The ‘Stans The City of White Marble

Article by João Pedro Fernandes

Ashgabat used to be the capitol of the Palin Dynasty around the year 0 and was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1948. Since the Soviet left and Turkmenistan got their independence in 1991 the city was completely rebuilt and is until today officially the weirdest city I have ever visited.

I travelled through half of the country, which was pretty much only remnants of the Silk Road, desert and a few oil-pumping stations. When I arrived in Ashgabat, it was clear where all the oil money had gone. The city was like the city I created when playing Sim City with cheats. They had built a ministry of education that looked like a book and some buildings that looked like ones found in other countries but just bigger; it was the city with the most white marble in the world, as well as the biggest flag, the biggest carpet, the biggest indoor ferris wheel and probably the city with the most fountains and statues of the dictator who ruled until 2007, Saparmyrat Niyazov who called himself “Turkmenbashi,” meaning the father of Turkmen.

No less idiosyncratic than its architecture, Turkmenistan’s laws are the stuff of laughter and legend. Though locals may plead ignorance or flat out deny that some of these laws ever existed, here’s what I discovered about some of the more notable whacky entries conjured up by the former president, Sapmurat Niyazov.

• Cars must be clean: A dirty car offends the President, so all cars must be clean!
• No beards: Unfortunately for barbers, all Turkmens I spoke to indicated me that this rule was myth.
• No gold teeth: The story goes that while Turkmenbashi attended a televised ceremony, he caught sight of a woman with a set of gold teeth, found it inappropriate, and publicly told her so. He kindly sent her to his favourite dentist, the Minister of Health (now president), to have her gold teeth replaced with a white enamel set. Although apparently not explicitly against the law, gold teeth did fall out of favour with Turkmenistan’s elite during the era of Turkmenbashi. As preferences go, I can’t argue.
• No Opera – it’s un-Turkmen: Circus is also banned.
• No smoking in public places: Turkmenbashi inhaled. When he tried to quit, he instigated this ban so as to eliminate temptation from people smoking on the street. Even after Turkmenbashi’s death, the ban continues.
• Spandex ban: Another ban in the vein of “it’s un-Turkmen.”
• Limit on the number of people allowed to celebrate a wedding: This rule is supposed to help families avoid going broke when throwing weddings for their daughters.
• Abandon a car, go to prison: Drivers I spoke to from the Swiss Travel Caravan said they were given only one piece of advice from the Mongol Rally organizers before they departed London for Ulaan Baatar: “Do not leave your car in Turkmenistan. Do everything you can to get it across the border, even if you have to push it or drag it. Otherwise, we may never see you again,” implying that prison or worse awaited perpetrators of orphaned vehicles.

Turkmenbashi was also the name that he used for the bigger harbour city, for an airport, for a mosque, for a vodka brand and as the word for Monday. The other days of the week he name after his mother, friends and so on. Turkmenbashi, the first president to rule in Turkmenistan definitely made Ashgabat what it is today. The coolest, weirdest, whitest, most empty feeling city it is today. It is like a mix of Las Vegas with any North Korean town, or like the capitol in District One of the Hunger Games. Ashgabat means “the city of love,” and it is an easy city to love if you are there for just a few days.