Ashgabat has been adorned by many beautiful buildings, which made unique architectural ensemble. – A quote on the reverse side of an “official” postcard of the main drama theater named after Turkmenbashi.
One part Las Vegas, another part Pyong Yang, Ashgabat springs up out of the middle of nowhere in the Turkmen desert. You wonder how and you wonder why. Unabashedly Orwellian, Ashgabat is not only the capital city but the former seat of power of Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov who named himself Turkmenbashi (Leader of all Turkmen). An epicenter of international ire and a source of modern myth, Ashgabat is a place where truths are stranger than fiction.
We’ve assembled the following scavenger hunt for visitors to discover this quirky and fascinating city…and the cult of personality behind it.
Ashgabat Scavenger Hunt
1. A photo of Turkmenbashi, a photo of Turkmenbashi 2 (Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov)
Then, take the two and quiz the locals. Can everyone tell them apart? They look suspiciously alike.
2. The giant Rukhnama monument
If you can find it when the book is open and showing videos of Turkmenbashi with “The Book,” you get double points.
3. Someone (outside of the government) who admits to reading the Rukhnama.
One of our tour buddies, Dave, approached all newfound Turkmen friends with the following line of questioning, “Have you read the Rukhnama? How many times have you read it? Do you agree with it?”
Results were mixed, but the overwhelming opinion seems to ascribe the Rukhnama to the shelves of the world’s great fairy tales. Fortunately for Turkmenistan’s future generations, the Rukhnama University project has been put on hold since its author’s death.
4. Camel Kebab
Sources tell us that the doner kebabs spinning on the streets and local markets are made with camel meat, which is considered a lesser meat than beef or lamb. If this is indeed true, see if you can find tastier camel kebabs than the ones near the entrance to the Gulustan Russian market.
5. The hour when the lights shut off
Like a show in Las Vegas. Witness the spectacle when Ashgabat’s well-lit, white marble buildings all shut off their lights at the same time (11 PM). The show is best viewed from the restaurant atop 5 Legs Fountain. This coincides with #6.
6. The hour when foreigners should be off the street
See #5 for the time. About this time, night-owl foreigners end up at discos with bad music, overly friendly Russian prostitutes and thuggy guys without the money to buy their services drooling after them. It’s a curious circus.
7. Arch of Frivolity
Its real name is Arch of Neutrality. Nice idea, lifetime neutrality for Turkmenistan. But did Turkmenbashi really need to blow more of the country’s money on a 12-meter gold statue of himself to sit atop the thing and revolve so that it always faces the sun?
Look up “propensity to build odd-looking monuments with gold statues bearing one’s likeness revolving with the sun” in your favorite psychology textbook and let us know the diagnosis.
8. Turkmenbashi poetry, illustrated and translated into Japanese (or, the language of your choice)
Go to Maris bookstore and take your pick from the Rukhnama or Turkmenbashi’s books for children. Yes, he also wrote children’s books! Choose a poem and read it aloud to the surly staff. Stock up on calendars showing how Turkmen dogs and horses are superior to all other breeds in the world. They make good stocking stuffers.
9. Turkmenbashi vodka
He can smile at you from inside the or outside the bottle. Take your pick, or have a wild night and drink both. It’s pretty smooth stuff, actually.
10. A hotel room in Berezengi that is not bugged
And a room where everything actually works and the room key does not open all the other doors in the hotel. This item on the hunt may be the hardest to find.
11.The world’s most frightening mechanical crocodile
Hint: Get a local to buy your entry ticket ($5 for foreigners, $0.05 for locals) and look in the Land of Turkmen Fairy Tales. There’s a football pitch devoted to a mechanical crocodile that sits in a small pool of water and flaps its jaws every 30 seconds or so. Proposed Celebrity Death Match: mechanical crocodile and Turkmenbashi statue on top of the Arch of Neutrality.
12. Kilometer marker #10 on 37 km Walk of Health.
Turkmenbashi required members of his government to walk it from start to finish one day out of the year…while he took a helicopter. He’d greet those at the front of the pack and ridicule those wheezing in the rear.
Apparently, the walk was so distressing in Ashgabat’s heat that sick days are taken en masse the days following the annual march. The Leader of all Turkmens does care. He ordered 10s of 1000s of trees planted in the 8-km circumference of the walk so that in 10 to 15 years the walk will be situated in a cool forest, rather than the desert. For Turkmenbashi, it was always mind over matter. Who knows, maybe there’s scientific genius in the madness? Our bets are on Mother Nature.
13. The best black market cash exchange
When the official rate is roughly 5600 Manat to the dollar and the unofficial rate is 23,700, everyone operates on the cash black market. Our favorite cash window, on a street nicknamed Wall Street (ironically, right around the corner from the US Embassy) dishes out the most honest piles of cash. If you think you’re going to count your money, think again…or pack a money-counting machine. The highest denominations of bills are 5,000 and 10,000 (20 and 40 US cents).
Note: we did find these windows more honest than the Uzbek National Bank in Urgench, Uzbekistan.
14. The Vagina
Another architectural marvel whose concept was borne out of Turkmenbashi’s extended gaze at a Georgia O’Keefe coffee table book. If you get stuck, ask locals for the Ministry of Health.
15.Turkmenbashi’s modest CV
“He likes poetry and has two children.” Hint: You can find this at the National Museum, where Turkmenbashi hoped to “consolidate Turkmenistan’s international prestige.” Postcards from China or India (your choice) for anyone who can tell us what this phrase means. A decent museum, but another salute to Turkmenbashi’s galactic ego.
In case you get lost during your scavenger hunt, we hope that your map of Ashgabat will be half as entertaining as ours.
Ashgabat the capital of Turkmenistan and the political, social, and economic center. The new role of the city in infrastructure of the country is directly associated with realization of the doctrine of the first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Turkmenbashy the Great of granding Ashgabat the status of the new center of business activity and one of the most beautiful cities in the world. -Our purpose is the construction of a flourishing state, society of justice-, these words of the great Turkmen leader for ever have run into the memory of each citizen of Turkmenistan being a vivid confirmation of the political, social, and economic orientation of the reformatory activity of the first President of the country whose all creative power are concentrated on creation of a new, strong, independent and neutral state, based on deep successive traditions of ancestors, on the centuries-old culture of the Turkmen people.
Among the new comfortable buildings we find business centers, supermarkets, museums, cultural centers and many others. The modern Ashgabat is a city of old architectural traditions possessing quite a number of unique town-planning solutions.
What more can we add? You have to see it for yourself to believe it.
If you have a high-speed connection, stick around for the slide show.