Being all but wiped from the earth in 1948, Ashgabat was rebuilt into a ho-hum, low-rise Soviet city of no great beauty. However, since independence the city has again been demolished in vast swathes and is unrecognisable as the Soviet provincial capital of two decades ago. While many of Niyazov’s stranger schemes have indeed now been abandoned, there’s no sign of a slowing of the building program, which is at least keeping the world’s marble industry afloat.
At the centre of Niyazov’s monolithic Ashgabat is the embarrassingly large Arch of Neutrality which, while standing at the time of writing, was scheduled for demolition and removal in the near future. The arch marks the Turkmen people’s unsurprisingly unanimous endorsement of Turkmenbashi’s policy of neutrality in 1998, though it looks more like a rocket primed for take-off. Above the arch itself is the real gem, a comic 12m-high polished-gold statue of Niyazov, which revolves to follow the sun throughout the day. As a symbol of Niyazov’s sun-king complex, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the post-Niyazov regime has decided to remove it as the biggest and most prominent Turkmenbashi monument in the country.
The arch gives commanding views of the enormous Independence Square, on which sits the golden-domed Palace of Turkmenbashi (the place of work of the former president), the Ministry of Fairness, the Ministry of Defence and the Ruhyyet Palace, all of which were built by the French corporation Bouygues Construction, the court builder to Niyazov. Behind this is the Majlis (parliament). Next to the Arch of Neutrality is the Earthquake Memorial, a bombastic bronze rendering of a bull and child (the baby Niyazov), under which lurks the Earthquake Museum (admission free; h9am-6pm). This is perhaps Ashgabat’s most touching museum and the display includes once-banned photos of the 1948 earthquake and its aftermath as well as information about the five-year clean-up effort, the burying of 110,000 bodies and the building of a new city. Unfortunately the museum is usually locked (asking a guard nearby might get you inside).
Further down this long and manicured strip is the Soviet war memorial, a pleasingly subtle structure with an eternal flame at its centre. The strip ends with Magtymguly State University, the country’s leading educational institution. The statue of Lenin, off Azadi koshesi, is a charmingly incongruous assembly of a tiny Lenin on an enormous and very Central Asian plinth surrounded by Bellagio-style fountains of the sort so beloved by Niyazov. Behind Vladimir Illych is the new Magtymguly Theatre, where traditional Turkmen performances can be seen. Across the road, Lenin faces an austere concrete building that was once the Archive of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan. Its walls feature modernist concrete sculptures made by Ernst Neizvestny, the Russian artist who lived and worked in Ashgabat during the 1970s.
Also in the vicinity is the overpriced Museum of Fine Arts (Alishera Navoi koshesi 88; admission 33M; h9am-6pm Wed-Mon), located in an impressive building with a big rotunda, two tiers and lots of gold. The collection contains some great Soviet-Turkmen artwork: happy peasant scenes with a backdrop of yurts and smoke-belching factories. There is also a collection of Russian and Western European paintings and a fine selection of Turkmen jewellery and traditional costumes. Guided tours in English are available for an expensive US$10 per person.
Further south from here is the large new Carpet Museum (Atamurat Nyazov koshesi 158; admission 33M, tour 33M; 10am-1pm & 2-6pm Sun-Fri, 10am-1pm & 2-3pm Sat), which along with its white marble facade now has very high entrance fees, though these are worth paying if you’re interested in Turkmen carpets. While there’s a limit to the number of rugs the average visitor can stand, the central exhibit, the world’s largest handwoven rug, really is something to see (though you can see it hanging from the lobby when you enter – you don’t even have to buy a ticket). The ‘expert commission’ here is the place to have your carpets valued and taxed, and the necessary documentation issued for export.
More a statement of foreign-policy leanings than a sign of religious awakening, the Azadi mosque stands just south of Magtymguly ayoli, 600m east of the junction with Turkmenbashi. Similar in appearance to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the mosque sees few worshippers because of several accidental deaths during its construction. The modern mosque of Khezrety Omar, off Atamurat Niyazov koshesi, is also worth visiting for its wonderfully garish painted ceilings. The angular, futuristic Iranian mosque, illuminated with green neon, is on Tehrn koshesi on the western outskirts of the city on the way to Nissa.
The Ashgabat Zoo (2011 Azadi koshesi; admission 1M; 8am-7.30pm Tue-Sun) is a curious diversion if you happen to be walking nearby, although animal-lovers may be appalled by the tiny living quarters set aside for the animals. The resident lion and bear in particular look severely downtrodden. At the time of writing, a new zoo was being planned, in which case this one will likely close.