Earlier this month, I had a rare opportunity to visit one of the most difficult countries to see, Turkmenistan. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has been ruled by two successive eccentric presidents that limit the outside influences. Approximately 6,000 visitors visit Turkmenistan per year as it is difficult to get a visa and there are limited airlines flying into the capital, Ashgabat. The US Embassy in Ashgabat sponsored an Emergency Preparedness & Communications workshop and invited international school directors from Central Asia to the conference.
Ashgabat is a special city in Turkmenistan. It has been described as Pyongyang (capital of North Korea) meets Las Vegas. The entire city consists of hundreds of huge monuments and buildings made of white marble. The government’s natural gas and oil revenues have been used to build a perfect city that looks like something out of a science fiction novel. There is no advertising, no litter, lots of neon lights and very few people. Every structure, from telephone booths to bus stops, has the white marble and gold-trim futuristic theme.
I stayed at the Yyldyz Hotel, a magnificent natural gas flame/rocket ship-shaped building on a hill overlooking the city. I took several evening walks along lighted sidewalks through the desert hills down to the city. It was so odd to be walking in unique landscape that naturally looks like Utah or Nevada, but a futuristic Utopian architecture. There were some bits of normalcy I encountered, like kids practicing soccer outside the national stadium and a supermarket, which was comparable to supermarkets here in Tashkent.
The embassy arranged two outings to local restaurants which were quite pleasant. It felt like Central Asia, with good food, plenty of alcohol and loud music. I would have never found the restaurants as there are no signs, but once inside the decor was quite normal, like most restaurants. Due to the currency exchange controls, a big meal, with drinks cost each of at the table $5 USD.