Turkmenistan rebuilds capital into marble 'white city'

In an extraordinary construction boom, the isolated Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is spending billions of dollars on remodelling its capital Ashgabat into a gleaming white showpiece where even the curbs are made of marble.

The gas-rich desert country says that the massive spending spree has already poured in $8 billion in international investment and 4 trillion manats ($1.9 billion) of its own funds since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"We are directing the profit from gas exports into improving the quality of life of our people," President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said.

Turkmenistan, on the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, claims to have the world's fourth-biggest supplies of natural gas with estimated reserves of more than 24 trillion cubic metres, according to BP.

With a population of one million, the city 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 also new apartment blocks are being faced with marble, giving the city the nickname: "White City."

-- 'The epoch of magnificence' --

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.

"In this epoch of magnificence and happiness, our respected president has given us the task of developing the city to create the most comfortable conditions for people's life," boasted the city's chief architect, Bairam Shamuradov.

The gleaming facades contrast with the rights record of a country described as "one of the world's most repressive" by Human Rights Watch.

Berdymukhamedov picked up the gauntlet from his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, who unveiled a revolving gold statue of himself.

Elected after Niyazov's 2006 death, Berdymukhamedov last year opened a covered ferris wheel that towers to a height of 95 metres atop a leisure centre.

In 2011, he unveiled a 185-metre-high monument to the Constitution that cost 45 million euros ($60 million), decorated with carpet motifs, which has been heralded as the local answer to the Eiffel Tower.

He also opened a giant "Palace of Happiness" for wedding ceremonies that cost around $140 million, topped with a globe.

The city also gained a 211-metre television tower that cost 136.85 million euros ($183.7 million). It rises out of a building in the shape of an 8-pointed star, winning a bizarre Guinness record for the world's largest star-shaped structure.

-- 'Enough work for many years' --

The vast projects are being built by international companies.

The dominant company is the Turkish firm Polimeks, which built the constitution monument, the Palace of Happiness and the television tower.

Now it has won a contract to build a complex to hold the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2017 at a cost of $1.97 billion. The company is also to build a new Ashgabat airport costing $2.25 billion.

French company Bouygues has constructed more than 50 buildings including the ministry of oil and gas nicknamed the "cigarette lighter", while another French company, Vinci, has won a major contract to build a new house of parliament, whose cost has not been made public.

"The Turkmenistan economy is stable despite the global crisis. When you get a sense of the construction marathon, you feel sure of this," an employee at one of the foreign construction firms said on condition of anonymity.

"All of us will have enough work here for many, many years," he added.

"Not all former Soviet republics are as lucky, but the ones that God gave oil and gas are now rich and are spending huge money on development and construction," said a Western diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.

-- 'The city's lost spirit' --

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," said 24-year-old student Ashir Nurliyev.

But not all residents are so keen on the gleaming new amenities.

"Everything has changed so much, it's as if I've come to a strange city," said Maya Kurbanova, 43, who grew up in Ashgabat and was visiting from Russia.

"In my opinion when everything is covered with marble, it makes the city look impersonal, but it bowls over the out-of-towners... everywhere is opulence and luxury."

Dzhapar-aga, 70, a pensioner living in a dilapidated private house, complained of the city's lost "spirit."

"It's a pity when the former one- or two-storey districts disappear and with them the old spirit of the city, when all the neighbours knew each other, dropped in to visit at the drop of a hat, and there weren't even any locks on the doors."

Human Rights Watch wrote to the president in 2011 over reports of human rights abuses in the course of the demolition work, claiming that owners were being unlawfully evicted and not given adequate compensation.