The regional capital, and third largest city of Turkmenistan, Mary is heir to the city of Ancient Merv, 30km to the east, as the administrative capital of the oasis. Mary’s history dates back to the 1820s when the Tekke Turkmen erected a fortress here, , alongside the new banks of the Murgab, preferring the site to ancient Merv, 30km east. This new city of Merv was taken without a fight in 1884 by a Russian lieutenant named Alikhanov, who persuaded the local Tekke Turkmen leaders to accept tsarist authority rather than lose their city and probably their lives. The seizure of Merv by the tsarist forces induced an outbreak of what was described in British newspapers as 'Mervousness', as London fretted about possible Russian designs on British India.
The Russians set about building a new administrative centre here, but Lord Curzon, visiting in 1888, found the place a 'rickety town', and mocked the fancies of 'the brand-new Merv ... that it had inherited some aroma of the ancient renown'. Some would argue that Curzon's words still hold good. The city was renamed Mary in the 1930s. Cotton production quickly picked up and the guarantee of continued wealth came in 1968 when huge natural gas reserves were found 20km west of the city.
The capital of the Mary region is a somewhat spartan Soviet confection of administrative buildings and vast gardens disproportionate to the size of the city. Mary (pronounced mahrih) is also the centre of the major cottongrowing belt, which gives the city an air of prosperity; the markets bustle on weekends and commerce is surprisingly brisk.
With a population of around 120,000, it is a pleasant enough if unexciting place, offering walks along the Murgab River, a good regional museum, accommodation options to suit most pockets, and plenty of mostly uninspiring places to eat. Apart from the excellent regional museum there is nothing much of note to see in the town itself, although it makes for a handy base to explore the nearby ancient cities of Gonur and Merv. The city has accommodation for all budgets, good transport links and some of the best shashlyk joints in the country.
Orientation & Information - The town’s main thoroughfare is Mollanepes shayoli, where you’ll find the decaying sevenstorey Hotel Sanjar and the train station at the heart of the Soviet town. Further down Mollanepes is the modern town, replete with vast white marble buildings. Here you’ll find the Zelyony (Green) Bazaar and the Murgab River. Crossing the river en route to Merv you’ll see the enormous Turkmenbashi Hajji mosque and the new Mary Regional Museum building. The central post office is 1km east of the Sanjar off Mollanepes, while the central telephone office is 50m northwest of the post office. The OVIR (State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens; Turkmenbashi koshesi; 9am- 6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat) handles registration.
Getting there and away - There are two flights daily from Ashgabat, by Boeing 717. The flight time is 40 minutes. Since one flight makes the round trip in the early morning, the second in the early evening, it is possible to visit Mary as a day trip from Ashgabat. Local travel companies can organise one-day packages, usually combining a quick tour of Ancient Merv with a visit to Mary Regional Museum. The airport lies 8km east of the centre of town, off the road to Bayramaly. Taxis await the incoming flights. The Turkmenistan Airlines booking office is in town, on Magtymguly Kochesi. It is open daily, 09.00-20.00, with a lunch-break 14.00-15.00.
The railway station is a low-slung white-tiled building in the centre of town, whose function is advertised by a poster depicting a golden statue of President Niyazov, arms outstretched, apparently parting two speeding trains. Three trains daily head west to Ashgabat (7 hours). Two head east, via Turkmenabat (one to Atamurat, the other to Dashoguz), and one south, to Serhetabat on the Afghan border. There is a further train to Turkmenabat, on Tuesdays only.
The bus terminal is nearby, a deserted-looking building from which the public buses depart. There are three a day to Ashgabat, two to Serhetabat and two to Tejen, and a much more frequent service to Bayramaly (32 buses daily, with the first departing at 06.30, the last at 18.10). There is more activity open area immediately to the west of the bus terminal. The numerous private vehicles depart from here. There are frequent departures of both minibuses and taxis for Ashgabat, Turkmenabat and Tejen, and options for most towns in the region.