Some 30km east of Mary, on the road to Turkmenabat, the town of Bayramaly abuts the southern edge of the site of ancient Merv. The walls of the two youngest cities of the Merv site, the Timurid city of Abdullah Khan Kala and the later Bairam Ali Khan Kala, lie across the road from the town's main bazaar. It is from Bairam Ali Khan Kala that the modern town is named. Bairam Ali Khan was ruler of Merv in the latter part of the 18th century, killed in 1785 by Uzbek forces led by Shah Murad of Bukhara. His demise led to the decline of Merv during the following decades.
Most tourists see Bayramaly only through the windows of their Merv-bound transport, but the town is of interest in its own right. In 1887, some 90,000ha close to the ruins of ancient Merv were designated the Murgab Imperial Estate, and a royal lodge built here. A small town grew up near the new Bayramaly railway station to serve the estate. Bayramaly retains the best-preserved tsarist-era centre of any town in Turkmenistan. In the Soviet period, the former royal lodge served as the core of a sanatorium, based around the reported qualities of the particularly dry and sunny climate here, within dry and sunny Turkmenistan, for the treatment of kidney problems. The roadside monument welcoming visitors to the town features a sun design, in tribute to the source of the town's 20th-century fame.
The tsarist-era single-storey buildings of the quiet, tree-lined centre of town fill the streets to the north. Several of the buildings echo the design of the royal lodge with their pavilion forms, geometrical brick-patterned friezes, crenellations and gentle buttresses. One building, almost opposite the north gate of the sanatorium, suggests a mosque with domed roof and brick minaret. It now houses the local tax office. A block to the northwest, the town's Russian Orthodox Church is square in layout and bulky in form. There are two main entrances, on the north and west walls, with arched wooden doors protected beneath porticoes held up by squat columns resembling halved barrels. Inside, the walls are supported by interlocking arches, decorated with medallions of saints and abstract floral designs. The floor, tiled with star motifs is, like the rest of the building, elegant, if battered. The round tower at the centre of the building is now topped with corrugated iron, rather than the original dome. Locals will tell you that an underground passage was built between the royal lodge and the church, to enable the tsar to attend services without having to come into contact with his subjects.
The mildly unpleasant smell which hangs in the air above Bayramaly is a product of the cottonseed oil factory, which sits right in the centre of town. The Cottonseed Factory Museum, next to the main gate of the factory, a block east of the church, is well worth a look, as a rare survival in Turkmenistan of a basically Soviet-era museum extolling the achievements of the town's main industrial enterprise. The cotton factory dates from 1903, though became specialised in the production of cottonseed oil from 1936. The museum dates from 1931. It has one large room devoted to the history of the factory. The walls of this room are covered with evocative paintings on white cotton cloth, the work of one Yuri Artamonov. They depict scenes connected with the life of the factory, mostly drawn from photographs: the factory's fire brigade in the 1930s, whose brass bell is also exhibited; a parade led by the local football team, Pishevik ('Food Industry Worker'), featuring red flags, banners, and a little barrage balloon marked 'USSR'.
The exhibits are simultaneously mundane and fascinating. There is the shirt of a man named Kulkov, who apparently laid the first brick of the new factory. A wage list from 1903, recording that the highest salary paid was 15 roubles a month. The desk used by an early factory director. A trophy cabinet, commemorating the factory's sporting achievements. The imagery of the banners and shields displayed here is heavy with cotton, grapes, carpet designs, hammers and sickles, wheat, Lenin's head, the sun, the world. There are also photographs of unsmiling children at the kindergarten and a yellowing press article about factory worker Ovezgul Berdieva, elected to the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan in 1961. In the centre of the room, the cottonseed oil-making equipment is exhibited. Its role seems essentially to be to heat and squeeze the seeds until the oil is released.
The last items displayed in the main room are the products of the factory: glass bottles of oil, and ugly, brick-like bars of soap. Two small rooms to the side attempt to bring the museum into the independence period; the first an uneventful display of Turkmen ethnographic items, the second a room devoted to President Niyazov and Ruhnama.
A candidate for the title of most cloying statue on the planet is to be found nearby, in front of the wedding hall on the central Magtymguly Kochesi. Two intertwined gold rings rest on a bed of red roses. A dove perches on each ring. The two Soviet statues in front of the sports hall next door are little better: well-scrubbed youths playing tennis and football.
The central bazaar, on the north side of town towards ancient Merv, is well-stocked. Food and drink are set out on long brick benches beneath roofs of corrugated asbestos. Around these, other stalls are set up under low canopies of billowing cotton supported on poles, giving the place a mystical air and dappled appearance beneath the Bayramaly sun. Carpets and handicraft items are sold from the northeast corner of the bazaar, close to a row of caged ducks and poultry. So a-carpet-buying experience in Bayramaly is likely to be accompanied by quacking.