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Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is a fantastical place long lost in the Soviet past. Constructed in soaring Stalinist style after it was levelled by an earthquake in 1948, the city boasts a handful of historic structures – mosques, statues, and old civic squares – connected by a procession of carefully planned, impeccably clean, marble-flanked boulevards. The city’s ‘Monument to Neutrality’ – a bizarre, futuristic plinth with tripod legs, not unlike a space rocket – is crowned by Ashgabat’s infamous statue of President Niyazov, said to be made of pure gold. Whilst the current administration has not found the heart to melt it down (much less jettison it to outer space), it has moved it from its previously more prominent location in the city centre… and it no longer rotates to always face the sun.
If you’ve ever wondered about life in a hard-line Soviet-style regime, Ashgabat is the place to go. One of the best places to experience the city is the teeming Tolkuchka Bazaar. Filled with authentic hustle and barter, this sprawling traditional market hawks an intriguing array of local produce, crafts, and livestock, from sheepskins to hand-woven carpets to chickens and camels.Read more
More academically, the National Museum contains a wealth of historical exhibits – jewellery, clothing, weapons, musical instruments, carpets, and other cultural objects, antiques and archaeological finds – dating from the Bronze Age to the present. The Museum of Fine Arts features portraits of Turkmen heroes, from poets to warriors to politicians, whilst Independence Park has an array of statues depicting notable persons. The Turkmen Carpet Museum, not to be missed, features fine examples of antique carpets from 18th century. It is home to largest carpet in the world, covering 300 square metres and woven by 40 carpet makers in celebration of Turkmenistan’s 10th year of independence – it is now hanging in the entrance hall.