Wednesday, December 28, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan, the wednesday edition: ashgabat's odd

Sure this is a day late and several dollars short, but by golly, I have my reasons which are totally valid and still irrelevant. It's fitting that this is a bit late since I am now in Ashgabat (again!) and I wanted to post on what I will call it's oddness. This time, I'm not here for a client visit (but I'll probably squeeze one in tomorrow). Instead, I'm here because I'm coming home! Yes! More exclamation marks! Yes, yes, yes! Ok, I'll post on going home tomorrow or something or probably not.

I don't have occasion to spend much time in Ashgabat. For the most, I'm here for a day or two at most, but sometimes not even a full 24 hours as I transit to and from Balkanabat. When I'm here, I feel like I've been somewhere very similar before and I have no idea why. I've been thinking a lot about what similar places I have been and the answer is none. Nothing is like this place in all its kitschy glory. Well, that's not strictly true. Ashgabat is quite unique in many ways, but it still possesses all the trappings of a large city like people, buildings, traffic, and large disparities in wealth. My transitory time in the city only allows me to catch small glimpses of the entire place. As far as I know, there might only be three restaurants and one shopping center in the entire city. There's obviously much more to the city, but it's all I have had occasion to visit. Much of my time being ferried from airport to office to staff house to client office is along the city's main corridors which are filled with new buildings covered with marble. The structures are certainly grandiose with official Ministry of This and Department of That all being housed in new centers and complexes and stadiums. It's like some sort of "if you build it, they will come" monument where the monument is the entire city center. I hope the IOC is paying attention.

Speaking with one colleague who grew up in Ashgabat (and he has spent the last five years working in China so he has a very interesting take on, well, everything), he says almost none of the city in its current form is recognizable from what it was like 20 years ago when the country gained independence. The gleaming white limestone and marble buildings are certainly stately, but I also wonder about the earthquake worthiness of many of these tall 12-story apartment buildings since Ashgabat sits in an earthquake prone area. Of course, many cities have undergone significant transformations in the last 20 years such as Shanghai which has a well known before photo from 1990 and more recent image from 2010 comparison often made. (Here's a different link if you want to see them on one page.)

Like so many things here, all this construction has a "correct" appearance from afar but when you get close, you realize much is not quite right. The idea is essentially correct, but the execution, which is so dependent on details, is not quite right. For whatever reason, I tend to notice such things, like when doors don't quite align, tiles are cracked because they were not spaced properly, uneven grouting, floors that don't meet evenly or smoothly, etc. This isn't a wholesale critique of craftsmanship in Turkmenistan, but I just don't think they have enough skilled labor to properly handle the amount of construction that is going on. (The same thing was going on in Port Gentil, Gabon while I was there. Many new buildings looked outwardly nice, but had many small and annoying construction defects. For what it's worth, quality there was a distinct step or two below the quality here.) I also take serious umbrage with the traffic roundabouts that are here since they are obviously attempting to emulate the spirit of a roundabout, but failing quite badly with practical execution. If you want a full explanation, you'll have to see me in person when I can draw a picture. If you mysteriously read this blog without having ever met me in person, then fantastic, I have readers or at least a reader!

Most of the rest of what I have seen in the city is older apartment buildings. Lots and lots of apartment buildings. Some are new, but many are clearly from a prior vintage. Much like in Szeged, Hungary which had many five and ten-story apartment buildings that were all essentially identical, Ashgabat is also filled with many similar apartments. It's clearly some Soviet-era design based on the efficiency of soulless concrete blocks being optimal for apartment construction. Hey, nearly a million people here and they need to live somewhere. Cheap and economical housing makes sense. This isn't the type of place which will have sprawling suburbs anytime soon.

Even though I work in the industry that funds all the construction, I still have a hard time fathoming just where all this money is coming from. It is clear that there is a lot of money in this city. A lot alot. The construction, fancy cars, public spaces, and tacky monuments all speak to the wealth that at least some have access to. What is less clear is what one million people in this city do. I realize a significant portion of any city goes to sustaining the city itself, but there still needs to be industry or tourism or finance or technology. Yes, there is a little bit of all those things. A very little bit. Instead, it's a city living off the natural resources of the country.

One final note is that for a country that is 90% Muslim, there sure are a lot of Christmas trees up in public spaces. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you can call them New Year trees if you want, but I know a Christmas tree when I see one.

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