Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan

  • Date
  • 7 March 1999

Imagine a market the size of three football fields packed with thousands of people buying and selling breads and sweets, huge skillets of rice with plov, shashlyk of lamb and chicken, fresh and pickled vegetables, clothes new and used, gold and rubies, hand-stitched rugs, colorful fabrics, nuts and bolts, light bulbs, plumbing fixtures, money and even cars.

Touring the mobbed jewelry section, I was pushed, prodded and jabbed by traditionally dressed women in floor-length, brilliantly-bright patterned dresses with heads wrapped in floral scarves. Even without Econ 101, as the currency collapsed, these women understood gold and jewels would hold value. The black-market section, with men changing money right in front of police, attracted masses desiring any currency besides Turkmen.

The engaging market scene ceased when plain-clothed police demanded our passports and insisted we stop filming. A Russian friend Sergei and I had left our passports at the hotel as stories swarmed of stolen passports at this market. The police refused to call the Grand Turkman Hotel and verify we had registered. (There probably was no phone.) Somehow Jim persuaded the police to let us walk the market longer before returning to the hotel to fetch our passports, but police followed us every moment. When we alerted the police that we would return shortly with our passports, they wanted insurance and grabbed our cameraman, throwing him into a small, dark, cement room, where I nudged inside, before the door slammed. The police threw our camera on the ground and demanded our film. My jaw dropped south. A policeman pressed one hand to my chest literally moving me from the room in a swift, painful moment. The door shut again.

“We’ve got trouble,” Sergei mumbled when he finally appeared from this cell. The police insisted on holding our cameraman until we returned with passports. Then it seemed to take forever to hitch a ride back to the hotel, where we alerted the hotel staff, who immediately sent out a former KGB agent Valentine to sort out the mess. With Valentine and my passport in tow, back to the market, where our videotape was now in the hands of the police. Valentine insisted the thugs write a statement detailing the tape was taken against our will. The entire escapade took over four hours, and worse still, we were left without footage of the most extraordinary market we had ever seen. I wonder what state secrets were hidden among the carrot and potato stalls.

(Three evenings later we met the KGB General and mentioned the fiasco. Next morning, the tape appeared with two men sent to review the content with us. Ultimately, we were allowed to keep the tape, but the KGB demanded we erase the section showing the police harassing us.)