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Ashgabat is Turkmenistan’s white marble city of love

By Shamlal Puri | Jul 12th 2016 | 4 min read

Ashgabat is an amazing city with gleaming gold domes, extravagant white marble palaces and picturesque well-tended vast green parks situated in the middle of an oasis at the foot of the Kopet-Dag mountain range and the Kara-kum black sand Desert.

The metropolis is like a Hollywood movie set — perfect and spotlessly clean with beautiful gold statues, buildings, mosques, fountains and the beauty of nature in its finest greenery. This is whitest marble city you will ever see.

Situated some 30 kilometres from the Iranian border, Ashgabat (City of Love in Arabic) is the capital of Turkmenistan, on the famed Silk Route and the Caspian Sea. Dubbed as the Eldorado of the gas industry today, it occupies an enviable position as the world’s leading producer of hydro-carbons.

The country has one of the largest global reserves of hydro-carbons after Qatar, Iran and Russia. It is the leading regional supplier to many parts of the world including China. It boasts hydro-carbon reserves of more than 26.2 thousand billion cubic metres of gas.

Ashgabat’s history can fascinate anyone. The city, once a Russian Fortress built in 1881 on the crossroads of caravan routes, was only created in the mid-20th Century. Industrialisation came with the arrival of the Caspian railway passing through the city. It was ruled by Communist Soviet Union for many years.

Tragedy struck the city in October 1948 when a massive earthquake struck Ashgabat and killed many people. The city lay in ruins for several years. It took the Soviet Union colonisers 20 years to restore it from scratch as the old buildings were destroyed.

This explains the gleaming modern buildings with varying architectural designs springing up. The building boom increased after independence.

There are many attractions, among them being the 75 metre-high Arch of Neutrality with the revolving golden statue of Turkmenbashi — Saparmurat Niyazov — the controversial and eccentric leader of the country who had a cult following.

There are several golden statues in Ashgabat city where locals visit to pay homage to him.

The building is architecturally beautiful but critics say it was an unnecessary expenditure. But since it is there, it is worth visiting and enjoying lovely views of Ashgabat from the top where visitors are allowed to go by elevators.

Niyazov also built Spirit of Turkmenbashi Mosque, believed to be Central Asia’s largest in white marble. This mosque has an area of 18,000 square metres. Its four minarets stand at 91 metres. The mosque can accommodate 10,000 worshippers and has an underground parking area for 500 vehicles.

Many visitors

The marble monument of Unabhangigkeitsdenkmal — or the Independence Monument — is well designed and attracts many visitors. Although you can freely take pictures, guards will try to block tourists so as to ask for bribes. Don’t pay!

Located in the heart of the city’s historical centre is the National Carpet Museum. It is an interesting place to visit. There is an amazingly large collection of Turkmen carpets on display on three floors. Also on display is the world’s biggest carpet — a feat record in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Beautifully sited against the landscape of the Kopet-Dag range and some 15 miles from the city, is the Parthian Settlement of Nisa, the ancient capital of Parthian Kings. Here you can see ruined buildings and archaeological digs.

Only history buffs will like this UNESCO site. Artefacts dug out from here are housed in the national museum. The huge traditional Sunday market Tolkuchka, which has hundreds of vendors is popular with locals and tourists. Locals come to buy fresh fruits and vegetables while tourists seek souvenirs and high quality caviar.

Spread out like a big fair ground, this market offers wide array of products such as traditional Turkmen carpets, crafts and clothes. Locals also buy camels, goats and sheep here.

There are many bakers selling freshly baked bread, cakes, biscuits and salad pickles.

There are many Russian Koreans who have set up shop here and sell Korean foods such as Kimchi.

The much-anticipated annual Melon Festival is celebrated in August and is a national holiday. On this day, guests are invited to taste the fruits on display.

This event recognises the importance of Turkmenistan’s famed melons in the country’s history and culture. The country produces 400–25 per cent of the world’s 1,600 melon varieties.

The moneyed class escape the sweltering heat of Ashgabat to the picturesque mountain resort of Firyuza which is also the holiday residence of the Persian Royal family.

Nearby is Cou-Ata, a huge underground salt water lake dubbed the Father of Lakes. It has rich mineral deposits. One interesting place in Turkmenistan is called Gates of Hell. It is a massive 329-foot wide hole with fire which was ignited after the collapse of gas crater in 1972 after a drilling accident in the middle of the desert.

The crater released methane. Soviet experts decided to torch the place hoping that it would clear the poisonous methane in two days but their plan backfired.

It set the area ablaze creating this hole on the earth. It has been burning since and no one knows when and if the fire will stop. Its heat is overwhelming.

Even though it is the site of an industrial accident, this place is a must-see. It is best seen at night because its strong orange glow is visible from a distance of five miles. The crater is a three-hour drive from Ashgabat. Arrive at sunset and enjoy the rest of the night in a camp behind a small hill and have a memorable time with a picnic at a safe distance from the crater.

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