Journey to Uzbekistan
Well, here it is, in its raw entirety. The travelogue of Jen's and my trip to Uzbekistan (via Bahrain). Although written in the first person singular, Jen helped write and edit this, and deserves most of the credit for the language, planning, and companionship that made our trip the success that it was.
We boarded the Uzbekistan Airways plane in Bahrain, and I could already tell we were in for one hell of a trip. My first thought as I found my seat and stuffed my bag into the tiny overhead baggage compartment was that the plane could not possibly be safe. Putting aside the ugly decor -- dirty rust color seats, unraveling raggedy white seat covers, a vague autumn print adorning the walls, and a wide swath of dark green and pink carpet running up the aisle, the plane felt as if the last safety maintenance inspection was during the reign of Khrushchov. All emergency instructions were printed in Cyrillic, an alphabet that to my eyes looks like Greek written while looking in a mirror.
Cheesy 1970's era American B-side rock music warbled over the tinny speakers as I struggled in vain to get the fresh air vents to work. As I was getting comfortable, a turbaned Punjabi man sat down next to Jen, and asked us where his seat was. We were in the last row of seats, row 30, but his boarding pass indicated seat 78A. Then the cabin's lights blinked out.
By the faint glow of the emergency lighting, the routine safety talk started, alternating between Russian and English. Amid cries of "It's dark! We can't see!" the unflappable flight crew carried on. But when the emergency lights went out, leaving the cabin in murky darkness, the talk was cut short, and the passengers were left to contemplate their own personal fate, to the soothing sounds of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell.
Shortly after takeoff, the bleached-blond Russian women (for the Punjabi man and I were the only males in the cabin, and Jen was one of only a handful of dark-haired women) started off on a five hour junket of chain smoking. The Punjabi man asked the flight attendant if we were in fact in the no smoking section. This was met by angry cries from the Russian women that "This can't be no-smoke! We ALL smoke!" I closed my eyes, tried not to breathe, and wished I was only four feet tall so my knees would not hit the sharp metal frame of the seat in front of me.
We landed in the capital city of Tashkent around 1AM. Our first worry was finding a place to stay, but that was forgotten when we tried to pass through immigration. Jen went through first. A very stern looking Russian officer, smelling faintly of vodka, stared at her passport, then at her, then again at her passport, scrutinizing the picture carefully. He frowned. "Take off your glasses." He again stared at Jen with cold blue eyes, and started slowly shaking his head. "This is not you," he announced with a thick Russian drawl. "No," he added for emphasis, shaking his head again. We waited silently, afraid to move, staring blankly at the officer. "Where is your visa?" he finally asked. When Jen showed him the page in her passport, he stared at it for at least a minute. "Why are you here?" he suddenly asked. Tourism, Jen replied with a thin veneer of calm, as the officer again began to shake his head. "No. Tourism? I don't think so." Again we waited, as the officer gave Jen a sinister look that said "Why don't I just shoot you, and get it over with?" Instead, he called over one of the other officers who was standing in the shadows, and muttered something in Russian. "I don't know anything about tourist visa. Where did you get this?" the second officer slurred. Dubai, Jen coldly replied. "Dubai. Hmph." They called over a second officer. They argued for several minutes in Russian, before the officer returned and slowly and very reluctantly stamped Jen's passport, shaking his head with an irritated look.
I was next. The officer said nothing to me, but he scrutinized my papers very carefully, shaking his head and staring at me coldly. Finally, having figured no way to extract money from us, and with a long line behind us, he reluctantly stamped my passport as well. We were through.
The customs hall, dingy and dirty, had only one dimly functioning light for a room the size of a large classroom. After some initial confusion about how many copies of the customs declaration we needed to fill out, we passed through with remarkable ease. There is not much to smuggle from Bahrain to Tashkent.
Outside the customs room was an even darker hallway, lit only by a streetlight shining in through an open metal door at the far end. Shadowy figures moved about in the darkness, and soon we were surrounded by large men shouting "Taxi?" and arguing with us and each other in Russian. We were too tired for this. We pushed our way through the crowd, as I shouted into the black in my pidgin Russian "Taxi nyet!" (Which literally means "There are no taxis!") Two determined drivers followed us outside, and backed us up against a wall. Not knowing what else to do, we started to discuss the price of a ride into the city. "Fifty dollars," one said. FIFTY?!? "Three," I countered. The haggling went on for far too long, with Jen translating, the drivers demanding that we cease discussion and leave immediately, and me feeling completely exhausted and bewildered. We finally agreed on $8.
Almost an hour later, we arrived at the Hotel Leningrad. After the taxi driver took it upon himself to negotiate our room rate for us (the rate he got for us was at least $10 higher than we were able to get for ourselves on subsequent nights.) We paid him for the first night, rather than the hotel, (the hotel didn't take dollars, he lied, and we had no sume, the local currency). I am a bit suspicious of exactly how the room rate was determined. In exchange for his keen negotiating skills, money changing services, and the extra distance of going from the first hotel we tried, which was closed, the driver asked for $15. Exhausted, I agreed. The driver seemed very surprised, and, probably feeling a twinge of guilt, showed us to our rooms, even carrying Jen's bag.
Our room was small and cozy. Also quite run down. The feeling of being "in Russia" was made even more vivid by the presence of over a thousand cockroaches, crawling over the floor, table, chairs, walls, and our two twin beds. Although the two beds surprised me at the time, I eventually got used to the fact there don't appear to be any double beds in Uzbekistan. But we were too tired to care much about anything, even the bugs, so we hung everything up and out of way of creatures ideally suited for Bukhara's Bug Pit, and hit the sack.
In the morning, I got to see my first Soviet city up close. Tashkent is a worker's paradise. Rising out of the surrounding plains, the city is made of disproportionately huge cement apartment blocks. The buildings are not all that is large -- most streets have at least six lanes, despite the usually light traffic (thanks to high petrol and car costs, and low levels of disposable income). Parks are common and oversized -- often featuring colossal monuments to Tamerlane, the 15th century conqueror and murderer of millions who made Samarkand his capital, or his grandson Ulug Bek, whose busts sit atop many pedestals no doubt formerly occupied by Stalin, Lenin, or Marx.
Sadly, Uzbeks must look back 500 years to find a national hero worth celebrating, and even then he is one who murdered over 17 million people during his epic conquests. Perhaps this is because not much has happened since -- Tamerlane's empire collapsed into a series of warring city-states as the Silk Route prosperity fell victim to Turkmen raiders and the discovery of Portuguese sea routes to China. For the last 100 years, the region has been controlled by foreign powers -- first the Czars, fearful of British military adventures north of India, and later the Bolsheviks who collectivized and industrialized the countryside.
Tashkent exhibits the best and the worst of the lot that Uzbekistan inherited from the Soviets. In some ways, there is an optimistic air above the city. Small-scale capitalist enterprise is now legal, and many people have shops in their homes selling western cookies and candy (including on occasion "Beach Bottoms", a baseball-card style packet featuring soft-porn pictures of scantily-clad bimbos). Others bake leaden Russian loaves of bread or the ubiquitous Uzbek flat bread called lepeshka, hawking it to passers-by or carting it to the bus station to sell to hungry travelers. However, the oily smell of diesel often overwhelms the positive atmosphere, reminding visitors that Uzbekistan faces some serious problems. Decaying infrastructure awaits repair. Public busses, trams, and construction equipment are literally 1950's vintage. Many people face diminished economic prospects. Official salaries are often as low as $25 per month, and elderly pensioners are lucky if their monthly stipend will feed them for a day.
There is not too much for a tourist to do in Tashkent. There are a few well hidden mausoleums, but these are mostly dull looking brick tin-domed structures, no doubt "restored" by the Soviets, and are not worth recounting. There is the Kukeldash Madrasa, built in 1560, with a beautiful repeated sun motif, which is a virtual copy of the Ulug Bek Madrasa in Samarkand. The madrasa is attached to another ancient building, which no longer has a roof and is now almost completely filled with dirt. Another fairly interesting madrasa, the Barak-Khan Madrasa, in the middle of the old city, has intricate mosaic and Arabic calligraphy on its late 16th century brick facade. It was very interesting trying to find it – we circled through unnamed streets walled on both sides by the windowless mud-plastered residential compounds. In these one-family compounds, similar in form to traditional Arabic housing, the house is turned inwards, with an open courtyard and several sometimes-connected dwelling structures surrounding it. The compounds butt up against one another, making the street feel like a walled corridor, with only a few small doors revealing a glimpse of what is behind. When there are no belching Ladas or new Mercedes zooming down the narrow streets, it can feel quite medieval.
At times, the city takes on an eerie feel, like the set from some doomsday science-fiction thriller. For example, when we walked into one of Tashkent's more upscale hotels, the lobby was unlit, and was almost completely deserted. Those who were there preferred to lurk in the shadows, rather than expose their faces to the gauzy sunlight filtering through curtained windows. At other moments, the city feels vibrant and alive, especially in the Metro, Tashkent's well maintained and efficient three line subway system, and in the bazaars, where anything can be found, haggled over, and bought for a large stack of colorful but devalued sume.
Tashkent's Old Bazaar, which is not really old anymore, is behind the Kukeldash madrasa. Much of it is covered with a huge metal domed roof, and feels like a parking structure grafted to a skating rink. Although the architecture is poor, the market sells an astonishingly rich variety of goods: Shoes, clothes, soap, detergent, fist-sized radishes, yellow and orange carrots, huge beets, bunches of chives, dill, parsley, cilantro, cabbages, lettuce, dandelion greens, eggs, baby chickens (alive), candy, rock sugar, newspapers, lipstick, handbags, burlap bags of grain, tea, spices, large fishes, meat, assorted animal parts (feet, intestines, livers, heads, strips of fat, viscera), five varieties of kim-chee, lamb kabobs, bowls of noodles, flavored water, dozens of types of nuts, dried apricots, raisins, apples, Asian pears, oranges, toys, cigarettes, vodka, bananas, beans, and much more. The market was very busy, and none-too-hygienic. One lady selling chunks of fried fish simply laid a large sheet of paper on the ground, and piled the fish on top of it. Unfortunately, the paper was a bit too small, and some of the fish was laying directly on the spit- mottled pavement, but no one seemed to care. We didn't buy any fried fish.
Tashkent's food was an interesting blend of Russian and Uzbek. Shashlik (grilled chunks of lamb), served with still-warm lepeshka could be bought on the street, while local restaurants served variations of Russian-style mystery meat smothered (literally) in various sauces. We ate in one of these places, supposedly a Turkish joint, but it was just grayish-red Russian food with hummus and Turkish music. Also, as we discovered, passing through Tashkent on our way out of Uzbekistan, there is a surprising amount of Korean food to be had. Why Korean? Apparently, Stalin was afraid that Koreans on the Manchurian Peninsula would aid the Japanese in their fight against Russia (Stalin must not have had a strong background in Asian history, or he would realize that the Koreans would be the last to help Japan invade the Asian mainland), and he deported a large number of Koreans to Tashkent, where they remain today. Stalin used Uzbekistan as a great "Southern Siberia" to dump vast numbers of people deported from other regions of the Soviet Union. Sometimes in mid-winter, the trains would simply stop in the middle of the Steppe and order everyone to out. Some, apparently, survived their "relocation."
Sometimes we made friends fast: Our last night in the Hotel Leningrad, the Floor Lady (in Soviet-style hotels, you book your room and pay your bill in the lobby, but pick up your room key and check in and out with an attendant on your floor) asked Jen to make change for a $100 bill. "I'm like your mother. I'm your Floor Lady!" she told us. Later, she offered to let us stay in her apartment if we ever returned to Tashkent.
Altogether, we spent two full days in Tashkent, mostly trying to get ourselves oriented and figuring out how we were going to get to Samarkand. In fact, much of our trip was spent taking care of the bureaucratic hassles of finding out when the busses really left for the next city, or how much the trains really cost. Far too often we discovered that asking the same question three times produced three different, totally contradictory answers. Sometimes, none would be right. Often, the only way to get accurate information about transportation or accommodation was to show up, in person, and ask persistently and repeatedly. Since the bus and train stations were usually on opposite ends of the city, this process took a great amount of time.
Towards the end of our last day in Tashkent, we paid a visit to the National History Museum. We arrived more than an hour before closing, but the doors were already barricaded. When we knocked, a very pleasant Russian woman answered, and explained to us that the museum would be closing in an hour, and that we wouldn't be able to see all the exhibits in that time. Since we would be leaving Tashkent in the morning, couldn't we see at least part of the museum, we asked? No, she replied, that would be impossible. But we really should come back someday as the museum was really quite interesting and well done. With that, she closed the door and replaced the barricade.
Surrounded by cotton plantations (still government owned), and lined with fuel trucks (which serve as portable filling stations), the crumbling highway from Tashkent to Samarkand is straight and dull. In contrast, Samarkand itself is perhaps the most impressive place I have ever visited. "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true -- except that it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined," wrote Alexander the Great after conquering the city in 329 BC. Nothing remains from his time, however: Ghengis Khan destroyed everything in the 13th century.
In spite of the destructive passions of Ghengis Khan, Samarkand is home to some of the Islamic world's greatest architecture. Great madrasas and mausoleums, and one of the largest mosques ever built were constructed with treasure plundered from an empire extending from Delhi to Baghdad by the great Asian conqueror Tamerlane.
Our first stop was the Gur Emir, the tomb of Tamerlane, who died on his way to invade China in 1405. It is supposed to be quite beautiful, and contains one of the worlds largest slabs of jade (now actually two smaller slabs after it broke in half when a conquering Mongol later tried to steal it). The structure, like much else in Samarkand, is being restored, and is currently closed to the public.
Fortunately, Samarkand's main attraction, the Registan (pronounced with a hard 'g') was open. It is probably the single most spectacular architectural ensemble in Central Asia. Registan means 'place of sand', because at one time the ground was strewn with sand to soak up blood from the public executions held there until early this century. The complex was substantially rebuilt during Soviet rule, and, despite the reputation of Soviet craftsmanship, was extremely well done.
The Registan consists of three madrasas, each fronting one side of a central plaza the size of a soccer field. Each building has a similar form: a large rectangular facade with an Islamic-style arched central gateway, bounded on either side by minarets. Inside, there are two levels of student cells surrounding an internal courtyard. The first madrasa was built for Ulug Bek, Tamerlane's grandson, in the early 15th century. Above the main gate is a mosaic of stars, while the rest of the building is covered with mosaics exhibiting nearly every motif allowed in Islamic art: intricate floral patterns, Arabic calligraphy, and complex geometric patterns that wind their way up the building's twin minarets.
The second, Sher Dor Madrasa, was modeled on the first. It was built two centuries later, and is significantly higher than the Ulug Bek Madrasa due to the accumulation of detritus from the public bazaars that once stood on its site, mixed with a healthy dose of sand blown in from the desert. Its facade is unusual in that it depicts lions and deer, a violation of the Islamic rule prohibiting the depiction of any living creature. Behind each minaret rises a ribbed blue cupola, and again, the building is covered with intricate mosaics. Visitors are allowed inside, where there are a variety of small shops in the former student's quarters, each featuring a very persistent salesman. One offered to take us up on the roof for about $10 -- we bargained him down to $5 and climbed up an unlit debris covered winding stairway to the roof, which afforded a very interesting view of the area.
The courtyard of the Sher Dor Madrasa is also used for a traditional Uzbek dance program in the evenings. In order to attend, it is necessary to be attached to a formal tour group, but we found that by paying a "special" admission fee (in dollars, of course) to the policeman at the door, certain exceptions could be made. Thus we spent a nice evening sitting atop traditional Uzbek tables, eating pistachios and drinking tea, watching an interesting Uzbek folk-opera.
The third, and perhaps most extravagant building in the complex was the Tilla Kari Madrasa, built in the mid-17th century. It houses a 'Golden Mosque' just off the building's internal courtyard. Painted with vivid reds and blues and decorated with more than 9000 square feet of gold leaf, it is exquisitely beautiful. One very interesting feature of this mosque is that the ceiling appears domed, but is actually flat; the effect is produced by inlaying an extremely intricate pattern of plant stems in gold leaf, which become smaller and smaller towards the center.
Behind the Registan is the Chorsu, a 19th century market street, which extends for about half of a kilometer to the local bazaar. This was perhaps the most interesting bazaar that we saw in Uzbekistan -- despite its modern open structure, it combined the genuine feel of "the old days" with large-city energy. Hundreds of sellers provided the daily needs of Samarkand's residents. In the far corner of the bazaar was a row of stalls selling shashlik and plov, an oily rice dish flavored with chunks of lamb. Sitting on beds covered with a filthy blanket, sipping green tea from small bowls, it was a great place to eat, rest, and watch daily life unfold in the bazaar.
Beside the bazaar are the remains of the Bibi Khanym Mosque, built by Tamerlane to be grander than anything he had seen on his travels, and it remains one of the largest mosques ever built. Its front gate was over 100 ft high, and its main dome was even higher. It still retains its ability to impress today, even though the rapid decay brought on by hasty construction was greatly accelerated by a 17th century earthquake, and the entire structure is now clad in scaffolding awaiting eventual repair.
The street in front of the mosque restricts car traffic, and the most popular form of transport is horse- drawn carts. We rode one of these back to the Registan, and walked back to our hotel from there. Our first night in Samarkand we stayed at the New York Times Magazine-recommended Hotel Samarkand. Amazingly, the staff was friendly and relatively helpful and the rooms were cockroach-free and they even had toilet paper, but the price was high.
On our second day we found a cheaper hotel then set off to do some sightseeing.
We caught a marshroutni taxi, a van running on a fixed route like a bus, to Ulug Bek's observatory. Ulug Bek, Tamerlane's grandson, was one of the great astronomers of the pre-telescope era. He was, it is claimed, the first to declare that the earth circled the sun, and was later assassinated by his son for questioning the existence of Allah. After killing his father, Bek's son tore down the observatory, and all that remains is a restored foundation and part of a giant astrolabe that Ulug Bek used to calculate the length of a year with extraordinary accuracy. (He was off by only 53 seconds).
From there, we walked about 1 km down a dusty dirt road to a small chai-khana (tea house) to get some lunch. We ate on the patio in back, which was covered by ancient grape vines and was on the bank of a small stream. We dined on shashlik (again) and shii, a strange and mysterious green soup. The food was great, and the atmosphere even better. On our way back to the main road, we were offered a ride by three Swiss IRC aid workers from neighboring Afghanistan, who gave us a very interesting version of events there.
After a brief stop in an unremarkable archeological museum, (to me, most archeology is unremarkable), we took a detour through a Jewish cemetery. The gravestones, many made of white American marble, had portraits of the deceased etched onto them. As we passed a small house on the edge of the graveyard, an elderly woman asked us if we wanted to rest and have some tea. Jen talked to her for a while about the history of the cemetery until her son came out and asked me (I think, as he didn't speak English) if Bill Gates was Jewish. Confused, I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up.
Below the graveyard sits the Shah-i-Zinda ensemble. Built on an ancient memorial complex which was destroyed by Genghis Khan (as usual), the existing mausoleums were built in Tamerlane's day to bury members of his entourage. The complex is named after one of the Prophet Mohammed's cousins who is said to have visited the site. Perhaps because of this, visiting the site is supposedly a substitute for a trip to Mecca, although I am sure that the keepers of the shrine at Mecca would disagree. After climbing 36 steps, you reach a narrow corridor lined with stunning mausoleums. The tile-work is simply amazing, and is said to be the best in Central Asia. We saw many small alcoves whose walls were blackened by soot from fires lit by Zoroastrians who still worship fire at the site.
In addition to these main sites were numerous other monuments, most interesting and beautiful. The city has so much to see that it is really overwhelming, and impossible to describe.
After two days in Samarkand, we decided to take a trip 80 miles south to the town of Shakhrisabz. This is where Tamerlane was born, and where he returned to build his Ak-Saray Palace, which was the size of an Olympic stadium. Unfortunately, all that remains is the crumbling ruins of the entry gate, but even the sheer size of this is enough to inspire awe. An Arabic inscription on the base of the arch was intended to read "The Sultan is a shadow of Allah," but the craftsman started out too big, and could only fit "The Sultan is a shadow." For this he was severely punished. The arch, like most other monuments we had seen so far, was encased in a complex shell of scaffolding.
Nearby were several mostly restored mosques and mausoleums. These were pretty, but not spectacular, and seeing Shakhrisabz was hardly worth the effort and money it cost to hire a taxi to take us there. However, the two hour trip over the 2000 meter Tashtakaracha pass made the trip well worthwhile. The mountains were a stunning deep green, and there were many rustic farming settlements perched on the steep mountainsides. From the top of the pass, we could see the mountainous border with Afghanistan. Earlier we had passed an area known for cultivation of opium, where, our driver informed us, a police helicopter had recently been blown up. "But I don't know anything about that," he repeatedly insisted. We also passed the site of the filming of the movie "Apache!," a fine Russian cowboy and Indian shoot- em-up film. Rent it. I dare you. Perhaps the best thing about the trip was breathing the clean air – our first breath of unpolluted air since leaving Portland.
From Samarkand, we caught an overnight train to Bukhara, on the theory that we would arrive early and well rested. So much for theory. We agreed to get a private compartment after the ticket agent assured us that we would have the compartment, which normally sleeps four, to ourselves. He must have meant to ourselves other than the five who were already in the compartment. By the time the mess was sorted out, it was nearly 3AM, which left exactly two hours to sleep before we were set to arrive well rested. Since the episode left us so wound up, I doubt I slept more than half an hour, and Jen even less.
But before the ticket agent would even sell us a ticket, we needed to inform the police that we would be leaving. For our convenience there was a police office right in the train station (also the better part of an army brigade, but we tried to avoid them). For our further convenience, the man who we needed to see was off somewhere, doing something, but certainly he would return soon. We waited. About 15 minutes before our train was to leave, we started to get nervous. Jen went back to the ticket agent and explained the situation, and they hatched a plan so stupid it just might work. We would tell the police we were going home, and leave the police office. The agent would sell us the ticket without police authorization, and we, the only tourists in the station, wearing bright attention-grabbing jackets, would simply slip unseen past the police cordon at the door to the trains, and all would be well. This plan left me uneasy, but it turned out to be distressingly simple to make it past the ever-vigilant long arm of the law.
The train was a nightmare. Other than our confused sleeping arrangements, the bathroom was simply the most disgusting small (or large) room I have ever set foot in. (And set foot in it I did!) The room looked as if it was last occupied by a dozen spastic epileptics with diarrhea. With each swaying of the train, bile- black liquid would squirt up from between the floor tiles and slosh up against my nice white shoes. Thoughtfully, someone had mounted rubber foot rests in top of the toilet seat, abandoning the pretext that it was ever cleaned. (Important note: Jen claims that the women's toilet at the train station in Bukhara was worse -- there people didn't even bother with the toilet. They just used the floor.)
Bright and early the next morning, when we arrived in Bukhara, we tried to take a short nap before venturing into town. We found a good spot, and, during the twenty minutes as we vainly tried to sleep, two different policemen came over to inspect our papers. We gave up and headed for town.
In contrast to Samarkand's colorful monuments, Bukhara was mostly brown. But more centralized, which makes sightseeing much easier on foot. We tracked down a guide recommended by the IRC people we met in Samarkand, and, after much trouble, contacted Masha, the owner of the guesthouse where we were hoping to stay. Masha met us in front of the museum, and we followed her back to her home. It was in the traditional Uzbek style, with a courtyard surrounded by the living quarters. Running down the center of the courtyard were two rows of 6 old grapevines, each growing a different variety of grape. Between the rows was a large herb garden -- the rest of the courtyard was paved with bricks or cement. Notably, in a climate that ranges from 40 to -40 degrees C, the bathroom was separate from the kitchen, which in turn was not connected to the bedrooms or guest rooms. The house had been in the family for 150 years, and was built by a wealthy merchant. One of four of its type in the city, the house had extremely ornate carved gypsum walls adorned with intricate floral painting. The size of an Uzbek room can be measured by the number of beams used to hold up the ceiling, much as the Japanese measure the size of their rooms by the number of tatami mats it takes to cover the floor. Our bedroom was a nine beam room. I have not yet worked out how to translate that into tatami mats.
Because we were so tired from our train ride, we didn't do much that day – just ate lunch and strolled around the city for a while. The lunch was but the first of the many delicious traditional Uzbek meals we would eat at our guest house. The meals typically consisted of combinations of: Plov, lamb, pilmenii (thin- skinned raviolis stuffed with spinach and lamb), potato soup, stuffed grape leaves, rice cooked in milk, fried potatoes, eggs, fried dried fish, compote (homemade jam mixed with water), tea, lepeshka, and kefir, a homemade yogurt, of the style my former roommate tried to make by setting jars of milk on our water heater until they smelled so bad we made him throw them out.
The next day, we met our guide and set out early. First we saw Ismail Samani Mausoleum, built in 907, and one of the few buildings to survive Genghis Khan's wrath. The structure is constructed with bricks made from camel's milk and egg yolks mixed with mud, and features 18 different patterns of brickwork.
Another building that remained despite Genghis Khan was the Kalyan Minaret. Completed in 1127, it towers over Bukhara and was likely the tallest building in the world at the time it was built. It was used alternatively as a lighthouse to guide caravans into the city and as a place from which to call the citizens of the city to prayer. Prisoners were also hurled from its 150ft top. Although tourists are not generally allowed up, a young man offered to let us go for a small fee. We agreed, and the view was spectacular. The only catch was the man locked the iron gate behind us, and was not there to let us out. We were quite relieved when he eventually showed up and released us.
The citadel of the Khan of Bukhara, now housing the unremarkable Ark Museum, is the focus of the city. It is fronted with a huge imposing gate with two towers flanking the entrance, and overlooks a large and mostly unused public square, once the site of Bukhara's thriving bazaar. The Khan would sit atop the gate with the royal family to watch public executions held in the square. The front section has been rebuilt, but the other walls remain mostly in ruins since the Bolsheviks lobbed bombs at them during their attack on the city. There was an attempt to reconstruct the entire fortress, but that was abandoned when a large chunk of wall fell and killed part of the archaeological team leading the reconstruction effort. Prisoners in the Ark were housed in small cells off the main entranceway, both to serve as a warning to visitors, and to catch the manure washed down from the stables above.
Behind the Ark was the prison, probably the most gruesome site we visited on our trip. The main room contained photographs of men bearing scars from being whipped for various offenses such as not keeping the fast during Ramadan, or failing to pray the five times daily as prescribed by Islam. There were once photos of an execution and Islamic style amputation for theft, but these were removed when Uzbekistan gained its independence (wouldn't want to make the place look barbaric, would we?) A smaller room off to the side contained a 18ft deep well, ominously called the "Bug Pit." There, particularly disfavored prisoners were thrown to await execution. All manners of vermin could be found in the pit, including rats, cockroaches, lice, ticks, and scorpions. There were no toilets, and there was a small hole in the wall where a troublesome prisoner could be stuffed -- too small to allow any movement, the hole killed its victims slowly.
For those not in the Bug Pit, the city seemed an endless parade of beautifully tiled madrasas, often in pairs facing one another across the narrow dusty streets. We also saw a series of small souqs: the Jeweler's, Hat Maker's, and Money Changer's bazaars. These markets were located within domed buildings built at the intersections of major streets in the old city. (Cars obviously did not interfere with good urban planning, as they do today.) Our final stop was an old merchant's house, decorated in the same style as the one we were staying in. After a brief tour, and a visit with the loudly bleating lamb that was he museum's gift from the mayor, we tried on various costumes of royal Bukhara clothing. The outfits were hot and heavy, but very beautiful.
Interestingly, over time, the streets of the city have risen, due to the sand blown in from the surrounding desert. The Magok-i-Attari, a 12th century mosque and Central Asia's oldest, shows this quite dramatically. Built upon a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn was built upon a Buddhist shrine, the entrance to the mosque is now a full 15ft below the current level of the city. Less dramatic, perhaps, are the entrances to many of the houses in the old city which seem to lead down as much as in.
The next day was Sunday, the big day at the bazaar. We arrived in time to catch the tail end of the local acrobats and daredevils performing for the crowd. Most classic carnival stunts were performed – tightrope walking, trapeze swinging, tumbling, and, of course, a man lying on a pile of broken glass while another stood atop a board of nails placed on the man's chest. I love that stuff! After the show, we set out on our mission to get me a traditional Uzbek coat.
Once the women selling coats decided I was serious, they literally mobbed around me thrusting jackets in my face, grabbing my arm to lead me over to their stalls, and angrily yelling at the other women who were doing the same. Many remarked on my earrings, asking flirtatious questions about them. Nothing is more emasculating than relying on your wife to translate such conversations.
The afternoon was spent trying to get to the Khan's summer palace by bus. Once we actually found the correct bus, it took the scenic route, and wound its way around the edge of the modern city for 45 minutes before arriving at the palace, a mere 10 minute drive from where we started.
After paying our admission, we were given a guide to show us around. Speaking only Russian, she led us hastily through the Main Palace and Receiving Rooms, explaining little. She took her time, however, showing us the souvenir shops run by her friends. As the tour progressed, we sped through more and more rapidly, barely entering the Harems and Royal Clothing Section. By the time we made it to Embroidery, we were abandoned completely. We later found our guide sipping green tea with some other women, who had presumably ditched their wards as well. Going back through the buildings ourselves, we took the time to marvel at the many beautiful items on display: a golden Koran, a stunning vase from Japan, an ornately carved and inlaid chessboard, and a silver and glass pre-electric royal refrigerator.
The next day we headed for Khiva. Although the train was an option, we did not want to repeat our earlier mistake, so we instead took the bus. During the first of our seven hours of lurching through the desert, we passed three broken busses surrounded by throngs of confused, bored, and thirsty passengers awaiting repairs or rescue. Later, we saw a fourth bus sitting atop a battered Lada. These were not good omens. Fortunately, our bus fared better than the others, and, though the scenery was a bit tedious, with sand dunes passing into endless steppe, we arrived in Urgench, the closest city to Khiva with bus connections, intact and on time at 10:30 at night.
We were supposed to be greeted at the bus station (which was just the parking lot of the train station) by the owner of a guest house we had arranged to stay at. Instead, we were mobbed by a throng of burly taxi drivers. When it became apparent that our hosts were not coming, a particularly persistent driver persuaded us to accompany him to another guest house (no doubt run by his friend) in Khiva, 28 km away.
Khiva, said to be founded by a son of Noah, is a tiny mediaeval style walled city, almost completely restored to its original state. It is, however, more of a giant museum than a thriving city, but is beautiful nonetheless. The city is not actually that old -- most of it was built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Khiva is even smaller and more compact than Bukhara, and it is possible to see most of the city in just one day.
The inner city wall is over a mile long, almost 25 ft high and, in most places, is completely intact, featuring 40 vast rounded bastions jutting outwards, and a virtually uninterrupted shooting gallery behind the battlements. Built into the wall was the Khan's older palace, the Kunya Ark, a heavily fortified stronghold/palace for the Khan. Inside was a beautifully tiled mosque, which, contrary to the dictates of Islam, does not face Mecca -- rather it faces north to catch the summer breeze. There was also a mint in which workers labored for 3 months at a time, and were forbidden to leave for fear they would take some of the money with them. Now a museum, the mint had some interestingly carved wooden blocks used for printing "paper" money on silk. The palace also featured a tall watch tower which afforded an excellent view of the entire city.
Outside the palace was the city prison, which featured drawings of people being executed in many colorful manners, including being thrown from towers, buried alive and impaled on stakes. Another drawing illustrated an adulterous woman being stuffed into a sack full of cats, while her lover was hanged in the background.
A newer palace, Tash Khauli, built to replace the Ark, housed the Khan, his four wives, and his concubines in one magnificent structure. The walls of the Khan's room were covered with incredibly detailed painted blue and white tiles, and the ceiling was colorfully painted in reds, greens, oranges, and gold. His four wives had equally beautiful rooms, each featuring a different pattern and color scheme. The pillars supporting the ceilings were carved to match the chosen tile motif. The Khan originally ordered the compound built in two years, and when his architect told him it was impossible, the Khan had him impaled. The architect's successor readily agreed to finish the project in the allotted time, but took eight years to do it. Surprisingly, he was not punished.
The tile-work featured in Khiva differs significantly from that in Samarkand. While Samarkand's monuments feature mostly mosaic tile-work, Khiva's are covered with glazed square tiles, about 8 inches across, which are first painted, then numbered and glued to the walls, then further fastened with a large nail driven through the center. The numbers and nails, both clearly visible, do not detract from the beauty of the final work.
Another very beautifully tiled structure was the Pakhlavan Makhmud Mausoleum, built for the great poet and wrestler of the same name. While not huge, this extraordinary site was perhaps the most beautiful we saw on our trip. Using only white and blue, the complex detail of the tile-work covering the interior of the main chamber was breathtaking. The mausoleum also houses the less spectacular but still beautiful tombs of several Khans.
Nearby was a beautiful Jumma-mosque (a large mosque used only on Fridays, as opposed to the smaller and more plentiful daily mosques) whose roof was supported by 213 ornately carved wooden columns. One of the columns, brought from India in the 10th century, bears three small depictions of Buddha. The mosque also had two skylights which provided a great deal of light to the interior and to the ancient trees growing underneath them, and gave an eerie feeling of being both inside and outside at the same time. There was also a tall minaret which, for a few sumes, we dutifully climbed.
Our guest house was located behind two madrasas which contained the Hotel Khiva and its adjoining restaurant. Outside the hotel was a partially built minaret, planned at one time to be the tallest in the world. The Khan who started the project in 1851 wanted to make it tall enough be able to see Bukhara, about 300 miles to the east. Unfortunately, in 1855, the Khan was killed while off on some military adventure, and the project was abandoned. The bottom portion remains, and resembles an ornately tiled cooling tower for a hidden nuclear power plant.
Near the tower was a plaza mostly taken over by a hat merchant. Laid out on a wall, his wares ranged from traditional Karkul wool hats, made from the skin of day-old lambs, and still worn by locals to keep cool in summer and warm in winter, to the downright absurd giant wool cap that Jen insisted on photographing me wearing. It looks like a fat sheep is sitting on my head, and is strongly suggestive of the most outrageous afros sported in cheesy movies made during the 1970's.
Our final stop in Khiva was the Medical History Museum, which we visited as an afterthought. Housed in an old madrasa, the exhibits were poorly laid out, with the climax coming far too soon. In the central room, on a small table, with no explanation offered or needed, sat a plastic tub containing a pair of fully grown pickled Siamese twin infants. Next to it was a smaller jar containing a small but fully- developed human fetus. Needless to say, after seeing these exhibits, the rest of the museum, containing mostly packets of herbs and poorly rendered portraits of Uzbek doctors, did not hold our attention for long.
We flew back to Tashkent and spent the afternoon waiting for our 1AM flight back to Bahrain. We visited the history museum we had been unable to see before, which was well worth the return trip. We ate some good Korean soup (a welcome change from the endless plov) and lounged in the lobby of the Hotel Uzbekistan, the most expensive hotel in Tashkent, which was full of well heeled larger-than-life Russian and Uzbek mobsters.
Our flight back to Bahrain was almost as chaotic as the one that brought us to Uzbekistan, due mainly to the evil practice of free seating (read near-riot-free-for-all). Only the very first row of the plane was non- smoking. Which was just as well, as we were the only non-smokers on the plane, and had the whole row to ourselves. The stewardesses were surlier than usual, and it was obvious that most of our fellow passengers were going to work as prostitutes in Bahrain, or some other fortunate Gulf emirate. From Uzbekistan to the Gulf. I wish them the all the best.
Entire site © 1996-2004 by Christopher Eykamp