It's hot here, and we're resting in the lobby of the hotel at 3pm. All morning, we drove or walked to a palace of the last Emir (which contained an outer and inner courtyard, large garden, meeting rooms, living quarters, harom, and a personal minaret), Ark Citadel, Chasma and Samani Mausoleums, and Bukhara's famous covered dome markets.
Yesterday, we stopped by the Kayla Mosque and Minaret, a synogogue containing a 1,000 year old Torah, and the Maghoki Atter (Central Asia's oldest surviving mosque), and it wasn't any cooler.
It hasn't stopped Pat from shopping, and we're beginning to worry about carrying it all back home. We looked into shipping, but decided to carry instead. I think our carryons just became about ten pounds heavier.
Yesterday, we drove to the birthplace of Tamarlane, 80 kilometers southwest of Samarkand in three passenger cars over some very magnificent mountains. It was a beautiful trip because it was spring, and the mountains were free of snow. Unfortunately for Tamarlane, he died in the beginning of winter in 1405. He left specific instructions that he wanted to be buried with his family in his home town (his two sons which preceded him were already buried there), but the chaos of not naming an heir, plus the fact that it was winter and the snow kept his family from transporting his body over the mountains, prevented him from ever making it to his tomb. He's still in Samarkand, where we visited him three days ago.
Near the site of his tomb is a huge set of arched gates, which once held a rooftop garden and a pool. It is rumored that Tamarlane wanted to move his capital to his home town, and that this structure was evidence of his intentions. A Spanish envoy who visited at the time wrote about it, and said that it was almost twice as high as it now is, and connected at the top. Standing at the base, it's hard to imagine that such a building could have been accomplished.
The tomb is nearby, and was found only accidentally in 1989, when two kids playing ball lost it down a hole.
Today, we drove for five hours to Bukhara, passed by a Caravan Saray (Old Silk Road hotel), had lunch near our hotel, and spent most of the day shopping. We're now trying to figure out how to avoid excessive baggage charges on the flights home, and wishing we could have bought the stuff nearer the end of our trip.
To see some neat photos of Uzbekistan in the past, click on: Old Silk Road
Most westerners know about the rivers which originate in the
Himalayas, and descend to the south into the Indian Sea.When the lowlands of India and
Bengaledesh flood, we can imagine the geography and general location.
Have you ever wondered what happens to the water from the
snow and glaciers on the other side of the Himalayas? The flow makes its way north and west and splits into two huge rivers through Central Asia for over
a thousand miles, framing a large descending valley in which this civilization flourished, bisected by the Silk Road.
For three thousand years, it was hard to say anyone ruled
this part of the world.Nomadic
lifestyles meant that few had anything to gain from fighting to protect or
acquire land.Extended family
relationships may reach to another valley, but not much further.
But when Alexander the Great brought his empire east to its
edges in 300 BC, he began to introduce the administration of lands and
territories.When Genghis Khan
subjugated the area in 1100 AD, his governing strategies continued to define
what ruling a large nomadic territory required.In 1370, Tamarlane became the last of its great rulers, and
he brought his own brand of management.
The structures we’re visiting this week mostly were built by
Tamarlane, mostly destroyed a hundred years later by his successor leaders, and reconstructed by Russians in WWII and in the 1960s, or by
Uzbekistan’s President in the last twenty years.They have served in each era as calls to cultural greatness
and religious dedication, and remind citizens of historical
heroes and times of national sacrifice.
We’ve been impressed by the current state of the monuments,
and the attendance by local and foreign visitors.We’re getting a close look at Uzbekistan’s people, as they
are of us.Never have we
experienced so many wanting to take their picture with us, or to practice their
to at least four sites a day, we’re amazed at the well-kept parks, city
squares, and vibrant and modern businesses we see from the bus.
Zipping at 150 miles per
hour on a bullet train between Tashkent and Samarkand, the countryside is a web
of electrical lines and towers.The Uzbekistan News is reporting today that the next section, extending
it to Bukhara will be open in late August. The train station in Tashkent, like the rest of the city’s
central buildings and squares, was amazing.So new and clean, presenting it’s Sunday best to the
world.Our executive bus dropped
us off from the hotel, as our bags left on our regular bus at 4am to be driven
to Bukhara.We’re carrying light
bags aboard the train, and it feels like a jet on the ground.Sitting at tables, drinking tea with
cinnamon croissants, listening to internet-supplied, contemporary pop tunes, it’s
hard to remember we’re on the Silk Road.
“We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned,
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
These final lines of James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand evoke
the romance of Uzbekistan’s most glorious city.No name is so evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand.For most people, it has the mythical
resonance of Atlantis, fixed in the western popular imagination by poets and
playwrights of bygone eras, few of whom saw the city in the flesh.
Before leaving Tashkent tomorrow, we spent the day visiting
some pretty incredible structures and collections of antiquities.We went to the Hazroti Host Imam
Complex, Chorsu Bazaar, Museum of Applied Arts, and the Amir Timur Museum.Each continued to add to, and change,
or understanding of the region.
We had to admit at dinner tonight how overwhelmed we were
grasping at the impacts of so many warriors, prophets, and poets, and political
leaders who have invaded this region.Their languages, religions, and cultures have swept through on
horseback, and left the seeds of change in mountain and river villages.
A region in which nomadic tribes settled into mountain valleys and steppes, and where hunting and gathering still competed with farming crops and raising sheep, intruders with superior weapons made the rules. As the region sat in the middle of the Silk Road, invaders were often intent on ensuring stable economic and military supply lines. The peoples of this region learned to adapt to these invasions, and hang onto their distinct identities.
The last major empire defeated foes and consolidated lands in China, India, Iran, Turkey, southern Russia, and Mongolia. It brought Islam to Central Asia, and Tamarlane and his descendants ruled it from 1370 until 1858, and it finally fell prey to a combined assault from Britain and Russia in the 1860s. After sixty years of subjugation and dissolution, a central core of area previously known as Turkistan was divided in 1924 into what we now know as Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Bet you've never had to call the hotel staff to get them to open your hotel door? And then discover they couldn't open the door either? One of our travelers suggested the hotel staff climb in through her window after crawling along the ledge from her neighbor's room, and work on it from the inside. Finally, they got it open, and boy did she have a story at breakfast. As a consolation prize, they gave her two bottles of vodka and some gifts of her choice from the hotel shop.
Today, we crossed over the border from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan, and drove to the country's capital, Tashkent. We're staying at the Ramada Inn, near Independence Square (formally Red Square). Walking to the huge square, we found that the central park, in front of the Parliament, was off limits due to security concerns. So were the grounds around, and also the inside, of a Russian Orthodox Church. What if you built a park, and didn't let anyone in?
We saw two particularly powerful monuments: the Crying Mother and the 1966 Earthquake Epicenter. Like all of these Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan sent over a million of its citizens to fight in WWII on the western Russian front. Poorly equipped and supported, they lost 483,000 men. The Crying Mother, and the scrolls listing the towns and casualties, reminds visitors of those sacrifices.
At 5:20am on April 20, 1966, an 8.6 earthquake hit Tashkent, killing over 100,000 residents and flattening the city. At its epicenter, the city erected a statue ten years later.
I suppose it’s natural to
notice the differences between what you’re familiar with, and what you see when
you travel.Here are some I’ve
spotted in this country.
You don’t see many women
drivers. Most men drive a couple of recent models of a Ford or Chevrolet.There’s a huge GM plant in Uzbekistan.
There are no old trees.Partly in response to the destruction
of most old trees, 20 young poplar trees are planted to celebrate a child’s
Every middle class house
looks the same.Their design is a
500-square foot, three-bedroom, one-bath detached house, selling for $60,000 on
land they lease from the government for 49 years.
Yellow gas pipelines are all
above ground, wind up and down streets, making right angles over house gates
Eastern-style toilets, and easily-broken lids for the western style in hotels (one of our
travelers broke one and had to pay).
Meatball, chicken noodle,
and vegetable soups and no salads for us westerners.
Discarded statues of Lenin,
replaced by mythical figures representing a legendary character.Usually riding a winged horse.
Royal Crown Cola.Having it among our lunch drink choices
brought back many childhood memories for our group.
Police checkpoints, most
half-constructed, and very half-organized.Border Entries/Exits, between countries who really don’t
trust each other.
But enough of
what makes us different. Tajikistan
is struggling with balancing security and freedom. With hundreds of thousands of Tajiks in
Afganistan to its south, and tense relations with the countries around them,
Tajikistan fears the importation of anything which disrupts the independent
state they have fashioned out of post-Soviet industrial collective society. A recently re-elected President, not
particularly liked but voted in for stability,has convinced his people that restrictions on
immigration, and large public works projects to control the country's natural
resources, are necessary. Remember that Tajiks are 90% Sunni, and share language and heritage with Iranians. There is a great concern about terrorist
activity, and the government has restricted access by women to mosques, closed
medrassas, and inhibited the use of other public forums and communications.
But the country
looks pretty good from the tourist point of view. Markets are busy, and
goods are cheap. Roads need work, but traffic moves well. Hotels
and restaurants are being built, and the service and food are great (you could
speed up the internet a little).
Most impressive is its children. They are smart, mature, and ready to participate in their country and the world. Everywhere we go, we have talked with them, and admired their responses and behaviour.
Exploring 6,000 years of history on this trip, learning about civilizations and viewing what they have left behind, we are also getting a great glimpse into the future of this land as we get to know these young leaders of tomorrow.
To see the photos taken over the past couple of days, click on:
If you’re coming to Uzbekistan, and you need prescriptive
drugs, you better have a note from your doctor.Two senior travelers found that out this month at the Osh
border, as they were forbidden entry until they voluntarily smashed all but the few necessary for their stay in the country.Medicines for the rest of the trip were tossed into a garbage can.
“Not only did they say I couldn’t have them, but they said
it’s illegal for anyone in the country to prescribe them for me.These pills have been my daily routine
for 25 years, and now I’m having to go cold turkey for the five weeks left on
my trip’, said Susan of Birmingham, Alabama.
Echoing in, Barbara of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (who was told she could keep five pills), said“This is outrageous.No one even keeps the doctor’s
prescription.Most pharmacies keep
them, or it’s done electronically.Do they want to close their borders?’.
The tour group leader, a veteran of decades of travel in
this part of the world, responded that this behavior isn’t at all normal, and
hopes that the medicines can be obtained in time to reduce the effects on his
travelers.But he wonders if
travel to Uzbekistan will suffer from policies like this.
Our hotel is in the center of town, nearby large public buildings and lots of parks. Today, we explored the area, and were very impressed. The Russian government spent plenty of money on this capital city, and did not spare the parks. It has to be one of the greenest cities in this part of the world.
This is going to be a short post, because I've been working on producing a short video of some musicians we listened to at dinner tonight. I'll include their contact info later when our guide, Ramil, gets it for me. In the meantime, please enjoy their performance.
We're in a hotel a few blocks from the park-surrounded Parliament buildings in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyzstan. We've traveled a thousand kilometers from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyzstan, to a sport recreation facility on Lake Issyk-Kol, to one of the country's eastern door of the Silk Road, and back along it to Bishkek.
We've seen the impact of those who occupied this land over the past 5,000 years. Carved in the rocks, and buried in the mounds, they left images and materials showing how they lived and what they worshipped. They hunted goats with trained snow leopards, and fought and traveled on domesticated horses and camels.
Their flag is tribute to the sun and the yurt, and the nomadic tribes which moved about these steppe lands surrounded by long, high mountains have made the best use of both.
And what drew Asians west, and Russian south, is now attracting Europeans east. Always a rich agricultural resource, and for centuries a pleasant outpost for Central Asia's energy researchers, the land still stirs foreign imaginations. Oil, water, natural gas, and minerals fuel the pursuit, but don't overlook the skiing and hiking in 500 kilometer-long snow-capped mountain ranges, and trout-fishing and river-rafting on its even longer rivers.
The most impressive resource, however, has to be its people. Etched into the faces of everyone you see are dozens of local cultures, languages, and tribal histories. These folks have long histories of being ruled by invaders. It's now their time to learn how to have their moment in the sun. Their most recent confederation of independent states should build a powerful force to harness their entrepreneurial spirit. I can't wait to see their future.
We suspected that we'd find that our fellow travelers would be well-traveled, so we were not surprised to find many who have been to places still on our travel bucket list. And to hear persuasive rationales why we should look further into some that were not. It was, however, rewarding to learn that we could provide some advice to others concerning places we'd been. And a travel blog makes that easier.
The surprise I hope isn't appearing is that Central Asia is looking like anywhere else. While it may just be that there are limits for travel operators to connect us with more than easy and familiar sights, I fear that ours hasn't pushed very hard against the flow. Central markets, town squares, memorial parks, museums, side shows, and highly-rated restaurants have filled our time so far. The presence of a young local guide full of curiosity and enthusiasm has made up for destinations and content which has left my socks still firmly on.
And it may be that my attention is still back home. You'll not be surprised to learn that I'm writing this awaiting tuning into an all-day Santa Rosa public hearing through my laptop to watch the California Coastal Commission consider allowing the California State Parks and Recreation Department to place pay parking machines along Sonoma's coast. And that last night, I watched the Santa Rosa City Council debate the method they will utilize to select their representatives on Arts in Public Places Commission. Clearly, I am not exhausted from many hours exploring the mysteries of the cultural history of Central Asia.
But it's only been the first full day of this adventure. Give it time. The exhaustion will come.
We’re just west of the point where the Old Silk road exits
from China into Kazakhstan, on its way to Samarkand. We arrived after almost 24 of travel, on an old United 747, and a Lufthanza 330 Airbus. The recent movie selection (Hunger Games, Hateful Eight, Joy, Creed) was helpful, and so was the five hours sleep we got this morning before breakfast in the Kazhol hotel.
The rivers in the north, south, and east result in
rivers flowing west, and we’re headed that way on our journey.The town we are in (Almaty) was the
site of the formal end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the birth of the Commonwealth
of the Independent (five) States.Founded in 1854, it was Verny, then Almatu, it was devastated by
earthquakes in 1887 and 1911.In
1927, it became the capital of Kazakhstan, and saw an immigration of Russian
from the west fleeing Hitler, and an importation of resettled Koreans from the
east. In 1998, the capital
was moved north to Astana, and Almaty has become the place to be for
sophisticated suburbanites seeking a central transportation and business hub,
with parks, museums, and shops.We’ll
be here for two days, and then head south to Kyrgyzstan.