Beijing Pre-trip, Wednesday, May 17, 2006
It is still the pre-trip phase, but Karen, Simone, Scott and Steve arrived safely in Beijing and are ensconced in the very comfortable Jade International Youth Hostel. After a modest amount of rest, they explored the area around our hotel, which is quite close to the Forbidden City, the imperial residence founded by the Mongolian Yuan dyansty, and later used by the Ming, and the Qing dynasities until 1911. It is now a tourist attraction with all that accompanies that.
North of the Forbidden City are two parks where we were able to take refuge from the dusty air caused by the winds and the drought conditions in Beijing. They are Jinshan and Beihai Parks, the latter with an artificial lake. An island on the lake formed by the dredging sports a Tibetan Buddhist temple, with great views of the surrounding city. A boat ride on the lake afforded views of some nearby temples. While resting in the park a group of domestic tourists asked to be photographed with the group; like they were celebrities. The air is grey and thick, it seems like you could almost cut it. But the people are wonderfully friendly! Next a taxi to the upscale Oriental Mall– one of the fanciest anyone had ever seen. Hello New China!
Beijing, Pre-trip, Thursday, May 18, 2006
Another day of adventure in Beijing. Mary Frederickson arrived at the hostel with her friend Carol, who had been staying with Yihong Pan in Beijing. The two of them headed for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, while Scott, Karen and Steve headed to the Wangfujing shopping area, where they observed Silk Road motifs and bought scarves.
Steve’s acquaintance Paul del Main is a Chinese teacher at Concordia Language Villages. As he is familiar with Beijing, he gave the group a tour of the hutong (the old neighborhoods of Beijing, which consist of little alley ways that wind around). Once upon a time these were posh houses, but then were made "communal" by the communists and are quite crowded. But for the past 50 years this has been much the center of Beijing life, with people who hock their wares, a real sense of neighborhood despite the huge city. Many of these old parts of town are being destroyed as the city grows (especially in preparation for the Olympics in 2008--and in general there is much construction everywhere). Beijing is definitely a city in transition. But it was still great to get a flavor of a way of life that seems to be disappearing (and, much like the old parts of many Western cities is now more a tourist attraction than anything else).
Some climbed the Drum Tower, which was Beijing's imperial Big Ben, and had a nice lake-side lunch. While the group continued to arrive, some went out for Peking Duck at a fancy restaurant on Wangfujing. This was the most extravagant meal so far, and it was still only about $12. The grayness of the air continues, and is not just pollution, but sand storms, as this part of China is in drought.
In the meantime, Gulnaz had arrived and gone on a walk of the Hutongs, where she was persuaded to take a rickshaw, a bike with two extra seats (sort of a carriage), then on to Wangfujing street and the adjacent back streets. She finished off the evening with a much-appreciated foot massage.
Beijing Pre-trip, Friday, May 19, 2006
This morning the group arranged for a van and driver to go to the Great Wall. This was most excellent, because it was less expensive ($50 for the whole day for everyone), but mostly because it bypassed the mandatory stop at a retail opportunity that always accompanies the hotel tours. By now Sante and Gulnaz had been discovered and they joined the rest of the group (seven altogether) in a rather modest van that just barely held everyone. First stop was the Mutanyu section of the wall, which sports a chair-lift up and a toboggan slide down! The weather was overcast, so the views were not spectacular, but there were very few others and little retail pestering. The group explored the wall and was even able to climb on some of the unreconstructed portions.
Before leaving the Great Wall site, Gulnaz introduced everyone to her fantastic bargaining, successfully reducing the price of a tablecloth from 500 to 50 Yuan. This led to a great discussion about going to markets as a way of engaging with the local people and culture, and providing additional discoveries and surprises.
The driver took us to a restaurant where Gulnaz caught a couple fish from their pool for lunch, along with an amazing variety of vegetable dishes. Then back to Beijing to have a look at the Summer Palace, where the Qing dynasty escaped the heat of the summer. It has a huge artificial lake and many temples and palaces.
This is one hopping capitalist country--cranes for buildings everywhere, gated communities in the outskirts near the Great Wall, there are a lot of Mao t-shirts etc for the tourists, but no pictures of him anywhere except Tiananmen Square. There’s an English-language TV station, owned by the government, with news, etc--very patriotic, but no communist jargon whatsoever. It's all about the growth in the Chinese stock market, property rights, value of the currency, etc. Karen commented that she hadn’t heard Mao's name mentioned once. A lot of negative references to the Cultural Revolution. There have been a lot of references to the resistance to the Japanese invasion in WWII, and positive references to emperors, etc.
A comment on driving in Beijing: it seems the days of the bicycle domination are ending, as there are probably as many cars as there are bikes on the road today (and far more pollution). Though there are still lots of bikes... The traffic is unreal: absolutely no honking, fast braking, or road rage. Everybody just kind of keeps moving at a gentle pace. People are extremely welcoming and friendly.
Beijing Pre-trip, Saturday, May 20, 2006
This morning was the first power outage of the trip, which was exciting, most of all for those who had wet laundry we could not get dried before checkout time.
Gulnaz, Gülen, Sante, and Afsaneh left early for a guided tour of the Forbidden City. Gulnaz arranged a personal tour with a local tour guide, a nice young man who agreed to guide them for 260 Yuan instead of 400 he asked for. Good intentions worked for him and he earned more than he originally asked for (500 Yuan minus 60 he paid for the Forbidden City ticket). He had a tough day which started in the Forbidden City, showered with questions of all kinds: the emperor's everyday live, his love life and the concubines system, the buildings and their heating system, the religions of China and how their ideas correspond to other systems of belief, etc. etc. Many questions to which he gave very good and detailed answers, and this is all in addition to everything he had to say as a tour guide. In the Forbidden City there is calligraphy of the nephew of the last emperor (the only remaining relative).
Scott, Steve and Karen went to Tiananmen Square. It's very "Maoist"--enormous picture of Mao on the gate, and enormous line of people going into the enormous mao-soleum (which we did not partake of). Tiananmen Square is just outside the Forbidden City, site of Mao's annual reviews of the troops, one million Red Guards were amassed here at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and then in 1989, thousands of young students were killed in pro-democracy demonstrations. Today, its a haven for weekend excursions from the provinces (thousands lined up to see Mao's body mummified in the Mausoleum--a building probably 20 times larger than Lenin's tomb) and lots of hockers, all 'selling' the revolution--Mao t-shirts, Mao bottle openers, watches, everything. When you start commodifying the revolution, you know it’s over. Surprised by few policemen in such central part of the city - Scott asked about it... In fact, they are there -- but in civil dress... The place is being carefully watched...
Lunch of thick coldish noodles with sauce (at a popular cheap place with famous Beijing noodles) replenished energy for a trip to a famous silk store and the pearl market - a chance not to be missed. It was an absolutely overwhelming place, even for women (even for women from Turkey), who are supposed to be used to such market places. You usually do not see men in those stores; it is hard for them to take it well.
One big observation is about exchange... in fact it should be written in capital letters... everything here is about EXCHANGE! Somehow it does not infiltrate life in the west to such an extent as here... or perhaps it is the fact that exchange here is personalized, while in the west it has become an impersonal act... Of course, local markets are the center of life and negotiation of prices is expected. The more interesting thing is that even more official businesses --- such as hotels and airlines - have their own systems of personalized exchange. It works as follows: there is a set high price for a room or a place ticket; however, most of the tickets are sold on 20, 30, 40, 50 and even 60% discount. There might be a certain quota (as Abdullah mentioned) of the discounted tickets. The key is how people get to those tickets. Well, no surprises here: you need connections and you need to share the profit. There are relationships between for example tour agencies and travel agencies that are cultivated through the years and bring mutual profit. So in a way, the bazaar mentality works here even in the official business sphere.
The park by the Temple of Heaven was full of people dancing, playing cards, other games, singing folk songs and opera-style songs, a wonderful lively place. The amazing thing about the temple is the symbolism behind every small detail: round shapes for heaven, square for the ground, number 9 as the imperial number, red and yellow as imperial colors, blue as the color of heaven.
There are lots of domestic tourists here for the weekend. Everyone is preparing their departures to Xi'an today, most by overnight train. Ben Sutcliffe and Karen took the evening plane to Xi'an and checked into our luxury hotel, the Aurum. A group of eight take the overnight train, which is very nice--new, clean, with individual videos for each bed playing various incomprehensible movies. Many have comfortable nights full of drug-induced sleep. Steve spends several early morning hours thinking what a genius Karen is for flying to Xi'an. However, at dawn everyone is up to watch the countryside go by for an hour or so, before transferring to the hotel.
Xi’an Pre-trip, Saturday, May 20 Saturday
Liz, Rick and Judith started out in Xi’an. They spent a good deal of time in the Forest of Stelae museum, which contained some great images of famous Chinese Buddhists and the renown Nestorian stelae which serves as evidence to suggest that Christians had first come to China over 1200 years ago. There was a lot of fascinating Buddhist statuary as well.
The day was full of people-watching and fun interactions with Chinese kids on the street. One child pushed to speak with the English-speakers by her father; this 10-year old polyglot prodigy who called herself Linda had an impressive vocabulary. A whole crowd gathered around to listen as she and Liz conversed on subjects ranging from pets and sports to families and future aspirations. Liz has been very diligent in asking about the correct way to pronounce Chinese phrases, and how to say things in Chinese. Another people-watching highlight was watching kids and young adults roller-blading at the park in the city square a half block from the hotel. Adjacent to the famous historical site, the Bell Tower, was a seven story shopping mall.
A great and huge lunch at the Stelae museum only cost 5 Yuan (62 cents): rice, green beans, a tofu dish and a pork dish. Dinner was a huge seafood dinner, cooked right at the table in a heated recessed hot-pot bowl: vegetables, greens, fish (undetermined variety) and live shrimp, all boiled in rice broth and served into small bowls with a mix of spices.
Liz commented that since her last visit to Xi'an, the middle class has burst into display here. More LA and Venice Beach style than ever seen in Ohio. In the park, teenagers play shuttle-cock, hackey sack, and roller blade/skate with I-pods while the elders do Tai Chi and patriotic aerobics.
Day 1: Sunday May 21: Xi’an
This is the first official day of the 42-day itinerary along the silk road, which traditionally began in the old capital city of Xi'an southwest of Beijing. Everyone eventually arrived safely here, last of all Yildirim, who arrived in the evening. Those on the train had breakfast at the hotel where they encountered most of the rest of the group, Liz Wilson and Rick Colby, who arrived a couple days earlier, Judith, Karen and Ben, who arrived by plane and looked very rested.
After breakfast Yihong led a group to the southern city gate where some rented bikes for a circumnavigation of the 13 km walls (which took exactly 100 minutes), while others walked. The walls are quite impressive and make for nice views of the city, where the old and new China are once again much in evidence. From the wall, there is a view of the moat around the city, poorer neighborhoods from the vantage of up high on the wall, and the city gates, some containing small museums. There are 50 universities in Xi'an so the streets seem filled with young people. It seems a very vibrant city of about 6 or 7 million people, and very pleasant and friendly. It was like Oxford on a Saturday night except multiplied by 1 million.
Gulnaz set off for the post office, where she was successful in mailing some of her earlier purchases. The postal system worked pretty efficiently -- great packing and good service. In the Muslim quarter, full of life and character with narrow streets, she engaged a family in conversation and tried the famous mutton soup Simone had mentioned.
After seeing the walls the group walked past a long retail area for tourists filled with many wonderful things which everyone is doing their best to resist at this early stage. Yihong found a local dumpling restaurant where everyone ate like kings. Next on the agenda was the inscription museum, which has a forest of stone steles with important inscriptions, whole books on enormous slabs. Among those of special interest is a Nestorian inscription from 781 in Chinese and Syriac and Confucius's "Analects" from the 6th century.
Tonight was the first meeting as a group, coordinated by our tour guide for the entire trip, a Turkish woman named Meli. We also have a Chinese tour rep named Abdullah, and a local Xi'an assistant Vivian.
Dinner was at fairly touristy Chinese restaurant not too far from the Bell Tower. On the walk back, some of shopped, others found the "Coca Cola Club" internet cafe. The place was chock full of young Chinese teenagers, some playing videogames, some emailing, and some watching what look to be movies or online TV programs. Lionel Ritchie's "Say you, Say me" was just playing in the background. Interesting atmosphere.
Day 2: Monday May 22: Xi’an
Today is the second day in Xi'an. It day began with an elaborate breakfast buffet and a disturbing news about Mary’s wallet disappearing after her purse dropped on the floor. Fortunately, it reappeared when someone just handed it to her in the hotel lobby. With less than half hour delay, the tour bus was on the way to the Terra Cotta Army site, an hour outside the city center.
Passing through orchard after orchard of Pomegranate trees with red blossoms, the group finally arrived at the site of the Terra Cotta Army- a breathtaking trip to an unearthed past! More than six thousand intricately carved, hollow Terra Cotta characters replicated the Qin Shi Haung’s powerful army, face by face. In the midst of vast red clay carved into the land lay the broken arms, heads, horses and lines and lines of standing solders. Vivian, the tour guide, explained in detail how Qin Shi Haung, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, after eliminating Han, Chu, Zhao, and Qi, unified the whole China. Everyone should see this.
The emperor who was responsible for their creation, Qin Shi Huang, was the first to unify China in one empire in the 220s BCE, with the capital in Xi'an. (Before this, China consisted of several separate kingdoms. Beijing, by the way, was only founded as capital by the Mongols in the 13th century.) He unified the language, alphabet, and many other things, though was know to be a harsh ruler. The dynasty fell not too long after--in fact during the rebellion much of the tomb where the warriors were buried was destroyed. Despite the overthrow, many of the affects of his reign lasted. At any rate, you can imagine how impressive the whole thing was. Rick was impressed with the site, and left thinking about comparisons with Egyptian burial customs. The bus ride home included an interesting discussion of people's impressions of the site.
After lunch was a visit to the Xi'an historical museum, which contained archeological objects from the Shanxi province from several thousand years ago until the middle ages. Since Xi'an (pronounced "shee-an") was the capital for so long, the museum was very rich. It was an incredible experience and education that displayed the history of China starting from the prehistoric era, although, it is too extensive to describe here. One display showed how the Terra Cotta characters were actually molded, burned in the kiln, and even how they could be purchased. Each of the 6000 soldiers of the Terra Cotta army is unique, as if by recreating the image of each individual, the master infused the clay with life and power reflective of their beliefs in a sense of accepting the unity and connection between material and ideational, and also non-elite.
Xi'an was actually the starting place for the Silk Road (hence the trip officially beginning here), and Muslim traders came to the region in the 7th century. They intermarried with local women, and their descendents still live, numbering in the tens of thousands, in this part of China, and the mosque seemed to be quite flourishing. But very notable (as you will see when the pictures are posted) are the Chinese artistic, architectural and symbolic flourishes of the mosque.
Next the group visited the Xi'an Great Mosque, a touching experience. The mosque was Chinese, architecturally, no crescents, even. The building dates to the 14th century though repaired periodically. The mosque itself was founded about 746. Sitting around a long table with curved edges and recessed center, in a rectangular room opened to the garden, a nice man from the mosque talked about the history of Islam in Xi'an and the Mosque. Conflicting questions and a couple of heated discussions were raised but left unsettled only to be discussed in its own good time during the rest of our journey. In this magnificent site one can simply see Cyrus the Great’s vision of community manifesting itself. This site unites the Persian Garden and architectural motifs with Islamic scriptures and prayer rooms with the Chinese Buddhist architecture. The word "paradise" in English is derived from Pairidaeza from pairi, "around", and diz, "to form or mould". In Greek Paradeisos describes the gardens of the Persian Empire, which is later translated in the Bible to mean Garden of Eden. But if the concept of paradise came from the Persian Garden, which originated in Persepolis, ancient city of Persia near Shiraz in southwest Iran, in Xi'an's Great Mosque, the true sense of paradise finally comes to life. In this space, serene and humble, yet majestic, the constant song of the birds celebrates the Arabic scriptures on the walls, living peacefully in its highly intricate architectural style of the Buddhist temple. Xi'an’s Great Mosque reaches far beyond its humble name. In the magic of its peaceful harmony one finds home. Here, all becomes one and architecture reaches its highest self.
After walking through a colorful Bazaar (incredibly interesting--like Khan al-Khalili in Cairo, observed Scott) with merchants chasing to attract attention, an exquisite authentic Xi'an dinner ended the day. With an array of delightful vegetable dishes on the table, (The “vegetablearian” crowd- except a couple of nonbelievers) the main dishes just kept coming. After leading to two intermediary desert dishes, first juicy ice-cream rolls, second a delicious pumpkin pie with sticky rice in the middle, and many fascinating dishes, dinner ended with rice, noodles, and a tasty Chinese delicacy, a fish head soup. From the other table--the meat-eaters table--a rumor spread about someone biting off a flower decoration thinking it is a carrot--oops. What a great day! Food has been fantastic -- lots of local fare -- fish head soup, noodles, spicy stuff, great (and local beer!).
Day 3: Tuesday May 23: Urumchi
Departing the Aurum International Hotel in the city centre of Xi'an around 9:00 am in the morning the group started driving north toward the Airport with local guide Ms. Zhang Yuan Ji (aka Vivian). Zhang pointed out the Han tombs located west of the highway about 10 miles outside the city. Checking in luggage took a relatively short period of time before the 3 hour flight to Urumqi. The first flight together as a group during this journey was a smooth one with no serious bumps at 35000 feet elevation flying over the easternmost part of Tibet. Urumchi is a major trade center of NW China in the center of the Uyghur autonomous region of China. The Uyghur are a Turkic Muslim minority who live primarily in this province of China. A vast loess plateau stretched from Lanzhou to Dunhuang as we flew towards the eastern Tarim Basin to the northwest.
The majestic Tianshan Mountains appeared on the left-hand side of the airplane first as NW-SE-trending irregular ripples on the surface, and then quickly rose to white snow-capped peaks. These are one of the most significant intra-continental mountains with elevations reaching over 5.2 km above sea-level in a nearly 220-km- zone, separating the eye-shapes Tarim basin to the south from the Junggar basin to the north. The drainage patterns on both sides of the Tianshan Mountains look so different from the airplane: very dry on the southern foothills, whereas relatively wet and green on the northern foothills feeding the Urumqi’s water supply. The plane offered a view of a series of irrigation dams during the descent toward the city. The city of Urumqi is stretched in a NW-SE direction between two smaller mountains, which are part of the larger Tianshan range, and it looks reasonably green despite the apparent lack of surface water.
Upon exiting the airport with all luggage accounted for, the group met a new local tour guide, Mr. Muhammed Ali, who had an uncanny resemblance to the famous American boxer, and who escorted everyone to the bus. Abdullah offered some “snack food”, which turned out to be a full-blown feast with delicious shish kebab, juicy watermelon, and sweet yogurt; Uygur hospitality! Nobody questioned the freshness of the kebab meat, sitting right next to some recently skinned lambs and sheep hanging from the butcher stands.
It is very hot -- certainly over 90 degrees, dry, but with snow capped mountains in the background. Dry, and desert. This is the Muslim part of China, and the local language Uighur is written with Arabic script. . This city has 4 million people! (120 Chinese cities have more than 1m). It's the first city on the itinerary so far that is not clogged by pollution. Urumchi is perhaps most notable as a trading city, close to Central Asia and Russia, and the point thru which all those Chinese goods make their way to Russian markets and beyond. Although the city is 90% ethnically Chinese, it clearly has a very different character and feel, and there is a much greater variety of people. Even signs are in at least two languages (Chinese and Uyghur), and often in English and/or Russian as well.
After checking in at Xinjiang Grand Hotel in Downtown Urumqi (another luxurious hotel in a big city), the group departed for the market in the city centre. The city is very much alive and developing, though with less character than some parts of Xi'an. The market turned out to be an amazing experience. Among the most unusual were the spice stores selling dried snakes, scorpions, turtles, frogs, and a bunch of other desert fauna that the local use for all kinds of ailments. Steve refrained from getting some of this traditional medicine and instead got himself a nice Tajik hat in the market; Yildirim bought a Uygur hat from a nice Azerbaijani woman whom he could understand completely. There were spices, colorful clothes, cassette tapes, jewelry, and almost anything else you can think of was for sale there. The food stands were buzzing with activities and teaming with people. Some of the most interesting menu items included roasted sheep head, boiled goat feet, and BBQed kidneys of all kinds of animals. The smell and the freshness of the cooked food were so tempting, but unfortunately lunch was only an hour prior and so everyone skipped the food. Rick had to limit himself to buying a kilo of dried apricots, which are fantastic here. Russian signs on the stores reflected the presence of Russian shuttle-traders. After this market tour, we returned to the hotel for our group discussion lead by Yihong Pan.
Dinner was traditional Uygur at a restaurant that held a fantastic folk music-dancing show. The food was heavenly, the music was pleasant, and the service was superb. This was a full day on the Silk Road that set the stage for pending experiences in the land of Uyghur. At the end they encouraged people to get up and dance with them, and Scott and Gulnaz were brave enough to oblige. They both did really well.
Urumchi has grown so rapidly in the last decade to almost 4 million. Signs all over the city are in both Chinese and Arabic. Everyone seems focused here now because of oil, natural gas and telecommunications. The city is surrounded by huge oil storage tanks. As in Beijing and Xi'an billboards all over the city advertise western goods and KFC everywhere. Mary was struck by how much China is like the US, especially in terms of westward expansion and treatment of minorities.
Day 4: Wednesday May 24: Turpan
Today, the Silk Road tour hit new lows. The day began in the luxury of Urumchi's 5-Star Xinjiang Grand Hotel -- part of the Holiday Inn chain -- and ended in Turpan's dim and squalid Oasis Hotel -- part of the Soviet-era "Concrete Bunker" chain. The staff of the Oasis Hotel is particularly keen to push their massage business. After all the walking and qi-enhancing pills of the past few days, good massage may be needed soon. How did this intrepid group of explorers descend from the mountainous heights of luxury to the barren depths of the second-lowest basin on Earth?
Xinjang is the largest province in China, the furthest west, and the most ethnically diverse. The day began with the first official seminar of the trip, a full morning at Urumchi's Xinjiang University, a visit that was unanimously deemed a success. The university is the major university of the province. High ranking university officials welcomed the group to their thriving and modern campus, whose size is not so different from Miami, serving 21,000 undergraduate and 2,340 graduate students. After exchanging introductions, gifts, and pleasantries around a U.N.-style oval conference table, there were five short seminar presentations by faculty from both universities.
From Xinjiang University, Dr. Niu Ruji offered a picturesque PowerPoint presentation about religion along the Silk Road, Dr. Yunis described the various routes of different "silk roads" over time, and Dr. Asat discussed the history of the Uighur language. From Miami University, Dr. Yihong Pan examined the concept of "Middle Kingdom" from both Sino-centric and alternative points of view, and Dr. Yildirim Dilek described some of the geological enigmas surrounding the formation of the Tian Shan mountains and the neighboring Tarim basin, which he presented in such an accessible and fascinating way... as he talked about tectonic plates clashing and the earth's surface undergoing transformation in much the same ways that we humanities people talk about cultures--expect that the processes he's describing take place over hundreds of millions of years rather than hundreds of years--it puts time, and human culture, in an entirely different perspective. Of particular interest were a Chinese scholar presenting on silk road religions (he is evidently an internationally known expert, who has written on Nestorian Christian monuments in China etc.)
In the words of Xinjiang administrator Li Dan (speaking through a translator), "We have begun some very pleasant communication here, and we hope that we can continue the connections begun here in the future." He extended his greetings to Dr. Stan Toops, who once studied at Xinjiang University and whom the institution proudly claims as one of its own. Reflecting upon the fact that both the administrators and faculty of Xinjiang so kindly honored our group with such a warm reception, Karen Dawisha later echoed Li Dan's praise, saying, "We can be grateful for a very good first start [to these seminars], and it is thanks in no small part to Stan." We all look forward to Stan joining the group early next week.
After the seminar at Xinjiang University came a trip to its Folklore Museum (which was filled with traditional ethnic costumes and Uighur manuscripts), its library (which was officially closed because of regular Wednesday afternoon "study sessions"), and its bookstore (which was where we purchased a number of books to build up Miami's library holdings). The local museum is renowned for the "mummies" (not actually mummified, but desiccated corpses). Our tour was also fun because a group of college students abandoned their own tour to join this one so they could hear it in English, and it was interesting to chat with them though some describe the experience as being persistently stalked by Chinese students wishing to practice their English.
Next was the 3-hour bus ride to Turpan, an oasis town set down in a depression not unlike Death Valley. The mountain scenery on the way was truly spectacular, and it was made even more meaningful after Yildirim's "suspiciously interesting" presentation today. Liz Wilson gave a brief introduction to Buddhism as the bus neared Turpan, information that will be useful tomorrow during the tour of the Buddhist art preserved in caves in the vicinity of Turpan. Although this is a very low point geographically, and although the jokes floating around sometimes scrape all-time lows of propriety, spirits remain high during the beginning of this new stage of the journey.
Arrival in Turpan was fairly late, in time for dinner then an evening walk. Turpan is reminiscent of Needles, CA: near high mountains, itself at sea level, and evidently one of the bloody hottest places on the planet. So far it's pretty mild, though right now (at 10 pm) it's pretty warm (today was around 30 Celsius). But it's a kind of desolate place (like Needles, it's the kind of place you only stop in because your car breaks down). But there are evidently some interesting sites, which are on the agenda for tomorrow...
Day 5: Thursday May 25: Turpan and environs
The fifth day of the Silk Road adventure is in Turpan. For Gülen, it was the best day so far, happy that it is getting better and better everyday and hoping that it does not change.
Passing by the dusty roads and saw the small villages which were located undecidedly in-between the urban and the rural settlements, the bus made its way on the winding and bumpy roads of Turpan vicinity. Adobe bricks created beautiful textures and motifs on the walls. Everything fits perfectly. This is what one thinks seeing the color of the sandy mountains and the same colored buildings at the skirt of the mountains. There is a great sense of the value of locality in these vernacular architectures; an appreciation for what is available and what is appropriate. It is a careless and effortless way of building and being; not in a negative sense.
A stop in a local village showed that life her is quite distinct as you can imagine, what with the dry heat and all. The main crop is grapes for raisins. People have very open clay houses with courtyards and beds on the roofs. In July and August the temperature reaches up to 45 C. Today the heat was intense. This dry land receives only 20mm rain in a year. At first it seems that it is an act of fortune that people dwell on this land. It is only after seeing the petrol drill fields, and the grape vines, and the beautiful surprisingly green villages that one is able to understand why and how. Nonetheless Turpan is a testimony to determination and human achievement. The petrol drills have variable capabilities: the small ones drill about 5-6 tons/day and the large ones about 12 tons/day.
On the way to Toyuk valley Budha caves, the group stopped by the Muslim cemetery. The effort dedicated to mark the tombs and contrary to the earthliness of the chosen material was quite striking. The earth tombs were destined to disintegrate into the landscape just like the humans who come from earth and return to earth. Even the tombs of the higher ranking individuals with a square plan and dome were made of earth. Abdullah explained that this practice can be seen often in the rural areas. It tells of the belief of afterlife. There was no point to eternalize the place of the corpses, after all the end of physical being marked a detachment from earth and the start of another life.
The village of Toyuk is in a river valley between the cliffs, an oasis of greenery around water surrounded by dry, dry land. Upstream are ancient Buddhist caves, richly decorated with murals. And it was just an incredible experience imaging these Buddhist monks living in this spot some 1600 years ago. Closer to the village there was another cave that was considered an Islamic holy site, the cave of the “Seven Sleepers,” and pilgrimage to it was considered "half a hajj".
The "facilities" of the Buddha caves in Toyuk Valley were composed of an ugly parking lot and a mobile toilet that cost one Yuan/person. The path first led to the local touristy shops and then to the village and beyond. The earth path transformed into wooden slats. Walking above dirt and water, by the waterfall, under the shadow of the trees and the heat of the sun. Walking. And climbing the stairs. Unfortunately the caves suffered greatly in the hands of various people. It was very sad to see that the frescoes are significantly damaged. The group enjoyed mulberries and black mulberries, melon, watermelon, bread for snacks under the shade of the grape vines.
After seeing the remains of the Buddha caves in Toyuk Valley it was on to Idikut in small carts pulled by donkeys. Idikut was one of the most important cities on the Silk Road and has about 2000 years of history. However, it was not until the 9th century that the city shined and became a political and economical center. Idikut had three components: Palace and its surroundings, Inner city and Outer city. It was destroyed by the Kalmak (Kalmuk) Mongol invasions. While no original complete buildings are left in Idikut, it is still possible to feel the energy that the city once had with its 50,000 inhabitants. This began as a Chinese outpost in the early part of the common era. Later, it became the capitol of some Uyghur (pronounced Wee-ghur) kingdoms, who were alternately vassals of more powerful states either to the west or to the east (Chinese). The most interesting thing about this kingdom is that it contained quite a diversity of religions, from Buddhism to Manichaeism to Nestorian Christianity, and there are plenty of archeological finds of all three religions in the site.
As if cholesterol take-in was not enough the last couple of days, a quick lunch consisted of shish kebab. Then it was back to the bus and on to Astana tombs. It was quite interesting to see the same landscape of repetitious mounts at the pre-Islamic burial site and the Muslim cemetery that we visited in the morning. This was yet another indication for the power of locality, culture, and ritual over religion. The Astana tombs were perhaps the least spectacular site, though it is here that some of the well-preserved bodies observed at the museum in Urumqi were found.
The drive from Astana to Flaming mountains was exciting and sometimes scary with the natural magnitude and red beauty of the Flaming mountains. It was here that the day drew to a close with yet another amazing site: the Buddhist caves and monastery at Bezeklik. This site was inhabited, and the murals painted, between the 4th and the 14th century, and was in an absolutely amazing spot--words cant do it justice (hopefully the pictures will). In general this region seems to have been very religiously diverse until about the 14th century, when Islam finally came to dominate and the other religions disappeared.
One point of all these sites is that they were originally excavated by some European explorers such as one Le Coq, who carted off literally hundreds of crates of artifacts at the beginning of the 20th century. They even went so far as to cut out the murals from the walls and send them to Europe (many of which were then destroyed during the Allied bombing of Berlin). All of this seems to Euro-centric & reprehensible from our perspective today, though at the same time a lot of the remaining murals were defaced by local Muslims who consider these Buddhist images to be idolatry.
Day 6: Friday May 26: Urumchi
Check out was 7am, despite universal grumblings, in order for a stop at Jiaohe. The weather early in the day is cool, pleasant, sunny and brilliant blue skies--temperature in a pleasant contrast to the 100+ degrees of yesterday.
Jiaohe is 10km to the west of Turpan, carved out of an island plateau. The river splits and goes around it to join up on the other side. The island itself is leaf-shaped with earthen cliffs providing natural protection from invasion and cultural intrusion for its entire history. Established in the second century and ultimately abandoned in the fourteenth, it was never a major caravan stop on the Silk Road, and consequently also never experienced religious and cultural diversity of the kind we saw yesterday in other sites around Turpan--no evidence of Manichaeism, Nestorianism or Islam. It was originally used as a military outpost of Goachang, where we were yesterday, with many Buddhist temples and monasteries. The buildings are much better preserved than Goachang, and because it's not nearly as big, it was fairly easy to walk around the whole site in a couple of hours.
The fact that it is a city carved down into the ground rather than built up from the ground makes it somewhat reminiscent of Petra, but without Petra's light pick hues and dramatic porticos. Aurel Stein is said to have complained when he came upon Jiaohe that by the time he arrived, the relics had already disappeared – there is extensive evidence of his and other archeologists' crude plundering of neighboring sites, but certainly the locals got to Jiaohe first. Nevertheless, the site is vast--1700 meters long and 300 meters wide, and the overall effect is extremely impressive.
Back in Turpan, the group visited the ancient Karez well system. Because Turpan is the second lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea, transporting water from the nearby snow- and glacier-topped Tien Shen mountains required the construction of subterranean channels to prevent evaporation. Via these canals, water travels from glacier to oasis and arrives fresh and cool. There are 11,000 canals covering 3000 kilometers--these irrigation canals follow the same hydraulic principles as those constructed in ancient Persia and Egypt and still provide all of the water for the city. At the Karez Museum they have rebuilt a 19th century house showing how the canals literally went under, and were accessed in, the house's inner courtyard, allowing individual landowners who had purchased water rights to draw from the canals. This was a clear and vivid demonstration of the political power of water in the eastern variation of feudalism.
The final stop in Turpan was the Emin Minaret and mosque complex, built in 1778 by Uighur leader Emin Khoja. Majestic and impressive, the minaret stands 100 feet tall, next to the mosque, which is newly rebuilt having been destroyed according to guide books during the Cultural Revolution. Muslim life here is under the direction of government-sponsored local religious boards, much like Central Asia in the Soviet period.
Lunch was at a local Uighur restaurant, and consisted of a number of spicy dishes--at the meat lovers table the new favorite dish was lamb and bread fried in oil and hot chilies--certainly a long way from the French fries served in Xi'an!
The ride back north to Urumqi was approximately 3 hours, through desert, with hills and mountains on both sides, and the Tien Shen in the distance. The Wind Power Station on the left of the van is the largest in China, with approximately one hundred massive wind mills, balanced on the right hand side by shepherds and their flocks of sheep, and several dozen camels on the landscape--the contrast providing an absolutely perfect allegory perhaps for all of China, but certainly for Xingjian. Scott gave a terrific lecture on Manichaeism and Nestorianism during the journey. Manichaeism is the highly syncretic world religion created by a Persian prophet in the 3rd century, which spread West (and claimed Augustine of Hippo as one of its adherents) and East, where it was particularly strong in Central Asia and even spread to China, until it virtually disappeared after it's last moment of glory during the Mongol period. The Church of the East, sometimes referred to as Nestorian Christianity (because they didn't recognize the Council of Ephesus's condemnation of Nestorian Christology in 430) also spread east to Central Asia and China from the 8th century until the Mongol period. Everyone seemed to enjoy our discussion, and there were lots of great questions and issues raised.
Back in Urumqi, after checking back into the hotel, there was time to catch up with CNN, universally express great satisfaction that Enron executives have been found guilty, have some good local beer in a terrific small restaurant, and once more eat more food than anyone thought possible. Everyone was in good spirits and seems to be well settled in the group.
After dinner, Scott, Liz, Yildirim, Gulnaz and Abdullah the guide went to a Russian club. There were Uygur singers and Russian girls dancing alternating with dance music for the whole crowd. The dancing was quite unique--more gender segregated than in the West (men with men and women with women), and they also danced in a way where everyone on the dance floor moved around in a giant circle, like a wave, as the song progressed.
Day 7: Saturday May 27: Kashgar
This morning everyone went off in different directions for the first free hours of the trip: Steve and Sante to a park near the hotel that was full of families out for a Saturday morning of rides and games; others in our group went shopping; several tried to catch up on e-mail, although the connections were iffy. At noon after gathering in the lobby of the hotel, the group loaded onto the bus and headed to Shri Shi Go canyon, a Kazak meadow southwest of Urumchi. As the bus left the city the snowcapped Tien Shen mountains were visible in the distance. Closer to the canyon there was a sizeable chemical plant on the right. Finally the bus reached the Rose Garden Holiday Park Development of small homes and gardens built by local developers. Many of the gardens have yurts in them. Families from Urumchi come out for summer weekends, or if lucky, for the entire summer. As the bus climbed the road to the meadow the homes got bigger, with grand new "villas" near the top of the hill (does this seem familiar?) At the open meadow it was immediately apparent why the Uighur of Urumchi flock toward the Tien Shen in the summer----the meadow air is clear and cool and the pines and streams make you think you're in Switzerland. There is now a Silk Road International Ski Resort project underway outside Urumchi and to the right of the Shri Shi Go meadow a ski lift runs up the hill. Faux Swiss chalets (only two so far) are being built near the lift, but yurts still fill the meadow.
A meal of apricots, plums, nuts, fresh bread from a nearby village awaited the group in a large yurt at the top of the hill. Twenty people filled the amazingly spacious yurt sitting cross-legged at a long table. After lunch there was hiking and horseback riding. To wash up at the water spigot outside the bathroom cost 1 Yuan. This particular locale seemed a bit touristy --that is, these particular Kazakhs didn't seem to be authentic nomads anymore, but settled in this spot and quite used to bus loads of tourists coming to visit. Still, it was nice to be out of the city and up in the hills.
About an hour ahead of schedule, the group made a quick stop at the Xingjian Silk Road Museum, "a place where historical and cultural creams meet together". This is a new private museum owned by a patron who operates in a close to anonymous way----no Rockefeller Center here, the patron of this Silk Road Museum is not interested in named plaques, but rather in the four floors of markets that one has to go through by escalator to reach the collections on the fifth and sixth floors. The trip to the top of the building is well worth it for the collection is magnificent with a broad range of relics from the 1st and 2nd century CE through the 19th and 20th centuries. Two of the most incredible pieces were 11th century exquisite gold crowns. It is puzzling how these had survived, especially during the last half century of Communist rule in China. Private police closely guarded the museum and market. No wandering off on this stop.
Soon the time came to leave for the airport. A traffic jam caused by an accident (no one hurt, apparently) on the way made for an interesting experience. All of the cars and buses drove up on the sidewalk to pass. Vendors moved their tables full of wares, cooking carts and fruit stands out of the way. Rather miraculously the buses squeezed through (the sidewalks were pretty wide), and made it to the other side of the wreck and back on the highway. The group said good-bye to the two guides -- Abdullah and Mohammed Ali. Both Abdullah and Mohammed moved to Urumchi from Kashgar, Abdullah to open his touring business and Mohammed to attend Xingjian University. Mohammed said his father, Uyghur, regularly buys and sells sheep in the animal market in Kashgar.
The flight into Kashgar was smooth and easy. Still daylight upon landing, although overcast and windy. The hotel Qinibagh is a modern place built in the garden of the old British consulate. Dinner was in the old consulate mansion house. It is easy to think of the political implications of this connection with the British imperialists.
Fierce winds started blowing walking across the grounds from the hotel to dinner----a dusty, howling wind. This is the third place on the itinerary that is supposedly the furthest town from both oceans----but the first place that is close to five national borders: China, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Afghanistan, and historically has always been a particularly important strategic location. In the Silk Road days, it was the meeting point of the middle and the southern routes after traversing the desert. In more recent times, it was the focal point of the "Great Game" between the British and the Russians vying for control of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like Casablanca, Timbuktu and Samarkand, Kashgar is full of legends and myth.
Day 8: Sunday, May 28: Kashgar
Today was a full day of exploring the far western city of Kashgar. Kashgar is a city of some 400,000 people, 90% of whom are Uighur. In fact, in Kashgar you hardly feel that you are in China anymore, except that there are Chinese signs everywhere (most signs are in both Chinese and Uighur), and the enormous statue of Mao in the center of the city also serves as a reminder. But the feel of the city is very different even from the other places in Xinjiang; essentially it is in Central Asia, though still in the borders of China. The sights and smells; the way people dress and carry themselves, the culture and lifestyle, is very distinct from anything thus far in the trip. Kashgar also as a very important strategic location situated less than 300 km from the borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This proximity to so many borders means that the city is very tightly controlled by the Chinese authorities; even to the extent that there are much fewer internet cafes and one has to register one’s passport even to be able to use the internet (a restriction that does not apply in the hotel fortunately). The Chinese seem to be very cautious about what they regard as the potential Islamic threat from those neighboring countries—and indeed not only the Chinese authorities, as tourism to Kashgar fell by 50% since 9/11.
This strategic location has also been important in Kashgar’s history. Located on the far side of the Chinese deserts, it was the meeting place of both the southern and the middle routes of the Silk Road before they departed for Central Asia or India. It was an independent khanate for much of its history and, unlike the Uighur kingdom centered in Gaochang, became Muslim quite early. Subordinated to China in the 18th century, it enjoyed a brief period of independence in the 1860s and 1870s before falling to the Chinese once again. After that, it was at the center of the Great Game competition between the Russians and British, both of whom had their representatives in the city competing with one another for influence and information.
The day began with a visit to the tomb of Apak Hoja (spelled variously). Apak Hoja was a Sufi master who also founded a dynasty that ruled in Kashgar for 300 years, and he was evidently regarded as a holy man, and the tomb as a Uighur holy site, which often drew tens of thousands of worshippers. The tour guide was quite critical of Apak Hoja’s legacy, stating that his impact on the Uyghur was negative and that he should not be regarded as a holy man. It was hard to know, however, the degree to which this was based on historical evidence or on his interpretation of Islam—since he seemed to imply that all Sufi Islam, and all reverence shown to Sufi masters, was illegitimate (not an uncommon attitude in the contemporary Islamic world, to be sure, but still only one possible variant). At any rate, the tomb complex was massive and very striking, if in a state of some decay.
From there it was on to the “Sunday market” (even locals refer to it in this way), which was primarily a market for the buying and selling of sheep, cows, and other animals. No camels, though, as in Cairo. Despite much recent destruction of old Uighur neighborhoods, and of the old bazaar, the market fascinating. The market was packed with people, young and old, men and women, many dressed in traditional clothing (something visible everywhere in the city, actually). And, of course, there were the animals… living and dead and in various states of dismemberment (including a carpet covered with sheep heads and a trailer full of innards). Knife sharpeners, metal workers, and some beautiful horses were for sale too. Uighur was spoken exclusively, there were perhaps two other foreigners, and very few women in the animal markets. But young girls strolled around in colorful sparkling outfits, and some tried to hawk their wares (one selling traditionally designed knives was particularly persistent). While a few of the things in the market, like the row of goat heads lying on the ground, were not particularly appetizing, the freshly-made bread and "bagels" sold in the market were especially delicious.
Lunch at a traditional Uighur home followed the trip to the market and was quite delightful. The family lived in a traditional style house, architecture reminiscent of old Ottoman houses with slightly extended upper floors, lush inner courtyards, and solid doors to the entire house and courtyard area. The group ate in the guest room—often, evidently, the nicest room in the house that is specially set aside for entertaining guests.
The afternoon was filled with exploring a street where various craftsmen sold their wares, some being more attracted by the goldsmiths and others by those who sold musical instruments. After meeting at the end of the street it was time to visit the Idkah Mosque, evidently the largest mosque in China, built in the 15th century. On Fridays it draws 10,000 people for prayer, and during major celebrations tens of thousands come. Some of the group’s Islamic colleagues noticed there was no separate section for women in the mosque. Traditionally, Uighur women do not go to the mosque. In more recent times, under influence of pilgrimage to other parts of the Muslim world, some women in Xinjiang have expressed the desire to go, but this is something the Chinese government has strongly discouraged. Also, formal religious education of all sorts is forbidden until one reaches the age of 18. It is difficult to gauge how “religious” the region is. In more recent years, the Chinese government (with some US support) fears Islamic extremism, though it appears that what is really going on are more nationalist tensions than religious ones.
The mosque is one of the few not touched during the Cultural Revolution, although the area in the front has in the last two years been bought up Chinese, and the gardens replaced by a large square and Chinese-owned shops surrounding the mosque. Signs of cultural Islamic practices are everywhere, observance of holidays, religious teaching, etc., travel agents arranging hajj, Islamic bookstores, but very limited veiling. But Mao's statue is still here and the central government’s presence is clear. The Uyghur (Muslim) are a long suffering minority dealt many blows at the hands of the Chinese. But despite this oppression mosques and traditions continued and the Uyghur language continues to thrive.
After the visit to the mosque, some went to the new market; others went back to the hotel to rest, while still others went for a tour of the old town of Kashgar. Old Kashgar is a really remarkable area, difficult to describe without seeing it (hopefully the pictures will give a sense); as Liz put it, it reminds one of Native American areas of the southwest. Evidently, many parts of the old town have been destroyed in recent years and new blocs of flats put up in their place—a sad development given the unique character of the old city. The tour was wonderful—a few workshops for those who made hats, musical instruments, and copper teapots, as well as a variety of houses, some several hundred years old and one recently renovated. The most delightful part of the tour, however, were all the children encountered along the way, from the two boys who initially acted as guides into the city, to all the rest of the children who not only offered enthusiastic “hellos”, but were most excited to pose for pictures and look at the immediate results of digital cameras.
The evening ended with a short after-dinner walk down one of the streets near the hotel, which was still teeming with life, with both the energy and the chaos that is Kashgar.
Day 9: Monday May 29: Naryn
Today's activities can be summed up in one phrase: transfer from Urumqi to Naryn. This transfer requires crossing from China into Kyrgyzstan by way of the Torugart pass, which Lonely Planet describes as the "most exciting and most frustrating way to inter or exit Central Asia or China." The excitement comes from the stunning views high up in the mountains--3000 meters--not to mention the rather sketchy roads which the bus drivers negotiated with nerves of steel. The frustration comes from the lengthy delays spent at customs where surly staff eye the group suspiciously and spend unaccountably large amounts of time "recording" information. It was a test of Zen patience with 3 border crossings on the Chinese side and 3 on the Kyrgyz side and a no-man's land in between. An armed Chinese military man rode on the bus to assure a safe arrival on the other side with no additional passengers or goods and to guard against the nomads/bandits who freely inhabit the 'no man's land'.
Departure from the hotel was later than expected, around 8:30 AM. Most people were busy unloading their Yuan and getting Kyrgyz money, the name of which sounds like sum, spelled som. The morning started with a brief visit to a Uyghur family before setting off for the border. The Torugart pass was an important part of the silk road, since it was the main entree into China. However, when Sino-Soviet relations cooled in the 50s, the pass was completely closed, so the road used today was built in 1997, several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Currently it is used mainly by heavy trucks carrying scrap metal from all over the former USSR to China, to be made into something useful, hopefully plowshares. The only part of it that was harrowing was the way in which various cars and semis passed each other on the road. Well, and the pot holes--since it was mostly a dirt road, they were numerous and enormous; in short, it was a very bumpy ride. It is interesting to see all the trucks going toward China carrying scrap metal and all the trucks headed toward Kyrgyzstan carrying Chinese products.
It is the season when there are lots of mares and foals. The high pastures the road cut through between looming ranges were completely unsettled, no building at all, except for large electricity lines taking Kyrgyz energy to China. Scene in terms of landscape was like the Princeton Hot Springs in Colorado, more like that highway between Buena Vista and Salida, but add 4,000 feet to the mountains, add more water (barely) and take away all the buildings. It was absolutely stunning--oh and also take away a paved road. The only time it was paved was when the road suddenly became as wide as a runway--because the Soviet military had indeed used it as a runway (probably to provide air support for their troops in Afghanistan).
Once through the pass, which follows a meandering river, there are lots of semi-nomadic people who mostly are herders of various animals: yaks, cattle, horses, and sheep. Marmots, large prairie dog-looking creatures, scurry everywhere. Kyrgyzstan is SUCH a beautiful country! Evidently it is over 90% mountains, which means they don't have much in the way of natural resources or agriculture. It is mostly pastoral (reminds me of the mountains of Romania)--nomadic shepherds who still spend their summers in yurts shepherding the sheet & goats, horses, and yaks. As a result, it is a poor country, and the population is 5 million--about 1/3 the size of Beijing. But the sights are just amazing--the whole drive was like going thru the Rockies or the Carpathians.
Lunch took place in the mountains and another snack on the bus. The quantity and quality of facilities required settling for a "WC savage" somewhere on the road to Naryn, with ladies on the left and men on the right. Information from our new guides and Karen helps pass the time on the long journey. The group arrived exhausted at the hotel in Naryn at around 10:00 PM and was assigned rooms in groups of twos and threes, a true test of communal solidarity. Dinner was lovely, with fish and chicken and a great potato soup.
Most importantly Stan Toops has finally completed the group here in Naryn. He has set up a seminar at the University tomorrow. Everyone is in good health and spirits, with plenty of Qin, Ying and Yang (although that may not matter now that we have left China).
Day 10: Tuesday May 30: Naryn
After the fourteen-plus-hour, bone-jarring bus ride across the China-Kyrgyz border yesterday today was a fairly relaxing, leisurely yet varied day in Naryn, a city that feels a little like an outpost and a Soviet relic. The Celestial Mountains Hotel, also called the English Guest House on the English-language version of its sign, is a hastily and cheaply refurbished home, with mostly separate and not very roomy toilets and showers, but also with yurts available on the hotel grounds, where some of the group will be staying tonight (Ben and Sante in one, and Rick and Scott in the other). Unlike the yurts in the mountains, however, these have electricity and a heater (but with toilet facilities inside the house).
The meals have been noticeably different in the Kyrgyz Republic. First of all, no chop sticks. Both suppers at the hotel have been more "European," and more specifically "Italian": starting with a sort of antipasto-like-salad, followed by a soup, and then the meat course, with a vegetable side dish, with black tea. Breakfast this morning was also interesting. Already on the table were bowls of condensed sweetened milk, jam, bread, and individual plates with slices of very tasty cheese and slices of butter, as well as jars of instant coffee and pitchers of hot water and pots of hot tea. Once seated, they served dishes with slices of what looked like large beef sausage, a hard-poached egg, and warm rotini pasta cooked in butter. The vegetarians are in trouble, though. Nomadic cuisine is meat- and dairy-based, with very few vegetables, which take time in the same place to cultivate and harvest. Some have given in and joined the carnivores, with only two hard-core herbivores hanging tough (Afsaneh and Scott).
Naryn is a relatively small town. The mountain vistas are breathtakingly beautiful, and the whole place has a more relaxed air about it. Perhaps it is because it feels less touristy, or perhaps because it is much less crowded. The whole country of Kyrgyzstan has a smaller population than the Chinese city of Urumchi.
After breakfast was a visit to the State University at Naryn, which seems to be a small struggling university but is making good efforts, as it is the only institution of higher learning in the entire oblast or region. The Rector, Almasbek Akmateliev spoke English quite well, having spent time at the University of Montana on a Fulbright, but preferred to speak in Russian. Gulnaz translated brilliantly and expeditiously, with the two of them often talking simultaneously without pauses. He explained that Naryn is the largest region in Kyrgyzstan territorially, 35% of the land area, but with the smallest portion of population, 5%, in his words "a lot of breathing space." The university was founded 10 years ago, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It has about three and a half thousand students, many of whom become engineers, economists, and teachers. It has a very strong program in English. The Chair of the English Department, like the Rector himself, also received a Fulbright grant to spend a year in the United States (University of Kansas), from which she had just returned. The Rector indicated that the university enjoys very good relations with the U.S. Embassy, with which it has established joint programs, including the Center for American Studies (see below).
The Rector indicated that in this transitional post-Soviet period education is essential for the progress of his country. He feels that a "province university should not be provincial," but should strive for the highest standards and innovative programs. In practical terms he proposed an exchange of 5 students between Miami University and Naryn State University for a semester of study, as well as one-year faculty exchange programs. Though he made many friends in America and has hosted them here, this is the first large contingent of American academics his university has hosted, and he hopes it augurs other visits and future relations. He pointed out that there were eight universities in the country during Soviet times, but now, fifteen years later, there are over fifty, some state, some private, and some joint ventures with other countries. As a result, quality of instruction is not standardized and universities compete for students, even though professional opportunities for graduates remain limited.
After meeting with the very affable Rector, the group visited the Center for American Studies and met with its Director, several students, and three Peace Corps volunteers (even though this is exam week and they all had exams this afternoon). All of the students were female and are very much trying to continue their education and escape the village. Apparently studying English, American Studies, and other such fields is not considered “macho” enough for the male students. The Peace Corps volunteers have taught English at the university and have helped to establish the Center, among other projects including soliciting and receiving over four thousand books from American friends to establish the Center's library. The Center offers language courses as well as courses and resources in popular American culture: e.g. sports, movies, music, gender issues, and so on. The students were very engaging and spoke English very well. Four of them came to dine with the group, along with two of the Peace Corps volunteers, Greg and Jennifer, husband and wife.
After the visit to the University was a trip into the mountains, back along the same road taken from the border and Torugart pass (3752 meters above sea level). On the way there was an Islamic cemetery overlooking the road just outside the city. Meli pointed out that since nomads live in very simple structures; they tend to make up for it by erecting very elaborate tombs in their cemeteries. On the other side of the road from the cemetery there was a mountain stream running along the road, with a woman washing clothes on its rocks, a group of boys bathing in its frigid waters, and cows fording it on their way to or from pasturage.
After a picture-taking pause, it was on to the compound of a nomadic Kyrgyz family to spend the rest of the afternoon with them and watch their activities. Lunch inside their yurt was first, with two table cloths on the ground covered with three types of bread: nan, a round loaf soft and chewy on the outside and flat and crispy on the inside, bite-sized (large bites!) pieces of fried dough, and a crispy, fried, thin, rope-like looped bread. There was also black tea, jams (raspberry, apricot), cottled cream, fresh yellow butter (partly melted in the bowls), and individual plates of a cucumber, tomato, and dill salad, followed by bowls of a savory clear meat broth and noodles with meat and onions (rice and carrot for the vegetarians). Everyone sat cross-legged on rugs on the floor around the table cloth, with the exception of a couple of flexibility challenged kneelers.
After the meal, the family gave a demonstration of a yurt-raising. The family, with some of the group pitching in to help, constructed and furnished a yurt in less than half an hour. Rain clouds rolled overhead, rain drops fell, and thunder echoed off the mountain walls, but they all kept working, and the rain soon passed. Then the women made a felt "allakeezy," starting with white wool spread over a square reed mat. They beat it with metal rods for several minutes, spreading it to cover the mat. On top of it they then laid a strand of black wool, laying it to form a traditional geometric pattern. They then poured hot water over it, through a broom, to insure even sprinkling. They rolled up the reed mat with the wool design inside, enclosed it in canvas bags, and tied the resulting tube with ropes. They then rolled it along the ground while three boys stomped on it. This went on for over half an hour, with women or men replacing the boys and each other and pouring more hot water over it occasionally. Two women separated it from the reed mat, rolled up the felt that emerged, and rolled and kneaded it with palms and forearms. Finally it was rolled up, folded, and washed with cold water and hung up to dry, with the black pattern permanently embedded into the felt.
In the meantime, while the boys were stomping the felt mat, a woman was demonstrating the art of making blankets with felt appliqués. Later another woman milked the mares, whose new-born foals were all tethered together on a rope on the ground, and they demonstrated the process of making "kumis," fermented and slightly alcoholic mare's milk, by churning it inside a horse-skin bag for two hours. Everyone then tasted previously made kumis, served in bowls from a goat-skin pouch. Liz memorably dubbed it as "like a feta cheese shake." It tasted a little like unsweetened yogurt. One of the boys, about twelve, gave a horse-riding demonstration around the compound. The daughter in-law did almost all the work while we were there--milking, serving, showing us sewing of felt quilts. She was thin and not very healthy looking. Students told us this is very typical structure of a Kyrgyz nomadic family and the main reason why they want to go to the towns and cities and get their own place and continue their education.
Finally they offered some crafted goods for sale: felt rugs and wall hangings, purses, hats, etc. The head of the clan exchanged his Kyrgyz hat with Stan's bush hat. As gifts the group gave the two small children a pencil and a pen, and Sante gave the patriarch a flexible reading light with a picture of a screaming blonde from a horror movie. It was a big hit and he looped it on his jacket zipper, saying it would come in handy in the dark yurt. The group took a picture of the entire family and left, with heartfelt thanks and good wishes on both sides.
In addition to the herd of horses near the compound, the family also had some cows grazing near the horses and sometimes mingling with them, and a very large herd of sheep grazing much higher on the mountain, across the road (Scott walked up to say hi to them, and to walk off some of the lunch). On our return, several went in search of an internet cafe. At dinner the four students from the university said that they had passed their translation exam with the highest grade possible, 5, and sat at various tables, telling about life and schooling in Kyrgyzstan. All in all one of the more pleasant and leisurely days spent on the trip so far (and refreshingly cool, if not downright cold, after the intense heat of the Tarim basin in Xin Jian).
This is the third world the group has experienced (not the third world as used in common parlance). The first cultural world was in Beijing and Xi'an - with its ancient traditions, its music and its people, and its dresses and its history. The second world was in Xingjian - the Turkic part of China... starting with Urumqi and Turpan and culminating in Kashgar... This was indeed a very special world. When landing in Kashgar, it was Scott who noted that it feels like landing on the moon or something... the land seemed desolate and brownish-gray with some weird shaped hills, etc. No greenery... the desert area... a next day experience in the animal market and in the old city was a step back in time... as if the time was preserved in this town and as if life has not changed there since the middle ages... as if the heat coming from the desert preserves not only the corpses (the mummies in Xingjian), but also the lifestyle...
Moving to the west - through the Torugart pass (almost 4000 meters above the sea level) - to Naryn oblast in Kyrgyzstan is the third cultural world. A sleepy little town... with a strong Soviet feel...
Day 11: Wednesday May 31: Issyk Kul
On the road most of the day from Naryn to Issyk Kul, going up through Dolan Pass, and down; a short stop at a village called Kochkor with a busy market, and a handicraft store; lunch at Balykchy; passing Tokoy reservoir, a short visit at the Petroglyphs site; arriving at the Aurora Hotel around 3:30 in the afternoon.
As usual, the day did not start right on time and as usual it was an exciting day.
By the way, those who stayed in the yurts all agreed that it was much more comfortable than camping.
Ten past eight in the morning. As the bus was leaving the small city of Naryn along the winding, partially asphalt road, the shepherds were already on horseback taking their cattle, sheep, goats, or horses to pasture. It was a sunny morning, a bit cloudy, refreshing breeze.
On the way up the mountains, some of them like the Rockies, some of them with green grass, Meli started to make up a fairy tale for our amusement. One by one the group continued the tale, each person adding a twist to the story: Once upon a time, there was a Kyrgyz family with a grandma, parents and two little grand-daughters. The two girls got lost with their lambs. . . . The king of the area was on an outing although he had a flu. He sneezed in a silk handkerchief presented by a beautiful young woman, so he fell in love with her and a wedding took place. People from different places gathered for a celebration, singing their songs, and an interpreter arrived. A friendly competition of songs and poems began. Marco Polo arrived late, and told the king about Xi'an (China) and Cincinnati, Ohio.
As the story went on, the bus passed several Kyrgyz families camped near the riverside under the foot of the hills with their white yurts, smoking chimneys--they were making tea for breakfast, their washed clothes lying on top of bushes to be dried, and their children waving at the bus. Nowadays, many of these nomadic families have cars and mobile houses that can be pulled by a car. The Kyrgyz nomads are dressed in modern clothes. What marks their ethnic identity is the hat for men, and scarf or skirt for women.
The story-making up continued. The lost girls found their way home with the help of a white camel. One day they saw a group of travelers. One of them, the monk Xuanzang, told one of the girls, Aida, about non-violence, and took her to India, or where she thought was India, but then when she heard a beautiful Persian poem she realized she ended up in the western section of the Silk Road. What happened to the other girl? She disappeared with a handsome young man.
Aida's daughter's roamed back home and their successive generations lived their nomadic way: yurt, pastures, streams under the mountains, but then a man came to declare that he wanted to liberate them from feudalism. The Kyrgyz people were losing their tradition until....
This is the ancient Silk Road, or one of the branches of it. The ancient travelers must have told stories on their long journey to entertain themselves. Not just the deserts, mountains or hardships, the Silk Road also meant stimulating imaginations. When you see all the magnificence of nature, when you encounter many different people on the road, you want to tell stories about them, don't you?
The story making was followed by a more serious topic: what did everyone learn from the conversations with the students of the Naryn University majoring in English at yesterday's dinner? tradition of bride-kidnapping, bribery for grades here and in many places in the world, women university students, economic situation, etc, and to the question why the color blue is so popular in this area: blue fences, blue colored windows? The answer is they live under such blue skies.
Then Gulnaz and Karen explained about the political and economic situation in Central Asia; and our two local guides, Nargiz and Asel, told us the great epic of Manas, the hero of the Kyrgyz people. Asel's recitation of a few lines sounded so beautiful.
Lunch time already. Although a video made by the Lonely Planet on Kyrgyzstan complains about the local food, so the meals have been delicious. Today's lunch began with tomato and cucumber salad, bread, followed by beef meat ball soup and cherries. Just as some thought the cherries were dessert, they served a plate of rice with tender beef. Even the vegetarians were delighted to have their borscht and vegetable (mushrooms) rice dish.
The Dolon Pass of the snow-capped Mountains (3030 meters) was left behind. No more winding, switchback road; the new landscape was a flat plain with an irrigation system and lots of trees. Not far in the distance the mountains are still visible. Ninety-seven percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountains. The land is poor in economy and rich in water; the bus traveled all the way along a river and passed the Tokoy reservoir that leads to Issyk Kul, the "warm lake," not so warm that you can swim at this time of the year, but warm enough so that it never freezes because of its depth, thermal activity and mild salinity. It is the second largest mountain lake in the world.
An ecological tax was required (100 som =US$ 2.50 each person) before entering the Issyk Kul resort area. The region around the lake is protected, all industry and so forth has been stopped. Outside the bus windows there were abandoned factories, small metal warehouses, and all of a sudden a huge field of glacial boulders. This is the State Museum of Petroglyphs. Many of the rock etchings are left by the nomadic Saka-Usun (8th century BE to 1st century AD) and Turkic people (5th to 10th century), featuring long-horned ibex, wolves, deer and hunters, goats, and camels. This was a religious site for these peoples. The lake region now seems to serve primarily for tourism, and soon they will open a direct Moscow-Issyk-Kul flight so lots of Russians can come here for vacation.
It is the off-tourist season here. The hotel, in Soviet style with chandeliers, large hall, and not so efficient service (offices for internet and long-distance phone already closed) is located near the lake. Standing on the balcony the green garden of the hotel and the lake are visible. Its clear blue color merges with the blue of the snow-capped mountains in distance.
The dinner menu consisted of carrot and sea weed salad, fish and bulgur with ketchup for vegetarians, and oromo--steamed rolls with meat and carrots for the others, with sweet and buttery corn meal cereal for dessert.
Day 12: Thursday June 1: Issyk Kul
Today was spent at the Aurora Hotel (perfect example of the Soviet days’ Sanatorium) in Issyk Kul. Despite the term “sanatorium’s” ominous sound, it is a health clinic of sorts. People come here to get all sorts of treatment, from massages and saunas to psychological counseling. The sanatorium had strong Soviet cultural features. The stern woman administrator looking and speaking tough and cold, the labyrinth of hallways where everyone from the group got lost, the complicated package of services (impossible to use because of the bureaucracy involved) and even the complicated menu (impossible to enjoy because of horrible organization). The only exception to all this was the magnificent park with all those flowers with heavenly aroma and the incredibly pure and enlightening air...
The itinerary listed this day as a “relaxing day" as well as one for seminars. It was indeed relaxing—but also filled with excellent presentations. Many started the day with a knock on the doors at about 7am; clean clothes were being returned from the laundry to those who had sent them the night before—after several false starts with the delivery of the wrong clothes and one instance of apparently “lost” clothes everything was received—though much of it was wet and needed to be hung up.
Breakfast was served at 9am… not before and not later. It was an elaborate affair with many courses. Among the items served were egg salad, Spanish omelet served cold, beet and raisin salad, whole fried fish and rice, hot kasha, corn flakes, lamb and rice, cheese, several kinds of bread, several jams, and of course, tea and instant coffee (but no milk). Even the vegetarians had plenty from which to choose.
At 10 am everyone met in a first floor conference room for presentations by three members of the traveling community. Ben Sutcliffe spoke first on the topic “Imagining the Orient: Conceptions of Central Asia and Russian Culture”. He handed out information which included suggested readings and films. Next Gulnaz Sharafutdinova gave a comparison of the five Central Asian nations in terms of political and economic transformation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Liz Wilson presented on the life and achievements of Xuan-tsang and discussed his trip from China through Central Asia to India and back. Lots of questions and discussion followed each presentation.
After the meetings everyone headed out for some relaxation before and/or instead of lunch.
The beautiful gardens were an attraction to all…beautiful roses, Shasta daisies, Irises of deep purple and yellow, incredible profuse Lilacs in both purple and white. The property also had a variety of evergreens and white poplars leading to the beautiful sandy beach of the lake. Several sunbathed on the beach while others walked in the sand and waded; some truly courageous went swimming in the cool lake waters. The sun was bright and warm and enjoyed particularly since the first afternoon in Issyk Kul was marred by rain.
Other activities to be chosen from included swimming in a heated pool, horseback riding reported by Liz to be pleasant, plodding and filled with beautiful scenery. She said she didn’t “fly like the wind.” The full body massage proved a popular diversion as well, though the scheduling process was reminiscent of the Soviet history of the hotel.
At 6pm everyone gathered again for a conversation and presentation by Nathan Light
who has been teaching anthropology at the American University of Central Asia.
Dr. Light will join the Havighurst Center next year as a post-doc.
After dinner various activities continued: playing cards, meeting to discuss the Bishkek seminars, massages, walking. It was an early night for most since all the bags have to be out by 6:30 am.
Day 13: Friday June 2: Bishkek
"It was a wonderful day," said Yildirim, walking to the hotel from a night club at about half past midnight in Bishkek. Indeed, everything is well that ends well. But the beginning of that day was not that wonderful. The morning was rather dull, driving to Bishkek from Issyk-kul so early that breakfast was replaced with some Soviet-style "sukhoi payok" (dry rationing). Things looked grey at 7 am to those who under slept or lacked the required shot of caffeine. Only Mary - the most dedicated photographer - was still taking photos in these last minutes at Aurora, and Meli came out of her room before the departure cheerful and fresh. The rest needed some boost. Thankfully, the boost was discovered, already in the bus, in the form of hot coffee or rather its smell. This coffee-like drink that normally could hardly be called real coffee produced so much excitement in the bus, that happiness seemed within reach. But, some divisions in the group started to surface: front vs. back of the bus, adding to the older divisions of veggies vs. the meat-eaters. Fortunately, there are always those in the middle, or those who switch their places: those are the links, the nods, the glue. That morning the role of the link was played by ever-cheerful Liz, who served the coffee to those in the front. So much for the morning.
Passing the mountains which take up 94% of the territory of Kyrgyzstan and are responsible for the magnificent landscape, the bus slowly descended to the lower lands. It took about 3-4 hours to reach the town of Tokmac and the Burana Tower (minaret) and other remains of Balasagun - the eastern capital of the Karakhanid Khanate. This Turkic Turkish political entity existed during the 10-12 centuries and is allegedly responsible for bringing Islam to this part of the Central Asia. Departing from the bus, all of the sudden it seemed as if the summer has arrived. The sun was bright and very hot. The few courageous ones went to the top of the Burana tower built in the 11th century; others proceeded to see the bal-bals, Turkic gravestones of VI-Xth centuries, featuring stone figures or rather faces engraved in the stone.
Balasagun is probably most famous by its thinker, Yusuf Balasagun, who created the oldest written Turkic work: Kutadgu bilig ("The knowledge that brings happiness"). To Gulnaz’s delight, there was Russian translation of this book in the small museum there. The book is a collection of wisdom from different parts of the world and different cultures (Persian, Arab, Turkic) and has advice on various aspects of life and to various types of people. This is a second big thinker the group learned about after Makhmud Kashgari who created the dictionary of Turkic languages. Both lived and worked in the 11th century.
The lunch-issue quickly emerged as very important after the new discoveries (especially considering there was no real breakfast), so there was a rapid returned to Tokmac to replenish energies. By Afsaneh's suggestion though this was also a good time for some poetry reading (spirits run higher when the stomachs are empty), so on the way to the lunch place Gulnaz read some of Jalalutdin Rumi.
The lunch was not disappointing: starting with some great salads, it ended on a high note of ice-cream. The day seemed brighter and brighter. It was another hour of driving to Bishkek. The group integrity was reinforced during a game of password and the sharing of observations about the surroundings. Mary commented about the only operating plant passing through the German town, Gülen and Karen wondered at the glass decor of some houses and Gulnaz noticed a collective farm named after Lenin (or at least the remaining label of a collective farm that existed sometime ago). With everyone glued to the windows the bus approached Bishkek, entering the city on the Silk Road street (Zhibek zhul).
The Soviet touch, the defining feature of this world, increased dramatically upon arrival in Bishkek. The collective farm named after Lenin (kolkhoz im. Lenina), the Sovetskaia street, the familiar labels on the Post Office - Pochta, Telefon, Telegraph -- using the same blue letters as in any other city of the former Soviet Union.
Another luxury hotel (Ak Keme) with wideband and Kandinsky-esque carpets on each of its 10 floors, a great dinner at an upscale restaurant only reinforced the gradually improving trend of the day, which ended on a high note of going to a night club. Nargiz and Asel' took the most adventurous of the group to a Metro-Retro club. Everyone danced and listened to the music from the 80s and even earlier, including some famous pop tunes recognized by all Russians, like "White Roses." They also played “Stairway to Heaven,” “Land Down Under,” and a bizarre Beatles medley. Alas, the degree of engagement with the music was not at all comparable to the club in Urumqi, with the great dancer Abdullah, but all seemed satisfied in the end. Hence, walking back to the hotel, Yildirim's "the day was wonderful" sounded right for all.
Day 14: Saturday June 3: Bishkek
The leitmotif of the day is exchange, and in particular exchange as embodied in books, ideas, and mutton (but more on this later in the entry). The morning began with a plentiful buffet not marred by mysterious greasy vegetables (cf. the breakfast offerings in Kashgar). Coffee drinkers were happy to find a vat of "roasted coffee" as well as the ubiquitous Nescafe instant granules. Most of the group then proceeded to the main goal in visiting Bishkek: the Conference on Globalization and the Independent States of the Silk Way: Problems and Prospects. This conference was organized thanks to the hard work of colleagues in Bishkek and generously funded by the Bishkek municipal government.
The morning session, hosted by the Kyrgyz National Library, featured presentations by Karen ("Engendering the Silk Road: Communist Dream and Post-Socialist Reality") and Mary ("Women, Work, and Globalization"), as well as academic papers delivered by Professor Rakhat Achylova and other Kyrgyz scholars. The session was chaired by Karen, Dr. Achylova, and Dr. Jyldyz Bakashova, the Librarian of the National Library. This conference received much attention from the municipal and federal government, suggesting the nation's ongoing interest in the humanities in a global context. The morning was supposed to be filled with a series of ten-minute presentations, but most of them turned out to be 2 or 3 times that long (in part because translation was necessary).
While not all the sessions were of equal interest, they were informative about the city of Bishkek (with a population of about 1 million, and most of the economic opportunities and activities taking place here), social and economic conditions of Kyrgyzstan, and the role of women in contemporary Kyrgyz society, etc. The latter is particularly filled with paradox--on the one hand, there seemed to be general agreement that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it many factories and so on, women often became vitally important in opening new businesses and the like, thus helping the survival of families and more. On the other hand, in the villages the tradition of bride kidnapping is very widespread. Even this is a complex phenomenon, sometimes essentially acting like an elopement while at other times it is quite involuntary for the woman.
Meanwhile, Judith, Liz, and Ben were on another epic book-buying expedition. After several adventures ("open" banks with no employees present) and numerous taxis, the necessary cash was obtained, books were purchased from the Raritet bookstore, and a precious 18 kilos of books on Kyrgyz culture were mailed. As someone who, like Scott, frequents post offices in the former Soviet Union, Ben was impressed by the civility of the postal workers Bishkek. Despite low salaries and outdated technology (sending one of our packages involved wax seals) they were polite and resisted the urge to berate their bumbling foreign customers.
Ben translated for an afternoon session of the conference devoted to globalization and culture and chaired by Dr. Tamara Obozova. There was a lively group of librarians asking the group questions. Rick explained how he teaches Islam and Simone described the complexities involved in successfully running a bookstore. The conference also had two other sessions, which were merged to discuss economic and political aspects of the Silk Road. Gulnaz translated for the session, continuing her role from the morning. Both afternoon sessions were round-table discussions.
So far this accounts for two of the items of exchange: books and ideas. The third item came into play with the banquet concluding the conference. Presided over by an amazingly energetic tamada (toastmaster), who sent the Mayor of Bishkek's wishes for a great conference and a stupendous meal, the feast lasted for four hours and took place in a spacious yurt. Many important cultural and political personages were present, with their language of choice varying between Russian and Kyrgyz. Because Gulnaz and Ben were translating, they decided to limit the effects of the evening's numerous toasts (these toasts included one for a group too often overlooked at social functions: librarians). Among the many dishes served was pilaf with the meat most often supplied to travelers on the Silk Road: mutton. Interestingly enough, this feast echoed the Soviet past, as the most popular drinks for toasting were cognac and vodka. (Soviets had a paradoxical attitude towards cognac. On the one hand, many citizens claimed it smelled like bedbugs. On the other hand, Soviet drinkers did not let this stand in the way of consumption.) At 11 the group emerged from the yurt full and ready for a good night's rest.
Kyrgyzstan has a lot to offer: its grand nature with mountains, lakes and meadows; its nomading culture with yurts, kumyz, shirdaks and lots of handicraft work; its people, open, hospitable and free. During the seminar, people shared openly about critical views of more recent realities. Hopefully these people will find their way, as they are placed in a very precarious position among all the great powers. They need much wisdom and lots of tourism.
Day 15: Sunday June 4: Bishkek
There were three events on the agenda today. 1) Kyrgyz National Historical Museum, 2) some shopping at TSum and other sites, 3) and a visit to the mountain home of Rahat Achilova, the host of yesterday’s Bishkek conference.
Bishkek is an easy city to walk around in, and today the group walked past the White House, Parliament, statues to Lenin and Manas, and a National Museum that has a whole floor still dedicated to Lenin and the glories of Communism (even though the government of the Kyrgyz Republic is now democratic).
Kyrgyz Historical Museum is located right at the center of town at Ala Too Square. This Museum was built in 1980; it was formerly the Lenin Museum, devoted completely to Lenin and the story of Russian revolution. The first floor has gift shops, the second floor describes Lenin and the Russian Revolution and the third floor has a combination of archeological and anthropological exhibits of Kyrgyz culture. Originally there was a large status of Lenin in front of the Museum. Now there is a statue of freedom on Ala Too Square. Lenin has moved to a position behind the museum; he is now pointing directly to the American University of Central Asia.
The museum is a large imposing example of late Soviet architecture. Ceilings are high, with marble interiors. The ceilings are of particular interest as all of them are covered with paintings depicting the Russian Revolution. Many of these events have been memorialized in Soviet film, painting and sculpture, the battle ship Potemkin, Lenin's triumphal return to Moscow et cetera, et cetera. This exhibit on Lenin with statues, paintings, and memorabilia, all serve to retell the story of the Russian Revolution. After Kyrgyzstan became independent, the third floor was renovated to add the Kyrgyz component. So the museum shows the Kyrgyz desire to tell the history rather than denying the history of the Soviet era.
The history of Kyrgyzstan is well represented. Petroglyphs dating back to the Neolithic begin the exhibit followed by Bronze Age axes and pots from burial mounds near Issyk Kul and metal implements from the Saka (Scythians) ( 8th C. BCE -1st C CE). Silk from the 3rd C CE found in southern Kyrgyzstan is on display. The Huns controlled much of the territory in 400-600 CE. The Turk Khanate had control from 600-900 CE; their base was in the Chui valley surrounding Bishkek and eastward to Issyk Kul. The Huns and the Turks both came from the east ; another group the Sogdians came from the west. The Sogdians were settled traders; one Sogdian site is outside Bishkek in Karsnya Recha ( in Russian ) or Nevkat ( in Sogdian ). At Nevkat there were traces of Zoroastrianism as well as Buddhism. Sogdian and Turk cultures complemented each other and were important elements of the transmittal of cultures along the Silk Road.
From the west, Arabs came to the Ferghana Valley in the 700s and the Tang Chinese armies ( led by a Korean general and staffed mostly by Turks) also came from the east. In the ensuing clash among Arab, Turk, Sogdian and Chinese, the Tang Chinese armies were defeated. From this battle Chinese prisoners were taken back to Persia, thus bringing silk and paper technology. Arab forces brought Islam to Ferghana. A new group the Karakhanids (also Turks) brought Islam to the region by the 10th C CE. The Karakhanids controlled lands as far east as Kashgar, north to Balasagun (near Bishkek), and south to Mavarannarh in the Ferghana. During this time Jusup Has Hajib Balasagun wrote the Kudatgu Bilig (Book of Knowledge) and Mohammed Al-Kashgari wrote the Diwan Luget et Turk (Great Turk Dictionary). These books form the basis of medieval knowledge for the Uyghur, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz and are claimed by all of them. Kyrgyz tribes arrived from the Yenesei river ( Mongolia) in the 12th C. intermarrying with the locals and bringing a fresh infusion of nomadic culture. The Mongols followed in the 13th C. and Kyrgyz became a part of the Mongol army but were able to retain their own culture.
The Kyrgyz Manas Epic points to the Kyrgyz battles in the region with Mongols, Chinese and others. Kyrgyz established themselves as masters of the mountains, the Tenghri Too in Kyrgyz, Tian Shan in Chinese, translated as "Heavenly Mountains."
Kyrgyz nomadic culture is expressed by the yurt; Kyrgyz call these buz oi, grey houses.
The tunduk is the circular frame at the top of yurt; the tunduk is the symbol portrayed on the Kyrgyz flag. Exhibits also showed the shyrdak, felt carpets, and other weavings that hang in the yurt. We saw all of these in our visit to a yurt encampment in Naryn on May 30. Musical instruments such as komuz, (a three stringed lute), the jaw's harp, the ocarina, the wooden flute, were on display.
Rick and Scott began the morning separate from the group, with church services at the Russian Orthodox Church in Bishkek. The service was quite familiar, more or less like anywhere in Russia. However, the church--a large one--was quite packed. The majority were women, though there were people of all ages; most were Russian, only a few Kyrgyz.
Then Gulnaz joined Rick and Scott for a meeting with Kuba, a professor of Kyrgyz history who gave a little tour of the city (including the very communist history museum), that included a great deal of interesting conversation about Kyrgyz history and contemporarily. Gulnaz was particularly interested in the political situation after the "Tulip Revolution" of a year ago. In reality the demonstrations here were huge, and in the end demonstrators seized the "white house" and quite a lot of violence was done both to the white house itself as well as to many businesses that were supposedly owned by Akaev and his family.
Kuba told about Islamic practice in Kyrgyzstan. It's quite a confusing picture in many ways. Kuba said that there were in fact a lot of different kinds of religious groups, including some rather extremist groups (though they didn't have a particularly widespread impact on society, and they are much more influential in the south, which is closer to Uzbekistan and also poorer). In general, it seems that Kyrgyzstan was largely secularized (comparable to Russia), and today there is a residual level of Islamic identity but not necessarily active belief/practice. In fact, many Kyrgyz have converted to various forms of Protestantism and other religions brought by the abundant foreign missionaries. At any rate, it doesn’t seem there is much of a threat of Islamic extremism here.
Gulnaz, Rick and Scott joined up with the group for a late lunch, which included entertainment of wonderful Kyrgyz traditional music. In the early evening we went to the dacha (country house) of Rahat Achilova, a professor of sociology who also served as a parliamentary deputy in the early post-soviet period. She knew Karen Dawisha from a stint in the U.S. some years ago, and was the main contact that resulted in the seminar yesterday. Today's dinner, however, was much more low-key, although it included a lot of vigorous political discussion. Despite the fact that some have claimed that Kyrgyz women have a limited role in terms of Muslim life here, it seems that there is no lack of strong Kyrgyz women. Scott’s friend Kuba said that women are able to participate in an equal footing along with men except for the places in which foreign "Wahhabi" ideas have taken hold. Unfortunately the itinerary has not included any mosques in Kyrgyzstan (supposedly they were rare until the post-Soviet period) nor more than a single holy site called a "mazar" (place of pilgrimage) in order to delve into such questions.
Numerous Kyrgyz (at least of a slightly older generation) are quite nostalgic for the Soviet period and complain of the decline of education, security in the form of jobs, living places, health care, and in general the difficulties that have ensued. Many Kyrgyz lament that their region seemed more prosperous to them 15 years ago.
General impressions of Kyrgyzstan are that the country is truly gorgeous, with breathtaking mountain views almost wherever one turns. The country is also very poor, and unemployment is a huge problem, as is emigration and brain drain. People are incredibly warm and friendly. Some of the speeches at the conference were critical of "Western Imperialism," and clearly the US airbase in this country is the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Despite the objections of some here to American foreign policy, even those with such opinions were hospitable to the American group.
Most Kyrgyz remain largely secularist, and yet the majority identify themselves as Muslims. Many have noted that Protestant Christian missionaries have been actively proselytizing here, and it is a matter of some tension.
Day 16: Monday June 5: Osh
Today the group flew from Bishkek to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. The flight was on a Yak-40 to Osh, which was loaded from the back. But first they loaded the luggage (much of which went under the seats). Fortunately the flight was uneventful other than the amazing views of the mountains. The "Intourist" hotel is very Soviet, and one of the poorer hotels we've stayed in.
Osh is a crossroads city located at a place on the silk road where roads going to China and India cross. It was for many centuries a place were caravanserai offered weary travelers not only beds and fresh horses but also entertainment in the form of jugglers, acrobats, and snake charmers. Said to have been founded by the Suleiman Mazi, migrating from the Karakhanid stronghold to the west, it's reported that the city got its name when Suleiman drew his animals to a halt with the phrase "Osh," meaning "that's enough." Osh is one of the main cities of southern Kyrgyzstan, and already it has quite a different feel than the north--already more of an "Uzbek" or middle eastern feel rather than the nomadic + Russian feel of the north.. Osh feels very different from Bishkek, much more hot, a bit more religiously conservative, many more people with gold caps on the front of their teeth (a sign of beauty among the women).
After a brief museum visit and lunch, the group ascended “Solomon's mountain,” the hill in the middle of the city, to see the home of Babar, the founder of the Mughal dynasty who lived in this city for a year. Many local families were also making the ascent to visit Babar's house, a modest one-room house that now functions as a sacred place. There were three elderly women descending barefoot, with clippings from shrubs that they'd taken from the top of the hill. They explained that they would boil the leaves of the shrub in water and drink it as tea for the medicinal effect. These ladies must have had an incredible health regimen, as they indeed were tremendously fit for their age. One can only wonder why Babar decided to build his home so high on this soil-scarce hill, and how much effort the getting up and down would have been. Perhaps it was the pink marble underfoot (reminiscent of Mughal miniatures). No doubt the location of his house gave him a spot where observation of the valley would be easy.
On the way to Babar's house, there was a museum displaying artifacts from the past three millennia of history in the area. Of special interest were the Zoroastrian sarcophagi. The Sogdians, who were major culture brokers in this area prior to the ascendance of Turkic groups practicing Islam, at one time practiced Zoroastrianism as well as Buddhism. To desecrate the earth with burial, or to desecrate fire with cremation, or to sully water with the immersion of corpses is not permitted to Zoroastrians, so special wood sarcophagi were used to dispose of the dead (in India the Parsees place the dead on special towers from which vultures pick off the flesh of the dead).
After descending from the hill in the center of town, everyone visited the bazaar, where a blacksmith was making knives and women were selling gold jewelry. Several members of the group bought Kyrgyz hats. This is one of the largest markets of the region because traders come from all the local Central Asian countries as well as China. And indeed it was huge. In many ways it is like markets in Moscow and elsewhere--same Chinese goods--but the unique parts included the Kyrgyz crafts at the beginning and the various foods and spices at the other end.
The day ended with a delightful dinner with students from local universities studying English as well as some of their teachers (including a couple of Peace Corps volunteers--of which there are evidently many in the country). One young woman described the place of women in contemporary Kyrgyzstan, as well as education, living conditions, ethnic tensions (she comes from the far west where there are also many Uzbeks and Tajiks).
One interesting note about Kyrgyzstan before moving on to Uzbekistan. One of the recurring topics of conversation was the relationship of Kyrgyz to Russia/Russian culture. Rather than viewing the Russians negatively as "imperial oppressors," they tended to view them in a mixed but overall positive fashion. Several people mentioned that the Russians, while in fact a foreign and imperial power that did suppress elements of national culture, brought more good things than bad. In particular, they mentioned things like education, agriculture (Kyrgyz were formerly nomadic), industry, etc. Virtually all Kyrgyz are bilingual (Russian and Kyrgyz), and this is something that is continuing with the younger generation.
Day 17: Tuesday June 6: Ferghana
Moving From Red to Blue Border Crossing
Leaving Kyrgyzstan and entering Uzbekistan by land turned into a three hour tedious frustrating event or actually a series of events. When you combine the bureaucratic procedures of two countries and seventeen silk road adventurers of three different nationalities it adds up to a very long morning. It might just be easier to get that camel through the eye of a needle. Hope springs eternal and the group left the Intourist hotel in Osh in high cheer and with expectations of an easy passage to Ferghana. Osh is extremely close to the border; indeed, it seemed to be just on the edge of the town itself.
It was quickly understood, however, that it was not going to be a quick passage. First the passports were collected and the group waited, and waited, and waited some more; all the while it was getting hotter by the minute on the bus. Eventually the USA passports were returned and the reason for the long wait was revealed: three within the group were not registered properly. It seems that the Turkish and Russian nationals did not need a Kyrgyz visa. But according to a new 2005 law they were required to register in Kyrgyzstan for stays longer than 5 days, while the group’s stay was 7 days. This information was not expressed on any entry information, nor expressed to them by the border officials coming into Kyrgyzstan from China, nor by our local guides. What to do, what to do. Take the whole group back to Osh and register them properly and pay a fine and then return again? After negotiations with the border officials the unregistered members were allowed to pay a fine on site. Passports were redistributed to their owners and the bus moved forward through the no-man's land toward the goal of the border. Soon it was off the bus and the luggage was placed on carts to be carried to the Uzbek checkpoint.
Everyone hoped (there is that word again, hope) that the Uzbek bureaucracy would run smoother. No such luck. Such a large group of foreigners - not the stream of Uzbek and Kyrgyz traders passing through on a daily basis - came under scrutiny. First, it was the handing in of passports one at a time without any of them being returned, then it was the filling out of declaration forms with instructions in Russian (thankfully there are Russian speakers in the group), followed by each person showing all monies - cash and travelers checks - and finding out that travelers checks did not count as money, as well as cameras, ipods, and computers. Ut Kir the Uzbek guide arrived to help the process. In addition, our large luggage was sent through a security screening and three people had to show their medicines.
Finally, the ordeal was over and everyone staggered through the border ready to begin the Uzbek adventure. A delightful, clean, sparkling, lavender bus with Marco Polo emblazoned on the back was waiting driven by Abdurahman. Once the group was all on the bus Meli announced Uzbek time to be one hour earlier than Kyrgyz time so one of those three hours spend crossing that 200 meters of border was returned.
Uzbekistan is much larger that Kyrgyzstan, with 26 million people, a much larger land mass and more natural resources. On the ride away from the border and through the Ferghana valley a number of things were impressive. In Kyrgyzstan the national color seemed to be various shades of a deep red - this was on their flag and noticeable in the clothes that people wore. Moving into Uzbekistan the color changed almost immediately to blue and green with an especially pretty turquoise dominating. Uzbekistan also appeared to be more prosperous - roads were better, homes were in better condition and fresh bright paint was everywhere. Even the uniforms of the border guards, local police, and traffic officers were better. Colors of uniforms ranged from desert khaki to deep turquoise to forest green. The courtyard homes were walled one could occasionally peek in and see well designed courtyards with grapevine covered overhead trellises to add cool shadows to the interiors. The bus passed fertile fields and it was easy to see why the irrigated Ferghana valley is so important as a cultural and the agricultural heart of Uzbekistan. Fields were full of growing vegetables, orchards, and vineyards. The only worrying site is police patrols every few kilometers. From the border to Fergana until Tashkent the bus must have passed through 12-15 patrols.
There were a large number of Daewoo vehicles on the well paved roads. It seems that there is a Daewoo assembly plant here and they are not subject to the 200% tax levied on vehicles imported from other countries. The first stop in Uzbekistan was for lunch in Andijan at a “tea house” next to Babur's Park - the park contained a huge mosque with a large Turquoise dome surrounded by rose gardens. The outdoor restaurant had several sections. The group sat down at tables and chairs in the regular section and had lunch of bread, soup, and kebabs. Nearby was a section where groups or families can rent a few tables and either bring their own food or order from the restaurant. It was filled with groups of women eating, talking, and dancing. The music was wonderful and the cheerful mood infectious and a number from the group: Yildirim, Afsaneh, Liz, Steve, and Yi Hong joined in the dancing. All trace of the tedious morning dissolved. The group opted not to drive thru the city, however, since conditions were uncertain following the government crackdown of the previous year.
From there it was on to Margilan. On the way there, as the heat of the day increased it became apparent that life midday happens in the shade. The sun reflected off the whitewashed walls adding to the brightness of the day. But in the shade one saw workers taking tea breaks, women talking with each other, children playing, and elders resting. In the valley, where temperatures rise to be in the 100's degrees Fahrenheit or 40's Celsius, the workday is divided in to morning, a long midday break, and evening.
A stop at a silk factory in Margilan displayed all steps in the procedure from getting the original silk fiber from the silk worm cocoon, to thread making, to dying, to weaving, to shop. Central Asia and this region in particular was one of the major centers of silk production along the silk road and still remains so. Small cocoons each supply 1500 meters of fiber, natural dyes are made from walnuts, pomegranates, and onion skins. There were several weaving rooms. The first had large mechanical looms with and incredible level of noise - the warp and woof moving together as the shuttle flew back and forth. The next weaving room had more basic looms operated by the weavers with foot petals and pulling of the shuttle back and forth through the use of a hand lever. This room was noisy as well, but seemed to have a rhythm that was almost like a dance. There was, of course, a shop and several came away with souvenirs.
From there the bus passed through one village after the other with few distinct borders before coming to Ferghana, a city established during the Soviet era and to the hotel Asia. This hotel is quiet an improvement over the one in Osh but then Ferghana is a much larger town, and is an business center for the region. Many of the group went out to find a local internet cafe. Nearing the half-way point in our tour, many are missing their families and are doing their best to keep in touch. A new song all are singing is "I just blogged to say I love you."
Ferghana is a very "Russian" city in terms of it's architecture, and indeed it was a Russian outpost in the 19th century. Around the hotel there were many two-story buildings that looked very much like any provincial Russian city--with the difference that, today at least, the buildings and streets were in fact in better shape than they are in the Russian provinces. Perhaps this is a sign of the prosperity of the Ferghana valley, or that the government is much better at keeping things up. The newest and nicest buildings are most often recently-built schools (again, a difference from Russia--where they would be banks).
Day 18: Wednesday June 7: Tashkent
In the mild sunny morning, under the covered porch at the luxurious Hotel Asia at Ferghana, hot milk, eggs, sausage (for the carnivore colleagues), and a few choices of yogurt, dried apricots, and nuts offered a simple healthy breakfast. This delightful beginning commenced the eight-hour drive ahead from Ferghana to the capital, Tashkent, one of the largest cities and a major cultural center of Uzbekistan.
After filling in six taxi-cabs, the cab drivers rallied north-west through the winding roads on the scenic ¼¼ mountains, holding hostage three travelers in each cab. The ordinarily quiet Ben was provoked by the Russian speaking cab driver. Hence, the stream of conversations and local camaraderie filled one little cab. Passing through the lines of burning red cut rock mountains, speeding through the turns with 100 Kilometers per hour at least, there were a few heart-stopping close calls, and at least ten check points on the way, yet it was a pleasant trip.
Passing through the beautiful well kept tree-lined streets of Ferghana, lined by Russian style stucco buildings with many semicircular or occasionally triangular window header motives, small groups of Uzbek women draped in long floral dresses and light glittery lace head covers- either tied in the back under their hair or gently draped over their shoulders. Ferghana’s numerous apple orchards, wheat fields, and vineyards reminded Afsaneh of home in Urmia at northwestern Iran with its rolling hills of golden harvest wheat next to salty Urmia Lake under the deep blue sky.
Before lunch was a visit was to Rustam Usmanov’s traditional ceramic workshop, said to be the oldest in the Central Asia. Here the traditional Persian miniature painting found new interpretations by Rishtan and his family. Highly skilled Mahmood Azizov’s son demonstrated the careful formation of a bowl on the pottery circle. Beautiful dark blues, turquoise, and light greens and browns set on soft white background formed hundreds of lovely ceramic plates, bowls, and tea pots. A young boy was painting a plate, using paint from various bowls- they seamed all to be the same gray. Colors don’t show themselves until fired in the kiln. Only then after the glaze is applied the true color shows up- this is when they reach permanence.
After lunch came a stop at The Khan’s palace set in the middle of Muqimi Park. Elaborately detailed, massive brick structure stood as the witness for the last khan, Khuduyarkhan’s power and stature. Apparently it took ten years to build the castle but three years after completion due to an uprising by the people, Khan himself fled to Iran and passed away in Khorasan.
The day ended with some good food in a local restaurant, said to be owned by an immigrant Iranian family, and lovely live “multinational” performances and festive music. Neither Persian food nor music was on the menu, though.
Day 19: Thursday June 8: Tashkent
In addition to the urban character of the city, the posters with the new Latin based Uzbek alphabet reminds one more time, that this is not Kyrgyzstan. On approach to the city, big apartment blocks rise in the horizon either as memorials of communism or a testimony for modernization, depending on how you look at it. The top of one of the roofs reads, “Tashkent the city of friendship and peace.”
The morning agenda included a visit to Kukeldash Medressa. On the way, local tour guide Utkir provided some information about the country and the city. The population of Uzbekistan is about 26 million. About 2.3 million live in Tashkent. Russian is the most widely spoken language although the state language is Uzbek. Before they converted to Cyrillic letters Uzbeks used Arabic script between 1929 and 1947. The population is composed of 88% Uzbek, 5% Russian followed by various minorities such as Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazak, Turkmen, Jew, Chechen, Korean, Polish, and German.
The earthquake in April of 1966 destroyed almost the whole city and caused a great loss of historical buildings. Ugly concrete towers stand next to traditional mahalles on the approach to the medressa. There is a disorderliness on the façades of these apartment buildings caused by the personalization of balconies; some converted into interior spaces with panes of glass, some with pane and concrete, others with bricks and pane on the very same façade on top of each other. This is how dwellers replied to the standardization proposed by communism and modernization. It is a patchwork of personal taste.
The traditional mahalle diminishes under the shadow cast by these huge block apartments. It loses its life and dimensionality. Their privacy and sacredness of home place is compromised as the dwellers of the mahalle are being watched by the Gods living on the higher floors of the blocks. This is not a negotiation, it is assertion. Kukeldash Medressa was built in 16th Century. Today it houses the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan offices. These are the central administrative offices for Islam in Uzbekistan (which is rather centrally controlled, despite the fact that Islam does not really have "clergy" and "hierarchy" the way, say, the Catholic and Orthodox Christians do). 1700 mosques and medressas including 250 in Tashkent are managed by these offices. Medressas were influential higher education institutions in the golden days of Islam. The education was religious and one hucre (cell, room or space) would be shared by four students and one hodja. Some spaces were decorated with two and three dimensional arabesques, examples of hat art and muqarnas.
One of the highlights of the day was the Khast Imam Mosque, a madrassas currently being used as a library. Although disputed by some scholars (including Rick), one of the oldest Quran, if not the oldest (also known as the Osman Quran written on deerskin) which was displayed behind glass. Following an excellent lunch at the Turkish Restaurant the group walked on Broadway navigating between the kitsch and the Orientalist, the beautiful and the humorous landscape of oil paintings. Among many things that ended up in this street market were 150 years old Qurans, jewelry, silk and Angora scarves (Angora also comes from Turkey, Ankara –– the capital of Turkey- angora hence the goat that is raised in and around Angora or Ankara as known today), old coins, etc. Walking down the street, a huge crash sounded; it was the branch of an apricot tree, loaded with ripe apricots. Seeing in this act of God a stern reminder of the precariousness of human existence, the group decided to eat as many of the apricots as possible. They were delicious.
Day 20: Friday June 9: Tashkent-Nukus
The original plan was to fly to Khiva on Saturday, but there were no available flights, so the group set out a day early for NUKUS? Yes, Nukus...but more later. The morning was free, which came in handy for the party crowd who stayed out late doing cultural studies in Tashkent and got up late.
Breakfast took place as usual in the inner courtyard of the 3-story hotel around the small swimming pool. People have settled in nicely with the new local guide Utkir (Dolores Tours) who is knowledgeable about local history and culture. He speaks excellent English and is a serious student of foreign languages, including Hebrew. Meli called a group meeting to discuss tensions. It appears to have cleared the air all around.
A second Turkish lunch at the modern mall downtown was quick and good. Then off to a rushed meeting at the newly built monumental-style Tashkent Conservatory of music--wonderful marble porticos, stainless steel wrapped columns, huge foyers were offset by lack of a/c, and already crumbling back stairs, practice rooms. The Conservatory was a 'gift' from President Karimov. They have an impressive museum of musical instruments, but since the thermometer in the museum registered the temperature in the room as 95 degrees (!), no doubt the instruments are not long for this world. The group met with Rector Doloara Akhmedovna Muradova, and heard presentations on the history of muqam in Uzbekistan and its post-Soviet revival from Dr. Akram Khashimov and from Adiba Sharipova, who was involved in the creation of a big 'spektakle' two years ago on the Silk Road. The visit included demonstrations of classical central Asian instruments as well as watching a few minutes of rehearsal of Eugenii Onegin. Unfortunately many of the group seemed rather tired at the meeting in the afternoon (probably the heat) and found it difficult to appreciate it fully!
The 5pm flight to Nukus in Karakalpakistan (the most far-western province of Uzbekistan) was a mercifully non-eventful hour and ten minutes. The fact that Uzbek Airlines now has a cooperation agreement with Lufthansa for maintenance provides some comfort. In contrast to the 24-seater in Kyrgyzstan, this flight was a Tu-154, probably holding around 200. Each person even had assigned seats--although naturally no one paid the least attention to this except the stupid Americans, who as a consequence of waiting for someone in authority to fix the situation ended up with middle seats.
Nukus (tenderly called Nukum by the group, in recognition of its environmental problems) is the capital of this autonomous region which borders on the shrinking Aral Sea--the diversion of river water for cotton irrigation in the last century has left the Sea starved of water and full of pesticides/fertilizers. Life expectancy near the Sea has fallen to about 40--lots of health problems and cancers. The Karakalpaks (which means "black hat") are a different ethnic group, closer to Kazakhs. Nucus is quite a dismal place--now even Turpan (which has been compared to Needles) seemed like a lively and happening place by comparison. Nukus was evidently the Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos, with testing of chemical weapons and what not—contributing to the low life expectancy. Today it is still pretty dismal--it was impossible to find internet (it supposedly exists, is difficult to find), and the heat was oppressive.
Nukus is a seemingly small city (about 200,000 population) though it seemed as if it was a city with 20,000 not 200,000 -- no people, no businesses, no lights, no fun. Sunflower seeds seemed to be the favorite pass-time activity. Plus the park with the pool, the Ferris wheel and some other attractions - which several of the group got to enjoy in the night - is another favored place for local kids. It was a great surprise therefore to find a wonderful museum in this place, where you would not expect much in terms of cultural centers. The museum exists thanks to the work of Igor Savitsky - a Russian archeologist and an artist - who created a great collection of local archeological artifacts, jewelry and paintings (both local and some pieces of Russian avant-garde from the 1930s). That was indeed a jewel in the middle of the desert...
The hotel was the best in town, but still lacked private bathrooms, working TVs, or (in the case of the men's 'cubicles') windows. Yildirim took it particularly well. Some memorable voices of what turned out to be a long day: "Eat sweetness and talk sweetness." "OK--but no tongue." "That computer with the dial-up connection in the lobby IS the internet cafe." "Why don't you have a sense of humor?" "The boys' rooms are small caves!" "Mary, how do you feel?" "Much better, thank you." "You liar." But she is better--and the clean air in Nukus appears to be just the cure she required!
Day 21: Saturday June 10: Nukus to Khiva
Wake up was around 6:30 am to a crisp blue sky and already warm temperatures in the hotel in Nukus, “Jipek Joli” (= Silk Road). A great breakfast was served by the very friendly and hard-working staff. The hotel displays some unique artworks of the traditional Karakalpak style. The beds are covered with colorful, handmade patch-work quilts, and the windows have the special Karakalpak curtains (“shi”). The yurt in the hotel courtyard is nicely decorated both inside and outside with Karakalpak rugs, textile, and embroidered fabric. It was the first taste of the local culture here in this homey hotel. Some of the group was wondering about the water quality because of the dark color and the salty taste of the tap water.
After the breakfast, the agenda included Chilpyk-Kala, a natural “Dakhma” (=Tower of Silence), about 40 km southeast of Nukus. The drive paralleled the River Amu-Darya in a desert, reminiscent of the US Southwest (Arizona or New Mexico) that is dotted by low-lying conical forms and rolling hills. A dakhma is a high-standing place, where the people of the Khoresmian civilization practicing the Zoroastric beliefs would put the dead bodies to be cleansed of flesh by vultures and other wild birds. They would then pick up the remaining bones and place them in ossuaries for the eternal rest of their family members and friends. Ossuaries were made of clay or natural stones in various shapes and sizes; there were many examples of these ossuaries in the museum in Nukus. This region was controlled by the Khanate of Khorezm from a few centuries BC until a few centuries AD. They were converted to Zoroastrianism when ruled by the Persian empire for a century or so, and remained Zoroastrians until Islam came (evidently in the 8th century).
It turns out Chilpyk-Kala is a small volcanic cone made of andesitic lava flows capped by horizontal layers of ash-tuff deposits. The nearly 100-meter-high, flat-topped cone made a perfect spot for a dakhma looking over a meandering branch of the River Amu-Darya (or Oxus). Yildirim picked up several pieces of the lava rock to satisfy his curiosity as a geologist, and to cut up later to analyze their mineral content. Looking around from the top of Chipyk-Kala, other volcanic cones on the northern side of the Amu-Darya were visible. It almost looks like these volcanic cones are lined up along certain directions suggesting recently active magmatism (about several million years old?) in the region. This is exciting!
This region lies between the two great rivers of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, which is what made the region inhabitable at all. And indeed, all around was the driest desert you have ever seen until you get close to the river--and then suddenly green, cultivation, civilization. It was fascinating to see the way people had irrigated the land around the river to grow crops.
The group returned to Nukus in mid-morning to visit the Savitsky Karakalpakstan State Art Museum. Named after its founder, Igor Savitsky, this is a small but a fantastic museum with interesting art objects displaying the rich and diverse cultures and history of this oasis tucked in between Turkmenistan (to the south) and Uzbekistan (to the north). Displays of the exhibits include archaeological collections and artifacts of ancient Khorezm, applied and fine art of the contemporary Karakalpak culture, and a great collection of fine art of Uzbekistan from the period of 1920-30 and the Russian avant-garde. This is a treasure-trove of precious art collection far from many world-known museums in the world, and yet it is unusually rich in Uzbek and Russian art objects that are hard to find in any other place.
The isolation of the City of Nukus in the Soviet era apparently made it a safe heaven for thousands of artworks nicely preserved. Savitsky was an artist who first came to the area when he was evacuated during WWII, and returned during the 1950s for archeological expeditions. He not only painted the region, but he also collected art of both Uzbek and Russian artists--mostly avant-garde artists whose work didn't tow the party line of socialist realism and therefore was not acceptable anywhere else. In fact, many of the artists had been sent to the Gulag--for such crimes as expressionist painting. He was able to open the museum in the mid-60s, and such a remote location was the only place he could have gotten away with such a thing. The collection was really impressive, really amazing--something totally unexpected for such an isolated and bleak place. In addition to the art (of which less than 5% was even on display), the museum also had a respectable historical/archeological section from the Khanate of Khorezm that was also fascinating. There are many photos of the artwork and archaeological displays in the blog archive. Photos were not free, however, and any photographers had to pay a hefty sum of “Cym” (about 15,000).
While waiting for the remaining part of the group to get on the bus, others found their way to the source of the beautiful sound of live music coming from across the street, which turned out to be a wedding party in progress. A very nice-looking dancer in a local outfit was dancing to the tunes of a Karakalpak music. Steve, Scott, and Yildirim lost track of time trying to take pictures of the dancer while talking to the family members of the wedding party. Sante had to be dispatched to remind them that the bus was about to leave for Khiva. However, he, too, forgot his mission and started videotaping the dancer. In the end, all four had to dash out for the bus.
Lunch took place on the bus. It was great! Karen and Liz sliced off some cheese, salami, and bread, and everyone constructed delicious sandwiches topped by local apricots. It was the best food on-the-go on the approach to the great river of Amu-Darya. Crossing Amu-Darya north of Urgench was a sensational experience. This is a major river separating the Kyzyl Kum (Red Sand) Desert in the north from the Kara Kum (Black Sand) Desert in the south. It flows northwest to the ever-shrinking Aral Sea in a wide, meandering channel. Apparently, it has changed its course many times in the recorded human history to gain the reputation of being “cruel and unpredictable.” Its murky water is swift and turbulent, and flows really fast, though it has become extremely shallow. This does not seem to stop the local kids from swimming in it though. As the bus approached the old bridge sitting on old-looking pontoons, the group stopped and got off to admire Amu-Darya and to take some pictures. But, the local police gently informed that taking photos of the bridge and its immediate vicinity was prohibited. So, after a long look at the Amu-Darya and its old bridge, it was back on the bus and across the river to reach the Khorezm Province in the south.
The bus pulled into Khiva around 4:00 pm in the afternoon. The group checked into the hotel, Malika, right across from the western gate of the Old City. It was very hot in Khiva, and bunch of kids (all little boys) were cooling off in a large pool in front of the hotel. It was pretty tempting to join them, but for the color of the water. Khiva seems to be thriving with many European tourists. After a quick shower, many of the group went for a quick tour of the old city to explore. The old city of Khiva is virtually an outdoor museum as the whole old city is preserved in tact (and is a UNESCO monument) and presents a remarkable architectural ensemble. A lot of money has been spent rebuilding and restoring gates, walls, mosques and medressas. There are guest houses interspersed throughout the old city and artisan shops. Absolutely fantastic. Also 100 degrees in the shade in late morning, 80 degrees in the shade at sunrise/sunset. So a lot of early and late exploration.
Day 22: Sunday June 11: Khiva
Historic quote of the day: "Spend your time with wise men, spend your time with nice women; if you cannot do so, it is better to stay at home, to stay alone." -- Pahlavan Mahmud, Muslim saint and prize-winning wrestler.
Today was a full day in the UNESCO world heritage city Khiva, a town whose name means "sweet water." Khiva had been the capital of a Khanate of the Khwarazm region from the end of the 16th century to the end of the first quarter of the 20th century. The whole old center of the city is one remarkable architectural ensemble, and has been restored to the way it (presumably) looked before 1917. Khiva is surrounded by high walls (about 2500 meters in circumference), with about 1000 people living inside the city. The temperature inside the walls is considerably higher than outside. The day was very hot, and touring inside the inner city wall was limited to the morning and early evening, spending the heat of the afternoon inside with group seminar discussions led by Steve Nimis and Sante Matteo.
Steve talked about Greek constructions of "the Orient," drawing upon Edward Said's theory of orientalism to illuminate the ways in which the ancient Greeks depicted the "orientals" as despotic, cruel, effeminate, etc., and the Greeks defined themselves in counter distinction as all those things that people in the East are not. Steve explained that "facts don't precede conceptual frameworks; conceptual frameworks precede facts." This valuable observation bears some further consideration in light of the tour of the historic city of Khiva today.
The tour was led by a fine guide named Gul Hanem, whose excellent command of English and rich stock of local lore brought the places alive. The city is in amazing repair, especially considering the ravages it experienced over its more than three centuries as the center of a powerful khanate. Some of Gul Hanem's stories taught a great deal about local customs such as veiling and circumcision, but some of her stories also reinforced stock orientalist stereotypes. All in all, however, the group was pleased by Gul Hanem's deep knowledge and friendly charm, and only regrets that the amount of sight seeing was limited based upon limited time in Khiva and the blazing heat of midday.
The surviving buildings mostly date to the 19th century; but the city celebrated its over 2000 year’s anniversary quite recently... Apparently, this is close to the end of the tourist season - which centers mostly on spring and fall. From the words used by kids on the street it is clear that they have many French tourists... Although Khiva was on the Silk Road, it became most prominent since the 16-17th centuries until 19th century (incorporated into Russia in 1873). In these centuries it was a separate political entity (Khiva khanate), along with Kokand, Bukhara and other khanates. The proliferation of madrassas in the city is due to one of its enlightened khans (Firuz khan) who encouraged donations from the nobility for building madrassas.
At the start of the city tour, after passing the impressive unfinished blue minaret near the gate of the city that faced the hotel, the tour moved to an exploration of the prison that was located in the "Square of Death," the location outside the Old Palace where executions took place. The designers in the group listened tremulously to the account of how the Khan's architect was put to death for failing to deliver his monumental constructions on time. After visiting the palace and mosque adjacent to this grim Square of Death, the group was entertained in a nearby madrasa by the death-defying acrobatics of 3 young tight-rope walkers, whose family had been participating in this traditional central Asian sport for generations.
Next was a visit to a craft center for wood carvers, and several entertained fantasies of ordering a massive carved platform couch called a "supa" (from which is drawn the English word "sofa"). A Friday Jum'a mosque reveals over 200 carved wooden pillars, one of which was said to have been carried by the aforementioned wrestler-saint from India. The afternoon tour concluded near the haram rooms (inner sacred enclosure) of the palace of Allakulikhan. From execution ground to haram, one wonders the degree to which this brief tour of an amazing town of "more than oriental splendor" was constructed for groups like this one based partially upon orientalist fantasies that have entertained Westerners for centuries.
Steve's fascinating seminar discussion called these issues to mind. The other wonderful seminar presentation was by Sante, who spoke about Marco Polo's travels and their significance and meaning. Sante began with comments about the things seen in the past few days, and how they offer intriguing examples of cultural syncretism and silk-road exchange. Sante compared the reception of the account of Marco Polo's travel narrative with watching the local version of MTV, explaining how each simultaneously underscores both the differences among disparate peoples and the similarities among them. For instance, the Russian, Uzbek, and other regional music videos are both indebted to American and Western European videos and also an art all their own. Similarly, Marco Polo's work illustrated both the commonalities between Venice and the places he visited, while also reflecting the differences. Sante suggested that Marco Polo's dispassionate "reporting" of his experiences, reserving judgment on even the bizarrest of customs, says something about how his narrative could have opened the eyes of his contemporaries, and even those centuries later, about the arbitrariness of local customs that are often taken for granted.
Sante also mentioned the World Cup in his presentation as an example of similarity and difference, which has been reflected in the experience of the group. The World Cup officially began on Friday, and while many from the United States might not notice this event, many sports fans in the rest of the world are paying close attention. In Khiva the hotel T.V.s did not pick up a World Cup station, so Utkir had to search for a venue in which some of the more avid fans could watch. Serendipitously, he found a family who ran a Bed and Breakfast in the inner city who were watching the games, and they welcomed fellow fans into their home to enjoy matches on both June 10th and 11th. Rashid and his family welcomed the travelers like old friends, not simply fellow soccer fans from half way around the world. Returning to Sante's reflections about similarity and difference, while the World Cup may perpetuate rivalries among nations, it also brings together disparate people through the common language of a world sport. While the countless blue-tiled madrasas and other monuments of Khiva were indeed stunning, the connection forged with Rashid and his family will be a highlight not quickly forgotten of our visit to Khiva.
Contemporary Quote of the Day, after witnessing a traditional dance after dinner in Tazabagh Palace: "I want to be able to go home with my dignity intact." "It's a little late for that, don't you think?" -- Names withheld to protect the innocent.
Day 23: Monday June 12: Khiva to Tashkent
It was a free morning in Khiva, after a full day of exploring the city yesterday. Several hardy souls rose at dawn, leaving the Hotel Malika at 5am to walk through the old city, which is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset, and to stroll through present day Khiva, as well. By 6:30am the temperature registered 80 deg on Simone Andrus’s thermometer; yesterday at noon the mercury hovered at or just above 100 deg. A town of 40,000, today Khiva’s economy is largely centered on tourism.
This morning Afsaneh and Mary (not among the early risers) met a group of young women waiting to go into class at the local tourism college where they are learning how to be tour guides. A steady stream of tourists comes into Khiva, the majority from France, although during this visit the town was hardly crowded. The high tourist seasons are two months in the spring, and two in the fall, when the temperature is more moderate. The old city is visually striking, but almost completely empty after the tourists leave for the day. Much like Williamsburg in the U.S.
About 200 families live inside the gates, and having at least one family member working in at the site is no doubt a requirement for residency. There was ample opportunity to tour the old city, but unfortunately it did not provide much of a feel for contemporary Khiva.
Much of the day was devoted to traveling back to Tashkent, with a stop at the Hotel Arkanchi for lunch. The old high ceiling dining room hints of past grandeur and lunch was a treat, with chorva, a traditional soup with tomato, potato, carrots, dill and paprika; steamed dimlama, stewed tomatoes with pickled cucumber; delicious homemade yogurt; two dishes made with black-eyed peas, one with parsley and dill, the other with potatoes and beets. Beautiful plates of local in-season fruits included cherries, watermelon, apples and the ripe apricots seen weighing down branches on trees throughout Uzbekistan. Finally, dishes of whole ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro and dill, as well as local peanuts, raisins, freshly baked flat round bread decorated with circles of flowers. And for those who wished to partake, chilled Russian port wine.
Well fortified to say the least, the group headed to the airport, 30 km away in Urgench, now frequent flyers on Uzbekistan Airlines. The plane, a Russian built Yak I-40, was waiting on the tarmac. It was the only plane there, and the group and two other passengers filled almost every seat in the tiny cabin. One characteristic of these planes is that you board them through the back end, which of course you can imagine the discourse this has generated. After the plane taxied out for take off, the engines didn’t gear up before the end of the runway. Rather, it carefully turned and started back in the other direction. This time the plane got off the ground, more or less, with a slow ascent that struck fear in the hearts of the anxious flyers.
Once up the aircraft leveled off at about 20,000 feet and puttered over to Tashkent. The first arrival into Tashkent, having just crossed the 2,500 meter pass from Ferghana Valley, the city seemed still under heavy Soviet influence, dusty and a bit worn around the edges. Coming back this afternoon, after having been in Nukus and Urgench, Tashkent looked a lot like Paris, with tree-lined streets and fountains. Of course, everything is relative. The group returned to the Grand Hotel Orzu, just south of the city center, and spent a quiet evening there, resting before the flight to Bukhara early tomorrow morning.
Day 24: Tuesday June 13: Tashkent-Bukhara
Ibn Sina Museum, Naqshband Mausoleum, Ben's Birthday.
Today was the second day in a row that was less eventful by comparison with previous days. Check out of the hotel in Tashkent came early in order to get to the airport to catch the flight to Bukhara. Yet another old Russian plane awaited, a prop plane at that, but compared to the flight yesterday this one was smooth. Straight from the airport the group went to two sites outside of town, since it was too early to go to the hotel.
The first site, in the village of Afshona, was the museum of the reputed birthplace of Abu Ali ibn Sino, the 10-11th century doctor and philosopher known as Avicenna in the medieval West. Ibn Sina was, of course, an extremely important and influential figure both to the Islamic world and in the West (where, among other things, he had a tremendous impact on how theologians read Aristotle and hence the development of scholasticism). However, it's challenging to make a museum to an intellectual, and this one was not terribly successful. It was mostly comprised of various attempts to represent Ibn Sina in preparation for the thousand-year anniversary of his birth (980-1980), despite the fact that no one actually knows what he looked like; various medical implements that would have been used at his time; copies of pages of manuscripts of his works; and the like. Perhaps equally impressive were the unending peach orchards on the approach to the museum.
The second stop was the mausoleum to the 14th century founder of one of the most important Sufi orders, Naqsh Band. On the way there Rick enlightened the others about Sufism in general, while Utkir told specifically about Naqshbandi Sufism. Overall the site was impressive, and contained an old graveyard and an enormous old mosque, though the architects of the entourage were critical of the mausoleum itself as an architectural failure. The gate is very new, a sign that the government is trying to develop the spot as a place of pilgrimage and encourage Sufism over Wahhabbism.
There were pilgrims, including a couple of women making circumambulations around a sacred tree, though the place was not teeming with pilgrims. There wasn’t very much time at the site and no guide to tell about it, so overall it was a bit disappointing, since it was such an important place. After the mausoleum came Bukhara, where lunch was served next to a 17th century pool (dinner would be here as well). The group then settled into the cozy hotel in the old part of Bukhara.
The afternoon was free, and most people took advantage of the opportunity for a siesta after waking up so early. Then a number of the group met up with Joel Walker, a historian from the University of Washington looking at Sogdian Christian (Nestorian) sites, for a walk around the old part of the city. Joel also joined everyone for dinner, and it was quite interesting learning about UW's efforts in Tashkent as well as his research. Today was also Ben's birthday, which was celebrated at dinner by consuming a bottle of vodka and getting a birthday cake and all singing happy birthday to him. After dinner, a few went to another (big) hotel to watch the match between France and Switzerland before retiring.
Day 25: Wednesday June 14: Bukhara
Bukhara: or, as the locals write it: Buxoro, O'zbekiston (and Xiva, for Khiva). The Latin alphabet has been imposed only recently here and has not yet fully supplanted the Cyrillic alphabet used during the Soviet period (with a short trial of Arabic script for a few years in the 1920s). This is to the consternation of the old folks who grew up only with Cyrillic and are having trouble deciphering the Latin letters, but to the delight of those who don't know Russian and find it easier to read signs here than in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is sticking to Cyrillic, both for Russian and for writing Kyrgyz (most signs there are written in both: Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, on the left, Russian on the right). The curious thing is that politically Uzbekistan is closer to Russia than is Kyrgyzstan. To complicate matters further, the script found on historical religious buildings is in Arabic when quoting the Koran and in Persian when quoting poetic verses (but at least there are no Chinese characters to contend with anymore--although most of the group at least learned the character for "internet," a double X inside a bottomless box).
Bukhara has a long and complicated history. Before the Arabs, mostly Zoroastrians lived in the region. The Arabs conquered in the 8th century and the region became Muslim, and in the 10-11th centuries it was one of the major cultural centers of the Islamic world. The Mongols completely leveled the city, so that most of what can be seen today (aside from just a handful of buildings) is from later time periods--particularly the 17th century.
A pleasant breakfast was served on a lovely balcony (mostly shaded until 8 o'clock and breezy and cool, as opposed to the stifling heat of the previous afternoon) overlooking a picturesque courtyard in the hotel (with what seemed to be real brewed coffee, as opposed to the instant Nescafe' that passes for coffee everywhere. Perhaps, though, they just make instant coffee by the pitcherful in the back, rather than cup by cup, as is the usual practice).
Then the group set off to tour the old city with excellent local guide, Nazira, who has been conducting English-language tours since 1973. She says that there were many more tourists during the Soviet era. After independence in 1991, there was a two-year hiatus during which there were practically no tourists at all. Tourist traffic has since picked up and is increasing from year to year, with Americans representing a relatively smaller percentage than elsewhere, a consequence of the political tensions between the two countries, and the need for a visa. Nevertheless, people have been very friendly and hospitable, although it's a little more likely to be addressed in French or German by vendors and craftsmen (and in a couple of cases even in Italian) in addition to English. Children, from two to twelve, continue to smile and shout "hello!" at the group, or wave at the bus as it drives by (sometimes joined by adults, especially in the countryside), as they have from day one in Xi'an. It's not unusual to be invited into people's homes for tea after striking up even a cursory conversation.
The hotel, Lyabi House, is located right in the historical center, and as a result the tour was all on foot. It started with a 17th-century madrassa only a few meter from the hotel, built by Nodir Devon Begi in 1622. What makes it unique is that it started out to be a caravan serai (a place where caravanners lodged and bought and sold merchandise) and was converted to a madrassa (a religious school) after it was admired by a khan. Although the two structures are essentially similar--a series of rooms, or cells, on one or two floors, surrounding a central courtyard--madrassas tend to have an interior facade on their entry gates, or portals, as well as lecture and prayer rooms, while caravan serais have either another portal leading to a stall for the animals, or space in the courtyard for stalling them. This madrassa had an unusual portal, not only because it did not have a tiled facade on the interior, but also because of the decorations on the exterior facade, which included two symmetrically paired sheep (representing wealth--although they appeared rather porcine to some viewers), two large phoenix-like birds, topped by a centrally positioned sun, with a face. Rick, who has seen and studied many mosques and madrassas, found both the birds and the face on the sun to be highly unusual, given the iconoclastic injunctions of Islam. However fragments of phoenixes would be seen on another facade later.
The glazed-tile surfaces are different from those seen before, most recently in Khiva (Xiva), in that they're not square tiles with the patterns painted on them and then lined up. Rather the pattern is formed as a mosaic, by positioning little tiles of different shapes and colors so as to create the pattern. There were five colors: blue, representing the sky; yellow, for the sun; white, for purity; green, for nature; and black, to ward off the evil eye (all this according to the guide, though Gülen later wondered whether choice of color was determined by the technology and materials available, more than by color symbolism).
Nazira explained that there were over 400 madrassas in Bukhara, a renowned center of learning over the centuries. From 1920 to 1941, under Soviet rule, which discouraged religious practice, they were either used for storage or for offices, or in some cases for temporary housing, or simply abandoned or destroyed. Since independence a few have been restored as madrassas, but more are being used as craft centers, to house artisans' shops, where handicrafts are produced and sold, but where apprentices are also trained in the crafts, thus in a sense returning the space to its original function as a place of learning and training (albeit in the service of a different "higher power"). While this represents a recovery of almost lost traditions--especially embroidery, jewelry making, fabric dyeing, and wood-working--it's also true that these re-emergent family-scale industries are catering to, and therefore are being determined by, the tourist industry. Nazira explained that it has taken several years for the craftsmen/merchants to figure out what colors and what patterns tourists from different parts of the world like to buy, and those are the styles that they now produce. A short resume on this: Japanese like bright colors and the Europeans prefer pastel tones. As in Khiva - the only jobs available here are those related to tourism and serving tourist tastes and interests. Most common things on displays are: suzannes (embroidered wall hangings), carpets (silk and wool), and some smaller things - watercolor - mostly with camels, miniatures, bags, ceramics, metalwork, textile).
The madrassa and a facing mosque erected by the same merchant, Nodir Devon Begi, in 1620, are separated by a large pool of water, the oldest and biggest in the city, nine meters deep. Legend has it that a woman lived on the property and refused to sell her house to Begi. So, he had canals dug and flooded the property, forcing her to move. At the end of the nineteenth century there were about 100 pools in the city (some sources say 97, others 103). Now only three of those are left, one of them dry, while a few others have been created. While there aren’t children swimming in this central pool, a few hundred meters down the road there's another pool, with much murkier water, with dozens of children diving into it and swimming around (as they seem to do in canals and pools all along the bus rides, wherever there is enough water, no matter how muddy, the younger boys--under eight or so--naked, and older ones with trunks or underwear, in the cities at least).
Around the pool there are statues of camels in various poses led by a camel driver, representing the many caravans that stopped in Bukhara as they made their way along the great Silk Road. And overlooking the pool there is also a large bronze statue of the legendary Hodja Naseridim Afendi, as he is called here, and his famous traveling companion, his donkey, with whom he shared many wondrous adventures throughout the world. Although known by different names, his stories are known throughout Central Asia and Asia Minor. They tend to contain folk wisdom, unless they're completely whimsical, and are often critical of the wealthy and sympathetic toward the poor. For example: a rich man is drowning in a pool much like this one in the center of old Bukhara. Various town folk yell out to him, "here, give me your hand!" but he doesn't respond. Hodja witnesses the scene, approaches, and says, "here, take my hand!" and the man takes his hand and is saved. Hodja explains: the rich don't "give"; they only "take." Meli recounted another story from Turkey: Hodja, dressed poorly, is denied admittance to a feast. He goes home, dons a rich fur, returns, and is readily admitted. When soup is served he spoons it all over his coat, saying, "it was my coat that was invited, not me." According to Bukharans at least, this popular Quixote-like figure was born here and is another of their claims to fame. The pool is surrounded by mulberry trees, some of which are extremely large and contorted and may be as old as six or seven hundred years. In addition to feeding silk worms and providing silk from their cocoons and providing mulberries, the trees are also used for holding humidity and as barriers to check sand drifts in the desert. They were also considered sacred.
As is the case in Oxford, the mulberries, which are plentiful, both in white and black varieties, go mostly unpicked and serve mostly to stain the ground under them (as well as other pavements from people's shoes). They're much bigger and juicier than those to be found in Oxford, and tastier, but also covered with dust because the roads, and hence all the trees lining them, are so dusty. The first caravan serai the group visited, from the 16th. century, is now the main craft center. The center of the courtyard served as a pen for the camels.
At the end of the 19th century, when Bukhara was a Khanate, or more accurately an Emirate, under the control of Czarist Russia, there were still 68 caravan serais inside the city, and more than 100 outside the city. This particular one had been under the control of the Jewish merchants. Bukhara has had a Jewish community since the 7th century BCE. There are still about 25 families living in the city today, and the Jewish Synagogue is a popular tourist site. Traditionally they have dealt in jewelry and money exchange and have been among the wealthiest members of the community.
Other caravan serais specialized in different kinds of merchandise or were frequented by merchants from different locations, e.g. a Hindu caravan serai outside the city, specializing in black tea and other products from India. In addition to serais, open-air bazaars (bozor), and tims (covered bazaars), Bukhara also developed five "trading domes" to protect merchandise from the weather while providing easy access. The three that are left are also used for the sale and in some cases the production of crafts, or applied art, as it's also called. The oldest mosque in Bukhara dates to the 12th century, but with elements, including the entire interior, dating to an earlier Arabic mosque from the 9th century. In fact, there are decorative elements reflecting an even earlier temple on the site dedicated to fire worship (Zoroastrians). These elements include images that suggest flames as well as a pattern we've seen before at Zoroastrian sites: a vertical bow-tie-like shape, with two inverted triangles pointing to each other and separated by a two-line membrane. This mosque and two other holy sites, a minaret and a mausoleum (that we will visit tomorrow), were saved from the devastation caused by the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, which destroyed every other building of note in the city, by being buried, only to be rediscovered, or uncovered, later.
The group visited other madrassas, a tim, and another dome, as well as a hamom (Turkish Bath), which the men got to enter for a look-see, since it was only for men--although somehow Gulnaz talked one of the workers to let her in as well. Interestingly, the real Turkish Bath is apparently to be found here rather than in Turkey, since those in Turkey have been "Romanized" to have only three temperatures, while these have as many different temperatures as they have chambers, and some have up to fifteen chambers. In the afternoon, Steve, Rick, and Joel Walker (a History professor from the U. of Washington, who has joined us for our few days here) tried it out, Steve opting for the full treatment, massage and everything, for about $10 for him, $2.50 for Rick and Joel, who didn't have a massage.
The group also visited craft museums, and Nazira showed and explained the differences between rugs from different regions, as well as dress and hangings. All of this and more took place before lunch. Lunch was near the main minaret, which was on the agenda to visit after lunch, but people were exhausted and decided to put it off until tomorrow, opting to go back to the hotel instead, some to play backgammon in the hotel lobby. Since the hotel is very centrally located it is easy to wander around on one's own. Gulnaz, Sante and Steve decided to climb up the minaret anyway. The climb was steep and long, the steps uneven and dark, and the views from the top spectacular (including of the dust blowing in from the desert), but Yihong will describe it in tomorrow's blog, after the group has visited it along with the adjacent mosque.
Today’s World Cup game is between Spain and Ukraine. Later tonight dinner will be in an historic madrasa, with music and traditional dance after that. Intellectual stimulation and luxurious comfort. What a life!
Day 26: Thursday June 15: Bukhara
"Bukhara is my home. I was born here and grew up here. I work here and I love the city," Nazira, the local guide told the group. To her, it seems every pillar in all the mosques and every piece of the bricks of historical sites in Bukhara has a story. An oasis in the desert on the Zeravshan River, Bukhara was an important city on the Silk Road. The river and the underground water gave life to the city, and the Silk Road nourished the city's long, rich and complex history. You can sense the complexity in its many names throughout history (Sante mentioned just a few recent ones on yesterday blog). You can see its richness in its people of over twenty ethnicities inhabiting the Bukhara region (the largest of the twelve regions of Uzbekistan), in the diverse designs of carpets and rugs with pre-Islamic religious symbol and Lenin , suzanni (cotton cloths with silk embroideries) , and you can see the richness in its many minarets, mosques and medressas of different sizes and shapes built at different times. You can feel the long history in the ruins of yellow earthen city walls and its many historical sites.
The city of Bukhara is divided into the old and new. Unlike Khiva, where the old city is an open air museum with about two thousand people living inside, the old city of Bukhara is more a real, living city of low houses, narrow alleys, apart from its many religious sites. The tour in the old city of Bukhara continued today, beginning with the Kalon Minaret built in 1127 (Kalon means "great" in Tajik). In the light breeze mixed with sands, the group walked around the large courtyard of the Kalon Mosque, which is under renovation. After the Independence of Uzbekistan in 1991, many mosques have acquired new life including this one. Under renovation, it looks quite new. The Mir-i-Arab Medressa nearby is functioning seminary, not open to tourists when the students are in class from 5 am to 1 pm. One only caught a brief look through its carved wood framed window.
After a short visit to the formerly Amir Alim Khan Medressa, which has a beautiful courtyard with an old well and now is the city's largest children's library, the tour moved on to the Ark, an ancient foresters tracing its origin far back to the times of centuries before the Common Era. Many school children and a group of local tourists, elderly men from the rural area, were among the visitors. The Ark has several museums, one being a museum of old manuscripts. In the history museum, in addition to the many artifacts --potteries, tools, coins, fabrics cloths, furniture, are interesting photographs taken by Pudovkin Gorskii, a Russian explorer at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, showing daily life of Bukhara. Looking at those old photos, you find some familiar scenes in present-day Bukhara, such as the carved wooden doors, the fabric shops, the faces of people, and of course, the minarets, mosques and medressas. The Ismail Samani Mausoleum, one of the town's oldest monument and one of the most elegant structures in Central Asia, according to several tour guide books, is indeed unique. Small in size, the patterns of its outside and inside are identical and the bricks have many shapes. More, the locals believe if you walk around the mausoleum three times counter clockwise you will have good luck. Most of the group walked around at least one time since the guide said once would be enough.
On the way back to lunch near the hotel, the bus took us through parts of the new city. Although it was just after one pm, in the hot sun with temperature of over 90, the locals leisurely walked around, checking out the shops and watermelon stalls. The heat did not seem to bother them at all. The afternoon included the Char Minar, or "Four Minarets" in Tajik, a small mosque with four towers around it. Located in the alleys of the old city, the Char Minar has become a symbol of Bukhara, appearing in many tourist books and on T shirt (ask Ben; he is in such a T shirt today). Under two kites flying over and above the towers, several climbed up to the roof of the dome not very high, which gave a good view of the neighborhood, with low, yellow bricked, mud houses.
Group activities ended around 3:30. After some rest, people went on to explore and experience the richness of Bukhara. Karen, Mary, Ben and Yihong went to a photograph studio. Yesterday, Karen bought over 40 photos for Miami there and today met with the local female and male photographers, and a local female film maker, who talked about her works on gender and the local customs and showed the documentary jointly made by her and her husband on local customs and rituals in wedding. Another short film of hers "Bukhara Inside" and all those beautifully shot photos in the studio brought Bukhara much closer and more intimate.
It is still very hot - over 100 degrees at 2 in the afternoon, with few people out on the streets. This is a place where it would be really tough to live -- the heat is exhausting. The area where the residents live is a labyrinth of narrow streets, very dilapidated buildings. It is dusty, lacking any greenery, with some construction or repair work going on here and there. While Bukhara is not quite the same "open-air museum" that Khiva is, the old part of the city is still quite compact and accessible--and has perhaps a less artificial feel to it than Khiva because you get the sense that people still actually live here as well.
Gulnaz visited the UNESCO carpet-making workshop in the afternoon, which had Russian pop-music coming out from some closed and open doors. In one of the rooms –– 2 girls and one boy –– all in the teens or early 20s –– were working. The two girls were making/weaving a carpet; the boy was working with the scissors on a ready carpet –– making the surface more even. The
room was naturally lighted, although the girl in the back did not have enough light. She was just starting out the carpet and was sitting on the floor; the second girl had finished about 30 centimeters of her carpet and was sitting on the bench.
The adventures of Gulnaz continued with a library. In one room sat several women, who said that there was a mahalla there. Mahalla is an equivalent of ZhKUor ZhEK in Russia –– an organization responsible for some municipal services; utilities, etc. –– the rent and electricity, water payments are done through or to this Mahallas. The library was located in that building too. The library’s collection was about 22 thousand books; mostly used by students in the area. The wooden floors were very unstable –– obviously not repaired for a long time... Their Russian books were old –– probably no new acquisitions in the past 15 years. They had Andrei Platonov and even Prokhanov (the famous nationalist-communist writer).
As Gulnaz stopped in the trading house on the way back to the hotel, she chatted for a while with a man she had bought a scarf from the previous day. He was very frank. He confirmed that life here is difficult... blaming the government –– equal to the mafia (in his opinion) –– which divided up the pie and did not leave anything to the people. Half of the population is migrating for 6 months (until winter) –– to Russia and other places in search of salaries (he joked about this: like bears, he said... sleeping through the winter). He has 4 kids; his own sons in law are in Russia and South Korea –– doing construction work. Here –– there are only old people and kids... the younger generation leaves... Before the revolution Bukhara was a city of rich people –– in his opinion... now –– there is not even money for restoration. Karimov –– from Samarkand himself –– does invest some money in Samarkand... but not much... most of rich people are in Tashkent... people do not support him; if the elections were not falsified –– he would have been voted out from office already after his first term...but now –– you cannot say anything... prisons are waiting for the brave.
Another conversation, this time between Gulnaz and two women on the street, revealed more insights into life in Uzbekistan. The women shared their perception of present life and their lives 15 years ago. They invited Gulnaz to walk with them to their home. Matliuba and Raikhon were walking from visiting a newborn baby (Raikhon's nephew). Raikhon's two sons (Sanjar and Suleimon - 8 and 6 year-olds) were waiting at home. They brought some food (gostinets) - plov and samsa - and fed the kids... Matliuba's daughter - Mavliuda was also at home... she washed some fruits (watermelon, apples, plums and apricots), placed cold tea and some candy on the table, all the while telling Gulnaz about their lives (work, fun, salaries, wishes...). Among other things, the women told that the textile-related factories in Bukhara were all closed. A good salary was about 100-150 K som (about 80-120$); an exceptionally good salary - 200K som; people frequently earn 40-50K. Pensions are also about 40K... a professor in the university makes anywhere from 60 to 80K som. 1 kilo of meat -- about 3000 som; 1 kilo of sugar - 1200 som. Raikhon's husband - as many other men - is working in Russia and is gone for 1 year ... they speak on the phone once in 2 months... Mavliuda's boyfriend (a boy seeking her hand) is also in Russia (though calls her much more often)... Raikhon herself mentioned about her desire to go to South Korea to work... although the group’s tour-guide Nazira confessed later that working in South Korea is the hardest and most dangerous for health (in various senses). Still, despite all the difficulties, both Matliuba and her daughter were very optimistic and full of hope (if complaining a lot).
Scott also had chance encounters with the locals, offering insight into Uzbek life. A young woman in an internet cafe seemed particularly bitter, that foreigners have opportunities for travel while they struggle to make ends meet. Salaries are incredibly low (often around $50 a month) in this part of the country, and opportunities are equally hard to come by. "You live," the young (Uzbek? Tajik?) woman said in Russian, "while we merely exist." Most people seek any opportunity to go abroad (many want to come to American, but more go to Russia) to make money. Oddly, while Uzbekistan is a much richer country than Kyrgyzstan in terms of natural resources, the despair seemed even sharper here than there...
Around sunset, Rick and Scott went to the top of the Kalon Minaret over 40 meters high, in the shimmering light of the setting sun on the mosques, overlooking the old city. From the top of the Bukhara looked very dusty (it was windy today and the city is surrounded by the desert), with white and beige flat roofs. The central part has these historical great buildings with many domes, but most of the city is different. "Amazing" and "incredible" may be too plain to describe the feelings. One has to be up there. Two and a half days here. Bukhara means many things to each individual, differently, of course. It is a place one can not forget.
Day 27: Friday June 16: Shahrisabz
Today began the journey from Bukhara to Samarkand, to the east. Leaving the hotel in the middle of the Bukhara old city at 8:00 AM, the bus traveled through the newer city to the outskirts, which are intensively cultivated with irrigation from the Bukhara canal of the Amu Darya. Then suddenly it is the desert and there is nothing but an occasional herd of sheep making its way--for no apparent reason--from the desolation of one side of the road to the other. Next there is a windstorm that blows the desert sand into thick clouds that reduce our visibility to no more than a quarter mile.
On the way the group passed the time with brief autobiographies: Rick and Scott told how they arrived in religious studies, both by routes as variegated as the silk road itself. Gülen told of her Odyssey to Ohio, a place she claims to love, no doubt in the hopes of getting a green card. Meli talked about the importance of education in her life. For Stan growing up in Iowa made him interested in places, especially other places, so it is no surprise he studied in Urumqi, China, the antipode of Iowa.
Shakhrisabz is an oasis between Bukhara and Samarkand. It was famous for its grapes and wine production. It is the birthplace of Timur (Tamerlane), whose Mongol empire in the late Fourteenth Century encompassed most of Central Asia. Timur ruled from Samarkand, but he built an enormous palace complex in his birthplace. Uzbekistan has revived the image of Timur the conqueror as national hero since gaining independence from the Soviets in 1991, replacing statues of Lenin with statues of Timur. Of this "white house" (Ak-Saray), only two enormous towers that flanked the central gate survive. Several in the group made the climb to the top for great views of the city and surrounding countryside.
After lunch and the usual food coma that follows, it was on to a group of monuments that included the Dar-al Sidayat (the mausoleum built for Timur's oldest son), Kok Gumbaz mosque (built by Ulugh-Beg in the middle of the Fifteenth Century), which faces two mausoleums: Gumbaz-i-Zaidan and the mazar of Shams-ad-din Kulal. The latter was built by Timur for his clan, the former by Ulugh-beg.
After dinner in the hotel, there was an animated game of silk road charades before turning in. Best performance by Simone doing "Cowgirl Dancing in Tashkent Restaurant" (!)
Day 28: Saturday June 17: Samarkand
For many, the morning began with a phone call--a multi-party call with Mary, Liz, Judith, Scott--all going--"Hello, Hello--did you call?" and a little girl's voice in the background laughing along with another voice announcing, "Breakfast, Breakfast, Breakfast." Deciding to heed the call, all proceeded to the breakfast room for what has become a fairly routine offering with some slight individuation at each place: fried eggs, crepe-like pancakes filled with meat or plain, kefir, cheese, tomatoes, fruit, breads, coffee or tea.
Luggage was due outside our door at 7:45 with plans to leave on the Marco Polo constant companion--the huge tour bus-- at 8:30. On the road again toward Samarkand with the wish for "a white road" or safe journey. Left behind was Shahrisabz' large standing figure of Timur, with the knowledge that a large seated sculpture of him (also known as Tamerlane) awaited in Samarkand. Shahrisabz means "green city" and after the sandstorm on the way to the city, the trees and grass were much appreciated. Desert and sand was the scene for the journey, though the landscape included more housing, livestock, trees, brush, and green plants than the day before. The bus actually had to stop several times to let the sheep, cows, and goats finish their road crossing. Utkir also pointed out the crops --wheat, maize, cotton and grapes which are used for grapes and wine production. (Uzbeks prefer sweet or semi-sweet wine.)
The group moved more slowly than normal on this day, making several stops. The first was a chance to attend a local market and mingle with the local people. The parking lot was filled not only with cars but also had motorcycles, dozens of old tractors, saddle horses, donkeys saddled or behind carts--the noise of the coming and going was a cacophony of sounds from several centuries combined. This American group was the "amusement de jour." Broken up into 2's and 3's, there were lots of people staring, trying to speak in a variety of languages, posing for pictures, following, etc. with all in good spirits . The range of merchandise available was very inclusive: bolts of silk and cotton fabric, scarves, shoes, hairclips, Mickey Mouse t-shirts, ice cream, rock sugar candy, boxes of assorted penny candies, underwear, bars of lye soap, boxes of Smash detergent, children's clothes, men's suits, traditional hats and clothing for men and women, toothpaste and Colgate spin toothbrushes, knives, safety pins, cell phone covers, and foodstuffs including several types of melon, onions, tomatoes, apricots, plums, raisins, whole grains, assorted spices, and potatoes. Of course, one could also buy goats, sheep, donkeys, and horses. One of the funniest scenes had 2 small goats in the backseat of a small (think old Corolla) car. Also interesting was when a man got on his donkey and then put a lamb on in front of the saddle with one set of feet on each side and proceeded down the road holding the reins and lamb and obviously heading for home. The market was a fun and instructive break.
After another hour of travel, the bus pulled over and Meli and Utkir went up to a house by the side of the road and asked if the group could come and visit the home and talk with the people there. They agreed and the group poured out of the bus, greeted the grandmother, "salom", took off shoes, and proceeded to sit around the walls on the traditional floor coverings. The house had a tin-shingled peaked roof and adobe brick walls covered with a thick coat of mud mixed with straw. It was reminiscent of the inside of a yurt with all the linens and beddings piled up on the back wall. The family offered bread and yogurt. The bread was the traditional circle shape but it was whole wheat--and very good. Simone offered the rock sugar she had gotten at the local market as a gift. The grandmother-in-law was 74 and looked terrific. She was feisty and funny and full of life and enjoyment. When asked what she'd wish for--she replied in a loose interpretation, "peace --for our president, our country, and for you." When the 25 year old woman was asked the same question--she sounded familiar--a new car, a new house, and a big wedding party were her wishes. She had 4 children; another 3 children were present as well as another woman. The daughter-in-law mentioned that 2 of the Kilm were brought as part of her dowry. The time spent was a wonderful opportunity to understand the people, their way of living, and their hopes and dreams.
In Samarkand there was a problem with the hotel. It was not the one on the itinerary and the group was uncomfortable with the alternative. After several hours of negotiation the group went to Hotel Afrosiab for one night--knowing there would be a change in the morning to Hotel Malika, another one yet.
At 5 pm everyone headed to the Observatory and museum of Ulug Beg, the grandson of Timur and a brilliant scientist and philosopher. His star chart was a great achievement and made its way to Istanbul. His calculations about star movement were astonishingly accurate. There were also the remains of the huge sextant (originally over 30 meters tall and 16 meters below ground) which was excavated by the Russians in the 1920's. Ulug Beg lost support of his subjects because they viewed his scientific inquiry as being in league with the dark forces; his son killed him in belief he's be rewarded by being named ruler.
The final site of the day was the Guri-Emir or the Tomb of Timur, the 15th century mausoleum. The inside is all white marble floors with light blue, dark blue, and gold decorated tiles inside. Monuments to other dead also are included. Outside is a large marble vessel said to be used by Timur before battle and immediately afterwards. It was filled with pomegranate juice and each soldier drank before battle as a reminder of blood and to give him strength. When they gathered after battle Timur could see how many soldiers he had lost by how much pomegranate juice remained. The standard dinner followed and then a return to the hotel--many to watch the latest World cup play. Everyone was looking forward to a chance to start anew the next day.
Instead of tourist activities with the group, Scott and Rick attended the Alekseevskii (St. Alexei) Russian Orthodox Cathedral for vespers. There were very few people in the church, but they had some time to chat with one nice young man, Yaroslav. Among other things, he explained that many Russians had left in the past decade, so that, while the church used to have many more people, now there were far fewer. Yaroslav seemed quite eager to talk, so Scott promised to come back on Sunday. Despite the lack of people, the singing and the service were still beautiful.
Day 29: Sunday June 18: Samarkand
June 18th was an eventful day with visits to some of the most magnificent architectural structures of Samarkand - the capital of the Timurid empire (14-15th centuries). Today it is the second largest city in Uzbekistan with a population of about 370,000 (the population has been decreasing in the past 10 years), including 60 ethnic groups (although Russians, Jews and other ethnic groups have been abandoning the city in search of better economic prospects).
The first written records about Samarkand date to the 6th century BC; prior to being conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the city was called Afrosiyab. Samarkand represented one of the strategic points of the Silk Road: it was a city where the Silk Road divided into two (going west through Iran and south to India). Burnt down by Ghengis-khan in 1220, the city was rebuilt in the territory to the south of its original location. The city saw its heyday under Amir Timur (Tamerlane) in the late 14th-early 15th centuries, when the great conqueror brought the artisans and craftsmen from around the world to build new madrassas, mosques and mausoleums in his capital.
Lead by a new tour guide - Diliara (Dila, a Crimean Tatar) – the group first went to the Afrosiyab archeological museum. Excavations of the city started in the 19th century but most discoveries were made in the 1960s, when archeologists found a king's palace and uncovered local pottery, handicraft, and beautiful frescoes from the 7th century. The museum contains relics from different historical periods and influences this region and the city had experienced, including the Hellenistic era, the Kushan empire, hephtalites, the Turkish caganate, the Arab conquest, etc. Once again it displayed the fact that this place represents a real amalgam of cultures, religions, and traditions.
The way to the city center led past Hazrat-i-Hizr mosque - unusual in its color combination (white, blue and light brown). The mausoleum complex Shah-i-Zinda (the Living Prince) was the next stop. Allegedly, a cousin of the Prophet, Kussam ben Abbas came to Samarkand in the 7th century and -- according to various legends -- was either killed, died naturally or miraculously disappeared; but what was believed to be his tomb became a place of worship and pilgrimage. Later, in the 12-15th centuries, new tombs and buildings were added in the territory surrounding Shah-i-Zinda.
The next stop - Bibi Khanum mosque - is a very large construction built under Timur and famous for starting to crumble very soon after its completion. Now you can see the upper part of the mosque that was rebuilt and the older part that remained unchanged. There is an interesting legend related to this mosque. Timur's senior wife - Bibi Khanum - ordered this mosque to be built; the architect fell in love with Bibi Khanum and requested a kiss as a condition for building the mosque. Whether on her cheek or through a scarf, she did allow him to kiss her, and got a mark on her cheek! As Timur returned from his conquests (in India, most likely), he noticed the mark and she confessed to him about the architect. The poor and infatuated architect was condemned to death (of course) by being thrown off the minaret. His genius helped him: he was able to construct some wings and fly away. It all fell on women's shoulders: since that time they were ordered to wear a veil.
There was still a lot to see ahead (note, this was all before lunch), so the group quickly proceeded to the Registan - a magnificent square composed of three madrassas built during 15th and 17th centuries. The madrassa of Ulugh-beg (with traditional Samarqand ornamentation of white and blue) was built in the first half of the 15th century, the Shir-Dor madrassa (first half of the 17th century) has Bukharan style tilework (combining green and yellow) and the Tilla-Kara madrassa (17th century) follows the Persian style. The Ulugh-beg madrassa was famous for its teachers: Ulugh-beg himself, Alisher Navoi and Jaami taught there. It was one of the best universities in Central Asia at that time.
The busy morning ended with a great lunch at Karim Bek restaurant where they served some original salads and excellent meat kebabs. The hot afternoon was spent in the hotel - napping, resting, reading - and, later, in the evening the group went to the recital at the St. George church (not functioning). Everyone greatly enjoyed some classical and even orientalist-classical music and songs.
Scott planned to go back to the church and talk more to Yaroslav, instead of touring with the group. Utkir, however, suggested a different one--St. George's church. Curious to see something different than the cathedral, Scott took his advice, and found his way thanks to the ringing of the church bells. It was very different from the cathedral: a little complex wedged in a residential neighborhood, but the church itself was much smaller--though actually had more people than the cathedral. Only about half the people were Russian, presumably the rest were Uzbek or Tajik. The majority was women, but there was a mixture of people of all ages, and based on the dress, it did not seem an overly conservative place. A conversation with a cab driver from the church to the cathedral revealed that most of the Russians had left Samarkand and that conditions were difficult for those who stayed behind, especially for someone older like he was who had an apartment and pension in Samarkand. At the cathedral, Scott met up with Yaroslav, the priests of the church, the choir director, an icon painter, and a few others for lunch Father Igor was a very energetic, balanced, and thoughtful young priest. The most difficult thing for them, clearly, has been the flight of many Russians from Uzbekistan over the past decade or so. But when asked about relations with the predominantly Muslim population, Fr. Igor said they had no problems, in fact some Muslims have even supported the church at times. When asked about the government, they said that there were certain restrictions--for example, that a priest couldn't just walk outside the church, gather a crowd and start preaching--but also, in general, the local government had been supportive and even helped them repair the church. The church was build it 1912, but had been used by the military in the Soviet period, so that the interior had to be substantially redone. The work was impressive (evidently aided by the fact that both the Patriarch and Putin had visited in recent years), and the iconostasis was particularly well done in traditional style.
After the group’s dinner, some tried to get a sense of Samarkand's night life. Alas, it was a disappointing trial. On the whole, it struck me as rather quiet, the streets were pretty empty and most nightclubs had a 12-midnight curfew. One closed even earlier after being raided by 5 policemen. However, there was a wedding reception nearby, and within minutes Yildirim, Scott and Gulnaz got pulled in and poured glasses of vodka, and then dragged out to the dance floor around the (Uzbek) bride and groom and became a center of attention... The MC called on Scott to congratulate the bride and groom over the microphone in front of the whole audience and the video cameras. Fortunately, Scott was well equipped with a stock of Russian phrases (schastie, liubov', zdorove, mnogo detei etc.), which was quite the hit, though the three tried to make their escape as soon as possible.
The city is livelier than Bukhara; it is greener, seems to be better taken care of and more convenient for living. The moods of ordinary people are very similar to Bukharan, however. A conversation with a woman in a beauty salon uncovered same realities: a husband working in Russia, closed factories, unemployment, and other complaints. Of course, it is part of human nature to complain about life - esp. given that psychotherapy services are not in fashion in this part of the world. People use available outlets...
Day 30: Monday June 19: Samarkand
Sunrise was sometime before 5 a.m. today, as some members of the group can attest to from the position of their hotel rooms. Following a nice Russian breakfast served by smiling Russian waitresses, the group after a few false starts sat down for a seminar with Gülen and Afsaneh. Gülen’s presentation, “Textiles and Architecture,” argued that nomadic cultures use textiles as an architecture that supports a mobile, decentered, and organic way of life. The yurt exemplifies this conception of textiles. The discussion following Gülen’s talk touched on, among other things, the connections between democratic architecture and nomadism; links between clan, family, and society; and women’s roles in architecture.
Afsaneh’s presentation, “Digital Nomads: Pre-Modern Mood and Post-modern Space,” used the film Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg) and Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts Longer Than a Hundred Years (I dol'she veka dlitsia den') to look at intersections between space, time, and technology. Using Martin Heidegger’s critique of architecture, Afsaneh suggested that both of these works reflect contemporary society’s problematic search for a fixed home in an unstable world. In the ensuing discussion, Sante connected both presentations by linking nomadic cultures’ use of textiles and a focus on living in the present.
At twelve thirty the group took the bus to a Uighur restaurant, inexplicably named Alt Stadt. This location is laudable for having the best beer deal yet encountered on the trip (650 sum for decent draft beer presumably brewed nearby). There is also, of course, something refreshing (if not downright confusing) about a restaurant offering “Uighur cuisine” with a German name and a menu in Russian and Uzbek. The place bills itself as a “lagman center” and indeed these noodles made their appearance (first course), followed by spicy chicken.
In the afternoon various group members went to the main bazaar (according to Scott, nicer than expected and no animals), took naps (interrupted by the air conditioner “automatically” switching off in the 98 F heat), or went to an internet cafe (the Malika staff candidly admits that the connection is slow). At 5, the bus picked up most of the group at the hotel for a trip to the center of Samarkand. After entering Registan, the group encountered a garrulous policeman who asked: 1. where everyone was from (the States), 2. how many days the group had been in Uzbekistan (not sure), 3. would anyone like to take an (illegal) trip up into one of the minarets (no, thank you).
Scott and Rick struck up a conversation with two young women who were paying a visit to a nearby shrine. Both were students, one of foreign languages (who seemed quite eager to practice her English), the other of music--whose specialty was opera. In fact, she offered to give a sample of her singing, but felt it inappropriate to sing opera there in the mausoleum complex. So they wandered back out together and looked for an appropriate spot. One of them spotted an open shop and went inside and asked if they could come in and have the performance there; it turned out not to be a shop, but a place where they were baking bread, complete with a gigantic mixer that was churning around the dough. Undeterred, the opera singer sang an aria (perhaps from Figaro, sung in Russian)--and she had a wonderful voice.
Most then ended up at the Bozor Bayram folk show, a spectacle telling the happy story of a couple who overcome poverty, hostile merchants, and a missing rooster to achieve personal happiness and, of course, the requisite child. Along the way the show took the opportunity to incorporate a fire-breather and a bed of nails.
At eight everyone returned to the Bek restaurant for dinner. A Tajik family came over to chat (in Russian) and the usual suspects found their way to the dance floor. At around ten most returned to the hotel. Though the dancers of the group continued to dance with people from the neighboring tables. People seem to mix quite frequently among different ethnicities in Samarkand, and at this restaurant in particular. One table consisted of a couple of Russians, a couple of Uzbeks, and a Tajik. Later this group of Uzbek men insisted on uniting with the Miami, though by this point it was late, the vodka became a bit too free-flowing, and one of the drunk Uzbek men started making declarations of love to one of the female members of the group--signaling it was time to call it a night!
Samarkand ranks among the favorite locations so far on the itinerary. Perhaps part of it is that everyone has had more time to explore on their own, which has entailed interacting more with various people. Also, the feel and look of the city is appealing: parks, lots of trees and green, and the old 19th century Russian architecture (in addition, of course, to the spectacular classic monuments), and not so many block flats.
Day 31: Tuesday June 20: Samarkand
The day at the Hotel Malika . The morning was a market day at the local bazaar near Bibi Hanum Mosque. Purchases included a suzane (embroidered coverlet), a badam tubteika (almond skullcap), as well as peanuts, walnuts, and candies for the road trip to Tashkent tomorrow.
The next stop was the new commercial center of the city at the corner of Amir Timur and Alisher Navoi streets. Alisher Navoi is a pedestrian street. Some bought jewelry and pearls. Others bought maps and postcards, even a calculator. There is a nice little supermarket, a bookstore, pharmacy, coffee shops, internet, restaurants and GUM ( the state universal store) in this district.
Lunch consisted of Samarkand plov. This type of rice pilaf is layered with rice on the bottom, next is carrots and raisins and finally the meat is on top. A baked head of garlic complements the plov. A nice addition to the meal was the presence of two students from the university. One was a soprano voice music major who favored the group with three arias, in Russian, Italian and Tajik. Stan Toops followed with a Chinese folk song. The halls of the restaurant reverberated with applause by the patrons.
Other options for the morning included a trip to Ulugh Beg observatory as well as Gur Emir (Prophet Daniel) mausoleum and lunch at a Turkish restaurant. Supposedly, Temur had the remains (or part of the remains) of the biblical prophet Daniel brought from Baghdad to Samarkand, and this site is considered holy by Christians and Jews as well as Muslims--although the current building of the mausoleum was only constructed at the beginning of the 20th century. Certainly part of the charm of the site was the location--surrounded by hills jutting above and the river running down below. There were indeed pilgrims coming, to take some water from the spring that was considered holy, and to have prayers said next to the grave of Daniel (which was enormously long--as if he had been a giant!). The Observatory of Ulugbek was built at the beginning of the 15th century (though only the underground part remains today)--a sign of the high level of culture and science in the Islamic world in the middle ages (of which Samarkand was a particular center).
After a rest in the afternoon (Samarkand was about 40°C) came an afternoon seminar at the hotel. Frederick Colby discussed the peripatetic peregrinations of the Muslim Scholar and writer Ibn Battuta. In the 1300s Ibn Battuta, a Berber from Tangiers (in modern Tunisia) traveled through Arabia, Turkey, Bukhara and Samarkand, Maldives India, China and back with trips to Morocco and Spain. Ibn Battuta describes people and places, discusses philosophy with Muslim scholars, marries, divorces, has children, and tells stories about local rulers and sages. His mode of travel and reporting is different than the Venetian Marco Polo who had more of an objective report about places, commodities and customs. In contrast the Tangerine Ibn Battuta observes local customs but also gives advice to spiritual leaders, emirs and rulers about matters of morality and religion. (See Professor Colby for full notes on Ibn Battuta).
The evening was spent at the now-favorite restaurant Karim Bek. The shashlik (grilled meats and vegetables) parlor is owned and operated by local Iranian entrepreneurs. Live music highlights the evening. Patrons respond with vigorous dancing. The neighboring table seemed much more subdued than the previous night. All of the Silk Road participants joined on, egged on by driver Shi'ar with his eagle style dancing. The evening finishes with round of cards while sitting outside on the aiwan (exterior open-air porch). Tomorrow on to Tashkent.
A few observations of Uzbek deficits:
1-no t-shirts that say "Uzbekistan loves you", or "Uzbekistan soccer": the closest is a t-shirt that had "adidas" on the front and "made in Uzbekistan" on the label--they seemed very proud of that
2-a deficit of "Baltika seven" beer. They have "Baltika three" (yes, Steve Norris, Baltika three) everywhere, but please can we get serious? They have a nasty local brew called "Azia" but really you don't want to go there.
3-the tour guides and tour bus drivers are "ex" military or police. But the less said about that issue the better. However, when they're not wearing khaki camouflage, they wear t-shirts that say 'peace' (really)
4-when it's 105 outside, can you really eat pilaf and lamb for lunch (every day)? The answer to that question appears to be yes.
5-when you visit a mosque, do you really want to see a saying from Islam Karimov on the wall. Sure, his first name is Islam, but come on.
6-all the people the group made arrangements to have seminars with at local universities got sick--they really have to do something about their health situation!
Well, you get the idea. On the other hand, everyone has met a lot of really interesting people, one way or another.
Day 32: Wednesday June 21: Tashkent
Today the group left beautiful Samarkand for a few days of intellectual inquiry at various institutes of higher learning and NGOs in Tashkent. Departure from Samarkand was at an early hour and the bus stopped at Timur's pass to explore a gap in the rocky hills that allowed passage for Timur's large army. Scott, Steve, and Utkhir crossed a canal and forded a stream in order to inspect the inscription left behind on the hillside. Others went to investigate a small cave nearby. Simone shared the last of her stash of chocolate and then all boarded the bus for the last leg of the journey.
Once in Tashkent, the group had lunch in a cafe noteworthy for delicious soups. After lunch came a visit to the Museum of Applied Arts, a small but impressive place located in the former home of a Russian diplomat. Yildirim modeled a turban and then tried on a cap that, he was told, made him look like "a rich man accustomed to making up his own rules." Except for the part about riches, there was something rather prescient about the words of that salesgirl. The less said about our dinner at the Grand Orzu Hotel the better. Those who chose the option of steak were considerably under whelmed. But the dining room of Grand Orzu has a redeeming feature that all enjoyed: World Cup football games are projected onto the walls. Mexico struggle valiantly (but not successfully) against Portugal.
After dinner some went down to Broadway (the pedestrian area in downtown Tashkent), which was very lively with outdoor restaurants and cafes until the police came by to enforce the curfew at 10:30.
Day 33: Thursday June 22: Tashkent
This next to last day in Uzbekistan was a busy one. Although the morning was unscheduled, many used the time to shop, explore the neighborhood around the hotel in southeast Tashkent, get haircuts, check email, and in Judith's case go to DHL with Ben as her translator to ship books to Ohio. She found out that age of materials and receipts were very important as the shipment of things out of Uzbekistan is heavily regulated.
As a group, the day did not really begin till after an early lunch of pizza and soft drinks at the hotel. The long drive to a first session at the Institute for Oriental Studies provided opportunity to observe the diversity of this capital city. A large and ornate Polish Catholic Church serves the local Polish community, descendants of 200,000 Poles relocated to Uzbekistan after World War II. There were many interesting combination of the traditional and the modern. Street sweepers used both cell phones and straw brooms. Transportation included buses, electric tram, mini-buses, LPG cars, taxis, and donkey carts. Women wore mini-skirts, tank tops and high heels, as well as traditional loose, ankle-length dresses. Sometimes in the same local textile materials.
The Al Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies is one of 44 institutes under the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The group was introduced to a number of scholars attached to the Institute and given a short history. The institute was established in 1943 and is famous for its faculty and its impressive collection of ancient manuscripts. Their library contains more than 26,000 volumes containing more than 80,000 individual treatises. The collection has materials in Persian, Turkish, Chinese and Arabic. The Institute has two primary focuses. One is to restore and preserve their magnificent collection, publishing catalogs of subject areas and translations as well as investigating the history of Central Asia and Islam through their collection. The second is to investigate modern political and economic relations in Central Asia and South Asia.
After an introduction of our group members, Dean Sessions spoke (with translation into Russian by Ben Sutcliffe) about the work at Miami University Libraries in digitizing manuscripts and other materials to preserve them and to increase their access to scholars. Dr. Colby spoke about Islamic studies in the United States and changes since 9/11 (nine eleven). He spoke of the increase in students and the increase in positions at American universities. Additionally, he spoke of his own research on the development and circulation of oral narrative dealing with Mohamed's Night Journey and Ascension and its impact on Islamic ritual. His talk was translated into Russian by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. Professor Ahat Khodjaev, a scholar on Central Asia and China, spoke about his research on the impact of China on Central Asia and the corresponding impact of Central Asia on China. He also spoke about a reinterpretation of the historic appearance of the silk road. He cited archaeological discoveries and old Chinese texts as supporting a silk road as old as the 2nd millennium BCE rather than 1st millennium BCE. He also spoke of Turkic control of the silk road that ranged between South Asia and Central Asia. Professor Khodjaev is the author of numerous articles and a number of books including soon to be published in Uzbek, The Great Silk Road: Destiny and People. His talk was translated from Russian to English by Gulnaz Sharafutdinova. Professor Scott Kenworthy spoke in Russian of his research on Eastern Orthodoxy and monasticism.
The group was privileged to see a couple of volumes from the manuscript collection, a 9th Century Koran and a 13th Century book on Astronomy. Judith, Scott and Rick stayed on at the Institute to see if they could acquire some of the institute’s publications for Miami Libraries. They obtained 30 books and made another trip to DHL for shipping, which turned out to be quite an ordeal, as the cashier (who extensively mixed Russian and Uzbek in her conversations with her colleagues) had never made a transaction using a credit card before. Then Scott and Rick went to the Islamic university so that Rick could meet with a professor there who's work was relevant to his own. The rest moved on to the second session at the NGO Yog'du directed by Dr. Feruza Rashidova. Yog'du means early morning sunshine and the NGO focuses on education and cultural exchange. The dynamic Dr. Rashidova spoke of a number of projects Yog'du participated in with partners such as Odyssey of the Mind, Service Camp International, Academic Year Abroad, and INDEX Cultural Exchange Centre. All of her work focuses on creating opportunities for bright Uzbek students to increase their academic skills and connections to international opportunities for internships and other experiences abroad. Dr. Rashidova was very forthcoming in answering questions about her NGO and about Uzbekistan in general.
After the second session it was off to the opera (La Traviata) for some and dinner for others. Those going to dinner returned to the hotel by electric tram. So far in Tashkent transport has been primarily by the tour bus, so for those transportation enthusiasts, the tram was great fun.
Tonight was Ben Sutcliffe's final night together with the group, since he will fly to Moscow tomorrow to be with his girlfriend and do some research there (his field is Russian Literature). A late night game of Great Dalmuti acted as a going away party complete with vodka toasts to his health.
Day 34: Friday June 23: Tashkent
The reign of guide Meli, on top of many daily frustrations, unfortunately came to dominate too many group conversations: dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, lack of phone, hot water, AC in the rooms, internet connections, even a decent meal, or constant unacceptable rudeness and disrespect by the guides, which only came second to the state of our bathrooms in most of this trip. Nevertheless, this trip has been totally a spectacular experience.
On the morning of the 23rd, the group was introduced to Mr. Rich Hawkins’s efforts at the University of Washington, Uzbekistan Educational Partnership Program for Cultural & Comparative Religious Studies in their pleasant conference space. It was a big, bright, and beautiful hard-wood facility. It was fun to catch up with Joel, the UW historian whom the group had met in Bukhara. The center has been running on a 3 year State Dept. grant that just ran out, and because of the sour relationship between governments right now it might not be able to stay open much longer. Looks like a nice place for research, though, hopefully it will manage to stay afloat. Stan Toops gave a presentation on tourism in Western China and Gulnaz tied together a number of key issues and observations from the group travel.
Later, The performance, Marriage of Figaro in the Tashkent Opera House entertained some. Others went to a play at an experimental theater. The Ilkhom Experimental Theater performance of “White White Black Stork” provided an exciting experience for others. The day came to an end by packing up to hit the road to the airport at 3:45am.
Day 35: Saturday June 24: Tashkent/Istanbul
Memorable quotes from the transfer from Tashkent to Istanbul: “When I get to Turkey, I won't kiss the ground, I will lick the ground;" "It is better to lose yourself than to lose your declaration form;" "No! I won't leave him behind."
The transfer from Tashkent to Istanbul began with a wake-up call at 3:30 AM for a 6:30 AM flight. There was a great deal of confusion and Kafkaesque bureaucracy at the customs, but the worst thing was that Steve Nimis, of sound mind insofar as possible with no caffeine, left his declaration form in checked luggage, putting him in a weak position with the customs official, who refused to let him leave the country with the $1100.00 of emergency cash he was carrying for the group. After much discussion, he left the cash with Uitgur in the hope that he can make a wire transfer later. Meli and Rick had to pay a modest "tax" of some kind on their rugs.
The plane conveniently left an hour late, in part because so many other people were held up as well. The plane flew over Uzbekistan (which all seemed like one unending desert), the Caspian Sea, Armenia, and all of Anatolia before coming to Istanbul. Arriving in Istanbul, the group hit the ground running. Gülen's mother was waiting in the restricted area, just as Gülen had predicted, to join the tour for several days. After checking into the hotel, The Aya Sophia, it was immediately off to Taxim Square, a pedestrian area filled with retail activity, food, drink, and the promise of a lively night scene. All were struck immediately that suddenly this was a completely different kind of urban sphere than all throughout Central Asia--the kind of thriving, active and lively city with so many people out everywhere in a way not seen since China.
After lunch at an Ottoman restaurant it was on to Galatta Tower, a commercial center for Italian merchants during the Roman period left standing by Mehmet the Conqueror when he took Constantinople in 1453. There were great views of the city with its many bodies of water and spectacular architecture, both of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, and the famous skyline of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the rest. Next everyone walked to an underground metro line that used to be driven by steam and took it a short distance out of the center, in order to find the bus and make way to Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman palace that is now a museum of Ottoman imperial arts.
There are beautiful gardens and displays of jewelry, stunning views and impressive architecture and ornament. In order to restore spirits, the group had tea and Turkish coffee (complete with fortunes) in a Hotel garden between Topkapi and the Blue Mosque, next to the destination. The Blue Mosque is so-called because of the beautiful blue tiles that cover the entire interior of the mosque, producing an ethereal effect. Most remarkable is the enormous interior space created by the four enormous main pillars and a series of quarter and half domes that support the main dome. The four main pillars were finished off like fluted columns and were typical of the high level of craftsmanship deployed throughout the building.
It is difficult to distinguish the Hagia Sophia from the other mosques--because they all looked so similar. It became evident that the style of the Hagia Sophia became the architectural model for the Blue Mosque and the other monumental mosques that dominate that part of the city. The Blue Mosque itself is certainly a spectacular building and an architectural feat with all its domes and half domes and the rest, though it is a bit sad they had to destroy such a historical place as the hippodrome to build it.
The group visited the Topkapi Palace museum in the afternoon--the palace of the Ottoman Sultans. While the rooms of endless gaudy jewels were not such a great interest, there were some fascinating Muslim relics (most notably Muhammeds sword and cloak as well as several other swords of other early leaders). Most of all, the palace has an absolutely unbeatable location right where the Golden Horn, the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus meet--and the feel of the sea breeze was great after the deserts of Uzbekistan.
Dinner was at the Blue House, where the group met up with several of Meli's clients who happened to be staying in the hotel as well. Gülen's sister Aysegüül also joined everyone for dinner. The restaurant that was located very near the Blue Mosque on the top floor of a tall building where we had amazing views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia as the sun was setting--it was almost hard to believe it was all real!
Despite serious sleep deprivation, a small group went out with Gülen's family to the Taxim area, where there is a very lively music and dance scene. Although nobody danced, some ate cow intestines and mussels off the street, which is a rite of passage in Istanbul. Some of the group had separated at the Galatta Tower and they saw Whirling Dervishes and had a nice fish dinner down by the Bosphorus. Seafood is awesome in Istanbul.
Day 36: Sunday June 25: Istanbul
Quotes for the day: "Go study in the Patriarchy;" "Gülen ve Aysegül uyurken, Inci ve ben güzel bir bahçeye gittik çay içtik."
Today's tour on foot began in the Basilica Cistern, a large and beautiful cistern from Roman times. It is located near the site of the ancient hippodrome which was demolished to make room for the Blue Mosque. The site has a number of interesting monuments that indicate the multi-cultural character of Istanbul. Next was a survey of the history of Anatolia before going to the Turkish Islamic Art Museum. The final stop was in the Hagia Sophia church/mosque/museum. Various people enjoyed other activities, such as the Turkish Baths or a nice cup of tea in the nearby madressa/craft school.
Istanbul/Constantinople is a city many have read so much about for so long, and certain places in particular stick out such as the Hagia Sophia and the Phanar or current location of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Scott and Rick attended services at the church of the Phanar. The service was lovely, conducted by a hieromonk and deacon and a few cantors, with a bishop seated on his throne in the middle of the church. The church itself is beautiful, though the complex itself is so tight and tall it is very difficult to get perspective on the whole thing. But one of the more striking aspects of the service was how few people there were in the congregation--probably not more than 20 for the majority of the service, and many of them were clearly visitors. Apparently there are not many Greeks left in Istanbul, and those that remain probably go to parish churches and not the Patriarchal church. At any rate it was amazing to be there.
The rest of the group started with the visit to the 6th century cistern built at the time of AyaSofia construction (as a water reservoir), the museum of Islamic Art and the grand Aya Sofia (532AD) - a highlight of Justinian time of the Byzantium.
A much anticipated was Hagia Sophia. Pictures just do not do the place justice. What was particularly noteworthy is that they have begun the process of restoring the old mosaics which were covered over when the church was made into a mosque. In certain places the way the light fell on the mosaics and simply glowed, one had a glimpse that the current glory of the building is only a pale shadow of the experience one would have when all the mosaics were shining in their full glory--bringing to mind the passage from the Russian Primary Chronicle when the representatives of Prince Vladimir recounted that it was so spectacular they "knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth..."
Day 37: Monday June 26: Istanbul
Monday dawned brilliantly blue again in Istanbul. The city is less crowded than usual because most tourists are in Europe for the world cup, or staying at home in front of the TV. This happy band checked out of the hotel, with half the bags going on the bus for the trip to Ankara (Stan, Simone, Yihong, Rick, Gulnaz, Scott, Sante) and half to the new hotel the Sultan Ahmed Surayi hotel right in the midst of the historical district, with lovely sea views from all rooms, and a terrace overlooking the Bosphoros. It is a comfortable 3-4 star hotel.
The last day together as a group in Istanbul was action-packed. Yildirim left this morning to go back to see his family. The day started off as usual, with the tour guide yelling at us on the bus. Then it was off to the Covered Bazaar for just an hour. Initially this did not seem like enough time, but of course this seasoned group proved up to the task. Gülen and her mom, Inci, took some to their wonderful Armenian jeweler, and managed to do quite well. Gulnaz also bought a wonderful pink leather coat.
Then off to the Chora church. Scott was an excellent guide--he teaches this church as the perfect Byzantine church, and it was such a pleasure having him explain the structure of the church, the significance of each of the frescoes and mosaics. The church is particularly important because it was part of the Paleologian renaissance in the late 13th and 14th centuries, which in turn influenced the entire Slavic world, including Andrei Rublev. It is also significant because the mosaics and the frescoes are amazingly well preserved and simply sublimely beautiful.
Then the group met Steve's relatives at a restaurant (the Dan and Soonya Jacob family and friends), and together the group went with them to the Suleiman mosque. A beautiful and quiet space. While Steve went with his family back to the covered bazaar and a fabulous dinner at the Sunset Restaurant, the rest of the group went to the spice market, where a puppy had to be pried from Judith's arms. Karen also managed to get a silver ring that had broken fixed--it took exactly 3 minutes.
Some of the highbrow members of our group (you know who you are) went to the Rustempasha mosque near the spice market instead. There is a lot more veiling than even two years ago, including full veiling using black chadors. The highlight was a boat ride along the Bosphorus beyond Bojacizi bridge and back. It was wonderful to see all the beautiful buildings right on the water. It was a clear and sunny late afternoon with a nice breeze, and it was such a pleasure simply to ride along the water, checking out the buildings along both sides and imagining all the significant traffic that has passed along those waters in the previous centuries.
Then to a very poor dinner on the Asian side, accompanied by more efforts by the vegetarians to get some respect. After the Ankara group left amidst tearful hugs, the others were consoled with ice cream (a favorite was the sour cherry) at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus.
Memorable quotes of the day: "Don't make me yell at you at this restaurant;" "Is this guide working for free?" "Take me with you." "Using this compass, you can see that this church faces east." "I bought you this. Keep it on you as long as you're in Turkey."
Day 38: Tuesday June 27: Istanbul and Ankara
Group A: Istanbul
Group A group woke up slowly at the new digs in the Hotel Sultan Ahmed. Inci and Gülen joined everyone for breakfast and all walked over to the Ahmet Yesevi Culture Center and shopped and talked with the artists and craftsmen there. After much tea and Turkish coffee (and wonderful fortunes), several bought illuminations hand painted on old Persian manuscripts by Dr. Hatice Aksu.
Then off to a fish lunch along the Bosphorus, where everyone met Burak, Gülen's husband, who had arrived from the US that day. Heading further up the coast for dessert, all enjoyed ice cream dishes, one of which had as its secret ingredient--chicken breast! The plan to take a ferry on the Bosphorus foundered in the late afternoon ennui produced by overeating all day, so instead the group drove back to town. On the way Inci took several people to the cemetery where her parents and sister, victims of political murder in 1980, were buried, reminding of the fierce past of this part of the world and the enormous effort it requires to move beyond it. By the size and the placement of the grave site, very close to the city wall and overlooking the water, it was clear that Inci's family was very important, and it turns out that her grandfather was an associate of Attaturk himself.
Back at the hotel all enjoyed a personal buffet, with vodka and rakia, before turning in for the early morning departure for Kusadasai. Whose idea was it to depart at 6:30 AM!?!
Group B: Ankara
Group B woke this morning on the train, having taken the overnight sleeper car from Istanbul to Ankara. The cabins were very comfortable, and several thought the journey was as luxurious if not more luxurious than the train ride from Beijing to Xi'an. Everyone had a cabin to themselves, since the reservations had been made for the whole group. A few spotted the “tumuli” mounds that the train passed at 6 am, all were up for a 6:45 am breakfast in the dining car. The group arrived in Ankara a bit tired, but still happy to have slept some and excited to start this new adventure.
Meli’s driver, Hussein, picked the group up at the train station in his brand new 20-seater bus, and drove to the Anatolian Civilization Museum. The group had been hearing about this museum since day one in Xi'an, and were given the sense that "all questions would be answered" in Ankara. The attitude encountered then--that somehow the "earliest" developments at all stages of civilization occurred first in Anatolia--seemed part of the larger Turko/Anatolian-centrism of this particular tour guide to the denigration of all other cultures (in that case, particularly the Chinese). Hence the Ankara museum was approached with a mixture of dread and great expectation. Perhaps fortunately both feelings were disappointed. Perhaps because the group is now smaller, it was much easier to have a dialogue and give-and-take.
The museum had won an award for being the Best Museum in Europe in 1997, a reward well deserved, for the collection and its presentation were both impressive. From the fascinating Mother Goddess statuettes from the earliest known settlement called Chatal Hoyuk (around 6500 BCE, the physical site of which is on the agenda for the day after tomorrow) to breathtaking monumental stonework from the Hittites to fascinating cuneiform tablet documents, this museum’s collection of artifacts was incredibly rich. Meli began with an hour-long overview of the early history of Anatolia in the cool shade of the museum’s courtyard, and this discourse helped to put the sites into perspective. The fact that a 3 hour museum visit could captivate a goofy gaggle of wisecracking professors remains a real testament to the strength of the collection in the Anatolian Civilization Museum and the skill of its presentation.
Next was a drive around the seven hills of Ankara. Many had expected Ankara to be a modern city like Tashkent and Bishkek. Some had heard warnings that it was not a very interesting place. But those who had never visited Ankara before were surprised at its beauty, its combination of traditional-style and modern buildings, and its simple elegance. The old part of the city, located on the hills, was particularly picturesque. The city has very little history (it was virtually a village when they declared it the capitol in the 1920s and has grown into a major city only since then), it is mostly only an administrative and business city; it was on the itinerary only for the museum and the university meeting. It has several million people and is situated in a very hilly region; one of the biggest drawbacks seems to be the horrendous traffic.
Several people mentioned that they seemed to see fewer women in Ankara wearing headscarves than in Istanbul, and this led to a later discussion about the connection between this “Turban/Scarf Issue” and the increase in “fundamentalism” in the larger cities of Turkey. A wonderful lunch of Iskandar Kebab (except for Scott, who ate a vegetarian dish instead) took place at a restaurant that specializes in only that dish.
Finally in the middle of the afternoon a drive through the narrow streets, made narrower by double-parked cars, and arrival at the hotel “Elit Palas” in time to freshen up in preparation for an afternoon seminar at Bilkent University. The seminar at Bilkent went well, not only because the presenters were strong, but also because it was easier to achieve a free flow of ideas than in some past seminars. Perhaps it was the cappuccinos and frappes that began the seminar, or perhaps it was the relaxed atmosphere of the discussion. Whatever it was, the conversations included the whole group, and the topics ranged from Ibn Battuta and his legacy (Rick) to issues of sex and gender in contemporary Turkey (Dilek Cindoglu) to comparisons between attempts to secularize society in modern Russia and modern Turkey (Scott). Unfortunately Meryem Hakim, a specialist in international trade at Cankaya University, had to leave the seminar early, but not before she had responded on a number of points and offered a wealth of bibliographic suggestions to the group.
Public life in Turkey has swung more in the religious direction in recent years--in large part, evidently, because those lower down the social scale who kept religious traditions more faithfully were now moving higher in the socio-economic scale and therefore having more of a say in politics. The secularization theory (that religion inevitably declines as part of modernization) is certainly dead, and it is fascinating to see how religion is making a resurgence in places like Turkey and Russia after such aggressive campaigns of secularization and modern nation-state building.
After a long day of travel, museums, food and intellectual discourse, the energy of the group began to wane near the end of Scott’s presentation. The bus traveled through rush-hour traffic to have dinner in the Citadel, not far from the museum visited in the morning. Dinner at the Washington Restaurant in the Citadel was an exquisite affair. The setting was marvelous, for not only was the restaurant on a balcony overlooking a great deal of Ankara, but also the brilliant sunset and the ethereal sliver of moon appeared in the sky over the course of our meal. The food was outstanding, as was the company, for Dr. Cindoglu and her partner attended the dinner and described their latest research projects. All agreed it was a good beginning to this final leg of our sub-group’s Silk Road adventure.
Day 39: Wednesday June 28: Kusadasi and Konya
Group A: Kusadasi
The wake-up call at 3:45 a.m. was loud enough to awaken the dead, and indeed that was about what was necessary to get everyone moving. At the airport, Gülen was a no-show and it turned out she had fallen ill the night before. Hopefully she will rejoin when she feels better.
Arriving in Izmir after a very comfortable flight, the Kismet Hotel shuttle provided transport to Kusadasai, a beautiful seaside resort city which has grown considerably since 1990. The hotel is beautiful and has sea views from all sides. The group decided to join the Jacobs and the two lovely families traveling with them, on their excursion to Ephesus. They had a bus and a guide, the nicest young man (Sedat), who took everyone through the Roman city, St. John's Church, the Home of the Virgin Mary, and the temple of Artemis. Most memorable quotes from Sedat: "We can do whatever you want." "Perhaps the gentleman would like to give some information about this first." "Of course, you can have whatever you want to eat." "As far as I know...."
Ephesus is a site many had seen before, but it was very interesting visiting it with this diverse group. The Benindos were most interested in the role of Ephesus in early Christianity, but also talked about Ionian philosophy and its relationship to the powerful civilizations to the east, Heraclitus and Zoroaster, the one and the many, keystones and arches, latrines and brothels, inscriptions and monumentality, theatres and temples, marble and mosaic. Ephesus is an amazing site in part because it was abandoned after its harbor was filled in by the alluvial waters of the Meander River and was never reoccupied.
After visiting the site the group went to a picturesque restaurant in Sinice for lunch with the Jacob entourage. It was complete with beautiful mezze and local delicacies in abundance under a grape arbor looking out over the hillside. The driver, Aydin, gave everyone a head massage and chiropractic adjustment, including that weird ear thing. It turns out that he is a doctor when he is not driving. After lunch it was off for some more retail in the town center. Karen and Judy bought leather bags. Next was a stop at St. John's Church. Although quite ruined, the site was a highpoint for many. Then it was on to the Home of the Virgin Mother, a modest structure to which a church has been added. The tradition of Mary living here is quite old, but the site was only rediscovered after a German nun had a vision about its location. Here the tradition of tying dileks (prayer strings) on the trees has been adjusted for the large crowds here. A long panel has been set up for the dedications and a number of the group made dedications.
Finally a visit to the site of the Temple of Artemis, long sunk in ruins. Only a single column has been set up to give a sense of scale and a large stork is nesting on the top. Steve went with the Jacobs for a fabulous fish dinner in Kusadasi, while the rest of the group went back to the hotel for dinner. A great day made that way by great company.
Group B: Konya
This was largely a bus day, which began with departure from Ankara at 9 AM, heading south, driving along the east coast of the Salt Lake (Tuz Golu) to Aksaray for lunch, and then southwest to Konya, finally arriving in the late afternoon, at around 4:30, with stops along the way at a couple of extremely interesting caravan serais.
Ankara is today a city of several million people and is a very modern city in terms of the way people dress and so on. In a way it makes sense since the city is the seat of government (which like France more recently has not been welcoming of women covering their heads in educational and professional settings) and also because it has so many universities and educated young people. Konya on the other hand looks modern as a city but most women indeed wear scarves - reflecting their religiosity
In Konya, before going to supper, the group visited a 17th-century mosque with Baroque architectural elements and learned about Mevlana Celaleddin-I Rumi (or Jalal ad-Din Mavlana ar-Rumi, as written in the Ibn Battuta text Rick has distributed), whose mausoleum and museum are on the agenda for tomorrow.
On the way to Aksaray, Meli explained some of the geography of Turkey, dividing the Asian part of it into three general areas from west to east: Aegean Anatolia, Mediterranean Anatolia, and Eastern Anatolia. The western region bordering the Aegean Sea consists of a series of mountain chains running from east to west, with plenty of water, lots of sunshine and fertile valleys that enjoy a mild climate that permits four crops per year. One of the many rivers that meander through the area is the Meander, from which the word comes, the concept, and the design motif that is observed all along the Silk Road, from Xi'an to Anatolia. As a result of these favorable conditions, the inhabitants of this area, according to the guide, tend to be easy-going and possibly “a little spoiled.”
Central Anatolia, where Ankara is located, consists mostly of a large plateau, bounded on the north by the Black Sea mountains, which plunge directly into the Black Sea, and on the south by the practically impassable Taurus mountains, which run parallel to the Mediterranean but slope more gently to the seashore, allowing for the cultivation of tropical plants, such as bananas, in its seaward valleys. The Black Sea region, on the other hand, has a lot of rain, making it ideal for the cultivation of Turkish tea and hazelnuts, of which Turkey is the world’s leading producer. There is currently a somewhat controversial project to construct a highway along the foot of the mountains by filling in the sea, in order to connect western Turkey with the Caucasus to facilitate trade and travel. Most of this central region, however, consists of a large plateau, also known as the Valley of Konya, whose area is greater than that of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg combined. Here the seasons are characterized by extremes: very cold in winter and very hot in summer. It is the bread basket of Turkey, growing much of its wheat and other grains, as well as potatoes and sugar beets, which are used to make sugar and bio-fuel. Turkey is one of thirteen countries that are agriculturally self-sufficient. Many dozens of trucks were lined up, waiting to deposit wheat in silos, even though no silos were visible in the landscape. Instead of the vertical silos in the American Midwest, here they use underground trench silos for grain storage. The very large Salt Lake is also the base for salt production. In addition to large extensions of snow-white salt flats, the lake also has swaths of reddish water because of the algae that grows in it (the same algae that makes the Red Sea red). Indeed it looks like a surreal painted lake, with swatches of white, green, red and blue. Culturally, according to Meli, the people of this region tend to accept change more slowly than those of the western Aegean region, holding on to more orthodox ideas.
Eastern Anatolia, which is not on the tour, is very mountainous, with very high, somewhat isolated peaks and deep valleys. The climate is harsh, and winters often last five months. The inhabitants, which include Kurds, Georgians, and Armenians, as well as Turks, are traditionally semi-nomadic and have remained somewhat clannish in their customs. The area is relatively underdeveloped in terms of transportation and industry.
After lunch at a buffet restaurant in Aksaray (with Meli enjoying a sheep’s head with tomatoes for eyes), the drive continued to the Sutanhani Kervan Saray, constructed in 1228 and renovated in the 1270s. Of the many caravan serais (The caravanserai is a place where caravans along the silk road would stop, rest, trade, get supplies for continuing the journey, etc.--in other words very important for the silk road.) seen along the way, this one is by far the most impressive and unique. For one thing, it predates all the other ones. This is partly due to the fact that it is made of stone, rather than brick. The construction is massive and somewhat Romanesque. The cross-ridged vault inside the portal is similar to the vaults inside the 5th-century “Basilica Cistern” in Istanbul. The decorative elements in the façade of the portal represent a synthesis of motifs from east and west and bear testimony to the artistic and cultural give and take that took place all along the Silk Road. Inside the courtyard is an elevated mosque. To the right is a double colonnade for the storage of the goods carried by a caravan and lodging on the second floor. To the left were social spaces, such as a toilet in the corner, a kitchen, and men’s and women’s Turkish baths, which surprisingly are the same size, indicating that perhaps as many women were involved in caravans as men. Near the portal would have been the accountant’s office as well. Yesterday, in the museum in Ankara, the group saw a representation of a caravan serai that showed the prominent role played by the accountant, who had to register everything that came in and went out. Before paper this sort of book-keeping was done on clay tablets which were then fired in a kiln near the entrance and filed away. However, the real surprise was in the back: a massive cathedral-like building, with five “naves” separated by large square columns, and a very high dome in the center. It looked very much like a huge Romanesque church. And yet this was the part of the caravan serai where the animals (camels, horses, donkeys, mules) were stalled. There have been no other structures like it in any of the many serais encountered on the trip before. For Meli this is an indication of the value that caravans and what they represented had in the minds of the people who created the structure, since people give architectural prominence to whatever is most important, whether it be churches, banks, office towers, or funerary monuments. Now abandoned, it was used as a caravan serai right up to the end of the nineteenth century, when the British and Germans built railroads in the region.
Caravan serais (serai means palace) came in various sizes and shapes. In some places, they were little more than some stones erected around a watering hole. A large one, such as this one, would be able to offer shelter and storage not only for transient caravans passing through but also for caravans that needed to stay longer, including entire winters, when it would have been difficult to travel. Here they would tell the stories, sing the songs, and perform the dances they had learned along the Silk Road, improvising, modifying, and adding elements, thus spreading culture along with the silk and other goods they transported. About 40 kilometers away was another, smaller caravan serai, Obruk Han. Here too there was a surprise waiting at the back: an almost perfectly circular sink hole, about 75 meters in diameter, filled with green water and hundreds of meters deep, according to Meli; one of hundreds of similar sink holes dotting the region. It is called an “obruk,” which is what gives the name to the serai. This serai is not intact, as the Sultanhani was. It too had a basilica-like stall in the back, though not as large. What makes this one particularly intriguing is the fact that many of the large stones used in its construction were pillaged or recycled from other buildings, especially a Christian church, since many bear crosses on them or other religious designs: materials from an erstwhile sacred building, destroyed by Muslims or by Crusaders, adapted to a secular space and function.
Hanging around with the group during the visit were several young, very dark, and very dusty children from a nearby tent encampment of migrant workers. The bus had passed several such encampments along the road. During the school year the children stay behind with grandparents or relatives in order to attend school, but now that school is out they accompany their parents as they migrate from one crop harvest to the next. They didn’t beg or importune in any way, just tagged along with serious demeanors. A toddler fell in the rocks and scraped his hand, but made no fuss or utterance, just looked at his hand stoically and proceeded on his way. When Meli engaged them in conversation, however, they responded readily enough.
After arriving at Konya and checking into the hotel, the Baykara, everyone went to visit the Aziziye Mosque, built from 1671 to 1676, which has European Baroque-Rococo decorations in its façade, a domed interior not supported by columns, and windows larger than its doors. Inside Meli told the story of Jelaleddin Rumi’s life (preferring to refer to him by his name, rather than simply as Rumi, as he is generally known in the West, since Rumi merely indicates his provenance, that is from Rum, another name for Anatolia——from Neo-Roma, the actual name given to Constantinople when Constantine moved the imperial capital there in the fourth century), and how from Balh, in what is now Afghanistan, where he was born in 1207, he came to live and teach in Konya, where he died in 1273. He is revered not only as a very holy founder of a Sufi order, but also widely respected as a humanist philosopher and poet who preached and practiced tolerance.
Konya is a lovely and lively city. Fast-growing, it went from 600,000 inhabitants in the 2000 census to over a million in 2005. It was the capital of the Seljuk empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As such it became a center of learning and of artistic achievement, particularly when the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought to the city many intellectuals and religious leaders fleeing the invaders, Rumi’s family among them. The city is built over the ancient city of Ikonia, mentioned in the Bible. St. Paul passed through here at least twice (and according to an article some read in the Koshk restaurant, St. Luke was born here). A Catholic church dedicated to St. Paul was built here by the French in 1909 and is run by Franciscan nuns.
Meli took the group to another mosque where she gave about an hour lecture on Rumi (mixed with a bit of her own spiritual ideas and another dose of Turko/Anatolian-centrism). The conversation continued at dinner, and thankfully once Rick began talking it became a real discussion and not just a monologue it was very interesting. The group enjoyed a lovely meal in a restaurant voted one of the ten best “local” restaurants (don’t know if in the world or in Turkey or where), with a herb garden in front, a tent with an old woman baking bread in a brick oven, and exquisite cuisine (but no beer or wine). There has been much travel the last two days to see relatively few sites, but all have been well worth the time and trouble of getting there, bringing together many of the threads being traced along the Silk Road.
After dinner Rick, Gulnaz and Scott walked around town just a bit, and Gulnaz got tempted into buying a Turkish carpet...
Day 40: Thursday June 29: Kusadasi and Pammukale
Group A: Kusadasi
Most of this group got up relatively slowly this morning, and began taking care of various arrangements for the next several days. In the town of Kusadasi there is a long strip of businesses that cater to the endless stream of tourists arriving by cruise ship and by bus. At one end is a caravanserai that has been converted into a hotel (It's where the Jacobs stayed). After scattering for various errands and some poolside time, a boat took the group out in the bay for some snorkeling. Gülen and Burak joined up for this expedition and dinner at a nice seafood restaurant.
Group B: Pammukale
6 am to 7 am, at Catalhoyuk, one of the oldest Neolithic "towns", dated 6800 to 5700 B.C.E. the guardian was so kind to open the museum and the excavation sites for us. Located about 52 kilometers southeast of Konya, Catalhoyuk ("fork mount" in Turkish) was first under excavation in the 1960. Since many of the artifacts--obsidian tools, potteries, remains of fabrics, female figurines--Mother Goddess, and frescos, are on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations at Ankara the day before yesterday, the actual sites did not seem simply as holes in the ground; they together with the natural surroundings and the artifacts have painted a detailed picture of what life was like in the Neolithic age at Catalhoyuk. Back then, the site was near marshland, which provided ample sources for food and was conducive for agriculture. The people at Catalhoyuk built houses with openings on the roof, and had similar plan within each house. They also practiced hunting that is shown in their frescoes, and they revered ancestors and had a cult of fertility. It seems a peaceful society as there was no evidence of an attack or battle. It is amazing how detailed archaeologists have been conducting their excavations in the past two decades; they have identified even a rodent burrow in one room. With the continuation of their studies, new, exciting discoveries have come out steadily, which have revised the understanding of the life there. For example, there has been a theory that the Catalhoyuk people lived in a matriarchal society because of the Mother Goddess figurines, but recent studies indicate that men and women were treated similarly when scholars have compared the textiles they wore, the food they consumed and the burials they had. The visit to Catalhoyuk was exciting even though it required rising before the sun around the time of prayer calling (4:15 am).
It rained on the way back to Konya, the first rain for some thirty days on the trip. The visit to the Mevlana Museum, the museum for Celeddin Rumi (1207-1273), a Sufi philosopher and poet, who enjoyed deep reverence not just among the Muslims but also people of different ethnicities and beliefs, gave some ideas as to how humans should live their lives. In the sound of reed flute at the background the group toured the museum, which houses tombs of Celeddin Rumi, his wife, and relatives, and has manuscripts and many other objects related with Rumi and his time period. As many as tourists or more in number, Muslim visitors come to this holy place to pray at the tomb site and in front of a beautifully decorated box, which is said to have the beard of the Prophet. After taking the group so far out of the way to Konya (Incomium in St. Paul's times) and then giving a lecture for an hour the previous evening, Meli announced that half an hour should suffice for the museum itself. In fact it took longer; the museum is more something that has to be experienced rather than described, but the mausoleum was a testament to the influence of Sufism and the one who gave birth to the whirling dervishes. It was equally interesting to discover that Attaturk was responsible for closing the Sufi order and transforming it into a museum in an effort to secularize Turkey.
Around 11 am, the bus headed westwards, stopping for a fish lunch at Lake Beyshehir and then continuing on through the beautiful lake district of Anatolia, passed orchids, agricultural fields, narrow and wide highways and arrived at the ruins of Hierapolis at Pamukkale around 6 pm. Evidently the whole region had been deforested, but there were efforts going on to re-forest the mountains so new growth could be seen everywhere. The location of the city is so magnificent - looking over the plain from the top of a hill... Life seems beautiful and abundant on these lands... though that might be too superficial -- after all, the city got destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century...
After so much driving to get to the site, Meli gave it hardly any introduction and then simply said, "20 minutes should be enough." The group soon discovered that the site of the ancient city was quite huge and that even an hour would not be adequate, and really began to wonder at her priorities Scott wanted to see the Martyrium of St Phillip and went to try to find it. After getting a bit lost he finally found the ruins of the martyrium, which must have been an amazing complex, as the ruins were still very impressive. However, the bus was gone upon his return, but he was able to figure out where they went and join up with the group again.
The sun was still high and the air felt hot. The ancient site of Hierapolis dated from 190 BCE to the 14th century was a city of a mixture of pre-Roman, Roman, Jewish and Christian elements, built on the mountain side overlooking a plain. The rock and stone structures yield us outlines of streets, churches, agora, temple of Apollo, the Lion Gate, and Roman baths. The Romans made Hierapolis a spa city because of the warm mineral water nearby. A spectacular view at Pamukkale ("cotton castles") is its travertine pools. For centuries the warm mineral water deposited calcium over mountain cliffs, forming white terraces of pools on the mountain slopes. Everyone had to take off their shoes to walk down into or between these pools. Swimming is not permitted and also the water is shallow. Sante, however, tried to "swim" in the water when he accidentally fell into a pool. Fortunately, he did not hurt himself, and felt "wonderful" for testing the water. There was no time to go in the "Antique Pool," a natural thermal pool in the open but some did go into the thermal pools in the hotel late in the evening. The indoor thermal pool was so hot that it took some time to get into it and then required a trip to the outdoor pool to cool down under the crescent moon. This was a great ending for a very long day and for these Silk Road travelers.
Day 41: Friday June 30: Kusadasi
Quote of the day: "Dammit!"
Group A spent most of the morning doing their own thing. Liz and Steve rented motor bikes, for instance, and tore up and down the coastline.
Group B drove from Pamukkale to Kusadasi, leaving the Richmond hotel in Pamukkale in the morning and driving to the West - to the sea! Morning discussion revolved around the fact that the other group did not want to have dinner at Meli's house on the final night, and the implications of that decision. Meli was personally hurt, as she has been through much of what has transpired over the course of this trip, but everyone managed to talk through it and still have a fairly relaxed and enjoyable day of touring together.
The yellow hills covered with olive trees and cypresses looked like a leopard skin. The landscapes were stunning – it was like being transferred to the Renaissance paintings. The group stopped at several hot springs where local people and visitors come to cure various illnesses using hot water and mud. In the bus Meli gave an introduction to the Biblical history of Anatolia. Apparently, the Garden of Eden might have been located in south-east Anatolia. There are multiple other Biblical places in this territory, including the location of Noah's landing spot (Mt Ararat) to the origin and focus of Paul and his mission. Scott led a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion of early Christianity on the bus today, following Meli's discourse on how locations in Turkey figure into biblical narratives (from Genesis to Revelation, with special emphasis on the journeys and letters of Paul).
After 2-3 hours of driving came a stop for lunch at Didyma - an ionic city famous for its Temple of Apollo (4th century BC), which used to have great oracles (apparently appreciated by Alexander the Great). Driving further, on the way to Miletos, everyone stopped at the beach - for a quick swim in the Aegean and sunbathing. It felt great... Scott, Rick and Gulnaz were collecting small rocks on the beach -- fun activity from the childhood. Miletos, another Ionic city, had a great amphitheater.. It was a very hot part of the day; many in the group were looking forward to arriving to the hotel at that point. Therefore, it is too difficult to ponder all the info Meli provided, except for mentioning that a great architect of Aya Sofya - Isodoro - was from Miletos. Upon reuniting with the group in Kusadasi in a nice hotel by the sea everyone got into the relaxation mode -- at last..
After arriving in Kushadasi, group b met Meli's daughter Asli at their summer home here, and stopped in to have drinks there. Half of the reunited group went to Meli's "farm" (land outside of town with two houses and a great sunken kitchen/entertainment room in between them) for a delicious evening meal out in the cool breeze of the patio.
After dinner, Gulnaz and Scott went exploring Kusadasi at night--which was very lively with a mix of Turks (Kusadasi is a place where tens of thousands own summer houses) and tourists. There were bars & clubs as well as shops in a pedestrian zone that was as lively at 2 am as it was in the day.
Day 42: Saturday July 1: Kusadasi
Today's official activity was a visit to Ephesus, which only a small group attended. Some were too exhausted, some had seen the site earlier. Meli delivered an hour long lecture on the early history of Ephesus at a mosque, skipping from the Hellenistic reconstruction by Lysimachus to the Seljuk period, thus passing over the Roman city of the 2nd Century AD, which is the one the group actually visited in Ephesus.
Next on the agenda: a museum and a discussion about the mother goddess tradition in Anatolia and the great goddess Artemis. After lunch was a visit to the site, which is wonderful. Some explored the slope houses, recently excavated Roman houses. It was quite interesting and an excellent display. The tour felt long, especially under the hot afternoon sun, with little shade in sight. Also Meli was understandably distracted today, because her daughter Asle had gotten in a car accident this morning and a friend riding in the car had to go to the hospital. Thankfully they're all okay. Despite the accident, Meli persevered on, and having a guided tour helped to point out new things in Efes. Also a new section of the site was open since 2000: terraced houses, some with incredible mosaic tiles on their floors. The tour wrapped up at 3:00 p.m., and the group said goodbye to Meli.
After the visit to Ephesus, the large group reunited at the hotel for a wrap-up discussion, to fill out questionnaires about the trip and a discussion of future plans. Next was a boat trip into the bay again for some more swimming and snorkeling.
At a final dinner celebration at the Secret Garden restaurant, there were toasts to the impending weddings of Gulnaz and Scott, to the eleventh wedding anniversary of Rick and Jennifer, to Stan and Karen for working so hard to plan the trip, as well as to Ben, Gülen and Yildirim for happy trails home. Frequent electrical blackouts added an air of mystery and magic to this last night. Tomorrow, most people split at 7:00 or at 10:00 AM.
After getting together with the group for assessment in the late afternoon, most of us went on a fantastic sunset boat cruise in the harbor of the Aegean. A bunch of us swam and snorkeled, and a good time was had by all. After that adventure, we had a fabulous fish dinner in the Secret Garden restaurant adjacent to our Kismet hotel. The meal was sumptuous, from the appetizers to the desserts, and it was a great way to end the official tour on a high note.
Day 43: Sunday July 2: Departure
Everyone dispersed on Sunday morning from Kusadasi. One group, including Rick, left at 7 am to take a bus and then a ferry to Istanbul. Sante went with the bus driver to Cappadocia, while the rest took a 10 am bus to Izmir to catch various flights to Istanbul--some to stay in Istanbul for a few more days, others to catch planes to other destinations. Scott discovered in Izmir, that they had booked him on a different airline that he was in the wrong terminal. With a bit of sweating and stress, everything worked out fine.
Rick spent a final few days in Istanbul, which were nice and relaxing. After meeting with a colleague about a collection of essays and upcoming conference panels, he spent an enjoyable evening at the flat that Mary Frederickson and her family are renting for a week. Liz and Rick walked around one day and enjoyed singing songs with some young guitar players at a sidewalk restaurant just yards from the hotel that Liz moved to. "Hotel California" and "Wild World" and "Layla" were some of the English songs that adorned their largely Turkish repertoire.
Then Rick proceeded to Bucharest, Romania, to stay with Scott and Oana in Oana's apartment in the South and Western portion of the city. One evening was spent downtown with pizza and France-Portugal world cup semifinal in a spacious and open outdoor bar/cafe that had a big screen TV.
Scott and Rick explored the National History Museum, the Museum of Peasant life, and one or two others. Scott and Oana's civil wedding ceremony takes place on Monday, with Rick as "best man." The more important church wedding ceremony will take place on July 23rd.
Preparation for the civil ceremony included multiple trips to notaries, without whom nothing can be done in Romania——everything must have the proper stamps and seals to be "official." And then on to the joys of U.S. immigration bureaucracy——as much fun as Romanian bureaucracy. It is an enlightening experience to be on the "other side" of the visa/immigration line and go through the impersonal process of having someone examine your life and relationship, and decide your fate, from the other side of glass window. Fortunately, everything has been going very smoothly.
The church wedding took place in Craiova (Oana's hometown in southwestern Romania) on July 22, followed by a honeymoon in Crete. On the itinerary included the famed ruins of Knossos and an old Venetian city in western Crete. Chania is an absolutely charming city, the beaches nearby are also fantastic, and it is a great starting point to explore Rethymnon, spectacular beaches further to the west, the peninsula of Akrotiri with its monasteries, and beaches (including Stavros, where they filmed Zorba the Greek).
Pan-Turkish fantasies and Anatolian Supremacy
There were many moments on this trip when it felt like it was less an exploration of the Silk Road per se than an effort to show Turkish unity from the Uyghur to Turkey. The first hint of this perspective arose within the first couple of days: for example, Meli pointed out that she objected to the term "turkic" as applied to the family of languages that includes Uighur, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and the language spoken in modern-day Turkey. Evidently, as came out in later discussion, Turks (at least those from Turkey) regard the adjective "Turkic" as an imperialist imposition that drives a distinction between the peoples and languages stretching from Central Asia to Turkey. Scott tried to suggest that this "-ic" ending was common in English to designate a family of languages (Germanic, Slavic), and that there is a similar distinction between "German" as an adjective applying to one specific language (ex., if we said it is a "German word"), while the term "Germanic" could apply to other languages (we could say that Anglo-Saxon is a Germanic language), but to no avail. One of the Turks even went so far as to say that all these languages spoken by Turks were the same language, no more distinct than British English and American English. But it seemed on observation of the other Turks in the group from Turkey speaking with Central Asians that it is more appropriate to compare them to, say, the Romance languages: a Romanian speaker, for example, finds it quite easy to understand an Italian, or an Italian and a Spaniard can understand each other fairly easily, though French or Portuguese are further a field and more difficult to understand. So also it did indeed seem that the Turks could make themselves understood (at least in basic communication like in the marketplace) among the Uyghur or Uzbeks. However, they clearly had a much more difficult time in Kyrgyzstan. Meli, in typical fashion, blamed this on the Kyrgyz not knowing their own language well enough, something of course she blamed on the Russian Imperialists. However, during that very same conversation (while at Bilkent University in Ankara), there was a student from Kazakhstan who had arrived a couple of days before; when asked how it was speaking the language spoken in Turkey, she said she did not understand much--and that she had come at the beginning of summer precisely to "learn Turkish."
A colleagues from Kyrgyzstan said about this "turkic/turkish" distinction that it was only the Turks from Turkey who insisted on this distinction--because, as he put it, today they are "Turkish in language only"--but not in ethnicity (something Meli herself readily admitted, since her own ancestors are Sephardic Jews). Since they are not European, in the search for having some sort of identity they insist on this unity with the Turks of Central Asia and hence the reason they make so much of this pan-Turkish unity.
The comments about various imperialisms also revealed something of Meli's worldview: from the beginning of the trip, negative comments were made about western, Chinese, and Russian empires. In Ephesus, the Persian king Darius was referred to as "totalitarian" several times. But no such negative labels were ever applied to Timur, the Ottomans, or the Mongols (the Mongols, in the same Altaic language family as the Turks, were also treated positively). For that matter, previous Anatolian empires, from the Hittites to the Byzantines, were also treated sympathetically, as they were regarded as part of the cultural inheritance of modern-day Turkey. (Not to mention the high regard she has for Islam Karimov and virtual worship for Attaturk.) But it was clear that even the trip to China was not about Chinese history and culture, but about the Uyghur; even the guides and restaurants showed preference to Turk over Chinese.
Meli's agenda was not only a pan-Turkish one, however. There were also hints of this very early on in the trip, indeed in the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an on day two. In this remarkable museum of archeological artifacts, Meli repeatedly drew our attention to certain artistic patterns or technologies and said, "you will see the earliest one of these" or the "most perfect one of these" at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. At first everyone appreciated getting this sense of connection and continuity between civilizations all along the Silk Road. But it soon became clear that it was not only about noticing patterns that appeared all across the Silk Road, but also about preferencing Anatolian Civilizations to Chinese (or any other). She would say at various stages of the trip that virtually every significant human development--from the Garden of Eden, to the first agricultural settlement (Chatal-Huyuk), matriarchy, classless society, the earliest use of bronze or iron, the first democracy (Ionia), and many other things--all originated or reached their peak in Anatolia.
Hence while Meli preferenced the Turks, she regarded the Turks of modern-day Turkey as the pinnacle of Turkish peoples and cultures (and Central Asian Turks as somehow benighted lesser brothers). The Turks of Turkey--while hardly Turkish in racial terms (she readily admitted)--were the inheritors of all the Anatolian civilizations from Chatal-Huyuk to the Hittites to the Ionians, Romans and Byzantines (curiously she refused to use the adjective "Greek" when referring to either the Ionians or the Byzantines), as well as the Mongols and Turks from Timur to the Seljuks and Ottomans. While she herself was not even from Anatolia, she told her life story on the bus and described how she fell in love with Anatolia after her first visit to such an extent that she loved Anatolia more than her own children (!). At another point she also said that she preferred to think of her fellow countrymen as "Anatolians" to "Turks."
Of course it is not entirely correct to present Meli's worldview as too systematic or consistent, because it is clearly full of contradictions. Part of her strives for what she repeatedly referred to as an "ecumenical" vision of humanity, hence the reason she so venerated Jalaluddin Rumi with his universalistic vision. In the end of the day, however, her preference for the Turks and even above that her preference for Anatolia was driven home virtually every day of the 42 days of the trip. It is only natural that a tour guide would want to show the best of their country to a group of foreigners, anyone would do the same. But not when it is done with a disparaging view of other cultures and at the expense of historical accuracy¼¼