The Great Marble City

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Flag of Turkmenistan  ,
Friday, April 19, 2013

Quietly sitting to the north of Iran, south of Uzbekistan, west of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, there is the little known country of Turkmenistan. Formerly a central Asian republic of the USSR, Turkmenistan was a country oppressed by the soviet regime. But since independence, and the recent discoveries of vast oil and gas deposits, Turkmenistan is now home to the great marble city.

Situated in the south near the mountain range that acts as the border with Iran, Ashgabat is the capital city of Turkmenistan. Once a city of both Turkmens and Russians who were living in soviet style apartment blocks, Ashgabat was a city which was devastated by an Earthquake in 1948, and therefore rebuilt during the times of Stallin. But since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ashgabat found itself as the capital city of the newly independent country of Turkmenistan. And over the years, Ashgabat has risen from poverty to riches, being reborn as the great marble city.

As we arrived in Ashgabat from the nearby Iranian border, our eyes lit up as we approached this unexpected great marble city. At this stage we really didn't know what to expect of the city or this country, but we had been warned that it was simply weird. Massive apartment blocks, clean sidewalks, grand roadways, and white marble as far as the eye could see is actually the introduction we got when we arrived in Ashgabat. We were dumbfounded by the modern surroundings, and suddenly our jaws started to drop, as our guide pointed out buildings and monuments that we weren’t allowed to take photos of.

This great marble city was controlled by military and police on each and every corner. Monuments were guarded twenty four seven, and we, tourists who were still trying to get our heads around this city, were quite simply confused. From previous readings in guide books, we had been warned that Turkmenistan was the 'North Korea’ of Central Asia, now it made sense. As we tried to explore the city centre on our own, we were awakened by the strict guidelines of tourism. When we approached and looked at a gold monument, we were told to move on by a policemen. Then we walked alongside a particular building and were forced to immediately cross the road by military personal. Then, when viewing a gold statue of Lenin, we had a whistle blown at us, as it was okay to look, as long as we kept walking. We were told that this was the great marble city, but to us so far, it was more like the great dictator city of Central Asia.

Peering over our hotel balcony the next morning, we could see streets guarded at every corner over the white marble skyline. We still felt that weirdness vibe of this city, however we were ready to give it a chance as we were looking forward to our guided tour of this great marble city.

Just as we had witnessed on our drive in, Ashgabat was full of grand marble buildings, gold statues, and its national flag flying everywhere with pride. This city was all about meaning. Everything symbolised something. From the five carpet patterns of the five regions of Turkmenistan, to the height of the monument of independence rising to 91 metres, symbolising that is was in 1991 that Turkmenistan got its independence. Everything meant something. We admired the grand monument of independence, that featured one golden eagle with five heads (of course for the five regions of the one country). We then laughed a little at the Arch of Neutrality, which featured Turkmenistan’s first president which rotates so that he permanently faces the sun. It seemed as though in Turkmenistan, this president (nicknamed Turkmenbashy) was so vain that he placed gold statues of himself everywhere. We were corrected though, and told that the public loved him so much, that they wanted it this way, not him. As we explored more, we found that statues of not just Turkmenbashy, but also Lenin, and other heroes of Turkmenistans interesting history were everywhere in this great marble city.

Ashgabat was definitely an elaborate, over the top city. It was clear that this country had recently come into wealth, and it was seen fitting to make everything in this capital look new, shiny, and extravagant. Long gone was the soviet style architecture, as Ashgabat was full of new, world class architecture. The building of a local gas company was designed in the shape of a cigarette lighter, the ‘one stop’ wedding palace was designed with a gold map of Turkmenistan, the Ministry of Education looked like a giant book, the Ministry of Oil was in the shape of an oil rig, and the futuristic ferris wheel was at first unrecognisable. The architecture of Ashgabat was amazing, and of course, everything was made of white marble, to fit into this great marble city.

Bright domes of the presidential palace reigned over the city skyline. And the minaret of the cities beautiful mosques weren’t hard to find. The Ertogryl Mosque was designed to be similar to Turkey’s Blue Mosque. But it was the Turmenbashy Hajii Mosque and Mausolem that really had gone the extra mile. Built to house the first president and his deceased family, it was built before the president had even passed away. But the mosque itself was the real highlight. With the biggest dome in Central Asia, and a prayer capacity of 10,000 people, this grand mosque summed up the overall elaborance of this great marble city.

Ashgabat was a controlled, grand city, that was living it up due to the recent financial boost of this quiet Central Asian country. Ashgabat had it all, five star hotels, fast internet, Russian markets, and a Guinness World Record for the city with the highest number of fountains. Yet, it was a strict city, with an 11pm curfew, photography limitations, a US$10 fee for photos at the National Museum, and military and police presence everywhere. But this was the great marble city, and we were still confused, yet impressed.

Venture out of the great marble of city of Ashgabat, and reality hits you in the face. Turkmenistan is a developing country outside of its capital. Crumbling roads, villages that time has forgotten, and lack of infrastructure in parts, Turkmenistan is investing all its money into its capital and other its other big cities. Maybe the Turkmen government needs to branch out into the rest of  its country, and share the love outside of the great marble city.

After several nights in Ashgabat, we finally got a good feel for this great marble city. For a country who was given independence when it was not ready for it, Turkmenistan has come a long way. Yes, it still has some need for development in other parts of the country, but if Ashgabat is any indication, Turkmenistan will rise as a great marble country, with the great marble city of Ashgabat leading the way.    
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