Thought Archive

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bizarre and Beautiful

First impression of Ashgabat and Turkmenistan is a feeling of certain unreality. When I stood on the balcony of a multi-storey Hotel President (gold-plated interiour, barocco room decor but cash only) and viewed the panorame of the city I had to keep reminding myself that I am on this planet and not on some Dalek-land. It is as if a certain magician created a city in a desert so clean and so white that it is enchanting to the beholder, but was jealous enough not to populate it with messy humans. Rarely a car passed below on a great night-lit avenue going towards the rotating Niyazov monument.

Situated between the Kara Kum Desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range, Ashgabat has a population of about 400,000. It is a relatively new town, carved out of an aul (Turkmen village) of the same name in 1818. Its original founding fathers were Russian troops who landed in Krasnovodsk (present-day Turkmenbashy) in 1869 and who built a fortress on a high hill to accommodate their administation. Today it is so unreal that nothing reminds us of the past.
First of all everything was demolished in the earthquake of 1948, and secondly - it was rebuild according to a grand plan. The Grand Plan of Turkmenbashi The Great.


People are very friendly and warm- our ethnic cousins on the other side of the Caspian, whose language and customs are familiar. But theirs is definetely more Asian lifestyle - reserved, quiet and intravert. We - hot tempered Caucasians exist on a different frequency with our closest kin. While ours are unceasing European ambitions and chaotic Middle Eastern reality, theirs is Asian despotism, hierarchy and tradition. They look towards us, Azeris and see their wayward, chaotic relatives that are intriguing and exotic to them. We see opulence and hierarchy we wish we had.

But in addition Ashgabat is also very Soviet and Stalinist in ways Baku just can not be. Monumental public spaces, libraries, gardens, theatres, huge apartment blocks and mosques (his is the biggest mosque in Central Asia) leave nothing to imagination - they are staggering.

There is general feeling of change in the air, i had not seen fear in people's eyes and was able to communicate relatively freely with anyone I wanted.


Generally, there is an exceptional amount of beauracracy, but everyone I have met was courteous, polite and helpful to degree they could. Soldiers man grounds, but they polite and never ask for favours or a bribe. There is a very limited internet dial-up service at some hotels, bu recently a first internet cafe has opened in town, with people flocking to read uncensored news.

Mobile network is well developed locally, but our phones were only accepting incoming calls. Public transport (buses) is clean and spaceous and generally on time. Bread, electricity and gas are free, fuel prices are subsidized, so I have no doubt that majority of ethnically Turkmen population is more or less content.


Riri said...

That's so great! Makes one want to go and have a look.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Here are some photos. It is still difficult to get visas there, though.

Hazar Nesimi said...

I lost count of statues!

NoolaBeulah said...

I have no experience of that type of luxury, but when I read about it in such places, I always think of the unrestrained vanity of the rulers. That it has no tradition behind it and is all borrowed, like a 'live' version of a Las Vegas casino (which I have not seen either - I'm not well-travelled like you).

Is there any evidence that the Grand Plan of Turkmenbashi The Great was anything more than a means of spending money to his own everlasting glory?

"We see opulence and hierarchy we wish we had."
Why do you want opulence and what sort of hierarchy do they have that made you envious?

Hazar Nesimi said...

As always in these places, things tend to work and on time rather than not work. Subjects follow rules, probably out of fear - but they do. So in the end individual freedom is sacrificed so that work goes smoothly.

Opulence of this place is different than in Las-Vegas for the white marble that covers all of the building makes the whole town unreal. I have never seen anything like this in my life

Vanity of Turkmenbashy is like vanity of pharaons who build pyramids. He left his mark, that is for sure.

Before I traveled my opinion was quite sceptical and it still is, but I recognized the incredible effect the will of one man had on a country. I am sure whithout him this would have been just another poverty-striken land of tribal infighting. We will see how for this lasts and then we will judge upon his legacy.

NoolaBeulah said...

You're quite right that only history can measure the success or otherwise of such enterprises. I sense, however, that you're on the hunt for another Ataturk. Such figures are rare, very rare, and I would not hold out much hope in finding one.

Riri said...

Oh come on NoolaBeulah, leave the poor chap alone to hope for whatever unrealistic miracles his heart longs for. Never know, might never not happen.

Hazar Nesimi said...

It is just a wounded pride of an Azeri unable to see spotless street and well organized traffic. I know, I know what cost this has been achievied by.

NoolaBeulah said...

Hazar, they probably have well-organised traffic only because they have hardly any cars. Give 'em time. Anyway, how many countries actually have well-organised traffic? You seen Naples, or Greece?