The capital of the Mary region is a somewhat spartan Soviet confection of administrative buildings and vast gardens disproportionate to the size of the city. Mary (pronounced mah-rih) is also the centre of the major cotton-growing belt, which gives the city an air of prosperity; the markets bustle on weekends and commerce is surprisingly brisk.
Mary’s history dates back to the 1820s when the Tekke Turkmens erected a fortress here, preferring the site to ancient Merv, 30km east. In 1884, a battalion of Russian troops, led by one Lieutenant Alikhanov, convinced the Turkmens to hand over control of the fort before things got bloody. Cotton production quickly picked up and the guarantee of continued wealth came in 1968 when huge natural gas reserves were found 20km west of the city.
Apart from the excellent regional museum there is nothing to hold the traveller down, although it makes for a handy base to explore the ancient cities of Gonur and Merv. The city has accommodation for all budgets, good transport links and some of the best shashlyk joints in the country.