Monday, June 29, 2015

Kyrgyz Blues

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Decorative elements of Karakol house. Image: Lilya Kas'janova
Travellers in Kyrgyzstan are charmed by the blue architectural details of Kyrgyz homes: marvellous hues adorn shutters, doors, gates and windows.

Often the paint has faded  - nevertheless, the charm remains, particularly on the gingerbread cottages dotted throughout the countryside.

Discussing this with Lilya Kas'janova, the brilliant guide who leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, there are many theories about why blue is so popular. 

As always, Lilya dazzled me with her knowledge of Kyrgyz traditions. (However, I hasten to add that theory #11 below was contributed by a mad Kyrgyz taxi driver).

Why blue?

1.    Blue represents the boundless sky of Kyrgyzstan.

2.    Blue also represents water - Kyrgyzstan's bright, blue lakes and the swift-flowing, crystal-clean mountain rivers.

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Blue gate, Chon Kemin valley
3.    Blue is considered a symbol of eternity: the colour is attributed to the Sky God in Kyrgyz folklore.

 4.    Kyrgyz people are of Turkic stock and in Turkic culture, blue is a symbol of the deity Tengri. Tengriism, a religion of ancient Turkic and Mongol tribes, arose at the end of the 2nd century B.C. 

Adherents believed that the universe consisted of three parts: the upper, middle, and lower worlds. Blue was associated with the upper world, the realm of the gods.

5.   In Mongolian and Kazakh cultures, blue is identified with fidelity and selfless devotion to one's country.

6.   In the Middle Ages, blue became associated with veracity and people who dressed in blue clothing were those who sought, and arrived at, the truth.

7.   People of the East believe that blue frightens away evil spirits - it protects against evil curses and the evil eye.

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Stylised almond design on a fence to protect from the evil eye
8.   Manas, Kyrgyzstan's legendary national hero, had a blue flag when going into battle. After victory, the flag was red.

 9.   In southern Kyrgyzstan, women wear either a blue scarf or dress for one year following the funeral of close family members.

10.   In the Soviet era, the range of cheerful paints was limited - blue was the brightest available. People liked the effect and continue the tradition.

11.   This is the alternative Soviet era theory. Yes, the range of paint colours was severely limited in the USSR.  However, for some reason, Kyrgyzstan drew the "blue paint" straw and vast amounts were trucked from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan and distributed around the country for residential purposes.

Whatever the reason, you will be charmed. Enjoy several other Kyrgyz "blue" images below.

Related posts: 6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan 
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project

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Twilight in Kyrgyzstan, Rosemary Sheel

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Colonial house, Karakol. Image: Lilya Kas'janova
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Tush Kiyiz (Kyrgyz traditional decorative piece to be hung on the trellis wall of a yurt). Image: Lilya Kas'janova

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Poplar Leaves on Blue Bench at Prezewalski Museum gardens, Karakol. Rosemary Sheel's evocative use of Snap Art 3

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Uzbekistan's Askiya - Oral Folk Wit and Debate

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Askiya participants enjoying their own gags
Askiya is a genre of Uzbek verbal folk art that takes the form of a dialogue between two or more participants, who eloquently debate and exchange witticisms around a particular theme.

It was added to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in late 2014.

Bearers and practitioners, mainly men, must master the peculiarities of the Uzbek language, and be able to improvise and reason quickly and skilfully, using humour and banter to great effect. (Women did practise askiya in the past, however, it is rare today).

The dialogues, although humorous, play an invaluable role in raising awareness of social tendencies and events, drawing attention to important issues through acute observation of daily life.

Askiya is often performed in folk celebrations, festivities, family-related rituals and get-togethers organized in cities and villages across Uzbekistan. At present, more than thirty forms of Askiya are known, some professional and some amateur, each with its own distinctive features. It is most widespread in the Ferghana Valley - in Andijan, Namangan and Ferghana. To a lesser extent it is practised in Tashkent and Bukhara.

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Audience enjoying an askiya competition, Ferghana
Askiya-related knowledge and skills are predominantly transmitted orally among individuals, groups and communities, based on traditional master-apprentice teaching methods.

Askiya promotes humour, ensures simplicity of communication among people, and unites representatives of different communities, irrespective of age and background, around a common event. It also has a strong educational component.

(As an aside, the local bazaar, near the hotel where Uzbek Journeys clients stay in Tashkent, is called Askiya bazaar).

Below is a 10-minute UNESCO video clip highlighting askiya. Sadly the subtitles are a little blurry. However, the genial nature of Uzbeks and their delight in good puns and jokes, makes it worth watching.

Related posts: Manaschi - Bards of Kyrgyzstan
Uzbek Divas: Capturing the Poetic Traditions of Central Asia

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Azerbaijan: Baku's Metro

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Logo of the Baku Metropolitan
The first plans for a rapid-transit system in Baku date to the 1930s, with the adoption of a new general plan for the city's development.

Having survived the Second World War without falling to the Germans, and, furthermore, becoming a strategic hub of the Caucasus, the population passed the one million mark, a requirement of Soviet law for allowing construction of a metro system.

In 1947, the Soviet Cabinet of Ministers issued a decree authorizing its construction, which began in 1951. Delays, however, meant that it was not until 6 November 1967 that Baku Metro became the USSR's fifth rapid-transit system.  The first 6.5 kilometers of track were inaugurated to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. 

The metro includes very deep central stations that could double as bomb shelters in case of a nuclear war attack - remember the metro was built at the height of the Cold War.

Often exquisite decorations featuring Azerbaijani national motifs are incorporated on platform walls and metro thoroughfares. In particular, the mosaics at Nizami and Neftchilar stations, and the marble and copper work at Elmlyar Akademiyasy station, are well worth visiting.

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Mosaic  Nizami station - detail from Nizami's love story Layla and Majnum
Presently, Baku metro's two lines are 34.6 km in length with 23 stations.  About 560,000 metro rides are undertaken daily. (Baku's population is 3 million).

Since independence, the country has seriously invested in the metro, opening new stations, sometimes with dramatic architecture.

According to the city's development program, the length is projected to be 199 kms with 76 stations by 2030.

Trains carriages from the 1980s are gradually being replaced with a modern fleet. The carriages, as well as platforms, are immaculate.

Baku metro operates from 06:00 to 24:00 every day. It is not possible to buy a single ticket - the system requires a train card, which you purchase for around $2 and then load. A single fare anywhere on the system is 20 qepik, about 20 cents.

Unlike the Almaty metro, it is regrettably not permitted to photograph within Baku's metro. However, on the Baku Metropolitan's website, there is a multimedia section in which you can view various stations and take a virtual tour.

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Central passage at Elmler Akademiyasi metro station, Baku
Bravo to Baku for investing in public transport and for continuing the tradition of beauty in public infrastructure!

Related posts:  Almaty, Kazakhstan - Riding the New Metro
Steppe Magazine - Images of the Tashkent Metro
Travelling by Rail in Uzbekistan