In 1948 the capital of Turkmenistan was razed to the ground by a devastating earthquake. The two shocks lasted less than a minute in total, but are said to have measured 9.6 on the Richter Scale and claimed 110,000 lives, about 60% of the then population.
This would make it the most powerful quake on record according to what is stated at the Ashgabat Earthquake Memorial Museum, though web sources I searched claim it measured a rather less powerful 7.3.
The fact that Turkmenistan was then part of the USSR may account for the details being rather sketchy, but it is also evidence of the present day nation’s mystery, intrigue & quirkiness.
When the oil & gas rich nation gained independence from the Great Bear in 1991, it embarked on a Golden Age, firstly under founding leader Niyazov and then his successor Berdymukhamedov, which included the beautification of Ashgabat.
The ‘showpiece’ result is a glaring mass of white marble, unusual monuments, a beautiful mosque and mausoleum for Niyazov himself & his family, some incredible museums, landscaped gardens, immaculate squares, fountains & statues galore, funky hotels, amazing airport & train station and wide empty boulevards.
The whole place is kept spotless by an army of broom toting road sweepers & weed extractors battling against sand from the surrounding Karakum Desert. In a completely futile exercise all they do in fact is sweep the same sand back & forth, with more efficient sweeping vehicles deployed overnight doing the proper job.
Even the cars are 99% white (Chevrolets or Toyotas exclusively) with on the spot fines imposed if you car is deemed not to be clean enough. Owning a car wash is a very lucrative business indeed in these parts!
Building work continues apace with one stipulation – all construction must be of white marble. The result can be harsh on the eyes in the bright sunshine. There are rows & rows of 6-10 identical large apartment blocks in the centre and as you start to exit the city, row upon row of identikit houses, their green roofs the only stray away from white, white, white.
Whilst in Ashgabat we visited the mosque & mausoleum, the neutrality arch, the national museum and the main market where you could buy as many camels as you required.
The highlight however was the combined memorial to the earthquake, WWII fighters who perished in Ukraine and the brave fallen heroes of the bloody 1881 battle of Geok-Depe, fought against the marauding Russian forces and which was to lead to Turkmenistan being under Russian/Soviet control for over a century.
Outside of the museum stands the memorial itself, encircled by a wall with images of fighting men, grieving women and ferocious looking generals complete with generous portions of facial hair. A huge flagpole (tallest in the world apparently), an enormous bronze statue of a bull carrying a baby (representing the rebirth of a buoyant nation) and an eternal flame complete the picture.
Inside the guide leads you first to the war museum with its expected weapons, uniforms, medals and photos of important military men. The unexpected happens right after as you are led through a corridor and out into a re-enactment of Goek-Depe with a wall to wall frieze of the battle, lifelike models of the fort, soldiers and galloping horses, plus a sound a light show featuring musket, canon and lots of shouting & screaming.
Next up came the earthquake memorial with photos of the apocalyptic scene, 3D half real size models of damaged buildings and finally models of all the replacement white marble edifices that now stand in their place. There was even a hologram beaming the new star buildings into a glass case in the middle of the room.
The memorial complex must have cost a fortune to make and it will certainly leave a lasting impression on all who visit.
The Turkmen are a proud race and they take great pride in their capital. It is certainly a sight to behold and as a result I now understand what has been carried out in Skopje a whole lot more. The Turkmen example is somewhat less tacky in my opinion, although it does resemble a large packet of sugar cubes in places!
However, each to their own and if the locals love it then it must be great. I personally thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the capital in a Vegas sort of way and would wholeheartedly recommend at least a brief visit.
Finally a shout out for Owadan Tourism and in particular our fabulous English speaking guide Aziz. If you ever do venture to Turkmenistan, you will be well advised to be guided by Aziz. Tell him Wilbur sent you!
Coming next – Turkmenistan’s Golden Horses