No place in Ashgabat encapsulates the philosophy of the country's most recent rulers as Independence Park does. It is an extravagant rectangle comprising about 1,000 acres of concrete, marble, water, monuments, statues, and non-native pine trees whose objective, according to the previous president, was to turn the harsh desert summers into cool tropical seasons. The pines have gone through cycles of plant-water-die-replace-die again-repeat, since the construction of the park back in 1993, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is magnificent and over the top. It is a testament to the vanity of the rulers, a self-indulgent display of unthinkable wealth. It is obscene and therefore, by far, my favorite place in Ashgabat.
On one side of the park is the Ruhnama, The Book of the Soul; a massive green and pink monument sitting atop a giant fountain mounted on a mechanical device which no longer works but when it did, it opened the cover every evening at 8 pm and a recording of a passage was played and projected on a TV screen inside the book. The Ruhnama is a 400-page blend of history, philosophy and the over active imagination of its author, former president, Suparmarat Turkmenbashi.
On a different end rests the Independence Monument, but locals know better and they refer to this modern Gothic-gone-terribly wrong memorial simply as, The Plunger. It's over 300 feet tall and surrounded by eight massive waterfalls lit with neon strobe lights in every color of the rainbow, then some. It is the kind of art that makes you go, wow, scratch your head, do a double take and wonder WTH! It's fantastic. The Plunger is further guarded by larger than life bronze and golden statues of protagonists of Turkmen history and literature, all of whom carry flagposts and either swords, books or both. At the base of The Plunger in two little cabins a couple of young Turkmen guards stand post 24-7. They look tough, stoic even, but their baby faces covered in acne betray them. They don't move, don't blink, don't make eye contact and in general seem unaffected by the freezing wind blowing in their spotty faces.
Across the park stands a five-sided structure inside which is the Altyn Asyr shopping mall. Needles to say, each side of this pentagon doubles as a raging waterfall with plaster dolphins, golden statues of naked nymphs, and rabid-looking eagles spewing water through their menacing-looking beaks.
I could go back to the Pentagon every day. Especially to the 6th floor where a restaurant-night club-mirador overlooks every corner of the city of Ashgabat. It's decorated in black and white, more black than white, which gives the place a halloween-esque hue, another attempt at shabby Gothic that didn't make it past shabby. They serve ridiculously over priced food and drinks worth every penny they charge.
I'm not sure why it's called The Golden Age Shopping Mall because the only shopping one can do is at the restaurant. Well, the shabby Gothic restaurant and a vending machine on the first floor. It's not a just a room with a vending machine inside it. It's another touch of cute, a confirmation of what I have suspected from the beginning: that in Ashgabat you ought to judge the book by its cover, because the cover maybe the only thing there is.