Letter from Turkmenistan: hushed Mary

Conversation in the once-Soviet region remains muffled

A white-hot sun dazzled high over the sparkling sands of the Marakum Desert. Camels with sagging humps loped. Perspiration dripped from heads and limbs onto melting black tar. Horizons dissolved into shimmering, blinding light.

A yell shattered the silence. In rapid succession, shouts formed an increasingly shrill chorus. Men with desert-tanned skin and uniformly styled black hair ran purposefully toward us. More hastily exited their cars while others hurriedly set down their cups of chai. Surrounded by an advancing, claustrophobic crowd, my husband and I tasted sweat and desperation.

"Five hundred manat!" came the opening offer in Russian. We stood in wonder as these unofficial taxi drivers, who looked as if they shopped at the same store, competed to make the price attractive.

Within seconds the price dropped to 50 manat. "Twenty manat!" we heard through the din. "Ten!" "Five!"

"Free!" a young man cried. "Come with me. Free, free!" His hand grasped my husband's wrist and pulled him toward an aged Toyota. Tripping over feet, I was pushed in another direction. Our luggage was lifted away and neatly deposited into another car. Eventually, a Turkmen we'd met in Farab identified himself and invited us to join him for the long and quiet journey southward.

Mary, set in a desert oasis, contained everything a good Turkmen town should: a gold statue of Turkmenbashi, the self-proclaimed father of the Turkmen people; a Soviet-inspired statue of a mother and her child; and a vast central park with an imposing fountain. A brisk market snaked along a strip of potholed concrete. It was managed by slender women like elegant butterflies in meticulously embroidered kšynek dresses and stylish headscarves, while two men in an abandoned car park offered foreign exchange services.

On a bus to the magnificent historical site of Merv with its atmospheric mausoleums, we passed Soviet-constructed apartment blocks studded with satellite dishes that bore banners attesting to Turkmenbashi's golden age. Passengers furtively eyed us, but didn't dare speak. For a small fee, the driver of a lovingly restored Lada drove us to Merv's entrance, where colourful wishing bows offset the crystalline, salt-encrusted desert. "Journalists?" he asked. When we replied we were tourists, he visibly relaxed. We did too, for in the ruined walled city of Sultan Kala there were no green-clad militia following at a discreet distance.

On the train to Ashgabat, a lady ignored the hush, responding to our "Salam aleykum". She expertly exchanged SIM cards between two mobile phones to get the cheapest rates. "Oh yes, Turkmenistan is good country," she stated. When asked about her profession, her proud face stilled. "Is no job," she replied. How was her large family supported? "My father is taxi driver."

Why was she taking the train (eight hours for 470km) rather than a taxi? She smiled. "Train more cheap. Always same price."