Imagine the following scenario: It is the year 2200. Us humans have destroyed the world. Nothing remains besides an endless desert. Suddenly, rising out of the ashes, white marble buildings appear at the horizon.
You have arrived in Ashgabat.
We are not living in the year 2200. The desert surrounding Ashgabat is natural and does not result from some humankind disaster. Nevertheless, while visiting the capital of Turkmenistan, I regularly felt as if I had arrived in the middle of a dystopian novel. I walked along eight-lane boulevards on which I didn’t see cars. I strolled through empty parks where I spotted only one lonely employee cutting the bushes with small scissors. From my bus window, I watched people clean the sidewalks with tiny brushes.
Ashgabat is so bizarre that you have to see it yourself. I know that Turkmenistan only gives out a few thousand tourist visas a year but if you have the chance, go and grab one of them. I promise you a unique experience that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Plus, besides being a strange sight in itself, the city has a few attractions that you should visit and that will keep you occupied during your stay.
#1 Walk around Independence Square
Independence Square is the centre of Ashgabat. Many government buildings are located here, as well as parks, fountains and a giant horse statue.
Walking around the deserted plazas, you will see soldiers at every street corner. You will come across gardeners trimming the lawn with tiny scissors, sprinklers distributing more water than you thought was available in this desert city and people cleaning the fountains with toothbrushes. Welcome to Ashgabat!
In case you were wondering, yes, all of these buildings are made out of white marble. Ashgabat holds the world record for the city with the highest density of white marble buildings. It also holds the world record for the most fountain pools in a public place. And for the largest indoor Ferris wheel. I told you it was a strange place, lead by a president who is obsessed with setting up world records.
Talking about the white marble buildings. Be careful not to take pictures of government buildings, or you will get arrested. If you’re lucky, like I was, you will get away with a policeman repeating “picture – big problem” while a soldier wipes your SD-card. But it’s best not to take a chance, especially around Independence Square.
#2 Learn about Turkmenistan at the Ashgabat National Museum of History
The National Museum of History is both informative and absurd. On the upper floor, you will find an exhibition about Turkmenistan’s history. I knew nothing about the country, so this was a great stop to gain some general knowledge of both ancient and medieval history. Let’s be honest, even if you’ve heard of the Silk Road in Turkmenistan, how much do you know about what came before? What about afterwards and what about today?
I didn’t count, but according to my research, you can see about 500,000 exhibits here. That includes cultural relics and carpets, which Turkmenistan is famous for.
On the lower floor, you will find an exhibition about the president of Turkmenistan. Don’t skip it. I am sure the creators were serious when they set it up, but I found it hilarious. The exhibition includes lots of treasures like a painting of the president with white doves flying up in the background and the image of him sitting on his horse woven into a carpet. Just remember not to laugh out too loud. You don’t want to get arrested.
#3 See Ashgabat by night
The best way to see the light show is to go on a bus tour. Ashgabat is sometimes compared to Las Vegas by night, and while I remain sceptical about this comparison, the lights are spectacular – and absurd. Do you see the paths in the foreground? Who would light them up when nobody ever walks there?
A good viewpoint for the light show is the Wedding Palace, which, by the way, is illuminated in four different colours. If you don’t have the chance to go on a bus tour, just take a taxi up here. Or walk around the city and admire the lights while thinking about the giant electricity bill that the president has to pay.
#4 Haggle at Tolkuchka Bazaar
Ashgabat’s biggest bazaar, Tolkuchka Bazaar (which is also known as Altyn Asyr), was moved to a location outside the city in 2010. You can easily get here either by taxi or marshrutka. The bazaar spreads out underneath several giant hangars. You cannot see it while at the market, but those hangars resemble a carpet pattern from a bird’s eye view. Like everything in Ashgabat, the bazaar was almost empty, and we saw far more vendors than clients.
Make sure to go all the way to the back to look at the carpets and furniture on sale. If you get hungry, fresh and dried fruit and nuts are available somewhere near the centre. And I bet you will get hungry while exploring the Tolkuchka market, as you can find more than 2000 shops here! It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that this is the biggest market in Turkmenistan and one of the biggest ones in Central Asia.
#5 Enjoy the view from the Monument of Neutrality
The Monument of Neutrality used to stand in the middle of Ashgabat. Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan before the current president, built it in memory of Turkmenistan’s neutrality. On top, he put a golden statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun.
We think that the current president didn’t like that golden statue much. So he had the monument dismantled and moved to the suburbs in 2010, where you can still see it today. It even still has the golden statue on top, but unfortunately, it doesn’t rotate anymore.
You can go inside the monument and take an elevator up to the visitor platform. From there, you’ll have a great view of Ashgabat and its many marble buildings.
#6 Eat shashlik
Shashlik, also known as kebap, is one of the staple foods among the Silk Road. After a day of walking the empty streets of Ashgabat, sit down in a restaurant and enjoy a plate of chicken or beef shashliks. The traditional shashlik consists of young mountain goat, but unsurprisingly, I didn’t see that anywhere.
What’s excellent about shashlik is that everyone will understand your order. The first restaurant where we ended up only had menus in Turkmen, and we didn’t understand anything. But shashlik, that’s a word that we knew and that we could order easily.
Locals traditionally eat shashlik with bread, so make sure to get some of that as well. And maybe a small salad on the side, if you manage to order one.
#7 Gypjak Mosque
Do you know how everything in Ashgabat is built of white marble and adorned with gold? Ashgabat’s mosque is no exception. Located outside the city, it gives you a good idea of how Turkmenistan feels about religion. Don’t come here, expecting to see people pray. While never being forbidden, religion was suppressed in all former Soviet countries. The mosque is still worth visiting for its stunning exterior and interior.
Next to it, you can find Turkmenbashi’s mausoleum, so make sure to check that out as well.
#8 Go up to the Wedding Palace
If you want to get married in Ashgabat, you need to go to the Wedding Palace. Not that you’d ever want to get married here. Just think about all that paperwork!
Nevertheless, you should go up to the Wedding Palace. This strange marble building shows many eight-pointed stars stuck on top of each other. In addition, you can see more eight-pointed stars arranged around a globe. Besides the Wedding Palace being a generally interesting building to take a look at, you should also come for the view. Just like from the Monument of Neutrality, you can see the extent of the white marble buildings from up here.
#9 Take a public bus
Walking past marble buildings on empty boulevards made me wonder if anyone actually lived in Ashgabat. It wasn’t until I took a public bus that I got to meet some locals. While nobody will openly stare at you, people are curious. Most of them have never met any tourists, and they are insanely friendly and helpful once they get to know you.
It helps to speak a couple of words in Russian, as most locals will not speak English.
#10 Visit the Fortress of Nisa
The old town of Nisa belonged to the Parthian Empire and was once an essential stop along the Silk Road. Did you know that the Parthians were the guys who stopped the Roman expansion towards the East? Well, here you can see the remains of one of their cities.
What I loved most about the ruins of Nisa was that we only ran into two other tourists – and they were leaving. After that, we had the whole site to ourselves. Where in the world can you visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site without running into other people?
You’ll need about half a day to visit Nisa. The ruins aren’t huge, but you have to get here and get back again. We decided to take public transport and just asked everyone we met how to go to Nisa. People were extremely friendly and brought us from one bus to another, so we had no troubles at all. The last bus driver even took a detour to deliver us right in front of the ruins!
#11 The Walk of Health
Located in the mountains south of Ashgabat, the Walk of Health winds along the mountain ridges over a total length of more than 30 kilometres. The president of Turkmenistan encourages his citizens to come here at least once a year for a walk to improve their health. While the health effect of a yearly walk remains debatable, this is an excellent way to get out of the city and see some mountain scenery.
Depending on the time of the year, come here early to escape the heat.
Getting there and away
The easiest way to get to Ashgabat is by plane. A few airlines fly to Ashgabat, so you shouldn’t have problems booking a flight. Plus, flying here will give you the chance to see the eagle-shaped airport!
If you already are in Central Asia, you need to get into Turkmenistan via one of the land borders. You can cross from Iran and reach Ashgabat on the same day. If you come from Uzbekistan, expect to spend at least two days on the road until you get to the capital. The streets aren’t the best.
You can get around Ashgabat by bus, which is also a great way to meet locals. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find precise information about buses anywhere. Your best bet is to ask either your guide or your hotel. Also, if you speak a few words of Russian, you could ask locals waiting at bus stops. If not, you will have to use your hand and feet to communicate, which is harder.
Besides buses, taxis are an excellent way to get around.
While going around the city, take a look at the cars. Do you see that all of them are clean? Driving around with a dirty car is illegal in Ashgabat and a guaranteed way of getting arrested by the police.
When to go
The best time to visit Ashgabat is either in spring or autumn when the weather is nice but not too hot or cold. In winter, temperatures drop below zero, while in summer, they can reach 40ºC. We came here at the beginning of June, and we were already hot, so try to go before then.
So as you can see, Ashgabat is a fascinating city which has lots of interesting corners. I think you can easily spend two or three days here without getting bored, maybe even more. This place is so bizarre that you just must visit it to believe that it exists.
Getting a visa is mandatory and not easy as the country only gives out a few thousand every year. If you go with a tour company, they can help you arrange one. In fact, unless you apply for one of the short transit visas, you will need a tour company. You’re not allowed to travel around Turkmenistan without a guide.
But even if you get a guide, who will do most of the organizing for you, you should know what to expect from this country. So go and check out our guide with the top things to do in Turkmenistan.
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