Turkmenistan is Central Asia’s most elusive country with few tourists, making it also the most fascinating. To go there, you must hire a guide and get a visa — not an easy task for a journalist as Turkmenistan is ranked only above North Korea in worst freedom of the press. Social media is banned there and largely only reference books are available in “bookstores.” But it is well worth visiting.
When I went in June 2019, my 26-year-old guide Artyk was fresh out of tourism school and filled me with lots of interesting facts about Turkmenistan’s Parthian past, it’s get-rich-quick post-Russian separation (thanks to the discovery oil and natural gas) and idiosyncrasies of the current dictator (such as changing a law to allow music in cars because he has songs on the radio).
The capitol of Ashgabat is nicknamed the White City because it is exactly that with hundreds of white marble buildings. Cars are required to match; only white, tan and grey colors are allowed, otherwise one has to park and take a white bus there! This pristine capital is a dystopian utopia with a strong government presence and lack of people in the streets. The White City is so perfect that it’s not really lived in outside of work. In fact, it was like a ghost town in warm June.
At night this White City becomes a rainbow of neon colors that show off space-like architectural features. When I saw it on a quiet, rainy night, I thought I had landed on another planet.
On the outskirts of the White City lies the largest, most ornate and lavish mosque I’ve ever seen that most locals have never seen. It was built by His Excellency Türkmenbaşy Saparmurat Niyazo with national pride yet it’s hardly used. The day Artyk and I went, we were the only ones inside.
Where people were hanging out was at a black market for cheaper goods of all kinds, plus food, carpets (the reason we went) and even camels. Artyk patiently waited in the hot sun as I looked at colorful carpet after carpet. Finally, a Turmen woman sold me two spectacular ones for $200. There was no certificate of provenance.
Artyk then took me to the desert where we spent the night in a yurt to observe Darvaza Gas Crater. It was created during natural gas exploration and left as a mind-blowing tourist attraction. Our older Muslim driver spent the night in the car while Artyk joined me in the yurt (like a domed tent) in which a small fan tried to break the desert heat. The utility of carpets was proven sleeping in the yurt!
My own carpets made a tour with us through the desert to the ancient city of Merv and its modern counterpart Mary. Then they passed through several checkpoints at the Uzbekistan border, including fingerprints, an iris scan and two shuttles in between no man’s lands to ensure no one could sneak across either border. My carpets almost didn’t make it to Uzbekistan either.
At the second checkpoint, security guards asked me for a certificate of provenance indicating age and origin. Lacking one, they said my carpets had to stay in Turkmenistan. Given the journey I had made with these carpets, I was not about to give them up easily.
« Where did you get these carpets and how much did you pay for them? » the guard asked in broken English.
« Please talk to my guide, » I said, frantically calling Artyk.
After a brief conversation, my carpets were still being seized. Artyk’s explanation of a black market didn’t help.
« You can see the carpets are not ancient as they have bright colors, newish yarn and modern patterns,» I said, launching into an art lecture while pointing to features on the carpets.
After about 10 minutes of haggling and holding up the security line, the exhausted security officers, who were not used to tourists — much less a fiesty American one — to let me go with the carpets. They even let me skip the queue in the fingerprinting line to get me out of there faster. I was literally whisked away with the carpets.
As for their provenance, now I say Brussels, Belgium, where they are beautifully displayed in my apartment …