Ashgabat has a population of 650,000 people. With its lavish marble palaces, gleaming gold domes and vast expanses of manicured parkland, Ashgabat (‘the city of love’ in Arabic) has reinvented itself as a showcase city for the newly independent republic. Built almost entirely off the receipts of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas revenues, the city’s transformation continues at break-neck speed, with whole neighbourhoods facing the wrecking ball in the name of progress.
Originally developed by the Russians in the late 19th century, Ashgabat became a prosperous, largely Russian frontier town on the Trans-Caspian railway. However, at 1am on 6 October 1948, the city vanished in less than a minute, levelled by an earthquake that measured nine on the Richter scale. More than 110,000 people died (two-thirds of the population), although the official figure was 14,000; this was the era of Stalin, when socialist countries didn’t suffer disasters.
Ashgabat was rebuilt in the Soviet style, characterised by three- and four-storey apartment blocks, of at best indifferent quality, in its central districts. Single-storey dwellings around central courtyards, favoured by Turkmen families, dominated the outer suburbs. The main streets were lined with trees, and fringed with little canals known as arryks.
Turkmenistan's independence in 1991 was, however, to set in motion a programme of urban change of great ambition and Ashgabat's modern incarnation is somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang, with a mixture of Bellagio fountains and Stalinist parade grounds. New palaces, ministries, hotels and residential buildings, faced with white marble tiles, have reshaped the urban environment of large areas of the city. Elaborate fountains and golden statues adorn the central squares and thoroughfares. A large share of Turkmenistan's export earnings from its hydrocarbons resources has been invested in the redesign of its capital, and the many building sites across the city testify to the continued rapid pace of change.
At its heart it’s a surprisingly relaxed city, with a varied dining scene and no shortage of quirky sights, making it a pleasant place to spend a few days absorbing Turkmenistan’s bizarre present before heading into the rest of the country to discover its fascinating past.
The whole city looks like Caesars Palace Casino in Las Vegas. By presidential decree all buildings are built from white marble. In fact it holds the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most white marble-clad buildings in the world — 543 to be exact. Oh, and there is no shortage of gold trim and gaudy fountains for that added 'class'. In the city center there are massive white marble buildings with lavish fountains in front of each of them. Universities, ministries of this and that, sports centers, etc. etc. There are massive parks with fountains and green grass.
Orientation - The main arteries of the city are Turkmenbashi shayoli (avenue), running all the way from the train station to the new area of Berzengi, and Magtymguly shayoli, running east to west. Many of the city’s landmarks and institutions are on or near these streets. In 2002 former President Niyazov renamed all the streets with 4 digit numbers. This pointless exercise has only served to confuse, as nobody seemed to know the names of the streets anyway – some have changed as many as four times since the 1990s. Turkmenbashy Square in the heart of town was allocated the number 2000, the first year of Turkmenistan's 'Golden Century'. The numbers of other streets generally descend to the east of this central square, and ascend to the west of it, though there seems to be little clear logic in the assignation of numbers to streets. Only the largest thoroughfares have retained their names alongside the new numbers. Few Ashgabat residents have learnt the new numbers, and most navigate by a mix of Soviet street name, the initial post-independence one, micro-district and landmark.
Sights - Ashgabat has plenty to occupy visitors for a day or two, though its often very good museums are ridiculously overpriced, which will put many travellers off going. Despite this, some sights are free (such as wandering the new city, the Earthquake Museum or a visit to Tolkuchka Bazaar) or very reasonably priced (eg the Turkmenbashi Cableway), so you won’t always spend a fortune.