Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Photo: Dan Lundberg via flickr

Aktau and Almaty in Kazakhstan. Dushanbe in Tajikistan. Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Central Asia is finally starting to emerge as a tourist destination. Under the radar, of course. But still. The area was once part of the heavily traveled Silk Road. Russian and then Soviet rule cut it off from the rest of the world, though. The relatively new countries are still trying to establish themselves on the world stage. While everyone else is just beginning to discover what makes each one unique. Ashgabat in Turkmenistan might be next.

Ashgabat was built as a fortification upon the ruins of Konjikala, a Silk Road city that the Mongols destroyed, in 1881. The city sits between the Karakum Desert and the Kopet Dag mountain range in southern Turkmenistan. Like British-influenced Persia, just across the southern border, Ashgabat’s buildings, hotels, and shops had a European style. Then the Soviets arrived and renamed the city Poltoratsk. It became the capital of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and grew rapidly.

Even after the Soviet Union dissolved, Turkmenistan remained largely closed off from the rest of the world due to its restrictive president for life. He died in 2006. In the decade since then, the country has slowly, ever so slowly, opened its doors to visitors. Ashgabat feels a bit odd at first. It’s definitely a showy, pristine capital. There is security everywhere, and no doubt that dissent isn’t tolerated. There’s also white marble buildings with gold domes, manicured parks, and lots of new high-rise buildings.

There’s a new airport, which is shaped like a bird, as well. The Ärtogrul Gazy Mosque, a gift from Turkey, resembles the famous Blue Mosque. The museums display artifacts from the prior Parthian and Persian Empires, and a huge collection of woven carpets. The palaces (Oguzkhan and Rukhiyet) are massive and ornate. The bazaars are among the most colorful in Central Asia. While the Ashgabat Flagpole, a source of pride, is one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

From the top of the Turkmenbashi Cableway, you can see all of Ashgabat. It’s surrounded by the endless, dry desert. From the new construction and its attempts at welcoming outsiders, it’s obviously a city looking toward the future. The future is very different from everything it has ever known. So keep an eye on Ashgabat. Pretty soon, all of the pieces will start to come together.

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