Who knew that my (almost certainly) last-ever job offer would be in Tajikistan. No wonder I am so enamored of the place. I understand that Ruth and Nancy are out there saving the world for democracy…still, at our ages, job offers aren’t plentiful. Since this was the most exciting event (for me) of the entire trip, please allow me to elaborate.
We reached Lake Iskanderkul in the early evening, settled into our comfortable rooms (colorfully basic but with the warmest heaviest quilts I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping under—even weightier than mom’s quilts back on the Minnesota farm—and that entails some serious poundage), and enjoyed a simple late supper. Our lodgings were at Dilovar’s Villa, a place of pleasant hospitality and the best views in a country with no shortage of spectacularly otherworldly scenery.
And in the morning…The Job Offer. Seriously. The boss/director/manager/owner who spoke very little English approached me with smiles and questions which Beck kindly interpreted. And the gist of which was…would I consider coming there next summer (and for as long as I wished [or lived?]) to be the manager of all English-speaking guests. He explained that there are many of them and he can’t communicate the rules, times of meals, make suggestions for walks, etc. very well. He needs someone to boss them around was Beck’s interpretation. There were one or two small issues; I would have to get there on my own and actual pay wasn’t mentioned! He kept assuring me through Beck that I would have nice lodging and meals and freedom to ‘be the boss.’ I assumed this whole proposal was tongue in cheek but Beck kept assuring me it was very serious. So I have decided to accept the offer as authentic and simply be encouraged that I might have a few more lives to go. ‘So Ruth and Nancy, while I wish I could help you with the Supreme Court and Congress, I’ll be busy next summer at Dilovar’s Villa up by Alexander’s Lake. If you get sick of the whole mess here in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ I’ll be happy to reserve rooms for you…just remember breakfast is at seven and do not be late.’
Unfortunately I was compelled to decline this most inviting opportunity…since it would interfere with my present job which actually comes with a paycheck—and I do get to boss around English-speakers (not that they listen all that attentively). I believe my new potential employer erroneously assumed independent wealthiness on my part. And it would have been such a fine last entry on my resume. Boss of English-speaking travelers, Dilovar’s Villa at Lake Iskanderkul. Remote mountain site at end of long rocky road, in the country of Tajikistan in Central Asia, formerly part of the USSR after long years with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane the Terrible.
With additional spring in my steps, I walked around with Lace and Scott and then we headed out for a long day on the road, destined for Khujand by day’s end.
If I go on and on about Tajikistan for a few posts please understand…it was a nearly perfect few days in a place unlike any other I’ve been in…also it was the few days before we all came down with the nasty, nastier and nastiest bug that colored our experience dull gray for awhile. So here’s the second of four Tajik posts; this one primarily a photo album.
After a good night’s sleep under our piles of heavy quilts, a morning walk, and a simple breakfast in these most picturesque surroundings, we left Seven Lakes for Lake Iskanderkul.
The day’s drive was by turns smooth and jolting but always scenic in a most top-of-the-world kind of way.
Eventually we pull up the last rocky road to Lake Iskanderkul which is named after Alexander the Great who supposedly visited here on his way to conquer more even more territory. Once again, I will plead description-exhaustion and borrow Lonely Planet’s words. “Iskander-Kul is an opal-blue mountain lake that looks almost tropical in strong sunlight. It isn’t. At 2195m, it invites a distinctly chilly swim even in summer. The approach to the lake is made particularly interesting by the streaks of copper and iron oxide that striate the barren mountains, contrasting with pockets of virulent green vegetation along the river’s edge.”
We stop for a walk before checking into our lodgings for the night.
Home Sweet Home for a night.
Lace says we shouldn’t make comparisons between countries/places—as in better or worse. I believe it’s okay to have favorites however (unless it’s children, grandchildren or the family dogs). Tajikistan is my favorite country for this 2019 trip and will remain among my favorites of all-the-countries-in-the-world. Tajikistan is basically a whole lot of mountain ranges squished into a small country with a modest strip of the Fergana Valley (the breadbasket and ethnic trouble spot of Central Asia) for a brief change of scene. Tajikistan is actually a little different than any place I’ve ever been (of my now-visited 116 countries!); it is gloriously grandly high—one of the places justifiably labeled “Roof of the World”—and proudly culturally traditional.
Given my praise of and pleasure in this tiny history-rich country, I’m going to include a small piece of background remembered from our chatty and informative guide, Beck, and stolen from Lonely Planet. I did read a few books that touched on history and politics in Central Asia before the trip but now, when I leaf through them for specific references to Tajikistan, few appear. Fortunately Scott’s bible, Lonely Planet, comes through again. “Tajikistan, always something of a poor relation given the challenges posed by its geography and topography, shares much of the history of neighbouring Central Asian nations.” There are some differences however. Tajikistan has strong links to Persia/Iran that go far back and it continues to maintain the language and cultural connections from that long-ago history as part of the Persian Samanid dynasty (of which Samarkand and Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, were major cities). Eventually the Turkic peoples occupied the region and to a large degree absorbed the Tajiks. Of course the Mongols and Tamerlane conquered almost the entire territory at one time or the other so the blood of all of Central Asia flows through local veins.
Beck was quite proud of the Persian connection; he being half Tajik and his wife, wholly Tajik. Seeing the people change in appearance as we traveled from Uzbekistan all the way to Kazakhstan was one of the most interesting aspects of this trip. The Uzbeks and Tajiks overall reflect the Persian/Iranian heritage to a greater degree than the Kyrgyz or Kazakh peoples who are more typical of the Turkic or Mongol peoples and appear more Asian. This is of course a huge generalization so you must understand this discussion of appearance comes purely from my untutored observations and Beck’s comments. More about recent Tajik history in tomorrow’s post.
THE FIRST DAY
On Tuesday, September 17th, we were collected at our hotel by a driver who shortly thereafter had us at the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border. We had an easy walk through border formalities with our visas all in place, and were greeted on the Tajikistan side by Beck our favorite guide of the whole trip and Amok our truly expert driver who kept us alive on some of the sketchiest roads I’ve ever seen. Scott booked the guide and driver through a Tajik travel agency recommended by Caravanistan, an information service highly recommended by … who else … Lonely Planet of course. With extremely exciting roads in some areas and almost no English spoken anywhere, it was good advice.
We stopped briefly in the small city of Penjikent then drove for a few hours to the Seven Lakes region where we would have a hike and an overnight stay. The main roads are good, the byways not so much but the mountains and lakes and tiny villages full of colorfully, beautifully garbed adults and wildly waving kids made every bump and deadly switchback worthwhile.
The destination was Haft-Kul or Seven Lakes. We wound along slowly with Beck regaling us with facts and entertaining us with local lore, stopping at each of the lakes for a leg stretch and photo op. Lonely Planet offers a lovely few paragraphs describing the Seven Lakes region which I’m just going to straight up copy as it’s well-done and saves me a certain amount of adjectival labor.
The first lake is an astonishing azure blue, the next four are aquamarine and the sixth is a pale turquoise. And the final lake needs to be seen to be believed. Six of the lakes are just about accessible … by 4WD, but the final lake (Hazor Chashma) is most enjoyable reached on two legs…. The walk to Hazor Chasma is one of the most lovely walks in the region. It’s an easy 2km ascent through beautiful wild flower meadows, above Marguzor village, following a racing river whose waters rush down the hillside to the six lakes below. There’s a satisfyingly broad shore at the mouth of Hazor Chashma offering a perfect opportunity to picnic by the water’s edge. (I must add that one of the lakes was a most unusual shade of royal blue, a blue I’ve never seen in any body of water before)
Time to adjourn to the sixth lake where our guesthouse awaited. The only lodging in these mountainous areas are guesthouses operated by the local mountain people. There has been a serious effort in recent years to assist the villagers and farmers in establishing these places for travelers to stay in the simplest of surroundings but with some basic comforts like beds and—‘praise be’ as Offred would say—non-squat toilets. Since the accommodations were booked by the agency each evening was a highly anticipated surprise…arriving and settling into a brand new environment and looking forward to a family-style dinner in a remote Fan Mountain village.
This evening was perfect. Well, Scott didn’t have any toilet of any kind in his room but Lace and I were thoughtful enough to let him use ours. And it was a might chilly at such a high altitude but we didn’t travel this far to sit around streaming Netflix with the thermostat turned up did we? It really was just the right amount of adventure for me; Lace and Scott might have opted for a notch up on the rugged scale although Lace seemed quite happy with the brief moments of warmth from our little wood fire (someone from the kitchen built for us since we non-smokers no longer have matches at the ready—and really don’t know how to make a proper fire anyway). Scott also expressed some concern about where he’d pee if he woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get into our locked room; even though we were in the middle of pure forest, there were other campers around and holes in the ground to fall into and large hungry bears (or not) or dangerous snow leopards (actually not them either). So perhaps we were all okay with being this brave and daring and no more.
How is it I almost forgot to post a photo album from Samarkand, that most exotic of Silk Road cities? It says something to me about where my head has been this entire year…it is hard to pay attention to the world when one is creating a new identity for oneself. I’ve been trying to describe what’s happening to me but lack the verbal skills—perhaps it’s the crossing of a Rubicon that puts one finally irrevocably in that dread category of ‘old,’ let me change that to ‘elder’? Such a different vibe.
Here’s a quote by Glenda Jackson to help me explain such intense naval-gazing (also known as omphaloskepsis I just found out) that I almost forgot to mention Samarkand. I can’t actually see myself putting make-up on my face at the age of sixty, but I can see myself going on a camel train to Samarkand. You see, I have, for a long time, ignored the siren song of cosmetic youthfulness… however I’ve clung passionately to the idea that I can and will take a ‘camel train to Samarkand’ or ride a Mongolian pony across the steppe or cross the sea on a steamer or climb a grand mountain. What if I won’t? Who am I if there are no more adventures?
This year, while physically I’m much the same as I was last year or the year before, mentally I’m struggling…finding it difficult to cling to the probability of adventures in the future. What future my evil twin asks? I respond…did Ruth Bader Ginsberg know several years ago (when she was the age I am now) that she still had to save the world? Of course not…so okay…I have a future…maybe…maybe not…gloom re-descends. So who in the hell am I? Meanwhile in Samarkand…
No reason at all for extensive background information about the times and glories of Samarkand. You can google more than you ever wanted to know or read one of a few thousand books on the subject. I’m here to share a few photos of the grandeur of the past (in buildings original and structures replicated) and the pleasure of being with my charming ‘young’ travel companions. And to express photographically my pleasure in the very fact of visiting Samarkand even sans camel train. Here’s a quote I like very much about how each of us in our time and place view the mysteries of the world and how we never cease longing to ‘go there’ and see for ourselves.
Every age has its dreams, its symbols of romance. Past generations were moved by the graceful power of the great windjammers, by the distant whistle of locomotives pounding through the night, by the caravans leaving on the Golden Road to Samarkand, by quinqueremes of Nineveh from distant Ophir…Our grandchildren will likewise have their inspiration-among the equatorial stars. They will be able to look up at the night sky and watch the stately procession of the Ports of Earth-the strange new harbors where the ships of space make their planetfalls and their departures. (Arthur C. Clarke)
Lazarus-like, I’m back from the world of couch-whimpering, Mhz streaming, ice-cream eating and eight-sleeps for every 24 hours. I’ve been quite ill for awhile…more importantly however I. Have. Traveled. Long. Silk. Road. Miles. No competition for Marco Polo I’m afraid, nevertheless insightful, challenging, fun and funny.
You know the first part of the story. The early September California wedding, then Scott, Lace and me off to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a train to Bukhara for a couple of days, then to Samarkand. A plethora of picturesque pictures to follow. After that came a few perfect days in Tajikistan (a whole blog post coming up about that).
The second half of the trip opened with those memorable days with me curled up in a fetal position on the floor of a guesthouse bathroom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Admittedly I wrote the posts about the event a day or two later but mentally I stayed on that floor for awhile. Finally, I shared my borscht recovery in Almaty, Kazakhstan in the last post. So all that’s left to do to wrap the second half of the Stans journey is a photo album from Istanbul.
ABOUT THE STANS
The initial goal of this trip was to visit the ‘neighborhood’ of Central Asia, one of the few regions of the world I had yet to experience even in a small way. I’ve been fascinated by the Silk Road for a long time. Now with China’s ‘New Silk Road’ known as the Belt and Road Initiative the concept is even more intriguing.
The Silk Road conjures images of desert caravans crossing the Great Steppe and adventurers like Marco Polo navigating ancient trading routes connecting China with Europe and Africa. China’s modern-day adaptation, known as the Belt and Road Initiative aims to revive and extend those routes via networks of upgraded or new railways, ports, pipelines, power grids and highways. David Tweed (https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/china-s-silk-road)
I should also add that I’m always intrigued by anything to do with Russia and the former USSR and most of the Stan countries count among the ‘breakaway republics.’
Uzbekistan was a major Silk Road route and its cities, especially Bukhara and Samarkand reflect that. I’m going to quote another writer for a few more words about Bukhara, although the writer quoted in the first post about this awe-inspiring city covered its history rather well.
Here’s Hamid Ismailov. In Bukhara you can easily imagine yourself living in any century of the past. Enter the Perfumers’ Pit or the Magoki Attori mosque, and there, at once, you can imagine the flickering of Zoroastrian flames, because the earliest bricks of the mosque are from pre-Islamic times. Looking closely at its ornate interior decoration you can sense that at one time Bukharian Jews were praying here alongside Muslims before they were allowed to build their synagogues. Then walk to the nearby passage—Toki Sarrofon (the Exchange Dome)—and you find yourself in the middle of a medieval bazaar, where Indians sell spices and Uighurs offer Chinese silks; where wise men of Shiraz promote the latest manuscripts and shrewd mediators of Bukhara exchange rupees for dinars. Walk further—two quarters away—and find St. Michael’s Orthodox Church, a trace of the Russian colonization of Central Asia. As with many other historic buildings of Bukhara, which have outlived people and their ever-changing interests, at one time this building was a train station, then a storehouse, and now a fully functioning Russian church.
The same goes for the people of Bukhara, when you study their faces. The green-eyed gentleman with a Greek profile sitting at the teahouse next to the famous Labi Hauz pond, who seems to have been left behind by Alexander the Great’s army to oversee the rebellious cavalry of the descendants of the local Queen Tomyris. Among his companions are Ibn Qutaybah, who brought Islam here on the back of a hardy Arabian steed; and noble Chagatai, one of the sons of Genghis Khan, smiling through his thin mustache and wiping his narrow eyes with a piece of goat skin. The hairdresser around the corner is the disguised cook from Tamburlaine’s court, and the one-legged Russian veteran selling tickets to the local museum is a famous spy sent here during the Great Game.
Michelangelo Antonioni once said, “It’s in Bukhara that I’d film 1001 Nights.”
Day Before Yesterday. Or thereabouts. In Almaty.
A nice day has been had by all. Lace and Scott did some exploring in a Lacily-organized fashion and I did some wandering in my usual semi-lost fashion. The weather is early-fall wonderful, it’s a laid-back feeling city, and I find most things Russian interesting (in spite of the buddyhood of Donnie and Vladie) so it was a relaxing few hours. When I return I intend for one of my posts to steal highlights from a few books (including Lonely Planet) to do the simplest of overviews of the four Stans we are visiting; it’s a history and a present beyond just interesting…it is epic and wild and glamorous and bloody. And of course Kazakhstan isn’t Russia but the influence is so strong and does tend to grab one’s attention.
Dear Diary…this is what I did so far today. Left the hotel about 9am or so and, following hotel map and front desk staff directions, headed for the recommended shopping/strolling/coffee street. Not such a long walk so only had to ask directions a few times. I know I must get my smart phone/mapping skills up to speed…well actually I do not because my daily travel interactions mostly come about from my constant search for where I am, where I’m going, and how to get back to where I came from…a lot like the rest of my life actually. The most helpful and positive assistance usually comes from men. Young men whom I remind of their grandmothers and older men who see my camera and map in hand and me looking distinctly puzzled, and gallantly come to the rescue. They are quite sweet and satisfying these friendly little exchanges.
Girls and women not so interactive. Are girls not as grandmother-friendly? (Lace? Patrica? Sara?) Or are women just naturally more suspicious, even of other women? Hmmm…to ponder. One elegant older lady speaking a language I did not recognize stopped and asked me for directions…which made me happy. When I like cities it feels like an honor to be considered a local even by another lost foreigner.
Let’s see…had a water at Starbucks, purchased two nice and inexpensive casual shirts at a pleasant shop, walked through a big green beautiful park, and made it home for a short nap before our evening borscht.
THE BORSCHT ALBUM
As I proclaim ad nauseam, borscht is my favorite X favorite food. No idea why. Mom made Harvard Beets when I was a kid, a sort of sweet sour veggie dish that I think only mom and I enjoyed. But a whole big red soup? Never occurred to me I would love it although I should have known I’d never stray too far from my peasant roots…Russian, Norwegian, doesn’t seem to matter.
Thanks to Lonely Planet, also known as Scott’s Holy Bible, we dined at Gosti. Perfect way to spend a golden-glowing September evening in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The fat platter was slick and … fatty. Spread some lard on bread, sprinkle of salt, slash of sweet horse radish. Yes. Next light and bright and tangy borscht creamed with the smoothest of white and sour, dumplings oozing from their rich meaty insides, and all finished with a fruity cottage cheese pancake. My best food hour of the entire trip.
9-26 (By the way…Now, an even later ‘now,’ we are all healthy happy and in Istanbul where I’m trying to take a nap and we just had a tremor…only good for a small room shaking. I’m starting the catch up blogging plan NOW…
9-23 KAZAKHSTAN: An earlier Now. However…Now is now…but here are some early morning musings from yesterday. It might be about 5am Tuesday morning the 24th. Surprisingly hard to keep track of at halfway around the world. All is well. We all feel great. Our airport stops and flights over yesterday were among the easiest and most efficient of any trip ever taken. Now in the Big City of Almaty. Teresa and Scott can go find all of the walks and hikes available around this mountainous upland. I’m strolling the streets looking for sweaters and sweatshirts that say Kazakhstan, dumplings and borscht, and if I feel super-brave, a shot of vodka for lunch. Walks down a few leafy streets and if time left the Big Art Museum, or that will be left for tomorrow, replaced by a nap. Good to remind myself I am not at heart an outdoor adventurer, but rather a little old Nordstrom-shopper lady.
9-22 Now (a several days-old now) back to Kyrgyzstan where it’s still yesterday or was yesterday?
KYRGYZSTAN: It’s the third morning of the second day or the fourth morning of the third day or something like that. At 11am we go to the local airport (where we’re told no one speaks a word of English—their privilege of course, just awkward when traveling—thank god I know how to say thank you in Russian) for the flight from Osh to Bishkek. We have a four hour layover and fly on to Almaty, a big sophisticated Russian city in Kazakhstan. What a relief; I am so done with the freshest of vegetables and ‘farm-to-table’ meat as the standard menu of the day. I want borscht.
It’s about 5am and the rooster who lives here at this cozy and leafy (even though mid-city) guesthouse has crowed. I have slept so much in the last two days that here I am, bright-eyed and busy-tailed so to speak, wide-awake and feeling good. I think the suggestion of my bout of ill-health being a norovirus could be right; it was both violent and short lived. Although Teresa and Scott seem to have had the more typical travelers’ diarrhea version. I have been telling people for years to exchange the fresh vegetables in their diets for dumplings and bologna sandwiches…now perhaps they’ll listen.
I do have one small travel story I forgot to include in yesterday’s post. The morning after we arrived when I was seriously sick and semi-delirious Scott had the guesthouse lady call a local doctor who came over here, checked all the vitals, and prescribed Cipro and some supplements. He was kind and we communicated through Scott’s handy Russian-English translator device. After the trip to the pharmacy, the cost totaled $11.00. Eleven dollars. In the good old USA, we are talking office visit $50 (or emergency room $200 or so), meds $20-30 at least—costs to me; never mind what my insurance would pay and what my insurance costs me. For exactly the same services. Well actually I wouldn’t have been able to get into my doc for three days so it would have been the emergency room for a few hours (part of the time in a most unsanitized hospital bathroom throwing up and more). So. Could I have received high class (?) emergency surgery here? Probably, almost certainly, not. Do we usually need emergency surgery? No. Do we need the stupid-ass American system we have? Absolutely certainly not.
I’m obviously writing this because I’m bored and bereft of real travel stories. Adventures will commence again when we board one of the ‘most dangerous airlines in the world’ in Central Asia. Hopefully they have not been able to afford any Boeing 737 Maxes or we really will be in trouble. I brought along a kindle and three books. My son and granddaughter have confiscated the kindle and one of the books. I just finished The Remains of the Day and am down to Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The latter picked up spur of the moment at LAX, and an engrossing and beautifully written history of pioneer America it is—just not the perfect book for traveling through strange lands in sickness and in health. Remains of the Day on the other hand was just right. It is small and so very brilliantly tiresome, a book to easily put down and pick up for twelve minutes before falling asleep.
I am retaking the kindle tonight…but I won’t really need to because I’ll be in a regular hotel room—likely with little personality but WITH a bedside lamp and of course that greatest of luxuries, an en suite bathroom. We’ve had fairly easy-to-reach bathrooms most stays except for in the mountains and the sites have more than made up for the short walk down the hall; I really believe I miss my bedside lamp more than anything.
This is what travel is all about…having small (for the more daring-big) adventures, new sights (even moments of awe), experiencing new tastes (including deadly fresh vegetables) and remembering there are things back home that are worthy of your appreciation.
It is still too early to … The rooster keeps crowing. I cannot read about the Indian-settler wars in Minnesota another minute. If I eat one more banana I’ll go out in the guesthouse’s quite lovely courtyard and climb trees. Teresa and Scott are still asleep in the next room; this room was the sickroom for a day and a half, then it moved down the hall.
Just a footnote (especially for you Celia). There were only a few hours (while I doubted I would live—wimp me!) when the thought of never leaving my apartment again crossed my mind
Otherwise I’m on for Africa next year…with a supply of Cipro on hand. And a plan to live on mush and fried plantains (and Cheetos wherever I can find them).
Before and after Tamerlane’s Terror.
Coming to you today from lovely downtown Osh, Kyrgyzstan. And it may well be lovely. I however have been enjoying it from my guesthouse sick bed. You are familiar with Delhi Belly and Montezuma’s Revenge…well, I (and now Scott and Teresa) appear to have the Central Asian version…trying to name it…how about Tamerlane’s Terror?
So far Teresa and Scott seem to have the lighter version of Tamerlane’s Terror…could be something to do with age I reluctantly suppose. They’ve been eating more freely of all of the foods offered, which have for the most part been natural and fresh, but since we Americans must consume a certain amount of preservatives each day maybe all this fresh stuff is an issue? Which is why I recommend a certain amount of Fritos or Cheetos or Twinkies every day.
This has been a great journey until yesterday and will continue to be again by day after tomorrow. Every trip needs a mid-time ‘joy of travel’ correction or we’d simply all abandon our regular lives and live out on the open road.
So…when I return brilliant posts about this trip (you know, sights and sounds and tastes and talks) will be forthcoming. However for right now this short post on Kyrgyzstan must suffice because I’m still feeling offish. Although the miracle drug Cipro is making great progress. There was a double whammy involved for me since not only did the usual unpleasantness of eliminating every drop of one’s bodily fluids through all orifices (well, actually my ears were exempt) appear but lucky coffee-addict me had the accompanying delight of a severe caffeine withdrawal headache. All is well now however. I’ve managed a shower without falling over and eaten a banana…life back on track. Teresa and Scott are sleeping off their, hopefully, short version and we continue on with the perfect Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Its not the Destination, It’s the journey.”
The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit… (Omar Khayyam)
(*Note. Most of my photos will be in a separate post, later today or sometime. They’re worth waiting for…)
Blogging while on the road is always being a ‘day late and a [post] short. It is Monday the 16th and today’s post or two will be from Saturday and Sunday in Bukhara. And, to prove me even more negligent, what you read will be a 2003 essay about the city written by someone else…fortunately for you the someone else is an excellent writer and wrote exactly the piece I would have wanted to …. she is Sheila O’Malley, a film critic and blogger (The Sheila Variations) https://www.sheilaomalley.com/
First though a word or two from tired me before Sheila’s smart words and my nice photos. I am so pleased that we started in Uzbekistan, a land at the very heart of religious and mercantile history with wildly and widely ranging tales of gods, greed, and great (in ways both gruesome and grand) men. Uzbekistan has a new president after 25 years of Islam Karimov and is moving full speed ahead into promoting tourism; as a consequence we have had three bright and knowledgeable young guides to get us up to travelers speed in the whys and wherefores of this most pleasant of countries.
But now I’m off to wash my socks, pay my rent from afar, and take a tiny nap before dinner and a healthy walk.
Bukhara was a medieval city-state, a very important commercial center. By the time Genghis Khan sacked the joint in 1220, Bukhara had already been around for over a thousand years. Genghis Khan laid waste to Bukhara, sparing nothing. Only minaret remained, and it still stands today. That minaret, called the Kalan minaret, was a marvel when it was constructed and it is still a marvel today. It is 148 feet high, and once was a beacon to the Silk Road caravans, letting them know that Bukhara was near.
There are bazaars in Bukhara which have been operating, nonstop, for a thousand years. There are madrassahs in Bukhara, built in the 1500s, which still have students today.
Bukhara was once seen as one of the centers of the world. There was a Sufi religious center here, built in the 1300s … a major mecca for Sufi scholars and pilgrims. Everyone passed through Bukhara, and the Silk Road helped establish Bukhara’s position as one of the premier city-states in the known world.
I don’t know much about the Samanids, but they were a dynasty in the 10th century, and under their reign, Bukhara blossomed. They built a great library here that had 45,000 manuscripts in it. The Samanids were eventually destroyed by the Mongols, everything destroyed, nothing survived of that brief great era.
An interesting fact: The Samanids had built a wall around their oasis. But during the time of prosperity, the Samanids let down their guard … they relaxed … they let the wall fall to bits, they did not maintain their wall … so when the Turkic invaders came along in 999 A.D., they easily captured the town.
First off, a quote, from Colin Thubron’s great book The Lost Heart of Asia:
Across this region, for some two thousand years, the Silk Road has nourished caravan-towns — Samarqand, Bukhara, Margilan — whose populace had spoken an Iranian tongue. The Uzbeks were latecomers, migrating south at the end of the 15th century. They took their name from a khan of the Golden Horde, for their origins were Turkic, but already their blood was mixed with Iranians’, and they added only the last layer to a palimpsest of peoples identifying themselves less by nation than by clan. On my map Uzbekistan made a multi-colored confusion. It was shaped like a dog barking at China. A country of 20 million — more than 70% of them Uzbeks — it butted against the Tienshan and the Pamir mountains in green-tinted lowlands and a sudden spaghetti of roads. But it remained an enigma: a land whose Communist rulers had persisted in power under another name, offering only lipservice to Islam, and loosening the economy without promise of democracy.
Thubron rhapsodizes about what the word “Bukhara” has always meant to him:
Bukhara! For centuries it had glimmered remote in the Western consciousness: the most secretive and fanatical of the great caravan-cities, shored up in its desert fastness against time and change. To either side of it the Silk Road had withered away, so that by the 19th century the town had folded its battlements around its people in self-immolated barbarism, and receded into fable.
So the Mongols sacked the joint in 1220, and trashed the entire town. But then along came Tamerlane the Terrible, and in the 16th century the mosques and madrassahs were rebuilt. They still stand today, but nothing older than that survives.
Once the sea route to India and to China was discovered, Central Asia was done. In a matter of 100 years, the place closed shut like a trap, forgotten by the rest of the world. Bukhara (and Samarqand, and others) fell into wretched decay. Nobody passed through. For hundreds of years, Uzbeks never saw someone from the West. The cultural exchange stopped. Technological advances stopped passing through the area. They were forgotten by history.
In 2001, when Uzbekistan let us operate from their bases (Russian-built), during our attacks on Afghanistan, that was the first time that Western soldiers had operated in this area since Alexander the Great passed through in 329 B.C. Incredible, no?
Colin Thubron, who traveled through the region during the first summer and spring of independence from Moscow, describes Bukhara’s own journey (because, like I said, Uzbekistan is not a real country yet. At least not like we would define. People in Uzbekistan, for millennia, have identified themselves as citizens of Bukhara, Samarqand, etc. Now, they are starting to identify themselves ethnically … “We are Uzbeks. Everything good comes from Uzbek culture!” So far, they do not have an identity as a coherent nation yet.) So Bukhara’s own story definitely can stand in for the whole, to some degree.
It was the failure of water, as well as conservative ferocity, which hurried on the isolation of Bukhara. The Zerafshan river, flowing 500 miles out of the Pamirs, expends its last breath on the oasis, and is withering away. To north and west the sands have buried a multitude of towns and villages which the exhausted irrigation could not save.
Even in the 19th century, the accounts of travellers were filled with ambiguity. To Moslems Bukhara was “the Noble, the Sublime”. It was wrapped round by eight miles of walls and fortified gates, and its mosques and medresehs were beyond counting. The Bukhariots, it was said, were the most polished and civilized inhabitants of Central Asia, and their manners and dress became a yardstick of oriental fashion …
Even in decline, the bazaars were rumoured magnificent, and teemed with Hindus, Persians, Jews, and Tartars.
Yet this splendour barely concealed an inner wretchedness. Men who walked abroad like kings returned at night to hovels. The city gates and walls were a gimcrack theatre-set, and the famed medresehs in decay … Ordinary people seemed inured to cruelty and subterfuge. Scarcely a Westerner dared enter before the 1870s.
The decline had begun in earnest during the end of the 18th century. And in the 19th century, there were two vicious and degenerate emirs who were brutal, and terrifying. Their behavior alienated them from their own people. The discontent and anger of the citizens of Bukhara made it relatively easy for the Russians to sweep in in the mid-1800s, and reduce Bukhara to a client state. This was part of the famous “Great Game”, played by Russia and England in the middle of Central Asia.
Here’s a passage about the czarist triumph:
In all their Central Asian wars, between 1847-73, the Russians claimed to have lost only 400 dead, while the Moslem casualties mounted to tens of thousands.
The ensuing years brought the ambiguous peace of subservience. The czarist Russians, like the Bolsheviks after them, were contemptuous of the world which they had conquered. They stilled the Turcoman raids and abolished slavery, at least in name, but they entertained few visions of betterment for their subjects. As for the Moslems, who could stoically endure their own despots, the tyranny of the Great White Czar insulted them by its alien unbelief. “Better your own land’s weeds,” they murmured, “than other men’s wheat.”
Yet there would come a time when they would look back on the czarist indifference as a golden age.
In 1918, Mahomet Alim, the last emir of Bukhara, repulsed the (now) Red Invaders, booting out the Bolsheviks. This wasn’t altogether a great thing for the people of Bukhara because the last emir was a tyrannical lunatic, with a massive harem, who sent tax collectors out to basically terrorize the populace. He wasn’t a great guy. But he did defeat the Russians. However, 2 years later, in 1920, as General Frunze, in the Red Army, advanced again on the oasis, the last emir flipped out, and fled with his harem, leaving the populace to fend for themselves.
And then followed six decades of communism. Stalin closed down all the mosques. He criminalized private property, and entrepreneurship … Uzbekistan was crushed beyond repair. They have still not recovered.
The story of what has happened to the Aral Sea is one of the most disturbing and devastating legacies left by the Russians. It has been described as “the world’s greatest environmental disaster”. It makes me sick to my stomach.
Thubron again, on strolling through the ancient bazaars in the early 1990s:
A hesitant free enterprise was surfacing, but the inflation raging through the old Soviet empire had turned everyone poor. Sad traders peered from their kiosks like glove-puppets, or threaded the bazaars with a predatory vigilance. But they had almost nothing to sell. Once the name ‘Bukhara’ had been synonymous with lustrous dyed silks and the crimson rugs of the Turcomans who traded here, and carpets of Persian design were woven on domestic looms all over the city. But under Stalin, home industries became criminal. Mass production laid a dead hand on all the old crafts. I trudged through the market quarter until dark, but found no trace of handmade silk or rug.
Nobody alive today can know what the ancient Bukhara was like. It’s lost. Lost for good.
I can see why everyone refers to the oasis as “monochromatic”. Everything is the color of chalk.
If you take a look at the lower left picture, you will see the old city gate, which still stands. Part of the remaining wall that has always surrounded the oasis. And the top left, the emir’s summer palace, is the residence of the last emir who flew the coop when he was threatened by Frunze. He and all his many many many lovely ladies. Additionally, in the last post I talked about the Kalyan minaret, erected in 1127, the only surviving structure from Genghis Khan’s attack in 1220. It is 148 feet high, and actually kind of homely, in my opinion, but there was a time on this planet, when that minaret (pictured in the right hand column, second photo down) was as famous a sight as the Eiffel Tower. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower but I know exactly what it looks like. The camel caravans on the Silk Road kept their eyes open for that minaret, knowing exactly what it would look like, counting on it to be there.
Oh, and also notice the bottom right hand picture: the Ulugh Beg madrassah. He was the grandson of Tamerlane, who took over the empire after his grandfather’s death. But Ulugh Beg was a scientist, an astronomer … and actually, quite brilliant. He built observatories and sponsored scientists visiting Bukhara. He wanted the place to be a cultural center, not just a hotbed of fanaticism, and a place to rest in between military ventures and wars. The madrassah you see in the picture was completed in 1420. It was one of the places shut down by Stalin, but now it is open again, and filled with students.
I am a little afraid of what they may be learning in there these days (“And today’s lesson … Americans are Satan.” “Don’t forget to do your homework … write an essay on why you think the Zionists are taking over the world.”), but still: the Ulugh Beg madrassah is an amazing structure, and actually was built by quite an enlightened and educated man. A curious man.
So perhaps that legacy will rub off. I can only hope.
I found some descriptive quotes of Bukhara in Thubron’s book that I wanted to share. It makes me feel as though I can see this famous city with my own eyes. Which is, after all, why I read all of these historical travelogues. I want to see the world. And not just Paris or Rome, although I’d love to go there, too. The places I really want to see are the so-called backwaters of Central Asia and the Middle East. Samarqand, Bukhara, Shiraz (in Iran), the Fergana Valley (in Kyrgyzstan), Herat (in Afghanstan)… all of Alexander the Great’s old hangouts.
Thubron strolls through Bukhara:
…I entered a dust-filled wasteland fringed by a pale host of mosques and medresehs. The din and pall of restoration shook the air. The earth dazzled. The buildings glared in a blank, shadowless uniformity. Dressed in cement-colored brick, they had not the rich plenitude of the tiled mosques of Iran, but were patterned only sparsely with a glaze of indigo or green. For the rest, they were the color of the earth beneath them: a dead platinum. It was as if the dust had hardened into walls and turrets and latticed windows. Everything– even the clay-colored sky — shone with the same bleached stare.
But above, in radiant atonement, hovered a tumult of turquoise domes. Beyond the high gateways and iwans — the great vaulted porches– they swam up from their drums like unearthly fruit, and flooded the sky with the heaven-sent blue of Persia. From a distance they seemed to shine in unified aquamarine, but in fact the tiles which coated them were subtly different from one another, so that they spread a vibrant, changing patina over every cupola: eggshell, kingfisher, deep sapphire.
These mosques and medresehs were mostly raised by the successors of Tamerlane or by the 16th century Sheibanids, the first and most glorious Uzbek dynasty that succeeded them. Little that is older survives…
The blanched aridity all around oppressed me inexplicably, as though the city were dying instead of being restored. Even the dust seemed to have been leached by some ghostly peroxide. But in fact Bukhara was being resurrected indiscriminately: walls rebuilt shoddily en masse, tilework reproduced wholesale. Work had started in the Soviet period, but events had overtaken it, and the mosques which had been reconstituted cold in the service of art or tourism were stirring again with a half-life of their own.
The following descriptive passage is also very interesting because it captures what appears to be the inherent contradictions not only in Bukhara but in all of Uzbekistan. They don’t really fit in with the rest of Central Asia … they are not homogenous, they practice Islam but with elements of shamanism and Sufism, they don’t subscribe to fundamentalism (at least not yet) … They try to resist being sucked into the issues plaguing Afghanistan, the civil war next door in Tajikstan, the tyrannical dictatorship in Turkmenistan next door … They are a milder people. But this struggle is difficult. Very difficult. Because, of course, there are many radical elements in the populations. There are millions of Uzbeks who do not live in Uzbekistan proper, who live in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China, Tajikstan … and these people bring home radicalism, fanaticism.
Thubron discusses the glorious Renaissance that Bukhara experienced in the10th century, a great era of art and literature, and although it was back in the Middle Ages, the tensions he describes in the society still exist, and still simmer beneath the surface.
He visits “The Tomb of the Samanids”, a 10th century mausoleum that stands on the outskirts of the city.
The tomb is all that survives of the precocious Samanid dynasty, the last Persians to rule in Central Asia, whose empire pushed south of the Caspian and deep into Afghanistan. The tomb escaped the Mongol sack because it lay buried under windblownsands, its builders half forgotten, and it perhaps finds its architectural origins in the palaces and fire-temples of pre-Islamic times. But its sophistication — the lavish, almost playful deployment of its brick — betrays an age more daring, more intellectual, than any which succeeded it.
For over a hundred years, until the end of the 10th century, a creative frenzy gripped the capital. Alongside the moral austerity of Islam, there bloomed an aesthetic Persian spirit which looked back to the magnificence and philosophic liberalism of the Sassanian age, extinguished by the Arabs more than two centuries before. As the Silk Road spilt into and out of Bukhara — furs, amber and honey travelling east; silks, jewellry and jade going west — the Samanids sent horses and glass to China, and received spices and ceramics in exchange.
An era of peace brought men of letters and science crowding to the court, and the Persian language flowered again in a galaxy of native poets. It was an ebullient age. Iranian music, painting and wine flourished heretically alongside Koranic learning, and the great library of Bukhara, stacked with 45,000 manuscripts,became the haunt of doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, and geographers.
The short era produced men of striking genius: the polymathic al-Biruni, who computed the earth’s radius; the lyric poet Rudaki; and the great Ibn Sina, Avicenna, who wrote 242 scientific books of stupefying variety, and whose ‘Canons of Medicine’ became a vital textbook in the hospitals even of Christian Europe for 500 years.
I’ll be back.
The Silk Road” is a series of interconnected trade routes linking Asia and Europe, consisting of a network of caravan routes running from China across Central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean. Its starting point was the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in China; the endpoints were a number of cities on the Eastern Mediterranean. Some of its branches ran into South Asia, while others ended at Caspian or Black Sea ports. Among the modern countries traversed by the various routes are China, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. (http://www.silkroadencyclopedia.com)
The map of the world is drawn by travelers and nomads. Built into it are steps, nights and days, stations and encounters.
By (Jasna Horvat-Vilijun)
9/13/19 (I think). At this very moment in time, it is 5am in the heart of Bukhara, an ancient silk route city. I would share profound thoughts about the history of this part of the world and how meaningful it is to all of mankind but it’s been a hard night. In this most charming of mostly-ancient habitations called Komil Bukhara Boutique Hotel in this most perfectly autumnal of travel seasons, there are challenges; true, they are insignificant and unworthy of mention by a serious traveler, but right now I feel quite put upon…but then, even as I wrote that, all crankiness dissipated—what a relief…my travel bona fides are still working—the ones that know that small stomach disturbances, unpredictable air conditioners and fitbit withdrawal (changing time zones by eleven hours has rendered fitbit a confused insecure undependable travel companion) are of zero consequences in the scheme of things. Please dear goddess of Travel Crones let me never be a churlish American in my waning years of globe trotting (perhaps trotting should better be pictured as slow-walking).
Since I’ll have little time to write today here’s the quick-and-dirty report from day-before-yesterday in Tashkent. . outline to which fascinating (sometimes you just have to be there though) tidbits can be added as time and the desire to edit permit.
Back to Day One: Arrival after roughly thirty hours, portal (Scott’s house) to portal (the Sharq hotel) in Tashkent. City tour. Perfect decision. Forced us to face and conquer jet lag early on. I liked Tashkent for its broad boulevards, cleanliness, greenery, and mix of architectural eras from drably-grand Soviet to bright and shiny modern—all information well stated in the travel guides. This is the point at which I would so like to drop in a pithy observation from an honored silk-road scribe but I can’t remember exactly what from the shelf of books I acquired over the last couple of years for this very journey I should use. When the Uzbekistan chapter of Window Seat is written the perfect quote will be here. But here are a few photos to get us to Day Two and the train to and brief walk about and first sleep-over in Bukhara. I’ll possibly be more eloquent tonight…soon.
A small update. It’s two days later and we are off on the afternoon train to Samarkand. Too much looking and walking and talking and eating and sleeping with Scott and Lace to get very much writing in…doesn’t matter if there are photos though does it? Here then is a quick look at Tashkent, Uzbekistan.