August 5, 2019
I needed manats, and knowing to steer clear of the banks, headed straight to the bazar. Thanks to the huge discrepancy between official and unofficial rates, Turkmenistan like Uzbekistan before, has a thriving black market. But word is, undercover police are plentiful and discovering the result of breaking laws in this country did not rank high in my list of priorities. I had to be discreet.
A cavernous building in typical Soviet style, it looks like any other bazar in central Asia. It was crowded as I wandered aimlessly. I get unblinking stares mixed in with blank looks from some, but I get a few tentative smiles from others. A greeting is soon followed by desire to chat. Perfect! Any photos I take are replicated a few dozen times with their phones. Selfies rule here too. Chatting with one or another shop keeper on the pretext of buying a couple of things, I change money discreetly at a decent rate.
I am clearly a novelty here and a small crowd has gathered. Among them is Jahan, a young woman with a reasonably good English. We chat and amid yet more selfies, she volunteers to show me the bus to the train station. At the bus stop we run into her boyfriend Rasul, who promptly offers to drive me there. Wait a few minutes, he tells me and disappears. He reappears with a plastic bag and presents me with a large Doner kebab.
“This is your lunch” he tells me, overruling all protests. He and his friend drive me to the station, wave goodbye and drive off.