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29 August 2011 / leggypeggy

Ashgabat—light, bright and empty, but what a restaurant!

Ashgabat—all white and light at night.

We rolled into Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, quite late at night and what an entrance the city gives you. It’s all white and light. We all were gobsmacked by the sheer magnitude and magnificence—streets lined with acres of tall buildings, a mammoth mosque, countless fountains and surprisingly little sign of life.

The whole place was rebuilt after the original city vanished, almost without trace, in an earthquake in 1948. But that rebuild has been ‘overwritten’ in a huge way. Turkmenistan has a lot of oil and gas money and HAD a megalomaniac for a president, Saparmurat Niyazov, from independence until he died of a massive heart attack in 2006.

He wasn’t really loved, but now there are statues of him everywhere, mostly called for by him. Plus he ordered that much of the city be razed and rebuilt to feed his ‘cult’ status. His slogan was something along the lines of My, Country, My Nation and Me.

There are row upon row of empty and stark apartment and government buildings, tiled in brilliant white and dazzlingly lit to impress at night. It is awe-inspiring, but at the same time cold, sterile and remote. With few cars and people in sight, we found it hard to decide whether Ashgabat was a white version of the Emerald City, a spread out hospital or a movie set waiting for the actors to arrive. We were also pretty sure it would look rather tacky in the light of day, and we were right.

One of the many monuments to the megalomaniac of Turkmenistan.

Let me explain.

Thanks to our hold-up at the port, we were at least a day late arriving in Ashgabat so our hotel arrangements had to be revised. Our delightful and knowledgeable guide, Gözel, a retired university professor of English, arranged for us to stay in two hotels. It’s unbelievable, but no matter how large or grand a hotel looks in Ashgabat, it never has more than a handful of massive rooms or suites. Our hotel, with at least three buildings, seemed large enough to host a sizeable convention, but had only 10 rooms. The lobby was all marble and cushy furniture, but our room had a true seediness about it.

Some of its features—a mattress that was just a tiny bit softer than the terrazzo floor we had slept on the night before, an overhead bare bulb dangling from an electrical cord, a burnt-out but still functioning power point for the bar refrigerator, cracked and missing tiles in the bathroom, rising damp on two walls, a single doona (comforter) cover as a top sheet on a king-size bed (you can imagine the struggle Poor John and I had—he won), a mini throw for a bedspread, at least six storage units, bedside lamps with no lightbulbs, a torn window blind patched up with bandaids, a television that didn’t work, an air-conditioning unit permanently set on 16°C (61°F), room service plates (not ours) left on the ledge outside the room for the whole time we were there and a sign that warned ‘don’t drink from water valve’.

But the food and restaurant and, especially, the restaurant staff made up for everything.

Mohamed, our waiter, spoke some English and was a real charmer. He told us that his aunt got him the job there—I think she manages food service—and he seems to have become the hotel’s all-rounder. The night we arrived, we asked if the restaurant might be willing to serve us all even though we had not yet had a chance to change money. Yes, yes, he said. He was wearing nice slacks and a striped shirt. He wrote a bill for all of us and said ‘pay tomorrow’.

Yes, our fridge was plugged into that outlet.

He served us again at breakfast (this meal was included each day) and he was wearing the same clothes—turns out he sleeps at the hotel because it’s too far (10 kilometres) to go home each night. Next time we saw him, he was watering the lawn and wearing a t-shirt and rolled-up jeans. Later he was sweeping the grounds—wearing that t-shirt and those jeans. That night he took our dinner orders, still wearing the same get-up. His good humour was unfailing, even if his wardrobe never changed. We certainly couldn’t criticise because we regularly wear the same outfit up to four days in a row (once I did eight days).

Mohamed, on a t-shirt day, with Lin and Norm.

Every time we entered the restaurant, Mohamed would crank up the music for our benefit and we’d ask him to turn it down. He would, but would also point out the electronic board that showed us which tune was playing at the time. He was especially partial to Eminem and Lizginka. The latter is a Russian singer and I liked her too.

On our last morning, Mohamed was back in his smart slacks and striped shirt. He told me that he works seven days a week, but that he is allowed to leave early a few days a week so he can go home to visit his family.

Mohamed has the smarts and personality to do well, and Turkmenistan could benefit from having him in charge.

One Comment

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  1. Sy S. NYC / Aug 30 2011 8:56 am

    Leggy Peggy,

    Thanks for all your posts, I have never heard of Ashgabat and it was interesting reading… as well as many of the other places you have now traveled to!

    At my age, I am happy to stay at home and read about your adventures… and I am surprised that at your age of 29+ you still have the stamina and persistence to endure all the hardships and overland/camping/seedy rooms/weird people you have to deal with. Yaaa, for Poor John, a good Swiss knife is important… and don’t we all put things in a good hiding spot and forget.



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