Traveler’s Tale: Impressions of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s Peculiar Capital City

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.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Ana Filonov

Ashgabat’s Independence Park, clad in characteristic gold and white marble,
is lined with massive statues of Turkmen heroes
Photo credit: Ana Filonov

City of Marble & GoldAshgabat as a city is ancient, but its current iteration can be reasonably dated to the earthquake of 1948. The earthquake completely leveled the city, requiring a complete rebuild, yet allowing for the ubiquity of its gleaming veneer to be made of white Italian marble, imported in exchange for oil and gas.

Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, is awash in white marble buildings – more than 540 Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

Ashgabat is awash in white marble buildings – more than 540
Photo credit: Richard Fejfar

(click on photo for larger version)

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.

Independence Square, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Lindsay Fincher

A golden statue of Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s former president, fronts the Independence Monument
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

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.

Kipchak Mosque, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Bill Fletcher

The stately golden Kipchak Mosque, dedicated to the former Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov
Photo credit: Bill Fletcher

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.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Michel Behar

Friendly smiles from Turkmenistan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

Community ConnectionsWith my mind thus enlightened by this background primer and the candid stories from my local guide, I dove deeper into the place and the minds of its people: into the firmly secular nature of this predominately Islamic country; into the meanings of the colorful and sometimes elaborate dress worn by women and determined by their age and status; and into the observations of how the country’s pious leave trinkets of all kinds on the burial sites of the ancient dead in the hope, for example, of being smiled upon from beyond the veil of tears with the blessing of a son.

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.

Russian Market, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Russ Cmolik & Ellen Cmolik

Ashgabat’s Russian Market is one of the oldest bazaars in the city
Photo credit: Russ Cmolik & Ellen Cmolik

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.

Outdoor cooking pavilions, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Nathan Cox

These outdoor pavilions in Ashgabat contain giant metal pots meant for cooking tasty Turkmen food
Photo credit: Nathan Cox

Outside Ashgabat: Ancient NisaI contrasted Ashgabat’s modern monoliths with the ancient ruins and history left by peoples and times bygone at the site of Nisa, located about 15 miles outside of Ashgabat and once a major center of the ancient Parthian Kingdom.

Nisa, Turkmenistan. Photo: Nathan Cox

Visiting the ruins of the ancient Parthian Kingdom in Nisa
Photo credit: Nathan Cox

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.

Nisa, Turkmenistan Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

The UNESCO-listed ruins of Nisa are thought to have been an ancient royal necropolis of the Parthian kings
Photo credit: Lindsay Fincher

Treasure of Turkmenistan: Akhal-Teke HorsesEven with the presence of cars and other modern methods of transport, Turkmen still unwaveringly cherish their renowned Akhal-Teke horses, both graceful and sturdy, and created with a surfeit of beauty and utility.

Akhal-Teke horse farm, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Russ Cmolik & Ellen Cmolik

Akhal-Teke horses are bred for strength and endurance, necessary for Turkmenistan’s extreme environment
Photo credit: Russ Cmolik & Ellen Cmolik

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.

Why Travel to Turkmenistan Now?Traditional values and culture thrive, yet Ashgabat continues to transform itself at breakneck pace. Recently, the city completed work on a magnificent complex built for the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games out of — not to put too fine a point on it — white marble. The newly built Olympic Complex consists of 30 different sites, including a 45,000-seat Olympic Stadium, an Athletes’ Village, and a monorail used to transport spectators and participants around the complex.

Martial Arts Complex, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo credit: Nathan Cox

Ashgabat’s brand-new Martial Arts Complex was constructed at a cost of about $5 billion
Photo credit: Nathan Cox

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
Palace of Happiness, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Photo: Nathan Cox

Ashgabat’s “Palace of Happiness” by night
Photo credit: Nathan Cox

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

You can also book a custom private journey or a tour extension to Turkmenistan based on your interests and schedule.

(Top photo: Ashgabat’s gleaming monument to former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov. Photo credit: Ana Filonov.)

PUBLISHED: March 2, 2018

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3 thoughts on “Traveler’s Tale: Impressions of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s Peculiar Capital City

  • king Wonderful

    Please put Jill and Jim Delmonte and maybe Stacy Delmonte on this trip. Hope its not too long. I am signingup. I like mir

  • Moonyeen Albrecht

    One impression of Turkmenistan (and Ashgabat) that remains vivid in my mind is the miles and miles of desert being turned by human force into a forest with trees planted in controlled lines fed by underground irrigation lines. When I saw this about 8 or 9 years ago the trees were very, very small and I wonder what it looks like today. The MIR trip to Central Asia is at the top of my favorite trips list! Tour manager Michel Behar was exceptional! Could not have been better! Kudos!

  • My daughter and I are will go on our first trip to Ashgabat this spring. I read your blog and look forward to my trip! I hope we enjoy this travel. Very impressed with the pfotos. Thanks.