Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: The Other White City Paved in Gold

I am in a landlocked Dubai. A white city sprung from the desert. Rich from oil and gas that has bloomed with the conclusion of the Soviet occupation.

We arrrived late last night (actually 2:30 am) and after standing in the visa check line, paying our $12 registration fee, continuing on to the passport line, locating our luggage and passing through customs, we met our young local guide Igor who led us to our bus for a 15 minute ride to the five star Sofitel Hotel. We were wrapped in luxury.

But then this entire city appears wrapped in luxury. It is a white city, just like the White City of the 1983 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, except that these buildings are not built in the plaster-of-paris-like material with which Burnham constructed his buildings, but rather of marble. The town, the capitol of Turkmenistan, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1940s and rebuilt eventually by the Soviets. But when the Soviets left in 1991, the present head of government completely rebuilt the city from scratch.

White buildings, some 20 stories high, long low government buildings, some with bronze domes, others with pastel painted ones. stretch along main street, their brass/gold lettering and designs glittering in the sun. The buildings stand out against a backdrop of tall dusty beige sand dunes. We are in the middle of a desert. Yet, the buildings are set in the middle of large green lawns, bordered by flowers--roses, marigolds, phlox and zinnia, white pines and blue spruce. Fountains spring up everywhere. They cascade down the steps of our hotel. They flow along the median of the main street.

Against all of this glaring whiteness are the rich hues of the women workers in their traditional dresses and head coverings of crimson red, royal blue and emerald green as they move in and out of the buildings. These women have a gypsy-like quality about them. We met them at the airport. Raven hair and flashing brown eyes. Could we take one of their packages through the lines to the waiting area, they asked. We demurred, almost sorry we could not help them.

Not a speck of dust disturbs this white facade. The 'janitors,' as our guide described them, arrive every night to scrub the streets. But they are also there during the day. These are mostly women, again in traditional garb. I watched one clean the windows of the bus stop kiosk.

I slept late today and caught breakfast just at the end. It was a lovely buffet of fresh fruits, some of which I could not name, some very thin cut fish, a wonderful green sweet roll (I have no idea what made it green but I am sure the sweetness came from honey, as did so much of the sweet cakes and candies in Istanbul.) No activities were scheduled for today, giving us all a chance to catch up on some sleep and relax. Tomorrow we begin touring again.

Filed under: Turkmenistan

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  • Sounds as though you are doing quite well. The contrasts between the historic areas and those developed as a result of oil must be fascinating.

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    Carolyn Boiarsky

    " I am an American," but not "Chicago born" like Augie March. Only Chicago aged. I'd like to think that if Henry Louis Gates were to investigate my geneology, he would discover in my past three women who traveled around the globe, chronicling their adventures. Sarah Kemble Knight traveled 112 miles by carriage from Boston to New York in 1704, a journey most women did not embark on alone (and men did so only with some trepidation). In fact, women were only just beginning to exercise their independence in the 1920's when Emily Kimbrough took off with her friend, Cornelia Otis Skinner, to explore Europe. But it is Auntie Mame, transforming herself from a New Yorker to the wife of an Austrian Baron and climbing the Matterhorn, whose mantra I have adopted. "LIFE IS A BANQUET...LIVE!" I began travelling in the 1960's when I traveled around western Europe between graduating from the Univiersity of Pennsylvania and my first job as a statehouse correspondent for UPI (United Press International) in Charleston, West Virginia, which was about as foreign a place as Europe was to someone who grew up in the environs of Philadelphia. Since then, I've also travelled to Kaunas, Lithuania, to teach at Vytautus Magnus University and to Sheffield, England, to present a paper at an engineering conference. I've been to the Alps and seen Auntie Mame's Matterhorn while climbing, by a series of cable cars rather than by foot, toward the peak of Mont Blanc. For the past 10 years my husband and I have been traveling to unique places: a sheep farm during lambing season in England's Lake Country, a hotel on one of the Barromeo Islands in the middle of Lake Maggiore in Northern Italy, and a cottage in Dun Quin on the Dingle Peninsula which the Irish claim is the last parish before Boston. Between excursions, I'm a professor in the Department of English at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Indiana,. My husband passed away recently and, Auntie Mame-style, I am in the process of transforming myself. Last year I joined a tour to Central Asia. This year I'm going to China to work with the pandas. A new adventure. Another banquet.

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