Traveler’s Tale: Impressions of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s Peculiar Capital City
MIR Tour Specialist Nathan Cox was born and raised in Utah, but has spent much of his adult life living and working in Russia and Ukraine. He’s traveled to many of MIR’s destinations, including China, Central Asia, the Baltics, and Europe. Here, Nathan shares some impressions and memories of his recent travels to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s strange and fascinating capital city.
I followed the few people on my flight off the plane, into the airport and down a long, wide corridor that felt as deserted as it was spotless. It seemed strange that the airport, and indeed, even the surrounding city streets, of a major capital city could be so empty. Upon asking my MIR Tour Manager and local guide about this unusual calm of the night before, I learned the first of many things that make Ashgabat, and by extension Turkmenistan, a destination the likes of which I expect never to see again.
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Turkmenistan’s independence as a nation might also be traced to this earthquake. The future first president of the country, Saparmurat Niyazov, self-proclaimed “Head of the Turkmen,” lost his mother and his two siblings to the destruction of the 1948 ‘quake. With his father having previously died in WWII, Niyazov was left without a family, and needed to find his own way to rise to the top.
As the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Turkmenistan at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he found himself in the ambiguously envious place of being first in line to fill a leadership role, which he did with such gusto that his candidacy for president against no one but himself was supported by 99.9 percent of the voting population.
Doubling down on that victory, Niyazov had pronounced himself “president for life,” which proved to be a prescient prophecy. He vacated his post only in death at the age of 66, leaving behind extravagant measures of preserving his legacy. This included the renaming of the months to enshrine aspects of his own biography (e.g., his and his mother’s names) and the building of a massive mosque designed to fit 10,000 parishioners in his hometown of Kipchak at the cost of $100 million, where his parents and siblings were reinterred in a memorial complex with his grave at the center.
These undertakings, including the mass construction of white marble buildings, constitute a mission to reestablish the Turkmen as a people in their own right and to return to them a sense of place, pride, and belonging in response to the Russian Soviet system. With the marble facades came significant investments in industry and the promise, thus far fulfilled, of free (or nearly free) gas, electricity, water, and salt.
Despite such incredible movements towards modernization, the people — separated from their nomadic roots in some cases by only several decades — are still characterized by a sense of tight community, resourcefulness, and traditions, some of which sound incredible to a western ear.
As I wandered past glamorous boulevards of white marble, I began to notice more of the underlying sense of community that defines the deeper backbone of the Turkmen people. The fruit and vegetable bazaar, known as the Russian Market for its location in an area once predominated by Russians, was one of the few places I glimpsed signs of a city being lived in. Turkmen women in traditional dress regularly shop here for all kinds of foodstuffs and everyday household items: rows upon rows of spices, fruits, nuts, vodka, traditional breads, clothing, electronics, and even caviar.
I also spotted rural gathering pavilions, available for rent, where families and their friends come to cook and consume a humble but inexhaustible table, prepared by the collective in huge metal vats in the open air.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Parthian Empire spread out from Nisa and took its place among such kingdoms as the Achaemenid under Cyrus the Great and the Macedonian under Alexander the Great. Though Nisa was ruled by a succession of dynasties, it remained an important center in the ancient world until the 13th century, when the Mongols sacked it. Today archaeological work continues at Nisa, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
The adoration Turkmen have for their equine companions is reflected not only through the people that continue to breed the elegant horse, but of course in the glittering fountains and monuments of the city, many of which are adorned with spirited statues of steeds and mounted heroic figures from Turkmen history. Turkmenistan’s current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, professed his own love for the Akhal-Teke with a towering gilded monument that depicts himself riding the beloved breed.
More building projects like this are slated for development, but I’ve come to see that there’s much more to the know about Turkmenistan than just the grandiose architecture of its facade. This I learned while with MIR in Ashgabat, a city where the eternal desert is interrupted, abruptly and momentarily, by the strange, wonderful, and enigmatic footprint of humankind.
Travel to Turkmenistan with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan. We have a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
MIR has unparalleled destination expertise in creating immersive cultural experiences in our destinations, including lesser-traveled Turkmenistan.
You can admire Ashgabat’s gleaming monuments on MIR’s popular small group tour Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans, or on one of these small group tours or rail journeys by private train:
Small Group Tours
Rail Journeys by Private Train
(Top photo: Ashgabat’s gleaming monument to former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov. Photo credit: Ana Filonov.)
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2018