Although we had all read about it and Simon, who had been before, had made some comments, nothing had prepared us for Ashgabat.
Unusually for this trip, it was a cloudy day. As it turned out – thank goodness! The 100 degree heat of yesterday would have been disastrous for our tour. As it was, at 9.00 am our people carrier and driver turned up as did young Kurban, our Turmenistan guide, with his file of words. We all piled in – and we were off.
First of all we were warned that no photographs were to be taken of government buildings….. How can you tell what is a government building?!
Before very long we were passing huge official looking buildings with large formal gardens in front or a vast expanse of parking. There were rarely cars parked. Kurban would say ‘….. And this is Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Sport’ or ‘ Turkmenistan’s Ministry of…..’ He then read from his script some blurb about the wonders of that particular ministry. The roads were smooth to the point that every corner made the tyres squeal. The pavements were immaculate. I am not sure how long it took before we realised there were no people. Not one. Very occasionally we saw a woman sweeping the very clean road. There were few cars. There were air conditioned bus stops but no-one in them. There were no buses.
Our first stop was, I think, the independence memorial. We parked in an empty car park. We walked across to the base of the very tall edifice. It had four legs leading up to something that most closely resembled a concrete Eiffel Tower or perhaps a rocket launcher, with a gold figure of the first president post independence, complete with batman cloak, on the top. There were several ladies with brushes and brooms cleaning what looked like the totally immaculate marble pavement beneath it. Two soldiers stood to attention in sentry boxes. Amusingly two mongrel dogs trotted past oblivious to the perfection they were spoiling! They happily padded through the water running off the ladies brooms.
There is a lift going up one of the ‘legs’ of the structure and a beautifully attired lady accompanied us up in the lift. We were at the first landing stage. It was all very plush. She opened a door and we were out on the first balcony and looking out over a rather startling landscape. Beneath us were the formal gardens with white lamp posts. Then the closest surroundings were covered with freshly planted short fir trees. Some of them flourished. Many of them were clearly dead or dying. They had been planted in the desert sand and I am not sure the desert was ready for planting. It was fighting back!
Beyond the plantation in the haze of the far distance there is a sky line of apartment blocks, but between us and them were large white classic buildings, futuristic towers, then there was the world’s second largest flag pole(?), weird shaped modern building blocks, pillared frontages, gold spires all were represented but in isolated splendour. Immediately around the base or surrounding each edifice was a garden but then there was a gap of empty desert. Deserted road ways led to each building or tower. It was literally indescribable.
From this higher perspective we were able to gain an overview of what was to become our tour. We drove past a blue building that soared into the air in the shape of a cobra. The hospital is designed to look from a distance to be in the shape of a gigantic hyperdermic syringe, the wedding palace (of which more later) with its 8 sided star and globe, a hotel in the shape of a grey shimmering sail. The Ferris wheel. Large petroleum offices, the gas ministry, it went on and on. Kurban read us the official commentary on every building. Occasionally the vehicle stopped and we were tipped out onto the pavement to look at a square or stroll around a particular piece of architecture or ‘sculpture’ eg the large painted replica of the first president’s ‘great book’. ???????!!!!!!!
One of the ‘hghlights’ of the trip was the wedding palace – a huge building incorporating seven wedding suites each of them with different themes, with register offices, large ballrooms with thrones and twinkly lights all laid out ready for the brides and bridegrooms and all their entourage to sweep in at a moments notice. The building also contained shops for the purchase of wear for bride and groom, a gift shop to accommodate the wedding list – in fact everything for a perfect and expensive wedding – but there was no-one there. Well dressed cleaners swept the very shiny marble floors. Bored shop assistants walked around the merchandise in the shops. Outside we did see one bride and groom with a band of local musicians and a few ‘guests’ real or posed, it was difficult to tell. Overhead on the top of the building loomed an intricate concrete eight sided star with a globe inside it with Turkmenistan picked out in gold relief…..
Our next excursion was to try out the Ferris wheel. This was particularly bizarre. The wheel, similar in design to the London Eye, is actually inside a building, making it very difficult to see out. As we entered the doors into the building lobby we were confronted by crowd control barriers and the security man. No visitors except us. We went up in the lift and zig zagged up to the point to enter the pods to go round on the wheel. A young man rushed up to set things in motion and we were off, occasionally through the ‘meccano’ like white iron work that held the wheel and its workings we could see outside. It was all very odd, but even more odd was leaving the wheel and going through the children’s playground area around its base on the way to the cafeteria. There were toy trains to sit in and a roundabout, a carousel and all sorts. Empty. The music played but all was still.
The cafeteria? A complete commercial kitchen sat behind a counter. Chairs and tables stood in readiness. But there was no-one there except the staff – who were having their lunch and said there was no food available……
We left the Ferris wheel scratching our heads. What is this place all about. It was lunch time and our car took us back into what felt like ‘the real world’, with people, full buses, cars – to a place for lunch. It was as though we had spent the morning in someone else’s fantasy world. Almost in someone else’s head.
As I said at the beginning nothing and no-one could prepare you for the Presidential area of Ashgabat.
The afternoon was spent at the Russian market getting supplies for our ‘cruise’ on the Caspian Sea. What that will involves we are not quite sure, but supplies were recommended.
We had a wine and cheese gathering with our Australian ladies for supper. Tomorrow we leave Ashgabat for the port……