Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Parting Thoughts from the Parthian Empire

The two weeks I spent in Ashgabat flew by. Here are some of the things that I'm going to remember out the trip. While this area has quite a bit of history, you can tell the city wants to present a very modern feel.

Social Order
The President's motorcade, like most national leaders, shut down the road when it was travelling. But things go a little extreme here: no one is allowed to be out to see (or be seen by?) the motorcade. One day, the motorcade was going to pass by our construction site, so the police required the crane operator to climb down from his cab. I've heard that they also go into the apartment buildings and order the residents to close any windows that face the street.
That's an LED display that pretty much only shows the President.
Another peculiarity is that drivers can get tickets for dirty cars. I'm not talking "just got back from muddin' in my Jeep" kind of dirty...this is "the road was wet and some of the road dust stuck to my car" kind of dirty most North Americans would consider to be their car's standard winter state. Folks here get about a day after the rains to get the cars clean, so it's not uncommon to see men washing cars in a stream in the countryside.
You can live in any building so long as it's white.
And while it's true that most people around the world basically wear the same thing day to day, there's practically a daily uniform here for most residents. The female university must wear red dresses while attending class, male students wear suits (high school girls and younger wear green dresses). The red dresses vary in style just enough to be unique to the individual, but when viewed as a group from a distance they appear to be the same. Most non-university men wear blue jeans and black jackets, while most women wear the traditional floral headdress, matching dress, and a black jacket over it. I've also heard that when a new building is being opened, students are required to stand around to create an insta-crowd...rain or shine.

There's no access to Facebook or other social media, and many generic websites are not accessible either. There's no expectation of privacy, what with the police everywhere. That said, you probably don't have to worry about being in someone else's photos because you never see anyone taking pictures other than a rare selfie.

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Food
OMG, the carbs! I don't know how much bread and rice I ate during my trip, but it far outweighed the veggies and meats. The grocery stores here are heavy on that stuff as well. It's definitely a Coca-Cola country: the hotel even had a Coca-Cola glass in my room. Here's a link to traditional Turkmen cuisine with photos.

As for when I went out, here's a menu of a place I ate at most often:

We ate everything on the first menu. It cost ~$3 USD.
There were a few really good restaurants, and I really liked the food at "The Pork Chop Place"...but good luck finding it (I linked to the Google Maps location). I tried the local "Zip Beer" here. It was okay.
Also known as "The Pork Chop Place"
After we had finished eating at a Turkish restaurant, I was standing outside watching some folks play soccer while my coworker looked for a few items at the convenience store. There was club music pumping, you know "boom boom, whistle whistle" and then all of a sudden, the power on the entire block cut out like it had been timed to the music. Weird.

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Just Different Enough
Visually, it feels like Las Vegas and Pyongyang got together and traded design tips. Neon lights casting a glowing rainbow of colors across polished white marble buildings with sparkling gold trim. Even so, I'd describe the vibe in Ashgabat as simultaneously ostentatious yet subtly oppressive. But the architecture is quite fascinating, if a bit literal. Many buildings are built in the shape of the object they represent: Ministry of Education is an open book; a dental clinic in the shape of a tooth (from the ground); an eye clinic that looks like an eye (from above); a gas and oil building in the shape of a cigarette lighter.
Bright lights and darkness.

An indoor ferris wheel
Rocket launch or neon monument?
The carpet pattern motif is everywhere...
EVERYWHERE!
Fogged in
If you look closely, the carpet patterns are also in the traffic structures.
There's no real tourist industry, so it's quite hard to buy souvenirs other than two or three types of things. I did find the perfect addition to my travel trinket collection, metallic white horses with gold trim (just like the building here!).

There are lots of buildings that seem to stand empty, but I guess it's hard to do business on roads that the president randomly closes down.
Also, you see remnants of the Soviet influence all over the place, but perhaps no more obvious than the statue of Lenin in a park that bears his name.
That's a statue of Lenin, y'all.
And then there is that whole horse thing...

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