Inside the idyllic but deserted ‘American’ suburb on the edge of Ashgabat

13 June 2019

A row of identical white houses lines the street. Though you can’t see them, you can imagine kids racing each other on bikes, a neighbour mowing the lawn, or a postal truck pulling into the driveway. It’s the typical image of an idyllic American suburb, and at first, it’s the stark emptiness that seems uncanny.

In reality, this is a pastiche: a slice of the American dream pasted onto a street in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Tasmanian-born photographer Rick Maxwell Douglas captured the scene during his six-month hitchhiking journey from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang (the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China), through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, before concluding in Ramsar, Iran. “The first night in Ashgabat I spent on the street, and it wasn’t until the next day that I found a hotel that would take me,” he recalls. “During my five days in the capital, I explored the city — namely, its mind-blowing and downright strange architecture. There was so much marble and gold. It was exactly how it had been described to me.”

The image was taken in an area in the north of Ashgabat, which has seen a great deal of development — despite the fact that nobody can afford to live there. The houses in the photo are exactly as they appear: deserted. In fact, many of the buildings in President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s marble-heavy architectural plan are seldom used by locals. In total, the government has spent billions of dollars on vanity projects such as this. Douglas compares the neighbourhood in the photo to Tianducheng, the ghost town in China’s Zhejiang Provence built to resemble Paris. “It does feel very much like American suburbia, and, in fact, I think that’s exactly its intention. It’s like a replica of suburbia where nobody lives at all.”

“Across from the houses is massive park, which is brand new, full of work-out machines, newly planted trees, paved paths, and shaded areas for people to sit and take cover from the intense sun in Turkmenistan,” he continues. What is perhaps most unusual for a landscape such as this is the row of luxury apartment blocks — also white and marble-clad — which Douglas framed out of the shot, that loom over the cookie-cutter homes.

The irony is that, while documenting these empty homes and apartments, the photographer himself struggled to find a place to stay in Turkmenabat and Ashgabat. “Just like anywhere in Central Asia, the locals were warm,” he recalls — but they were also too nervous to allow him to stay in their homes. He had read up a lot about Turkmenistan before visiting. “What I faced — the poverty, the dictatorial insignia, the ostentatious buildings, and the paranoia — was as expected.”

Turkmenistan has a reputation for being closed. Strict visa regulations make it a difficult country to enter. This is why Douglas was most surprised by the freedom with which I was able to move around the country as a tourist. Having travelled to Xinjiang in China, where freedom of movement is fraught, the photographer fully expected to be followed the whole time. “This rarely happened, which allowed me to stumble upon many strange things.”

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