Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

The carpet sellers of Turkmenistan

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Women selling traditional Turkmen embroidery. Photo / Jill Worrall
Women selling traditional Turkmen embroidery. Photo / Jill Worrall

It's always a little disconcerting the first time one hears a car parked at the Tolkuchka bazaar bleating.

Even more astonishing is when the owner of the usually elderly, battered and miniscule Russian-made cars opens the boot to reveal the reason - half a dozen coloured sheep peering anxiously out into the sunshine.

But it's a regular occurrence at the bazaar on the outskirts of Ashgabad every weekend - for most local farmers the family car is quite big enough for transporting their animals to and from the livestock section of what is possibly Central Asia's largest bazaar.

That is, of course, unless you are trading in camels. Then you will either need a truck or will simply have to walk your new purchase home.

There was a brisk trade in camels at the bazaar last weekend - female camels and their babies were being snapped up, often by women wearing long velvet dresses splashed with a pattern of red roses.

The men too were traditionally dressed, with huge shaggy sheepskins hats.

Get four or five men together and the effect is like a small aerial flock of sheep. (It appears Turkmen like their headware au naturel - after rain especially there can be a distinctively rich aroma around any gathering of hat wearers).

Beyond the livestock section is a vast carpark, which is also a second hand car sales yard - a combination that I imagine could lead to a certain amount of confusion.

Then there's the carboot sales line which this year seemed to feature an eclectic collection of rusted metal parts - including a surprisingly extensive collection of old mincers.

The real retail action, however, begins beyond the vegetable, fruit and twig broom sellers.

Inside a walled compound are the sellers of Turkmenistan's famous hand-knotted carpets. Most of the salespeople are women - who have a formidable reputation as hard bargainers.

The carpets are piled up many centimetres deep on the ground or are suspended along wires that demarcate each sales pitch.

In the middle of one sea of deep red carpets sat three ladies, hair caught up in headscarves and clad in velvet dresses. I smiled at them, and instead of being prevailed on to buy, was invited to join them for tea.

I took off my shoes and sat beside them, sinking to the ground on top of several thousand dollars worth of carpets.

The odd tourist wandered past, looking a little confused at my presence. They were even more bemused when I attempted to sell them the carpet I was sitting on. The sales ladies hooted with laughter and filled up my teacup.

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