The absurd splendor of Turkmenistan’s architecture hits you from the get-go with its airport. The main terminal in Ashgabat International is shaped like a soaring falcon and cost $2.3 billion USD to construct. This sparked some controversy as critics claimed the building was much larger than needed to handle the country’s relatively low traffic rates. When I passed through two years ago, that was very much the case, as the pristine airport was practically echoing.
Turkmenistan was a Soviet state until 1990 and much of its urban spaces reflect that in highly functional apartment blocks and office buildings. However, the nation’s most fascinating structures are thanks to the first post-independence president Saparmurat Niyazov (1940-2006), who was an eccentric and repressive dictator in the ilk of North Korea’s ruling family.
But unlike Kim Il-Sung and his descendants, Niyazov had money to burn; Turkmenistan possesses the world’s sixth largest reserves of natural gas as well as substantial oil resources. A great many of his lavish building projects are found in the capital city of Ashgabat, which holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s highest concentration of white marble buildings. Listing all of the city’s unique structures would take a while, but here are some of the more memorable ones.
And yes, every single one of them lights up at night.
One reason that Turkmenistan doesn’t often make international news is because of its official stance of permanent neutrality, which was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1995. This 312 ft (95 m) high monument honors that and also houses the Neutrality Museum.
Mounted on top of an arcade and bumper cars, the Älem (literally “The Universe”) is the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel at 154 ft (47 m). It was, I kid you not, full of dead birds.
Constructed in honor of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, this 298 ft (91 m) reinforced concrete tower takes its design from the traditional Turkmen yurt. It’s ringed by 27 statues of historical Turkmen heroes.
Nothing says marriage like a state emblem. The eight-pointed starburst, usually green with gold edges, is a recurring motif in Turkmen architecture. The 11-story Wedding Palace contains over a dozen wedding halls, dining halls, a hotel with 22 rooms, and a shopping center. We were fortunate enough to arrive at the same time as a double wedding and witnessed a joyous, music-infused celebration.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.