I have long had a love affair with carpets. As we already had several from India and Turkey, my mission was to buy carpets when we got to Turkmenistan – the land of carpets. After all, which other country in the world has carpets appearing on their national flag? Or a Ministry of Carpets? Or a national holiday called Carpet Day being the last Sunday in May? It is of no surprise that Turkmenistan is the strangest country I have ever been to.
Try googling “buy carpets in Turkmenistan” and you will see that the results aren’t great. Lonely Planet helped to a certain extent. I knew that one can get cheap carpets at the Tolkuchka Bazaar but would then have to go through the hassle of getting the document which details the age, origin, date of purchase, etc. certified and approved by the Ministry of Carpets before being able to take the carpet out of the country. This takes a minimum of two days. As we were only there for 24 hours, we decided to go down the route of purchasing the carpets from a government certified shop which has already done the above for us at a price, minus the hassle.
(By the way, Turkmenistan is such a closed country which no tourists go to that till this day if you google for an image of Tolkuckha Bazaar, you still see pictures showing it is the largest outdoor market in Central Asia when the reality that hit us when we got there in 2013 was that it is now an indoor market in miserable looking white buildings).
I chose two beautiful carpets. We agreed we wanted them to post the carpets to us in Switzerland which they said would take two weeks. We thought we’d give my in-laws’ address as we would still be on the road then. When asking how much postage would cost, the seller seemed to pick a number out of thin air. I wonder why didn’t the alarm bells ring louder in my head.
Carpet purchase over, we finally made it out of Turkmenistan after some drama, and fantasized seeing the two carpets in our lovely home. Except of course that wasn’t the case. They never arrived!
I tried calling them from Switzerland but it didn’t work. I reached out to the German diplomat we met in Uzbekistan who was working in Ashgabat to ask him if I was dialling the right number. Little did I know that the carpet seller had no idea how to dial the shop’s number from abroad and failed to give me the region code. Finally, I got through.
“Hello carpet seller, it is the Malaysian-Swiss couple here who bought those two carpets from you. Why haven’t they arrived?”
“Hello Miss. Unfortunately the Ministry of Carpets changed the rulings and now the buyer needs to be there in person to sign an extra document at the customs. Are you coming back to Turkmenistan anytime soon? Do you have a friend who is coming and can take the carpets home for you?”
WHAT?! No one goes to Turkmenistan and she was asking me if I was going AGAIN soon?! And I obviously do not have any friends crazy enough to want to go there!
“Miss, maybe the Ministry of Carpets will change the rules again and we can send you your carpets.”
“Oh yeay, you really think so? But when?”
“Oh I don’t know Miss. Maybe one day. Maybe never.”
So there I was, thinking, goodbye my Turkmen carpets that never were.
But I don’t give up that easily. I certainly wasn’t allowing the few thousands of dollars we spent go down the drain without a fight. So I called the carpet shop in Ashgabat again and again. I called the Turkmenistan Consulate in Geneva again and again and even became best friends with the Receptionist.
“Hi, yes, it’s me again about the carpets. Can I please speak to someone who can help me?”
Peter was convinced we would never see the carpets.
But six months later, one day when calling Ashgabat, the carpet seller said, “Miss! They changed the ruling! Your carpets are on your way to you!”
WOOHOO! My prayers were answered!
Fast forward to some weeks later. I was on the train on my way home from work while Peter was at home unwrapping the parcel containing our carpets from Turkmenistan.
My phone buzzed. A WhatsApp message notification.
“So they sent two carpets. But one of them is not our carpet. It is half a carpet with a hole in the middle.”
WHAT???!!! They cut my carpet into half and THEN made a hole in it??? What madness is this?
Much to my dismay, the carpet drama wasn’t over. The calls to Asghabat weren’t over.
“Hi, why did you send me half a carpet with a hole in the middle? This was not what I paid for. Please send me my carpet.”
I’ll spare you the details but eventually, after several more months, the other carpet arrived. We also had to pay VAT to the Swiss authorities TWICE which hurt.
What did we do with the carpet with the hole in the middle? We put it around our bed in the previous apartment but it is now in our basement – kept safe to be passed down to future generations who might want to have a laugh about the nightmare we faced, trying to buy carpets in Turkmenistan.
NB: A clever friend who came to visit and saw the “carpet with the hole in the middle” said that it should be used as a frame for door entrances. How clever she was. We saw one some years later when in Muscat, Oman.