10/13/08 Monday Ashghabat
We commenced our city tour with our local guide Eliah. Martin, our Czech tour manager, somehow managed to offend someone in the Turkmen government and has been unable to secure a Turkmenistan visa for the past four years. He is unclear as to the nature of his offense and the government, being the totalitarian outfit that they are, feel no need to disclose their reasons to him. He will rejoin us tomorrow when we arrive in Uzbekistan.
It took a while for the pieces to fall into place but I finally realized that Eliah had been our Turkmenistan guide in 2005 and that I had sent him some magazines he was interested in after the tour. When I mentioned this to him this morning he instantly recalled receiving them.
We headed to the Arch of Neutrality, the focal point of any visit to Ashgabat. Here the recently departed former president Niyazov placed a 12 meter tall gold leaf statue of himself atop the arch. The legendary megalomaniac bestowed himself with the title, Turkmenbashi, which, roughly translated, means The Great One. If Wayne Gretzky had started calling himself The Great One before he ever scored a goal in the NHL, you would have the equivalent of Niyazov assuming this title.
The statue rotates on a pedestal so that the Great One is always gazing directly into the sun. Somehow they can adjust the rotation mechanism for Daylight Savings Time; at least, that is what I have been told.
Despite the Great One’s death by heart attack a couple of years ago, his bastard son has seamlessly transitioned to the Presidency and by all accounts, has established firm control. Thus, the surreal fantasyland that has been created around Ashghabat continues.
Ashghabat was leveled to the last brick in 1948 by a 9.0 earthquake. There are parts of town done in the Soviet style after the quake but, more noticeable, is the sprawling skyline of white buildings that have been built since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is generous spacing between the buildings with endless parks, fountains and gardens. Without irrigation, even weeds won’t grow in this harsh desert landscape. But, by siphoning off the water from a river that once kept the Aral Sea healthy, Ashghabat, has the sort of desert green look that you see in Las Vegas less the casinos.
The frantic building pace of upscale apartments and office buildings continues today, funded by the country’s vast reserves of natural gas. The modernity, the spaciousness, the neoclassic design of the buildings and the generous use of marble in construction all contribute to the surreal atmosphere of the place. This is compounded by the paucity of people mingling amid the landscape and the absence of heavy traffic on the broad streets, at least, for the most part.
Ashghabat is destined to doom as has been the case with other civilizations that have built cities in and around Ashgabat in centuries past. I don’t know what will be the cause of its downfall in this era but I suspect that the end is nearer here than it is in most other metropolitan areas around the world. It demise will likely center around the absence of water supplies and the abundance of natural gas.
We took a cable car elevator up to the viewing level of the monument. There are excellent views of the city in all directions. We were not allowed to take photos here in 2005 but regulations have subsequently been relaxed and we were free to shoot to our heart’s content. There are also photos of surrounding government buildings, the Earthquake Monument (the bull photos) and other statues, fountains and plazas which foreshadow the modern section of town called Berzengi with its surreal marble towers. After driving 5 kilometers or so through this menagerie, you arrive at the massive National Museum. The museum contains a nice collection of artifacts from the civilizations that have occupied the area over the centuries. The building itself is as impressive as its collection with a feeling of interior spaciousness that few buildings around the world can compete with.
We found our way to one of the few tourist restaurants around town for lunch enjoying tasty sturgeon which I presume came from Turkmenistan waters on the Caspian Sea. The species occurs naturally only north of the equator and matures slowly. Due to habitat destruction and their slow maturation, virtually every variety of sturgeon is endangered, a fact I did not know when I had my lunch.
After lunch we drove 15 km through the desert to the Nissa archeological site. The Parthians established Nissa as their capital in the 3rd C. BC. During its heyday there were 43 towers protecting a royal palace. Various dynasties ruled the site over the next 1,600 years until the Mongols showed up in the 13th C. In a matter of weeks they leveled the city and the walls.
There are active excavations still going on. During our visit, there were about a dozen people working on the site. They used shovels and picks to clear vast quantities of sand that cover centuries of history. The price of labor being cheap, you don't see any backhoes or bulldozers assisting the diggers. There is an elevated observation platform near the parking lot that provides a panoramic view of the old walls. A couple of us went ahead of the group to the actual site which is a couple hundred meters away and waited to climb the observation platform until the end of the visit.
We chose the wrong path when we got to the base of the walls. We made our way to the summit of the ruins but found that we were separated from the main palace complex by deep excavations. We had a choice of walking all the way back down and around to the other side or walking across an 18” wide plank that bridged the 10’ wide chasm. We chose to walk the plank which was a brief but terrifying experience that could have proved fatal were it not for the grace of Allah.
We returned to Ashghabat enjoying more views of all the gaudy architecture as we passed through city. We stopped at the home of a jewelry maker. It was a second storey walk up apartment that houses the family’s three generations. One room was the artisan’s studio; another, his showroom. With our group of 20, things inside got pretty crowded. Thus, I made an early exit and stood on the street photographing neighbors and their children.