Move over Skopje, you’ve been dethroned. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, is now officially the weirdest city I’ve ever visited.
I came to Turkmenistan looking for something different. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for myself, I just knew I was looking for something that made me go, “Now isn’t that interesting.” Well, Ashgabat delivered in oh-so-many levels.
Where to begin?
Arriving in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
I knew something was off during my ride from the airport to the hotel. The streets were quiet. Very quiet. We passed a total of zero cars during the 20 minute ride. Granted it was 3 am in the morning, still for a capital city that’s supposed to have over 1 million people living in it, that seems a little too quiet. But I told myself to stop comparing Asghabat with San Francisco where things are always happening on the street. Even at 3 am in the morning.
The second moment when I thought Ashgabat was odd was when I looked out of my hotel window and I saw 2 soldiers standing in front of a flying-saucer shaped building across the hotel parking lot. I looked at my map to see what they could possibly be guarding, maybe an important government building or a military installation? But my map indicates that the flying-saucer building is simply… a circus arena.
Then, a mere 3 hours after I landed, I found myself in the weirdest festival where we got to catch a glimpse of Turkmenistan president himself, even while his security details were trying their best to hide us.
Turkmenistan Facts 101
Before I go on and describe why Ashgabat, Turkmenistan was the weirdest city I’ve been to, it might be worth mentioning some historical Turkmenistan facts, especially in regards to its leaders.
After the Soviet Union broke apart, Turkmenistan declared its independence and Saparmurat Niyazov became Turkmenistan’s first president. He was quite a character, obsessed with leaving a legacy that came from having an ego the size of Turkmenistan’s gas reserve. In 1999, he became president for life and called himself Turkmenbashi (“Father of All Turkmen”).
After achieving the ultimate job security, he went on a building spree: tearing down old soviet buildings and replacing them with museums, offices, and apartment buildings as an attempt to turn Ashgabat into a model city and the holder of many Guinness Book of Records.
All of Niyazov’s new buildings shared a similar architectural style, which might be described as Walmart-meets-desert-emirate: boxy white marble constructions with vast, gleaming, reflective windows topped by shallow golden tomes. They looked spectacular and lavish.
– from Daily Life in Turkmenbashy’s Golden Age
Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is Turkmenistan’s current and 2nd president. Even though he has refrained from the most over-the-top constructions, he’s trying his best to build his own cult personality and leave a legacy of his own. He declared an annual beauty contest for horses, for example. He also seems to have a team of people whose job is to Photoshop him into everything, from riding horses to hanging out with other world leaders. Unfortunately (or fortunately for our amusement), they’re really bad at it. Oh yeah, he also banned non-white cars in Ashgabat.
Which brings us to our list of weird Turkmenistan facts:
Only white cars are allowed in Ashgabat
I have no explanation why this is so. But then again, if I were a dictator, I would totally ban strawberries in salad. And underboob. So I guess there’s that.
You can get fined for driving a dirty car
Coming back from Gates of Hell (Darvaza Gas Crater), our convoy stopped at a non-descript compound with a small store attached to it. One guy came out of the store and proceeded to wash all of the cars. Granted, the cars were dirty since we just came from driving among sand dunes. But still I thought it was odd that they’d do this in the middle of the tour, instead of at the end of it. Later I learned from my Russian driver that driving a dirty car in Ashgabat could get you fined.
Owning a car in Turkmenistan seems to be very stressful indeed.
Ashgabat is built on marble and gold
The city was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s highest concentration of white marble buildings. In reality, the buildings were not made from solid white marble but instead covered with glued-on white marble tiles. Potayto, potahto – amiright?
Ashgabat is very empty and very, very clean
Driving in Ashgabat felt like driving through a movie set. Even though the city has a lot of public monuments and squares, they were almost always empty of visitors. There were no signs of Western influence: no McDonald’s or Starbucks. In fact, there was hardly any adverts or signs. Between that and all the tinted windows, it was hard to tell where the shops and restaurants are.
Ashgabat is full of wide, stately boulevards which were all spotless. Army of women armed with brooms were stationed, one every 100 metres or so, in order to keep them that way.
There’s an 11pm curfew in Ashgabat
This was why I didn’t see anybody on the streets on my way from the airport. And the soldiers stationed outside the hotel? They were enforcing the curfew. Turkmenistan boasts 0 (zero) crime rate. That’s right… no crime is supposed to exist in Turkmenistan. Obviously this is an exaggeration but the curfew and the ubiquitous soldier presence does help make Turkmenistan, especially Ashgabat, feel really safe.
Ashgabat has the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel
The world’s largest indoor ferris wheel looks super cool indeed. Then you get on the ferris wheel and you realise – this is why people don’t usually build ferris wheels indoor. They literally built a regular-sized ferris wheel and wrap it in a casing of metal struts. So there’s no view! Just another of example of “Just because you could, it doesn’t mean you should…”
Ashgabat has the world’s largest star-shaped structure
The radio tower in Ashgabat is the record holder for world’s largest star-shaped structure. Turkmenistan is a country that’s obsessed with making it to Guinness Book of Records – in case you haven’t noticed. But does “star-shaped structure” really merit its own category?
Ashgabat’s architecture is quite surreal
The buildings in Ashgabat can be very eye catching not only because everything covered in gold and marble. The New York Times calls Ashgabat “spooky Las Vegas”, and yeah – I can totally see that.
I already mentioned the ferris wheel – a giant disc in Ashgabat’s skyline. There’s also the wedding palace, called “Palace of Happiness”, which is supposed to resemble a wedding cake with a giant 3D star-like structure as a cake topper. As for the luxury hotel on the outskirt of Ashgabat that somehow looks just like Dubai’s Burj-Al Arab? There’s gotta be a story there.
The most-unexpected hipster coffeeshop
In a park dotted with an unusually large amount of lamp posts in the middle of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan lies what could be the most boring white building ever. But what lies inside was the most magical, wonderful thing our group encountered in the whole Ashgabat: a real coffeeshop.
Not just a coffeeshop with a real espresso machine and food that’s not plov, but a totally hipster one too. You know, the kind with couches, latte art, potted plants, and inspirational quotes on the wall – the kind that would not be out of place in San Francisco?
I’m telling you… When you’re in a despotic land of white marble and gold that discriminates against car paint color – and THEN you find a place out of West Elm catalog that makes lavender latte?
Consider my mind blown.
You’re not allowed to leave Ashgabat
Not without a guide at least. One of the biggest reasons traveling to Turkmenistan is both costly and restrictive is that traveling outside of the capital, you are required to have a guide. No wonder Turkmenistan is one of the least visited -stan countries.
Any car in Ashgabat is a potential taxi
Anybody with a car can moonlight as a taxi. If you need a ride, you just put your thumb out and wait until a car, any car, stops. This is extreme Uber, guys. It’s ride-sharing at its most basic core. If you have trust-issues, Ashgabat is not the place for you. There’s no official, regulated taxi. There’s no official fare. When we were there 3-5 Manats gets you anywhere in Ashgabat.
There are 24 public holidays in Turkmenistan
Including Carpet Day and a public holiday dedicated to melons. Melons, people.
The giant book Ruhnama
I almost forgot Ruhnama! Ruhnama is tome written by Turkmenistan’s first president. It’s a memoir/revisionist history/poetry book that became part of the school curriculum. An exam based on the book’s teaching was required as part of getting driver’s license and government job interview.
There’s a monument of Ruhnama in Ashgabat that involves the book opening at certain times. It would then read certain passages of the book. Of all the crazy monuments in Ashgabat, the book was the one I was most excited about. I was disappointed to learn that the mechanism that opens the book has stopped working. Sad face.
Other rather odd things to do in Ashgabat:
Tolkuchka Bazaar, Carpet Museum, etc
Ashgabat is the only place in Turkmenistan you can explore without a guide. Other than visiting the over-the-top marble monuments scattered around the city, you could check out Tolkuchka Bazaar – used to be a colorful market but now located at a dull, grey complex, Turkmen Carpet Museum – which houses the largest handwoven carpet in the world, or ride on the cableway to Kopet Dag for a view over the city.
Largest flag pole
Oh, Ashgabat also has the world’s 5th largest flag hoisted on a 133-meter flag poll near the National Museum. I didn’t go visit the flag (because honestly, I couldn’t care less), but apparently it is quite impressive. It used to be the largest flag in the world, but it has now been dethroned by the ones in Jeddah, Pyongyang, Baku, and Dushanbe.
There are so many more things I can say about Turkmenistan and its government, but I don’t want to write a political commentary. As a country, it’s as corrupt and repressive as it gets, beating only North Korea in its lack of press freedom. Needless to say, I wouldn’t want to live there. As a destination, it was exactly what I was looking for.
Now that you know all of these random Turkmenistan facts, would you want to visit Ashgabat, Turkmenistan?
You can read more about my trip to Turkmenistan here