Ashgabat is a showpiece capital. It has been designed, at the cost of billions of dollars, to show the world about the glories and accomplishments of the Turkmen. The city looks like none other on Earth – a thoroughly artificial collection of white marble buildings across a long, dry valley. At sunrise or sunset, there’s a beauty to this uniform, outsized ambition, as if the set of a science-fiction film suddenly became an actual human settlement. During the scorching days, when walking from monument to monument across the shadeless streets, or trying to locate anything resembling normal human life in the center, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil seems like the most accurate comparison.
Image control is taken very seriously. You will encounter many, many security guards and policemen with a strong opinion about how to behave and not behave in the capital. Don’t take pictures of the presidential compound or military complexes (a large barracks is right next to the palace). Avoid areas with roadblocks or where it seems like senior officials may be present. Most other buildings are generally OK – although this could change at any time. Outside of the monuments, best to snap a quick picture and move on.
While large chunks of land in the city are taken up by the dreams of independent Turkmenistan’s two presidents, pockets of an older, simpler life survive. Areas of the city with small apartment buildings and quiet neighborhood restaurants can be found, sometimes just off to the side of these large buildings. Head to the outskirts and country Turkmen life appears with surprising rapidity.
Population: 407,000 (1990)
Area: 169.9 mi²
The Turkmenistani Manat is the currency of Turkmenistan. The currency code for Manats is TMT. Everything bought in Turkmenistan will be paid for in manats, but travel agencies and hotels still usually require payment in US dollars, so it’s best to keep a supply of both currencies with you on the road. Cash advances on credit cards are only available in Ashgabat at banks and, if you’re lucky, at the few functioning ATMs taking international cards
The Kopet-Dag mountain range is about 25 kilometres (16 mi) to the south, and Ashgabat’s northern boundary touches the Kara-Kum desert. Because of this Ashgabat has an arid climate with hot, dry summers and cool, short winters. The average high temperature in July is 38.3 °C (100.9 °F). Nighttimes in the summer are warm, with an average minimum temperature in July of 23.8 °C (75 °F). The average January high temperature is 8.6 °C (47.5 °F), and the average low temperature is −0.4 °C (31.3 °F). The highest temperature ever recorded in Ashgabat is 47.2 °C (117 °F), recorded in June 2015. A low temperature of −24.1 °C (−11 °F) was recorded in January 1969. Snow is infrequent in the area. Annual precipitation is only 201 millimetres (7.91 in); March and April are the wettest months.
The Türkmen language, a member of the East Oghuz branch of Turkic, is spoken by 72 percent of the population, 12 percent speak Russian, nine percent speak Uzbek language, while languages spoken by the remainder are not specified but includes the Balochi language.
Turkmenistan is a safe and friendly country. It is also, without doubt, one of the most perplexing – and potentially problematic countries for visitors to travel through, given the rigidly authoritarian political system in place.
Take care when photographing public buildings in Ashgabat, you may be shouted at by a police officer. Do not attempt to photograph the Palace of Turkmenbashi or any other ministry; the government quarter in Ashgabat is very off-limits for photography, but there are no signs to this effect.
The principal industries are cotton textiles and metal working. It is a major stop on the Trans-Caspian railway. A large percentage of the employment in Ashgabat is provided by the state institutions; such as the ministries, undersecretariats, and other administrative bodies of the Turkmenistan government. There are also many foreign citizens working as diplomats or clerks in the embassies of their respective countries. Ashgabat lends its name to the Ashgabat agreement, signed by India, Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, for creating an international transport and transit corridor facilitating transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.
Unofficial taxis are everywhere. Just stick out your right arm, and see who stops. The bus system in Ashgbat is fairly good, and is only about 0.4 manat per person. Pay when you get off the bus. It is easiest to give the driver 1 manat and let him give you change, instead of trying to figure out exact fare. There are white marble bus stops (many with shade and some with air conditioning) all through the town. Some of the bus stations have route maps at the stations. The bus is a good option if you are on the outskirts of town (e.g., the giant indoor Ferris wheel at Alem Cultural and Entertainment Center or the Palace of Knowledge) and no taxis stop. Take any bus in the direction toward town, and get off when you get closer to a busy city street and take a taxi to wherever you are going.