Trans Eurasia travel

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The bazaars at the heart of every town in Turkmenistan are the basic port of call for both food and general shopping. Opening hours are usually roughly from 08.00—20.00. Bazaars are generally open every day, including Sundays, though close for occasional 'cleaning days', which are taken unpredictably (though the first Monday in the month seems to be a common choice). Larger out-of-town markets, like the Tolkuchka Bazaar outside Ashgabat, usually open only on two or three mornings a week. Note that during the cotton harvest in the autumn, most bazaars outside Ashgabat are closed during daylight hours. Government-run shops are generally closed on Sundays, and may also close for lunch. Privately run shops usually open every day.

The top item on the shopping list of many visitors to Turkmenistan is one of the country's prized carpets, though the complex and potentially expensive export regulations can prove a real headache. Another good souvenir is a felt rug, or keche (known as a koshma in Russian). The making of felt rugs is a deep-seated Turkmen tradition. Keches were once used to line the yurt, and a modern Turkmen family will picnic on a keche, whose thick woollen mat is said to offer good protection against scorpions and other unwelcome visitors. One distinctive kind of keche is used as a namazlyk, or prayer rug. These are generally white in colour, and often contain 'wavy' designs resembling snakes.

Another traditional craft of Turkmenistan is jewellery-making. Turkmen women often wear large quantities of heavy silver jewellery; especially on their marriage, when they may be weighed down by several kilogrammes of jewels. There is jewellery for the head, ears, neck, plaits, arms and fingers, as well as breast plates, dorsal jewellery and a wide range of amulets. The jewellery typically features mounted cornelians, a stone believed to offer protection against disease and to lift the spirits of the wearer. Jewellery made by craftsmen of the Yomud tribe of western Turkmenistan often contains small pieces of turquoise, which cluster around a single large cornelian. There are stringent restrictions on the export of silver jewellery, but most of the pieces you will find in the bazaars of Turkmenistan are not silver. You are not allowed to export any antique items, a rule which seems to be interpreted by Turkmen customs officials as meaning anything vaguely old-looking, and which may cause you problems in respect of other items purchased at bazaars, such as samovars.

Brightly coloured Turkmen paintings also provide evocative memories of your trip. Representational painting was introduced to the area by the Russians;

Turkmen art had traditionally been based around the abstract designs of its textiles and jewellery. The workshops around the Artists' Union buildings in Ashgabat and Mary, as well as two private art galleries in Ashgabat are the best places to buy paintings in Turkmenistan. An export licence is. however, required: this is issued by the Artists' Union in Ashgabat for a fee of 10% of the value of the painting.

The intricate embroidered trims which decorate Turkmen dresses can look good framed and hung on the wall. Souvenirs of post-independence Turkmenistan include lapel pins, watches and vodka bottles decorated with portraits of President Niyazov, and English-language copies of Ruhnama. Bottles of Turkmenbashy aftershave are, however, now a rarity.