Oh where to begin?! Ashgabat is just crying out for a lampooning by an eloquent, witty wordsmith with biting prose and scathing humour – but unfortunately I’ll have to do. Let’s all follow the impeccable brick road shall we? The insanity starts when you ease into the city from the border checkpoints, on tarmac that looks like it’s never been driven on, underneath a pearly white gate…
And so the theme continues. The entire city (or at least the recently built and polished side) is one giant white marble reconstruction of the city of Oz. It’s one dictators attempt at heaven on earth, a dazzling, gleaming, eat-your-food-off-the-floor utopia that almost doesn’t belong on this planet. Splice iRobot with Demolition Man directed by Tim Burton, and it’s the strangest place you’ll ever see.
And that dictator, is one Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. The self-titled Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmen), this eccentric leader imposed his ego and erratic whims upon the populous for over a decade, so much so that the wider world considered him one of the most totalitarian rulers of recent times. He forced himself into power following the collapse of the Soviet Union and set about re-molding Ashgabat into the bat-shit crazy place it is today.
His gold effigy is everywhere and unfortunately his infamous legacy cemented for eternity. I didn’t manage to take a picture of the numerous giant portraits of him around the city, as I’d be in serious trouble if I did. Police and guards appear to be the only people on the streets, and woe betide you if you raise your camera within eye-line. Consequently most of these snaps are poorly shot from the hip or from a moving car, so apologies for that.
“His Excellency” died of cardiac arrest in 2006 (so we’re led to believe) having previously survived numerous assassination attempts. A massive earthquake in 1948 killed around 110,000 – most of the population (although at the time Stalin owned up to only 14 to 40,000 – as ever when the Soviets made mistakes, nobody was ever sure of exact figures and dates). Niyazov was the only survivor from his family, and he wasted no time in building a monument of himself as a golden baby on what appears to be a broken earth, being lifted into the sky by a bull. Again, apologies for no picture.
The psychotic demands of a madman began, and following his admission to office (where he duly named himself president for life) he set about re-modeling Ashgabat largely with the money from Turkmenistan’s oil and gas reserves. The Arch of Neutrality is a bizarre structure, similar to Thunderbird 1, and at the top stands a golden statue of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the illustrious leader. And this statue – wait for it – rotates to face the sun.
I just can’t understand how someone didn’t stop him? Obviously not the general public because they’d be thrown to the lions, but a close aide or family member? “Errr yeah…about that rotating statue boss…” Who was in the room when he demanded that?! How could he say it with a straight face?!! Did nobody just piss themselves?!! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one.
Other outrageous vagaries included banning TV anchors from wearing make up (because he couldn’t tell who was male or female), changing the names of days and months to his own family members, and forcing every student to read his book – Ruhmana – which he demanded was held in the same regards as the Qur’an. So much so that you have to know it to pass your driving test, and if you read it three times you’ll get into heaven. One public square holds a giant copy of the book.
Gold teeth were outlawed, and Niyazov suggested Turkmens chew on bones – and I quote –
“I watched young dogs when I was young. They were given bones to gnaw to strengthen their teeth. Those of you whose teeth have fallen out did not chew on bones. This is my advice.”
So if someone were to go missing passing through here you’ll know where they ended up. There aren’t padded walls thick enough for this kind of lunacy.
And yet in the city you have to watch what you say. With my CS-host having let me down, nearly a full day is spent trying to find a place to sleep, and I manage it only through air bnb. My host kindly drives me around the city, but she herself is aggressively defensive when I challenge the infrastructure and way of life. “WHY IS THIS BIZARRE?” She snaps, when I jovially point out how fucked up it all is. In her defence, one mans dream is another’s nightmare, and she staunchly argues that what is strange to me isn’t strange to a local. However one gets the impression of more than a touch of brainwashing, particularly when conversing with her more relaxed brother, who still lowers his voice anywhere and anytime he lambastes the “fake” city and former president – including in his own kitchen.
Try as I might, I only managed a couple of decent pictures, but they’ll give you some idea. At one point I’m in a butchers market at one of the bazaars, and I request to take a shot of the sheep heads. Given permission to do so, I duly snap away, only for an indignant man to scream bloody murder. During this incredulous diatribe, my host’s brother – who I was with at the time – nearly gets into a fight because of it, and the whole market stops working to see what the fuss is over. It appears that the deep-rooted suspicion and paranoia has filtered down from the tyrannical government onto the streets. My crime was taking a picture of the heads of dead sheep.
But at least I’d found people. The empty boulevards, shinning buildings and immaculate parks are sinister. Enormous open vistas with thousands of white street lamps punctuating flawlessly cut lawns. There’s more colour-changing fountains than Las Vegas. I’m at a loss as to the nature and use of most of the structures, astounded at the sheer size of certain buildings for trivial uses – vast spaces “just because we can.” There’s a post apocalyptic air, and the imagination doesn’t need to stretch far at being the only survivor in a quarantined location after a zombie outbreak. Occasionally I catch a masked street-cleaner chilling out on the sidewalk, but when I approach, they stand and vigorously polish the road. There’s not an apple core, a coke can, or a cigarette butt in sight. The city isn’t lived in. My host claims it is because nobody likes to walk in Turkmenistan, but effectively you have one giant sprawling mass of white marble (in the Guinness Book of Records) that nobody seems to use. The only evidence of human beings are the trench-coated jobsworths masquerading as police. Curfews are in place, spot checks are rife and outsiders eyed with suspicion. It’s 1984 realised.
As luck would have it, I make a friendlier acquaintance in Igor, a 30-something bar manager working out in the Maldives. He only comes home once in a while, but it’s my luck that he has, and we hit the town for a night out. A night out consists of how much we can drink before 10 pm when what appears to be the only two bars begin to close. He echos too the sentiments that you still have to be careful what you say – as previous US guests of his got into hot water for slandering the former leader in a bar. Lucky for me then that on my first night back on the demon drink, I only manage to fuck up my glasses. It could have been a lot worse.
There are positives. The streets are immaculately clean, there’s virtually zero crime, and citizens enjoy free gas, water and electricity. But what a price to pay to live under a totalitarian boot, looking over your shoulder in a soulless, plastic city that nobody uses? A city destroyed first with a natural earthquake and then a man-made one, the wrecking ball giving way to an instant facade? And what happens when the oil money runs out? Perhaps then they can melt the hundreds of golden Niyazov statues.
The pictures here are just a scratch on the surface of what this city holds in store. I wish I had more time, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get photographs of some really strange stuff, but five days is barely enough to cover Ashgabat, let alone other sights and another mammoth hitch out of the country. With a quirk round every corner, from the strangely beautiful to the downright fucking crackers, it’s a capital city the likes of which you’ll never see – mainly because you’re not really allowed to see it.