Tuesday, July 09, 2013

tuesday in turkmenistan: neutrality monument (and a brief tour)

Finally! I have been in Ashgabat the last few days and a colleague who grew up in the city took me out on Friday after work to see some of the sights. One of our stops was the Neutrality Monument, formerly known as the Arch of Neutrality. It had been a place I wanted to visit since early on in my time here. It used to be in the city center, but was moved a couple years ago to its present location at the edge of the city. The construction company in charge of its move has some nice photos on their website. I took photos of my own, available upon request.

We went up to the observation deck near the top. There was also a museum level, but since we were there after 5pm, the museum was closed. The area is also surrounded by a nice park. Beyond the park, the area is part of the city where they have tried, with varying levels of success, to plant mass amounts of pine trees. This tree planting occurs in every city, but is particularly large in scale in Ashgabat. They are trying to green this desert landscape and it isn't easy. Regarding the monument, it is a bit absurd, though one could argue most monuments are absurd, especially from an outside perspective. I found the elevators that go up the legs to be quite interesting. The three legs are angled and two of them have a mechanical lift that goes up and down it like a very steep trolley. The third leg has actual stairs, though the stairs were closed during our visit. The lift is something like a cross between an elevator and an escalator (and it has no air conditioning). It also costs a reasonable 1 manat (about $0.35) per person. It's not clear if the stairs would have been free.

My colleague had a whole list of places to go, but some road closures prevented us from visiting some of them. In particular, we were turned away from the world's largest indoor Ferris wheel. It shall have to wait for another day. Instead, we went to a local park with statues of past historical figures from the country and did a driving tour of much of the city. There is a peculiar propensity to make official buildings in the shape of something related to its purpose. For example, the dentistry school has a curved top shaped a bit like a molar. The telecommunications building has the shape of something where you could hang a phone. The oil and gas building is shaped much like a cigarette lighter. The medical building has some twisting shapes similar to the serpents in the Cadeceus symbol.

If you live in Ashgabat, then you see a dramatically different place than what existed 10-15 years ago. Like many capital cities, much of the money from the country flows this direction. New construction abounds and many of the places we saw did not exist 10 years ago. This is what visitors see, or at least what they see first, when coming to Turkmenistan. A city of boundless construction and record-setting numbers of marble buildings. This image contrasts very sharply with what the rest of the country looks like and what another colleague told me a couple days ago. He said that outside of Ashgabat, people are not as happy. The money goes one way, towards the capital, and there are not rows of gleaming marble buildings in the rest of the country. Not yet, though probably not ever.

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