Monthly Archives: February 2011

Day 10: Windchilled in Bukhara!

Hoja Nasruddin's Statue at Lyabi Hauz

We woke up to a cold, frosty morning in Bukhara. There were several versions of what the days weather would be. Predictions ranged from a “mild” minus two to a “cold” minus eight!

All bundled up, we set off to explore the old town. Bukhara was gearing up for a round of Samarkand style reconstruction with working crews on overdrive all over the old town. This was disappointing for Nisha who had memories of the way the old town was before – unspoilt with its own old character and few signs of all this unnecessary polishing.

We started at Lyab-i Hauz: a tranquil old pool that defines the heart of the old town. In summer the old mulberry trees are in full bloom and provide shade to residents and tourists alike. The pool sat there uncomplaining in the midst of the reconstruction activity. It was peaceful and stoic, just like …

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Day 9: Three Show Stoppers, ‘I am a Disco Dancer’ in Shakhrisabz, Rip-off in Bukhara

Lakai panel (red) - Nisha's favourite

The best thing about travel is that, every once in a while, you stumble upon a gem that was nowhere in your to-do list (in Nisha’s case, her to-buy list). We had a really good break when we literally bumped into a display of captivating ceremonial hangings from the Lakai tribe. As we looked at them we were quiet for a while (a rare feat for the both of us); they were so beautiful. The Lakai tribe has played a historic role as horsemen, fighters and brigands in Inner Asia for centuries. Women of the Uzebk Lakai tribes embroider hangings that are exceptional, bold and extremely hard to get. The Arastan collection now has three of these prized pieces (though Nisha says she is not parting with the red one).

Giddy after the day’s find, we decided to cancel our train tickets to Bukhara and take the road instead. We …

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Day 8: Ulugbek’s Observatory, Registan and a Search Mission for Calligraphy

Calligraphy from the artist Nisha hunted down!

There are such names in the world, which unwillingly lead people to the world of dreams. The magic and fame of these words immediately impact your mind when you hear or read about them. There is such a name among them that attracts our imagination to itself, it is SAMARKAND. It seems that this name emerged from the whirlpool of clear and diverse colours, the scent of perfume, fabulous palaces, bells of caravans, pure melodies and yet misunderstood feelings.

Federico Mayor (Director General of UNESCO 1987-99)

It was our last day in Samarkand. And we couldn’t agree more with the sentiment above. Samarkand (despite the overzealous restoration) had captivated us and one visit was just not enough to soak in its history, its towering monuments and the stories of warriors, kings and artists who defined this city.

We started the day with a visit to Ulugbek’s observatory. Ulugbek …

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Day 7: Mobbed in a Bazaar!

Old Suzani

Bazaars are big hubs in Uzbekistan that bring together people from the local town and sellers from places far and near. Every market has sections for fresh produce, dry fruits, spices, clothes, prayer caps, handicrafts, household items and more. They bustle with activity, colour, a variety of smells (good and bad), hectic negotiations and camaraderie.

On Sunday morning, Nisha and I traveled to Urgut, a town outside Samarkand known for its Sunday market. We wondered if anyone would show up given the weather but once we saw rush hour traffic outside the market entrance, we could feel our adrenaline rise.

The key highlight of this bazaar was its handicraft section with beautiful suzanis (famous textile rugs of Central Asia) brought by women from all over Uzbekistan. Suzana literally means needle or knitting. Painstakingly made using chain, satin and buttonhole stitches, these rugs are striking with their bright, vivid colours and …

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Day 6: To Samarkand!

Nisha's Tiles

We lugged our rather large bags to the train station at Tashkent to board our train to Samarkand. (Note for next trip: travel light! Balancing big strolleys and self over sleet covered paths is not fun.)

Uzbek trains are quite comfortable and the locals travel like us – with loads of luggage. They also have in-train entertainment. So we got to see Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Double Impact in Uzbek while a young couple on the seat next to us played Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” [listen] on their mobile phone. It didn’t stop me from sleeping but Nisha was clearly disturbed by this clash of cultures.

Samarkand was also snowed in when we arrived. Our hotel overlooked the Gur-e-Amir (we insisted on getting a room with a “view”) and we trooped off to see the mausoleum despite the snow. Samarkand’s monuments have always been captured in bright summer …

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Day 5 – Snow in Tashkent!

Nisha outside the Grand Orzu in Tashkent

In the call of duty Nisha has not only traveled to faraway lands but she’s also braved heat, dust, snow, frozen extremities, alien food – all in the search for exquisite crafts.

On our way back from Fergana to Tashkent, Nisha decided to visit a medressa in Kokand known to host workshops of the old masters. We stepped out of our car only to get lashed by icy winds. The bleak grey skies did not dampen her enthusiasm. Bundled up from head to toe, she checked every workshop and quizzed the masters.

When we first traveled through the Tian Shan mountains, it was a bright clear day with glorious views of the ranges. On our way back from Fergana, the pass was all fogged out and the mountains were brilliant white! We came back to a snowy white Tashkent – this was no powderpuff stuff but serious snow. Even the …

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Day 4: In Margilon – the land of Ikats!

Women at work on their looms

Margilon (formerly known as Margilan) is the heart of the silk industry on the Silk Route. We made it to the town bright and early to see the entire process of weaving and to visit renowned weavers. While the town still maintains traditional methods of rearing, spinning, dyeing and hand weaving, mechanised looms have also emerged. As most of the fabric is exported out of the country, there is a growing emphasis on the revival of traditional patterns and use of only natural dyes.

We moved from a factory to a medressa and saw a lot of women involved in weaving ikats – and they were happy. They listened to upbeat Uzbek music on their tiny recorders, took their tea breaks and even played with their kids while they wove complex, intricate patterns.

As no-one was expecting “tourists” in the freezing winter, stock was all tucked away in storage. So Nisha pulled …

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Day 3: Fergana to Rishton

Rishton Master Ceramist

Rishton is the home to the craft of ceramics. An hour’s drive from Fergana, it’s a rather well-to-do town on the Tajik border. Ceramics made in this town find their way to all other cities in Uzbekistan. There are an estimated 300 practicing ceramists in Rishton. The red clay in this region forms the base for the stunning ceramic platters, pots and other decorative objects.

We spent the day with two master ceramists in their studios. After the initial “what-are-these-two-girls-doing-here?” look on their faces (the standard response we get everywhere), they warmed up and took us through their workshops, their firing kilns and even their private museums. They fed us well (delicious pumpkin samosas, dried apricots, fresh bread, copious amounts of tea and coffee). All artisans we’ve met so far were incredibly nice, warm people with no hint of arrogance. They love their craft and they shared every bit of …

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Day 2: To the Fergana Valley

Kamchik Pass, Tian Shan Mountains

We left Tashkent this morning to drive to the Fergana valley. On our way, we dropped in at a contemporary ceramist’s studio. Over tea with macaroons and biscuits, he explained how his grandfather – a well known ceramist – had dedicated his life to documenting traditional motifs and ceramic techniques. Sections of his handwritten diaries could be seen in the family’s private gallery. This young man started learning from his grandfather when he was six years old. He said grandparents are more patient than parents! His own father is a renowned ceramist and had exhibited around the world. As we stepped into their gallery, we were introduced to many styles of ceramics – the Tashkent style, Steppe style, contemporary designs inspired by embroideries, traditional blue pottery and more. This ceramist clearly loved his work, spoke at an unhurried pace, and was rather tolerant as we gushed over his pieces.

We headed out to …

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Changing Money in Uzbekistan

$100 in Uzbek Som!

Exchanging money is quite an interesting experience in Uzbekistan. The official exchange rate for the USD is 1650 som, the black market rate 2350! It’s a flourishing black market as Uzbekistan has kept away from currency convertibility.

We’d read beforehand that it is best to exchange money on the street close to the bazaar – I thought we’d do it with a “legit” money exchanger with an office. Well, I have to start listening more carefully to what people say. On a fairly busy lane off a main street in Tashkent, we were approached by a young man in a black tracksuit. And out came a wad full of Uzbek soms from his pockets. We struck a rate – I handed over a pristine $100 bill – got two thick wads of soms and more (235,000 to be precise). And in less than a minute, we were done. I was …

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