographer was snapping pictures of a score of celebrants and we had musical accompaniment from a small band featuring a percussionist and accordion player. A second party – twin grooms and their brides — arrived soon afterwards. Within a few minutes, after discovering we were tourists, family members invited Wallpaper’s photographer and I to their wedding celebration that night. When we respectfully declined, as the party was being held at a village 25 kilometers out of town, they insisted that we have our pictures taken with the bride and groom.
Ashgabat’s most famous monument is the three-legged Arch of Neutrality, which sits astride a traffic circle at the heart of the city. The 75-meter tower is topped by the notorious rotating statue of the Turkmenbashi, whose bronzed image proudly looks out across the city, arms outstretched as if to say, “I own it all.” (And until he died, he did.) For 1000 manat you can take a short elevator ride up one of the slanted legs of the monument to a viewing platform that looks out onto Independence Square, a vast area where tanks and other military equipment parade every October 27, the glorious day in 1991 that Turkmenistan’s despotic Communist ruler – Niyazov – announced the country’s independence from the Soviet Union and declared the opening of a new democratic era. The platform offers sweeping views of the city, and of nearby sites like the gold-domed presidential palace on the square below. Most striking, though, was the almost complete lack of pedestrian traffic through and around the square. The only human beings I saw, and this during the early afternoon on a weekday, were roughly a score of women in brown skirts, orange shirts, dark headscarves and big black rubber boots, who were sweeping and mopping the grounds.
The whole city is marked by the Turkmenbashi’s megalomania, but two stops are particularly notable in this regard. One is the area called Berzengi, which consists of nothing but a line of some 20-odd small hotels that were built by the government, beginning in the mid-1990s, because Niyazov just knew that Ashgabat was bound to emerge as one of the world’s primary tourist destinations. Each hotel has a restaurant and bar, but otherwise there is nothing to do in Berzengi. There are no shops, no markets — you can’t even buy a bottle of water, as I discovered to my distress on a very hot day — nothing ahead of you and nothing behind you but more hotels.
I dropped by four of the hotels and did not see a single person who was actually staying in any one of them. There were simply a few workers at a reception desk, sitting beneath a portrait of the Great Leader (I did not have an eye discerning enough to determine whether it was Niyazov or Berdymukhamedov) and always with a display copy of the sacred Ruhnama in sight. That said, some of the hotels were quite charming. There’s the Hotel Gara Altin (“Black Gold”), a miniature turquoise sheikh’s palace with domed turrets, which was slightly garish inside but offered modest rooms for about $60. Despite its name, the Hotel Nebitchi, the oil workers’ hotel, is a little more upscale. Rooms start at around $75, but you can always get a cheaper rate if you press, as at other hotels, because there are plenty of rooms available. It also has a swimming pool and features a statue of a donkey in the front courtyard.
The Ice Palace is also worth a stop for sheer weirdness, given that Turkmenistan is a desert nation with no tradition of skating. Nonetheless, the Turkmenbashi decided the country needed an Olympic-size rink and so he built one inside another vast marble mausoleum. Getting inside proved to be tricky, though. When I stopped by one morning, there were three young girls at the ticket booth and an identical number of administrative staff standing at the entrance. The ticket fee for a tourist was $5 to look and $10 to skate, but I was told that I could not actually buy a ticket on site. Instead, I had to go to a bank in the city – no one knew exactly which bank, so my guide and I wandered for an hour from one to the next before finding the right one – where I gave my passport to a bank official who filled out a lengthy form, stamped it and passed me a receipt for my $5. Then I returned to the rink, filled out more paperwork in an upstairs office, and finally got my ticket. In the end, the visit was anticlimactic because not a sole was skating so all I did was gaze upon an empty rink for a few minutes before departing.
One thing you will not find in Turkmenistan, at least in my experience, is good food. Locals raved about the fabulous cuisine at the restaurant on the 12th and highest floor of the [name tk] office building, which was bathed in fuschia lighting the night I visited. (Most major edifices and monuments are lit at night in ever changing colors, often flashing disco-style.) The clientele was high-end, mostly government officials and foreign businessmen, and I was optimistic when a pleasant English-speaking waitress (the menu is in Russian only) enthusiastically suggested “manty” and “lagma,” which she said were national dishes. Technically, I later learned, neither is, both being popular across Central Asia. First came the lagma, a tomato-based soup with ground beef, carrots and potatoes, which was perhaps a notch above prison gruel. Then came the main course, the manty, jumbo-sized steamed ravioli with a chopped meat stuffing and sour cream topping. I ate less than two of the five on my plate, not because I was full – indeed, I was still famished — but because they were essentially inedible. The whole experience was made worse by a hideous soundtrack that included several hits from Phil Collins. The silver lining, of sorts, was that the bill for three people, including drinks, came to roughly 700,000 manat, or $30.
The Hotel Nissa is a slightly dingy Soviet-style hotel with a huge lobby and red-carpeted stairs (and is even more bland from the outside). Still, it’s a pleasant spot and oddly appealing, and was said to have some of the best food in Ashgabat, specializing in Italian cuisine with ingredients reputedly flown in from the motherland. But the penne with puttanesca sauce I ordered was mediocre at best, though the breadbasket was tasty and there was decent olive oil and Parmesan cheese, which goes a long way in Ashgabat.
I was absolutely determined during my stay to try plov, a Central Asian dish of rice cooked with lamb and vegetables, and dograma, a traditional Turkmen dish with meat and chunks of chorek, a wonderful flat thick-crusted bread. However, at every restaurant I was told that both were unavailable. Finally, my guide informed me that, ironically enough, getting Turkmen food in Turkmenistan requires phoning the restaurant the day of your visit and ordering in advance.
On my last night in the country, my guide and I went to the Café Aylar, which offers a lovely setting. The patio has a stone waterfall and fragrant Chinese rose bushes, and there are available (for larger parties) a choice of two yurts, one traditional Turkmen with [description tk] and the second Turkish-style with lush blue silk hanging from the top. We sat on couches at a tables in an apse around the courtyard. I had failed to call ahead to order dograma or plov but when I told the waitress it was my last night in country, she went to speak with the manager. “Can you wait for two hours?” she asked upon her return. “We can’t make dograma but we can make plov if you wait.” Sure, we said, as it was a lovely night and we were happy to drink beer and have an appetizer or two until the main course arrived. But half an hour later, she stopped by again and said the restaurant did not have and could not get the needed ingredients.
My quest for plov having ended in crushing defeat, I ordered a soup called Piti and a spinach-filled fried pastry called samsa. The soup, a beef, potato and carrot concoction, was served piping hot in a clay pot but was even worse than the lagrama I’d sampled a few nights earlier. The samsa looked tasty, but the spinach had been boiled into submission and was waterlogged and lifeless.
The best strategy in Ashgabat is to forget about finding great food, and instead prioritize setting. There are several pretty, pleasant parks in the city with outdoor cafes where you can sample the two local beers– Berk, my preferred brand, and Zip — and eat skewers of lamb, chicken or beef, all which tend to be fatty but flavorful. The lamb is especially good, and is generally served atop a platter of onion and dill, and with a basket of bread. My favorite spot was the Iceberg Cafe, where I sat on the tree-shaded patio with my guide and his friend, and had drinks, kebabs and a limp chopped salad. The bill came to all of $7.
During the day, the Iceberg plays a mix of Russian, Uzbek and American pop and there’s live music at night. It gets crowded and several locals complained that the service was poor, though it didn’t seem noticeably worse than the Turkmen standard, which is slow by Western standards but perfectly fine if you’re on vacation in Ashgabat, where you’ll have plenty of time to dawdle.
Until his death, the Turkmenbashi built a personality cult that outdid that of any modern leader except possibly Kim Il-Jong, the founder of North Korea. The country’s most sacred book is the Turkmenbashi’s own Ruhnama, which contains his very own pearls of personal and spiritual wisdom, and which is described on its official website as being “on par with the Bible and the Koran.”
Most of Ashgabat is still essentially a monument to him (though there are signs that it is being turned into a monument to Berdymukhamedov). Consider the Palace of Knowledge, which consists of three vast (marble, of course) buildings topped with blue domes: a concert hall; the national library (which I was not allowed to enter); and the [name tk] Museum, from which I was unceremoniously evicted when personnel espied me through a security camera taking notes about one of the displays. The latter include a giant copy of the Ruhnama on a marble base, and a vast blue carpet with woven images of the planets and a spaceship transporting the Ruhnama into the heavens (“A work of the artist’s imagination,” my guide informed me). Other highlights are a plaque stating, “Thanks to the efforts of the first president of Turkmenistan, the citizens of the country became the main value of the state and society,” and framed sayings of the Turkmenbashi’s musings on topics including cotton, horses and the “Golden Age” which he himself had ushered in. There’s also an entire room devoted to the Turkmenbashi’s family, with photographs of his father (who was killed fighting for the Red Army during World War II), and his beloved mother (in whose honor he renamed the month of April) and two brothers, all who were killed in the earthquake of 1948. I was at the museum for about an hour before being tossed, and during that time there were no other visitors.
Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to be in Turkmenistan during one of the many special holidays created by Niyazov, such as Grain Day, which commemorates the wheat harvest; Melon Day, which celebrates the muskmelon, a close relative of the watermelon; or, as I was, A Drop of Water Is A Grain of Gold Day, which is celebrated on the first Sunday in April. Hundreds of students from the State University of Agriculture attended the ceremony – their presence was mandatory, it turned out – which was held at the downtown Golden Age Park. The students – men in black or dark gray suits and women in traditional red and maroon dresses, and yellow, white and black head caps — watched a procession of government speakers drone about the importance of water. Then they listened to a folk band, featuring an accordion, violin and the two-stringed dutar, which played beneath an immense portrait of Berdymukhamedov and against a backdrop of hundreds of fluttering red, blue and yellow banners [note: I have to double check colors, can’t dig up relevant section from my notes at moment] and dozens of noisy fountains.
Culturally, the atmosphere in Turkmenistan is smothering. There are only a few bookstores, like Miras, the Book Shop of Spiritual Legacy, which is located near the National University. Tables are loaded with piles of the Ruhnama and other books authored by the Turkmenbashi, but there are also plenty of works as well from Berdymukhamedov. Also on prominent display, behind a glass case of school supplies near the entrance, is an English language copy of “I Myself and Accomplices of Mine: Terrorists,” which was allegedly written by Boris Sheikhmuradov, the accused leader of a 2002 coup that was crushed by the government. One suspects that Sheikhmuradov, who was arrested and disappeared afterwards and who is presumed to be dead, didn’t choose the title of his alleged autobiography.
If you want to pick up some native art, there’s a gallery near the Russian Bazaar (see below) where you can buy decent if uninspired paintings of village life for about 5 million manat. Or if you prefer, an oil painting of a stern Berdymukhamedov can be had for a surprisingly low 500,000 mantas.
Television is completely controlled by the state and can provide a brief diversion after a long day on the street. I was channel surfing one night and saw a lot of folk dancing, big trucks with Turkmen flags, and shots of the president speaking to groups of workers or turning turbines at new gas complexes. The other constant feature on TV news is scenes of the president with visiting officials. One lengthy report showed Berdymukhamedov with the visiting Indian vice president, who was in town to sign an energy deal. The camera lingered lovingly on the president as he waved goodbye to his guest in front of the presidential palace, and then followed the visitor around as he ate bread at a marketplace and visited museums and mosques. I saw another report where Berdymukhamedov visited officials at the Oil and Gas Ministry. The camera panned the room and showed the sycophantic (but no doubt prudent) bureaucrats furiously scrawling notes as the president addressed them.
Turkish-owned Yimpash, near [tk], is Ashgabat’s most modern shopping mall. The ground-floor supermarket offers good quality produce and imported cheeses. Head to the second floor – on Turkmenistan’s first and still one of its only escalators – and step inside the decorative display yurt in the furniture department and browse through stores like Benetton and Ramsey of London. The third floor has a few restaurants, ping pong and billiards tables, and the city’s only movie theater, which nightly shows Russian-language movies (on a DVD player) on a small screen. The five-legged, five-story, pyramid-shaped Altyn Asyr (“Golden Age”) shopping center is drabber and there’s very little to buy, but it does boast waterfalls running down all sides of the building.
There are a number of markets in the city, my favorite being the centrally located Russian Bazaar, a covered Soviet-era structure that offers a hodgepodge of shops and vendors crammed into two floors. You can buy for pennies freshly baked chorek, the wonderful round bread always stamped at the enter with a box of dots, or a cup of Agran — camel’s milk –which is as thick as yogurt and ladled out of a metal pot, then thinned with water. (Though eating anything other than chorek at the dirty outdoor markets is risky; I didn’t sample the Agran.) You can also pick up amazing Iranian pistachios or a souvenir bottle of Turkmenbashi brand vodka, which features a smiling image of the Great Leader both outside and inside the bottle. It sells for $7, versus $65 for a bottle of Absolut. You can also sit at an outdoor able for a kebab and a cold drink, or visit a card reader and learn your future.
But the best place to shop, and indeed one of the best places to visit in Ashgabat, is the vast and dusty Tolkuchka Market about a 30-minute drive from the city center. Almost anything imaginable is sold there: piles of fruits and vegetables; cheap clothing, mostly from China; fabric from Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan; jewelry (ranging from kitsch to gold); towels, plates, pots and pans, perfumes, pillows, shoes, teapots, lamps and on and on. When vendors make a sale, they wave the money in the air, which is thought to bring good luck. The most popular part of the market for tourists is the carpet section, which offers anything from a small rugs the size of a doormat to mammoth carpets that are produced locally or imported from Iran and Afghanistan, all at very reasonable prices. But beware that most rugs require an export label, which I was told are easy to obtain at a government office downtown. I didn’t test that proposition.
Just across the road is the Animal Market, which you’ll smell before you see. Sheep and goats are sold out of the back of dozens of flatbed trucks, and there are sections with metal-caged rabbits and hares, and chickens, roosters, and ducks. Larger animals – cows, horses and camels, the latter that are sold for milk and wool, not meat – can be found in back. I watched four men struggling to load a camel into the back of a buyer’s truck. It roared and fought back hard, and barely budged when two of the men got a running start and charged into its backside. It finally was loaded into the truck after the men began viciously beating on its ass with sticks.
Writing about nightlife in Ashgabat must be brief, because there’s not much to do. The outdoor parks (see above) are a good option and there are some nice cafes, like the trendy European Café near First Park, and the Shazada Café, which makes a good baklava and has excellent Turkish coffee. Expats like the small, crowded City Pub, which is decorated with the banners of Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. On the Saturday night when I was there, a noisy electric band led by pudgy singer in an orange shirt, tight jeans and black boots played surprisingly good Russian and English pop and blues.
Ashgabat largely shuts down at 11 p.m. officially and many places close a bit earlier than that. The one exception is nightclubs and bars at the bigger hotels, but you may have to avoid eye contact with most of the clientele, especially the friendly but vaguely scary local men and most of the women, that more likely than not are prostitutes. Indeed, even avoiding eye contact does not mean you will not have to fend off direct overtures.
After five days in Ashgabat, it was time to go home. My plane was scheduled to depart at 4 a.m. and I paid my bill in the afternoon – the tourist agency that arranged my trip had handled room charges so I was only responsible for extras such as meals and phone calls — to ensure that my departure went smoothly. It didn’t.
When I turned in my room key to a grim redheaded receptionist, she told me that the hotel had no record of payment for either the room or the extras. She appeared to relish the prospect of calling the police in to deal with me. “Maybe you paid for [the extras] for another room,” a second receptionist, an attractive brunette, said cheerfully, though phrasing it in a way that suggested that it was my mistake, not the hotel’s. This turned out to be the case, and the redhead informed me that I still owed the hotel $97. Since I only had a little bit more than that left in cash, I told her to put it on my credit card. Fine, she said, but in that case I would be charged $297. No explanation was offered for the surcharge and there was no point in arguing so I paid with my dwindling cash reserves.
Then I called the head of my local tourist agency, who got on the phone with the receptionist and quickly resolved the matter of my room bill. “OK,” the redhead said to me glumly when she hung up just a minute later. She seemed distinctly disappointed that she couldn’t have me arrested.
(But she didn’t and so you’re reading this story, possibly in 2017.)