Ashgabat

View from our hotel balcony

I have visited a great many countries, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that Turkmenistan is one of, if not the, oddest of all countries that I have been to. It is virtually all desert except for the odd town dotted around on the sites of ancient oasises. We arrived in the middle of the night on our flight from Istanbul, along with the throng of textile smugglers waddling in to Customs wrapped in their yards of material under their traditional dresses. We were met by Jake Cork, our tour leader, and whisked off to our hotel. Actually this was a bit of good news, our hotel had been changed from the original booking by Wild Frontiers in the old Sheraton (now something else) which TripAdvisor reviewers suggest is somewhere that one should avoid

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We stayed at the President Hotel, a 5 star hotel, built in 2004 in the south part of the capital in the park zone. It offers 152 rooms. A better than the average "Soviet" hotel, in that it is new and built of marble, but suffers from the same lack of charm that one has come to expect from this sort of hotel. I guess that the staff have never been trained in "charm", and there is a lack of maintenance beginning to show round the building. But our room was a good standard " high end hotel room" of a good size. It had most of the things one expects, though the wifi was pay extra - I declined the offer. As we woke after our nighttime arrival, we could now see the city, and what a sight - white marble high rise blocks as far as the eye could see - and later we were to find out all were virtually empty. There were no people on the streets, and few cars on the road - odd for a city whose official population is around 1 million.

My first inclination was to open the balcony door and see the view from the balcony. But "Stop", there was a the notice telling me not to open your balcony door for one third of the day. Nobody was very forthcoming about the reasons, some say it was in case the President happened to pass, and he did not like seeing untidy looking buildings with balcony doors open!. I suspect there was a reason once, but nobody has questioned it since, and will no doubt stay in effect until the end of time. When we were on the balcony I am happy to say that there was a fine view of the marbled city. However that notice did much to epitomise Turkmenistan to me.

We had dinner at the Minara Restaurant in Independence Park, which was on top of the Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre, the curious pyramid shaped shopping centre at the northern end of Independence Park, and this is reputedly the biggest fountain in the world. Inside the building it's rather less than impressive -it is a virtually empty two-floor shopping centre, with the restaurant accessed by lift at the top. I think that our group were the only people eating there that night. The experience was "interesting" rather than memorable, but it did enable us to have a wander round Independence Park and view the multi-coloured lighting

Ashgabat is a relatively young city, having grown out of a village established by Russian officers in 1881. Following its destruction by an earthquake in 1948 the city has been completely rebuilt and became the country’s capital following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The first president Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, known as Turkmenbashi, implemented an increasingly bizarre set of policies that included renaming the months after members of his own family and even changing the word for bread to that of his mother! The Central Palace area was designated 2000 to symbolize the beginning of the 21st century. In 2013 the city was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's highest concentration of white marble buildings.

Although the city of Ashgabat that we looked out over is modern, the whole area is steeped in history. It is not far from the site of Nisa, the ancient capital of the Parthian Empire, and it grew on the ruins of the Silk Road city of Konjikala, first mentioned as a wine-producing village in the 2nd century BC and levelled by an earthquake in the 1st century BC. Konjikala was rebuilt because of its advantageous location on the Silk Road and it flourished until its destruction by Mongols in the 13th century. After that it survived as a small village until Russians took over in the 19th century. In 1869, Russian soldiers built a fortress on a hill near the village and this added security soon attracted merchants and craftsmen. Ashgabat remained a part of Persia until in 1881, following the Battle of Geok Tepe, it was ceded to Tsarist Russia under the terms of the Akhal Treaty. Russia developed Ashgabat as it was close to the border of British-influenced Persia. It was regarded as a pleasant town with European style buildings, shops and hotels.

In 1908, the first Bahá'í House of Worship was built in Ashgabat. It was badly damaged in the 1948 earthquake and finally demolished in 1963. The community of the Bahá'í Faith in Turkmenistan was largely based in Ashgabat. Soviet rule was established in Ashgabat in December 1917. In July 1919 the city was renamed Poltoratsk after a local revolutionary. The name Ashgabat was restored in 1927 after the establishment of Turkmen SSR as a Soviet republic, though it was usually known by the Russian form Ashkhabad .

The city experienced rapid growth and industrialisation, although severely disrupted by a major earthquake on October 6, 1948. An estimated 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquake killed 110-176,000 (2/3 of the population of the city), although the official number announced by Soviet news was only 40,000. In July 2003 all the names of streets in Ashgabat were replaced by serial numbers except nine major highways, some named after Saparmurat Niyazov, his father and mother.

Ashgabat is home to a “Ministry of Fairness”, a “Ministry of Carpets”, as well as a “Ministry of Horses”. Many of the white-marble buildings are shaped to represent the purpose of the building. The one that houses the national library is shaped like a giant book. The “Ministry of Health” building resembles a giant cobra, while the “Ministry of Energy” building looks like a giant cigarette lighter.

While water is sparser than the amount of fountains in the city would suggest, Turkmenistan is clearly not short on energy. Every citizen who owns a car is entitled to receive 1,500 liters of petrol free of charge per year. Most other forms of energy are also heavily subsidized by the government. A common saying goes that Turkmens would rather keep their oven permanently running on the free supply of natural gas than ever put it out only to waste a comparably more expensive matchstick on lighting it again later.

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Turkmenistan has had two presidents since independence in 1991. Firstly president for life Serdar Saparmurat Niyazov, and his successor with the even more complicated name, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow. In the mid-80s of the past century Mikhail Gorbachev had installed Niyazov as the head of the Soviet republic. Gorbachev was later quoted as saying that he had picked Niyazov because he was a loyal and compliant simpleton. Niyazov died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest in 2006, however reminders of his legacy are still everywhere. Niyazov adopted the name of “Turkmenbashi the Great”, which translates to “Great Father of all Turkmen”. He named a city and even a calendar month after himself, and erected large numbers of usually golden statues of himself . The most imposing one of them was 15 meters tall, polished-gold, on top of the Neutrality Arch.. The word for the month of April as well as the word “bread” was changed to “Gurbansoltan”, which was the name of Turkmenbashi’s mother.

In official statements the great leader remained modest: "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets - but it's what the people want", he said Turkmenbashi banned cinema, opera and ballet, describing them as unnecessary. Similar decrees banned the playing of recorded music at all public events, including weddings. Car radios and lip synching were outlawed as well, and it became a criminal offense for young Turkmen men to grow beards or long hair. In a move that had graver repercussions he ordered all libraries and even hospitals outside the capital closed. The Turkmen people have remained poor and isolated from the rest of the world, despite the nation’s incredible wealth of oil and gas.

Turkmenbashi wrote a book called "The Ruhnama", filled with spiritual teachings, his thoughts, and ad hoc historical facts,. Ruhnama means “Book of the Soul” and he made it required reading at every level of the educational system. It was even blasted into space on board of a Russian satellite. He promised his people that anyone who reads the Ruhnama at least 100 times will have guaranteed access to heaven. He also often emphasized that the Ruhnama was at least as important for the Turkmen people as the Holy Koran. He ordered verses from his book to be inscribed into the walls of newly built mosques, which enraged many of his traditionally pious but usually not openly conservative countrymen. To this day the Ruhnama is still sold and taught to students in schools. Profound knowledge of the teachings of the Ruhnama is asked for both when applying for any kind of public office, as well as for mundane tasks such as taking a driving test. You find its quotations in the large mosque that he built

The second, and current, Turkmenistan President and Prime Minister is Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov. He was recently re-elected with 97% of the vote. The President's popularity is not hard to explain. Turkmenistan has long operated as a single-party democracy, where the president is elected by popular vote. And despite the passage of a law authorizing the registration of political parties in January 2012, no parties have registered, and only unofficial, small opposition movements exist abroad, according to the CIA World Factbook. The theme of "supreme happiness" over the President's second term was suggested during an official meeting in Ashgabat.

He is obviously a busy man, and has to rely on the team behind the scenes to Photoshop him in to official photos. In fact at one museum, at Mary, there is a whole room full of him Photoshopped into every possible scene from captaining a ship, through brain surgeon to picking cotton.

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Berdymukhammedov's Democratic Party of Turkmenistan is the only officially recognized party in the country. He owns the country's 39 press publications, five radio stations, seven national TV stations and one press agency.

Perhaps the most memorable quote, however, can be found on page 116 of his new book, which offers an extremely flattering and reverent description of Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader: “Riding on horse, driving plane steering wheel, sea liner, driving powerful KAMAZ, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov not just demonstrates wonderful physical shape and high professional skills in every business, he fixes in people’s minds the image of modern jigit, who has to do a lot. He must be well-educated, physically strong and esthetically erudite. It is not just good desires.”

Another presidential innovation is The Serdar Health Path, winding into the hills south of Ashgabat. The 8km track features prominently in the country's annual "Health Week". President Saparmurat Niyazov instructed his entire cabinet to tackle the track, and was good enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to cheer them on as they struggled their way up the path - he'd been flown to the top by helicopter.

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Arch of Neutrality

The Arch of Neutrality is a 250-foot-tall tripod crowned by a golden statue of late president Saparmurat Niyazov. The three-legged arch was 75 metres tall and was built in 1998 on the orders of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov to commemorate the country's official position of neutrality. It cost $12 million to construct. The monument was topped by a 12-metre tall gold-plated statue of Niyazov which rotated to always face the sun. The arch was located in central Ashgabat where it dominated the skyline and was illuminated at night. After Turkmenbashi's death, the new president moved, at large expense, the arch out of the town centre, and it is now on a hillside above the town - Turkmenbashi's statue is still there, but not longer rotates to face the sun. The dismantling was officially said to be a move to improve urban design in Ashgabat but is seen as part of Berdimuhamedow's campaign to remove the excesses of the personality cult that Niyazov had created in his two decades at the head of one of the world's most authoritarian regimes.

There is a panoramic viewing platform near the top. I asked if we could go up the arch, not expecting to be able. But eventually Jake and our local guide found a tucked away kiosk, where for a small sum in cash, they secured permission for us to ascend, first by an external funicular railway to halfway, then changing to a lift to reach the viewing platform. There was, as you would expect, an amazing view from the top, over the marbled expanse of Ashgabat.

Down below there are permanently two soldiers standing guard - as with many things in Turkmenistan, photography is prohibited. When I tried to take photographs of the spectacular changing of the guard, complete with shoulder high goose-stepping and twirling of rifles, the NCO in charge shouted for me to stop.

Turkmenbashi's Mosque

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You will find at Gypjak, just outside Ashgabat, 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 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 mosque is extremely photogenic and can accommodate up to 5,000 Muslims, but actually has few worshipers. I believe they get about 20 to most services.

It is a prominent landmark in Ashgabat with its four minarets and central dome and has a lavish interior decoration with fine stained glass windows. .The Mosque, named in honour of Hajj pilgrimage performed by President Niyazov in 1992, was the first major project in Turkmenistan of the French construction company Bouguyes, completed in 1995, the mosque was inaugurated in 1998 and this white marbled building is reminiscent of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.

It has a central dome with deep green colour, surrounded by four green half-domes. The four minarets are each 63m in height, representing the age attained by Prophet Muhammad. On the eastern side of the mosque is a square courtyard, centred around a star-shaped pool. Small white domes protrude from the roof around this courtyard like a row of eggs. This part of the complex includes both, an area for ablution on ground floor and rooms originally intended to be a madrassah above.

This gold-domed building beside the mosque is the mausoleum that houses the remains of Turkmenbashi and his family.

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The excavating is ongoing, but there will never be much to "see" here at Nisa The health track up into the hills An ant at work excavating

Nissa/Nisa (also Parthaunisa) was an ancient city, 18 km southwest of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Nisa is described by some as one of the first capitals of the Parthians. It is traditionally assumed to be founded by Arsaces I (reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC), and was reputedly the royal necropolis of the Parthian kings, although it has not been established that the fortress at Nisa was either a royal residence or a mausoleum.

Excavations at Nisa have revealed substantial buildings, mausoleums and shrines, many inscribed documents, and a looted treasury. Many Hellenistic art works have been uncovered, as well as a large number of ivory rhytons, the outer rims (coins) decorated with Iranian subjects or classical mythological scenes. Nisa was later renamed Mithradatkirt ("fortress of Mithradates") by Mithridates I of Parthia (reigned c. 171 BC–138 BC). Nisa was totally destroyed by an earthquake, which occurred during the first decade BC. The fortress at Nisa was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007.

The Parthian Fortresses of Nisa consist of two tells of Old and New Nisa, indicating the site of one of the earliest and most important cities of the Parthian Empire, a major power from the mid 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Archaeological excavations in two parts of the site have revealed richly decorated architecture, illustrative of domestic, state and religious functions.

Nisa was the capital of the Parthian Empire, which dominated this region of central Asia from the mid 3rd century BCE to the early 3rd century AD. As such it formed a barrier to Roman expansion, whilst at the same time serving as an important communications and trading centre, at the crossroads of north-south and east-west routes. Its political and economic power is well illustrated by the surviving remains, which underline the interaction between central Asian and Mediterranean cultures.

224 AD, the Parthian kingdom collapsed. Ardashir, the Parthian governor-general in Persia at the beginning of the Sassanid dynasty, checked Parthian expansion and conquered their cities and territories. Destruction and diminished populations in Nisa led to its partial abandonment, although it continued to be an important centre until the Islamic period (12th-14th century AD).

National Carpet Museum, situated on Gorogly Street in Ashgabat. It opened 1994. It has a rich collection of Turkmen carpets from the medieval through to the 20th century, including over 1000 carpets from the 18th and 19th centuries. Aside from its extensive collection of antique carpets, it has many carpet articles, chuvals, khurjuns, torba etc. On the first floor of the museum are Tekke and Sarik carpets. The museum is noted for its huge Tekke carpets. One Tekke carpet measures 193m² and weighs a metric tonne and was made by some 40 people in 1941 to make a curtain for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Another, made in 2001, is even larger, measuring 301m² and 14 by 21.2 metres and was made to commemorate 10 years of Turkmen independence from the Soviet Union. It is recognised by the Guinness World Records as the largest hand-woven carpet in the world (the Guinness Book of Records appears to be quite enamoured with Turkmenistan). The museum also has carpets dedicated to President Niyazov

They did not seem too keen on photographs - in principle I could take as many photos as I liked but the cost would have been an eye-watering $5 per shot. Jake took a group photo there with the big carpet in the background.

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The carpet museum is also recognized by the Turkmen government as the official authority on Turkmen carpets. If anybody in Turkmenistan purchases a carpet and wants to export it, experts from the Carpet Museum must inspect it and issue a receipt confirming that the carpet is not of historical value, to allow it to be exported from Turkmenistan. Usually there are restrictions on exporting carpets older than 30 years old and if it is determined that the carpet has historical value, then a receipt for export will not be given. This policy restriction on exporting carpets is not only an obligation for tourists but Turkmen citizens also must have their carpets inspected. Hence it is difficult to develop any carpet selling business in the country

We were shown round by a charming young lady, who explained among other things, that unmarried girls in Turkmenistan wore their plaits in front, and married girls let them hang behind.

After lunch (eaten in a best forgotten restaurant, with even worse toilets - I had to guard the door of the toilet, hidden in a storeroom, while Chris was at work, as the whole place was open to public inspection) - we walked round the corner to join the 4*4 jeeps that would be our home for the next 2 days on the journey across the Karakum Desert

On to Darvaza and the Karakum Desert

Silk Route Holiday 2013