Once again, thanks to Graham Brown for posting this blog from Orkney. We still can’t access the blog or Flickr.
Cycling through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan the layers of history are spread out before you: from the ancient city of Merv with its 300 BC fortress and evidence of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims we went to the very Soviet city of Turkmenabat. From there we went to Bukhara where Amir Temur (Tamerlane) created the beautiful mosques and medrassas that have been restored to such perfection. Tamerlane was if anything more vicious than Chinngis Khan with his random approach to killing and torture. But since Uzbekistan’s independence he has been promoted to hero of the Uzbeks and his statues now adorn the same plinths that once held statues of Lenin (and before that probably Russian Tsars).
There is little we can say about the beautiful city of Bukhara that has not already been said many times before by guidebooks and travelogues. The centre of the city is overwhelmingly beautiful and everywhere you look there are extraordinary examples of enamelled tile-work or intricate patterned brickwork, minarets and glinting blue domes, The only slightly sad, but inevitable, fact is that all normal life has moved out of the centre of the city to make way for hotels and souvenir shops.
From Bukhara we went to Samarkhand where the medrassas and mosques from Tamerlane’s time have been overlaid with Soviet planning, so are surrounded by huge squares and wide boulevards, where you would expect to see a muddle of streets and mud brick houses. There is an old Jewish quarter near the centre which has been walled off into a ghetto. Presumably because it is too close to the tourist area and considered to be too messy.
After Samarkhand we went to smart Tashkent, another entirely Soviet city which hardly reveals its earlier history at all. Even now older Uzbek courtyard houses are being knocked down to be replaced by modern apartment blocks. But all the new building and modernism cannot completely obliterate central Asian culture and tradition. A walk through Chorsu bazaar in Tashkent reveals noisy, colourful, almost chaotic commerce that feels much closer to the personality of the region.
Uzbek weddings also reveal a depth of tradition that is not so easily quashed. We saw several weddings as we crossed the country. In one town two – one either side of our hotel – competed for supremacy, both with traditional wedding bands beating out music and, from time to time, each sending out their bride for photographs in fairytale wedding dresses made of white nylon fru-fru.
In Tashkent we met Maya whose daughter had recently married. She told us more about the traditions and obligations on families when someone marries. Uzbek weddings are big. This one had 450 guests which is actually quite small. The groom pays for the event and the bride’s family buys the wedding dress and three traditional dresses that are worn the next day. They must also buy traditional gold jewelry for the bride and a complete set of furniture for the new house. The groom’s family provides the house, but in practice this usually means living with his parents – at least to start with. Before the wedding the bride’s mother must invite the groom’s family over for a meal to welcome them into the family and, two days after the wedding, she must visit the newly weds with gifts to celebrate the marriage. At the first Eid after the wedding the bride’s mother sends ten types of cold food and the next morning four types of hot food which her daughter will feed to her husband’s family.
There are further obligations when her daughter becomes pregnant and when she gives birth. If the child is a boy, he will be circumcised at three or four years old. Traditionally at this point the wife’s family would give a horse. Today they usually give money and rent and decorate a horse for the occasion.
All of this is very expensive. For a middle-class family it is typically $20-50,000, which is borrowed from family and friends. But of course this has to be paid back and people need to be ready to help out other family members whose daughters are about to marry. The president of Uzbekistan has advised against such big weddings because of the burden it puts on families but the tradition continues. Maya says it would bring shame on her and her daughter if she did not fulfil her obligations – in some cases couples divorce because the wife’s family does not honour all the traditions.
The majority of people in Uzbekistan are Uzbek but there is a lot of ethnic diversity which is reflected in the faces and the clothes. There are Russians and a large population of ethnic Koreans, forcibly resettled here from the Soviet far east. Traditional Uzbek dress for men is a long straight velvet coat sometimes embroidered and four-sided felt skull caps. The women wear three-quarter length dresses flared from the waist and, under that, trousers with embroidered cuffs. There is an amazing mix of pattern and colour usually overlaid with spangles, sequins and gold brocade – often all on the same dress. This can give an ordinary street scene the appearance of a party about to happen. Many people wear western clothes too and in this conservative country we have been surprised to see some (usually Russian looking) girls in very short skirts and high heels.
Outside the cities, Uzbekistan is full of cotton and it’s harvest time. We rode past endless fields full of women and children crouched over cotton plants picking cotton. We passed depots with great mountains of cotton covered in canvas sheets. Blue tractors pulling wagons piled high with cotton regularly overtook us, drifts of cotton escaping in the breeze. The roadside was littered with creamy white puff balls of cotton blown from the trucks. And we passed people collecting the littered cotton in bags, presumably to sell on. The cotton-pickers are unpaid. Every autumn women, students and children are forced by the government to go into the fields to pick cotton. This has caused international outcry and recently the government made it illegal for children under 16 to pick cotton. But riding past the fields many of the pickers looked very young to us.
Uzbekistan has a very controlling government. There is no media freedom and there is an enormous police force. Drivers are regularly pulled over to have their papers checked. As tourists we were required to get registration slips for every hotel we stayed in. The law states that you must be registered every third day and many tourists have run into trouble because of gaps in their registration. This can result in large fines or bribes. Although we had a few gaps we didn’t have any problems with the police. In fact cycling through Uzbekistan has been a real pleasure for us. The country is mostly flat and the roads are in good condition. The traffic is fairly light and the standards of driving are higher that in any country since we left Europe, but our progress was still slowed by the number of police stops. However, they haven’t been interested in our passports or registration slips. They just want to talk about Manchester United – we know nothing about football, but as the subject is so frequently raised we are learning fast.
In Tashkent we were lent a house by a friend for a few days. It was lovely to be in a local neighbourhood and to be able to cook for ourselves. As someone here told us, Uzbeks like to eat ten times a day. This was borne out on the occasions we were invited to tea with people. It was never just tea and often turned into a full-blown meal. Uzbek food is delicious but the diet relies heavily on meat and they are not afraid of fat. Shashlyk (kebab) grilled over wood embers usually alternates meat and fat chunks. It is served crisp and sizzling with finely diced onions sprinkled with fresh dill and vinegar, and eaten with hunks of bread. There are hearty soups with whole potatoes and chunks of meat. There is a noodle and meat dish called laghman. Osh or plov is made with rice – and meat. And there are samsas – a bit like a meat pasty – stuck to the inside of a tandoor oven to cook and served hot, which became our staple snack food when cycling. In the house in Tashkent we were able to cook vegetables and lots of them. It is always quite difficult to get the quantity of vegetables we are used to when travelling.
But staying in the house meant we didn’t have all the registration slips we needed. Another friend helped us solve this problem. One evening we were driven round Tashkent in the back of a car by two Russian-speaking men, going from one hotel to another trying to persuade someone to give us a registration for a small fee. We had no idea where we were being taken and at one point found ourselves waiting in the dark in the middle of a slightly dodgy looking housing estate with both men frantically making phone calls on their mobiles.
Eventually we found a hotel which agreed to register us for one night. This put us technically within the three day law but still meant we had to be ready with a story about camping in the mountains to cover the missing nights.
When we entered Uzbekistan it was still hot but on our first day there was a sandstorm. Within minutes the temperature had dropped from 28 to 18 degrees and we had to cover our faces with scarves. Even so the sand got into our eyes and throats and stung our arms and legs. By the time we reached Tashkent, it was autumn. The trees were turning red and gold and starting to drop their leaves. The markets were full of their fruits. Pomegranites, persimmons, dark red apples, pears and walnuts sat alongside melons and piles of grapes. The mornings were cold and crisp with clear blue skies. It was still warm enough during the day to wander around in short sleeves but by the evening there was rain, and by 6pm it is dark.
The border crossing out of Uzbekistan was busy and crowded. Our passports were stamped without a second glance and no-one even looked at our so carefully collected registration slips.