Ashgabat is far and away the weirdest city I have ever visited in all of my travels. Imagine huge hulking white marble buildings next to more huge white marble buildings lining pristine streets of perfectly manicured gardens and beautiful fountains.
The streets are wide, clean and empty of people. Except for the occasional policeman who’s sole duty appears to be to loudly blow his whistle, cross his arms in a large cross and yell ‘no photo’ at the random tourist who has made it into this bizarre country.
This is the centre of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and it is seriously strange!!
This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising given Turkmenistan is a strange country with a vey strange history indeed. From 1985 to 2006 the country was ruled by Saparmurat Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi (which translates to ‘leader of the Turkmen’) as he preferred to be called.
Turkmenbashi was notorious for being one of the most eccentric and bizarre dictators the world has ever seen. He was particularly famous for developing a personality cult complete with rotating gold statues of himself through to renaming the months of the year in honour of his family, and even more wacky decrees!
During Turkmenbashi’s rule, which was also known as one the most totalitarian and repressive dictatorships in history, the capital was rebuilt in what lonely Planet describes as a combination of Las Vegas and Pyongyang. They’re not wrong!
I arrived in Ashgabat following a frightening fast shared-taxi trip from Mary past cotton crops and deserts. Just the typical shared taxi adventure for Central Asia!
After checking into a basic hotel in the centre of Ashgabat I went out to explore. A short wander and it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by the huge white marble buildings the city is famous for.
As I approached Independence Square I came across an unusual sight. The square was full of school kids in all kinds of sporting uniforms or traditional dress. The girls all had long hair worn in two plaits.
But even stranger still was the square was also full of military personnel in all kinds of different uniforms imaginable. I stood on the edge of the square to observe, the only tourist in sight!
I had heard of Turkmenistan’s sensitivity to photography of government buildings and assumed they would also be sensitive about photographing soldiers. As I watched I decided to see what would happen if I pulled my camera out. No one said anything, not even the many policeman also nearby.
After waiting a little longer I raised my camera and took a photo. Again no-one said anything. So I took another, then another and soon I was taking many photos of the soldiers. It turns out I was in the midst of Independence Day practice!
The nearby school kids were curious about me but extremely shy, especially because I had a camera. At first they thought I was a journalist! I quickly dissuaded them of this dangerous idea in a country like Turkmenistan. Slowly they opened up and some were okay with me taking their photos. As soon as one lovely girl saw me she came up gave me a kiss on the check and said ‘sister what are you doing here?’. All with a beautiful welcoming smile.
It was truly memorable.
After some time I decided to leave the military parades behind me to explore. The surrounding streets were empty of people except the police and I now found it difficult to take photos without being shouted at or having a whistle blown at me.
The following day I went to explore some of Ashgabat’s more unusual architectural sights. I’d heard from travellers about a truly strange sight, an enclosed ferris wheel, which I wanted to see for myself. On the edge of the city with desert nearby and on wide, empty boulevards lined with more huge white marble buildings stood the Alem Entertainment Centre, the home to the enclosed ferris wheel.
I climbed the stairs to enter the large glass door sitting beneath the ferris wheel. As soon as I entered the doors it was indicated I needed to head back where I’d come from and enter from the back of this strange structure.
When I finally entered via the ‘correct’ door I found an indoor amusement park with a handful of local families enjoying the merry-go-round, dodgem cars and other assorted rides! Strange indeed especially given outside was completely devoid of people. Even stranger still was I was told I couldn’t ride the actual ferris wheel. A huge, gleamingly beautiful enclosed ferris wheel built just for show! Was it possible?
Back outside I walked along the wide empty boulevard towards another strange sight. The Constitution Monument, otherwise known as the ‘plunger’ for obvious reasons.
As I made my way back towards my hotel to prepare to leave Ashgabat early the next morning I was again blown away by how few people were actually on the streets of the city and how weird, strange, bizarre Ashgabat truly was.
Yes, Ashgabat really is the weirdest city I’ve ever visited!
I stayed at Hotel Dayhan. A pretty average hotel which didn’t include breakfast and where the water was freezing cold or scalding hot. One night cost USD40.
I travelled to Ashgabat from Mary by shared taxi and it cost 45 manat. It took approx three and a half hours and I was dropped on the outskirts of the city where I had to get another taxi to my hotel.