I like carpets, ones from the near east above all else. A nice little footnote to go with the narrative of my journey studying and traveling in Central Asia, for me at least is the carpets in this part of the world. Central Asia is unrivaled when it comes to the production of carpets and rugs, and for me, the “stan” that stood above all of the others was Turkmenistan. Though beauty in form and function is a quality of the carpets produced there, the carpets from Turkmenistan really wouldn’t mean as much to me without the good story that goes with them. What is any inanimate object without the life or story that lives with it?
The story that lives with the carpets of Turkmenistan, or perhaps mine in particular, is a story of bureaucracy, and though, through the advice of some helpful people, I cut through that bureaucracy, I still had a proximity to it near enough to know I could fall into such a bureaucratic nightmare.
The carpets in Turkmenistan are beautiful. They have a classic Turko-Persian look about them, with most of them being red or green. Most carpets are made either from wool or silk, with silk obviously the more expensive option. Carpets in Turkmenistan are important enough to appear on the flag of the country, and without trailing off too much about them and their importance, each has a symbolic meaning to it, and has designs which indicate which of the regions of Turkmenistan the carpet was made. Each of the five designs on Turkmenistan’s flag symbolize each of the different tribes and their regions.
The first day we arrived in Turkmenistan, we saw what the locals call the “Russian Bazaar” in Ashgabat. I made it my business to boogie on over to the traditional stuff (hats, carpets, costumes, etc.) while everyone else was checking out the fruit and foods. There were carpets, oh god were there carpets… A whole section of just them hanging from the ceiling. I was really starting to feel like I was in the orient that I dreamed so much of as a child. I needed a relic of my dreams being realized, and I decided that it would be a carpet to bring home.
In a move that would prove wise in the long run, I didn’t make haste to throw down and buy a carpet right there in the bazaar. I was ready to wait a little bit and find the right one. After consulting with a few locals, I soon learned about where not to buy a carpet. Among such recommended places were the bazaar I was just in, or anywhere that couldn’t provide government documentation that the carpet was cleared to leave the country. No, really.
Turkmenistan has a lot of eccentric world records. Part of me thinks they are trying to set the world record for peccadilloes as well. They have the world’s tallest flagpole, the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel… and the world’s largest carpet. They take pride in their carpets. Enough so that they have a museum dedicated to them, and a government ministry to deal with them. Go ahead and take a guess what that ministry is called.
Most countries have legislation about the exportation of art. This helps governments hold on museum collections and national treasures. In Turkmenistan, many of those treasures stem from the national art of carpet making – so they take their carpets very seriously.
Thus, if you buy a carpet in Turkmenistan with the expectation of leaving the country with it, you need documentation certifying who made the carpet, how old it is, what the composition of its materials are, what region it is from, what its documentation number is, who you bought it from, what date you bought it, a signature from the person from whom you bought it, and documentation from the Ministry of Carpets confirming all of these things with approval to take it out of the country, that you bought it, and that it is not a historical artifact. The bazaar couldn’t provide all of these things easily, and I was told that if I wanted to see bureaucracy in its truest form, to buy one there and take it to the Ministry of Carpets so they could “appraise” it and I could be granted permission to leave the country with it. From what I was told, this is a process that basically involves you going back and forth between the person you bought the carpet from and the Ministry of Carpets moving enough paper back and forth to account for a few trees.
The way to tear through most of that red tape was by going to a carpet store approved by the Ministry of Carpets. I enquired about getting to a government carpet store and which one was best, or at least closest, and eventually found myself in a store called Haly carpets at 5 Gorogly St., Ashgabat. What can I say really about the place? It was beautiful, if only for just the carpets stacked and rolled up everywhere. Accompanying the carpets on the walls were the government certifications to verify its authenticity and allow for export. The store is one of the few approved by the Ministry of Carpets and is part of the “state joint-stock corporation” between the government and rug suppliers.
After wandering around the store, which was empty (like all places in Ashgabat, it seems), I settled on one for myself. It was wool, red and from the Ashgabat region. I bought it, and was provided with all of the proper documentation to present when exiting the country, to prevent my carpet from being confiscated.
I had my carpet, and when it was time to bid our farewells to Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan on foot, we had the normal rounds of exit customs. We presented our bags to the border guards tasked with searching them for contraband, and what do you know? I was asked “did you buy any carpets while in Turkmenistan?” Thankfully, I had the documents locked, cocked, and ready to fire. I gave the border guard my documents and passport, and he made his way off with my carpet and papers for a few minutes. They really do take this seriously. After running whatever sort of diagnostic or background check he could on my carpet, he kept the document intended for him and returned my carpet and passport, and we were cleared to cross into Uzbekistan. I like to imagine him in the back shining a flashlight into the carpets face and demanding answers good cop/bad cop style.
Carpets make excellent souvenirs from a trip to Turkmenistan, although it certainly has a Kafkaesque quality to it and you want to make sure that you know what you are doing. Turkmen carpets are beautiful without mercy, and whatever eccentric process you have to do to attain them legally is well worth it in my book.