The city of white marble – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

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How it feels in the strangest country I have been so far – Turkmenistan

It’s been more than a week since I returned from Turkmenistan and it is time to write a few words about my trip. It happened that the first entirely Asian country I visited was Turkmenistan and particularly its capital Ashgabat. Many people may wonder where this place is and I will try to give some directions – east of Caspian Sea, south of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and north of Iran and Afghanistan. And what was I doing there? Unfortunately I was on a business trip and I didn’t have much time to know the country. Apparently it didn’t want to get known either.

Turkmenistan is a single-party state and a president elected by an impressive majority. Recently I read in National Geographic that Turkmenistan has recorded the highest voter turnout in the world. On the last president elections it was 89 % and the president was elected by 97 % of the votes. It seems he is quite popular all over the country because his portrait is in every office, every restaurant, and every hotel.

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Ашхабат 37.939700, 58.387400

Entering Turkmenistan

It is very complicated for a Bulgarian citizen to obtain a visa for Turkmenistan. Bulgaria and Turkmenistan don’t have strong diplomatic relations and don’t exchange ambassadors. So I and my colleagues applied for visas through Turkmenistan’s embassy in Ankara. After we received the positive answer we took the flight to Ashgabat. To reach Ashgabat you could use Turkish airlines or Turkmen airlines. I would recommend Turkish airlines because the Turkmen planes are mostly used by local women for suitcase trade from Turkey.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

2015-11-11 08.33.56Turkmen airport is small and very nice. As a lot of things in Ashgabat soon it will be replaced by a new one, bigger airport that is being build nearby. When you land there you cannot miss the strong security. There are quite more security staff than we are used to see. Upon arrival you queue to have your visa and to have your documents checked. On passport check you are not very friendly welcomed in the country. Instead you are being watched suspiciously and it takes some time to pass all the controls and leave the airport.

Although only 2 planes had landed at the airport, it was a bustle there. All around the airport you see women carrying huge suitcases stuffed with goods bought from Turkey to be sold in Turkmenistan. And we also had a small accident – one of our colleagues had brought cigarettes from Bulgaria without knowing that the import of cigarettes is forbidden in Turkmenistan. So he had to pay a fine and finally, after 3 hours at the airport, we were let to leave it and enter the country.

Ashgabad, Turkmenistan – the photographer’s hell

My first impression was of the huge police presence on the streets. It appeared that the same day the president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was returning from the city of Turkmenbasi. So when the president is flying, nothing else can fly. A lot of streets were closed because of the president so at one point we were able only to make circles around the hotel.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

However Ashgabad is a nice city, very calm. You are not afraid of anything but there are also some restrictions. You are not allowed to take photos of public buildings, buildings of the administration and police. But there is police everywhere so in practice you can take photos of almost nothing. The city is not very welcoming to photographers and policemen are watching suspiciously every person carrying a camera. Luckily I was not asked to delete my photos but I was very careful what and when to shoot. There are also restrictions on the Internet. My hotel offered poor Internet access for $1 a day but it appeared that social networks like Facebook are inaccessible. Later I read on Internet that opera was forbidden too.

One of many golden statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, former President for Life of Turkmenistan

One of many golden statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, former President for Life of Turkmenistan

What language should you speak in Turkmenistan

Turkmen language is very similar to Turkish and it is almost impossible to find someone speaking English. Instead Russian is very widely used. The more educated is the person you are talking to, the better he speaks Russian. The reason is that they don’t have many university books in Turkmen language and Russian books are widely studied in the universities. So if a person has any higher education, he definitely speaks good Russian. However on the city market it was almost impossible to speak Russian.

The new trees in the desert, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The new trees in the

Turkmenistan is reach of natural gas, deserts, Caspian sea, carpets, horses and.. camels. There is even a Ministry of horses and also Ministry of carpets.

The white city of Ashgabat

On March 23th 2013 Ashgabat was recorded on Guinness as the city with the most buildings covered with white marble. This is what is typical for the new buildings in Ashgabat. If during the Soviet times the city looked more like a small Russian country town, today it impresses visitors with new tall buildings, huge boulevards, white new cars.

New buildings in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

New parts of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

All of us were amazed by the great buildings in the newer part of the city. It is nice to have a walk around the president’s palace, the gold-covered statues of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov, the huge Ministry of military. Of course it is not allowed to take photos of any of these places but it is very beautiful although very deserted. There are no people just walking on the street, no tourists at all.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ýyldyz Hotel Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ýyldyz Hotel

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The beautiful new city is almost scaring with its empty parks. It is quite new and the huge luxury apartments in the marble buildings are still uninhabited. As I was told several times, Ashgabat is also recorded in Guinness as the city with most fountains.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The old city of Ashgabat

The older city is not so old actually and it looks like a small Russian town. Local people told me about the huge earthquake on 6th October 1948 that destroyed the city entirely in one night. More than 110 000 people died. So later they had to rebuild the city in a short time and they build a lot of low buildings, no more than 2-3 floors.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Some things to know about Turkmenistan

Their leader – Berdimuhamedow is “Photobomber-in-Chief”. If you are newlywed, you must have a photo besides his portrait. The portrait of the president is also present on your wedding receptions. Now they are changing all portraits with newer ones and it is about millions of portraits.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Ashgabat's "Palace of Happiness." Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

“Bagt Koshgi” – Ashgabat’s “Palace of Happiness.” – wedding palace

However Turkmen people say that the regime offers them some advantages. For example the gas is said to be free as well as the electricity, salt and water. Fuel is also very cheap. Public transport is also cheap and the bus stops are air-conditioned.

I spent only three days in this country and I still cannot judge whether Turkmen people live well or not. They are definitely hospitable, polite and social. They have delicious cuisine with a lot of meat and women wear beautiful traditional garments. Calm streets and nice but empty parks – these are my impressions.

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Om Prakash
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Om Prakash

So would you rather stay in an autocratic but clean city like Ashgabat or a democratic but filthy city like Mumbai?

Andrey Andreev
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I’ve never been in Mumbai :)

Om Prakash
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Om Prakash

Fair enough. Btw where you from?

Andrey Andreev
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I’m from Sofia, Bulgaria

Руслан Штуба
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Руслан Штуба

Amazing!!…wish to see more pictures, I would love to visit Turkmenistan some day, thanks a lot for sharing!

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