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Berzengi & Independence Park

Archabil avenueSouth of Moskovsky shayoli the surreal world of Berzengi begins – an entirely artificial brave new world of white-marble tower blocks, fountains, parks and general emptiness that culminates in the Berzengi Hwy (Archabil shayoli), which is home to a huge number of hotel complexes. Berzengi was one of the focal points for the Ashgabat redevelopment project of President Niyazov, and one of its major features is a line of more than 20 small hotels, built by various Turkmen government organisations on the president's instruction in the mid-1990s. The hotels are all designed in different styles; some exotic, others mundane. With more hotel rooms available here than there is possibly a market for, some of the hotels are now focused on providing rental accommodation for expatriates. Others are more geared up to Turkmen wedding parties than tourists wanting a bed.  Nonetheless, even if you are not staying here, the hotel strip of Berzengi is worth visiting as one of the more unusual sights of post-independence Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan Independence Park

Taking Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Shayoly southwards from the city centre, beyond the Yimpash shopping centre and the Olympic Stadium, you eventually reach on your left the largest and most impressive of the parks which have been laid out during the post-independence period, the Turkmenistan Independence Park. Buses 16 or 34 will bring you here from the city centre. The park was first laid out in 1993 and forms a rectangle almost 2km long and just under a kilometre wide. Much of this area is covered by struggling plantings of coniferous trees, and the places of interest in the park form a series of set-pieces, which are not fully connected with each other. There is, though, a largely complete circuit around the edge of the park of fountains and assorted statuary, from dolphins to rhytons.

Ashgabat: Altyn Asyr Shopping CentreAltyn Asyr Shopping Centre, the curious pyramidical shopping centre at the northern end of Independence Park, is reputedly the biggest fountain in the world. Inside it’s rather less than impressive – an all but empty twofloor shopping centre, although there’s a restaurant on the 5th floor that’s popular for weddings.

Altyn Asyr shopping centre is housed in a decidedly unusual monument, a stepped, five-sided pyramid topped with a golden needle. Cascades of water run down each of the edges, into hexagonal pools. Between these cascades, across the sides of the pyramid, sheets of water occasionally flow down past the five-headed eagles resting on the steps, giving the birds a good shower in the process. The recurrence of the number five in the design of the monument is a reference to the five regions constituting Turkmenistan. The monument has acquired the nickname 'five legs'. The shopping centre inside the building is unimpressive, with many of the available units remaining empty.

Ruhnama Park

Ruhnama parkOn the western side of the park is the Ruhnama Park which, according to the English-language inscription on the plaque at the entrance, was 'complited in February 2003'. The complited park is an homage to President Niyazov's book, and is centred on a huge statue of Ruhnama in the form of a giant-sized replica of the book's pink and green cover. On special occasions, the book opens up to create a double-paged 'screen' onto which are projected images of the achievements of post-independence Turkmenistan. The act of opening the book reportedly has a tendency to burn out the statue's motor, so the monument mostly remains closed. Around the base of the Ruhnama Monument is a golden frieze depicting the new buildings of Ashgabat. Around each of the eight columns at the entrance to the park is a metal ribbon, on which is inscribed a name. These represent President Niyazov's family tree, moving from the president himself on the southernmost column, back through seven generations.

The Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, occupying the highest ground in the Independence park, at its southern end, and known universally to the foreign community as ‘the plunger’ (for reasons obvious as soon as you see it), is a typically ostentatious and tasteless monument that houses the Museum of Turkmen Values (admission 28.5M; 9am-12.30pm & 2-5.30pm Wed-Mon), another overpriced museum that is rarely troubled by visitors. Its displays are divided into four sections: independence, weapons, numismatics and jewellery. This is a popular spot for wedding groups to take photographs with a golden statue of Turkmenbashi, and the fountains are pleasant enough (a kind of totalitarian Waterworld, if you will).

Independence monumentIndependence monument has a domed base, from which rises a central cylindrical column reaching a height of 118m. The figure 118 was chosen because of its significance to the independent state of Turkmenistan. If you are scratching your head over that one, note that Turkmenistan obtained its independence on 27 October 1991: 27 plus 91 equals 118. Obvious, really. The monument has been given the nickname 'eight legs', a reference to the eight struts across the domed base, down which flow channels of water. But another nickname gives a more accurate idea of the overall shape of the structure: 'the plunger'. In fact the form of the monument is supposedly a paean to an item of female headgear known as a gupba. The column is decorated with two huge motifs of five-headed eagles, symbols of the Turkmen president, and is topped by a golden crescent moon. There is a viewing platform at 91m, reached by a lift inside the column, though this is open only to members of official delegations, with prior permission.

A path leads to the Independence Monument from Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Shayoly. It is guarded by four large statues of Turkmen warriors. You are then greeted by a golden statue of President Niyazov, with a two-man guard of honour. The president's statue stands at the heart of a pentagonal fountain, which also includes five golden five-headed eagles, each in the process of crushing a two-headed snake. Jets of water spout from 35 of the possible 36 mouths in the composition. This statue is a favoured place for Turkmen newly-weds to be photographed. From here the path heads up the slope to the Independence Monument. Another guard of honour stands watch at the monument itself. The ceremony of the changing of the guard, which seems to take place at 11.00 and 16.00, is an occasion for much goose-stepping. Around the Independence Monument are a series of statues of the historical leaders, notable Turkmen poets and figures of legend whose lives and works are praised in Ruhnama and the other nation-building works of the Turkmen government.

Palace of KnowledgeFurther south is the Palace of Knowledge, three large buildings that include a library, concert hall and the Turkmenbashi Museum (Archabil shayoli; admission 28.5M; 9am-6pm Wed-Mon), which, taking a leaf out of Kim Jong-Il’s book, houses all the gifts and awards presented to former President Niyazov by various people around the world. Expect to see lots of gold. Looking like a lost palace in the urban desert, the National Museum (Archabil shayoli 30; admission per museum 28.5M; 9am-5pm Wed-Sun) occupies a striking position in front of the Kopet Dag. It’s actually a collection of three overpriced museums – the History Museum, the Nature & Ethnographic Museum and the Presidential Museum. The History Museum is the only one of the three that approaches value for money, so give the others a miss. The lavish Ancient History Hall includes Neolithic tools from western Turkmenistan and relics from the Bronze Age Margiana civilisation, including beautiful amulets, seals, cups and cult paraphernalia. There is also a model of the walled settlement uncovered at Gonur. The Antiquity Hall houses amazing rhytons – horn-shaped vessels of intricately carved ivory used for Zoroastrian rituals and official occasions.

Between the National Museum and downtown is Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales (Garashsyzlyk shayoli; irregular hours). The US$50-million amusement park (dubbed ‘Turkmen Disneyland’ by locals) was unveiled with great fanfare in 2006, just in time for the nation’s 15th anniversary celebrations. The park has 54 attractions, including a roller coaster that swoops over a giant map of the Caspian Sea. Despite taking up a huge amount of space in the centre of modern Ashgabat, it’s rarely open.

One other building in Berzengi worth a glance as you pass by is that housing the Oil and Gas Ministry, a stylish skyscraper built by the French construction company Bouygues in the form of a cigarette lighter. It lies on Archabil Shayoly, west of the museum.