Carpets, usually predominantly deep red in colour, and featuring a repeated motif known as a gul ('flower'), are a great source of pride to the Turkmen. They were among the most prized possessions of Turkmen nomads, the walls and floors of whose yurts were decorated with carpets. Turkmenistan celebrates an annual Carpet Day, and the national flag incorporates the guls typical of carpets from each of the country's five regions.
The gul is, in effect, an emblem of the tribe. There is much debate as to the meaning of each of the patterns. The guides at the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat will weave for visitors elaborate explanations, though much of this is guesswork. They will tell you, for example, that the gul characteristic of the Tekke tribe is divided into four parts to represent the seasons, its alternating white and dark colours symbolising day and night. Within each of the four parts, the three designs resembling birds' feet may each signify a month, which I suppose makes the whole design a kind of calendar gul. The four colours used in the making of the carpet - orange, white, red and black - are said to represent the elements, respectively, of earth, air, fire and water. The guides identify in the gul of the Yomud tribe, which occupies the Caspian shores of western Turkmenistan, many marine-related items. Thus the elongated shape of the gul is said to represent a boat, or possibly a fish, and the design features repeated anchor shapes. Around the edges of Yomud carpets may be identified a pattern resembling seashells intertwined with seaweed.
Carpets have traditionally been used to make many other items. Folded in two, with the edges sewn together, they form storage bags. The largest type of bag, traditionally hung on the walls of a yurt and used to store clothes, is known as a chuwal. A torba is a smaller bag, used for utensils. There are many specialised designs of storage bag. The uk ujy, for example, was designed for the carriage of yurt poles between encampments. Carpetwork saddle-bags, horjun, also make an attractive souvenir.
Carpets have traditionally been woven by women, and the Turkmen carpet industry is still based firmly around hand weaving. At the carpet factories across Turkmenistan run by the state concern Turkmenhaly, most of the employees are teenaged girls and young women, who sit, several weavers to a loom, building the remembered pattern at a furious pace. Most of the wool is, however, coloured with synthetic rather than natural dyes, a legacy of Soviet modernisation'.
With the cost of a carpet from one of the bazaars of Turkmenistan considerably less than the price of a 'Bukhara' (as Turkmen carpets are often misleadingly described) in the West, a Turkmen carpet would seem the obvious souvenir to bring back from your visit. This happy picture is, however, clouded by the complex export regulations surrounding carpets. If you have purchased your carpet from a bazaar or private shop, before you can take it out of the country you will need to get it certified by the 'Expert Commission', based at the Carpet Museum in Ashgabat. The 'Expert Commission' ( tel 12 398879) is open 14.30-17.30 Mon-Fri, and 10.00-12.00 Sat. The entrance is around the back of the Carpet Museum building. Commission staff are in principle willing to provide certifications out of hours, but charge double in this case. For a fee of 20-30$ per square metre, the Commission will certify that the carpet is not more than 50 years old, and may be exported. Carpet-related products such as chuwals must also be certified.
Carpets above a certain size are additionally subject to an export duty, payable at customs on departure. For carpets in what is categorised as the 'Tekke group' (including Tekke, Sarik and Salor designs), duty is payable on all carpets above 1,36m2. For carpets in the 'Yomud group' (including Yomud, Beshir and Choudur designs), duty is payable above 2 sq.m. Duty is charged then for each additional square metre, payable in dollars at the official rate of exchange. This quickly racks up to a prohibitive cost.
The alternative is to buy your carpet at one of the state carpet shops. Although the basic price of carpets purchased in these stores is more expensive, the shop will provide the necessary certification (make sure you request the certificate) at no extra charge, and you should not have to pay export duty on larger carpets purchased in state shops. The customs authorities instead charge a small 'commission fee', of 0.2% of the cost of the carpet.
Check here for more detailed Customs regulations.