No, it's not a prison run by the Ministry of Magic. But it's an equally strange place, the weird capital of the earth's weirdest banana republic.
Ashgabat was a small village in the 19th century at the time the Russians moved in and made it their capital. What the Tsarists built completely collapsed in a giant earthquake in 1948, and the Soviets rebuilt it in their style.
And since 1991, it has been replaced yet again. The first not-quite-eternal President Niyazov declared his reign to be Turkmenistan's “Golden Age,” and he needed a capital to match. Reserving gold for palace domes and statues of himself, he had the rest of the city rebuilt in white Italian marble. As he toured the capital cities of the world, he would see things he liked and build grander versions at home. Thanks to oil and natural gas revenues, money was no object, nor were water or electricity. The world's largest floodlit fountain in the middle of the desert? No problem.
Everything is built in a consistent style by the French construction company Bouygues. That would be wonderful if it actually had style. But it's the cheapest imitation of neoclassical capital architecture. It makes Las Vegas look classy.
The result is a giant, kitschy capital on a scale exceeding Washington. All this for a poverty-line desert country of 5 million people, smaller than Kunming or the San Francisco Bay Area. Less than a million people live in the capital, and only the corrupt officials of the many ministries can afford the gleaming apartment blocks. The Ministry of Carpets has its own 12-story building.
We stayed at in the “new city” of Berzengi, a Las Vegas strip of 36 hotels and government ministries on the southern outskirts. Our hotel was reminiscent of a medieval castle. The rooms were huge, but completely unmaintained. Water and electricity are free in Ashgabat, so no one worried that they ran continually in our bathroom. No one spoke English and service was non-existent.
Sadly, we came a month too late to see the greatest monument of all, the Arch of Neutrality, shown in the bus-stop poster to the right. Niyazov built it to commemorate his trip to the UN to declare his country “permanently neutral,” and he crowned the 91-meter (300 foot) tower with a 12-meter gold statue of himself. The statue rotated once a day so that it always faced the sun, or vice versa, as some wags claimed. Alas, President B decided to make his mark this year by tearing down the most visible monument to his predecessor, perhaps sensitive that it was making an international laughingstock of his kingdom. So all we got to see were the cranes removing the final third at its base. No doubt Bouygues was again being paid well for the demolition.
Also under revision is the book-shaped museum of the Ruhnama, the “holy book” that Niyazov wrote to create a mythology for himself and his ex-nomad people. In its day, the Ruhnama was required reading for college entrance and driving exams, but there are rumors it will now be shelved even in elementary schools.
Every visitor must make the excursion to Gypjak, the largest mosque in Central Asia. Built by Niyazov at the village of his birth, it has a huge gold dome and minarets 91 meters (200 feet) tall. 91 is an important number as the year of independence and therefore the start of the Golden Age. To say it's a mosque is stretching Islam: an inscription over the entrance compares the Ruhnama to the Koran.
The one place we did want to go was the National Museum, which has most of the best finds from Merv, Gonur, and other archaeological sites in Turkmenistan. It was indeed a good museum, but somewhat overshadowed by its giant building, which had to be large enough to hold the world's second largest carpet weaved by happy workers in honor of the president (the largest is a similar work in the carpet museum on the other side of town).
The shining capital seemed strangely empty, with more policemen than people walking in the streets. But somewhere there had to be a million people struggling to make ends meet in the hidden underbelly where normal economics still had to apply. Despite free water and electricity given by the government, life can’t be easy for people making only a few hundred dollars per month.
We finally found the people in the giant market that takes place every weekend on the north end of town. A crude city of shipping containers and tarps in the desert, it was the place normal people could go to buy housewares, car parts and sheep. The toilet was the sand dune to the west. But even this bit of reality will soon change, as President B has arranged its imminent relocation to a huge marble-coated hall even further out of town. Prices will no doubt go up.