Uzbekistan - From Desolation to the Magic of 1001 Nights


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November 11th 2007
Published: November 11th 2007
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Journey in Uzbekistan

From Andijon to Tashkent to Nukus and back to Tashkent

This is our blog entry for the Uzbekistan part of our trip. There are 47 pictures in this entry and you have to click on "next" at the bottom of the page to see the pictures on page 2 and 3. There is also a map available. We hope you enjoy!

Crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan went without problem and we found our way to Fergana where we stayed for the night. A first general impression of the country was that it seems more developed; a bit richer than Kyrgyzstan. Streets are in better condition (almost comparable to Quebec's roads... hum... some would say it is not an example!), less cows and sheep block the road (we didn't say none), industrial sites can been seen from the road, etc. People are a bit richer here than in Kyrgyzstan, but they enjoy less freedom than their neighbours. In fact, Uzbekistan is an undemocratic state. The president reigns the country with an iron hand not permitting people to express their opinion openly. The day after we had crossed the border an Uzbek journalist critic toward the government was shot in Osh (Kyrgyz border town) supposedly by Uzbek secret service!! In this context, it's not a surprise to learn that most of foreign NGOs have been forced to leave the country in recent year! Also, there is a lot of police in the streets and roads. As a tourist you have to collect registration papers at each hotel and we have already been checked by policemen more than once. With some precaution we managed not to play their game which earns them some extra money from tourists... Still people we met are as friendly and spontaneous as in Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan has kept some signs from its past on the Silk Road. The first one is ... silk! Of course, we couldn't miss the traditional Margilon silk factory in the Fergana Valley. During a one-hour tour a manager showed us the traditional way of producing silk. The Uzbek government still gives worms to anyone willing to feed them during one month until they stop eating and roll themselves up into a cocoon of silk fibres. The silk factory buys the cocoons and takes care of all further steps.The cocoon now needs to be unwound in boiling water (picture). One small cocoon is made of 1,2 kilometer of silk filament! Around 12 filaments are twisted together to make industrial thread, which is used to make clothing. They showed us also the dyeing of the silk as well as the weaving up to the final products (fabric, scarfs, carpets, clothes, etc.). A very interesting process! Who did found out that the cocoon a tiny wormspins (in other words silk is from the mouth of the worm) can be transformed into a prestige fabric? Some Chinese brains, once upon a time... By the way, the art of silk-making was kept secret by the Chinese for centuries, making it illegal to transfer silkworm eggs out of the country. There are many legends about silkworm eggs hidden for example in a Chinese princess' hair or in monks' walking sticks but no-one knows for sure when silk first reached West from China.

Tashkent - well there is not sooo much to see in this capital. But as with Bishkek this is the place to be for a real coffee or a decent meal that does not start with Shashlik, Manti, Plov or Laghman and does not contain entire pieces of fat! It's also there that we met again our friend Lukasz with whom we had travelled some days in Kyrgyzstan. This is how the time finally went over quickly while waiting for the bi-weekly train to leave for Nukus at the other end of the country...

The 22-hour trip to Nukus was the longest train trip we both made so far. The old soviet train was not uncomfortable, but it was not really what we were expecting for a "business class"! We didn't have too much sleep and as heating was not working it was freezing at night. Anyway, we were glad to have beds at all because at first we had only ticket for seats. Finally, half an hour before departing we were able to change the tickets for business class... We arrived the day after some 1200km northwest of Tashkent in Nukus where we slept in a Soviet-era hotel (meaning built 40 years ago and never anything renovated).... If we have the choice to spend another night in a Soviet train or in a Soviet hotel it would be difficult to decide which is the smaller pain!!

In Nukus we took a taxi to go further North to see what the Soviets (again the Soviets...) have done to the Aral sea. Moynak was once a prosperous harbour and fishing town, nowadays it is 150km away of the shore! What happened? The Soviet planners decided in the early 60's that Central Asia was to become the center of the Soviet cotton production. Cotton is a very thirsty crop therefore the Aral sea's feeder rivers have been largely used as means to irrigate hundred thousands of hectares of dry land. The Soviet knew that this will dry out the sea in the long run but they either just did not care at all or did underestimate the consequences. Since 20 years the sea has shrank enormously and changed climate in the region. Winter are now longer and colder, summer are hotter. Ecosystem altered, many species extincted, huge health problems, etc.... Moynaq is today just a poor, desolate village in the middle of the desert. Witnesses of Moynaq's past are still visible in the desert. Huge rusty ships in the desert.... apparently the Soviet planners did not have others plans for the ships and so they are still waiting for better days. Apocalypse now!

That same day we went to Moynak we chartered a taxi to Khiva because none of us wanted to stay one more night in Nukus. The old town of Khiva is like a museum and probably the first city of our trip never devastated by an earthquake or Jenghiz Khan.. a beautiful museum we must say! For a very long time we haven't been at a place principally focused on tourism. Our friend Lukasz said that it is Disney World ... well on our opinion it is not. But there are tourist shops everywhere, a dual pricing system to rip off foreign tourists and tour bus loads of elder French and Spanish tourists. We managed to enjoy our two days; after all tourism did not (yet) destroy this tiny square of marvellous buildings. In addition a developed tourism industry has also positive aspects: it makes the hotel comfort level be much higher than in Kyrgyzstan!

Seven hours of bumpy mashrutka drive through the desert brought us to Bukhara - a mythical Silk Road city. Bukhara is much bigger than Khiva - more hotels and restaurants mean more competition and lower prices for us! Bukhara is beautiful of course - just look at the pictures and you would believe we have gone back to Iran. We could almost believe it ourselves because parts of the people in Bukhara and Samarkand speak Tadjik, which is not a Turkic language but in the same family as Farsi!! But no, we are not back in Iran we are still in Uzbekistan. The masters of ceramics in this country made an equally excellent job and the results are breathtaking medressas and mosques. One difference is that most of these buildings were not in use during the Soviet era (or used as storehouses or workshops) and thus some are not in so good conditions than those we visited in Iran. Another striking and sometimes nerve-racking difference is that in Uzbekistan 95% of the medressas' rooms (in the courtyard) are today used for selling souvenirs.

Then we finally arrived in Samarkand. When started to get interested in the Silk Road this was one of the first cities that attracted our attention. It is probably the most mystical place on the whole Silk Road fixed in our imagination by many poets and playwrights of past eras (1001 night-tales). From the 6th to the 13th century Samarkand was bigger then today. Lying at the crossroads leading to China, India and Persia it was a key city on the Silk Road and changed hands almost every century until eradicated by Jenghiz Khan in 1220. Fortunately for Samarkand, Amir Timur (Tamerlane) decided in 1370 to make Samarkand his capital and he and his successors (mainly grandson Ulugbek) forged a new city whose buildings can still be seen and admired today. However, we found this city less charming than Khiva and Bukhara... Maybe it's also due to the fact that after Iran and those two cities, we've seen quite a lot of blue tiled mosques, medressas ands caravanserais!

From Samarkand we also made a day trip to Shakhrisabz the birth place of Amir Timur. Unfortunately, not much of his once incredible huge summer palace survived. The modern statue of Timur and the ruins behind give today a perfect picture for Uzbek weddings. In the hour we lingered around the park at least 5 couples had their pictures taken... and this in November. It must be quit busy in summer! There is an easy going ambiance in this small town and it's the place where we found the most friendly people: a chaikhana (tea house) owner didn't want us to pay our tea and the family with whom we shared the taxi on the return really insisted to invite us to sleep or at least to eat at their home!

Talking about weddings leads us to talk about the importance of tradition in this country. In fact it's interesting to observe the mix of traditional Uzbek way of life and growing occidental influence as well as Russian influence from Soviet times. For example most of the brides we saw were wearing the Western white wedding dress. As you can see on one of the pictures we also saw some brides wearing traditional wedding clothes. We've been told that mostly conservative families want their children to dress conservatively for their wedding. Often in these cases the weddings are arranged by the parents... A local from conservative Fergana valley was shocked to learn that in Europe, most couples live together some years before getting married if they get married at all... but, and this is the most important, he respected our way of life and despite the differences he invited us to eat Plov, which was delicious! In the streets we could observe people wearing traditional Uzbek clothes (looking a bit like pyjamas for us!) while others are dressed like occidentals. Women wearing hijab and women dressed quite sexy are going side by side in streets. And while the Fergana valley is known to be an important Islamic conservative base, in lots of cafes of the country Russian television shows clips with three fourths naked women! Another Russian heritage which you wouldn't expect in a Muslim country is the high consumption of Vodka!

That was it from the Silk Road... the entry was ready to be published on Friday when all of a sudden Tashkent's internet connections failed all together! Therefore we are publishing it today (Sunday morning) from Bangkok where we happily arrived. Bangkok is totally different from Central Asia, totally, but this is story is to be continued next time. Take care!




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