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Introducing Ashgabat

pop 650, 000

With its lavish marble palaces, gleaming gold domes and vast expanses of manicured parkland, Ashgabat (‘the city of love’ or Ashkabad in Arabic) has reinvented itself as a showcase city for the newly independent republic. Built almost entirely off the receipts of Turkmenistan’s oil and gas sales, the city continues to boom, with whole neighbourhoods facing the wrecking ball in the name of progress.

Originally developed by the Russians in the late 19th century, Ashgabat became a prosperous, largely Russian frontier town on the Trans-Caspian railway. However, at 1am on 6 October 1948, the city vanished in less than a minute, levelled by an earthquake that measured nine on the Richter scale. Over 110, 000 people died (two-thirds of the population), although the official figure was 14, 000; this was the era of Stalin, when socialist countries didn’t suffer disasters.

Ashgabat was rebuilt in the Soviet style, but its modern incarnation is somewhere between Las Vegas and Pyongyang, with a mixture of Bellagio fountains and Stalinist parade grounds. But at heart it’s a fairly relaxed city, with good-value accommodation and a few quirky sights, making it a pleasant place to relax before a long haul across the desert.