Rough sleep to luxury

Sunday 26 to Tuesday 28 October

In a bizarre twist we moved from a tiny two man tent out in the desert, where we woke up to sleet, to the Sofitel in warm, cozy comfort. Probably the roughest sleep to the most luxurious of these travels.

The Sofitel is not our normal choice however our itinerary took us to Ashgabat at the same time the country was celebrating their Independence Day, so accommodation was limited.

We made the most of luxury, from drinks at the bar on the 15th floor and eating in the hotel restaurants to using the Internet every waking minute. It is so easy to slip back into the home comforts.

After some swearing on Bruce’s side when a new version of Flash appeared to be incompatible with his browsers, we also discovered a very nice workaround for uploading photos via FTP and then linking them into the NextGen Gallery. So one of the gains at the Sofitel was to finally get some photos uploaded. Many more to come but it is a start.

Our time in Ashgabat was during the two day Independence Day celebrations and unfortunately during a particularly cold grey snap of weather. Photography was difficult and it was only early on the last morning when the sun appeared that we could understand why Ashgabat is recorded in the Guiness book as the whitest city in the world.

True to stories we had read, Ashgabat is an overindulgent city of white marble, glass and water fountains surrounded by a dry, often poverty stricken desert. The city is built on oil, gas and cotton. Every building is white and glass with gilded decorations. Every building sits on its own block, way apart from any others. During the holiday period they were lifeless blocks of stone.

When the Soviets finally took control of Turkmenistan they brought agriculture, particularly cotton. In order to provide the necessary water they built the massive 1100km long Karakum canal, bleeding the Amu-Dary river dry and consequently the Aral Sea.

Whilst cotton production has been successful, much of the canal water now feeds the hundreds of fountains that decorate the city. To me it is criminal that the economic and personal wealth of so many people who were reliant on the Aral Sea is swapped for the beauty of this city.

Ashgabat makes Dubai look like a lively city, with character and atmosphere. “Ashgabat has the excesses of Dubai without the -est”.

We watched the Independence Day parade in the morning. There were 5 of us from the hotel watching the parade, it was for participants rather than onlookers. We shied away from photographing the huge military contingent and watched some of the floats which represented various ministries on the government. Each float was decorated with a very large portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhameedov.

Groups in military uniforms and uniformed dress followed carrying bunches of balloons. They appreciated the tiny contingent outside the Sofitel who waved to them.

We resumed sightseeing in the afternoon, visiting the mosque and mausoleum of the first president Saparmyrat Niyazov who renamed himself Turkmenbashi (leader of the Turkmen). Even in death his mausoleum displays his extravagances. The mausoleum contains his grave as well as his father who died at war in 1943 and his mother and two brothers who died in the earthquake of 1948, which left him orphaned.

Just behind the village where Turkmenbashi grew up is a massive gold statue of him, probably relocated here to make way for the many gold statues of Berdymukhameedov that are to be seen.

Our next stop was more interesting, and is described adequately in Wikipedia.

Parthia (wikipedia)

Nisa (Nissa, Nusay) one of the earliest capitals of the Parthian Empire (c. 250 BC). The city is located in the northern foothills of the Kopetdag mountains, near present day Ashgabat city (capital of Turkmenistan).[21] Nisa had a royal and temple complexes used by early Arsaces dynasty. During the reign of Mithridates I of Parthia (c. 171 BC–138 BC) it was renamed Mithradatkirt (“fortress of Mithradates”).

Our guide Oleg is passionate about archaeology. And enjoyed showing us around.

Our next visit was to a very new monument for the soldiers killed in WWII. Here I came unstuck, unwittingly taking photos at the bottom of the steep staicase and again in the massive square, not really aware that the soldiers that had got in the way of my scenery should not have been photographed. A very officious uniformed gentleman came rushing over and looked at my camera and insisted I delete the offending photos. I spent the evening trawling the web to find a rescue program and of the four I tried, one couldn’t see the deleted photos and the others wanted money to recover the photos. In the end I decided it was a waste of time, the photos certainly weren’t special, just the story was.

To get to the monument you had to climb hundreds of steps. The staircase was wide with decorative lights on either side and at least 4 sets of fountains on each side. At the top two soldiers were guarding an eternal flame, no photos. There was a grieving woman on the right side and the relocated earthquake memorial on the left. Soldiers paying tribute to the fallen had bunches of flowers which they were ceremoniously laying and then retrieving. It’d be nice to think that a lot of wives received flowers that evening.

Oleg pointed out that those peoemmist interested in remembering WWII were probably elderly and therefore not capable of climbing all the steps to pay their respects. It was a tongue-in-cheek jab at how the looks rather than practicalities are given priority.

Our last stop for the day was the Azadi Mosque. It is based on the blue mosque in Istanbul and nearly as large. The courtyard was sumptuous in white and grey marble with ornately decorated domed ceilings over the verandah. We had to wait for the prayers to finish but photography was allowed, even though some men were still praying privately . The arches inside were decorated in red and white stripes much like the cathedral mosque in Córdoba. A balcony was available for women and the lead lights up high added character to the inside.

The sunshine that was promised the next day didn’t eventuate and the day was colder, greyer and mistier. For the first time since Kyrgyrzstan, we had got beanies, gloves and scarves out.

Once again, Oleg had a packed programme to show us Ashgabat.

Our first stop was Independence Square. Turkmenistan was one of the last countries to declare independence from the Soviet Union, they were comfortable with the natural resources that was providing a living. Their independence came on October 27 1991 and Niyazov transitioned from general Secretary of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan to its president and relished in the power he had.

Everything imaginable has a monument associated with it. The next site we visited was the Monument to Commerce. It is a celebration of the Turkman rug making and the five patterns on the flag, on this monument and seen all over the place represent the five tribes who make rugs.

Oleg hadn’t seen the Ferris wheel operational before so we took the opportunity to ride it. It is not the largest in the world but it does claim to be the largest enclosed Ferris wheel according to the Guiness book. The enclosed bit is a massive circular construction that the wheel sits inside, obliterating the view but visible from everywhere. Then again the view wasn’t spectacular given the grey day.

As a brand new country, Turkmenbashi declared it a country of neutrality and the first country to claim this. The Monument of Neutrality was our next stop. It has two elevators to reach the upper level, but they weren’t operational. Like all the other monuments we visited two soldiers in full regalia were standing guard in glass boxes (I hope they were heated). A soldier in fatigues was guarding them. As I tried to photograph the information panel that was between the two soldiers he got upset. Once again Oleg had to intervene and calm this young and probably inexperienced soldier down.

From there we climbed one of the hills that surround Ashgabat to look at and view from the Palace of Happiness. This is a huge wedding venue with registry offices, function rooms, make up and hair dressing studios, photography studios, gift shops and motel style rooms. Everything you need for your perfect wedding.

And opposite was a lookout over Ashgabat and a massive flag pole. Behind the wedding palace is the water drop styled Sofitel Hotel. It is apparently more stylish than the Ogyzkent Sofitel that we were staying in down town, but very isolated.

The days of Russian rule had brought wealth to Turkmenistan so we visited the Lenin statue, perhaps the oldest monument in Ashgabat. It sits in a quiet park and opposite is the former Communist Party building, now a theatre, with a relief statue by Russian artist Ernest Niezvestny, now living in Spain. He also created the famous half black & half white sculpture for Kruschev’s tomb.

Our next stop was the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church. Oleg explained that, like many places of worship during Soviet times, it had been used as a storage facility. It had been built in the early 20th century, for Russian soldiers and their families who were posted here. Oleg was very pleased to see it reinstated since independence.

The Anou village just outside Ashgabat, where the Anouli tribe lived in 3500BC Stone Age. An American archaeological expedition started exploring the site in the late 20th century and again 6-7 years ago. There is the temple with a place to hold the revered flame and coronation rooms. We wandered down passageways and in and out of rooms, trying to imagine life 5,500 years ago.

We also visited Bagabud (“town garden” in Arab) which was the site of Silk Road mosque 15C. The mosque crumbled in an earthquake but it is still a popular pilgrimage destination.  Near the mosque is an ancient cistern (water storage hole built into the round and lined in bricks).

At the mosque and the cistern there were small icons, sometimes a doll or stones assembled in the shape of a house, which people had left to indicate their wishes (a healthy baby, a house to live in). Superstition is seriously practiced as part of religion.

We were sorry to leave the luxury of the Sofitel but we had seen enough of the overindulgent city of Ashgabat.