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White Marble City

Ashgabat gleams with new buildings and gobbles up the old. From EurasiaNet.

by David Trilling 22 February 2011

Turkmenistan's flashy capital is sprawling. Who is building it? And who is buying? The answers aren't clear. But city planners must be burning through cash as fast as the wells can pump the gas out of the ground. And some local residents, inevitably, are being hurt by redevelopment.

 

The "white marble city" – as Ashgabat is tagged by an annual, state-run development expo – grows outward in neat lines of luminous residential towers with tinted blue windows. They look like the models in an architect's studio, but freakishly oversized and bulging, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. In the middle of the day, and in the evening floodlights, too, these new neighborhoods are eerie places, virtually empty.

 

A model of the 'white marble city' is on display at the Sergi Kosgi exhibition center, which itself went up in 2005.

 

An optimist, untroubled by the threat of oversupply, sees the apartments, surrounded by carefully manicured lawns and fountains, as opportunities. A woman in the process of buying one says prices for government employees are discounted by 50 percent with 30 years to repay the local version of a mortgage. Before the discount, a five-room apartment costs $300,000: "It's a good deal because who knows what will happen here? Look around. We expect the value to go up," she says.

 

Traffic weaves its way past new government buildings under construction around a central Ashgabat thoroughfare.

 

But where some see glamorous homes, others see laundered money. City buses snake through acres of construction sites, guarded by corrugated fences tall enough to keep out prying eyes, even ones straining for a peek from the lofty heights of a bus. Few board or disembark until farther out, in the "micro-rayons," residential neighborhoods where people actually live.

 

Construction of new apartments and government buildings proceeds at an astonishing rate in Ashgabat.

 

Suburban Ashgabat looks like any other Soviet city: laundry hangs from cement towers; laughing children skip the cracked pavement below. These districts of five- and ten-story apartment buildings were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s, when Ashgabat was merely the capital of a distant Soviet republic, not the capital of the world's fourth-largest natural-gas tank.

 

The central Gaja district, a warren of low houses surrounded by high walls (Central Asia style), has the misfortune of being in developers' sights. A new four-lane road stops abruptly, temporarily, before a pile of rubble at the district's edge. Pointing directly toward the heart of the neighborhood, the thoroughfare is further blocked by backhoes and tractors, and private homes with fates unknown. Nearby, a newly molded park has taken the place of a veterinary clinic. Workers fight back the desert with garden hoses and sickly saplings, while prospectors dig at the park's margins, excavating bricks from a home bulldozed by city planners.

 

The Gaja neighborhood is slated for demolition to make way for more high-rise apartments.

 

Residents scurry away when they see a foreign photographer; a taxi driver refuses to let him out. In Turkmenistan's atmosphere of tight government control, Gaja is spoken of in hushed tones. Some Ashgabat residents cautiously complain about the injustice of forcibly evicting residents. But these people aren't getting thrown out on the streets, others point out; the state will move them to new apartments.

 

Even so, the grumblers are far outnumbered by those who boast of their capital's beauty and take comfort in its stability. "We don't have democracy, but we don't have war, either," says one, referring to unrest in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Another adds: "That could never happen here because we don't pay for anything, don't even have to work." A third describes his shock when he learned that the Tajik president had promised his people uninterrupted electricity for a three-day holiday. "What is that about? Here we have power all the time and we don't even pay for it," he says.

David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.

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