I asked the secretary of the "Ciapayev" commune for information about the traditional "kalym" or dowry paid by the bride's father. He looked at me angrily. "These practises no longer exist", he declared with some heat. An hour later, during a wedding supper, the father of the groom told me quite openly that he had paid 7000 rubles, which was about four years' work at the average wage rate.
Many young women, however, have rebelled against this practice in a violent and irreversible way. In 1989, 800 of them doused themselves in petrol and then set themselves alight rather than submit to marrying men their fathers had chosen for them. One girl told me tearfully that she had seen the charred remains of a friend of hers. "Another time I saw a young girl I didn't know burning. She was wrapped in flames in an instant. Perhaps the pain made her repent of her gesture becuase she screamed for help with outstretched arms, while her clothes burnt with black smoke. Then she fell over and didn't move again. I stood there like a stone, unable either to go to her assistance, or run away. I don't know if I would have the courage to do it. But perhaps I would".
The day after the commune's secretary threw a very dirty look in my direction when he saw me taking photographs of young children working in the cotton field. Moscow continually sends instructions to the local authorities not to employ child labour but there are so few labourers available that children are habitually excused two months' schooling to work on the harvest of Turkmenistan's "white gold".
There was an army of children working side by side the women, who earn 50 rubles a month and work from dawn to dusk. This year, however, the authorities were able to watch this scene with a clear conscience. Each family had been rented a small holding by the commune, which it was their responsibility to harvest. This meant that the children would stay at home as a result of their parents 'decision, not the communes'. A blind eye was turned to their absence from school.
The towns of Turkmenistan are new becuase this is an earthquake zone and tremors have often destroyed the housing stock of the region. Only the ancient minarets and mosques, with their bright blue domes, have remained standing.
"Religion is finally free from state interference", Imam Ibadulayev Nasrullah, an ex-student of the University of Cairo, told me. "Young people can now attend the 'madrase', where they study classes in the Koran. It is our intention to educate these youths in healthy principles and to teach them to love their country. It has finally been realized that this goal is not in conflict with socialism. Even so, this mosque has been restored with the faithful's donations, not with government money".
Many Turkmenians still live in the "aul", poor, sun-scorched villages of yurts scattererd over the desert. The yurts are grouped around a well in an unshaded hollow in the sands. Water is drawn by a camel who patiently pulls upon a rope until a bucket of precious water is hauled up from the depths below. Other Turkmenians are still nomads, who graze their karakul sheep and camels on the desert sands, which are burning by day and icy-cold by night. The nomads live on "ciau", fermented camel's milk, which is nutritious and thirst-quenching, and on "ciuriek", a pancake-like bread which is eaten with mutton boiled in a little water, but only on special occasions.
The Turkmenians are descendants of the Sunnites, but have become a mixture of a vast assortment of races : many people have paved over this desolate plain. Tamerlan's Mongols, Alexander the Great's Macedonians, Tajan's Roman legionaries and merchants following the silk road to China : each of these cultures has left their heritage. Ancient castles built form volcanic rock are still visible. The cities are also of great age. Nisa was known as Nisaia in the days of the Partian empire, Myru was the capital of the Seljulkes. The last sultan's mauseleum and the remains of the acropolis built by Alexander can still be seen, standing on the windswept plain.
Kara Kum means "black sands". The meaning is two-fold : a combination of the light and a cloud-filled sky does literally lead to the sand assuming a greyish colour, but there is also a figurative sense to the words, which refers to the danger inherent in a journey across these sands.
Igor, who was on his first desert journey, did not trouble to hide his fear of snakes. There are at least 10 poisonous species of which the giursa, the efa and the cobra are the most deangerous. The locals say: "There are lots of them", but, as all over the world, they exaggerate the risk. An efa I captured once had 30 milligrams of poison in its fangs, half of what it would take to kill a healthy adult, though enough to provoke paralysis and temporary blindnes.
Igor was not convinced: "What about scorpions? Are they harmless too?" he asked ironically. At our first stop in Repetek, an important centre for the study of the desert, I applied for information on the subject. "Yes, on the whole, the scorpions' notoriety does not have much basis in fact", I was told by the experts. I learnt that there were five species in the Kara Kum, the most poisonous of which has a sting which is one and a half times more velenous than a bee's. The sting is very painful, causing a swelling which lasts about 15 minutes, but then begins to abate. Scorpions are night animals. Apart from one small species, which is black in colour, all desert scorpions are yellow.