Ashgabat is one of the fastest changing cities in the world. The reason for this is the centrally planned redesign program to which the city has been subject for more than 20 years. Through this program the presidents of the country intend to demonstrate the prosperity of the republic. For this purpose, entire city districts are being laid down and rebuilt in a specially designed monumental architectural style. Huge triumphal arches, oversized plazas, multi-lane parade streets and boulevards, the largest fountains in the world, extensive park landscapes and an almost unmanageable number of new buildings clad in white marble and often decorated with gold elements are the core elements of this redesign.
The Tolkutschka Bazaar, which recently moved into a new building, is a highlight of everyday Central Asian culture. It is true that this has lost part of its previously anarchic-chaotic atmosphere. However, the sales pitches of the camel and mutton dealers are as fascinating to watch as ever.
Explore routes through the city – Ashgabat
Every visit to the capital is shaped by the overwhelming impression of the monumental neo-Turkmenistan architecture. This applies in particular to visits to the southern districts of the city. Due to the considerable distances, they can only be accessed on foot in individual sections. In addition, it is easy to overlook the often remarkable and in any case remarkable traces of past decades between the new buildings. For this reason, some exemplary routes are proposed below, which, depending on the time budget, can give a good impression of the architectural features of Ashgabat. The accessibility of the various sights is discussed in detail in the respective sections.
Route 1) The government district (25 – 60 minutes, on foot)
The short way(about 25 – 30 minutes) from the central Paradeplatz in front of the Presidential Palace along Independence Street to the university gives a good first impression of the dominant monumental architecture. The path begins at the old presidential palace, opposite the presidential grandstand. Immediately north of the square is the former Karakumstroi office and service building. Today called the “World Trade Complex”, some service companies such as banks and offices of the mobile phone companies represented in the country (MTS and Türkmentelecom) are still housed here. Immediately next to it is the currently vacant building of the Karl Marx Library (formerly the National Library), which was completed in 1962. From here the route leads along important ministries,
To get a better impression of the Neo-Turkmenistan architecture (see section “Overview”, Chapter 1.7.1), this path can be extended to both the west and the east. A useful starting point is the head end of the boulevard west of the old presidential palace (Mollanepes Street, see illustration below). The small place of honor in front of the monument for the father of the first President at the head of the street was fundamentally redesigned in 2014 in favor of monumental new buildings. The monument was moved to the outskirts. Instead of going to the university, you could turn south at Independence Square (roundabout between Hotel Nissa and the Presidential Palace). There are numerous other government buildings here along Saparmurat Turkmenbashi Street. The walk ends after about an hour at the Olympic Village.
In any case, the route leads through the government district, so extreme caution is advisable when taking photos. Recordings of the Oghuz-Khan complex are strictly prohibited and should not be taken under any circumstances, since such images can lead to severe penalties if the storage media are checked at any time.
Route 2) Architectural history of Ashgabat (30 – 40 minutes, on foot) Some of the remaining evidence of early Soviet architectural development in Ashgabat can be seen
on this route. At the same time, important new buildings from the post-Soviet era are passed. The route begins in one of the few interior areas of the settlement units that were once typical of Ashgabat, still largely in the original style, in the city center. The buildings, which are more or less closed towards the main streets, are loosened up towards the inside by shady trees and allotments. Access is via narrow streets with little through traffic (here Kalinina Street).
To the east, one of the new splendid axes (Memorial Park) is crossed, for the construction of which many of these residential units have recently been abandoned. Immediately behind the splendid axis, on the left (north) side of Azadi Street, you can still see some of the once often splendid buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the residential buildings of the Tsar period hardly differ from the early Soviet ones (built up until the 1930’s). A residential part built from fire bricks is extended to the north and south by wooden porches (or on the upper floor by closed verandas), which offer a comparatively cool extension of the living space in summer and additionally insulate the living area in winter.
You will then pass the Russian Bazaar on the right and the “Owadan” service center, built in the 1970’s and clad with aluminum composite elements in a marble look, on the left. As in the Soviet era, numerous end-customer-oriented service providers are still housed here, including a travel agency, a shoemaker or – on the first floor – one of the canteens that are typical of Soviet inner cities, often hidden from outsiders, in which simple meals are served for little money at lunchtime. Further west on Bitaraplyk Street, it is worth taking a detour a few meters north to take a look at the arcaded building of the Academy of Sciences.
Before entering Lenin Park, just a few meters to the west, you should definitely not miss the former building of the Communist Party of the Turkmenistan Soviet Republic north of Azadi Street (on the left). Ernst Neizvestny’s expressive sculpture, with its only rudimentary Soviet-typical aesthetics, testifies to the considerable creative freedom that the artist was granted. One of the few remaining Lenin statues stands in Lenin Park. It probably owes its preservation beyond the end of the Soviet Union to the design of the base, the ornamentation of which is based on the typical Turkmenistan carpet patterns. Turning off at Maktimkhuli Street (formerly Swoboda), the Soviet-era Hotel Ashgabat is on the left (north side of the street). While the interior has lost little of the charm of the 1970’s beyond the redesigned lobby, the facade corresponds to the white marble look of all government buildings. Opposite the hotel is the “Turkmenistan”, another Soviet-era service center. In contrast to the “Owadan”, the interior design already corresponds to the post-Soviet preferences dominated by marble and granite. Further to the west you will pass the theater, which was completed in the 1950’s. In the meantime clad in white, some decorative elements from the past decades can still be seen inside, which are based on the Central Asian design language. When crossing Turkmenbaschi Street (on the corner of Erste Park – Pervij Park) it is worth taking a look (and possibly a detour) to the train station. This, too, has now been clad with white marble slabs. The interior still bears witness to the importance expressed by the representative station buildings that the Russian colonial rulers as well as the Soviet leadership assigned to the development of the railway network. Further to the west, at the end of the path, there are Stalin-era residential units, which are still clearly reminiscent of early Soviet buildings. Here, too, the greened interior space is surrounded by almost closed buildings. The oriental need for private and semi-private retreats is taken into account,
Route 3: Soon a thing of the past: the traditional residential areas (about an hour, on foot)
This exciting route leads through some of the last remaining traditional residential areas of Ashgabat. Since the city districts to be visited are currently subject to a comprehensive redesign program, it is essential to carry out a comparison with current satellite images as soon as possible before the excursion begins. Due to the speed of the renovation and demolition measures, the correctness of the following information cannot be guaranteed.
Several streets with newly built houses are crossed along the way. These form an excellent contrast to the main focus of the route. The western end of Mollanepes Street is an easy-to-reach starting point (see route suggestion 1).
In an imaginary extension of the monumental Mollanepes Street, the path leads from here first to the northwest and behind Jablochnaja / Görögly Street with some monumental new buildings directly into the first traditional residential area. Since the numerous identical streets of the district are not stored in Google Maps, the route shown is actually only a rough suggestion. It is therefore advisable to let yourself drift a little in the district and only roughly follow the suggested route. For orientation: the uphill paths move away from the city center, downhill it goes back towards Jablochnaja / Görögly Straße.
If you are facing south, you will inevitably come across Tashauzskaya Street (signposted at the beginning of the street), which borders the district. This is followed by another traditional residential area, the residents of which are already directly affected by the approaching monumental architecture. Since 2008, more than 4/5 of the district have fallen victim to new buildings. The residents were relocated to the desert fringes in the north of the city (affected by swamping due to the proximity of the Karakum Canal). Only in the far west have some original streets been preserved, but they will also be demolished in winter 2015/2016. After a path through the city district, guided again more by one’s own intuition than by the specifications of the route proposal, another monumental axis is crossed with Bitaraplyk Street (neutrality street). Huge new buildings line the street between the building fronts, which is more than 50 m wide.
Immediately behind it, the remains of the last traditional district walked on this route are passed through. However, this is currently being demolished. According to the latest impressions on site, the demolition work was accelerated in autumn 2015, so that it is to be expected that the quarter will have completely disappeared by spring 2016. With the construction of numerous new city quarters, including the “Creative Quarter” and the “Business District”, as well as the construction of numerous new thoroughfares to develop this area of the capital, the loss of traditional architecture has been particularly great in the past. Accordingly, the remaining stock is limited in all directions by new splendid axes and the new buildings are visible at all times and a warning sign that the remaining remains are about to be demolished. When you reach Oguzkhan Street, which is again more than 50 m wide, this path ends at another new splendid axis. In an easterly direction following Oguzkhan Street one arrives at the “Olympic Village”.
Route 4: Magnificent buildings of neo-Turkmenistan architecture (1.5 – 3 hours, depending on the length of the stay, by car)
This route through the south of the capital leads along some of the most striking since independence – and here in particular since Berdimuhamedov came to power. resulting neo-Turkmenistan magnificent buildings.
The slightly longer first part of the tour leads from the city center to the starting point of the health trail. The slightly shorter way back then along another way back to the starting point.
The place in front of the Russian Bazaar was chosen as the starting point, as there are enough taxis available here at all times and, after a little search and with a little luck, you can also find a driver who speaks a little English or German. In any case, it makes sense to have the route printed out to hand – or at least to be able to show a reasonably good map of the city center. The price of the trip should be set in advance. In addition to the pure driving distance (about 40km), the time for taking pictures and sightseeing should also be taken into account.
From the Russian Bazaar, the neutrality road is first followed south. After crossing Seydi / Mollanepes Street (the splendid axis from the former site of the neutrality monument to the monument to the memory of President Nijasov’s father), the route leads past the Museum of Fine Arts (right side of the street) and the Ministry of Energy (round tower with large rectangular windows on one Base in the form of an octagonal star, left side of the street).
This is followed by the “Ministry of Fairness” crowned by a single dome on the right-hand side of the street. In front of the building there is a statue of President Niyazov’s mother representing Justitia. As the incarnation of the perfect mother, she embodied absolute justice in Turkmenistan ruled by Niyazov. Since, according to official reports, a state of perfect justice was reached in Turkmenistan around 2003, the institution for the ongoing administration of this state was renamed the “Ministry of Fairness”. Following a similar logic, the Ministry of Health was renamed the “Ministry of Wellbeing” in the middle of the last decade following the banning of most infectious diseases and the closure of numerous hospitals outside the capital.
While turning, it is worth taking a look to the left over the spacious square in front of the presidential grandstand on one side and the former presidential palace (single large golden dome) on the right. And finally, along the Independence Street (Galkynys), which is subsequently closed to vehicles, the foothills of the monumental new presidential palace can be seen on the left, as well as some new buildings of the Turkmenistan administration on the other side of the street.
After the turn, the street leads through the banking district of Ashgabat. On the right-hand side of the road, you will pass the headquarters of the country’s most important banks one after the other, including the National Bank (building next to the Ministry of Fairness) and immediately behind the farmers’ bank. All Turkmenistan banks are in state hands. The last building on the right-hand side of the street is the recently opened luxury Ogzkent Hotel. It is worth taking a break here to take a look at the building’s huge lobby. Upon request, the staff will be happy to give a short tour of some of the luxurious rooms for a tip.
Immediately after turning off at the head end of the park, the horse monument can be seen on the left and in front of it one of the few remaining gilded statues of President Niyazov. On the other side of the park you can see the monumental exhibition building of the achievements of the Turkmens and next to it the center for free creativity (a kind of national media center) built in book form and mirrored with blue glass.
After the park (intersection Atamurat Nijasow Street / Independence Street) you will pass the Ministry of Carpet and the National Carpet Museum on the right. While a whole row of newly built administration and ministerial buildings is passed on the left, it is worthwhile to leave Atamurat Nijasow Street about 200 meters behind the Carpet Museum for a drive through the newly built Olympic Village. The dead straight Ataturk Street leads along some of the most impressive competition arenas as well as the residential buildings of the athletes, the press center and a whole series of newly built stadiums and arenas.
At the intersection with 10 Years of Prosperity Street, Ataturk Street is left. After turning again into “Saparmurat Turkmenbaschi der Great Street”, the path leads along the Independence Park. While a seemingly endless row of administrative and office buildings of Neo-Turkmenistan architecture is passed on the right, the most important monuments of the park can be seen on the left, including the monument for the Ruhnama in the middle and the independence monument at the head of the park. Here you turn left into Archabil-Straße (i.e. Artschabil-Straße), where it is worth taking a look from the circle to (and depending on your time budget, a visit to the) National Cultural Center opposite the Independence Monument.
Immediately after turning, the national ice skating arena is on the left. Further along the road, among other things, the main building of the national university and the Ministry of Health (literally: Ministry of Wellbeing) happens. Afterwards the Archabil Straße is left again for the time being. From Ataturk Street, which in this section is not (yet) completely lined with monumental buildings, it is possible to see on the right-hand side one of the last remains of the original architecture of this part of the city. The few remaining people live here in a bizarre parallel world. The streets of their settlement have hardly any access to the newly built splendid axes and while the directly neighboring splendid buildings are brightly lit at night, there is a lack of running water and a regulated supply of electricity in the residential area. Since this residential area will also disappear shortly, a visit to the alleys behind the magnificent scenery is worthwhile (especially if you speak Russian).
Back on Ataturk Street, we will leave it again for a visit to the equally bizarre “Economic District”. To do this, first turn left into Wysokowoltnaya Street and then immediately right into one of the monumental districts built by the no recognizable target group. As almost everywhere along this route, a functioning neighborhood was sacrificed to the government’s renovation plans. The former residents of the urban area, largely expropriated without compensation, were resettled two years after Berdimuhamedow came to power on the edge of the desert in the north of the city, which was threatened by swamp because of the nearby Karakum Canal.
To drive along a particularly impressive row of new buildings, the road “10 Years of Prosperity” is followed again behind the “Economic District”. With a width of up to 100 meters, this is one of the largest of the new splendid axes in the south of the capital. Depending on your time budget, it is worth taking a short detour to one of the intersecting streets, which usually end a few meters behind the monumental buildings. An example of this is Gyzyl Yldyz Street. From the dead end, the new buildings can be viewed from behind and in front of one of the newly created parks made of bright cornifers. In addition, some of the paths that served to develop the settlement originally located here can still be seen here. At the top with the “largest free-standing thermometer in the world” is turned left (third exit). Further apartment and office buildings in the familiar, monumental neo-Turkmenistan style will follow along the Neutralitätsstraße. Finally, at the next roundabout, it goes back to Archabil Street. After a while, the constitutional monument will be passed on the right. Opposite is the new congress building. Shortly afterwards the foreign ministry crowned by a globe (left) and some time later the “largest indoor ferris wheel in the world” (right), together with a further row of ministries and buildings of the higher administration of the country.
After two large motorway junctions, the six-lane road in this area ends at the foot of the mountains and thus also at the starting point of the health trail. The well-tended green spaces now offer a welcome change from the white of the marble facades in the south of the capital and at the same time relaxation for the upcoming second part of the route.