Ashgabat: The world’s creepiest capital city?
Did you ever play the computer game SimCity? You know, the one where you could build a perfect toy-town city, rule it however you liked from a voyeuristic hovering viewpoint, then rip it apart with a disaster of your choosing?
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to live in one of those cities? Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, might be as close as I’ll ever come to being inside a SimCity creation.
Ashgabat has been rebuilt twice in the past century; once after a huge earthquake in 1948, and again after Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991. Post-independence the city was redesigned to pander to the administration’s cult of personality; that of Saparmurat Niyazov, the then-president and self-appointed “Head of the Turkmen”.
The city is centred around the brutally sparse Independence Square. At either side of Independence Square lies the gleaming Turkmenbashi palace and the Ministry for Turkmen Values, both sporting huge portraits of the former leader. At the end of the square is the new gold, turquoise and marble Parliament House and the Ministry of Fairness (I kid you not). Each building has a golden statue of Niyazov outside it.
At the very centre used to stand Arch of Neutrality. It was huge, but what really made it memorable was the three-storey tall gold statue of Niyazov on top of it. His arms were outstretched towards the sky, and the entire statue rotated slowly through the day so he always faced the sun. The arch has since been moved elsewhere, but is still a tourist attraction.