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Enter the alternative reality of Ashgabat

My image of Ashgabat before coming was of a dry dusty desert city, with poor families living in crumbling mud houses. Our over-crowded plane landed and we had to stand in a queue for hours before getting permission to enter (for “Adrian Liston + 2”, wife and infant child clearly not needing independent permission) and find the “baggage taking place”, enforcing the idea of a backwards city.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ashgabat was like nothing I’ve ever seen, part Dubai, part Las Vegas, but on a scale inconceivable to either city. In every direction we walked, there were grand white marble buildings surrounded by gardens, fountains and golden statues. Each building was a masterpiece of design in its own right, fusing modern French design with neo-classical themes, yet each also fitted into the city scape of white, green and gold. Government departments, cultural buildings, shopping malls or residential towers – none were marred by any type of advertising*, so each seamlessly followed the next in clean elegant lines. It had echoes of the monument district of Washington DC, but on a scale 10 times, 100 times, greater. And it was empty. 

Ashgabat is not small, with close to a million people it has nearly 20% of the population of the country. Yet the city was built in a scale that would serve many millions. One street housed four grand dramatic arts theatres, which sit empty most nights. The city has sports stadiums, museums, galleries and monuments to rival many a cultural capital, yet no one is there to see them. While the beautiful residential towers have all the modern conveniences, many people prefer the large suburbs, a fear of tall buildings being the legacy of the 1948 earthquake which killed 2/3 of the population and left only four buildings standing. Even those who resist the suburban exodus hide from the fierce sun within malls and markets, giving an already under-populated city an eerily feeling, like Tom Cruise wandering around an empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky. It is only in the evening when a legion of women sweeping the streets and men grooming the lawns come out that you realise people inhabit the city, even if they seem to be serving an edifice gone mad rather than actually living in it.

*which actually found it very difficult to find any bars, cafes or restaurants – you just had to know which buildings to enter and look around

Monument dedicated to the official neutrality of Turkmenistan

Wandering mile after mile of empty lush green lawns in the middle of the desert - surely one of the most surreal experiences of my life

Hayden contemplates the vast gardens

Walk inside the right unmarked building, and the city is humming

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