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The City of White Marble: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

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Travel photographer Amos Chapple recently crossed into Turkmenistan on a three-day transit visa and was able to photograph many of the sights and monuments in Ashgabat, the capital and largest city. Turkmenistan is a single-party country, a former Soviet state, run by a president at the center of a cult of personality. Chapple: "Twice before I'd had tourist visa applications rejected, so it felt like entering a forbidden place. When we drove into Ashgabat I assumed there was some kind of holiday taking place -- the streets and all these beautiful parks stood deserted. In the area I first walked there were more soldiers than civilians. They patrol the city center and are extremely jumpy about photographs. Twice, soldiers shouted at me from a distance then ran up and demanded pictures be deleted." Ashgabat was recently noted by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most white marble-clad buildings in the world -- 543 new buildings lined with white marble covering a total area of 4.5 million square meters. (Also, see earlier photographs by Chapple featured here in March: A Trip to Iran) [20 photos]

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A young couple leave the Alem Entertainment Center in Ashgabat. The current president has a history of breaking obscure records. In 2012 the wheel atop this complex was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest enclosed Ferris wheel. The structure was built at a cost of $90m. (© Amos Chapple)
A young couple leave the Alem Entertainment Center in Ashgabat. The current president has a history of breaking obscure records. In 2012 the wheel atop this complex was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest enclosed Ferris wheel. The structure was built at a cost of $90m. (© Amos Chapple)
The 600ft Constitution Monument in Ashgabat, with the Tele-radio Center in background. (© Amos Chapple) #
One of many golden statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, former President for Life of Turkmenistan, with native Akhal-Teke horses depicted atop a monument marking 10 years of independence. The hardy desert horse is Turkmenistan's national symbol, and a passion of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. In his book The Flight of Celestial Racehorse, Berdimuhamedow aligns himself with the noble Akhal-Teke breed in one of the more bizarre quotes from the book: "Riding on horse, driving plane steering wheel, sea liner, driving powerful (truck), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov not just demonstrates wonderful physical shape and high professional skills in every business, he fixes in people's minds the image of modern (strongman), who has to do a lot. He must be well-educated, physically strong and esthetically erudite." Unfortunately for Berdimuhamedow, a festival to celebrate the horses earlier this year ended with the president taking a spectacular fall which was shared widely on YouTube. (© Amos Chapple) #
The Serdar Health Path, winding into the hills south of Ashgabat. The 8km track features prominently in the country's annual "Health Week". In 2000, former president Saparmurat Niyazov made an example of his entire cabinet, cheering them them on as they struggled their way up the path -- he'd been flown to the top by helicopter. (© Amos Chapple) #
Left: Ashgabat Tele-radio Center, in the hills overlooking Ashgabat. Right: A holdover from the Soviet era, Saparmurat Niyazov had been promoted within the communist party for his deference (Moscow was worried about nationalist sentiments in the distant Central Asian republics). After the collapse of the soviet union Niyazov found himself at the helm of an independent nation and a cult of personality. Gas revenues funded a descent into an increasingly bizarre dictatorship -- dogs were banned, hospitals and libraries were closed outside of the capital, and months of the year were renamed after members of his family. (© Amos Chapple) #
Inside the Oguzkent Hotel, in the center of Ashgabat. (© Amos Chapple) #
Left: A Turkmen mother and child shelter during a heavy rainstorm in the capital. Almost all women wear traditional Turkmen clothing when in public. Right: An ornate telephone booth in the city center. (© Amos Chapple) #
A boy drinks a glass of water given him by his grandmother on a 108F (42C) day. According to one guidebook "only the insane or deeply unfortunate" end up in Ashgabat in the hottest months of July and August. (© Amos Chapple) #
Soldiers stand at attention at the base of the Constitution Monument in Ashgabat. (© Amos Chapple) #
Precisely stacked drinks in a store in the center of Ashgabat. The main street of the capital features lavish shops which were part of the architectural grand plan but are seldom used by locals. Daily life under the new president is reportedly easier than before when food shortages were common. "We might not always be able to afford it, but the food is there" said one student. (© Amos Chapple) #
Two young women strap themselves into bumper cars in the Alem Entertainment Center. (© Amos Chapple) #
A giant thermometer, and a screen playing a loop of official ceremonies in the center of Ashgabat. (© Amos Chapple) #
A gardener shrouded against the sun on a 104F (40C) day in Ashgabat. Despite their country's wealth, ordinary people receive little economic trickle-down. Workers like this one earn around $150 a month maintaining the white marble city. (© Amos Chapple) #
The Monument to Neutrality featuring (and erected by) former president Saparmurat Niyazov. Public buses are routed up an eight-lane boulevard to its base, otherwise it stands mostly deserted. Despite the scarcity of visitors, soldiers at the feet of the structure stand at attention throughout the day. (© Amos Chapple) #
The shell of a MiG-15 fighter in the Karakum desert. Unlike most of the Central Asian republics, Soviet relics like this one have mostly disappeared from Turkmenistan's cities. (© Amos Chapple) #
A portrait of the current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow on a dashboard of a taxi. The former dentist took over the presidency after the death of Niyazov in 2006. Most of the bizarre excesses of his predecessor were swiftly rolled back, but on civil liberties and human rights, he's in less of a rush, telling a reporter "never run to where you can simply walk." (© Amos Chapple) #
120 miles from the opulence of Ashgabat is the village of Erbent. In 2004 President Niyazov commented on the ugly appearance of the nearby village of Derweze. Three weeks later the residents were evicted and the village razed to the ground. Many of the displaced now live in yurts here in Erbent. The site of Derweze today is a discolored smudge on the desert floor. (© Amos Chapple) #
A vivid display of the country's huge gas reserves is the Darvaza gas crater. In the 1970s, Soviet engineers accidentally collapsed this cavern about 260 km north of Ashgabat, while exploring for gas in the Karakum Desert. The escaping methane was lit, intending to quickly burn it off and avoid poisoning nearby villages, but it has continued burning ever since. (© Amos Chapple) #
Declaring himself Leader of the Turkmen, Niyazov began what he called Turkmenistan's "Golden Age". Subsidies on gas, water and petrol went some way to placating the population (in 2005 petrol cost 2c a liter), but as his city of white marble rose from the desert, funding for education was slashed and a third of all pensions were cut. (© Amos Chapple) #
A cleaner at work in front of Ashgabat's "Palace of Happiness." The wedding venue features a room where newlyweds are required to pose in front of a portrait of the President. Radio Free Europe subsequently dubbed Berdimuhamedow "Photobomber-in-Chief". (© Amos Chapple) #

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