Turkmenistan has an exceptionally well rounded architecture, foreign policy, growing tourism sector and all that summed up in its capital and largest city of Ashgabat. The city remodelled itself time and time again, specifically following the 1948 earthquake and its subsequent breaking away from under the Soviet umbrella. Turkmenistan stumbled, but did not fall. The present day city of Ashgabat is a consolation prize.
Established in 1881 as a military stronghold and hurriedly but thoughtfully denominated after the neighbouring community of Askhabad, this relatively younger city lodges between the Kopet Dag mountain range and the Karakum Desert. Silk Route got the wheels turning to and from China thus restoring numerous abandoned sites to their former glory. Konjikala, with its close proximity to the bygone remnants of Nisa (the fossilized capital of Parthian Empire) on the Silk Road, was a perfect location for a stopover. The hit-and-run Mongol invasion assaulted Konjikala, leaving everything in peace to countless pieces until it was pieced together by the Russian appropriation in 19th century and annexed to the Soviet Transcaspian Region. Then known as Poltoratsk, named after a local revolutionary, who checked the Bolshevik advance and consequently reinstated Ashkhabad: the photogenic 'city of love' we know today, in 1927. Long past the 1 million threshold (in 2009), the population of the capital grows in number and miscellany alike, with Turkmen, Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis crowding the streets and filling the ranks.
For anyone partial towards white marbled monuments of retro-futurism, an avant-garde architectural specialty of 80s and 90s, Turkmen architects handle it particularly well. Glistening and smoothly manicured surfaces of the presidential headquarters of Ashgabat, the Oguzkhan Palace is only the tip of the iceberg. Those on official tours or members of an embassy may also get a chance to visit Rukhiyet Palace and observe live the official events, inaugurations and other like proceedings in the way a Turkmen does. To whom it may concern, photography in and around official sites is prohibited and even a sneak peek is best avoided in soft or hard copy.
After walking out of the Soviet camp, the city decided on blueprints of its own, with special room for white marble in nearly most of the constructions. Modern construction techniques blending with retro-oriental allowed for a high budget architectural campaign which, when done visiting them, call to mind that unwritten rule stating that the best sites are those that make one remember them and them alone, for the traits that put them in a league of their own.
Such a sight is the Turkmenistan Tower. The height of 211 metres, and with fairly decent protection against earthquakes, takes this tower to new heights and ranks it on top of the tallest buildings in Turkmenistan list and illustrates a working hypothesis of the country’s skyrocketing agendas. On paper, the Turkmenistan Tower looks like a must on your site checklist. Similar to the Arch of Neutrality before, there is a big gap between the stateliness it evokes in pictures and what it actually excites. There is simply no substitute to the real deal.
Question! What does it take to construct a monumental flagpole? State-of- the- art craftsmanship and a strong budget needed to back up that craftsmanship. The Ashgabat Flagpole had enough of each when it was first hailed as the fourth tallest free-standing flagpole in the world, perpendicular at 436 ft. tall. Octagonal in shape and art nouveau in style, the Star of Oguzkhan makes an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's biggest architectural construct of the star. The Ashgabat Fountain and Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center too secure respective places in the same archive, specifically the latter for being the world's tallest enclosed Ferris wheel.
The Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan is a significant institute of advanced learning briefly visited by transit visa holders but participated to satisfaction only by those with a student visa, time and determination for scholarship. That coupled with a visit to any theatre of repute (and Ashgabat boasts many names like Main Drama Theatre, Turkmen Drama Theatre, Turkmen National Theatre of Youth and The State Russian Drama Theatre) shows that entertainment in Ashgabat comes in many shapes and forms. Ashgabat is not typically busy, but when the time comes for something to be animated about, it is animated well. The Turkmen State Circus is a case in point. The visuals mesh well with the stunts and cast a look that is both mundane as well as kinetic. Tightrope walking, acrobalance, parades, and cameo appearances by Russian acrobats - you name it- it is there.
For what it's worth, the Turkmen history museum is a welcome routine change. At any rate, nonetheless, museums of such calibre are not to be missed. No review, no native, no panel site can unveil the Turkmen history, dating back to the Parthian civilization, as exactly as a day or two at a museum can, best surveyed in a series of two to three hour chunks. He who sets foot in it is lost, and he who takes his leaves of it is reborn. Now those already familiar with Turkmen culture know for a fact that Turkmen carpets are quite well done. Come to think of it, the Turkmen Carpet Museum could very well be a timely intermission on your way around the city circuit. Heavy on fineries and best enjoyed when viewed in deep contemplation. Take your time to think and ponder it over: its effective deconstruction of human artistry and workmanship, not to mention the artist’s potential for self-preservation in artificial life makes it much more fascinating than a mere print on a rug.
Not saying the city lacks in any way when the sun goes down. The nightlife is some of the best out there as compared to other Central Asian states though outsiders should not seek (nor will they find if they will) any gay clubs or lesbian bars as homosexuality and Islam have always remained on bad terms. Theme parks work a fantastic job of balancing the architectural elements with a world that you can see people actually living in, and for once something not paying homage to the past but cherishing the present. The Botanical Garden, the Turkmen-Turkish friendship park and Güneş are frequented by the locals. World of Turkmenbashi Tales, on the other hand, is Ashgabat’s version of Disneyland. Of course, this means that the city makes for a perfect family package with enough of amusement for the younger lot.
Arid is perhaps the best way to put it in a single word. Walter de la Mare must have been vicariously dwelling on the arid land standing midway between the Kopet Dag range and the Karakum Desert when he composed ‘Tartary.’ Tourists nominate Ashgabat’s rather milder winter for being the best time to visit the capital. Fifteen minutes out of the airport this time of the year and they know they have a winner on their hands. A daytime temperature of 8.6 °C is an exclusive European package which is why November till January, Ashgabat is abuzz with tourists. We do not see quite as much of rain as well, much less any snowflake. Summer temperature reaches as high as 46.7 °C. Travelling in June, then, would be anticlimactic on top of being anti-climactic (pun not intended)!
Cheap flights to Ashgabat would be booked eventually but deciding on the airline and class could at least eliminate a few nagging glitches here and there that keep your ambitious airborne experience from being truly great. Turkmenistan Airlines, Lufthansa Airlines, British Airways and Turkish Airlines offer the best connecting flights to Ashgabat from the UK.