Ashgabat – a city of trade contrasts

Turkmen Carpet Market
Turkmen Carpet Market

Those who introduced the well-known but rather cautious phrase: “the East is a thin business”, certainly had the East market on their mind. And why actually the East “is a thin business?” Paradoxically, by its traditional features. It is a simple word but it contains the most complicated, structurally timeless, ordinary and ideological constants. The East bazaar (not the market!) is one of the pillars of Oriental traditions. The intricate form and ritual reign here. Trade is the art here. And if you do not speak this sophisticated language, you will be punished. For the East is a thin business.

Let’s stop our pretentious discussion here, for it was started with the only purpose, which is to explain to the reader that Turkmenistan is not entirely the East and the Turkmen market has nothing to do with the East. Turkmens are neither traditional, nor dealers, nor merchants. They sell only their own made goods that they would not be ashamed of selling.

The Ashgabad tolkuchka (market). Here, you should not keep your wallet in a back pocket of trousers. But are those looking for rare stuff afraid of a thief? It would be bitter to waste money and buy something unknown (“a cat in a bag”). So, the skilled fans of exotic goods, ready to give sweet-voiced callers back, set on “a track of war”. They pass trading stalls and sellers and suddenly find out that the protective ammunition is not just burdensome but ridiculous. No one is looking for anything, no one is calling you. But the goods are really good. The beauty reigns here. Famous Turkmen carpets are displayed for selling all over the place. This is the true miracle created by Turkmen women and sold by men. They are not resellers. They are fathers and husbands. This is customary for Turkmens. They show indifference to how much money you have got, but they will pick a delight in your eyes. And only then the dialogue will begin. The owner of carpets will show you around and tell you a story of Turkmen carpets from the remote past until nowadays. But bargaining is ruled out. Turkmens do not like bargaining, thought they can do it. If you insist on discount Turkmen would say – take it! Not seriously, but to stop endless bargaining. However, in the past….

I was five years old when my Mom took me to the market. My Mom was buying vegetables and I reached for dried apricots. My Mom immediately hit my hands. The old collective farmer shouted at her! Then, he folded handful of apricots into a piece of paper and handed it over to me. It was the time of hunger, soon after the war and earthquake …

As for the carpet, I advise you to buy it. Firstly, it is really not expensive. Secondly, it may be followed by a small carpet as a present for your good taste and kindness from the bottom of the heart. Thirdly, you will be possibly given something else, but we will talk about it later.

Jewelry! You can’t miss them. It is a discovery for those who have never seen Turkmen jewelry before. Centuries-old refined simplicity, unmatched techniques, incomparable forms… What a national clothes, craftworks! Everything is unique and original… But let’s return to our muttons. The Turkmen market as tolkuchka is slowly getting out of date. It is natural. It is not a modern way to earn one’s daily bread. Nobody appeals to ancestors and nobody cries on that occasion, though Turkmens enjoyed bazaar as one of the forms of the daily life as pioneers of the Great Silk Way. They are not traditionalists in the narrow sense of the word. Their commitment to succession, traditions is realized through entirely special, dynamic way. Spiritual experience inherited from ancestors is perfected as years pass by, adjusting both times and changes to categories of moral, humanity, which is about those values that can’t be revised. Therefore, it would be wrong to talk about some kind of new Turkmen mentality because of exuberance in each Turkmen house and each family. Changes in everyday life, erection of luxury palaces, magnificent shops are the essence of the Turkmen mentality based on the idea of independence and statehood.

Colorful fairs, permanent exhibitions of products of national crafts are widely spread in Turkmenistan today. One can find everything over there rather than going to tolkuchka. Fairs, supermarkets are the attributes of wealthy life, tolkuchka – a sign of poverty. To prove it let’s visit any supermarket with a view not to find anything we need. We will totally lose just in two hours. There is everything in place, including customers. It is not a joke, not a pun. We have stated a basic principle of prosperity of trade enterprise. Without trade turnover, its days would be counted. Supermarket cannot be an attribute of a poor society. People do have money, big money. They do not keep money at home but spend money to enjoy worthy life which becomes a social norm in Turkmenistan. One can find plenty of imported goods in Turkmenistan as a consequence of globalization, but there is also a room for domestic products – cheese, butter, diary products, sausages, bakery and macaroni products. The products are in attractively vacuum packing. The broadest assortment of vegetable canned food, fruit juices is also available. All listed products are marked with lofty tag: “Made in Turkmenistan”, the competitive tag which confidently wins the international market.

… Here are the hall of Turkmen carpets, here are also masterpieces of the national craftsmen, ornaments and silk-screen printing section. So, the products of handicraftsmen are in their respective place, according to universal laws of international business. Let’s forget about the goods and remember that supermarkets are a nice thing. I am not sure whether it is possible to assess the quality of construction apart from its content. Probably not. The trading areas are magnificent. The same could be said about the whole building which is superb along with the entire architectural ensemble of the capital as a result of the comprehensive town-planning design. No doubt, supermarkets are a great thing which will eventually dominate in future. It is impossible, however to imagine Ashgabat stripped of bazaars. And of course, there will remain bazars fitted with up-to-date equipment for trading in modern facilities. But one could also feel the old aroma of oriental bazaars in its full colours. Nevertheless, Turkmenistan remains in the East, but not absolutely.

Alexander Zharan.
TURKMENISTAN” magazine, February 2005