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Published: October 12th 2009
This entry is longer than usual, since we will be crossing the border into Tukmenistan tomorrow, where internet is not available, and supposedly hotel rooms for foreigners are wired.
It is harvest season. Heading to Bukhara on bumpy roads (which used to be smooth highways back in Soviet times), women in traditional dresses work diligently in dark brown fields sprinkled with snow balls. Cotton is one of Uzbekistan's main exports and lifeline, along with gas and tourism. Even elementary school teachers moonlight as cotton pickers during harvest time. That is why our guide's kid has not been in school for a week. While cotton is plentiful, all of it is exported and quality clothes are imported from Russia, China, Korea, and Turkey. Local textile capabilities are still under-developed.
Life in Uzbekistan after independence in 1991 has been...dispossessing. Then, most people where on the same economic level. Now, the few with access to capital and/or government connections have comfortable lives, while most live in arduous conditions. It is not uncommon for Uzbeks to travel to Russia or Kazakhstan in search of better jobs. Then, Russians and Uzbeks are more or less treated with equal rights. Now, Uzbekistan Russians are w/out
Old City Bukhara
Left is the wall of citadel, and right is the maze of mosques/madras
real home, sidelined in both Russian and Uzbekistan societies. Then, food, healthcare, and higher education were provided for, when the Union was able. Now, it is every man for himself, with the country looking after its elites. Then end of Soviet Union is a good political change, but some people see the ramification as negative.
The Silk Road journey continues westward. Bukhara, ancient capital of Uzbekistan, is ~2,500 years old. It was the major trade center, connecting China, India, and Europe. It had close trade relationships with China in ancient times, when silkworm and ceramic were brought here. Bukhara was also one of the holiest cities in ancient times, serving as the nexus of Islam in Central Asia. While the city is dotted with over 100 mosques and madrases, the city center was the Jewish quarter. There used to be over 16,000 Jews residing here, but now here are only ~300, with the most migrated to Israel.
Now days, the religious importance of the city faded, but the trading aspects remained. Carpet, puppet, hat, clothe, and ceramic shops still blanket the entire town. Like the hazaraspan (desert spice burnt as incense, smells like a combination of clove and
Silk Road Lives On
Everywhere you turn, there is someone selling something
dried leaves) fume that permeates the city, shop owners' agressive welcome and unlawfully expensive souvenirs cover every mud brick of the old city.
Unfortunately, mosques and madrases could not escape the trading frenzy and are converted to tourist traps. In between ancient buildings, if there is space, hotels spring like mushrooms after rainfall. Acting the role of ancient merchants, bus loads of tourists (mostly German, French, Italian, and some Japanese) pour into Bukhara and bring home exotic crafts. Commerce wins the battle in the end.
Driving towards Khiva, we left behind cotton fields and entered into arid deserts, similar to those near El Paso, TX. We passed by Amu Darya, one of the two major rivers in Uzbekistan. It runs westwards from the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan into the Aral Sea. Soviets channelled water from the river to irrigate the desert region, so that cotton collectives can boost production. That was/is the worst man made natural disaster in history. Aral Sea decreased over 40 meters in level, exposing the sea bed and splitting the sea into two.
Khiva is a quiet town, with the entire old city surrounded by walls. It is Bukhara on a smaller scale,
fewer mosques, tourists, and shop owners. Its claim to fame was the large slave market that existed until the Russians took it over in late 19th / early 20th century. Another evidence of the Aral Sea disaster is the taste of water in Khiva. Back in the 60's the water tasted fine, and now it is salty, since the river that feeds the underground water are channelled away upstream.
Will post the next blog once I get to Iran. Taking a local flight in Turkmenistan. Crossing fingers that it's not a converted Soviet cargo plane.
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