The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 66

--Friday, 15 October 99-- $1 = 14,700 manat
Serdar came by as planned and we discussed tomorrow's trip arrangements. I gave him 200,000 manat for oil, gas, and some soft drinks for the trip. He told me that a trip to Mary typically required 50,000 in bribes, "That is what you budget." He said that Ilia, the driver, would be wearing a jacket and tie and I said that Ilia should be comfortably dressed for a 3 1/2 hour trip. Serdar rejoined that being dressed up made it more difficult to demand a bribe so he would be comfortable in a jacket and tie. I could tell that Serdar didn't want me to wear shorts so I agreed to wear green cotton slacks. I will bring my shorts just in case I change my mind.

Serdar said that he had to leave because Ilia was coming back to pick him up and I said I wanted to go to the Iceberg Cafe. Since the next place he was going was close to the Iceberg, Serdar offered me a ride. We went downstairs to meet Ilia, who for some reason never showed up so we walked to the Iceberg only to discover for the second time that, although the Circus on the adjoining block was brightly lit and that at least one street light not more than five meters from the Iceberg was lit, the Iceberg had no electricity. I waited while Serdar went to see the person he had intended to and then we walked back to my apartment. Serdar took an informal taxi to his house.

--Saturday, 16 October 99--
Today I had a breakfast consisting of a bacon and cheese omelet and buttered toast and washed it down with my favorite mixture of Fanta and orange juice. Then I finished packing for the overnight trip to Mary and the Merv ruins.

A Trip to Merv
I have been trying to get to visit Merv since my last trip but just wasn't able to do it. I had contacted a travel agent but the recommendations included hiring three people in Mary, a driver, an archeological expert, and a translator. I was told, and was expected to believe, that some archeologist worth his or her salt could not speak acceptable English. Given that airfare, taxi cabs, and hotel all had to be included, it just seemed considerably more expensive than necessary. This trip I contacted a different travel agent who didn't seem terribly interested in my business.

In the end I decided to take Serdar's suggestion that I let him organize the trip by using students who were his friends. There would be four of us: Serdar, as major domo, Ilia, as driver, and Mekan at whose house we would stay. The original arrangements were almost too good to be true, Mekan was going to get a ride home, Ilia was taking us as a dry run for Serdar's plan to open a travel business doing this regularly. My out-of-pocket costs would be limited to the cost of the gasoline, Coke, mineral water, etc. for the trip (200,000 manat) and 150,000 manat ($9.52) for the ingredients for a dinner for all of us and Mekan's family, who would cook it. We would spend Saturday night at Mekan's house, visit Merv on Sunday morning and drive back in the afternoon.

I accepted these arrangements because they constituted minimal expectations for all parties. Though not part of the plan, I asked Serdar what would be appropriate gifts for Ilia and the family we will stay with overnight. We settled on $30 for the driver and $20 for the family. Peanuts in the US, big money here.

Serdar arrived on time and we were quickly on our way. Fifteen minutes later we were out of Ashgabat and on the road to Mary. Near Ashgabat the road is perhaps three lanes wide. Further out it was only about two lanes with a rough shoulder. But this doesn't quite describe the road reality -- what it was like to sit in a car with no seat belts and try to make time. Imagine a long black ribbon of bumps, pits, and channels that guide your wheels but with no painted markings. It was as if the road was built for testing car suspension systems in some near-ultimate way. My head hit the car roof several times. Fortunately Ilia is a moderate driver, rarely exceeding 145 km/hr (87 mph). (Oh, but what that meant on this road!)

The land was mostly flat with occasional flat depressions and flat rises. It was mostly brown, with occasional seer bushes or small trees. Where there was irrigation there was some green: grapes grew near Ashgabat, near Mary, cotton.

We passed through three police inspections by only slowing down. At the two army stations, we had to present our papers. I had to get out of the car and go over to a special Army person, usually a bored youngster, present my passport and show my visa. All was friendly professional and efficient.

When we arrived in Tedjen, we pulled into a gas station and I thought I was in 1974 all over again. There were big lines at the gas station. Worse yet, they were there in the hope that a resupply would arrive: there was no gas. Serdar rose to the occasion and took us to his uncle's home were his uncle gave us ten liters of gas. No one was surprised by any of this.

While we waited outside Serdar's uncle's home, I watched eight kids playing a game that reminded me of something that I used to play as a child. They arranged a straight line of small stones in the dusty byway and gathered at a distance to throw fist sized flat stones at the line. Knocking a small stone out of position was marked by shouting approval from everyone. When all the kids had thrown their stones, they gathered on the other side of the line and threw their stones again but from a closer range. Each time a stone hit the ground, a puff of tan colored dust arose around it like a dry cloud and drifted off until it was indistinguishable from the dust covered environment. We had to leave before I could figure out if there were teams or how the winner was determined.

On we drove. In some crossroads, not on the map, an elderly woman carrying a large bag was slowly crossing the street from our left. A car coming in the opposite direction was beeping loudly and proceeded to pass the woman by veering in front of her, which put him in half of our lane. Ilia beeped loudly in protest. The old lady continued unaffected by all this, possibly substantially deaf, certainly completely indifferent. At no point did anyone change their speed, cars or pedestrian. On we went.

About five hours after leaving my apartment, we arrived in Mary. We went to Mekan's home and met his relatives. Turkmen families tend to be extended ones; at any given moment there could be three generations in the room.

Above, Mekan's family in Mary. His grandmother is on the left, his father and mother on the right. The other women is a neighbor. They were having an afternoon tea when we arrived.

We had a couple of hours before dinner so we went on a tour of Mary. We visited the market which is a recent, Disney-esque structure with a blue plastic(?) hemispherical dome in the center and two pointed blue domes in front of it. Beside it was an open-air market surrounded by a Yesterday-land mud brick wall with pointed caps.

Top left, the outside part of the Mary Market. Top right, the new market building. Above, the dome as seen from inside the Mary Market.

The History Museum in Mary was closed, perhaps because the cotton crop was being harvested. I regretted since I had heard good things about its contents.

We took our time and in less than an hour had visited a Russian Orthodox church, the World War II memorial built in a design reminiscent of the one in Ashgabat but on a smaller scale (it included a stone commemorating the Soviet struggle in Afghanistan), and some fountains. At one point we saw a building with a blue dome so we drove by to have a look see. It turned out to be a bank. So much for Mary.

Above left, the Mary World War II memorial. Above right, the view from inside the lotus-like structure. In the center below the opening is an eternal flame.

During the drive Mekan urged Ilia to take an illegal left turn which Ilia did and a police signaled Ilia over. Ilia got his papers and went over to the police. Serdar told Mekan that he had caused the whole thing and that he had to go over to the cop and Ilia, which he did, returning shortly to say that the cop wanted a bribe of 40,000 manat but that he (Mekan) thought he would settle for 30,000 (approximately $2). He went back cash in hand, they returned, we went on. Of course, these things never happen in the States.

We returned to Mekan's home but dinner was not quite ready so all the men gathered in one room and talked. As usual, there was no furniture so we relaxed on the carpets and I propped myself up on several thick pillows. I was granted extra pillows as the lame-jointed foreigner that I am and I did not refuse them. The others sat cross-legged with great comfort while I felt myself the image of the pregnant Agnes Gooch from the movie "Auntie Mame" as she lolled on the stairs unable to move easily or in some instances, at all. Graciously, no one appeared to notice. A cloth was laid on the floor in the center of the room and an oil cloth on top of that. Plates of grapes and mixed nuts appeared as appetizers.

At various times, Ata and Shokrat arrived. They are cousins and apparently regular visitors but likely drawn by my presence. Ata even came and went several times during the course of the evening.

Above, the dinner guests for my evening in Mary. From the left, Serdar, Ata (a cousin), Ilia, our driver, Mekan, and Mekan's father. The plov and other elements of the tasty meal are on the table.

he main dish was Turkmen plov, a mixture of lamb, rice and some shaved carrots. Very tasty. I noticed that everyone else ate out of the platter while I was given a dish with my plov on it. Serdar later told me that he thought I might object to eating from a common dish. People here are sensitive about how their customs are perceived by other cultures.

It was a warm evening so, after dinner, we adjourned to the yard where there was a wooden platform about two-thirds of a meter high. Mekan's father put some carpets on the platform and we sat on them. The conversation drifted around a variety of topics: sometimes about Turkmenistan, sometimes about the US. On the edge of our group a neighborhood youngster perhaps twelve years old was listing to each detail of the conversation and staring at me. He was completely fascinated with the presence of someone as exotic as myself and stared at me, eyes riveted on my every word -- and he didn't speak a word of English.

About 11 PM we decided to get some sleep. Our bedroom was the room we had had dinner in a few hours earlier; since Turkmen use a lot less furniture than we do (forgetting a stove, a refrigerator, a wall unit, etc., I saw only one piece of furniture, in the three rooms I visited in this house) this can be a very practical arrangement. We slept on pads placed on carpets and used blankets in sheets for covers. It was comfortable but too warm for me. I should have taken the blanket out of the sheet and just used the latter.

I dreamt of ancient Silk Road cities , of great nations all but unknown to the West, of vast empires and gigantic hordes of barbarians. On Sunday I would see what they had left behind.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley