THE government of this Central Asian state has the reputation of being one of the most conservative in any former Soviet republic.
But in spite of Turkmenistan's lingering adherence to communism and a collectivized system, its leaders realize the importance of maintaining an important bastion of free enterprise: the farmers' market. A place where vendors, not the state, determine prices, the farmers' market is the only part of the economy that functions smoothly and consistently.
"Even when there is little in the stores, there is always plenty to choose from here," explains Meret Saparov, an apple vendor at Ashkhabad's central market.
The central market in the Turkmen capital has an old feel, yet a decidedly prefabricated look, replete with plenty of concrete. Many buildings in the city, including the squat-looking market, were built during the past few decades. Few structures survive from the pre-World War II era, because the city was devastated by an earthquake in 1948.
Though Ashkhabad is a fairly new city, founded in 1881 as a military outpost of the Russian Empire, a visit to the market conjures up images of the fabled Silk Road of old.
Many of the vendors are women dressed in traditional Turkmen costumes, brightly colored red, green, or blue dresses with equally colorful scarves wrapped around their heads. And the market is as loud as it is bright, as some vendors shout enticements at passersby to try their products, while others animatedly bargain with potential customers.
True to Saparov's word, the market is a relative cornucopia of goods. Fruits are most plentiful: There are mounds of apples, pyramids of pears, and rows of melons, as well as an abundance of dried fruits. But there is plenty more to be found. In addition to meat and other foods, women hawk hand-woven garments, while a few men offer selections of silver jewelry.