The Ashgabad Gazette Issue 07

--Saturday, 03 October 98--

The Wonder of Ashgabad Strikes Again
In my white bermuda shorts, white sneakers and white baseball cap I went for a long walk in a city of men who wear long, dark pants and black shoes and who have not much exposure to foreigners. First I walked west looking for the beer garden that someone had told me about. It may be the "Aysberg" (Iceberg?) restaurant that was just a few blocks away and across the street from the Circus but I couldn't tell for certain.

After that I walked in a big circle looking for something more likely without finding it and decided to walk down Magtymguly Street for its full length. Magtymguly is the main commercial street and runs nearly the full width of the city. The population of Ashgabad only about 550,000 and it is the largest city in the country.

On I walked, past the giant stadium that was finished just last year and will the center piece of the national day celebrations which are scheduled for October 27th. Then a girl caught up with me. She was about 12 years old and asked me if I was foreigner. I said I was American. She said that she wanted to practice her English. That was fine so we chatted while her two girl friends walked ten steps back because they were not a sure of their English as my friend. She said her name was Nina and she was in the 10th form. She was very neatly dressed in Western style.

She asked if I would pose for a picture with them and I said yes so we walk back so we could have the Stadium as a backdrop. On the way she introduced me to a teacher from her school who was directing a bunch of boys who were sweeping up caked earth around the trees edging the sidewalk. The teacher was a real babushka and seemed very friendly. We exchanged a few hellos and then they took a picture of me and I reciprocated.

I happened to walk by two large crowds in different parts of the city. Each crowd was around a bank and everyone was trying to get in, pressing up against each other, talking loudly and displaying agitation. The exchange problem is becoming growing.

On I walked, through the center of town and on to the American Embassy and to the Ashgabad's one department store which is on the same block as the embassy. It is really more a mall without the mall since it consists of three levels of small, independently owned (?) stores. I caught the eye of one guy who was trying to sell some beauty products to a lady customer and decided to take some time to examine his merchandise. The store consisted of a long counter stocking beauty products, electronic gadgets, and a miscellany of other items.

As I walk back to the front he spoke to me and asked if I was American. We chatted briefly and I remarked that he spoke English with very little accent. He was obviously proud of this and said that in school he had had two American teachers and had always concentrated on the American terms rather than the British; he made a point of distinguishing between fall and autumn (something I only caught on to this summer when I was reading Mencken's "American Language."

He went on to say that his accent wasn't as good as it was since he had little chance to speak English and had been traveling to Kiev recently. Then he asked me my name and said his was Tim, the American version of Vadim. I said, "Tim, Vadim" practicing. He asked if I had a telephone number and I gave it to him. He gave me his without my asking.

I then decided to take advantage of the situation for all I could and asked him what was the word for "butter." "Masla," he said and wrote it down for me in English and is Russian. I thanked him for it and said I was going to buy some in a store I had already been to. I did and was walking out past him and stopped and said thanks to him, I now had some butter. He seemed pleased. I said goodbye and left.

Here is a picture of the mosque that Turkey paid to have built in Ashgabad. It is said to be modeled after the famous Blue Mosque in Instanbul.
On I walked and was passing a park when I could catch the outline of something tall on the other side of the park. I decided to investigate and discovered a brand new mosque all gleaming in white marble. It is quite large and at first I thought it was a reproduction of the fabled Aya Sophia of Istanbul. My guidebook brought me up short with the statement that it was a new Turkish-style, Turkish financed mosque similar in appearance to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

I found out later that someone had died while it was under construction and people believe that it has bad karma so they don't want to worship there. Apparently it is used as a school. I wondered about this until I realized that this part of the world used to be a stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Hmm. Maybe some things never change.

There seemed to be not way to enter the mosque so . . .

On I walked. Before long I had reached the end of Magtymguly and turned left and walked north looking for Kemene Street which parallels Magtymguly and on which I planned to walk back home. Kemene wasn't there but a shaded cafe was. That was worth an hour and three beers. After all, I had to be sure that I wasn't becoming dehydrated.

The walk back was mostly distinguished by what it wasn't. One block off the main drag and no commercial activity had penetrated to it except in the very center of the city where there were offices for various government corporations. This is a small town.

It was a nice day for a walk but it was hot in the sun and when I got back to my apartment I was sweaty and wanted to take a shower. Too bad it was 4:30 PM and the water is only available from 6 AM - 10 AM, 12:30 PM - 3 PM and 5 PM to 10:30 PM. So I took a nap and refreshed myself that way.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley