(23) Mary, Turkmenistan: The Art of Coincidence

The trip to Mary started early. Had to be ready for pickup at 5am to catch. The German girl I was joining, Julica, was staying at a different hotel and we went to pick her up next. The main roads to her hotel were closed off by more of the same police that populate every street corner it seems. I’m told it’s because the President is in one of the buildings (at 5:15am is he sleeping or working?).

Turns out Julica didn’t set her alarm, and we set off for the airport a bit later than expected. I’ll admit she got ready quick, but she still found time to put her makeup on. I barely understand the effort people expend to put on daily makeup in Canada, let alone while travelling in Central Asia, but I suppose everyone carries some comforts with them.

The domestic Turkmenistan flights seem to pooh-pooh international flight regulations. Namely, I could bring my water bottle with me! I’m sure I went through security of some sort, but the amount of seat shifting that took place leads me to believe that the passenger side of things is pretty lax. As long as the pilots and mechanics run a tight ship, I don’t mind. The 45min flight saved us 6 hours driving, served breakfast, and only cost $18.

Our first stop after touchdown was Merv, a old expansive something-or-other, now just ruins. I’m sure it would have been of greater interest to history buffs, but if it ain’t pretty, it’s a bore to me. I can guarantee about every ancient site I see in Iran and Central Asia will probably have been pillaged by either/both Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC or Gengis Khan in the 1200s. One interesting thing was that at one site a Buddha head had been found, and it is thought that this is the most easterly evidence of the expansion of Buddhism.

I did lots of head nodding and made lots of “mm hmm” noises as the guide gave us his script. I could tell Julica was feeling the same. We both asked a requisite number of questions, but soon it was getting hot, and we just wanted to get out of the sun.

We headed to the hotel, which is apparently the nicest in town and popular with Iranian truck drivers (and therefore Russian prostitutes). I suppose I’m painting a pretty grimy picture, but in actually the rooms were incredibly expansive and clean. And really, clean is all I ask. I went to lunch with Maksad, the guide, and Julica picked up some things from a mini mart to eat in her room.

Maksad is 28 but looks older. He blames his military service. I blame the smoking. I thought at first he was Russian, but he’s actually from a Turkmen tribe in the southwest of the country, one of five in Turkmenistan. He has left Turkmenistan twice. Once for 18 months of military service in Pakistan. Another time he was chosen as one of two cadets and two officers to represent Turkmenistan at the 200th birthday of West Point Military Academy in the US.

We eat lunch in a booth of a dark, smoky, air-conditioned pub beside the hotel. It’s still early so options are limited. I have a large bottle of Coke and a minced beef and onion pastry thing. I never drink Coca Cola in Canada, but it’s a godsend when travelling for me. Anytime my meal is too greasy or none-too-appetizing, Coke makes it (almost) all better.

We all rest during the afternoon in our rooms, and meet later to visit one of the major sites of Mary town – the big museum. There are rooms dedicated to the area’s archeology, ethnography, ecology, contemporary artists, and of course, a room dedicated to photos of the exploits of the president. The president playing sports. The president with a dental patient (don’t worry, he is a dentist by profession). The president cooking outside a yurt. The president on a horse. The president shaking hands with various heads of state. Most of the images are (badly) photoshopped. It’s all highly amusing.

While the country contains many gold statues of the former president (self-named Turkmenbashi), all of the enormous posters hanging outside of buildings and inside buildings are of the new president. Why? “Because the people want it,” they say. By ‘they’ I mean the presidents. I suppose one of the white marble government ministry buildings back in Ashgabat is the Ministry of Making Posters of the President Doing Honourable Things in the Name of Nation Building for Display in Prominent and All Other Locations.

The ecology room is also entertaining. Satisfactorily stuffed animals with unreal eyes set up in overly dramatic scenes.

My favourite room is the contemporary art room. Sculpture, painting, prints. In one corner two paintings catch my eye, and I make a note of the name to look up on the internet at a later time. Or maybe I can buy a print of one of them in the gift shop. Julica has a few favourites of her own. Pomegranates are a common feature in the art. We’re told it’s because pomegranates are used to symbolize women. Women’s lives are like pomegranates – sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter.

Julica and I were both interested in checking out artist studio spaces in Mary. There was one listed in the Lonely Planet, and a contact of Julica also suggested a place to visit. After some reluctant phone calls made by Maksad, we found one of them. It was a nondescript old building. We entered with hesitation. Inside was just a long hallway; all the doors were closed. Maksad knocks on the first one. An older man opens the door, and inside is his studio. The paintings automatically look familiar and lovely to me.

He was the artist that I made the note of in the museum.

An amazing coincidence. I see prices on a few of the paintings, and automatically know that I’m going to buy something.

The artist doesn’t speak any English, but through Maksad we learn of some exhibitions his paintings have been featured in around Central Asia and Europe. One painting catches my eye and I make an inquiry on the price. $120. I only have Euros with me, and ask if he will take Euros. I calculate that I should pay about 100 Euros, but he counters the offer with a price of 80 Euros. I don’t think this is the way bargaining is supposed to work, but I’m not complaining.

The painting is entitled “Summer”. To be honest I don’t recognize much of what is in the painting. I see some birds and some trees. It’s pretty abstract, but I love the colours and am attracted to the piece. It’s part of a series of four – one for each season. The “Winter” piece is still on his easel. It turns out he just completed Summer the day before, so parts of it are still wet.  I feel bad for breaking up the seasons, but am looking forward to hanging it in my home.

Once the other artists know that we are in the building, other doors open, and we tour other studios. Nothing appeals like Gurbamov’s work. We soon leave.

The original plan from here was to just to go to dinner, but Julica insists that we find somewhere in the town that local people are. Julica and I have similar interests in our travels, so it’s nice to have her along. She’s a bit more demanding and insistent than I am, and I really appreciate it.

Maksad suggests we stop at Lenin Park, a large park near a river with a few restaurants and rides. The park was full with people enjoying a cultural concert that finished just as we entered. Other people were getting on the rides. Others still were just sitting on benches, talking and people watching.

Turkmen women dress so beautifully. The standard outfit is a long, richly coloured, figure-hugging floral dress with a white lace pattern around the neck. Many of them also wear scarves, but they are wrapped around their hair, rather than the face.

I decide to try out the ferris wheel, and Maksad comes along. It costs 25 cents, and affords a lovely view of Mary and the park. We continue through the park and also try out a small roller coaster. It’s a small circular track with rolling hills. The cars are powered by a motor in the middle of the circle. We have to ride back and forth a few times to get the momentum to get over the first hill. But once we got going, it was actually pretty fun, even a bit scary.

We walked to our dinner spot, passing by golden statues of the former president, and old soviet block style apartment buildings with dozens of oversized satellite dishes littering the outer walls and the roof.

And then was dinner. With vodka. Or maybe you could say we had vodka with a bit of food on the side. Vodka is generally had with meat as a snack. The first shot was incredibly smooth. Four shots later we had done dinner, and I was done like dinner. They were my first shots of hard alchohol in a long, long time. Julica and I treat Maksad for the spread.

During dinner we watched a Russian prostitute try her thing across the street. Compared to the Turkmen women, Russian women here generally dressed very provocatively, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a working woman and not.

I have to say that I may be experiencing a culture shock for the first time here. On any other trip that I’ve done, I usually just slip in and out of the culture. I go with the flow when I arrive in a new country, and when I get back home I slide back into my comfortable life, perhaps with a new perspective on life and material things, but no shock.

Here though, having moved from Iran to Turkmenistan, I feel strange. I feel naked and exposed without my headscarf, like everyone is looking at me. I keep trying to pull down the back of my shirt to cover my butt. I’m shocked and disgusted with the short, low-cut dresses and blatant sexuality that abounds. I can’t imagine what it would be for someone who grew up in Iran. No wonder Iranian men can only get visas here if their wives come along.

Back at the hotel after dinner, we go to the hotel bar for more drinks. Maksad didn’t feel comfortable with us paying for dinner so now it’s payback in the form of more drinks. More vodka, with apricot juice chaser. We have fun watching the Iranian truck drivers attempting to make moves on the local working women. There are way more men than women – do the woman do two rounds? They must, and the men must be used to how it works here. I see three men leave with three women. They are back within 10 minutes. Other men, who have been quiet until now, finally get up on the dance floor and start doing their mating rituals to attract the females. It’s all very entertaining. Maksad reads Julica and I well and the next round is a pot of tea.

The next morning we have a surprisingly decent breakfast, served by a woman doing double duty after last night. She was wearing a very ironic graphic t-shirt, based on how she makes her income, but I forget what it said. Breakfast is usually bread with honey or jam, possibly a hard boiled egg, and maybe some sliced tomatoe and cucumber. Here it’s an egg scramble with fried tomatoes, zucchini, onions, peppers. Mm!

We stop back by Gurbamov’s studio to pick up a receipt/certificate, so that I won’t have any problems taking it out of the country. Julica decides to buy a painting too, bargains a little, and pays 10 Euro less than me. She asks me later why I didn’t bargain, and I tell her I don’t usually bargain with artists themselves, as usually I find art is generally underpriced as it is.

We stop by another artist studio space, and the artist of one of Julica’s favourite paintings from the museum is there. She shows him the pictures she took of his painting in the museum, and as she flips to the next photo, a painting of another artist comes up.

“Ayni!” he yells upstairs.

Turns out the other artist also works out of this space, and they happen to be partners.

We head upstairs to the woman’s studio, and she is the artist from the museum who liked to use pomegranates. My eyes fall on one particular painting. Julica is entranced as well. We enquire about prices, and she laughs uncomfortably. She throws out random, high numbers. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to sell. She mentions that she has an exhibition in the fall of next year, and she wants her work to become more well known before then. Her paintings sitting in our homes won’t do much for her. Julica and I both make note of the titles of the works we like, and seriously consider buying them in the future.

Back on the road, I begin to feel vaguely ill. I don’t share in lunch with the others. Six shots of vodka the night previous will do that to me.

On the six hourmdrive back, the road is sparse and dry. The roads are OK, but nothing compared to quality of Iran’s. We stop at two archeological sites, but I’m not really for this kind of stuff. Neither is Julica really, but we oblige our guide. One of the sites was midly interesting as it was an old mosque destroyed in the large 1948 earthquake. Luckily, extensive pictures had been taken by a researcher in 1947. It was interesting to see the comparisons of past to present. The devastation was remarkable.

All in all, Mary was a worthy sidetrip, but not for the standard itinerary. Instead, the value was in what we did above and beyond the usual. Like I expected, archeology – meh; but people, art, and rollercoasters – unexpected yes.

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