In the spring of 2014, one of our travelers set out with her traveling companion on our Essential Uzbekistan program, where they enjoyed the sites and crafts of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara
and Khiva as well as the many fabulous fabrics, carpets, tilework and adornments she found there. Take the journey along with her as you read her fascinating comments on this adventure.
After I was born – but before I could read – my mother inherited her father’s library. Because my sister and I grew up in a neighborhood with no other children, and went to a school an hour’s drive each way from home, we had only books (and each other) for our entertainment. Most intriguing to us were our grandfather’s bound copies of The Strand Magazine and The Windsor Magazine. Weekly general-audience magazines introduced us to the world of late Victorian, early Edwardian popular culture. Written during the last, great days of the British Empire, these monthly magazines emphasized patriotism, good manners, and curiosity. One of the manifestations of that curiosity was their fascination with the “Mysterious East.” One exotic civilization living on top of an earlier exotic civilization. This was the great age of the founding of archaeology, exploration, ethnography, collecting, cataloging. There were two obvious places on which to center this burgeoning excitement: Rome and The Holy Land.
My sister and I drank it all in. We treasured these magazines because of their abundant illustrations and their wide range of subject matter. Whatever mood we were in there was a story or an article to intrigue us. There were articles about painters, many of whom depicted harem ladies bathing. There were articles about coins or trees or conveyances to be found in the outer reaches of the Empire. Every issue ended with a fairy tale or children’s story usually about an eastern character or location. Without at all understanding how it happened, I became an Arabist.
I moved from reading these magazines to novels (by Pierre Loti, Eleanor Glynn), biographies (Gertrude Bell, Freya Starke), histories (The Kingdom, The Arabists), memoirs (Colin Thubron, Peter Flemming), and finally guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Bradt). I was so steeped in the ‘Romance of The East’ that I desperately wanted to see it for myself. My travel partner C. is my ever-obliging magic carpet. With him I went first to Istanbul, where East and West have fought and blended for millennia. Then we went farther. Damascus is the site of one of the oldest bazaars in the world. Syria is the location of Palmyra, home of the fabulous Queen Zenobia. Jordan, where one finds Petra, “the rose-red city half as old as time”. Jerusalem is the heart of The Holy Land for three religions. Egypt has the pyramids.
In every place I hoped to find that sense of exoticism the Victorians reveled in. In every place I found wonderful things to do and see but all within a context of the modern world. In Istanbul the mosques were beautiful and the automobile traffic a nightmare. In Damascus the souk (bazaar) was extensive but filled with objects made in China. In Palmyra the ruins had been heavily reconstructed looking nothing like my Edward Lear lithograph of a century before. Petra was pretty old-world until I reached the top of the hill to find a fully stocked bar in a cave. (I was glad of both the Coca-Cola and the shade, I admit.) Jerusalem was a mad jumble of cars, fractious religions (plural) and machine guns. Egypt has been living off the tourist trade for several centuries and doesn’t let a single coin escape its grasp. Fascinating, all of it. But not exotic.
We went to the Red Sea (with its dying coral reefs), Yemen (poor and smelling of frankincense), Oman (so modern a friend runs their opera house), and the Trucial Estates (now known as the UAE) all irrigation and banking. Interesting, but not exotic.
A long and fascinating quest. A never-ending quest, I hope. But I think I’ve finally found the last outpost of the Victorian dream of The East – in Central Asia, where I would never have thought to look.
I have long wanted go to Almaty, the capital of Kazakstan. But when friends did the five ‘Stans they praised Uzbekistan so highly that I changed my mind. They did not go alone into the wild and had nothing but praise for the tour company that facilitated the trip: MIR Corporation of Seattle. So I called MIR and asked what could be done. Six months later, after an appropriate sum of money, we had a two week trip planned and plotted for us. Guides everywhere and a driver. Just the two of us. Many of our friends questioned our decision right from the get go. “Why Uzbekistan?” was the constant question. “Samarkand,” I said. “Tamerlane.” But really, secretly, I wanted to go because I had never been to that part of the world. I wanted to see something I couldn’t find anywhere else. I was looking for something not Western European.
Day 1: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
We flew on Korean Airlines to Seoul, South Korea. We stayed overnight in a hotel and then flew the rest of the way to Tashkent. This proved to be a good idea as we arrived not exactly rested, but not trashed either. Not realizing that we would be met at the airport we made our way to the hotel by taxi. When Alexander, our driver, found us calmly eating dinner he was almost in tears. He was so fearful that he had lost his charges; it took a bit of coaxing to reassure him that we were safe, not upset and grateful for his concern. This was an indication of how well we would be looked after on the trip and we adapted very quickly to being cherished and a more limited independence.
Chorsu BazaarWednesday morning we were still un-scheduled so we set off to find the market. A long walk to the metro, three stops to Chorsu Bazaar, and a brief walk in the hot sun. We could hear it before we could see it. The hum of people was more alive than intermission at a good play. Hundreds of people. All dressed in bright, spangled, sparkly, stripped, sequined, glittering clothing. Oh, boy – my fashion dream come true.
The market is huge. Mostly open-sided under roofs, there were several buildings and many, many informal pavilions. One building was devoted to meat. Lots of meat. Yes, pork as well as lamb and a great deal of beef. The surprise was the complete lack of smell and flies. God knows what poison they put in the air, but it smelled just fine and the meat looked fresh and moist. Especially the large glistening mounds of tallow and lamb fat. Strawberries had obviously just come into season. Wherever we turned there were women with large trays heaped with berries. The ripe smell slammed into me until I was dizzy with sweetness and regret. (Regret because, of course, we couldn’t eat them.) Lots of bread for sale, but not much variety. Mostly round loaves, pressed down in the center with a decorative stamp, then cooked on the side of a tandoor oven. Later I would discover how delicious this bread is.
From the food sections we made our way to the household goods. A large bale of cotton alerted me to yardage and towels. C. wanted a washcloth but the stall holder wouldn’t bargain down from 3,000 sum (about $2), so I never got him one. We found the nursery part of the market, with flowers, vegetable starts and young fruit trees. These are practical people in a land of scarce water so the flower portion was pretty small. We then made a quick return trip to the hotel for lunch.
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Meeting the guideAlexander presented us to our guide, Zahir, and we were off to see the sights of the very modern Tashkent. Almost completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1966, the Russians, with Uzbek help, substantially re-built the city. The boulevards are wide and there are trees everywhere. For instance, there is not just a line of trees between the street and the sidewalk, but a further six lines of trees from the sidewalk to where the buildings begin. The streets always looked cool and shady – which is much prized in this land of intense sun and heat. Railroad MuseumZahir began with a lecture on the history of Uzbekistan and Tashkent. But he soon made the mistake of asking us where we wanted to begin and we chorused “The Railroad Museum.” He shrugged good-naturedly and we headed for the station. Very nearby is the museum, devoted to about fifty locomotives, mostly of Russian design. One was so large that when C. stood in front of the driving wheel with his arms extended he did not span its width. One train was war booty from the Germans. One car was a breakdown unit with a crane that could lift a locomotive. One engine was a snowplow. One car was a private carriage, sadly not open for viewing. Some engines had tenders that held coal and some that held wood. Some engines were diesel, most were steam. Most of them were painted green, although some were blue. I asked about this and was told that all had originally been painted Russian Red, but that with independence the trains now bore the colors of the Uzbek flag. They were wonderfully displayed among mulberry trees ripe with fruit. It was a little sad that we were the only people there to admire them. Independence SquareThat foolishness out of the way, Zahir buckled down and displayed some history. We went to the square, which does double duty as a Soviet Realist statue to motherhood and a cracked black block of stone with the date and time of the Great Earthquake chiseled into it. Because we were a bit tired, we opted for a drive-by of Independence Square. (Independence from the Russians, I might add, right after the Soviet Union fell.) From his remarks we took away the following two important ideas: (1) The Russians weren’t all bad as colonial masters, and (2) Islam is an important religion.
Day 2: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Thursday Alexander picked us up to take us to the train for Samarkand. MIR had booked us in business class and we were very comfortable. Wherever we went officials smiled benignly upon us. And there were lots of officials – yes there were. (No unemployment in a former Soviet Republic, you can be sure.) I photographed the train, which is a Talgo from Spain. It has been explained to me several times that this indicates that the wheels are between the cars (joining them) rather than indented beneath the cars. Thus, the train can ride lower to the ground. (Do with this information what you will.) The design of the train makes it look like a bullet train and it did indeed move at some speed. The track was not smooth so the car swayed quite a bit, but it was pleasant to look out the big windows and admire the cattle, the goats, the sheep and the shepherds who looked after all of them. So far we had seen no dogs or cats but were assured that every farm had at least two large dogs for security.
Meeting the Samarkand guide and driverIn Samarkand we were met by Delia, our guide, and Shavkat our driver. He and Delia spoke to one another in Russian. She is locally born but of a Crimean Tartar family. Her grandparents were forcibly moved to Samarkand by Stalin. Not long ago her parents moved back to Crimea and Delia is strongly thinking of joining them. Or at least sending her fifteen-year-old son to be parented by them while he goes to school. This is history in the present tense.
The first thing we discovered in Samarkand was that there was an astronomy convention in town to celebrate the something-hundredth anniversary of Ulug Bek’s observatory, and so the streets were closed. Shavkat got us as close as possible to the Registan and then we walked. The streets were empty of cars, and since they were shadier than the sidewalks I chose to walk in the street. Until, that is, an official forbade this independent behavior. I had already noticed that absolutely no one walked on the grass or took short cuts through bushes so I was not entirely surprised to be asked to conform.
Delicious lunch near RegistanWe stopped for lunch across the street from the Registan (yeah, I’ll tell you what this is – later) in a very atmospheric tea lounge run by a large woman and her small, yappy dog. The food was excellent. I had soup with every meal in Uzbekistan and it was never less than excellent. Crepes are ubiquitous, usually filled with meat (or a cream cheese at breakfast) and always tasty. Also ground beef enclosed in a boiled pasta dumpling, which I delighted in. When in doubt, order a somsa. This is a triangle of thin dough filled with spiced chopped meat. They were everywhere and I always asked for them at every food stop.
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Gur-Emir Mausoleum (Timur’s tomb)Since the Registan was still closed, we walked to Timur’s tomb. Just gorgeous. Timur was a ruler in the fourteenth century who had delusions of empire. Except, when you successfully conquer land from Moscow to Egypt you’re not really delusional. Bloody-minded – yes he was. Submit or die was his motto, and then you would probably die anyway. He was not a gentle man. He followed the rule of Genghis Khan who was even more despotic and territory-minded. So people felt that Timur was a giant but perhaps a slightly nicer one. And truly, Timur did have a gentler side. Once he had subdued the land from Beijing to Moscow to Delhi to Istanbul, he called to Samarkand all the finest artists, architects, writers, poets, musicians, and craftsmen of the realm and put them to work. It was a great flowering of culture that has left us with some stunning buildings and beautiful decorative tile-work. Including his tomb – where he’s not actually buried. Free time to exploreAfter shepherding us to our hotel, Delia left us to our own devices for the rest of the day. Our walk took us past a craft center, a series of shops built around the traditional courtyard. Being high afternoon, all sensible people were somewhere else where it was possibly cooler. But, one shop was open. This was a dress shop, I guess you’d call it. Inside were five women who all obviously knew each other well. Also some coats and dresses and scarves which turned out to be made by them. They were entertaining one another by trying on the wares. All beautiful. They were courteous to me but much more interested in one another so I got to be a spectator to their friendship.
Uzbekistan has been under Russian influence (and rule) for a couple of hundred years, so while it is a Muslim country, it is very non-secular. Even in Timur’s time women never veiled themselves and don’t now. They wear the traditional long dress and leggings but the scarf is only to protect from the sun, not a religious statement. So the idea of secluding women is pretty quaint. Nevertheless, in that shop I felt as if I had strayed into a harem, or at least a place of women where they were free from men. So when C. came looking for me and poked his nose into the door I was horrified. For some reason I felt his presence to be a gross intrusion and I hot-footed it out of there lest it break up the intimacy of the room. There is no way I can explain why I felt this way. I understood not a single word of their language; they were courteous to me but inattentive; the clothing was beautifully designed but not radically different from any other shop. Nevertheless, it was one of the most intensely female moments I have ever experienced.
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RegistanFrom there we walked until we came to the Registan. Wonder of wonders, it was open, although clearly nobody knew this because it was largely deserted. Now is the moment to explain what a Registan is. Every city has one. It’s a large square (or piazza) bordered by one or more mosques and/or madrassahs. The one in Samarkand is justly famous because it is one of the biggest, bounded by one mosque and two madrassahs and is utterly gorgeous. A madrassah is a school, a religious school mostly but where other subjects can be taught. The students are largely boarders, living two to a room, self-catering and attending classes nearby. The façade on the square is tall and wide with a door on each side of a main arch. A cool, bent hallway opens out into a large courtyard with trees and maybe a fountain. All around this courtyard are the student cells, two stories of them, usually of a specific number that is auspicious in Islam. Nowadays the cells are not occupied by students but by shops selling traditional goods from copperware to scarves to embroideries to carpets to tourist tat. I poked into each one and succumbed to a suzani maker while C. remained outside chatting with two very tall thin men from Volgograd who were making an extended journey (with their women) on motorcycles.
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SuzaniA suzani is an embroidered cloth. Usually a cotton cloth with silk embroidery (although sometimes with cotton thread). Very colourful and frequently harmonious. Sometimes the colours scream a bit, but that’s typical for Central Asia. As I sat in this small madrassah room the woman drew out one after another of all sizes of suzani. Some had geometrical designs, some were floral. Some looked like tiles, some like gardens. I bought a long suzani of a vase exploding with pomegranates – the fruit of which was in turn exploding with seeds. The other was smaller, brighter and like a tile. (That is, the basic design was one quarter repeated three more times to form a square.) The woman explained which cloth was made by herself, which by her sisters and the relative birth-order of those sisters. The youngest was the least adept with a needle but has a fondness for fish. Of course I bargained, but not very hard.
Day 3: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Shah-i-ZindeThe next day began early with Delia shepherding us to the Shah-i-Zinde. This is actually a complex of tombs on top of the hill. (Quick history lesson: when Genghis Khan came through he razed the town to the last brick. And put most of the inhabitants to the sword. The few who remained abandoned the town on the bluff, and moved to the plain below and built their new city. In the ruins of the old town they placed their cemetery.) Built in the time of Timur and later, this complex of tombs is gorgeous. (We’re going to get very tired of that word, I’m afraid.) Built on either side of an ‘Avenue of the Dead’, each tomb is heavily decorated with majolica tiles on the outside and either tiles or decorative plaster-work on the inside. Each tomb is roughly cube-shaped with a hemispheric dome. If the family had enough money they are decorated with splendid tiles both inside and out. There are identifying names for the first three or four tombs, with the remaining occupants of the cemetery being unknown. The Russians came in the 20s and opened every crypt to see who was inside but could shed no light on most of the identities.
The designs on the tiles of these tombs vary slightly. Some were what has come to be called traditional Uzbek. One I would swear was Mogul. (Not too surprising since it was Timur’s great-grandson, Babur, who swept down into northern India and founded the Mogul Empire.) A great deal of the tile-work was reconstructed over the years due to earthquakes and general wear and tear. The Russians have been very generous with funds to remake and install these tiles so that the buildings look complete. We saw a series of photographs of some of the monuments around the turn of the last century and they showed a lot of wreckage. The Russians encouraged (and financed) a massive tidying up of the structures and decorations.
Bibi Khanum MosqueThe Bibi Khanum Mosque is an excellent building around which to pivot the old argument “conserve or restore.” This was built by one of Timur’s wives (the senior one, I think, looking at the name) and she was quietly determined to out-glory everyone else. It’s pretty spectacular. Now, that is. It has been off and on a gorgeous ruin. A lot of re-building has gone into the structure of it and a high percentage of the tiles are modern replicas. Modern, in this case, encompasses about the last hundred plus years since this building has been in the ruin/restoration business. You can see some of the differences in period by looking at the blue and turquoise colors on the tiles. The old ones used a pigment of finely ground semi-precious stones. They have not faded with time. On the other hand, faded or not, the newer tiles are there, looking splendid and giving everyone a sense of what the builders intended.
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Also on this very long day was the tomb of the prophet Daniel. Perched up on a hill, the actual grave is about nine feet long. The explanation for this is that the Khan brought a finger bone or such back from somewhere and buried it. In order for the location of the actual bone(s) to remain hidden (for reasons of paranoia, no doubt) he placed this small object in a large rectangle. Or, perhaps it was that generations of citizens felt that their tomb was “growing” and so helped it along by adding a stone or two to the end until someone said “stop!” There’s a nice old pomegranate tree outside the tomb which is pleasant to stand under.
Lunch was taken in a private home. A home, let it be said, that rents itself out to tour companies for just this sort of experience. In a large, tree-shaded courtyard we ate an excellent lunch, beginning with soup (of course) and ending with luscious strawberries that we didn’t eat. I used the family’s bathroom after lunch and was pleased to see that the interior was as neat and clean as I was coming to expect from everyone in this country. The western toilet was in a triangular “room” so small that when I sat my knees were pressed against the glass door. No doubt their squat toilet is in a roomier setting.
Carpet FactoryNext on the list was a carpet factory. I didn’t mind this because I wanted to see how they designed and made the rugs. I was happy to discover that this was a silk carpet workshop. First they talked about dying the thread. It turned out that I knew more about this process than the man who was trying to explain it. (Imagine! He didn’t know what a mordant was. Later, inside, another man proved to be more knowledgeable and then I learned a little something.) We went into a large, light, airy workroom with about ten looms. Each had a rug on it, all in some stage of completion. There were several young women working at the looms. Unlike Turkey, these were not children or teenagers. All the women were in their 20s or older. I was impressed by how tightly the looms were warped. You could play a tune on those strings. The weavers were using twisted silk thread. I was considerably surprised to see that they each had a loose tangle of thread in their laps and had to carefully pick out the next color they wanted. I would have expected a more organized palette hanging near their heads. This jumble of thread didn’t seem to slow them down any, however, so maybe they know what they’re doing.
From the workrooms we went to the showrooms and it truly was an Aladdin’s cave. So many beautiful rugs all lavishly thrown down before us one after the other. There was no possible way we could afford them but I didn’t tell anyone that for a considerable time. Among the rugs displayed was an entirely new (to me) kind of rug, a soumak. Not really Central Asian in origin, these rugs are woven rather than knotted, and the design is achieved by laying the thread along the back (rather like a Scandinavian sweater). I was much taken by these rugs, but again, I couldn’t afford them. In a further room there were textiles, mostly of ikat. (Both the warp and the weft threads are pre-dyed so that when woven a pattern emerges with feathery edges.) I was always interested when I ran into an ikat loom, but the finished product is a little wearing on the eye. Knowing I had to buy something, I settled on six meters of a fabric that will make a table cloth on which all the plates and food will disappear. The Uzbeks really go for “design.”
Paper-makingWe ended the hot day with a visit to a paper-making workshop. Set out in the country, this gave us a fine foretaste of how terrible the potholes in the road can be. Driving in a straight line is inadvisable. The better course, for both directions of traffic, is to make a slalom course down the middle of the street. Slowly, of course. Once you get off the main road, the streets are hard-baked dirt. They get very little rain, but when they do the streets get soft and ruts are made. Once rebaked, those ruts make for some interesting driving. And even more difficult walking. The paper-making factory takes mulberry sticks, soaks them, removes the bark, scrapes off the woody layer and pounds the result into a pulp. Water is added to make a slurry and the deckle is dipped into it to make a sheet of paper. Nothing out of the ordinary here, but it is an old tradition recently revived. All over Central Asia there is an effort to renew the crafts of the past which were summarily dismissed by the Russians in an attempt to make the country more modern and more, well….Russian.
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Day 4: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Ulug Bek ObservatoryThe next day we were whisked to the Ulug Bek Observatory. This is actually a big deal for two reasons. (1) The conference that closed the Registan the day before was of astronomers come to honor this man and talk stars. (2) Ulug Bek was the ruler of the empire but took the time to make meticulous observations of the sun and the stars and come up with some accurate observations. No doubt he relied heavily on the observations of minions, but his interest was real and his observatory was very grand. Only a little of it is left now but enough to give an idea of the scope of his interest. An interest so distracting, be it said, that he lost his empire (and life) to someone with the more mundane desire to be the head of the empire. Archaeological MuseumOur last stop in Samarkand (before lunch) was to the archaeological museum. They were having a temporary electricity shortage so the exhibits were a little muted. What we noticed in every museum is that the best stuff was dug up by the Russians and taken to Moscow. What was left is now pleasantly displayed but is really just archaeological detritus. With one grand exception. This is a fresco from the 7th century, which depicts, according to the guidebook, “the Sogdian elite at play.” This is a wonderful series of scenes of Chinese princesses in a boat, a white elephant from India, some wise men carrying offerings of pearls and spices, even a flock of geese. After the advent of Islam someone(s) scratched the faces of the people in the mural, but though the color has faded, the vibrancy and liveliness have not.
Lunch was a welcome respite. The day was hot, with the temperature probably in the high nineties. This is considerably more than I am accustomed to and I felt the heat greatly. Shavkat, our driver, was constantly handing us bottles of water and he knew what he was doing. We were drinking it at a great rate. But I discovered, as I have occasionally before, that there is nothing that cuts through heat and thirst like beer. I do believe that on this trip of ten days I drank more beer than I have in the last five years total. The air was not only hot but very, very dry. This meant that as long as I kept moving I stayed dry. As soon as I stopped, the sweat began to pour. Yes indeed, sweat does sting in the eyes.
Day 4: The Road Trip to Bukhara, Uzbekistan
After lunch we were launched on the road to Bukhara. On the terrible road to Bukhara. What would appear to be a six lane highway was actually only two functional lanes – one in each direction. The edges of the road wavered with the dirt shoulder occasionally indented well into the right lane. The potholes and rough surface ate away at the rest of the road. So, once again, driving was a matter of judging the on-coming traffic and taking the center of the highway. This was not much of a problem because of the sparsity of traffic. But it made for some interesting moments Especially near the tops of the gentle hills.
Amelia HotelWe did finally arrive in Bukhara and were taken to an utterly charming hotel. Really more of a B&B. Established in the old Jewish quarter, the Amelia Hotel is actually two buildings across the street from one another, joined by a second floor bridge with side slats to keep out the sun and curious eyes. Our room was through a courtyard, up the stairs, over the bridge and around the corner – overlooking another courtyard. We walked into a large central sitting room with a very large bathroom on the right. And the bedroom down two steps on the left.
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Ah, that bedroom. Exotic, indeed. In the center of the far wall was a very large bed covered in a dark blue spread scattered with lots of spangled pillows. Some were of the normal sleeping variety. The others had fringes and geometric designs and rich, jewel colors. Best of all, on the walls on either side of the bed was that same wonderful mural we had seen in Samarkand. But here the artist had painted it larger and in vibrant colors, probably much as the original had once looked. The white elephant was by C.’s head. The geese beyond his feet. I got the Magi bringing pearls and jewels as well as the Chinese maidens in a boat. The ceiling included big square rafters, their corners beveled by gently carved designs of vines and flowers. In the sitting room were murals of miniatures painted large (and singing with color).
Lyabi-Hauz EnsembleAfter gaping and gasping over this wonderful bedroom, our next act was to get some beer as quickly as possible. To this end we went down into “our” courtyard and sat for an hour refreshing and relaxing. Not longer, of course, because here we were in Bukhara, the city of some of the most famous rugs in the world. Which we never saw, interestingly enough. Instead we saw a small lake, surrounded by trees and tables and people. The heat of the day was beginning to abate and all the citizens of the town came out to walk, talk, take some tea and enjoy the sound of the fountains on the lake. This lake is not large, perhaps the size of four swimming pools fitted together, but in such a harsh desert land, it is an oasis and most welcome. We walked around looking at shops and wares and making an effort not to get lost. It was a happy time.
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Day 5: Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Ismael Samani MausloeumThe next day our guide, Noila (na-eel-ah) walked us all over this reasonably small town. A large park was formerly a graveyard but the Russians moved everyone out. It was already thickly planted with trees to the point that they missed one building. And well that they did. This is the very old Ismail Samani Mausoleum built in the 10th century before colored tile-work became all the rage. The guidebook says: “a perfect cube of seemingly woven brickwork” and that exactly describes it. It’s astonishing how many ways you can lay bricks in a pattern, and the inside of this not very large building gives you several imaginative examples. The big drawback, sad to say, is that the ground water table is rather high in this part of the world and salt is leeching up through the foundation bricks into the building bricks. Everyone laments this loudly but even the Russians can’t seem to figure out what to do about it. Ark CitadelThen came the Ark. This is actually the old walled fortress, home of the Khan. Tall, heavy walls of brick, extending far outward at the base in order to support the weight of the walls and walkways. The top of the wall is crenulated: for best defense of course. And the whole thing is just a bit oppressive and very imposing. It elicits exactly the feeling you want in a visitor if you are the ruler and feeling a little uncertain about the length of your reign. Like all castles, the way in was up a steep stone ramp. Heat and hunger blur my memory of the interior except for the jail and The Bug Pit. The jail was a medium-sized interior room with a large niche at one end. Apparently, if one of the prisoners was especially annoying to his fellows, they immured him in this niche until he promised to behave. I rather like the idea of inter-jail justice.
More important to see is the Bug Pit. This is the hole in the ground, about ten feet deep, into which particularly annoying prisoners were put. We modern people probably wouldn’t care about these long-dead felons if two of the inhabitants had not been not English soldiers on spy missions for The Raj. Stoddart and Connelly each found himself in this awful place for long stretches at a time. We were assured that they weren’t left long in the pit itself, only a week or two at a time. This was because the combination of lice, vermin and whatever washed down from the stables when they were sluiced out, would have killed them too quickly. In actual fact, they were each prisoner for about two or three years before they were individually beheaded.
Because we were tired and hungry, Noila led us to a restaurant by back alleys. Remember that The Ark is a fortress-city and plenty of people still live inside. The day was a holiday and celebration for museum workers and our guide was stopped by several people and congratulated. C. was also stopped. Tourists are not all from abroad and Noila snorted scornfully about “country people” whenever a group of them wanted their picture taken with this tall westerner. He was always asked his age (I never was) probably because his beard looked so patriarchal.
Covered Bukhara BazaarAfter lunch our walk back to the Amelia Hotel was through covered merchant halls. In this sunny country shade is a necessity. If there is not a tree, a covered walkway is welcome. Where these walkways meet is a dome and, perhaps, a breeze. Against every wall is a merchant. They sell scarves, hats, copper pots and dishes. There are Russian officer caps and aviator caps and large sheepskin hats. There are painted boxes and hanging lengths of textiles. There are necklaces and bangles and brightly colored bags. There were carpets and suzanis, of course, but best of all there were blacksmiths. We stopped at one from whom I bought a knife. I was shown two, one of regular steel which would hold its edge for a while, and another, made from titanium, which would stay sharp forever. Naturally, that is the one I bought. And had my initials and the date engraved at his suggestion. In addition, I bought a pair of sewing scissors fashioned in the shape of a stork. I had my choice of a male or female pair. Because the male scissors had a crest I thought it would get in the way of the fabric or the thread, so I chose the female. (They are excellent sewing scissors, I’m glad to report.) Sampling delicious PlovThat evening’s dinner took place in an old caravanserai fronting on the lake. Shavkat led us in, determined where we were to sit and left us to the food and the show. The food was quite good, including soup and plov. This last is the national dish of Uzbekistan, made with rice, vegetables, meat and lots of grease to hold it together. The version we had was really quite good. While we ate we were introduced to the band, some ten musicians each of whom demonstrated his instrument. And glad I am that they did because once they started to play I lost track of the individual voices. Would that I had also been able to do the same with the singer’s voices, but they were an important part of the entertainment.
(click on photo below to see larger version)
With the music came two different spectacles. One was composed of six slender women dressed in wonderfully sparkly “native” dress who performed traditional dances of times long past. The costumes were first class and represented a serious financial commitment. Each woman had long hair flowing down her back from under her headdress. In real life they had merely average length hair.
Traditional Uzbek ShowThe dance steps involved very simple foot shuffling, consisting mostly of waist bending and elaborate arm and hand movements. There was much straining for the effect of fluttering birds. There was also some pretense of maidenly modesty and shyness which gained in confidence as the dance wore on. No doubt the women were illustrating the song that was performed behind them.
The second spectacle came in the form of a fashion show. This consisted of six rather tall ethnic-Russian women wearing very high heels and slender dresses. The clothing ranged all the way from western inspired to very interesting adaptations of elements of Uzbek costume. Geared to the taste of most of the tourist guests in the courtyard, these clothes could (mostly) be worn in Europe and even the US. One flight of clothing was composed of large squares of cloth, with a neck opening, quarter-turned so the corner points hung front and back and over the wrists. Their variation was in the choice of pattern on the sheer textiles. The final group of dresses was formal evening wear, each with a different take on the local flair for gold embroidery. One dress was square-necked with just a little gold outlining it. Another was single-shouldered with a long leaf-shape of gold embroidery at the covered shoulder. The next was black with a mass of gold at the waist and one hip. The last dress was green with chiffon panels attached at the side seams from the under-arm to the knee, controlled by the upper arm.Very dramatic. We walked home through the warm evening bemused and benumbed.
Day 6: A day of rest in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
The next day was a blessed day of rest. No guides, no drivers, no mosques, no history. We slept late, had breakfast and read for a couple of hours. We went for a focused walk so that I could consider procuring items I had marked the day before. As a result, at every blacksmith shop I purchased a pair of scissors. Also one more suzani. Then back to our room where we read on, stopping only for an afternoon beer. Shavkat came to fetch us at dinnertime to take us next door to dinner. This was quite a good meal of lamb, but taken in a completely empty room. Bukhara was experiencing some electrical difficulties that evening so the room was softly lit by the early evening sun. When the electricity came back on (which was good as it was cooking our meal as well as illuminating it) we discovered that the radio was alive.
Uzbek Agriculture and a bit of HistoryWe also used this day to try to come up with some observations about this fantasy country. The Russians as colonial masters had their pros and cons. Under the Tsar they governed from afar. They left most of the customs and culture in place asking only for military loyalty and tribute. With the Soviets came a much more intimate involvement. The farming practices of centuries were swept away in favor of cotton and rice. Small fields of vegetables and fruit orchards were amalgamated to form large acres of mono-culture. As we in California know, both crops take a great deal of water, and in this very arid desert country that could only come from one place: the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea. Nowadays, since the departure of the Soviets, there is much hand wringing about the desperate drying up of this once-grand body of water but nobody seems to want to stop growing these two big cash crops in order to bring it back into health. In fact, a habit started under the Russians endures to this day: it is the duty of every single citizen to spend one or more days in the fields chopping cotton in the spring and picking it in the fall.
It is to be noted that several people we talked to spoke nostalgically of the days of the Soviets. One guide felt that under Russian rule there was more stability, more opportunity for trade, guaranteed jobs and, of course, constant observation. In addition, the Russians poured a lot of money into a number of large projects in the country; the rebuilding of the cultural heritage, as noted above. But also a great deal of effort went into either creating or improving the infrastructure: roads, bridges, railroads, education, industry. With this came the execution or retirement of the old aristocracy, a unification of the khanates, enforced settlement of people from elsewhere, agricultural quotas and an unwelcome insistence on paying taxes.
Day 7: The Road Trip to Khiva, Uzbekistan
Ichon Qala (Inner city)The next day we were very sad to have to leave this magical hotel. But Shavkat was insistent that we get on the road for the long drive to Khiva. Again with the potholes and the checkpoints as we crossed the Black Desert. (We had crossed the Red Desert from Bukhara.) Suddenly there were trees, and even more suddenly there were the red clay walls of the city – looking like something out of the Arabian Nights and The Bible combined. My eyes continued to follow the wall as our car turned into the driveway of our hotel. When we got into our room, there, outside the window, across the street was this magical fortified citadel. The terribly hot weather had broken, so I stood on our balcony to look at the Ichon Qala with a desert breeze ruffling my hair. Step back in TimeFinally, finally, finally I had found it: a desert city redolent of the past.
Our first action was to walk across the empty street and through the gate back into time. The streets (alleys, really) were hard-packed dirt, narrow and winding among mud-coated houses. Because the minaret at Juma Mosque is the tallest building in the province, we had no trouble threading our way into the center of the town. There we found paved walkways, mosques, madrassahs, and small shops selling endless wares. We walked around in the slanting golden sunlight, easily imagining that the town had not changed for six hundred years.
Well, of course it had.
Day 8: Khiva, Uzbekistan
Inside the Ichon QalaThe next day our guide, Ali, picked us up from the hotel and took us to the main gate. There he gave us a long lecture on the history of the area. Then we walked to the Tomb of the Sufi. This was a wise man, somewhat analogous to our hermit, who lived on alms and prayer. The courtyard was shaded and cool, the tiles elegant.
Then we walked to the Summer Palace So far we had seen some pretty elaborate tile work, but the tiles painted by the Magic Genius (a rough translation of his name, I believe) were another order of magnitude of complication. Obviously he had measured the wall. Then laid all his bisque tiles out on the ground. Then he painted the solid parts, and drew in all the most intricate swirls and spirals, full of leaves and meanders. Then he numbered them. In the formation of the tiles a hole had been drilled in the center of each so that when fired each tile could be placed on the wall, lined up according to its number, and nailed into the clay brick backing. The result was like looking deep into a maze. No doubt it was good for auto-hypnosis or meditation. The effect was both calming and animated. And quite magical.
Then it was time to visit the artisans. First a wood carver who made objects to order for people all over the world. In the courtyard, waiting to be packed and shipped was a great bed. Well, not really a bed, but a sort of raised pavilion of wood. The kind of bed that is picnic table, lounge and nap-inducing all in one. The cost of shipping (to the States, I believe) will be formidable. Also for sale were piles and piles of the ubiquitous book stands. Ingeniously cut from a single block of wood, these open out into an X shape to hold a book. Designed for a Koran, they have two drawbacks to our Western ways: we don’t sit on the ground to read and they don’t keep a paperback book open by themselves.
After that we finally got to the complex supported by USAID. I had read about the carpet factory in one part of it because the founder, a young British man, had determined to revive the “lost” art of silk carpet weaving. Lost, you understand, only under the Soviets, but that means about three or four generations, so much of the handed-down skill and lore was forgotten. This man, Chris Alexander, describes in his book A Carpet Ride to Khiva, that his first step was discovering how to source and dye the silk for the carpets. Then he looked for someone to teach him how to make the looms. Finally, he imported a woman to teach younger women in the city to weave the carpets. Drawing their designs locally (from tiles to carved wooden doors to textiles) they began to develop a carpet factory and turn out a fine product. An interesting cultural note is that in the beginning the men of the town were very reluctant to let their wives or daughters participate in this program. Until, that is, they got their first paychecks.
Shopping for Uzbek TextilesAfter lunch I left C. at the hotel to read while I went back into the city to make a couple of purchases. I threaded my way directly back to the carpet workshop.
I spent a great deal of time looking, watching, asking questions, touching the looms, the thread, the carpets. The women were all in their twenties or older, working swiftly and surely. But I noticed a huge difference in their silk thread. First of all it wasn’t lying in their laps in little worm-balls, but hanging neatly, by color, from a part of the frame. Another difference was that they were using silk floss rather than silk twist. You might not have noticed this difference at first glance, but one look at the finished carpet would have sent you back to the loom to figure out why it was so different from the carpets of Samarkand. The twist makes a tighter knot and results in a more distinct thread that lies smooth and flat next to its neighbor. The untwisted thread, or floss (think of wool roving before the spinning process begins), is fat and bushy in comparison and so the fibers crowd against one another. The difference is immediately distinguished in that the Samarkand carpet has a pile (or nap) that takes the light differently depending on which end you are looking from, while the Khiva carpet, which also has a pile (but no nap), is dense and radiates out equally from its knot. It doesn’t change its sheen from light to dark depending on how the light hits it. This, to me, was one of the most fascinating revelations of the trip.
Also part of this complex is a suzani workshop. Dedicated to teaching young women (not girls as in Turkey) the semi-lost art of embroidery, the designs were again taken from elements of the old (and well-restored) monuments. Here I spent some more time, watching the women embroider cotton cloth onto which the design had been drawn in ink. They were very generous in showing me how to do their particular stitch, how to make a sharp corner, and how to change colors in the middle of the design. We had no mutually intelligible language but an obvious knowledge of sewing and embroidery. I lamented my habit of twisting my thread as I sew, so that I have to untwist it after every three stitches. One woman showed me that she does exactly the same thing. Another turned her work over so that I could look at the back side. This was an honor, because the mark of a good seamstress is the neatness of the wrong side of her work and the minimum of the thread that is wasted thereon. These women were all pros.
Need I say that after that very satisfying hour or more I came out into the courtyard and dickered for both a suzani and a rug. Sadly, the silk rugs are expensive and I couldn’t afford more than a mat at best. Measuring sixteen inches square (not counting fringe) it is just large enough to cover a chair seat. I have put it in the center of the table in the living room so that I can look at it often and marvel at the richness of the reds and blues and the calm remoteness of the dark sage grey.
Uzbek ArchitectureWalking back to the hotel I stopped to watch the building of a house. Fired clay brick is the basic material as wood is too precious in this desert to use for anything other than ornamentation. Once mortared together, the wall is then covered with a thick layer of mud mixed with straw. The dirt used for this mud is just the local stuff. A depression is made by the side of the road, water poured into it, straw added and the whole thing is mixed and swirled until it is ready for the trowel. Almost all buildings are covered with this substance. I got up close to a smooth wall with its flecks of golden straw and smelled it. None. I rubbed my hand over it; only slightly gritty. The walls of the city are similarly covered. This is basically adobe, used not as a building block but as a plaster. It gives a uniformity of color to buildings in this almost rainless climate. And should water runnels appear or temblor cracks open, another swoosh of the trowel will fix the problem.
Day 9: Nukus and a final night in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Crossing the Amu DaryaI hated to leave Khiva but it was time to move on to Nukus. The roads were again dire with a couple of interesting detours because there was construction going on. The most exciting part of the trip was the crossing of the Oxus River. Called by the locals the Amu Darya, this is the river that separates Central Asia from Persia. Crossed by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Timur the Great, is rises in the high Pamirs and ends, salty and ignominious, in the severely abbreviated Aral Sea. For all its degradation in our age, the river was wide and milky with the fine silt of glacial run-off. Shavkat checked with the checkpoint guards who gave us the OK to drive down to the shore. There we admired the width of the river and the rather ratty boats drawn up on the bank. To stand where the Great Alexander stood and to look out over the same river he looked upon – what a glorious synchronicity. Ignore the modern bridge, ignore the shabby hamlet on the opposite side, ignore the blasting sun. This was a moment telescoped in time when past and present merged. Shavkat was a little bemused by our excitement but quite pleased that we appreciated his river. Secrets of the Savitsky MuseumA couple of hours later we arrived in Nukus. Still morning, we drove directly to the Savitsky Museum. This is a pretty amazing place. Founded and filled with one man’s vision, this is mostly an art museum, but with some stunning examples of local embroidery and jewelry. A large, open, airy two-story building, it is as full as it can be of paintings, watercolors and costumes.
Igor Savitsky was an ethnic Russian from Kiev. Trained as a young man as an artist, he came to realize that he would never be so good as the painters he admired so he set out to be a champion instead. Having discovered the Karakalpak region he determined to live there. Coming from a wealthy family he also traveled. As he did, he met, sought out, gathered around him artists from all over Russia. The successful ones who hewed to the Stalin-mandated style of Modernist Realism he ignored. His goals were the fringe artists, the outcasts, the ones who painted what was inside them and not what the state thought was proper. Whenever he saw a work that interested him, he asked the artist if he could buy it. Artists rarely said no, their widows never. Savitsky had the added quirk that if he wanted one painting by an artist he wanted more than one. He believed that an artist could only be evaluated by looking at the entire spectrum of his oeuvre. As a result, he has anywhere from three to over one thousand paintings by an individual artist. Obviously, there is not room on the museum walls to hang all of this wealth so there is an entirely separate storage building. We will go there shortly.
Savitsky was collecting in the thirties, forties, fifties and even sixties. The official taste in Russian art changed over this time so that now a number of artists who were considered degenerate and decadent once upon a time are much more highly prized. Since this museum contains the largest collection of these artists outside of Moscow, the Russian government is somewhat irritated. Where once they sneered at this snapper-up of dismissed trifles, now they are making increasingly heavy noises about “sharing.” Thanks to the intrepid leadership of the Director, Marinika Babanazarova, the museum is not only intact but growing. There is a second building under construction next door with a third planned for next year.
We were greatly honored to have this same Director as our guide to the museum. She showed us the wonderful embroideries, jewelry and weapons on the first floor. Included in the display is a felt yurt complete with a photograph of the President of Uzbekistan himself congratulating our Director herself. She is one of the two legacy employees of Igor Savitsky himself, and takes her role very seriously. As you can imagine, she knows every painting personally, sometimes even knowing the painter. Her English is excellent, so we were able to get a real sense of her enthusiasm and the history of a great many of the artists who are largely unknown outside this part of the world. Although a very busy woman, she spent a couple of hours with us, pointing out details, giving background, making sure we didn’t miss anything interesting. It was one of the most intense museum tours I have ever encountered.
I don’t know how MIR arranged this, but Marinika showed us into an empty room (probably a board room judging by the table and chairs) and had set before us a wonderful luncheon. She did not join us but the staff brought in plate after plate of delicious food. A very fine soup, of course, terrific dumplings, marinated diced vegetables, a beef stew. And, finally, a plate of the most beautiful strawberries and cherries – at which we looked longingly.
Shavkat gathered us up at the door and drove us to the storage building. This was a large, ugly, cinder block building of three floors, completely and entirely filled to overflowing with paintings, textiles, drawings and a conservation department. We were given a pretty young woman as a translator and the cave of wonders was opened to us. First up was the lair of Valentina Sycheva, Chief Curator of Paintings. Racks of paintings, floor to ceiling ringed the walls. That was for the stretched canvases. The loose paintings were hung by strings, six or seven deep on a nail stuck in a board. We were given a long, imperfectly translated, lecture about these paintings with example after example slid out to illustrate her points. I couldn’t begin to take it all in. All I remember is one painting of Stalin, done in the thirties, which was truly excellent. Everything about it was attractive. What was such a perfect example of Soviet Realism doing in this place? And then, suddenly, C. and I got it. Stalin had a charming and gentle smile on his face. Heresy. A hero is solemn, he doesn’t smile. He doesn’t have a lighter side. He is only and always a leader.
The next department was that of Arzaym Matchanova’s where we examined narrow shelf after shelf of gently wrapped textiles. Some wonderful things with tiny, intricate stitches and designs. From there was more painting storage. And finally the Conservation Lab. As the daughter of a textile conservator, I had many mildly-informed questions to ask. The older woman in charge, Alvina Spady, (the other Savitsky legacy employee) had some firm answers as well as a great deal to say – some of which got translated. From one comment she made I realized that she was the artist Marinika has mentioned who had painted a big blue jumble in one of the upstairs galleries. I inquired about this and got a lot of delighted laughter as a result. Oh, we were a jolly bunch of friends, I can assure you.
The Chief Curator, Valentina Sycheva apologized to us that we could not also see the storage holding for the collection of paper. (Watercolors, drawings, etchings, etc.) She explained that the head of that department was away that day doing her semi-annual duty chopping cotton. I was stunned. All the women in the building (no one was going to miss out on the excitement of visitors, as you can imagine) smiled and nodded. I made sure my question was translated: “even a university trained, museum curator had to work in the fields?” They were more surprised by my disbelief than their reality. Everyone, I was assured, but everyone, takes his or her turn in the fields.
By now it was mid-afternoon. Shavkat drove us back to the Museum. We took a formal leave of Marinika Babanzarova and thanked her profusely for her courtesy. This is the moment to note that every single employee in the building – with the exception of the security guard at the door – is female. I have not yet decided what I think about this.
Since our next stop was to be the airport, Shavkat took us to a teahouse for a light snack. Just somsas and tea and conversation. His English was not fluent, but quite serviceable and we all got our questions and answers across to one another. At the airport (the tiny airport) we waited patiently until the counter opened, got boarding passes and checked our luggage. A little later we went through security to the boarding area. There were two levels of security screening and at the second one the x-ray machine discovered the Bukhara knife and scissors in C.’s pack. Omigod.
Anywhere else this would have been a catastrophe. Here, I grabbed up the “weapons,” rushed back through security to the ticket counter. The woman recognized me and saw instantly what the problem was. She led me around to a side door. We stepped through to the “backstage” area of baggage screening. Not seeing our bags I looked around and spotted them on the truck which would take them to the plane. A man on the truck saw the knife in my hand, pointed to all the bags and handed down the relevant one. I stuffed my metallic objects inside, he heaved it back onto the truck and I said spasiba to everyone in sight. (This is the Russian word for “thank you” which, along with pojahlsta [please] I used everywhere in Uzbekistan.) Then I rushed back through double security and joined C. in the waiting room, where we waited a bit longer as the plane was delayed. The flight back to Tashkent was blissfully uneventful.
As our return flight to Seoul didn’t leave until the next evening, we had a day in Tashkent to do as we pleased. And we were pleased to do very little. We strolled along under the trees by the river. We had tea and pastry at a sidewalk café. We had lunch in the hotel. We read in the shade. It was a wonderful day being both familiar and foreign at the same time.
Day 10: Depart Uzbekistan
The flight to Seoul was ordinary. MIR, in its experience and wisdom, had suggested to us that we spend our ten-hour layover in the transit hotel located inside the security portion of the airport. This was an inspired idea. I had never heard of such a thing, but it really is a hotel, complete with beds, bathroom, towels, a big clock and a pre-arranged wake-up call. We curled up, slept for about five hours, I washed my hair, and we arrived at our boarding area refreshed and ready for the long, long flight to San Francisco. This happened, after some delay, and we returned home – delighted to be in familiar surroundings, sad to leave behind a fascinating part of the world we will probably never see again.
So what, you might ask, were the principal take-aways from this trip? Let’s see:
1. Central Asia is far away and it’s hot.
2. Tamerlane (Timur) was an amazing man, both warrior and art-lover.
3. Uzbek women are addicted to sparkle, dazzle, glitter and bling. Me, too.
4. Central Asia is neither poor nor backward. The educational level is excellent.
5. As tourists we saw the best side of the country and it was well worth seeing.
6. Clean. This country is clean. The corners are clean. The water, however, is best left undrunk.
7. The currency is confusing. Consisting only of paper and low denominations, everyone is forced to carry around large bundles to pay for even the basics.
8. The water situation in that part of the world is serious and getting more so.
9. MIR is an amazing tour company. They thought out every detail and provided for us knowledgeable, competent, interesting and fascinating shepherds. Hats off to them.