Taking a public bus from the city centre, getting to Independence Park was straightforward enough. We got off at the western side of the park, and instead of entering the park directly, we first walked along the wide boulevard to have a closer look at the shining new apartment blocks. These were, after all, the first signs of normal life in Ashgabat: in the downtown area, there is only (plenty) of room for government buildings, monuments, golden statues of Turkmenbashy, and spacious parks. The more we looked at the enormous white apartment blocks, the more we realized something was off. Yes, everything seemed to be in place: foyers, playgrounds for kids, small parks; the flats were not empty. What was remarkable, however, was that we did not see a single person. No one going in, or out, of the buildings. No one at the windows. No kids playing or running around. This row of apartment blocks, each of which had over ten floors, felt like a ghost town instead of a lively neighbourhood.
We found an underpass leading directly to the site we wanted to see most: the Ruhnama monument, a huge statue of the sacred book about Turkmen unity an greatness written by Niyazov. As with other places with such importance, we were struck by the state of disrepair in which we found the underpass (empty, dirty, broken tiles), and the monument itself: loose placards, tiles, and such. It left the impression of an impressive facade hiding a poor background. The monument of the giant pink-and-green book -imperative reading for all Turkmens, and required knowledge - was impressive enough: an exact copy of the real book which has been translated into many languages thanks to multinationals who were desperate to get contracts in the totalitarian state. Inevitably, a huge golden engraving of Niyazovs head was prominent on the cover, as was his assumed name Saparmurat Turkmenbashy. We got closer and saw the fountain surrounding the Ruhnama book monument, with the major landmarks of the city in bronze. So it happened that we saw a bronze depicting the monuments with Niyazov in gold; it felt like a double tribute to the Great Leader. The Ruhnama itself actually opens, with major achievements of Turkmenistan projected on the screen inside. This only happens on special occasions, though - and it seems that since the engine of the book overheats, the Turkmens are not keen on opening the book all too often...
While we wanted to visit the huge, pyramidal Altyn Asyr shopping centre, claimed to be the largest fountain in the world, the paths leading there were all blocked, and much of the park was off limits and hidden behind fences. Perhaps the vision of growing pine trees in this desert climate, which cost a lot of precious water, in order to "change the climate", had been abandoned? Fact is that we walked south from here, towards the other great monument in Independence Park: Independence Monument - also known as The Plumber because of its shape. We walked along Saparmurat Turkmenbashy Shayoly avenue until we almost reached the end, where we could enter the park again. While Independence Monument towered high above us in a distance, our attention was at once drawn to a larger-than-life statue of Niyazov - in gold, obviously. Two guards were standing next to him, and the words of our guide not to take any pictures of Him ringing in our ears, we tried to heed her advice. At the same time, it seemed strange that there be so much reverence to the old president, which could however not be photographed. So, we sneaked some pictures of the statue before we walked up to the main platform. Since Niyazov was very occupied with establishing a Turkmen national identity, everything was done to foment and stimulate this nationalism. One of the main points of his Ruhnama book is, in fact, that after four previous Golden Ages, Turkmenistan has entered yet another Golden Age, or Altyn Asyr, under the leadership of none but Turkmenbashy himself. So it was, that we found statues of famous Turkmen leaders, poets, and legendary figures all around the Independence Monument. The monument itself, another example of what you can do with white materials and lots of gold, actually measures an auspicious 118 metres, referring to the date of independence: 27 October 1991 (add 27 and 91 and you have the height of the obelisk-like monument!). Apart from this reference to the independence and the statues of the famous Turkmens, to make sure that people get the nationalistic purpose of the park, the square is surrounded by scores of flagpoles with the Turkmen flag. The monument itself, just to show how the Great Leader was not impressed by the desert climate in which Ashgabat lies, is another showcase of how you can put water to show off. It seems like an enormous water theme park, with fountains, ponds, waterfalls coming down the monument... Leaving this impressive example of nationalism and personality cult, we met a group of friendly Turkmen girls who were celebrating a birthday and invited us over for cake. All dressed up in the beautiful Turkmen dresses, two of them then went on to give a private performance of a Turkmen dance in the park. The contrast with the pompous monuments could not have been bigger, and once again, I felt bad for not being able to really talk to them and hear how they felt about it all. On the way back, I finally managed to shoot the golden statue of Niyazov with his coat flying behind him - with a beating heart. But the soldiers either did not see me, or did not mind.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Independence Park (Turkmenistan). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Independence Park. Read more about this site.