Facebook Twitter



The earthquake that leveled Ashkhabad in 12 seconds on Oct. 6, 1948, well surpassed the power of this month's quake in Armenia - 7.2 on the Richter scale, compared with 6.9 in Armenia. It killed 110,000 of the 130,000 residents of this desert town, capital of the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan.

True to the spirit of the Stalinist times, though, not a word was mentioned in the contemporary press. In the isolation of official silence, Soviet authorities immediately set about transforming the former oasis into a model of modern Soviet planning.They have only partially succeeded.

Concrete buildings, intended to be "quake-proof," have replaced most of the adobe structures with earthen roofs along Freedom Avenue. Some high-rise buildings, such as the Hotel Ashkhabad, have sprung up, and there are new-fashioned business and shopping districts.

But the character of Ashkhabad remains much as it was decades before: a lethargic, dusty city where people prefer traditional dress and traditional ways. A dry, hot outpost in the Kara Kum (black sands) des-ert, where camels have as much right of way as automobiles; a sheep-breeding center where water is more precious than oil. A place where the nomadic way of life seems to have prevailed, as if the city could blow away and the inhabitants would simply move on.

In short, a most un-Soviet Soviet capital.

Not surprisingly therefore, even though Gorbachev-era "glasnost" has allowed the facts on the 1948 earthquake to emerge, the economic, social and political reform called "perestroika" is still more a slogan than a program here. Moscow, about 2,000 miles away, might as well be on another planet.

"Perestroika is a revolutionary process," said Batyr P. Khalliyev, a local journalist.

"People are not unhappy," he said. "But the pace of change is very slow."

So it has been since the city was founded in 1881 at the Akhal-Eke oasis, a crossroads of trade routes with Persia.

Turkmenistan is the southernmost of the 15 Soviet republics, and Ashkhabad, whose population has regrown to about 375,000, is the nation's southernmost large city, a mere 25 miles from the border with Iran in the reddish-brown Kopet-Dag Mountains.

Ethnic Russians make up only 13 percent of the population in multinational Turkmenistan. Most people are Turkoman, descended from Caucasian cattle-breeding tribes that lived in the steppes and from Turkic nomads of Mongolian stock who came from the east.

A walk down Freedom Avenue from the airport (yes, a walk - it's that close to the center of town) is like a trip back in time. Nothing in Ashkhabad is very old, but the citizens themselves look as if they have been plucked out of a time warp and placed on a Hollywood stage set.

An old woman in a colorful ankle-length gown sprawls in a sea of melons on the sidewalk, her place of business as well as her home. Camels are used for routine transportation and carrying goods. Men wear long robes of crimson over white shirts and tall, shaggy hats of white or brown astrakhan wool, regardless of the heat.

Speaking of heat: In late October, the mercury pushes past 90 degrees. Summer temperatures range to 120 and above in the shade. No one is silly enough to put a thermometer in the sun.

Turkmenistan is known for producing oil - though that is a declining industry - and karakul sheep pelts. Perhaps the country's most famous export is its carpets, and the Ashkhabad carpet factory on Liebknecht Street carries on a Turkoman tradition from the days of the nomadic tribes.