Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Where is Ashgabat?

I was writing about Ferris Wheels the other day, and I got completely enveloped in a location, and I've done nothing but investigate it since.  It turns out that the city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan just made my bucket list.  There is absolutely nothing usual about the place, and I have to see it.  There are problems with visiting the country like the fact that it sits between Iran and Afghanistan.  It also borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan along with the Caspian Sea.  Quite a location, and therefore, quite a history.

These days Ashgabat is known as the City of White Marble, because it was being rebuilt; but this city and country have an amazing history.  The country has been a battlefield for everyone from Alexander the Great to the more modern day Soviets.  A massive 9 on the Richter Scale earthquake nearly flattened the place in 1948.  Most of the country is desert like which makes water an issue as well.  Most of the farms that the country uses are irrigated from long distances by canals.  The Turkmen are the residents of this country along with notable populations of Russians, Uzbeks, and even some Taters.  Ashgabat is home to around 1 million people today and is a very ultra modern city.  What fascinates me is how it got that way.

After the Soviet Empire crumbled, the people of Turkmenistan were just kind of hanging out there.  They hadn't been in control of their own destinies for a while.  Their first President, Saparmurat Niyazov became one of those crazy dictators and he had a vision for the city of Ashgabat.  What we see today is largely his vision, and it's somewhere between old Soviet style and Star Trek.  Niyazov called himself Serdar Turkmenbashi or Great Leader of all Turkmen and he was such a cult of personality that the people pretty much followed along.  He did all of the things that the dictators have done in North Korea like building amazing avenues and parks with monuments everywhere.  But in the case of Ashgabat, it's made the place surreal and amazing.

There are monuments to the country's past and present all over the place and some of the most amazing parks in the world.  The city became a regular in the Guiness Book of World Records as well.  It holds the world record for the most buildings finished in white marble at 543.  It has the world's largest fountain complex at over 15 hectares.  It has the world's largest monument to a star, the tallest flagpole, the largest enclosed Ferris Wheel and some more.  It's obvious that Niyazov was keeping track of some measurements world wide.  You never know what a surpreme leader will come up with to distinguish themselves in the world.

Not all of the monuments in town had meanings for the people, Niyazov made some monuments to himself as well.  There are kilometers of parks and monuments in Ashgabat.  They are everywhere, and so was Niyazov's face.  There were even more statues of him when he was alive, seeing as he was somehow made President for life.  He was known to change the names of the months on the calendar and change the curriculum of the Sunni Muslims that inhabit the country to include reading the Ruhnama, a history book designed to tell the story the way that Niyazov wanted it to be told.

But, as most crazy dictators go, Niyazov had some good ideas as well, even though some of them are odd as well.  In addition to beautiful mosques for his people to use, he designed what he called the health path for them to get in shape.  This path runs about 8 km up the side of a mountain, but it does have great views at the top.  And the parks all over the place were there so that people had a convenient place to get out.  The wide avenues were prepared to meet little to no traffic, so that is something else that people don't have to deal with in Ashgabat.  Trees were planted to try and green up the place, even though it's spot at the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountain Range is also along the edgest of the Garagum Desert.  The city is only about 20 miles from Iran as well.

The architecture is the most amazing part of the city, however.  Niyazov built all kinds of things.  One of the more interesting is the Arch of Neutrality that he built declaring that his country would remain entirely neutral forever.  This was done when the country entered into one of the NATO treaties.  Another amazing monument is the Constitution Monument which is self explanatory and the monument celebrating ten years of freedom.  There's the President's Palace as well and the list just goes on.  The city is white and beautiful.  It just looks so surreal that it's hard to tell between actual photos of the city and artists' renditions of proposed new projects.  It all looks like an artist's rendition, but a lot of it is real.

What Niyazov started hasn't necessarily stopped either.  The white marble and the amazing architecture has become part of what makes Ashgabat who it is.  The current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow has continued some of the directions that Niyazov started.  Is it just another corrupt dictator?  Nobody knows for sure yet, but the country isn't going downhill.  There are many factories in Ashgabat and the country is still famous for their amazing rugs.  Things aren't as prosperous as they would like, but isn't that the way in most countries?  Time will tell.  But, the Wedding Palace or Palace of Happiness is one of the more recent additions.  It's an amazing place to hold a wedding, and the people seem to like it so far.   There are a lot of tourist expectant luxury hotels cropping up as well.  The Alem Entertainment center is another place that just waiting for tourists with the enclosed Ferris Wheel and other activities.

But what do the residents do when it's time to get away from giant avenues and everything shining white?  There are some things that tourists would go out to see.  I don't know about the residents.  This city is kind of an oasis on the old silk road and you'll most likely take a flight or a train to get there.  You can drive, so the idea of going out of the city isn't out of the question.  The normal way to get around is to hitchhike.  Unusual?  Yes, but it's the way of the area.  You can also take tours for day trips with several local companies.

One of the stops outside of town is the Kow-Ata Underground Lake.  It is raved about by tour operators that take trips into the area, but it's pretty dilapidated from what I read.  It's still a hoot if you've never been to a thermal heated underground swimming hole in a cave.  You can visit any time of year, but don't stay too long, because the sulfur isn't actually that healthy.

The Darvaza Crater or the Gate to Hell is also just a day trip from Ashgabat.  This crater is a natural wonder.  It caved in like a sink hole back in the 1970's and has been burning natural gas ever since.  There are many surreal things in the area, from the nearly drained Aral Sea to this crater.  It's something that goes well with an entire trip that is not only completely surreal and Star Trek like, but an Adventure for Anyone.  Enjoy!

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