24 May 2013

Ashgabat - the white city

Day 27 (20 May)
After a 12 hour drive from Turkmenbashi we finally arrived in Ashgabat. Amusingly the hotel for the night was a hotel which also had the British Embassy within the building. No, I don't know why either - it made for amusement over breakfast as you could play spot the spook; sorry, spot the diplomat. It did explain the UN Hilux in the car park.

I'll threw my bag into my room, threw enough water across my face to make myself slightly more human and went in hunt of a much desired beer (I'd promised Olly the first round when we got off the boat - even at $7 for a bottle of so-so larger it was good) and to meet the new inhabitants of Daisy.
We only had a few hours in the morning (day 28 (21 May)) to see something of Ashgabat, as we needed to push on in hope of recovering the schedule and getting our of Turkmenistan before our visas expire - we'd been planning leaving before we even got there.

After a bitter of a faff we managed to get a taxi to take us around the city - the faff being that our local guide really really wasn't keen on us going around without him. This is the type of country which really doesn't like solo tourists - I wonder how Steffen got on.

Ashgabat is what happens when a country rich with mineral wealth becomes independent and decides that what it really needs is a lot of new buildings. The presidential at the time (semi self-elected president for life) must have said at some point "I *really* like white marble" as this is what everything is made with. Or at least faced with - the construction sites I saw the on the way out of the city was just another concrete building and marble cladding.

It is a place which is hard to describe as it so different from anywhere else I've seen, different from anywhere else everyone on the tour had seen, different from everywhere else.
Given that I still can't get the pictures off my phone, go do an image search for Ashgabat and you'll see what I mean. The place is just odd.

What makes it odder is that I'm fairly certain a lot or the government buildings are mostly empty. They are all large multistorey building, which could easily have a thousand+ people working in them and yet the car parks were empty and the only sign of life outside the offices were cleaners and gardeners (there were people - all older women, I think - tending to the greenery all overseas the city); there wasn't the usual bustle of people coming and going. For all the ministerial buildings and things which were meant to be happening inside, there way just no life.

The roads were mostly empty too - for all the large housing blocks our guide showed us (again, white marble) and said good things about (highly subsidised living being the main thing, to which I'm adding a very large pinch of salt) there was no traffic. In just under 2 hours of driving around the city we saw a few dozen cars on the road - given that the government gives everyone with a car 7000 litres of petrol a years, I'd expect to see more. That or see full car parks in the offices, which were empty.
In discussing the place with others on the tour and people I met in Uzbekistan we all agreed there is something unreal about the place; the lack of traffic and the lack of people was mentioned by just about everyone.

It want to return.