In an extraordinary construction boom, the isolated Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is spending billions of dollars remodelling its capital, Ashgabat, into a gleaming white showpiece where even the curbs are made of marble.
The gas-rich country says that US$8 billion in international investment and 4 trillion manats (US$1.9 billion) of its own funds have poured in since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
“We are directing the profit from gas exports into improving the quality of life of our people,” Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov said.
Turkmenistan claims to have the world’s fourth-biggest supplies of natural gas, with estimated reserves of more than 24 trillion cubic meters, according to oil company BP.
With a population of 1 million, Ashgabat is now a giant construction site as the government demolishes large areas of low-rise brick buildings from the Soviet era. All new buildings for ministries, government agencies and new apartment blocks are being faced with marble, giving the city the nickname: “White City.”
The 55-year-old president, a dentist by profession, has even ordered that the concrete curbs on central avenues and streets be replaced with marble ones.
The gleaming facades contrast with the rights record of a country labeled “one of the world’s most repressive” by Human Rights Watch.
Berdimuhamedov has picked up the gauntlet from his predecessor, former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov, who unveiled a revolving gold statue of himself.
Elected after Niyazov’s death in 2006, Berdimuhamedov last year opened a 95m-high ferris wheel that sits atop a leisure center.
In 2011, he unveiled a 185m high monument to the Turkmen Constitution decorated with carpet motifs that cost 45 million euros (US$60 million) and has been heralded as the country’s answer to France’s Eiffel Tower.
He also opened a giant “Palace of Happiness” topped with a globe to be used for wedding ceremonies that cost about US$140 million.
The city also gained a 211m television tower that cost 136.85 million euros and rises out of a building in the shape of an eight-pointed star.
The vast projects are being built by international companies, the dominant of which is Turkish firm Polimeks, which built the constitution monument, the Palace of Happiness and the television tower.
Many residents are dazzled by the whirlwind of construction.
“I can’t keep up with the constant changes in the city. It seems that where there was a wasteland yesterday, today there is a modern building,” 24-year-old student Ashir Nurliyev said.
However, not all are so keen.
“In my opinion, when everything is covered with marble, it makes the city look impersonal, but it bowls over the out-of-towners ... everywhere [there] is opulence and luxury,” said Maya Kurbanova, 43.
Pensioner Dzhapar-aga, 70, said the city has lost its “spirit.”