I spent a couple days in Ashgabat last week. While there, I hit upon a realization about how I can describe Ashgabat. It's like SimCity! Yes, that SimCity, the computer game series of yore (and they are actually finally releasing a new game next year). Seriously, Ashgabat, with its gleaming white buildings paving over the old ramshackle domiciles reminds me of building out a city in SimCity. Perhaps it is a bit like one of those scenarios in the game where you start with an existing city that is about to be struck by some sort of natural disaster or is plagued by some sort of problem and you have to rebuild it back to its former glory. Or not. The point is that it is a struggling city and you control how to bring prosperity to your simulated people.
In this real-world scenario, Turkmenistan as a whole, but specifically Ashgabat is plagued by the struggles of post-Soviet independence and building its economy and infrastructure and gaining greater economic independence from Russia. Much like the computer game where you are the all powerful leader, Turkmenistan also has its autocratic leaders, first with Niyazov and now with Berdimuhamedow, who I occasionally do not cross paths with because the roads where his motorcade travels are cordoned back by a full block. Furthermore, much like the SimCity loans you could take to finance the city's construction, Ashgabat sees the proceeds of oil and gas sales flow towards its center.
Armed with existing infrastructure that is on the ropes in many places, top-down control, lots of money, and some open land, we have our SimCity. And boy has it been playing out like a game as well. Several of the local engineers are originally from Ashgabat and they tell me they barely recognize the city from what it was less than 10 years ago. The gleaming white marble and limestone, overly ornate lamp fixtures, lawns that no one ever walks on, 15m columns that support nothing in particular, and then there are the big projects. Huge city blocks that were either empty or emptied are turned into sports complexes, medical centers, ice skating rinks, new rows of apartment buildings. There's a whole half of the city that looks incredible. This is the public image that they want to project. To give them credit, it is a very fine projection. Of course, there's the other half of the city, where most of the people live and the buildings are not so glamorous. The tour buses will not be going there, but fret not for in our SimCity, with enough time and money, we shall bulldoze those areas and re-zone them and put something nicer in their place. Take note that I said some of the lots were empty, but also that some were emptied. So what if the view out the back of the fanciest hotel in town looked down on some shanty area. Those people are easily relocated and "compensated" for their troubles. This is SimCity, where anything is possible with the bold and always forward thinking of the leader.