The tarantula is approximately as poisonous as the scorpion. Another spider native to this region, however, the kara kurta, which is part of the Black Widow family, represents a real menace. It is fifteen times as poisonous as most snakes. One person in five bitten by it dies after two days of agony and hallucinations. Its bite does not swell, but leaves a small red mark, followed by intense pain. We were travelling there in autumn and found to our relief that this insect's most active season was the spring.
"How many fatal cases have there been recently in the region?", I asked. "In all sincerity, I must say that I have never seen a fatal case in all the 18 years I have lived here", said the adviser who was to accompany us.
At Ashkhabad, the "city of love" and regional capital, I visited the desert institute of the Academy of Sciences. The scientists there spoke with great optimism and enthusiasm of their progress. Their principal project was the exploitation of solar energy to desalinate water. Vast stocks of water lie beneath the desert's soil, but they are too salty to drink. Rendering this water drinkable would require great quantities of electric energy. The scientists proposed to use the sun as the resource of this energy. Since each square kilometer receives from the sun the same amount of energy that would be obtained by burning 200,000 tons of coal, in theory all one has to do is multiply-this sun by the tens of millions of square kilometers occupied by the world's deserts to perceive how much energy might eventually be generized for this and other purposes.
For the moment, however, no-one can suggest any practical way of harnessing this energy, as I ascertained when I paid an unauthorized visit to the research centre working on the problem.
Side by side with such futuristic projects, ancient customs persist. Men still stretch out in front of their yurts on the "saciak", carpeted wooden platforms about half a meter high and as large as a bed, or sometimes even larger. They pass the time drinking tea, talking about camels, or simply looking out at the shimmering horizon. The women, meanwhile, sit in the shade weaving the valuable carpets with traditional patterns and colours typical of each tribe, "yomud", "beshir", "tekin". These patterns have remained unchanges for centuries. They are as fine as Persian carpets. We know them as "Bukhara", because the nomads used them in the market place in nearby Bukhara.
Carpets also lie on the floor of the yurt and are a nomad's most valuable possession. When you eat with a nomad family, you must sit on the carpet, and partake from a common plate by hand. Marco Polo described the carpet's value and renown in his diary seven centuries ago. In 1937 a Bukhara carpet won the gold medal at the Paris World Trade Fair. The largest carpet in the world is also from this area. It is 193.5 metres square.
At Ashkabad I watched the silent work of a hundred women workers as they composed a carpet with the classical octagonal "gul" motif in a small mill in the city centre. Their work required the dexterity of a robot. The norm set by the state for each worker is one square meter of woven carpet every month : this means weaving about 340,000 stitches. The manager, a distinguished woman with gold-crowned teeth, a common sight in this area, explained that the nomadic and pastoral life of the Turkmenians had had a great influence on the carpets they wove. The ancient patterns are still faithfully copied and the traditional hues, red, brown, black and white are still employed. The carpets' decorations, to one who knows what to look for, describe solitude, fatigue, the heat of the desert, winter cold, the necessity of defence and faithfullness to the tribe.
In the countries of Asia, carpets are not used as decorations but have a practical use in unfurnished houses as places to sit, eat, sleep and pray. The material used to make them is wool shorn in the spring. Not all sheep produce fleeces of of sufficiently high quality to be used in the best carpets. The finest fleeces are produced by sheep native to Afghanistan, China and by the saragin breed. The wool must be carefully washed, spun and dyed before weaving.
In the factory museum they showed me a carpet which contained 1,148,000 stitches per square meter, the world record. There were also others into which had been woven portaits of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorky and Pushkin. Turkmenistan produces 47,000 square meters of carpet every year. More than half of this total is woven by home workers. Nearly all production is exported, so much that in the shops of Ashkabad itself one only finds machine-made products.
I stopped for 4 days in Jerbent's aul, together with my group. We were shown every mark of respect. As we were about to leave I asked how much we should pay the villagers. "Nothing, because a guest never pays anything during the first three days of his stay", Sahad Durdiev told me. He was 36 years old and was already the father of eight children. "But we have been here for four days", I reminded him. "Excactly, but on the fourth day you become part of the family, so how can you pay?", the grey-eyed man responded merrily. Grey eyes are very common in Turkmenistan and are indicative of past interbreeding between the many peoples which have conquered this land. In Turkmenistan men live by time-trusted values of hospitality and friendship.
Whoever comes from afar, after a tiring journey, is treated with honour and respect. "In our yurts there will always be a place for you", we were told by many Turkmenians.