The Ashgabat Gazette

Special Carpet Issue

Carpets are the crowning glory of traditional Turkmen handicrafts. Yes, they make special jewelry here and other things but above all, the quality and labor intensiveness of the traditional Turkmen carpet stands out. There can be 400,000 knots in a single square meter of a Turkmen carpet! To see how carpets are made at a "carpet factory" in Ashgabat, click here.

Turkmen carpets were first discovered in Bukhara markets in the 1880s and were exhibited in Russia and around Europe under the name of "Bukhara carpets" and the name still sticks in the United States.

There are five tribes of Turkmen and each tribe has its own traditional designs. The largest tribe is the Teke who inhabit the area around Ashgabat. For this reason, most of the carpet you get to see here are of Teke design. I would estimate that 80 percent of the carpets I see here are Teke, 10% are Yolmut (the tribe that inhabits the Caspian Sea area of the country, 5% are Beshir carpets (the tribe living near the Amu Darya River) and 5% are "other." The category of "other" includes carpets from the three other tribes of Turkmen, Afghan carpets, Iranian carpets, Pakistani carpets, and various knock offs of all of the above.

So what do you do if you want to buy a quality Turkmen carpet? First, be careful. If the quality is too good (i.e., if the carpet is over 30 years old), you are forbidden to export it. I know what you are thinking but forget about it. Turkmenistan is a country that searches the luggage of people leaving the country. They don't much care what you bring in.

Sound like it's getting complicated? Hold on to your seat, the fun is just beginning. But first, let's take a look at some of the designs.

Above is the corner of a standard Teke design carpet. The pattern in the upper right is repeated over the majority of the carpet area. The rich red color is also very standard for Turkmen carpets.

For a close up of the Teke gul [pattern], click here.

Note the five sections of the border design (two thin ones on each side of a wide one). It is in this area that these carpets differ as well as in the pattern used between the guls.


At the left if the corner of a standard Yolmut design. As you can see, it is a little more open than the standard Teke design but also features the dominant wine red color. To see a close up of the pattern, click here.

In Turkmenistan buying and shipping a carpet to the States is a Kafka-esque experience involving many players and not a little weirdness. Screw your head on tight for this one.

1) Buy the carpets. The choices are Tolkushka, the Sunday Market (best prices) or a combination of the Carpet Museum Store or the Carpet Factory Store (higher prices, assurance as to quality). Prices are cheap when you consider the incredible labor that goes into one of these carpet but this is only a deposit on account for what you will spend to get it home. At the Carpet Factory, I was charged 650,000 manat per square meter. At the official rate that is $125 per square meter. If you were so indelicate as to have exchanged money at a black market rate of 12,000 manat to the dollar, it works out to be about $54 per square meter.

2) Drag your carpets to a small room beneath the Carpet Museum and pay for an export certificate. The fee is about $2 per square meter but be forewarned, the certification is good for only 30 days.

3) Package the carpets. I recommend buying a carpet bag at the Russian Market. They aren't always there but when they are you can find a good sized one for about $2 in the space between the main building and the smaller open-air bazaar on the South side.

4) Shipping. Easier said than done. Your main choices include Lufthansa cargo (airport to airport for selected airports) and UPS. Of course, weight matters. Estimate about two kilograms for each square meter of carpet area.

Lufthansa: Bring your carpets to the old airport and process them through customs. The first 3.48 (note this number!) square meters are not subject to the export tax. You did buy a carpet smaller than 3.48 square meters didn't you? If you didn't, read about the carpet tax below. Seal the package and deliver to the Lufthansa Cargo terminal at the old airport. The cargo fee is $11.11 per kilo to Boston and $11.25 to Chicago plus a per shipment fee of $40. Payment is in dollars.

UPS: United Parcel Service operates in Ashgabat just like the States and at nearly the same price as Lufthansa offers door-to-door delivery. In my case, a handsome delivery man wearing a brown uniform came by to pick up the rugs. Be sure to have your certification handy, a letter to no one in particular that says "Let my rugs go!" (It helps to sing this to the tune of "Go Down Moses!") and the fee ready. UPS accepts payment in dollars or manat at the nearly official rate of 3,550 manat to the dollar. The brown uniformed man who came for my rugs even filled out the forms and didn't count the manat.

A significant advantage of UPS is that they will do all the export approval activity for you so that you don't waste your time and don't have to deal with recalcitrant officials.

Yet one more advantage is that you can track the progress of your shipment via the Internet using your WayBill number. Cool, nyet?

5) Export Taxes: What? You never heard of such a thing? Welcome to Turkmenistan! But on the good side, there is an exemption of the first six square meters. Oops! They just (January 1999) reduced that to 3.48 square meters. That means you have to pay 278,500 manat (about $25) per square meter on all the square meters above 3.48 on any given shipment.

You are probably asking yourself if this is all worth the effort. I ask myself the same question. In my case I think the whole thing is such a challenge that I want to do it. At least once. And the carpets are beautiful.

Click here to see other carpets and carpet products of Turkmenistan.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley