It is an unexpected pit stop in the middle of nowhere; a lonely petrol station on the side of the road. The only other traffic, four camels trot towards the tiny hamlet where, having driven out to the Darvaza gas crater, we are taking turns to wash our SUVs. Sure, the vehicles need it after two days in the Karakum desert, but why now and why here?

It turns out that this is the last stop before Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmeni­stan, where the driving of dirty cars is illegal. Surreal? From touch down at the city’s huge falcon-shaped airport to the moment you leave the country, this mysterious “Stan” is exactly that.

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AN EERIE SILENCE GREETS arrivals at the recently opened, multibillion-dollar Ashgabat International Airport. We are outnumbered by austere officials and grim military guards watching our every move, or at least giving their eyes a rest from the glitzy gold and Islamic green décor.

A republic under the Soviet Union, Turk­menistan declared its independence in 1991 and has since been ruled in isolation and secrecy. Comfortably enthroned on vast gas reserves and with no checks and balances to worry about, its two despotic presidents and their Potemkin fantasies have changed the very landscape, particularly in Ashgabat.

The modern city contrasts sharply with the rugged, sandy Kopet Dag mountains that surround it. Gold, green and white are its colour scheme. Studded with gilded domes and statues, it is accessorised with street lamps, bus stops, telephone booths and traffic signals that are unashamedly ostenta­tious. Standing in the street is like being under a lovely blue dome inside a colossal Islamic mausoleum.

Driving around, it’s hard not to realise that something is amiss in this utopian landscape. The playgrounds are deserted, the park benches unoccupied, the boule­vards empty. No one waits at the bus stops

Peculiarly, the Ashgabat skyline is bright white; Guinness World Records has recog­nised it as “the city having the highest density of white marble-clad buildings”: 543 and counting.

Many of them are in New Street. With more than 170 blocks, the neighbourhood is home to corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Samsung, Volvo and Nestlé, as well as the few employees who can afford to live locally. And as commanded by the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, no two blocks are identical.

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Driving around, it’s hard not to realise that something is amiss in this utopian landscape. The playgrounds are deserted, the park benches unoccupied, the boule­vards empty. No one waits at the bus stops. Maybe no one needs to, since petrol is so cheap.

Still, at least no one spoils the view when you’re gawking at the grandiose ministries near the Presidential Palace: the syringe-shaped health ministry, the book-shaped education ministry or the gas ministry, which looks like a cigarette lighter but is meant to resemble a flame. The Central Bank building bears a massive gold nugget on its façade.

Frustratingly, you can’t take photo­graphs where guards are stationed, which is almost everywhere.

It’s worth visiting the National Museum, if only to see one of the world’s tallest flag­poles. Inside is the world’s second-largest hand-woven carpet (Abu Dhabi has the largest, if you were wondering). A drive to the iconic Bagt Kosgi (Wedding Palace), which sits on a mound in the southwest of the city, is a must for the impressive view over Ashgabat and for the geometrical wonders of its design. Within walking distance is the five-star Yyldyz Hotel, which loosely recalls Dubai’s Burj Al Arab but is supposed to resemble a teardrop.

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The Alem Cultural and Entertainment Centre is another holder of a Guinness World Record, for having the largest indoor Ferris wheel. More than 150 feet high, the wheel offers splendid views of the city – possible because it isn’t really “indoors”, the 24 cabins instead being encased in a concrete, steel and glass structure – but it’s not the ride and views that you remember most, it’s the dead birds on the parapets.

A short drive away is the Arch of Neutrality, locally dubbed the “tripod”, the top of which supports a golden statue of Berdimuhamedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, that used to rotate to follow the sun. From here, you can’t miss Turkmenistan’s tallest building, a television tower perched on a hill overlook­ing the city, which has – you guessed it – its own Guinness World Record; this one for “the largest architectural star” – a glass façade built into the building.

Ashgabat is a sterile and immaculately polished city. Smoking is banned in public and the president has demanded that anything “untidy, slovenly and tasteless” be disposed of, which is probably why the first, and sometimes only, people you meet at many landmarks are sweepers, cleaners, gardeners and guards.

At the Independence Monument, a 118-metre column and Ashgabat’s most impor­tant landmark, smiles and salaams are exchanged with the men polishing the floors but not the soldiers about to begin their changing-of-the guards routine. Shaped like a traditional Turkmen yurt at its base and surrounded by statues of national heroes, the white column is decorated with five-headed eagles, a spire, a crescent and five stars, representing the five regions of Turkmenistan – all in gold. And the 118 metres are no accident; together with an observation platform that measures 10 metres (October being the 10th month) in diameter, they denote October 27, 1991 (27+91=118), Independence Day.

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Since then, Ashgabat has been shaped by the cult of personality. Niyazov, orphan­ed after a devastating earthquake razed the city in 1948, joined the Communist Party before becoming leader of the country, in 1985. His eccentricities included naming a meteorite after himself, replacing the Hippocratic

Oath and banning gold teeth. During his presidency, it was mandatory to learn by-heart his book, the Ruhnama (2001) – a gigantic concrete copy of which is on display in Independence Park. Niyazov built the majestic Gypjak Mosque, the largest in Central Asia, in memory of his family, members of which are buried in a grand mausoleum nearby. Niyazov’s Mao-like busts dot the capital, although many have been destroyed by his successor.

Not as repressive as Niyazov, who died in 2006, B erdimuhamedov is a smart dictator; the former dentist now goes by the name Arkadag, meaning “protector”. His beneficence is lauded on TV and in magazines and newspapers, and the president watches over all from numerous billboards, paintings and electronic portraits. He has reversed many of Niyazov’s ill-conceived policies and is equestrian crazy – “the people’s horse breeder”, as he likes to be called, has been honoured with a gold-plated statue in central Ashgabat of himself astride a handsome steed.

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On weekends, races are held at the Ashgabat Hippodrome but betting is illegal, at least officially. Race days are a social occasion, but perhaps not for the rows of university students in identical tracksuits who are compelled to be there. The winning jockey usually gets a hand-woven Turkmen carpet and a silk shawl.

Hitchhiking remains common in Turk­menistan; so hail one of the city’s informal taxis for the journey out to the hippodrome or to see the ancient Nisa Fortress or the Altyn Asyr bazaar, known for its carpets, and you’ll probably have company.

Back in the city, it’s away from the vanity projects and grandiose follies, amid the Soviet-era blocks of the old quarter, that Ashgabat comes to life. In the restaurants, pubs, cafés, bazaars and playgrounds visitors are welcomed with warmth and hospitality, even when much is lost in translation; at a muay thai boxing ring I am asked to remove my sunglasses, lest they hide a secret camera. Turkmens, Russians, Armenians, Koreans, Uzbeks and Ukrainians inter-marry here and Islam is practised only casually – alcohol and pork are not frowned upon.

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The Russian Market and Teke Bazaar are within 10 minutes’ walk of each other, and in both you can savour local sweets, blinis (crêpes), samsa (puff pastry) and kebabs while deciding which Turkmen­bashi watches, spices and dried fruits you’d like to take home as souvenirs. Along Azadi Street from the Russian Market is the State Archives of Turkmeni­stan, the façade of which bears the last bas relief created by Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny before he fled to the United States.

TURKMENISTAN HAS PROVED to be a fascinating, secretive fantasyland and for my travel companion it had one last surprise in store as her plane climbed away from Ashgabat. The pilot suddenly announced the Turkmenistan Airlines plane was returning to the city, but not before dumping its fuel.

While circling, waiting for clearance to land, there was a sigh of audible relief when the passengers learned there was no emer­gency. The plane was return­ing because the president’s daughter decided she had to get to London urgently and needed a lift.