Saturday, November 14, 2015

Wandering around Ashgabat

I had some time off to explore the city of Ashgabat. One of the most striking features of the city is how nearly every building seems to be made from white stone with gold trim. Of course, there are some distinct challenges to take photos in the city: You are not allowed to take photos of government buildings, which wouldn't normally be an issue except that every building seems like it's a government building, and there are police everywhere to make sure that you abide by the rules.
The Protector of Turkmenistan
Ok, so that's the official position, but it turns out that "government building" primarily applies to just the President's buildings. Make no mistake, Ashgabat is the President's city and everyone else gets to live here. When I arrived earlier this week, I heard that the President was returning from China. The expediter told me that meant the main roads would be shut down. I also learned that the President doesn't want to see anyone on the streets when he's on them...police will guide people off the sidewalks to literally hide behind bushes. Or demand that our crane operator climb down from his cab way up in the air.

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But I also had access to a local driver who took me to some of the best sights on a beautifully clear day, and he had no problem with stopping to let me take a picture before continuing on. So, I hope you enjoy my photos from one of the world's most repressive countries.

Turkmen Carpet Museum
Turkmenistan actually has a Ministry of Carpets, so you know it's a big deal As it turns out, you can take as many pictures as you want to inside the Carpet museum...but it will cost you about 10 Monat (~$3) per photo. There is one photo you can take for free, of the Guinness World Record carpet (it's 14m by 21m and took ~8 months to make).
World's largest carpet (and an Akhul Teke horse carpet)
It really is a fascinating museum. More of a gallery really, with several alcoves on each floor containing maybe 10 carpets per alcove hung on the walls or laid on the floors or trunks. The second floor contains representative styles from the various regions of Turkmenistan, and the basement has a carpet workshop (you can see the workshop samples in the photo above). Definitely worth the 41 Monat (~$12 USD) entry fee.
This Teke Gul pattern is ubiquitous in Turkmen carpets (and elsewhere):
It's supposed to look like goose feet around a lake with cotton blooms.
I probably should have paid the money to take a picture of the most unique carpets I've ever seen. One of them was actually a curtain like tapestry, where the left, top, and right borders of a carpet were normal, but the middle was actually 4 inch vertical strips (there was no bottom border). Another one was of an Akhul Teke horse that looked almost like a painting (you can see it in the gallery photo above). What you can't see in the photo is the minute detail, which included the subtle overlay of the Teke Gul pattern over the entire carpet. Truly a work of art.


Outdoor Monuments
Ashgabat had lots of monuments. Pick a historic event, there's probably a monument for it. But here's the crazy part: When the previous president Saparmurat Niyazov, who referred to himself as "Türkmenbaşy" died, the new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow moved several monuments around the city...including the most famous one: The Arch of Neutrality where a golden statue of Turkmenbashi rotates to face the sun (the new location no longer rotates).
RRR and Turkmenbashi
The Neutrality Monument was moved from near the Presidential palace
to the outskirts of the city
 when the new President took office.
Also, check this out: they shuffled a couple of other monuments around the city as well.
Ashgabat in 2013 (Thanks Google)
Same golden statue, but where are the horses (and for that matter, those stairs)?
Oh, there they are!
(15 minutes away)
I also went up to the Russian market, but there are strict rules against photography in markets and bazaars: undercover police will come up and demand that you delete the photos. Knowing that, it really wasn't worth the hassle. It's a two-story, horseshoe-shaped building containing clothing and electronics stores with an open air atrium where all manner of fruits, vegetables, and spices are sold. The intoxicating smell of spices gave way to pickled cabbage when the winds shifted. You can get some cheap eats here too.

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Traditional Turkmen Dress
One of the things I like most about the people of Turkmenistan is what they wear. For the women, there are basically two categories of dress. Students wear a long dress (green for high school, red for university) with a small cap and unusually long (waist-level)braids. Married women wear a bright/floral headdress and coordinated skirt, usually paired with a black or gray jacket. I did see some women wearing both the university dress and a headdress...I'm told they are the professors.
The red dresses look like roses next to the greenery.
Students waiting for Gypsy cabs
Married Turkmen women crossing the street
The men basically wear suits, and the male students wear the same style small hat as the female students. If you're going casual, blue jeans pair with black shoes and a black jacket will allow you to blend in very, very well.

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