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Posted on Monday, June 07, 2004 - 02:56 am:   


Left Heathrow at a civilised hour. The peculiar incidents which always seem to beset my Central Asian trips began when a young Uzbek woman asked me to check in some of her luggage for her. She said she was over the baggage allowance, which I think was true, but being paranoid I immediately assumed the worst. It is unlikely that anyone would want you to be a mule into Uzbekistan, but then we started wondering if she was trying to transfer something much worse onto the plane (bits of the Ferghana valley are hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism and a number of Uzbek terrorists have been arrested) and wanted someone else to take the rap if they got caught. I was reluctant to report her, just in case she was merely being dumb, but I told the tour guide and passed the buck that way. Anyway, I said no way, and then we all watched with beady-eyed suspicion to see that she actually got on the flight. She did, so I think she was probably telling the truth.

Uzbekistan airlines proved to be reasonable - it's part of the old Aeroflot fleet, however. We reached Tashkent in the middle of the night and were transferred to the Hotel Uzbekistan for a shower and an hour's sleep. I have stayed in the Uzbekistan on a number of occasions and it has certainly improved - there are now power showers instead of a brown trickle of water from the tap, and no sign of the old KGB office under the stairs (the British vice consul, who looked more like Bond than anyone else I know, used to live at the top of the hotel and was regularly hauled in for questioning. He grew adept at sneaking past them, though in later months they got used to him and it was more a case of tea and a chat than actual interrogation). Then back to the airport for an early flight to Khiva. There is a big sign at the airport entrance which reads "Good luck!" I automatically looked to the other side of the road to see the sign which should read "With Uzbekistan Airlines, you'll need it," but none was forthcoming.

The plane to Urgench was an ancient, rattling Tupolev. I admit to having been more frightened on Uzbekistan airlines than on any other flight, but this trip wasn't too bad. Urgench is a big modern town in the middle of the desert - not much to see, apart from huge borders of hollyhocks lining the centre of the main road out and C Asia's usual penchant for magnificently ornamented bus stops.

It's about half an hour to Khiva, which is an ancient city not far from the Turkmenistan border. The old part of this is walled - huge ramparts of mud sweeping down into the sand. Beside the towering gateway is a statue to someone whom I assumed to be a mad mullah but this prejudice was violated when we were informed that it actually represented Muhammed Al Khorezm, who discovered (if that's the right word) zero, and who was the first person to solve the quadratic equation.

Khiva was very hot and very quiet. We stayed in a converted madrasa not far from the city gates - a lovely place, on two storeys, with an echoing entrance in carved white plaster and a big courtyard lined with mulberry trees. I have always assumed that madrasas were primarily religious institutions, but not so - they were more like universities, so we could just have easily been staying in the economics department as a place for studying the Koran. The rooms were small and bare, but with balconies looking out over the old city. I liked the room which Cherith and I shared, in spite of the rusty sputter from the tap, but Liz C and Deirdre were immediately beset by Odour De Rat Mort, and had to change rooms.

In the afternoon, we walked around the city: a great many ancient mosques and minarets, striped and lined with azure tiles, rising out above the pale ochre roofs. In the courtyard of one we found a small family circus: grandfather, dad, and three sons, the youngest of whom was about nine. They did a very nonchalant high wire act, without a net. Could just imagine trying to get past British health-and-safety on this one - "OK, so the lad's going to stand on his brother's shoulders, and the kid stands on the top lad's head, on one leg. Oh, and they're twenty feet up." Grandfather was asked if it was an all male troupe, but said that no, if any girls came along, they'd be up there too and this would be good, as girls pull the punters. The boys' mum is a doctor, apparently. Needs to be, one would think.

In the evening, we had dinner in the courtyard, which was lovely - a golden sky, flaked with stormy purple clouds, a little silver moon rising above the walls of the madrasa and flocks of swifts shrieking and darting through the mulberry trees. The food was extremely good - I'll devote a separate post to the kind of things we ate, if anyone's interested.


The long drive to Bukhara today across the Red Desert (which isn't very red, but never mind). Like all deserts, this was somewhat monotonous and I read for most of the way, apart from the occasional 'technical stop,' as our guide Sabira endearingly called the lavatory breaks. This term has now passed into my vernacular. We saw little wildlife apart from Astrakhan sheep, and a tiny desert fox with a long plume of a tail bounding across the rippled sand.

Bukhara is also a very old city, though most of it is modern. Most of the people in this region, and the Khorezm region of Khiva, are Tajik rather than Uzbek - Persian, basically. They tend to be small and slender and dark, rather than the flatter faced, slanted eyed turkic Uzbeks. Most of the women wear their national dress: a long bright frock over trousers, a bit like a shalwar khameez. However, a lot of the younger girls wear Western clothes and I spotted at least one pair of lycra cycling shorts and tattooed armband on people who were obviously local. The Soviet take-over liberated them from 4 feet of horsehair veil and no one is keen to return to it. When I was last in Samarkand, everyone was very jittery because they are not all that far from the Afghan border and the Taliban had announced its intention to reclaim this part of Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks were fighting them at the border, under an extremely cruel general named Dostum (the ancient practice of trying someone between 4 horses and sending them off in different directions was revived, only now they use jeeps.) However, he is now on Our Side and therefore a Good Thing (ahem). It's not a very Islamic country and tends to be Sufi rather than anything else, and the Sufis are rather like the Zen wing of Islam, although there is a small Shiite community in Bukhara - and a Jewish one.

We spent a couple of days in Bukhara, looking around mosques and monuments. The center of the city boasts the Ark, which is a massive mud-walled fortress containing a particularly grim prison called (IIRC) the Zindan, or - to the British - the 'bug pit.' The name should give you some idea….Last century, a British emissary named (also IIRC) Stoddart fell prey to the local emir, who objected to being sent someone from the governor of India instead of Queen Victoria. Stoddart was banged up in the bug pit, but agreed to convert to Islam and was released under house arrest. A British officer named Connolly tried to rescue him, but failed. Both were placed back in the pit, and Connolly (who was obviously a difficult sort) refused to convert, with the result that they were both beheaded and buried in unmarked graves. This sort of thing was not untypical of the Great Game between Russia and Britain in those days - everyone obsessed with ruling India, as usual.

I learned one thing about mosques - the unusual honeycomb decorations are supposed to be stalactites, as Mohammed was inspired while living in a cave.

Several of the (religious) madrasas have re-opened and there is one in Bukhara for girls, after Uzbek women kicked up a fuss a few years ago. They can become priests in this version of Islam, but are allowed only to study and read the Koran, not to interpret it. Got to have some control over the ladies, after all…

More female power was evident in the madrasa compounds, which were full of very tough, smart little girls selling things. All of them spoke English - one of them told Deirdre that she could converse in 12 languages, and then proceeded to list them. Their knowledge of world events isn't bad, either - they're apparently all on the net. They are supposed to be in school but Sabira told us that it is not unknown for them to pay off their teachers out of the proceeds of selling tourist tat. You can see why the parents turn a blind eye - they sell woven bracelets and cushion covers for $2-$5, which is not a lot to us, but when you consider that the average wage for a doctor is $10 a month…. Each of them targets a couple of tourists and apparently competition is fierce - Sabira had to separate two of them physically last year after a fight broke out. They will probably all grow up to run the country (quite possible here, BTW - most of the central Asian countries have had female ambassadors to Paris and London), apart from Turkmenistan which is nuts anyway.

Later, we went to see the Summer Palace of the local Emir, which made the Brighton Pavilion look like a triumph of minimalism. The outside was beautiful, decorated in shades of sea green and sky blue, but the inside was a riot of mirrors, lacquer, Dutch fireplaces, Chinese vases…

In the evening, not without some trepidation, we went to another madrasa for a dinner and dance. The dancing was done by a local group attached to the philharmonic - extremely beautiful women, all with 4 long plaits, wearing the ornate medieval dress of the regions: sweeping sleeves and veils, conical hats with egret feathers, velvet and silk. We were impressed. After this was a fashion show led by a model who was clearly working for SMERSH. If anyone recalls Servalan from Blake's 7 - that would be her.

Got back to find all the roads closed due to it being Children's Festival day. This degenerated into a bit of a riot later on, probably due to adults having had to fete their kids all day and turning to the bottle as a result. The bus driver had a stimulating argument with a policeman.


Drove to Samarkand today via a place on the edge of the mountains called Shakrisabz. Tamurlane's summer palace was here - a vast gateway framing the mountain wall. Now there is a statue of the old sod, looking far more imposing than he probably did in reality (he was supposed to be the ugliest man alive). Shakrisabz was extremely hot and I was glad to get back on the road again, but we had a great lunch at someone's house (they have an arrangement with the tour company and it’s a typical Uzbek home: four sets of rooms around a central courtyard, with a special room set aside for entertaining guests).

The road from Taskhent to Samarkand is rather dull, but the Bukhara road follows high, sweeping country which glides up to the mountain wall - and really is golden, due to the long grass of the steppe. There were lots of old ladies on donkeys visiting one another.

We got into Samarkand early in the evening and spent the rest of the evening in the bar, looking out across the minarets and domes.


Around Samarkand today - mainly the Registan square, which is an enormous complex of mosques and madrasas, mostly restored but extremely impressive, and dating from the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian period. I don't know much about this ancient fire religion, though I should, since we have them in the family - Charles' half sister, who now lives in Canada, married a Zoroastrian doctor. They did not have the Islamic prohibition against figurative representation and their buildings are a riot of deer and suns and tigers and peacocks, all beautifully tiled. One of the minarets started to lean and was saved by rotating it by means of a hydraulic jet - ingenious people, these Russians. At the back of the complex is a mosque named the Tilla Kari - exquisite interior of indigo and gold leaf.

This was such a cultural tour that all shopping was conducted on a sort of guerilla raid basis - I'm afraid I sloped off and did some, because I have been to Samarkand twice before. The things sold are of very high quality - they are big on embroidery, and wall hangings called 'suzanas'. Each region has a particular type of design. I now have a suzana and several cushion covers. It's very much the haggling you associate with eastern bazaars - I'm not very good with this (not the way of my people) but managed by means of actual genuine reluctance to beat someone down by nearly $50, so it does work.

We also went to the local mausoleum - I love this place, because it is so quiet. It is a street of tombs, mainly to Tamurlane's family, on a hill high above the town. The modern cemetery extends from it - I went here some years ago and a lot of the graves are of 17 and 18 year olds killed in the Afghan occupation. Like most Islamic graves in this region, they follow the Russian custom of having an etched photograph on the tombstone.

Here, I had the single political discussion of the trip, with a young man in a shop who - remarkably - did not appear interested in selling me anything. I was a bit wary on this trip, as Westerners are technically not all that popular, but everyone was very welcoming and this guy just wanted to know my thoughts about the war in Iraq. I said, with truth, that I thought it had been a mistake and I was not proud of Britain's current leadership, "Well," he said, "There are stupid people everywhere, in every country." (To which Liz C later added - "And they're usually in charge.")

Also visited the remains of the observatory of Ulug Bek - he was the grandson of Tamurlane and the only member of the family interested in astronomy and gardening, as opposed to slaughtering people. He constructed an observatory and a 60 m sextant for making heavenly observations, and concluded that
the world was round some time before the West cottoned onto this. However, his son ran true to form and had him beheaded. Sigh.

We also saw Tamurlane's mausoleum - he's buried under a slab of black jade, as anyone who has read NINE LAYERS will know. More ornate magnificence. After this, we spent the evening shopping at the craft market over the road from the hotel. One lady (typical Tajik: hair in a coil, row of gold teeth) wanted to know if we were English or American, and on finding out that it was the former, cried "Dzhenair! Dzhenair!" Though this was some obscure Uzbek word (infidel??) but further investigation proved that she meant "Jane Eyre." "I love that book!" she cried. Literary discussion ensued.

There was a slight weirdness this afternoon when I went to the hotel room to fetch something and had problems with the key. I was helped by a teenage girl, who then marched into the room and started re-making the beds. "I'm the housekeeper," she said. She clearly wasn't, so I threw her out, nicely, but when Cherith later went back, the door of the room was open and the lights were on. In a panic, we checked- though I tend not to keep valuables in the room, my jewellery was there and although this is all cheap, it has sentimental value and might be mistaken for something worth a thief's while.
Sabira went on the warpath with the worried hotel staff, but it turned out that they had a lot of girls in for a work experience scheme, and I think the one I met was genuinely trying to be helpful. Anyway, nothing got nicked and all was well. Although the hotel lost all power in the afternoon, like the rest of the city, and having regained power, then lost hot water.


Spent the morning in the local bazaar - this is a genuine market, not a tourist place, and very like the one I used to shop in when we lived in Almaty - total chaos, a cacophony of voices and loud Uzbek pop, but beautiful produce and bags of spices. Also a lot of cheap clothes from the Saudi/Chinese trade runs.


We also visited the Bibi Khanum mosque - BK was Tamurlane's Chinese wife and when he went to war, he left her to build a mosque in his absence. She dutifully hired an architect, who fell in love with her. Bibi, concerned, called him into the palace and showed him a range of eggs, which she had painted. "They are all the same inside," she said, "But only the outside is different. It's like that with women. Find someone else." Next evening, the architect bought her two bottles of colored liquid. "They both look the same," he said, "But one is alcohol and the other is water. One sets the spirit on fire, and one does nothing."

Eventually Bibi granted him a kiss, by holding her hand against her cheek, but his kiss was so intense that it burned right through her hand and left an imprint. When Tamurlane came back, he saw this mark and freaked. He ordered Bibi to leap off the top of the highest minaret - if she was innocent, she would land safely, but if she was guilty of adultery, she would die. But Bibi, being no fool, chose her most voluminous dress and a windy day, and thus invented the parachute. So Tamurlane, still furious, ordered the architect to do the same thing - but the spirits took pity on him, and as he jumped, he sprouted wings. So they both lived happily, but separately, ever after.


In the afternoon, we returned to Tashkent - as mentioned, once one is through the edge of the mountains and the pass known as Tamurlane's Gate, it's a dull flat road through olive groves and cotton fields. There was a moment of excitement when we crossed the Syr Darya (IIRC - we also went over the Amu Darya. One of these was known as the Oxus). Lots of storks' nests on the electricity pylons.

Tashkent looked nice, though - very green and tree filled. All the hotels have been taken over by modern chains, including the old Hotel Tashkent which Charles and I stayed in for a week. It used to be seedy and roach filled, with the inevitable KGB presence on a desk in the foyer, with a man carefully writing down the names of everyone who came in and out. But you could get flasks of green tea and hard boiled eggs from the floor ladies, and they would change your money on the black market for an excellent rate - we ending up spending almost less than nothing. Now, it's a Marriott, or something like that. I suppose it's an improvement.

On returning to the Hotel Uzbekistan, we found a riotous wedding in progress, so went out to what used to be the main restaurant street. Alas, this has changed - very, very loud Turkish pop blasting out from the café tents. It was full of the local young and hip - underdressed Russian and Uzbek girls and muscular young men with big dogs. I missed 2 phone calls from the UK because I just didn't hear the cell phone ring. However, Deirdre managed to get a snow globe (she buys one in every country) of surpassing tackiness: a big red vulgar heart. I admit there was some debate, but she did not in the end go for the really tacky one, which featured the World Trade Center - we felt this was a step too far. But one thing was noticeable - the police presence has been greatly reduced. Last time I was here, someone had just tried to take out the President with a car bomb and there were 3 cops on every corner, all with machine guns. This is partly explained by national service - you got a choice of joining the police, or going to fight in Afghanistan, so faced with either hanging about in Tashkent by the nearest café and eyeing up the chicks, or battling the Taliban, guess which most people chose? But it was an unsettling atmosphere and I didn't miss it.


Back to the airport. We got stuck behind a woman on the Delhi flight, taking two kittens and a bunny, all with their own passports. Since India has plenty of animals, we couldn't help wondering why. The list of 'things you can't take on the plane' was eyebrow raising - several types of sword, including a scimitar, and a battle axe. Good thing I didn't buy one of those.

We caught the same kind of flight back - the Amritsar shuttle to London, full of Indians. There were some gorgeous Sikh gentlemen in scarlet turbans. I sat next to a very old granny in a yellow sari, who whipped the Fortean Times from my hand when I sat down and proceeded to read it avidly. A more Soviet-style flight this time - dreadful food and unpleasant service, stewardess shouting 'Cup!' and snatching your tea from your hand before you'd finished it. She snapped at the granny and nearly got a mouthful from me, but her English was lousy and my Russian isn't up to it. Deirdre said that their flight attendant was visibly upset and speculated that the attitude might have been due to a massive row among the crew before take off. This is quite probable.

There was a young woman next to me on the other side in an ochre sari, with
lots of gold jewellery and a bhindi between her eyebrows. She had a very
young baby with her, who howled, at which point she turned to it and yelled
"Oi! Bleeding leave it aht!" in tones of broadest south London. Multicultural
Britain. You've gotta love it.

Excellent movie choices, though - LOTR and Harry Potter. But alas, no sound.

There was a hitch at H'row when Cherith's case went missing. I don't know if it has since reappeared. We got a taxi back and I was dropped off in London - everything very green, lots of roses, beautiful after the drier east. Spent all of y'day prone on someone's sofa reading a biography of Augustus John and being fed before catching a late train home.

If anyone is interested in Uzbek cuisine, here tis:

Breakfast: a combination of Russian and Central Asia. Blinis, with cottage cheese or without, salami, cucumber and tomato, rye bread and flat bread, apple jam or honey, sour cream, fried eggs, lots of cakes and cookies, black or green tea, coffee.

Lunch: first salads (various combinations of tomato, cukes, cabbage, carrot - yellow and orange as they have different kinds here, beetroot, and so forth). All the veg and fruit was of very good quality, though perhaps not as pretty as Western varieties. Certainly tasted better, however. Sometimes samsa, which are the local version of a samosa.

Soup: noodle soup, chicken soup, lamb dumpling soup, or barley broth.

Main course: a combination of meat and potatoes. We had plov once - this is mutton pilau and tends to be very greasy, though I like it (I seem to be the only person who does). We also had mantis - no, not the insect, but mutton and onion dumplings. I seem to be the only person who likes these, as well. The meat was excellent but I've had some terrible mutton meals before now. We only had one inedible entrée and the rest of the meal made up for it.

Dessert: cherries, strawberries, apricots and apples, cake. They also serve lots of little things like raisins and almonds alongside the meal, and the local flatbread, which is surprisingly varied.

Dinner: main meal is lunch, so this tends to be soup or salad. However, both the hotel in Bukhara and the one in Tashkent serve caviar, very reasonably, and since I'm a caviar fan….

Drinks: coffee tends to be thick and Turkish, which is fine, but most people drink tea - usually green tea, from bowls. I drink lots of this at home, so that was fine. Milk with tea is not common and you have to ask, but everywhere has it - it's unpasteurised, but I've given up worrying although there is a TB risk further north. Lots of varieties of mineral water and excellent fruit juice, but the Uzbeks (like the Kazakhs) drink like fish - either wine, beer, or vodka. We had some very good dessert wine that resembled plum wine, but the local reds were not up to much. The local beer, Baltika, is pretty good, however.

On the whole, it's very good ethnic food, but there's not a lot of variety. In Almaty, people were always trying to open other kinds of restaurants and always being forced out of business by the mafiya, so this may be the case here. There were some Chinese restaurants but these have now gone - they go where the profit is, our guide told us, and the locals tend not to dine out all that much.

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Posted on Friday, June 11, 2004 - 02:02 am:   

What an amazing trip! I envy you!

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