Posts Tagged ‘Uzbekistan’

More thoughts from Jim Gaffney

When was then?

Officially, the Silk Road opened with an exchange of embassies between Parthia and China in 105 BC. Once the sea route from Europe to the East opened from the 16th century onwards, the overland Silk Route declined in importance, at least for long distance trade.

Where did it begin and end?

The Silk Route has no universally agreed start or finish lines, or, indeed, er, route. The silk which gave the name came from ancient China, so the eastern end of the route would have to reach to the borders of the early empires, the present day province of Gansu. At the western end, the huge prices paid for silk in ancient Rome were the stimulus to extend the route’s length. So a reasonable definition could be “from the borders of ancient Rome to those of ancient China”

Who travelled the Silk Route in the old days?

For the first thousand years, from the time silk first made its appearance in the most exclusive merchants’ shops of Ancient Rome, no individual human being is recorded as doing the whole thing. A few famous travelling monks made it from China as far as Persia in the early days, but nowhere near as far as Rome. It was the goods that did the travelling. Traded from hand to hand perhaps hundreds of times, the stuff got a long way.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Statue of Silk Road travelling monk Tripitaka with his companions (inc. Monkey!) in Lanzhou.

Two sorts of stuff: light, easily transported items, such as precious stones, spices, dyestuffs and, of course silk; and items that could transport themselves, i.e. livestock and slaves. The only people to travel the whole of the Silk Route in the first thousand years, if anybody did, would have been slaves

Even the section of the route that Diane and I have tackled with 21st century technology available reveals why so few travelled the full route. We can report that the factors which everyone has moaned about over the millennia are still in play: distance, deserts, mountains and awkward locals. On the plus side, however, I can list oases, views, discovery and lovely locals.

What’s the Silk Route like now, then?

Tour group on the Silk RouteAs a travel biz marketing ploy, you’d have to  say it’s not doing too badly. The great oasis cities of present day Uzbekistan, Bokhara and Samarkand, have had some serious money spent on doing up the mighty mosques and madrassas of yore. There’s not exactly hordes of tourists but no doubt enough to keep the restaurants, hotels, taxi drivers, coach drivers, guides and souvenir sellers going for a fair while yet.

Tourists are also doing a great job taking on the role fulfilled by slaves in the old days. They obediently shamble around in little gangs, getting shouted back into line by barking tour guides if they show any inclination to wander off. They are a tradable commodity too- guides will happily deliver them to your tat emporium for a small commission.

I myself have been captured and sold on quite a few times at the long distance shared taxi stands.

We made a deal with a guy who swore by all that is holy that he was leaving now, yes, now, definitely! He grabbed our bags, locked them into the boot….and promptly disappeared. Of course, he needed two more passengers to make the trip worth it – a situation we were already very familiar with.

Shock, horror, a taxi driver lied to us! It’s only happened to me about 1,500 times, so why am I always surprised? Maybe there’s something in the middle class English upbringing which doesn’t prepare you for the real world. Anyway, there we squatted disconsolately in the dust, waiting for our master to come and release us, when he was ready.

Another time, we were turfed out halfway through the journey and transferred to another driver. It was done quickly and furtively, but I spotted Driver 2 paying Driver 1 the bit extra for the lucrative tourist fare. We cost about £1.20, if you’re interested.

So at least one traditional Silk Route commodities, the slave, has found a modern substitute, the tourist.

But a big improvement – the tourist pays for his own food and drink and makes only half-hearted attempts to escape.

Deserts, Mountains, Oases.

View of desert landscape with mountains and an oasisThese three are the clichés of Silk Route reportage from 300 AD onwards and with good reason. The deserts are still dry, dusty, huge, mostly ugly (ignore the guidebooks) and frightening. The mountains are still almost impassable, very high and awe inspiring. Their weather is maddeningly, not to say dangerously, unpredictable.

The oases are life savers. The sheer joy of arriving at them seems to have inspired the building of some of the most beautiful cities ever to have existed. No wonder the poets and travellers have gone into raptures about pomegranates, fountains, fig trees and so on. It’s the feeling that you’ll never see another one that stokes up your enthusiasm for that sort of thing.

21st Century Deserts

1. Khiva to Bokhara, Kyzyl-Kum desert, 374 kms. Shared taxi took maybe 9 hours. Grey dust, gravelly stones and so little vegetation that I saw no animals and that means very little vegetation. The only town is built to serve the natural gas wells which have been drilled in the desert. Absolutely impossible to imagine living there in ugly concrete blocks, 45 ̊ heat and dirt. The name of this place is Gazli, meaning “got gas”. Yeah.

2. Bokhara to Shahkrisabz, Karshi Steppe, 253 kms. Shared taxis about 6 hours. Very barren. Huge, almost derelict industry lurking in unlikely bits of desert. Still working, but I couldn’t work out what was being produced.

3. The Erkeshtam Pass to Kashgar, 200 kms of the driest, dustiest, greyest yet. Gravel extraction, road building and mobile phone towers waiting to be erected.

Oil well4. Kashgar to Turpan, 1,400 km. The “Taklimakan” (“Go in, don’t come out”) desert. No need to say more.

The Chinese have built and are still building innumerable industrial plants in the desert: oil extraction, petrochemical installations, mineral extraction and quarries for stone, sand and gravel. The dust clouds are therefore much worse. The stark, relentless stamp of this human activity seems to make the desert, if anything, even more forbidding.

Mordor, indeed!

21st Century Mountains

Aaah the mountains, how we’ve loved them! The freshest air I’ve ever breathed, the most entrancing views I’ve ever gazed upon and the brightest stars shining down on the path ‘twixt bed and midnight wee. Diane in the mountainsEven Diane’s enthusiasm (making Julie Andrews appear positively disenchanted by comparison) hasn’t been enough to dent my love for the mountains.

So the great push to conquer the pass into China, which had filled me with foreboding ever since I first looked at the map to check the altitudes, no longer held any terrors for me. I’d worried about our visas, the weather and the political situation in Xinjiang (would we even be allowed in?) but as we ascended towards Sary Tash (altitude 3500m), before hitting the border first thing in the morning, I breezily confided in Diane just how good I was feeling. Mountain viewNone of the problems I’d foreseen looked like materialising, the sun was shining and we were speeding along nicely.

A few hours later we sat in a room so hot we had to leave the door open to the sub-zero outside in order to breathe. It was now clear that the previous night I had finally found vodka cheap enough to give me an evil hangover. Altitude sickness was causing shortness of breath, dreadful nausea and, in the words of the ever-helpful guidebook “general malaise”. I had also started a nasty urine infection with a raging temperature. No doubt I would live, but I didn’t want to.

“As for his intestines, he could no longer claim them for his own” (H.E. Bates)

In the end I tackled the pass and the descent into Kashgar with the aid of lots of encouragement from my lovely and resourceful partner, my own paltry reserves of “can-do” spirit, some fierce anti-biotics aimed at the nether regions and two hardboiled eggs.

These last two had dire repercussions. My first five days in China went by unaccompanied by bowel movement. I was faced with an appalling dilemma. I could find no chemists or traditional medicine shops in Kashgar with anything but Chinese labels and Chinese speaking staff. No Boots, no Superdrug. So should I practice the Mandarin for “Could I have laxatives please?” and repeat this several times in my hopeless accent until somebody in the shop got what I wanted?

Chinese laxatives

The first shop assistant able to stop giggling would eventually serve me, but humiliation was certain. Or go for the mime option? On reflection, I realised that this would not only require nerves of steel to carry off, but would run the dreadful risk of giving the exact opposite of the intended message.

Fortunately, I found a phrasebook with the relevant information (full respect to “Just Enough Chinese to Get By”). Highly motivated, I made myself understood at only the fourth attempt. A capital young shop assistant and I managed the whole transaction with the seriousness and professional dignity appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Climb every mountain, guys.

21st Century Oases

I guess the area of irrigated land under cultivation nowadays would amaze early travellers. It amazes me, anyway. Every drop of water flowing along the course of the Amu Darya is potentially divertible for agriculture. I was excited to be crossing this mighty and legendary river. In ancient times it was the Oxus, giving its name to one of the oldest known civilisations. A whole region, Transoxiana, was defined by the fact you’d got across it.

We approached, rammed into the back of a shared taxi. Oh, the cruel disappointments that travelling sometimes has in store! The taxi bounced through the river bed, occasionally across pontoons spanning the shallow streams that wound between the gravel. The banks of the once enormous river towered either side of the poor remnants of the current. It took ten minutes to cross the river bed, but very little of that time was spent crossing water.

Between the glaciers feeding the sources of the Amu Darya 1,500 miles to the east are hydroelectric schemes, lots of ageing Soviet-built industrial plants, field and fields and fields of cotton and several quite large cities. The countless small farms and villages that also share the water would have been there in ancient times too, and so could not be blamed for the stricken state of the river. It’s the Amu Darya that once fed the southern half of the Aral Sea, and this no longer exists. So the oases of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are now bigger, but not without cost.

My Personal Top Five Oases

French Klezmer band in Bishek1. The Registan Café, Samarkand. A real cup of proper, lovely, caffeinated Turkish coffee! Bliss! Astounding, but there’s hardly a coffee worth the name on the whole Silk Route from Khiva to Lanzhou.

2. Bishkek. Parks, museums, a decent art gallery, restaurants, the ballet (Swan Lake for £2.75!), a great French klezmer band (Kekiristan Republic?) playing for free. A capital city of culture!

Stream among trees in Aslanbob3. The village of Aslanbob – an Uzbek enclave in the midst of troubled southern Kyrgyzstan. Listening to every sound running water can make, we wandered up to the enormous walnut forest. Gentle Uzbek villagers kept on inviting us in for tea and snacks.

4. The little Chinese caffs in Turpan. Fantastic tasty meals for a quid, big Tsingtao beers at 50p. A welcome respite from the endless lamb kebabs and chai.

Jim snacking5. Speakers for the laptop (for only £4.50 from a Chinese electronics superstore) providing me with an oasis of good music – an antidote to the relentless diet of Chinese pop and rock played on every form of public transport.

Jim and Diane in a cafe

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A cradle cover from UrgutUrgut is about 45 minutes from Samarkhand and has a famous Sunday market – just like Harry Tufffins! (Shropshire joke). So we are up early and into a shared taxi by 9am.

The market has recently been moved out of Urgut centre to an out of town location much to the annoyance of the traders who complain that it’s too hot, lacks the atmosphere of the old one and nobody can find it. The hundreds of

The back of Urgut Market

The back of Urgut Market

buses, taxis and cars in the car park (think the Trafford Centre in the desert) seem to disprove the last one but it certainly is hot! And it’s also very picturesque with the Zarafshon Mountains in the background.

Woman selling clothThe vast majority of this famed market is given over to the display and purchase of cheap clothes, fabrics, kitchenware, plastic flowers, toys, and so on – in other words, not very interesting to us. But right at the back there are some stalls selling embroideries and jewellery so that’s where we head for.

Portrait of two women

The mono-brow is quite a popular look

Our appearance sets off something of a sensation and we are quickly surrounded by women waving cloths in our faces and shouting dollar prices at us. Obviously the only people still interested in buying these things are foreigners so they have to make sure that no-one gets out alive!

I am busy bargaining (hard) for some tribal looking coral and silver jewellery while Jim is deep in conversation with a young man on one of the stalls. He is Umur Bek, Bek for short, (29) and he and his mother are selling some decent embroidery. He tells us they are made at their home near Urgut and he invites us to come and visit them the following day, and so of course, we do.

The family house is actually quite a way out of Urgut and is hidden away deep in the dry dusty country-side.

The gaBek's hometes are painted blue with flowers and the house is covered in suzanis and surrounded by a big garden. Thirteen people live there and other family members live in the neighbouring houses. Bek’s mother, Mahuluda (53) is the chief suzani maker and the other women who work there, are her daughters in law, aunts and cousins.

The silk embroidery thread they use is both commercially bought and dyed here in the garden. At the moment they are dyeing with onion skins and walnut, the pomegranates will be ready in October.

Marjona embroiders with her familyGrandma dying silk

Bek’s daughter Marjona (“Coral”) is already a pretty good embroiderer and she’s only 7, and his two little boys watch as their Grandma makes a fire, boils some water and pours some dried walnut husks into a muslin bag. She leaves the hank of silk in it for 30 minutes, and it comes out a nice pale brown.

Mahuluda has been embroidering since she was a girl and remembers making suzanis with portraits of Lenin on when she was at school in the 1960s. The family seem to have managed to make a living for themselves all through the Soviet era and now they are doing well.

The outdoor kitchen

The outdoor kitchen

After lunch (more food!) we have a look round the house and see all the ways that the embroideries are used. A bride has to embroider six pieces before her wedding, and Bek says his wife did this for him so it obviously still goes on. These six cloths are

  • a suzani (a large cloth which goes on the wall of the house)
  • a cover for the wedding bed
  • a smaller cover for a wooden or metal trunk
  • a belt for her husband
  • a prayer cloth
  • and a mirror cover which is used to cover the mirror at night (for modesty’s sake or for superstition? I’m not quite sure)

Later she hopes she will make a cradle cover for the traditional wooden painted cradle. Apparently the Soviets tried to get rid of these “manifestations of feudal consciousness” but embroidery and indeed painted cradles seem to be back with a vengeance.

Room with displayed clothsFinally we look around a big room stuffed with old textiles, sacks of straps and rolls of braids, old coats, hats, and cloths of all shapes and sizes. “Now that’s what I call a shop” says Jim. I find an old cradle cover which has obviously been used as there are two holes which would fit over the top posts. That’s the one I want.

Before leaving I go to the most unusual bathroom I have ever been in, so I’m sure you will want to know about it.

Jim in a room full of interesting things

Good shop, eh?

A daughter in law shows me down the garden to an area with head -high mud walls and a narrow rectangular hole cut in the earth floor. There’s no water, or toilet roll, only a large basket of what look like stones. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with them, and I don’t really like to ask! Waiting outside, my host pours water out of a jug for me to wash my hands. This clearly is a place where you don’t waste water.

So that was Urgut. The cradle cover has a very domestic design of Uzbek teapots on it and is a reminder of a day spent with people who seem very happy with a life which feels as if it has changed little for centuries. Jim says it’s all a manifestation of feudal consciousness, but I quite like it!

Painted cradles in the market

Painted cradles in the market

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We have started our journey from its furthest western point – the truly amazing town of Khiva in Uzbekistan. The first sight of it is gob smacking – towering mud brick walls surround an inner city of a square kilometre where every house and street is the same pale sandy colour. But what buildings! Mosques and minarets, palaces and medressas, domes and courtyards of stunning turquoise blue tiles.

Khiva seems to have been ruled over by a succession of cruel and bloodthirsty Khans who enjoyed enslaving, beheading, and generally behaving very badly. It was eventually conquered by the Russians and 50 or so years later by the Bolsheviks and became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist State and thus the USSR in 1924. The place was so impressive that even the Soviet planning department left it alone.

I chose the Meros B and B because of a book called “Carpet Ride to Khiva” which I read last year. The author lodged with the family here for 7 years and while he was here, started a silk carpet weaving workshop and later an embroidery workshop which are both nearby. Once we decided to come to Uzbekistan, I knew I wanted to visit Khiva and see the workshops. Anyway, the house is full of kilims and embroidered suzanis, the family is welcoming, the view from the roof is great and our balcony looks out on the western wall, so it was a pretty good choice.

The weaving workshop is in an old madressa with a domed courtyard surrounded by lots of small rooms where the women sit at looms knotting silk into beautiful carpets. The dyestuffs used to dye the silk are all natural – pomegranate and onion skins, madder and indigo, walnut and oak galls. They have to get a lot of it from Afghanistan which is expensive and somewhat hazardous these days.

The weavers sit three abreast knotting furiously, beating down ferociously and listening to loud pop music but they are all very jolly and even understand our Turkish (yay!)

Madrim, the master dyer shows us where the silk is dyed. He drives us a couple of miles down a potholed track, through a blue door and into a garden full of madder plants. There are bowls of onions skins with apple, mulberry and vine leaves, pomegranate skins and madder, alum mordants and steaming vats of wood ash and grated soap which are used to scour and wash the silk before dyeing it.

The workshop was set up about 10 years ago with help from UNESCO and The British Council but now they have to stand on their own two feet and so they’re trying to produce more dyestuffs locally and experiment with using wool which is cheaper than silk.

The silk carpets themselves are stunning. The designs come from the tile work and the enormous carved wooden doors in Khiva. Jim and I both fall in love with one particular carpet and we think long and hard, but the price is beyond us – especially at the beginning of a long trip.

This blog is going to feature one particular textile from each of the places we visit. If we could have spared a thousand quid it would have been the carpet……… however…….the project has also set up an embroidery workshop, employing another 24 women. Here the same naturally dyed silk is used to produce the traditional embroideries commonly known as suzanis for which Central Asia is famous. We can afford 2 exquisite cushion covers, one featuring a design painstakingly copied from an ancient hand-carved door, the other taken from beautiful old tiles.

So that’s what we got from Khiva. The carpet’s still waiting there, giving us a very good reason to go back one day.

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