Arriving in the capital city of Ashgabat, I wondered if I was still in Turkmenistan.
Or had I been transported somewhere over the rainbow to the Land of Oz?
All I needed was green-tinted glasses and I would have sworn I was driving through the Emerald City.
It didn’t feel real.
It had to be something out of a book or movie.
Real cities just didn’t look like this: gargantuan white marble buildings trimmed in gold, perfectly manicured lawns and practically empty sidewalks. A capital city never felt so sterile.
And everything that wasn’t white and gold seemed to be green.
I think not.
While the Wizard of Oz may have ruled the Emerald City, it seemed that Ashgabat was conquered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Policemen stood at every corner, by every building, and everywhere in between. They seemed to be on the lookout for three things: people walking where they shouldn’t be walking; people trying to take pictures of just about anything; and people driving dirty cars.
Yes, it is illegal to drive a dirty car in Ashgabat.
Taking pictures of nearly every cool looking building or monument is also forbidden, which makes being a tourist and a travel blogger difficult and annoying. Surrounded by buildings that made my jaw drop, I had to restrain myself from whipping out my camera lest I get a stern warning from a man in uniform (although I did make good use of the zoom on my camera!). And believe me, I heard my share of warnings even without my camera in my hand.
Walking down Turkmenbashy Avenue, I apparently strayed too close to the Presidential Palace complex. An officer swiftly instructed me to cross the street and added that photos were “nilzya” – forbidden (I still got the shot below from far, far away).
The next day, I again got too close to something without realizing it and was scolded a second time, this time by two officers who insisted they didn’t know Russian and refused to give me directions as to which way I could go to return to my hotel.
I tried to avoid a third scolding by asking permission before taking a picture of a tall monument near the Presidential Palace. I didn’t want to snap a photo of any of the surrounding buildings – just the tall black and gold column that stood in a circle in the middle of the four-way intersection (I had taken the picture below earlier from a few blocks away).
But apparently even asking to take a picture of a non-building is a serious offense, because that resulted in more harsh words being thrown my way as well. After just a day and a half in the city, Ashgabat had me close to tears. I felt like Dorothy, I just wanted to go home (or at least to any place that was not Ashgabat).
Luckily, I encountered my own friendly lion or tin man or whatever Wizard of Oz comparison might work. Feeling desperately lost and unable to figure out where to safely cross the street (Ashgabat has huge, busy parkways with few crosswalks and the only nearby underpass was closed), I nervously approached a policeman who appeared to be off-duty. Rather than yell at me or scold me in any way, he actually gave me directions and helped me to cross the street – and then complimented me on my Russian and told me to enjoy the rest of my time in Ashgabat.
I tried to. I really did.
I visited the National Museum, which is divided into three separate museums. I asked for a ticket to the History Museum and left thinking it was a very impressive museum, with explanations in English and well-organized displays, but that it lacked anything related to Turkmenistan’s Silk Road legacy. That all made sense when I later realized I had actually been walking through the Nature & Ethnographic Museum. Oops.
In front of the museum, I saw the largest flag in the world on display and miraculously no one stopped me when I took not just one, but several pictures of it.
I also checked out the Russian Bazaar and strolled around several of Ashgabat’s parks – just about the only places in the city that aren’t built out of white marble and gold and where I could freely take pictures (although I still found myself looking over my shoulder).
Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief as my guide picked me up and shuttled me back over the rainbow and out of Ashgabat for good.