[TABLE TALK] Silk road tales come alive for Turkmens in Korea

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[TABLE TALK] Silk road tales come alive for Turkmens in Korea


If you could recommend one book to read about your country, which would it be and why?
We are asking these questions to ambassadors in Seoul for our latest public diplomacy series, “Table Talk.” The book, its author and what they say about the country is discussed over a table full of national dishes. What better way to start an exploration of a new land than through food, good writing and a personal guide dedicated to building bridges between countries — right here in Korea? - Ed.

Come nighttime, the adventures of caravan travelers on the Silk Road centuries ago come alive in Turkmenistan as children huddle around in their homes for bedtime stories.

One of them is about a boy name Mamed, who set off on a route on the Silk Road with nothing else in mind other than buying some black pepper from a market in the neighboring city. His life takes on a different course as Mamed comes across musicians, theologians and backgammon players on the road.


“Turkmenistan - Heart of the Great Silk Road” by President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was published in 2018. The book sheds light into the impact the trade routes of the Silk Road had in each region of the country, and tells the story of the Turkmen people through vivid paintings depicting the caravans traveling along the road, or telling stories into the night by the campfire.

“The road did not only transport goods or products, but also ideas, cultures and traditions of people from all around the world,” said Myrat Mammetalyyev, ambassador of Turkmenistan to Korea. “Turkmenistan, located in the center of the Silk Road, was affected more than other countries because Turkmenistan was the crossing point of Europe and Asia.”

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov recently wrote about the Silk Road and his country’s history in his book “Turkmenistan — Heart of the Great Silk Road,” which includes the story of Mamed and his travels with caravans on the road.

“The president’s idea is to preserve the Silk Road but also to modernize it in order to meet newer needs,” Mammetalyyev said. “The concept is not only to use the Silk Road in its traditional form as a road but also to widen its use through new railroads, pipelines and more.”

Ambassador Mammetalyyev, joined by his wife, Tazegul Mammetalyyeva, sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily last month to discuss ongoing projects regarding the Silk Road and Turkmenistan’s cooperation with Korea.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.

Q. The book, “Turkmenistan — Heart of the Great Silk Road,” was written by the president. Is it regular practice for the president to publish a book every year?

Myrat Mammetalyyev: Our esteemed President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has written a lot of books, published every year or every few years. He is very interested in our traditions, our culture and achievements. One book was about Turkmen cuisine, one was about our horses — we are very proud of our horses — one book was about our carpets, this one is about the Silk Road, another one is about health and medical plans, and yet another one is about proverbs.

Tazegul Mammetalyyeva: The president has been writing since before he took public office. His recent book talks about how the Silk Road is still very much part of the Turkmen people’s lives.

Mammetalyyev: There are a lot of fairy tales, a lot of books I remember from my childhood that are about the tales and adventures along the Silk Road. It is also in Turkmen culture to tell these stories and fairy tales to our children. We have so many of them — some of the ones mentioned in the book I heard for the first time actually.

I think it’s worth considering some of these stories in detail as they often describe the terrains of the country, as well as issues close to the heart of the people. For instance, some Turkmen folklore would include a dragon that would stop water from flowing to a city.

Mammetalyyev: We have a powerful river on the east side of the country and we have canals that run through the desert area to supply the whole country with water. So we do not have a problem with water resources, but we care about the issue because we want to use it in the most effective way possible. We have a proverb that says, ‘One drop of water is a grain of gold.’ That shows how much water is important to us — because in the desert, water means life.

Tell us about the Silk Road’s impact on Turkmenistan’s history and nation-building.

Mammetalyyev: The Silk Road affected all the countries that it passed through. The road did not only transport goods or products but also ideas, cultures and traditions of people from all around the world. Turkmenistan, located in the center of the Silk Road, was affected more than other countries because Turkmenistan was the crossing point of Europe and Asia.

Nowadays the Silk Road is divided into two paths. One goes north toward Europe and Russia and the second one heads toward the Persian and Arabic countries. One impact of the Silk Road seen today are the big cities that were founded and developed into economic and cultural centers.

Do you mean Turkmen cities like Merv?

Mammetalyyev: Turkmenistan is divided into five regions and Merv is one of their capital cities. The city is called Mary today and it is the second-largest city in Turkmenistan. Some experts say it was the biggest city in the world around the 13th century. Some cities flourished due to Silk Road, but we have had government projects to develop all of our regions equally.

What are some ongoing projects to revive the routes of the Silk Road in Turkmenistan today?

Mammetalyyev: The president’s idea is to preserve the Silk Road but also to modernize it in order to meet newer needs. The concept is not only to use the Silk Road in its traditional form as a road, but also to widen its use through new railroads, pipelines and more. I want to point out that Turkmenistan was the first country to take the initiative to pursue resolutions at the United Nations on safety measures regarding the transportation roads and pipelines.

What is the latest on the gas pipeline construction?

Mammetalyyev: Our country has the branched system of export gas pipelines — there is a network of gas pipelines in the direction of Russia from the Soviet period. We have also put gas pipelines to Iran and China into operation. Last year, we started the construction of the Afghan section of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. And the work on diversification of gas pipelines is in progress.

Is there any cooperation with the Korean government regarding renovation of the routes or pipelines?

Mammetalyyev: Not about gas pipelines. But on the presidential level, we discussed cooperation in the gas chemical sphere. Last year, we officially opened a gas refinery that was part of the bilateral agreement. It was constructed by Hyundai Engineering and LG International [and Toyo Engineering].

Tell us about other projects between Turkmenistan and Korea.

Mammetalyyev: The biggest project to have most recently taken place is the Kiyanly petrochemical plant financed by Korean banks. Another notable bilateral project is a gas field, the biggest in the country, constructed around 10 years ago by Hyundai Engineering and LG. Additionally, most buses and taxis are Hyundai and Kia — I would say some 80 percent of the buses and about half of the taxis are Korean.

Within this year, there is to be an intergovernmental commission meeting comprising about 40 participants from Turkmenistan; a business forum in Korea; a political consultation between the ministers of foreign affairs in Turkmenistan.

Within two years of establishment of the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Seoul in 2013, the two countries have had presidential visits. What do you think is driving the speed with which the two countries are exchanging people and ideas?

Mammetalyyev: I think Turkmenistan is really interesting for Korea in that we have a lot of natural resources that they don’t have. But in turn, we are in need of Korea’s technology. I think this is a good foundation for cooperation and a good reason to increase it. The current administration of Korea has been really interested in the Central Asia region, and because of that, we have a higher potential for cooperation.

In Korea, the biggest national holidays where families get together for days and cook and eat together are Seollal [Lunar New Year] and Chuseok [Korean Thanksgiving]. Does Turkmenistan have similar holidays?

Mammetalyyev: We tend to gather together as family, with parents and cousins on a more regular basis. But one tradition we have where we get together and cook food for days and celebrate life together would be weddings.
Mammetalyyeva: When it is time to wed our children, the parents are given a 10-day vacation. And you will see why in a few minutes as I explain. Weddings in Turkmenistan are huge — we invite thousands of guests. And it is the responsibility of the parents to contact and invite each guest. We also cook for the guests and this is where relatives gather in big numbers to cook and prepare for days.


Maash porridge


1. Cut 2 onions into squared pieces and cook in oil in a pan over medium heat. Cut 300 grams (0.6 pounds) of meat into squares and add into the pan when the onions start to brown. While the meat is cooking, cut into squares 1 carrot and add into the pan. Cut 2 potatoes into squares and add into the pan. Once potatoes turn golden brown, add 1 cup of water to the pan and simmer over low heat.

2. Wash 300-400 grams of maash and boil in water. When maash begin to open up, add them to the pan and keep boiling. Add salt to one’s taste. Add water as needed. Once ingredients are well-cooked, add 100 grams of rice. Keep boiling in low heat and continue to stir to prevent sticking to the bottom. Once the mixture has thickened, serve with a spoonful of sour cream.



1. Grind 500 grams (1.1 pounds) of beef or mutton, 50 grams of tail fat, and 1 onion. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, one-fourth teaspoon of ground black pepper and 8 tablespoons of water, and mix it all thoroughly. Divide the filling into 10 equal portions.

2. In another large bowl, mix 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 cup of warm water, 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil and 3.3 cups of flour. Work to a soft dough. Divide the dough into six large and six smaller pieces, and roll each piece between your palms into a ball. Cover the dough balls with a kitchen towel and allow to rest for five minutes.

3. Grease 10-centimeter (4-inch) tart pans with butter.

4. Roll out the large balls of dough and lay them in the pans. Add the meat filling. Roll out the smaller balls of dough and lay them over the filling. Pinch the edges together.

5. Prick the fitchis with a fork and brush them with eggs.

6. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) for 25 to 30 minutes.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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