Well folks, let’s get ready to RUMBLE! Again. And again I will take you Central Asia as two of the weirder cities in the region face off in what is sure to be a rough and ready contest. In the red corner, the capital of Turkmenistan. The streets are wide and the buildings are blindingly white, we have Ashgabat as our first destination city. In the blue corner, the leafier capital of almost neighbouring but not quite because of Uzbekistan, where the influence of Russian culture has not been forgotten, and where building and building continues at pace, we have Dushanbe! But if you were to travel to Central Asia, which one would I recommend? Let’s pit them against each other and find out!
Both countries are the babies of, shall we say, charismatic leaders? And both clearly had/have visions that the cities should be something special, as you will find incredible buildings in both cities. Turkmenbashi, or Saparmurat Niyazov (which is his actual name) took over in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, took over Turkmenistan and put his stamp firmly on the country.
In contrast, Emomali Rahmon held Tajikistan together after Communism’s fall amidst civil war, through some very hard times, and is still the President today. Niyazov passed away in 2006 whilst in office, and the equally charismatic and possibly even more eccentric Berdimahamedow took the reins.
The result in both cities (and indeed countries) is that you will see portraits, often huge, and of course statues all over the place of these three. And this is while they are in power too. Niyazov in fact erected a gold statue of himself in Independence Park many years back now, and basically wrote the history of Turkmenistan in this green book which generally citizens have a copy of, and it got launched into space too. Also, there is a giant stone replica in Independence Park of said book!
So both cities in some ways owe their current persona to these three men. In quite a fair way actually. They have similar populations – Ashgabat is supposedly the slightly bigger city with just over a million residents, Dushanbe has slightly less than 800,00, all according to the interweb. However, personally I feel that a lot of ‘facts’ about Ashgabat are inflated. It certainly felt like the less busy of the two cities, people were often hard to find.
Whilst both are old cities, Ashgabat certainly comes across as new. Sparklingly new even. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1948. In 1990 the population was a little over 400,000. It certainly seems to have the capacity for a much larger population today, as the “Soviet part”, the part that was rebuilt in Soviet times between 1948 and independence, is only a small part of the present day city. Today the streets are lined with marble apartment buildings (which I question as to the value of this considering there must be a chance of another earthquake some day) and modernistic – or should I say futuristic buildings which rival, if not exceed the excesses of Astana/NurSultan in Kazakhstan.
In contrast, Dushanbe is a mixture of the old and the new. The Soviet features are still there to be seen, with above ground piping in parts and old Soviet buildings. The apartments there certainly are a lot more reminiscent of the ones I’ve seen in Russia. However, you then juxtapose these with the National Museum for example. This is one strange, yet captivating building. Just up the road is the Navruz Palace – See my blog about that here – Navruz Palace – Is this the most INSANE building in Dushanbe?
Certainly the parks in Dushanbe are nicely laid out and well cared for, but so are the ones in Ashgabat, but the scale in Ashgabat is a lot more than Dushanbe. The largest and most important is Independence Park where you’ll find statues of poets and indeed Turkmenbashi.
But let’s talk about one thing which differs from not just city to city but country to country. And that’s access. Tajikistan’s visa laws have been a little tricky in the past, but these days it’s just a matter of an E-visa which came to me in a couple of days. Turkmenistan is a different kettle of fish all together – you need to be on a tour to get the invitation, which you need to get your visa. Unless you can get your hands on the elusive transit visa, which is difficult and rare, but not unknown. Then you have a guide (unless on transit) to show you around, which limits access to some places. Also, in Turkmenistan some places they don’t allow photography, such as of soldiers, military buildings (ok, fair enough) and the Russian Market (which is more of a ‘huh?’ sort of deal.
Public transport – well it’s hard for me to comment on Ashgabat, but basically it’s buses. No trams or whatnot. And I didn’t see an awful lot and there aren’t a lot of people about, so I would think that getting around the large Ashgabat can be time consuming and full of waiting from a public transport perspective. Things are really spaced out in Ashgabat which seems to be built over a wide area indeed.
Dushanbe has excellent public transport, from buses, to trolley-buses, and then taxis and marshrutkas plying the streets for very little money. Of course, there are taxis in Ashgabat too, and they are probably better than the ones in Dushanbe which often require good bartering skills to say the least!
I enjoyed the National Museum in both countries, and would have liked to have checked out the President’s museum in Ashgabat. There are probably more museums of interest in Dushanbe than Ashgabat, I also checked out the Museum of National Antiquities, which is older and more dustier for sure, but does have a 13 metre reclining Buddha.
I liked eating out in Dushanbe, I tried a couple of places in Ashgabat, and there were a few options, but with the greater freedom in Dushanbe comes more dining options too. Check out this post on eating in Dushanbe – Tasting Dushanbe – Food in the Capital of Tajikistan.
The people in Dushanbe were, on the whole pretty friendly and helpful. Certainly my guide is Ashgabat was too, but the lack of people and the lack of exposure to people meant that I couldn’t really chat or connect with anyone there. And I guess, it made the place feel a little less friendly.
The only other thing I can compare these two on is ‘weirdness’. Whether that’s a positive or negative aspect is up to the visitor. And whilst there are strange buildings like Navruz Palace and the National Museum in Dushanbe, all the government buildings are somewhat ‘weird’. Or not, depending on your perspective. For example the building for the department of Education is naturally shaped as a large book. Foreign Affairs features a globe.
All in all, and perhaps surprisingly after all I’ve written, I’m giving the gong comfortably to Dushanbe. For all its weirdness and strange buildings, Ashgabat is perhaps too eerie a place. Certainly if I had to pick a city to live in it would be Dushanbe. And even to visit because you can be a lot more independent in Dushanbe, and there seems a greater mix of things to see and do there. But Ashgabat is a city worth visiting once at least for its jaw-dropping buildings.
What do you think? Do I have ANY readers who have been to both? Please do comment below – and May the Journey Never End!