Uzbekistan: A Great Adventure Yielding Some Serious Perspective
Okay, so, granted, the travelogue that’s to follow has little to do with holistic health or mind-body medicine. So shoot me. I’m itching to describe my impressions of an extraordinary trip through Silk Road territory in Uzbekistan – where centuries of world trade converged, and where goods and ideas, religions and inventions, innovations in math, the arts and astronomy were exchanged along with foods, music and clothing styles - from everywhere. Wow!
I have to say that, in spite of our current Congressional lunacy, the flawed US is looking pretty darn good to me, after two and a half weeks in a family-owned country. Even the school kids and the professors get called up to do mandatory cotton picking for export (I kid you not) for as much as two months a year. Profits go to the president's family piggy bank.
In fact, the internet was down for 2 days in Bukhara. Why, you might ask? The tech support staff was unceremoniously sent off to pick cotton - which, by the way, drains all the water out of the country. Cotton is one thirsty plant, and the Aral Sea is half its original size and getting smaller every day. If they keep this up - and they will - this country will be out of water and out of luck, in no time. They are double-landlocked on all sides.
Other random observations:
In spite of centuries of getting the stuffing kicked out of them by this or that conquering horde, the people are amazingly warm, welcoming, guileless, affectionate, dignified and forthcoming - completely unspoiled and authentic. I suppose there haven’t been enough tourists through there to mess them up.
But in spite of their emotional honesty, they will not say word one against their government - that's clearly a terrifying proposition. They even look scared and squirmy when they have to listen to snarky comments from tourists.
This is a very tribal and communal social system. If somebody dies, they carry the body shoulders high through the streets and everyone just joins the procession. You can tell by the colors draped on the casket whether it's a young or old person and other demographics.. (In most parts, bodies are left in special places to be picked clean by birds and animals.)
Processions form in the streets for weddings, too. The bride, gowned in a poofy white gown (usually a rental) and the groom are followed to the wedding. Classic wedding entertainment is having magnificent, high wire acrobats perform overhead – usually at least three generations of the same family – against a backdrop of magnificent turquoise and blue tile architecture.. More wow!’
All sorts of languages are spoken - where we were, this meant Uzbek, Kazhak, Tajik, and Russian. You can see the blend of influences in the faces, the clothing and the dancing, too, which is often spontaneous and in the street, and done mostly with the arms, wrists and hands. I could identify strains from India, Turkey and China, to name some..
Everywhere we found gifted artists and artisans, acrobats, musicians, wrestlers and dancers. We saw exquisite embroidery (Suzani), Ikat style fabrics and silks.
Mulberry trees are everywhere and I finally learned how they unthread a silk worm cocoon - it's a skill you learn as a kid, finding that starter thread and unraveling the whole endless, barely visible, but infinitely strong thread, then entwining it with a bunch of others to get something weavable. The dyes are from natural elements – recipes that families have passed down for centuries. More wow!!
Food is nothing special and the range of offerings is limited. As my brother cautioned before this trip, “I take it you’re not going for the cuisine…”. A big thumbs up for the people, the centers, the history, the ruins, the art, the architecture, textiles, rugs, tiles, fabrics, vibrant markets and street life. But the food? Not so much.
A green uniformed military presence is everywhere. This is slightly intimidating, although these dudes will take the odd bribe if someone wants to get into a site after hours, for instance.
Everywhere is as clean and tidy as Singapore. No pickpockets. No crime. No trash in the street. Zero graffiti. Very well behaved people. This is perhaps the safest place I’ve ever visited.
We also saw armies of turquoise robed and scarved women, cleaning everything all the time - dusting monuments, sweeping parks, washing marble and granite. It reminded me of the old Monty Python movie, where nuns were scrubbing the lawns and the trees with buckets of soapy water.
It’s seriously dry. Dust gets in your teeth, ears, hair and shoes. Most of country, outside of the city centers, is just flat, beige, dry, scrubby, severe desert steppes with wind blowing everything everywhere. It was hot during the day and quite cool at night. Our night in a yurt camp on the steppe was downright cold (but cozy in the yurt).
After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviets took gorgeously tiled masterpiece buildings - mosques and madrassahs - and covered them over with pasty beige-gray mortar, due to their “depraved” beauty (and I’m sure they weren't exactly crazy about their religious origins either).
Art was decided by committee thru Stalin's time. Tons of stunning art had to go underground. Later, these artists were 'rehabilitated' by Kruschev and paintings and sculptures were still hidden..
Luckily, thousands of these gorgeous pieces were arduously collected, restored and stashed by this high-born, monomaniacal artist-hero, Igor Savitsky, and is now shown and housed at a museum named for him – a huge, breathtaking collection, but in the middle of nowhere (Nukus). So, tragically, very few people get to see it.
Nor does it go on exhibition. Evidently this is connected to leftover Soviet aversion for showing dirty Russian laundry to the rest of the world. This is a major thread that runs through many baffling decisions in this country. What should rightly be shown off is kept secret.
Streets, squares, get renamed every few years, based on whoever is in power and who or what is deemed officially okay. That may be why there are barely any street signs, but most ascribe this to the secretive heritage of Russian paranoia.
Tashkent has what is perhaps the most magnificent set of themed subway stations in the world - gorgeous works of art in and of themselves. But nobody knows it. And taking pictures of them is strictly forbidden. Yank out your camera or iPhone and a green coat will be collecting it.
The whole country is strewn with deserted gas stations, half-built concrete buildings - everything stopped when the Soviets pulled out. People look back at the USSR with mixed feelings, but definitely with some nostalgia - for the jobs and the security and (relative) prosperity.
Nowadays, most people can't make it to the end of the month, and inflation is so high that when you trade in $50 for sooms, you get a fat wad you can barely carry.
Tashkent looks very European, with beautiful tree-lined boulevards, parks and gardens - that was a surprise. I personally liked Bukhara most of all. Parts reminded me of the best of Tel Aviv/Haifa or Istanbul.
Ancient streets and buildings are smack in the middle of the old Silk Road, with beautiful cafes and outdoor restaurants around squares and fountains.
There's a Jewish Cemetery there that's presumed to be 2000 yrs old.
Samarkand isn’t exactly chopped liver, either – completely stunning, monumental public spaces -tiled masterpieces. And there’s a road leading away from the Registan that could be the country’s “Rodeo Drive” of up-market shopping.
Okay, enough already. But this was a trip I won't forget any time soon. Just wonderful. And very happy to be back here.
Take care & be well,