“Hey,” the soldier cried out. We didn’t have to look around to know that he was shouting at us. We were the only ones in the square.
“Show,” the soldier commanded, motioning at my camera. I turned it on and showed him the picture I had taken. A white marble building with a golden dome appeared on the screen.
What? My beautiful pictures of Ashgabat, and now I had to delete them? I did as I was told, when the man got distracted by his phone. My friend and I looked at each other, confused. Did that mean he was done with us?
Just as we were about to leave, the soldier turned back to us.
I held up a hand above my sunglasses to protect my eyes as we crossed the white plaza. We were led to a police officer.
“Picture, big problem,” he said and then turned away from us, while the soldier started playing around with my camera. “Delete. Delete. Delete.”
The impressive white marble buildings I had taken pictures of were, as it later turned out, government buildings. But the soldier didn’t stop there. He went on to the horse statue (“Delete”) to parks (“Delete”) and fountains (“Delete”), erasing my memory of my first three hours in the country. He did the same to my friend’s phone before he released us.
Despite my harsh welcome into the country, I have come to love Turkmenistan’s capital. The white marble buildings, having blinded me at first sight, grew on me. I came to appreciate the cleanliness of the mostly empty streets, the abundance of parks and fountains and, most of all, the people.
“Come,” a bus driver told us a couple of days later. “Nusay Gala.” He left his bus and led us to a different one. We were on our way to the fortress of Nisa, armed with a piece of paper on which our tour guide had written down the name of the fortress in Turkmen. I crunched up the one Manat note in my hand, waiting for the right moment to pass it to him. It never came. When I held out the bill, the driver flat out refused to let us pay for our bus ride.
People guided us through the city and helped us when we got lost. They joked and laughed with us, and their eyes grew wide with disbelief when they heard we were tourists.
Turkmenistan receives very few tourists every year and there is little information you can find on the country. Even guidebooks are incomplete, not mentioning everything there is on offer.
So what should you do if, like us, you have a couple of days in Ashgabat?
1. Take a walk around the city
Ashgabat will be unlike any other city you’ve been to. You may have heard that it is the city with the highest density of white marble buildings but until I got there, I didn’t quite understand what it meant.
Almost everything is made out of marble. Fountains, government and office buildings, even appartment buildings. My friend named one of the areas we drove through the “white marble ghetto” and it fits perfectly.
When you walk around the city, I recommend the area around Inspiration Park and Independence Square. Just don’t let soldiers catch you taking pictures or even just having your camera in your hand on Independence Square.
2. Tolkuchka Bazaar
Our tour guide told us that the bazaar is most lively on Sundays so that was when we went. Come here to observe locals buying everything, from apples to colourful dresses and cutlery.
The market moved to a location outside the city a couple of years ago. You will either need to take a taxi (the price should be between 10 and 20 Manat as of June 2017) or a marshrutka, which is one of those minibusses that leave from Teke Bazaar. If you ask for Tolkuchka Bazaar someone will be able to point you in the right direction. The minibus costs 1 Manat per person.
3. Visit the National Museum
The national museum consists of three museums. You have to pay an entrance fee for each (at the time I was there, it was 10$), so I suggest you go and see the History one. There was an exhibition about the greatness of the President on the ground floor, showing painted pictures of him standing on a white marble path with white doves flying in the background, or a Turkmen carpet with the image of him riding a horse.
The upper floor is where the interesting exhibits are. There are explanations in English and while I couldn’t always follow, I definitely got a basic grasp of the history of the region.
There are a couple of busses that go here. Ask at your hotel for more information. At select bus stops, you can find maps, but only for the busses that leave from there. You might not be able to catch a direct connection, but the staff at your hotel will be able to help you out so it shouldn’t be a problem.
4. Explore the fortress of Nisa
The fortress of Nisa is one of the most underrated sights in the area. When we arrived, we were the only tourists at this Unesco World Heritage site. There aren’t many signs around the fortress, so if you have the chance to go with a guide, take it. If not, I still recommend you come here because this is your chance to wander around a two-thousand-years old fortress without anyone disturbing you.
To get here, you take one of the minibusses from Teke Bazaar that go to Bagyr. Tell the driver you want to go to Nusay Gala. Busses 6, 10 and 50 also go here. From the bus stop in Bagyr, it is a 10 minute walk to the fortress. If you have told the driver where you want to go, he will point you in the right direction.
5. See Ashgabat at night
We drove around the city at night to see the city lights. All those white marble buildings are lit up in different colours. If you have the chance, I highly recommend you go up to the Wedding Palace, from where you will have a view of the sparkling city underneath you.
If not, just walk around a few blocks and you will still be able to see a different version of Ashgabat at night.
So this was it. If you’re one of the few lucky people who have been to Ashgabat, please let me know what you did there and how you liked it. And if you’re not, I highly recommend you go there. It is a very special place.