August 01, 2014

Peak hour in Ashgabat

Despite the attractions of virtually free petrol*, the roads in the centre of Ashgabat are deserted much of the time. Huge marble clad buildings surround the roads, Turkmenistan is the number one importer of Italian marble in the world, it even has a Guinness book of records entry for this, but not enough people live and work here to make use of the generous multi lane highways.

The result is that much of central Ashgabat is reminiscent of North Korea, with the highways built with no cars to travel on them. Ashgabat does has the cars Pyongyang wishes for, but few people have reason to travel to the centre and most of the large apartment buildings remain empty. Prices, controlled by the government, have recently been slashed. A modern 2 bedroom apartment with all utilities paid will now cost under US$1000 a month, with further reductions for government employees, but that is still expensive and few choose to live in a place which has government building as neighbours, and with few restaurants or recreational facilities.

The older parts of Ashgabat, have traditional single lane roads, and the requisite congestion and crazy driving. The buildings, mainly harsh Soviet designs, with peeling paint and cracks visible, are full of life. Here are the restaurants, parks, and families. Forced relocation is not unknown, but for the time being the residents are safe. The aim of the current leader is to turn Ashgabat into a rival to Dubai, another city built on a desert with huge oil wealth. More Italian marble is on the way, and re-development will happen.

In the meantime, building the huge empty highways and large Italian marble clad apartments has proven a great way to spend money, and it looks mightily impressive, with the added benefit of being a potential film set for a zombie end of the world movie.

* 120 litres of petrol was given free to residents until 31st July 2014. Now they have to pay the equivalent of 22 cents a litre.

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