The Weirdest City on Earth (in Getaway)

Ashgabat Ashgabat2









Most travellers find a particular rhythm, a formula and a type of destination that best suits them. But sometimes it’s worthwhile breaking the mould and dropping yourself in at the deep end, even picking a place you’ve absolutely no desire to visit … and seeing what happens.

So, when my tour-leader friend Yue Chi suggested I meet her in Ashgabat for a journey through Asia’s Stan countries, I knew it was one of those opportunities, a chance to do something really different.

 The Boeing began its descent over the burnt-croissant landscape of northern Iran. We swooped low over the steppes Hitler had craved for his panzer divisions, were it not for a little hiccup called Stalingrad. The wheels squealed on Ashgabat tarmac. I’d landed in the very heart of Asia.

In the wake of glasnost, the Stan countries gained their independence from the USSR in 1991 and have tried to find their feet and some sort of national identity in a post-Cold War Asia. Turkmenistan became a bizarre dictatorship similar to North Korea … which is where I now found myself.

This wealthy Stan made the transition from Soviet Republic to autocracy under the leadership of Saparmurat Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi, the self-styled ‘leader of the Turkmen’. He ruled from 1985 until his death in 2006, creating a personality cult and building a capital of white marble. His famous slogan, ‘Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi’ (People, Nation, Me) was an uncomfortable echo of Hitler’s ‘Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer’.

The Great Leader was fortunate to have vast reserves of gas and oil to fashion the ‘Turkmen Golden Age’. However, much of the proceeds went to funding grand public works instead of education or infrastructure. Benefits such as free petrol and gas for the populace were offset by a draconian regime with overbearing state control and a muzzled press.

After the dictator’s death, his deputy grabbed the reigns. Under the new guy, the personality cult has been somewhat tempered and the more ridiculous prohibitions – such as a ban on ballet or listening to music in cars – were lifted, but there’s been little easing of state control.

After five security checks, I emerged into the arrivals hall to find that Yue had not, in fact, made it to Ashgabat. Actually, her group and their Land Rovers were still caught in a tangle of red tape somewhere in Azerbaijan.

Instead of Yue, a young man held up a board with my name. His travel agency would look after me until Yue arrived ‘in a few days.’ The road into Ashgabat was lined with marble palaces, statues and fountains better suited to a sci-fi movie than a Third World city in an Asian desert. I was gobsmacked.

Turkmenbashi had orchestrated a facelift to transform his capital from a humdrum Soviet city into a fantastical vision of timeless beauty. Whole suburbs had been bulldozed to make way for the palaces and parks of Turkmenbashi’s wet dream. Like Dubai, the building process was continuing at breakneck speed, but with none of Dubai’s humble, understated charm.

From a distance, the white marble lost its expensive lustre and the buildings looked more like rows of public toilets. The urban planning was equally perplexing. Pedestrians had been excluded from the design. Buildings were spaced far apart, like islands in a sea of concrete. In winter, you could die of exposure walking to your next-door neighbour.

The driver dropped me at Hotel Ashgabat, a white wedding cake in the final stages of completion. Beside it stood a new soccer stadium, also in marble. Humans were dwarfed by the scale of the architecture. I climbed an endless stairway like an ant in an endurance experiment. The enormous hotel had a reception decked out with chandeliers and copious gold leaf. I was the only guest.

I was assigned a guide for my time in Ashgabat. Anjelika Muradov was rotund with pastel clothes, plastic jewellery and pudding cheeks. I picked her brain as we drove about in an air-conditioned minibus. ‘In the old days, all the money went to Moscow, now it stays here,’ she said. ‘The people are happy. For everyone, there is free water, free electricity, free salt and free petrol –’

‘There’s no democracy, right.’

‘We have one party. That is all we need. We have the most beautiful city in Asia. This would not be possible if we had lots of politics.’

Perhaps she was right. This particular brand of insanity needed a powerful dictator.

‘We have the biggest national flag in the world, the biggest carpet, the tallest fountain,’ she said.

‘And the biggest Noddyland in our solar system,’ I muttered.

Anjelika spent the ensuing days showing me the sights. Ashgabat’s national monuments were simply astonishing. The Arch of Neutrality looked like a cross between a Sputnik and a dildo. It was topped by a 12-metre gold statue of the Great Leader which revolved, following the course of the sun through the day.

As we drove around, Anjelika sang the praises of the Great Leader. For instance, when Turkmenbashi decided he wanted to green the city, he decreed that 20-million trees be planted. Which sounded like a good plan, until I heard that pine trees were uprooted from the Caucasus, transported vast distances and then helicoptered into precipitous spots on hills around the city, where many of then were dying for lack of water. In a perverse overturning of the Green ethic, I wondered what the carbon footprint of each tree might be.


Finally, Yue and the Land Rovers arrived and we set off for Uzbekistan. Watching the white Xanadu that is Ashgabat recede into the desert haze, I thought about autocrats and their grandiose ideas. There was Hitler and Albert Speer, Turkmenbashi and his pet architects. What folly it all was.

But in truth, I was also a little confused. That’s what outlandish travel can do to you: it challenges your assumptions. Sure, a dictator still ruled the land with an iron grip, but as dictators go, the new one wasn’t that bad. ‘Free petrol, dude!’ shouted a voice in my head. ‘And free salt,’ less loudly. Perhaps this form of autocracy suited a young, peasant nation on the rise. Perhaps democracy could come later, once the nation-building dough had set. The people were being given cake in the form of grand architecture, football, piped Russian pop music and loads of free stuff. There was hardly any crime, grime or drugs. And the trains ran on time. Perhaps that was enough … for now.

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