Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s capital, cultural and business center and largest city. Situated at the foot of the Kopet Dag escarpment, only 30 kilometers from Iranian border, it is a modest Soviet city with 1.1 million people and few sights other than those associated with their leaders’ megalomania. What old buildings it had were largely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1948 that killed more than 110,000 people. Unlike most Central Asian cities, Soviet relics have also largely disappeared. The name Ashgabat is derived from “ashkh” (the Arabic word for “love”) and means “City of Love”. It is also spelled Ashkabad.
A good portion of Turkmenistan’s energy wealth has been spent on grandiose, quixotic buildings and projects the in Ashgabat area. Among these There are the golden-domed Turkmenbashi Palace, the ignominious “Arch of Neutrality” and a Las-Vegas-style strip of hotels that are hardly ever used. Portraits of former Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov and current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow can be seen in many places. There are also vast manicured laws and fountains splashing water everywhere — an ironic display in a country where water is dear and many citizens don’t have running water and those that do receive it for only a couple hours a day. There is also marble everywhere: an extravagant expense in country where many people earn less than US$100 a month
Ilan Greenberg wrote in the New York Times magazine: “The aesthetic look as of it sprang from the imagination of a “Star Wars” set designer: neo-Roman monolith upholstered in white marble, detailed in Persian kitsch. The newest government buildings are vast and low-slung, set back from large concrete concourses where no one seems to walk. The facades are all gleaming white, full of columns and imposing gold domes, but there is also lots of tinted glass and modern, sharp corners. Yet many of the buildings—perhaps the majority—are half-finished, and the idle construction skeletons all over Ashgabat give the impression of a city flash-frozen, like something thrown on dry ice.”
But this not to say that Ashgabat is an unpleasant place. It is in fact a rather nice city. It has a mellow, friendly atmosphere. There are lots of trees, clean but shabby-looking streets, large parks, wide avenues, monumental squares, Soviet-apartment buildings, with a few mosques, bazaars, old neighborhoods, courtyard houses and madrasahs scattered here and there. On the weekends, wedding parties pose in front of the Magtymguly Statue (in honor of a famous 18th century Turkmen poet) near the Museum of Fine Arts.
Still it is a strange and paranoid place. Travel photographer Amos Chapple told The Atlantic: "Twice before I'd had tourist visa applications rejected, so it felt like entering a forbidden place. When we drove into Ashgabat I assumed there was some kind of holiday taking place — the streets and all these beautiful parks stood deserted. In the area I first walked there were more soldiers than civilians. They patrol the city center and are extremely jumpy about photographs. Twice, soldiers shouted at me from a distance then ran up and demanded pictures be deleted." [Source: Alan Taylor, The Atlantic, June 5, 2013]
History of Ashgabat
Ashgabat has a 2,300 year history. It was a small town in the Parthian Empire about six miles for the Parthian capital of Nisa in ancient times, when it was known for its excellent wine. In the 1st century B.C. it was leveled by an earthquake and was reborn as a stop on the Silk Road and then was sacked by the Mongols.
The Turkmen were nomads who didn’t have much use for towns. After they arrived Ashgabat was only a small village. The Russian made nearby Merv the most important stop on the Trans-Caspian railroad and developed Ashgabat into a regional center that attracted a large number of Russians, Persians, Jews and Armenians. It continued to grow under the Soviets.
At 1:00am on October 6th, 1948, a massive earthquake struck that according to some estimates measured nine on the Richter scale. Two thirds of the population, more than 110,000 people, was killed. The technical and intellectual elite were all but wiped out. Afterwards the city was closed for five years while the bodies were recovered, the ruble was cleared and a new city was built.
Urban areas in what is now Turkmenistan have traditionally been primarily occupied by of non-Turkmen. In the early 1990s, Ashgabat was only 41 percent Turkmen. Ashgabat is home to most of Turkmenistan’s dwindling Russian population. But now Turkmen make up the majority of the population.
Ashgabat and the Turkmenbashi Personality Cult
Portraits of former Turkmenistan President Niyazov used to cover the sides of official buildings and apartment blocks. He was often pictured with a sword, tractor, book, a red cape the shoulder or some other symbolic prop. Today there are still images of the man but not as many as there used be. Most of the monuments raised by Niyazov — known by the name Turkmenbash — remain. In the main square, for example, there is a immense bronze bull with a large metal globe on its horns and small gilded figure of a baby on top the globe, representing Niyazov when he was orphaned by the 1948 earthquake. A golden statue of Niyazov with native Akhal-Teke horses was unveiled to mark the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan’s independence.
Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “The city was an example of what happens when absolute political power, money, and mental illness are combined. Turkmenbashi’s acolytes had recently pronounced him the “national prophet,” a harmless enough conceit if you’re a civilian, but a pathological, if not fatal, one in a despot. In support of this claim, Turkmenbashi had written a sort of national Bible, called “Ruhnama” (“Book of the Soul”), and he regarded himself as an accomplished writer—a clear sign of madness in anyone. He had also recently built a vast space-age mosque, which he’d named after himself—Saparmurat Hajji Mosque—and he encouraged his people to visit it annually, in a kind of local hajj. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]
“Ashgabat was filled with gold statues of Turkmenbashi. In these statues, which had an ecclesiastical aura, Bashi was El Dorado, the Man of Gold, all-powerful, all-knowing. People were meant not to gape at them but to venerate them. One revolving statue, showing Turkmenbashi with his arms raised, rotated according to the sun and seemed to guide it across the sky, from dawn to dusk. It stood upon a gigantic marble apparatus called the Neutrality Arch, which looked like—and was referred to by some as—a toilet-bowl plunger. Other statues showed him sitting, striding, waving, saluting, and smiling a twenty-four-karat smile. One even showed him as a precocious golden child, seated in the lap of his bronze mother. He once said to a journalist, “I admit it, there are too many portraits, pictures and monuments [of me]. I don’t find any pleasure in it, but the people demand it because of their mentality.” A statue of Lenin in Neutrality Square was bronze and life-size, its message “LENINISM IS THE WAY TO FREE THE PEOPLES OF THE EAST”; it was modest and charming by comparison. The irony of Ashgabat was that nowhere, among the gold statues and the white marble plazas, was there a place to sit down. It was a city without benches—the subtle message: keep walking.
“There were also portraits of Turkmenbashi, several of them measuring hundreds of square feet, everywhere in Ashgabat. In some, he looked like a fat and grinning Dean Martin; in others, he was a truculent C.E.O. with a chilly smile. A common image showed him, chin on hand, squinting in insincere bonhomie, like a lounge singer. A heavy drinker, a bully, and a wearer of bling—two or three diamond rings on each hand—he had Italianate features, and was sometimes portrayed with a stack of books, like an author on a book tour. Because of its history of catastrophic earthquakes, Ashgabat architecture tends toward low-level buildings; huge high-rise apartment blocks, such as those seen in many parts of the former Soviet Union, are a recent development.”
Berdymukhammedov Replaces Niyazov’s Personality Cult With One of His Own
Current Turkmenistan President Berdymukhamedov dismantled some of the more bizarre aspects of Niyazov`s personality cult after he came to power after Niyazov's death in 2006. AFP reported: “Berdymukhammedov has had some of the old names restored and many of Niyazov's portraits have been removed from billboards and other places around the country. In December 2009, Turkmenistan is celebrating a major national holiday without its traditional images of Niyazov. [Source: AFP, April 3, 2009]
In late 2009 Radio Free Europe reported: “Neutrality Day, which is celebrated on December 12, is one of three major national holidays in Turkmenistan along with Independence Day and National Flag Day. Traditionally, two weeks prior to its celebration, the emblems depicting the Neutrality Monument -- which has a rotating golden statue of Niyazov and sits in central Ashgabat -- are placed in public places, on the facades of state buildings and showcased in all media. But this year the UN symbol, the Turkmen flag, and five "gols" -- famous carpet patterns from five Turkmen provinces -- were used instead. The Neutrality Monument was erected to commemorate the country's permanent neutral status, as approved by the UN General Assembly on December 12, 1995.[Source: Radio Free Europe, December 12, 2009]
Despite Berdymukhamedov dismantling of some of the more outlandish aspects of Niyazov`s personality cult, AFP reported “many here see moves such as the new portraits and the recent naming of a new grand mosque after the president, as a sign that one personality cult has simply been abandoned for another. As under Turkmenbashi, Berdymukhamedov`s portrait now sits at the front of every Turkmen Airlines cabin. His face has followed Niyazov`s onto a vodka bottle label and his latest book, a tome on Turkmen horses, has been translated into three languages. [Source: AFP, April 3, 2009]
“The array of new portraits and products named after the president has neither escaped nor surprised Bayram-aga, a 67-year-old former university professor. Those at the top of the state fear that simply erasing the cult of Turkmenbashi without replacing it could cause instability, or even the collapse of the regime, he said. “A holy place cannot be left empty,” he said, quoting a Turkmen proverb. “Another, no less significant personality than Turkmenbashi must be offered to the people, and how do you make it significant? Constant praise, gradually erasing from the people`s memory the name of... Turkmenbashi.”Berdymukhamedov, Central Asia`s youngest leader, has quietly moved to do just that.”
Berdymukhammedov Removes Niyzov’s Statue, Puts It on Higher Pedestal
In January 2010, Berdymukhammedov ordered the removal of the prominent gold statue of Niyazov in Ashgabat in a move widely seen as an effort to assert his own authority and minimize at the personality cult of his predecessor. Reuters reported: “The removal of the statue and the 75-meter-tall Arch of Neutrality tower which it tops will "improve the architectural image of Ashgabat," state-run news agency Turkmen Khabarlary said. The 12-meter high gold-plated effigy, which rotates to face the sun, is one of the capital's main landmarks and can seen from almost anywhere in the city center. Berdymukhammedov first suggested removing it in 2008. A new, higher tower will be built in a southern suburb of the city to replace "the tripod" -- a nickname Ashgabat residents have given to the old monument which stands on three legs. [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2010]
In October 2011, the gold statue of Niyazov was lifted onto a new perch — the 95-meter-high "Monument of Neutrality". The reinstallation of the Niyazov statue was widely seen as signal of the willingness on the part of Berdymukhammedov to honor and preserve the image of his predecessor. Charles Dameron of Radio Free Europe wrote: “In 2010, the gold-plated rotating statue disappeared from its place atop the "Arch of Neutrality." Between the symbolic changes and some modest efforts at liberalization, it seemed that reform — however incremental — was coming to Ashgabat. So more than a few Turkmen are concerned now that the Niyazov statue has reappeared on top of a new, taller pedestal on the outskirts of Ashgabat.. [Source: Charles Dameron, Radio Free Europe, November 2, 2011 +++]
"The return of this monument is directly related to current politics," one Turkmen intellectual told Radio Free Europe's Turkmen Service. "There was a hope that along with this monument the whole old regime and its heritage would go along with it. But that did not happen, and what we are seeing is that these hopes have evaporated, and the return of this monument symbolizes the current direction." +++
“At least one Turkmen observer, however, sees a silver lining around this gilded eyesore. "This monument provokes great interest among tourists who come to Turkmenistan," notes a travel agent based in Asghabat. "For foreign tourists, this is a monument of dictatorship and despotic willfulness. But for us, this is an embarrassment and unfortunately we get popularity with our absurd architectural excesses." +++
Orientation and Tourist Offices in Ashgabat
Ashgabat is located near the border between Turkmenistan and Iran, south of the Kopet Dag Mountain range. To the north, on the other side of the Kara Kum Canal, lies the Kara Kum Desert. Situated at an elevation of 226 meters (790 feet), Ashgabat is laid out in a grid and is fairly well organized and tourist friendly. The streets and sidewalls and spacious and most places of interest are found in a fairly concentrated area. Many names of streets and landmarks have reverted to their pre-Soviet names. Other have new names.
There are three areas of interest to tourists: 1) the area around the Arch of Neutrality, where you can find Turkmenbashi Palace, some government buildings and museums; 2) the Las-Vegas-style hotel strip of Berzingi; and the 3) Tolkuchka Bazaar.
The primary roads are north-south-running prospekt Magtumguly and prospekt Saparmurat Turkmenbashi. The latter runs between the train station and the new Independence Park. The main shopping and entertainment area around ulitsa Gyorogly. The Powrize Highway leads to the hotels in Berzingi, 10 kilometers outside of town. .
Street names and numbers can be of limited use in some places. Street names can change name, with people sometimes using the old Soviet-era names. Taxi drivers generally operate on the basis of landmarks and orientation points, not street names.
Ashgabatdoesn't really have any proper tourist offices. The service bureau at the Hotel Ashgabat (Tel: 39-0026) offers some information on arranged tours and can arrange tickets for trains, planes and entertainment events. The information desk at the airport is usually closed.The Turkmenistan State Committee for Tourism has an English-speaking staff and is helpful obtaining permits and getting advice on how to deal with the bureaucracy. Address: 744000 Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, Oguzhan str. 201; Tel: +(+993)-12-957348 +(+993)-12-957354; fax: +(+993)-12-957349; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Entertainment in Ashgabat
Cultural and nightlife opportunities include the opera, ballet, classical music, folk music, folk dance, and theater performances. For entertainment news, maybe there are some English-language publications geared for expats. They sometimes have information on music events and restaurants. The main downtown-style shopping and entertainment area around ulitsa Gyorogly. Here you can some cafes and restaurants. Many hotel restaurants become bars with music in the night.
Berkarar Mall (Atatürk köçesi, Tel: (+993)-12-46-88-88) is a big big western-style mall with bowling alley and movie theaters. There are other movie theaters which show foreign films dubbed into the local languages, but they generally see few foreigners. Because of the lack of entertainment facilities other than those found at Berkarar Mall, socializing with family and friends is the most popular form of entertainment.
On the Grand Turkmen Hotel Night Club, Wikitravel reports: “ Enter through a door in the parking lot behind the Grand Turkmen Hotel. There will be several bouncers around the entrance. Tell them that you are going to the disco. Walk through tennis court and next to pool to an entrance at the back of the hotel building. The nightclub is located in the basement. It is open around 9 pm to 3 am. The club and dance floor gets packed Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night after around 11 pm. According to patrons, it is the only club open after 11 pm in the city. They play a variety of music, from Russian techno to salsa and reggae, to American music (often with Russian lyrics). Do not expect waitresses to speak English, but they will try to communicate with you, and you can point at the drinks that you want. As in many Russian-style discos, you can buy either a bottle or a shot of vodka. Vodka is about 5 manat per 50 gram (50 mL) shot. Cokes and other mixers are usually more expensive than the vodka.
Theater, Sports and the Circus in Ashgabat
There are two drama theaters, one Russian and one Turkmen, and an opera-ballet theater in Ashgabat. Tickets are not expensive. The season runs from October to April. There are three concert venues and classical music concerts are held frequently. The quality of the dance, theater, opera and classical music is generally very good and very cheap. The Magtumguly Opera and Ballet Theater hosts opera and ballet for less than a dollar per performance. The Mollanepes Drama Theater often stages performances to full houses. The shows are usually in Turkmen or Russian but often feature colorful costumes and music. Performances usually start at 7:00pm. All theaters seem to be closed in the summer.
Tickets for concerts and performances are cheap. They can be purchased through booking offices, informal booths or tables set up the streets, the box offices at the theaters, hotel service desks and concierges at hotels. The hotels and booking agents often charge hefty fees for their ticket services. Tickets bought from informal booths or box offices are considerably cheaper.
Theaters in Ashgabat: 1) Mollanepes Drama Theater, Magtymguly sayoli 79,Tel: (+993)-12-357463. Wednesday to Saturday 7:00pm. US$0.25. 2) Magtymguly Theater, Shevchenko köcesi, Tel: (+993)-12-350564. Friday to Sunday 7:00pm. Turkmen musical performances 3) Pushkin Russian Theater, Magtymguly sayoli 142, Tel: (+993)-12-3654193. Saturday, Sunday 7:00pm. US$ 0,25.
Circus: Turkmenistan State Circus occupies its own building on prospekt Magtumguly. The Soviet-era structure, with a sheathing of white marble, looks like a flying saucer with Oriental decorations. It hosts spectacular shows with animals, acrobats and clowns as well as scantily-clad dancers and pop music. There are daily performances that begin around 7:30pm. Tickets cost about US$2. The level of performances has dropped in recent years as performers have gone abroad to seek better opportunities.
Sports: Horses races with Ahal Teke horses are held every Sunday in the Hippodrome (three miles east of Ashgabat) from March until May and late August to November. In the late 1990s the track was modernized. A new grandstand and sound system was installed. Trackside gambling was legalized in 1997. Ashgabat also has a new stadium, where soccer games and other sporting events are held, in the center of town. The soccer club, Kopet Dag, plays there.
Restaurants in Ashgabat
The main shopping and entertainment area around ulitsa Gyorogly has some cafes, food vendors, pizza and hamburger joints, restaurants, and bars. There are also hotels with restaurants. Most serve pretty awful food and become bars with music in the night. There are some restaurants that serve Italian, Middle Eastern, Iranian, Turkish, American and Russian food. The cheapest food can be purchased at the Tikinksy and Russia bazaars on ulitsa Azadi. There are also some food stalls in the park next to the earthquake memorial.
Some of the larger hotels have good-quality restaurants, ranging in price from US$10-US$30 per person. Only dollars only can be used in the major hotels; none accepts credit cards and only a few accept local currency. There are other, smaller restaurants popular among the Western community. Most serve a variation of Turkish cuisine at very low prices.
Berkarar shopping centre third floor has a variety of fast food outlets and more expensive and better quality sit down restaurants. There is play area for children here. Candybil shopping center has a good Russian restaurant around the back and accessed from the outside. Very pricey but very good and the food can be grilled in front of you on a hazel nut shell BBQ. Restaurantino Italian restaurant next to the American embassy is a good combination of price and quality.
Shopping in Ashgabat
The main shopping and entertainment area is around ulitsa Gyorogly. There are some shops and restaurants here but not many people. According to The Atlantic: Precisely stacked drinks in a store in the center of Ashgabat. The main street of the capital features lavish shops which were part of the architectural grand plan but are seldom used by locals.”
The best place to buy carpets is the Tolchuka Bazaar. It is usually very busy. Carpets sold at the government-run Carpet Shop (Görogly köcesi 5, east of the Carpet Museum) can help you secure the necessary permits to get your carpets out of the country. But don’t expect any great bargains here. Altyn Asyr Marketing Centre (opposite the Grand Turkmen Hotel) has outlet shops for the carpet and textile industry. The carpets are sold here also have all the necessary documentation needed to get them out the country.
Gulistan Market (Russian Bazaar) (ul. meters. Kosaev, opposite Grand Turkmen Hotel) is set up mainly for local people. It has entire sections for meat, melons, spices, pomegranates, dried apricots, fruit, vegetables, handicrafts, cheap imported clothing, tools, household items, cheap Chinese goods and other stuff. It is open 9:00am to dusk..Taking photos is strongly discouraged. There are several shops which sell souvenirs, such as wool hats. Tekke Bazaar is similar to the Russian Bazaar but slightly larger.
Berkarar Mall(Atatürk köçesi, Tel: (+993)-12-46-88-88) is a big big western-style mall with bowling alley and movie theaters. There is a large grocery store on ground floor and a variety of shops On the third floor there is a food court with a variety of fast food outlets and more expensive and better quality sit down restaurants. There is play area for children here. Berkarar Mall in many ways is the western-style place in town now that Yimpaş, a huge Turkish-built shopping complex, has closed down. The Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre has what is reputed to be the biggest fountain in the world but the inside of two-floor shopping centre is largely empty and void of shops but there is a nice view from the restaurant on the 6th floor. Candybil shopping center doesn’t have much either.
Tolckuka Bazaar(eight kilometers outside the outskirts of Ashgabat) is perhaps the biggest bazaar in Central Asia and justifiably one of the most famous and interesting. Among the things on sale are camels, goats, cart parts, detergent, red carpets, traditional clothes, silver jewelry embroidered silk scarves and slippers, decorated daggers and swords, copper samovars, ceramics, Turkmen tea sets, wooden chests with decorations printed on oilcloth, musical instruments, chess sets, wooly socks, Uzbek velvet clothes with gold thread stitching, wicker birdcages, embroidered skull caps, Turkmen wool caps, hand-dyed and hand printed silks, hand-carved wooden cases, hand-made silver belts, felt rugs, saddles, wall hangings, hand-painted miniatures and hand-carved wooden decorative objects.
Tolckuka Bazaar spread out over a large area in the desert and has traditionally been busiest on Saturday and Thursday mornings. The cast of characters includes traveling merchants from Iran and Uzbekistan, old whitebeards in traditional wooly hats, and children hawking cigarettes and gum. Most of the goods are sold by business-savvy Turkmen women in red robes and dresses. The carpets section is often the busiest. Thousands of carpets are displayed on racks and laid out on the ground. There may be some issues obtaining the proper paperwork to get them out of the country. If you fancy getting a carpet bargain your best bet is going to the market with a reliable guide.
Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: The bazaar “had two names: Tolkuchka, derived from the Russian word for “pushing”; and Jygyldyk, an onomatopoeic word in Turkmen that means “babbling” or “jabbering.” In most respects, the Tolkuchka Bazaar was more vital and more various than its obvious rivals, the Covered Market in Istanbul or the bazaar in Damascus or the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. It was a partly tented affair, with billowing marquees and draperies marking off the separate stalls. It was highly competitive and intensely local; there was not another tourist to be seen. It covered many acres; the horse market alone occupied what could have been an entire fairground. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]
Buying a carpet or a melon or a sack of spices is only part of the interest of such a bazaar. The interaction of people—farmers with their families, gawky boys, shy girls—is also important. Country people may travel for a day or two on an old bus or a night train to meet city people; families rendezvous nearby for picnics; men swagger and shout while boys gape and imitate them. This bazaar was a kind of vortex, drawing in Turkmen from all over, in an ancient ceremony of encounter and negotiation, with music playing and camels howling and hawkers shouting for customers.
“Everything imaginable was on sale: not just Chinese clothes, shoes, belts, and bluejeans but rows and rows of traditional velveteen dresses, and the detachable white hand-embroidered collars, yoke-shaped and lovely, that are unique to the Turkmen women. Brassware, samovars, silver spoons and dishes—tables and tables of these. Russian belt buckles, military buttons, medals, and campaign ribbons. Bronze artifacts, pottery from diggings, some that looked genuine, others that didn’t. Stacks of coins, too, some of them rubles from the departed regime, and lots that the sellers swore were ancient coins from the ruined cities in the desert, from the Turkmen of Afghanistan and India. Something else attracted me at the Tolkuchka Bazaar: its multiethnic shoppers and stallholders. Most of the people were obviously Turkmen, but there were Russians, Persians, Azeris, and Uzbeks, too.
Tolkuchka Bazaar is past the airport. It is open on large scale on Saturday and Sunday, from 8:00am to 2:00pm, and on a smaller scale on Thursday. Telpeks (sheepskins) sell for US$10-15. A khalat (red and yellow striped robe for men) go for US$15. A typical red carpet sells for US$150-250. An export certificate can be obtained from the 'expert commission' behind the Carpet Museum, Görogly köcesi 5.
Accommodation in Ashgabat
There is a choice of fancy hotels, Soviet-era hotels, and two and three star hotels. A number of new hotels have been built. These include the 20 or so modern hotels on the Las-Vegas-style hotel strip of Berzingi, 10 kilometers outside of town. Many of them are largely empty. Generally, booking agencies and travel agencies can book rooms at the overpriced expensive hotels.
According to Wikitravel: “Ashgabat has next-to-no acceptable budget options, very few mid-range options and tons of space on the top end. In response the government is building even more luxury accommodation. If coming on an organized trip or a business trip, consider asking your operator to upgrade your hotel. Excess demand may mean a far better hotel for not much more money as extra space is sold off for cheap. Dollars only can be used in the major hotels; none accepts credit cards and only a few accept local currency.”
There is not much easy-to-access cheap hotels. Homestays exist but there is no centralized organization that arranges homestays. You can try asking at one of the travel agencies. There used to be a hostel in a working psychiatric institute on ulitsa Gobshoodova, one mile south of of the old Tikinsky bazaar. According to caravanistan.com: “There are 2 hostels, Kuwwat and Syyahat, each offering beds for US$10 each. Kuwwat gets the best reviews: a bit Soviet-y but clean with fresh sheets, good AC, friendly staff who speak English, 2 to 4 beds per room and a small kitchen with hot water but no cooker. Syyahat is considered not very clean. Syyahat Hotel – Gorogly street 60 (OSM/LP) Kuwwat Hotel – Kemine street 101 – Tel: +993 12 93 66 51 (OSM). The location for both are wrong on Google maps.
Transportation in Ashgabat
Many places can be reached on foot. For those that are not Ashgabat has a descent system of trolleybuses (buses connected to electric lines over the buses), buses and taxis. Buses are very crowded and should be avoided. Trolleybuses are a little better. The tickets for buses and trolleybuses and is ridiculously cheap, with tickets only a few US cents a piece. They can be purchased from drivers, and at some kiosks and shops. It is convenient to buy the ticket ins trips of five or ten. Fares are paid by passengers in the basket located close to driver's seat while getting off the bus. It is easiest to give the driver 1 manat and let him give you change, instead of trying to figure out exact fare (and you probably will not have coins, anyways, since they are worth so little).
There are also plenty of cheap taxis. Private cars, typically Russian-made Ladas, often serve as taxis. You can one flag down by standing on the sidewalk and holding out your arm at a downward angle with two fingers extended. Tell the driver where you are going. If they nod, get in, otherwise they will continue on and you have to wait for the next car. Expect to pay around US$2 per person. This style of hitchhiking is considered safe in Turkmenistan; everyone does it. There are also official taxis which can be easily found in front of the arrivals hall of the airport and close to the railway station. They are safer but more expensive.
Taxi drivers generally operate on the basis of landmarks and orientation points, not street names. Communication can also be an issue as many drivers speak only Turkmen and Russian. If you don't speak Russian have your destination and a nearby landmark written down in advance in Cyrillic, and have a pencil and a paper with numbers listed that you can use for negotiating the price. Agree on a price with a driver before you set off. Do this on paper so there is no confusion. Sometimes, taxi drivers try to charge ridiculously high prices especially if they know you are a tourist.
Ashgabat has a very extensive and convenient bus system. The main public transport hub is Teke Bazaar. From there you can reach any location within the city or the area around it. In the modern part of the city there are white marble, air-conditioned bus stops with detailed maps of routes of every bus line departing from a stop. The bus is a good option if you are on the outskirts of town (e.g., the giant indoor Ferris wheel at Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center or the Palace of Knowledge) and no taxis stop. Take any bus in the direction toward town, and get off when you get closer to a busy city street and take a taxi to wherever you are going.
The main train station is located on prospekt Saparmurat Turkmenbashi. The International Passenger Bus Terminal of Ashgabat is the main bus station of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Located in the north of the city, it opened in 2014 and is the largest bus station in Turkmenistan, serving 2,000 passengers a day using 324 platforms. There are routes connecting to the city of Turkmenistan, as well as routes to neighboring countries and former Soviet countries. Inside the terminal is a waiting room, places to purchase of bus, air and rail tickets, a currency exchange, a post office, an internet cafe, a restaurant, convenience stores, a changing area, a clinic, a pharmacy, luggage storage, and a small cinema. The structure of the terminal includes a fire station, a modern car wash for buses, and various services. Bus designs adorn a mini park, that also includes a fountain. Near the bus station is a Silk Road hotel with 50 rooms, an office building, technical units, stop building service and car. For increased security of passengers and their belongings, video surveillance, security, and baggage service are provided. A covered parking area near the bus station is 1,280 square meters (13,800 sq ft). [Source:
Sights in Ashgabat
Sights in Ashgabat include the statue of Lenin south of ulitsa Azadi, one of the few structures that survived the 1948 earthquake; a large mound believed to be a 2nd century B.C. Parthian fortress; Officer’s Park, a pleasant green expanse; Azadi Mosque, modeled after the blue mosque in Istanbul; the futuristic Iranian mosque; and mosque of Kezrety Omar, known for its colorful ceiling painting. Ashgabat is also home of the world's grandest orphanage, a futuristic marble structure with elaborate sports facilities and its own mosque, located on the road to Nisa.
A Plethora of Marble Buildings is arguably Ashgabat’s biggest attraction. The city has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most white marble-clad buildings in the world: 543 buildings covered with white marble covering totaling an area of 4.5 million square meters that cost billion of dollars to build. Among the more impressive ones are Turkmenbashi Palace, the parliament building and a new national museum. Many of the buildings are government ministries that can't be entered so you have to admire them from the outside. A good way to take many of them in is tour the city by taking Bus No. 20. It passes a number of buildings before turning around in the desert outside the city.
Cultural Palace is a massive almost windowless building covered in white marble and crowned by blue ceramic domes. Built by a French construction company that built the modernist sheik buildings in Kuwait, it also boasts massive stone steps, 35-foot-high wooden doors, and inlaid gold script of Turkmenbashi words of wisdom.
Miracle Mile (in Berzengi, about 10 kilometers outside Ashgabat) is a Las-Vegas-style strip of 24 neon-lit luxury hotels sitting alone and empty in the desert. Built with government money, they are complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, nightclubs and casinos.
Turkmenbashi Cableway, Kopet Dag (south of the National Museum). climbs to 1290 meters to the top of Kopet Dag escarpment, offering spectacular views over the city with the desert in the background. It opened in 2006 and became fully operational in 2016. The cost is two 2 manat (US$1.20) per person. The cafe at the top had only drinks and ice cream in July 2016. It is open from 9:00am to 10:00pm.
World Record Monuments, Flagpoles and Fountains in Ashgabat
Turkmenistan Independence Park (southern part of Dushanbe, reached by bus 16 or 34 from the city center) covers an area two kilometers long and one kilometer wide. The area around the Independence Monument contains monuments of famous people of Turkmen history: 1) the Seljuk Beg, founder of the Seljuk dynasty; 2) Oguz Han, the founder of the Turkmen people; 3) the Turkmen poet Magtymguly; 4) the Seljuk leader Sultan Sanjar; 5) the Turkmen warrior Georogly; 6 and 7) the Seljuk rulers Alp Arslan and Malik Shah; 8) Keymir Kor, the 18th century leader of the Ahal Tekkes; 9 and 10) the poets Zelilli and Sydi; 11) Uzyn Hasan, the leader of the White Sheep confederation; 12) Ertogul Gazy, the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire; 13) the Turkmen commander and poet Bairam Han; 14 and 15) , the poets Molianepes and Mataji; 16) the Turkmen leader Gara Yusup; 17) the Seljuk ruler Togrul Beg; 18) the spiritual leader Gorkut Ata; 19) and the poet Kemine. [Source: Wikitravel]
Constitution Monument is 200 meters high. Soldiers stand at attention at the base of the monument. A giant thermometer and a screen playing a loop of official ceremonies is situated in the center of Ashgabat.
Ashgabat Flagpole (near the National Museum) was erected in 2008. At that time it was the highest flagpole in the world at 133 meters ( (436 feet). It is now fifth. There are higher ones in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (first, 170 meters, 560 feet), Dushanbe, Tajikistan (second, 165 meters, 541 feet), Baku, Azerbaijan (third, 162 meters, 531 feet) and Kijongdong, North Korea (fourth, 160 meters 525 feet). The Ashgabat structure is still impressive and you can enjoy it for free..
Large Fountains: The largely empty Altyn Asyr Shopping Centre has what is reputed to be the biggest fountain in the world. But I couldn’t fins it only list of the world biggest or highest fountains, which are located in places like Busan, Korea, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The fountain around the sculpture of Oguzkhan and his six sons, however, was entered into the list of the Guinness Book of Records in 2008 for having the greatest number of fountain pools in a public place (27). The fountains covers an area of 14.8231 hectares and has a coordinated, programmable, synchronized light and water display.
Turkmenistan Television Broadcasting Centre (on a hill overlooking Ashgabat) was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011 for having largest architectural star in the world. The glass construction, which has a total area of 3,240 square meters. (34,875 square feet) is built into the façade of the 211-meter (692-foot) tall Turkmenistan Broadcasting Centre tower.. The Soviet-era tower was reconstructed on the order of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.
Turkmenbashi Palace: Marble and Gold Home of the World’s Largest Carpet
Turkmenbashi Palace (central Ashgabat) is a marble monstrosity with a brilliant golden dome and gold mirrored glass and home to the world’s largest handwoven carpets. Although President Niyazov’s had the palace built at great expense he spent most of his time in his palace outside the city.
Turkmenbashi Palace lies at the heart of a multibillion dollar collection of white marble buildings built by Niyazov that includes the parliament building and a new national museum. Many of the buildings are lit around the clock. Many of the new apartments around them are empty, apparently because no one can afford them.
Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) carpet was made at the Baharly Artistic Carpet Factory. In 2003 it was entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest hand-made carpet in the world. It has an of 301 square meters, measures 14-x-20 meters and weight about 1.5 tons. It was made by forty carpet-makers to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan independent. It took eight months to make and has 120 million knots. Before this the largest carpet was the “Turkmen kalby” (The soul of the Turkmen) Carpet made. It was made during World War II in 941- -1942) and has an area 193 square meters.
Arch of Neutrality
Arch of Neutrality (near the Turkmenbashi Palace) was a 75-meter- (220-foot-) tall, three-legged arch topped by a gilt statue of Niyazov. Completed in 1998, the arch looked sort of like a rocket ship and was built according to a design Niyazov chose to represent stability. There was a café and some souvenir shops in the legs. A viewing platform could be reached by an elevator. Ashgabat residents called the structure the "the tripod" because it stood on three legs.
The 40-foot-high gilt structure is larger than any Lenin statue built in the Soviet era. The statue of Niyazov rotated atop a spire, once every 24 hours, with its outstretched arm pointing out the hour and the direction sun, which during the daytime always shined on Niyazov’s face. When viewed from below that statue seemed to hold the sun and offer it to the people below.
Charles Dameron of Radio Free Europe wrote: “It's been a tastelessly iconic symbol of Turkmenistan since it appeared in 1998... For years, the statue stood atop a 75-meter-tall arch in the center of Ashgabat, dominating the skyline. Perhaps out of a concern that monumental scale alone was not sufficient for this centerpiece of personality worship, Niyazov arranged for his gold-plated statue to rotate throughout the day so that the Father of the Turkmen was always facing the sun.” [Source: Charles Dameron, Radio Free Europe, November 2, 2011]
The statue lay at the center of a large square with an ornamental flower bed and a huge outdoor television screen. There were plans to construct the world’s largest fountain there. At the foot of arch is the Earthquake memorial, commemorating the 1948 disaster and featuring some photographs of the destruction it caused. Parades and events held on major holidays are held in the monumental square east of the arch. Around the square you can also find the War Memorial and the old presidential palace.
Public buses are routed up an eight-lane boulevard to the base of the Monument to Neutrality. Otherwise it stands mostly deserted. Despite the scarcity of visitors, soldiers at the feet of the structure stand at attention throughout the day. In January 2010, Turkmenistan President Berdymukhammedov ordered the removal of the gold statue of Niyazov, a move widely seen as an effort to assert his own authority and minimize the personality cult of his predecessor. A new, higher tower was be built in a southern suburb of the city for the Niyozov statue.
Ashgabat Amusement Areas
Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center is the home of the world’s alrgest indoor Ferris wheel. This beautiful and arrogant building opened 2010 and is 95 meters tall and has 26 000 square meters of floor space. Inside are coin-operated machines, bumper cars and other amusements. It is open Friday to Sunday only.
Alan Taylor wrote in The Atlantic: “"Alem" Cultural-Entertainment Centre was declared world record as the largest, enclosed-type round swing and the centre was entered into the Guinness Book of Records on May 18, 2012. In 2012 the wheel atop this complex was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest enclosed Ferris wheel. The structure was built at a cost of US$90 million.” [Source: Alan Taylor, The Atlantic, June 5, 2013]
World of Turkmenbashi Tales is a Disneyland-style amusement park with some cool animatronics and shows of Turkmen fairy tales inside, as well as various amusement park rides like bumper cars, flying carpet, horse race and Disney knock-offs. Lucy Ash of the BBC wrote: “This Central Asian Disneyland boasts more than 50 rides including a toy train Ferris Wheel echoing designs of Turkmen jewellery and a rollercoaster swooping over a model of the Caspian Sea, the source of Turkmenistan's rich oil and gas reserves. Like almost everything else in the country, the park was named after the president. [Source: Lucy Ash, BBC, December 21, 2006]
Palace of Happiness
"Palace of Happiness" is a giant wedding hall opened in 2011 to commemorate Turkmenistan’s rebirth as an independent nation. Described by The Times as “a cross between a wedding cake and a nuclear reactor.” it is 80 meters long and was built by Turkish company Polimeks at a cost US$140 million. There is one room where newlyweds are required to pose in front of a portrait of the President.
The building also contains a map of Turkmenistan to allow couples to marry in line with “wise traditions of our ancestors.” Newlyweds are expected to plant a tree next to the palace so that “their children will rest in the shade of trees planted by parents”along with laying flowers at the memorial to soldiers killed in World War II and visiting monuments commemorating Turkmenistan’s constitution, its independence and the 1948 Ashgabat earthquake.
The 11-story wedding palace is technically a civil registry building. Covering an area of over 38,000 square meters (410,000 square feet), it is a three-tier structure, each side of which has the form of an eight-pointed star. A cube that towers over large columns forms its upper stage and incorporates a ball with a diameter of 32 meters—a symbolic planet Earth with the image of Turkmenistan. Four entrances to the building symbolize the four directions.
The interior of the palace is made in Turkmen style. The center has six rooms for registration of marriage. Three are wedding hall for events, two of which hold 500 and one holds 1000. On the ninth floor of the Palace—in the central part of the "ball"—is the Golden Hall for weddings, called "Shamchyrag". The Palace hosts seven banquet rooms, 36 shops and two cafes, providing all the necessary items of wedding services, including dress shops, decorations, car rental, ethnic jewelry, photo studio, beauty salon and 22-room hotel. The third and fourth floors hold administrative offices and a library. Under the building is a closed parking lot for 300 cars.
Museum and Galleries
Ashgabat is home to a half dozen museums. The Fine Arts Museum has a collection of Soviet-Turkmen paintings, some Russian and European art, including one Caravaggio, and displays of traditional Turkmen jewelry and clothes. The Carpet Museum is housed in an air-conditioned marble building staffed by women in traditional clothes. Among the hundreds of beautiful mostly red carpets is the world’s largest hand-woven carpet. There is also an Exhibition Hall featuring works by contemporary Turkmen artists.
Museum of Fine Arts (west of the Palace of Justice) has a large picture of President Niyazov Abundance of the Harvest in the Central Hall. In the Independence Hall are images of heroic figures of the nation such as Oguz Han, Togrul Beg, Alp Arslan and the poet Seydi are shown. There is a reconstruction of the dragen freeze of the mosque of Arnau and exhibitions of Turkmen paitings before and after 1950. The first floor is devoted to Russian paintings from the 19th century and to European paintings, including minor works by Tiepolo and Poussin. US$ 10. Tel: 351566. Wednesday to Monday 9:00am to 6:00pm.
Turkmen Carpet Museum (5 Georogly köcesi) houses antique carpets of the 18th and 19th centuries and modern carpets from all parts of the country. There is a nearly 200 square meters carpet which was intended to be a curtain of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, but proved too heavy. The pride of the museum is the largest hand-woven carpet in the world, as certified by the Guinness Book of Records. It covers 300 square meters and was woven by 40 carpet makers on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Turkmenistan's independence. US$20/72TMT., Tel: 398879. Monday to Friday 10:00am to 1:00pm., 2:00pm to 6:00pm.
Museum of Turkmen National Values contains displays of silver jewelry for women and horses, and replicas of the golden bull- and wolf-head sculptures from Altyn Depe. US$10. , Tel: 451954. 9:00am to 12:00pm, 2:00pm to 5:30 pm, daily.
Palace of Knowledge (on the south side of Independence Monument) houses a library, a threater and the Turkmenbashi Museum, which is mainly a collection of gifts to Niyazov and souvenirs and other stuff related to him. Both inside and outside the building is stunning. Some of the exhibits are very ornate. 10 USD or 35 manat per foreigner (cheaper for Turkmen).
National Museum of Turkmenistan
National Museum of Turkmenistan (Archabil sayoli 30, in front of the Kopet Dag, on the highway to Berzengi) is a fairly large museum with neolithic tools from western Turkmenistan; amulets, seals and other artifact from the 4000-years-old Bactria Margiana sites near Ashgabat; ivory and horn-shaped rhytons, used Zoroastrian rituals; Buddha images from Merv; stuffed animals and minerals; and a collection of Turkmen carpets, jewelry, weapons and wedding outfits.
The National Museum is interesting but very expensive. Hall 1 is devoted post-independent Turkmenistan and features strange gifts, awful photoshopped images and other examples of the excesses of over-the-top authoritarianism. Hall 2 focuses on Bronze Age with artifacts from Margiana while Hall 3 shows items taken from the Parthian site of Nisa site just outside of Ashgabat.
Hall 4 shows a medieval model of Merv, along with exhibits and diorams on Konye Urgench and Anau and beautiful vase from Merv. Hall 5 and 6 display collections of weapons, musical instruments, silver jewellery and female dress. A huge 20-meter-x-13-meters carpet dominates Hall 7. Admission is US$10 per section or US$30 for the whole museum. Tel: 454954. 9:00am to 5:00pm.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Turkmenistan tourism sites, Turkmenistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020