Suitcase and World: Sights of Ashgabat.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sights of Ashgabat.

Decorated panel of the front entry door to Gypjak Mosque.
We woke up to a cold and dreary day in Ashgabat.  I dreaded that the rain would damper our sightseeing today and debated whether or not to bring along my umbrella.  I decided against it as I am one of those Murphy's Law believers so if I bring the umbrella, it will most certainly rain.

Thanks to a bit of cold temperature, I had a good night's sleep last night and I woke up pretty well refreshed.  I was ready to tackle whatever Ashgabat would throw at me today. We're only here one day so we have a lot of sightseeing to cram in.

Pat and I were down at the hotel restaurant, for breakfast, just around 8a.  The dining room was a large space with a buffet table to match.  There were only a few other people around so we had our pick of tables and food.  Oddly enough, one of the restaurant workers was watching a movie on the flat panel TV that was hung up in one corner of the room.  I watched for a few minutes to see what the movie was and it was Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.  It was bit too early for the blood and gore of gladiators fighting it out in the Roman arena.  I turned my attention to the food.  Same old tourist stuff.  I just took a bit of food and washed it down with black tea.  Good to go!

We're usually done with breakfast in about half hour or so which leaves us a bit of time to relax before having to meet up with our guide and start our day.  Today was no different.  Pat and I were down in the lobby and we didn't see Jabbar so we headed outside to wait for him.  Of course, we waited and waited and waited.....only to discover that he had been doing the same sitting inside the lobby!

Our car and driver were waiting for us outside.  The driver's name was also Dolat.  Jabbar jokingly told us to refer to him as Dolat #2.  We just called him Dolat.

Our first destination was just a short distance outside of town which meant we drove through town.  Along the way, we got to see why this city holds the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's highest density of buildings made from white marble. The city boasts 543 new buildings clad with white marble, covering a total area of 4.5 million square meters.  It is indeed white buildings everywhere you look.  Eerily, the streets were completely empty of people and barely any cars.  I don't know if this was because it was early in the morning or what.  It felt like we were driving through a modern city that had been deserted by its inhabitants.

They have some very unusual looking monuments here.

We kicked of our day of sightseeing day with a visit to Turkmenbaşy Ruhy Mosque or Gypjak Mosque which is technically located in the village of Gypjak about 7 kilometers west of the center of Ashgabat; I felt like we were still in the city.

Dolat deposited right out front of the mosque.  Situated right next door is the Turkmenbaşy Mausoleum where Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen politician who served as the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006, is entombed.  The mausoleum was built by Turkmenbaşy himself in 2004 in preparation for his death which occurred two years later on December 24, 2006.

Niyazov's self-given title *Türkmenbaşy* has often been scoffed at, interpreted by skeptics as meaning *president for life*. He has been frequently criticized as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive dictators.  No doubt, he was also egotistical and had a reputation of imposing his personal eccentricities upon the country, which extended to renaming months of the year after members of his family.  Fortunately, the current leader of the country changed the names back!

Gypjak Mosque on the left, the Mausoleum of Turkmenbaşy on the right.

We headed inside the mausoleum first.  Photography was not allowed inside.  Apparently, Turkmenbaşy was born in the village of Gypjak so that's why his mausoleum is here.  Inside, the mausoleum was very tastefully decorated, befitting the leader of the country. 

Next, we went to the mosque. The Gypjak Mosque is currently the largest mosque in Central Asia.  It looks nice but somehow it lacks a soul; probably because there was not a living creature around except for the soldiers standing guard outside Turkmenbaşy's mausoleum, some cleaning people and Pat, Jabbar and I. 

It's also an example of what a country does when they have money to spend or perhaps that should be money to waste as I am certain that the $100 million USD that it cost to construct this mosque could have been appropriated to other purposes like funding schools, hospitals and improving the country's infrastructure.

Setting aside my views on how money could have been better spent, the mosque itself is a one-domed building, surrounded by 4 minarets. The height of the mosque is 55 meters (180 feet), and that of the minarets is 91 meters (299 feet) to symbolize the year 1991 which is the year that Turkmenistan gained independence from the former Soviet Union.

Around the mosque there are numerous fountains.

I don't know what this woman was cleaning; the place was already spotless.

The building is accessible through 9 entries with arches. 

Photography was not permitted inside.  I don't know why.  I would imagine the Turkmens would love to show it off.  Oh well.

Inside the mosque is a huge prayer hall, large enough to accommodate 10,000 people!  We took our shoes off at the entrance and the first thing that you notice is the huge handmade Turkmen rug that blankets the floor.  I can't recall how many workmen it took, over how many months, to weave this thing but it is a piece of national pride.  The perimeter of the room was lined with white marble columns; above was a painted blue dome.

Jabbar pointed out the inscriptions on the walls which are scriptures from both the Quran and the Ruhnama (Book of Soul).  The latter is a book written by Niyazov himself and consists of spiritual & moral guidance, autobiography and revisionist history, defining family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmenistan. Niyazov once said that he had interceded with God to ensure that any student who read the book three times would automatically get into heaven.  Okay, the man is very egotistical.

Understandably it has outraged many Muslims that the Ruhnama is placed as the Koran's equal and therefore, they have refuse to accept the mosque as a symbol of Islam.

It was a brief visit to both the mausoleum and the mosque.  There's a lot of over the top grandiosity here- I'm not really appreciating it and in fact, at some level, it's beginning to anger me as I see it as such a waste of money in a country that is still developing.  Luckily, we had a break as our next stop took us to the ruins at Old Nisa.

After Old Nisa, it was back into the heart of Ashgabat.  Jabbar took us to a newly constructed park that only recently opened.  Situated in the park are several monuments that, as best as I can tell, were relocated from other parts of the city.

Dolat dropped us off at the start of a plaza that led to a massive set of steps which are made of what else?  Marble.  Another over the top thing.  Flanking the steps were tiered gardens with pools and fountains.  As expected, everything was well manicured and well tended to.  I couldn't believe that this was all new construction.

Standing at the bottom of the steps, we were so far down at we couldn't see what was at the top of the steps.

We started our way up.  It seemed like and endless flight of steps.  In no time, we all started to think how ridiculous this all was and started to count the steps.  Pat counted 15 steps per tier.  By the time, we saw the sight of something, we still had a long way to go.  I don't know why it's necessary to make people go through this but hopefully, there's some logical reason because again, it's such a waste of time and effort to build something like this massive set of marble steps.  I hate to how much money and labor went into building this thing - could have been used to build homes....even for low income housing.

Looking back down the steps.  The thumblike structure, atop the hill, is a newly built 5 star hotel.

By the time we reached the top, we had climbed 314 steps and spent I don't know how many minutes.  It wasn't a difficult climb - I just felt like it was a pointless waste of time and energy.  At the top was another massive plaza.  Straight head were the pillars that surround an eternal flame. Two soldiers stood out front - that was the World War II memorial.  This memorial also used to be located in Independence Square and was moved - pillars, eternal flame an all, to its new home here.

Behind the World War II Memorial was a semi circular wall that serves as the exterior facade of a museum.  The park is still being built so the museum was not yet opened to the public.  I believe the bas relief design on the wall recalls scenes from ancient battles.

To the left of the World War II Memorial is a memorial erected in memory of the people killed by the earthquake of 1948.  In 1948 Ashgabat experienced what is considered one of the most deadly earthquakes in human history. Ten percent of the entire country's population was killed instantly that day.

This monument used to be located in Independence Square but presumably was moved here as part of the construction of this new park which I was quickly realizing was a memorial complex. I can't believe they actually relocated this thing.

So you might ask what does the bull have to do with an earthquake.  So, here's the breakdown.  The memorial depicts a cracking earth on top of a charging bull. The 7.3 magnitude earthquake killed  Saparmurat Niyazov's mother and the rest of his family, leaving him an orphan.

The solid gold child is an over-the-top presentation of the country's future leader -- a solid gold child being lifted out of the rubble.  If you ask me, it's more self aggrandizement on the part of Niyazov and less about memorializing the huge loss of human lives on that fateful day.

To one side of the Earthquake Memorial is another large wall, emblazoned with gold emblems of the guls that represent each of the five tribes that make up the country.  The one thing I do have to say, that is positive about Turkmenistan, is just how hard the country is working on establishing a national identity.  The guls (tribal patterns) can be seen on just about every structure in the city - from  buildings to lamp posts.

The other common emblem is the eight pointed star which is symbolic of Islam.

From left to right, From top to bottom, the tribes represented by the guls are Teke, Yomut, Arsary, Chowdur, and Saryk.

Descriptive plaque at the Earthquake Memorial.

To the right of the World War II Memorial is the Soviet War Memorial presumably honoring those who lost their lives in the fight for independence.  This monument was also relocated from Independence Square.

I don't understand the need to relocate monuments - the expense must have been phenomenal.  In any event, I was curious to see how they formally were placed - I found this image which shows the placement of the World War II and Soviet memorials as they originally stood in Independence Square.

The Soviet and World War II Memorials as they once stood in Indpendence Square (Photo by David Stanley)

As was the case with the mausoleum and the mosque, this massive place was strikingly empty of people.  Perhaps that was because we were here on a weekday morning - I will give them the benefit of doubt.

From here, we had to walk back down the 314 steps.  I believe that a huge parking lot will be built at the same level as the memorial plaza so people who prefer to drive up and walk from there can do so.  I guess there will always be a hearty few who will opt for the steps.

From here, we had a bit of a driving tour through town - catching glimpses of more of the white marble buildings this city is wanting to build its reputation on.

The first place we stopped at was the building that is simply referred to as the *Wedding Palace*.  The building was built in 2011 and basically serves as a one-stop place for holding weddings.  We didn't go inside but later I read that there are several wedding halls that can hold up to 500 people each, as well as 7 banquet rooms and 2 cafes.  There are 36 shops that provide all the necessary wedding items and services, including dress shops, decorations, car rental, jewelry, photo studio, and the much ever needed beauty salon.  And last but not least, there's 22-room hotel and a parking lot for 300 cars to accommodate not only the wedding party but all your guests!

As you might expect, there is symbolism in the design of the building.  See the eight pointed star?  It's repeated in each of the tiers of this 11 story tall building.

From where we were standing, outside the Wedding Palace, we could look over to the massive bullet shaped building that we had seen earlier.  This is the newly built Hotel Yldyz, home sweet home to those who can afford its luxury prices.

Our drive also took us by the Arch of Neutrality, erected by Niyazov in celebration of his adoption of neutrality as his country's official policy.   Turkmenistan proudly touts the fact that it is an officially recognized as a neutral state by the United Nations.  The Arch of Neutrality was built, on orders by Niyazov, in 1998 at a cost of more than $12 million USD.  It came as no surprise that the rocket-shaped tower is topped with a gold statue of  Niyazov himself.  The man truly was vain.

Our next stop was to visit the National Museum of History. Dolat dropped us off nearby and we followed Jabbar into the museum. Aside from the people working there and us three, there were no other people there - not a single visitor. On the outside, the musuem is another one of Ashgabat's white marble clad buildings. In the inside, (photos not allowed), it was a circular shaped interior with galleries on two floors. Jabbar introduced us to a young man who led us around. Supposedly, there are 500,000 items in the museum's collection but only a very teeny, weeny number are on display here. In fact, you could probably take all the items they have on display here an put them all on one floor! What is on display was very well shown and described. I guess since they can afford the space, items were well spread out. However, like many small museums, there were things displayed that I felt were being displayed to simply take up space. For example, there was a wall of historians, archeologists and the like who had made contributions to Turkmen history and culture. While these people most certainly deserve to be recognized, I'm not sure dedicating a wall to their photos is the way to do it. Perhaps another memorial? In marble? Okay, I'm being sarcastic here though I mean no disrespect. The young man literally took us around to see EVERY item and for a few moments, I was worried we would be here for hours. After a while, I lost interest and started to walk ahead of him and Pat in hopes that he would speed things up. Towards the end of our visit, we happened on a set of displays that I did find interesting - old Greek rhytons. Some were made out of intricately ivory and they were incredibly beautiful. On our way out, we went to the gallery displaying Turkmen rugs. Of course, it is all about the *biggest* here so as you can expect, they have the biggest rug in the world hanging here. I don't know what it is about size that matters so much to the Turkmen. Some of the finest things I've ever seen in my life have also come in the smallest of packages. It should be about quality, not size. Surprisingly, though photos are not allowed, the rugs were hangin within easy reach and so I felt a few just to get an idea of the texture and thickness of the weave. They are well made rugs and I can see why they would easily last a lifetime and beyond! On our way out, we walked past a display that was being set up in preparation for the upcoming Horse Day, a national celebration reflecting the Turkmen love of particular, the magnificent Akhal Tekke horse.

On the way to our next stop, which was for lunch, I snapped a few more photos of the white city as I have nicknamed this part of the city.  Even from the photos, you can see how empty the place is - no people and barely any cars.  I feel like I'm in an abandoned city.

I do have to say that if there is such a thing as an award for the most beautiful lamp posts and street signs, Ashgabat would win hands down.  I have never seen such extravagant posts and signs lining a city street!  Even on a gloomy day, you can appreciate their beauty.

Ever seen a more beautiful traffic signal?

Even the cross walk signs are gorgeous.

Lamp posts have a different design depending on the street!

I read somewhere that there are at least 543 white marble clad buildings in Ashgabat.  There are most certainly enough that you can drive for miles and see nothing but white marble all around you.

Alparslan Yaslar Theatry of Ashgabat.

The Ministry of Health.

Turkmen Medical University.

State Cultural Centre of Turkmenistan

For lunch, Jabbar had promised he would take us to a good place for plov. From the area of the city where all the white buildings live, we headed into the area where all the people live.  After an entire morning of seeing no one but ourselves, we finally saw some local residents of the city.  I never thought I would think it but it was somehow nice to be surrounded by other vehicles.

In contrast to the white city, this part of town looked like a typical Soviet era style town. It felt oddly familiar and comfortable being back here. I realized the white part of the city was too sterile - it's devoid of the human life that makes a place interesting.  I enjoyed looking out the window and seeing local life.

But, driving along these streets, many lined with buildings in serious need of renovation, I could feel my blood boil at the thought of all the money and effort that was spent building the white city - it could have been put to so much good use here.

Dolat took our car down the streets, alongside a lot of other cars. We were in a bit of traffic jam though nothing in comparison to what we have back in the US. He turned down a small neighborhood street and dropped us off outside a big wooden gate that had been left slightly ajar. Jabbar, Pat and I entered the gate and on the otherside was a small patio ringed with yurts. Yes, back in the day, Turkmen lived in yurts so this is a part of their culture. A waiter came by and led us inside one of the yurts.

It was very spacious inside, the floor lined with rugs and cushions for sitting. There was a semi circular table ringing part of the perimeter of the yurt. We each took a spot; Pat managed despite her knees though I know she would have much preferred a table and proper chairs. Typically, the yurt would be reserved for a fairly large group of people - I would say that at least 10 people could comfortably sit here and dine.

The waitress handed us the menus - nicely bound and lots of big pictures and descriptions in English. We were going for the plov so that was an easy order. The one thing that struck me were the prices - definitely much higher than what we've been used to paying for our meals. Looking at my surroundings, I was pretty sure we were eating at an expensive restaurant. I'm sure Jabbar wanted to make sure his clients were able to sample some of the finer things that Ashgabat has to offer but this was a bit on the high end for us two budget conscious travelers.   It also meant that Dolat couldn't join us as I'm sure the cost of the meal would be above what they pay him for for lunch.

Our meal came pretty quickly.  It was a bowl of plov for each of us and as usual, there was no way that I could finish it - each bite of the fat flavored rice is pretty filling. I ate what I could and sadly, probably left more than half of it behind.  We also shared a salad, loaf of Turkmen non, and a pot of tea.

Turkmen bread in a very non traditional loaf form - usually it's round.

A very nice salad!

More plov.

After lunch, we headed back into the white city to see  a couple more sights.

Turkmenistan's Independence Monument, another extravagant and unnecessarily oversized monument.  Dolat dropped us at the curbside, along Independence Square.  Tall statues of soldiers, standing facing each other line the path leading towards the monument.  

A golden statue of Niyazov stands in front of what appears to be a dome with a minaret like tower rising from its top. Of course, it wouldn't be extravagant enough if the tower wasn't also adorned in gold. We walked between the towering statues of Turkmen soldiers and stood to take a quick look at the monument. I had no interest to go much further. I've had enough of seeing anything to do with Niyazov especially since what this monument represents seems contradictory to his own beliefs. Nizayov originally opposed the dissolution of the Soviet Union - he did not want independence for Turkmenistan. It was only when it became stone cold obvious that the Soviet Union was breaking up that he took the side of independence. Turkmenistan did not have to put up much of a fight, if any, for independence.

Back in the car, we drove a bit further down Independence Square. Dolat slowed the van down so we could take a quick look at a large stone statue of the Ruhnama, a book which was authored by Niyazov. Ruhnama, which translates as *The Book of the Soul*, was first published in 2001; a second volume was published three years later. The book was intended to be a spiritual guide for the Turkmen nation and as an attempt to "Turkmenize" the country. Supposedly, the book features a weird combination of revisionist history, moral ideals, religious norms and fairytales.
Niyazov ordered that reading the book was mandatory at all schools and universities, and that all new government employees should be tested on the book’s contents. He later even ordered that a test on the Ruhnama be an essential element of driving tests.  Unbelievable!

Since its publishing, the Ruhnama has largely been met with amusement outside the country. Generally seen as an excellent example of the weird, totalist nature of Turkmenistan’s regime, the book shows the country’s bizarre closeness between the state and the head of state. Even Niyazov’s death in 2006, has not put a damper on the popularity of the book in the regime, and Niyazov’s successor still regards the Ruhnama as an essential part of Turkmen heritage. Despite its strange nature, the book has been translated into several languages, mostly sponsored by foreign companies that received large-scale contracts in return.

By now, I was ready to leave Niyazov and Ashgabat behind. I've had enough of their egotistical and eccentric former leader and the ostentious white buildings. It's really too bad that the country does not put more of their tribal culture on a display pedestal - it might have the rest of the world admiring this country rather than mocking it.

Next, it was time to visit another mosque and thankfully, it had nothing....absolutely nothing to do with Niyazov!!

The Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque Mosque is one of the most beautiful Muslim mosques of Turkmenistan.  It was built in Turkish style and named in honor of Oguz Khan Ertuğrul aka Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire.   The mosque is located on Azadi street and so it's also called the Azadi Mosque.

The mosque was inaugurated in 1998 and can accommodate up to 5,000 worshipers.

Entering into the mosque's courtyard, I felt like I was back in Istanbul - flashback to just a few short months ago.

Before we entered, Jabbar told us that the mosque is reminiscent of the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul.  Having been to the Blue Mosque three times, I can tell you this mosque does not take any of its design inspiration from the Blue Mosque but rather from the Suleymaniye Mosque.   I had to set Jabbar straight so I made him Google *Suleymaniye Mosque* and look at the images and then I had him Google *Sultanahmet Mosque* to compare.  He agreed with me.  I know my Istanbul mosques :-)

While the interior of this mosque is beautiful, it can in no way match up to the grandeur of either the Blue Mosque or the Suleymaniye Mosque - the Turkish originals are still the best!

After the mosque, it was off to one last stop before calling it a day.  It was the place that I had been waiting all day long to get to - Bedev Hippodrome!