The country's capital (pop. 536,000) is a fairly modern city squeezed between the scrubby desert of the Kara-Kum and the mountains of the Kopet Dag. The city was founded in 1881 to house the Russian garrison and to serve as the headquarters for the Transcaspian Railroad. It was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1948, and the city today is quiet, orderly and clean, with some nice tree-lined streets.
A recent building boom resulted in some new, flashy structures, most of them monuments to President Niyazov. The Arch of Neutrality, topped with a revolving statue of Niyazov, stands tall in the city center. At its base is the Earthquake Memorial. South of the Arch are the Palace of Turkmenbashi and the Majilis (parliament), both giant marble structures with a mix of classical western and Central Asian Islamic styles. Another extravagance is the enormous fountain—billed as the largest in the world—in Independence Park.
Probably the most colorful sight in the country is the Tolkuchka Market, a teeming bazaar held Thursday and Sunday (the best day) just to the north of town. It draws vendors and shoppers from all over the country, and beyond, and the range of goods is mind boggling. Tolkuchka is also the best place in the country to buy a carpet, but be prepared to bargain and ask for the documentation required for export.
Other attractions in Ashgabat include the Turkmen History Museum (archaeological finds from nearby Nisa) and the Museum of Fine Arts (paintings and crafts, including nice displays of carpets and jewelry). As carpets are the pride of the nation, don't miss the Carpet Museum, which has on display the largest carpet in the world—a 2,000-sq-ft/190-sq-m Tekke Bukhara—as well as antique carpets. If you're interested in how carpets are made, you can also visit a carpet factory. You might also want to catch a race at the Hippodrome, where magnificent Akhal-Tekke horses, precursors to the Arabian breed, are put through their paces (we also were lucky enough to catch a camel race at the track).
West of town are the ruins of Nisa (Nusai), the ancient Parthian capital. The ruins really aren't much to see, and most of the artifacts are exhibited in the Turkmen History Museum in Ashgabat or in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Other excursions from Ashgabat include a boat ride (at great expense) on the Kara-Kum Canal, a major irrigation channel, or a bath in Kov-Ata, an underground sulfur-springs-fed lake near Bakharden (the water is about 95 F/35 C).
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