Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Samarkand: Exploring the Aman Kutan Valley

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Using the ancient forest pathways of Aman Kutan
Uzbekistan is an agricultural country: the majority of Uzbeks live in villages and work the land. Villagers keep house and farm the way it was done centuries ago: women cook on open fires, weave, spin yarn, bake bread, milk cows. Men farm, shepherd livestock and build simple houses of stone, rocks and clay.

It is always rewarding to spend time in Uzbek villages. And not far from Samarkand's famed turquoise domes, it is possible to hike through a beautiful forest and enjoy a village home stay.

Overview of Aman Kutan region

About 45 kms east of Samarkand, on the road to Timur's home town of Shakrisabs, lies the very pretty Aman Kutan valley, dotted with small settlements.

The area is perfect for a day hike, an enjoyable lunch stop after a visit to Shakrisabs or an overnight village home stay.

Since ancient times this region has played a major role in the life of Samarkand. It was the only road connecting the Surkhandarya oasis with the Zarafshan river valley, i.e. the shortest path from ancient Bactria to Sogdiana (the ancient name for Samarkand).

The armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Persians all marched across this way. Later this route formed a section of the Great Silk Road with considerable economic and cultural importance.

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Terraces in the forests of Aman Kutan
Aman Kutan was also the first area of mountain afforestation in Central Asia; it was initiated by N.I. Korolkov, the Governor of Turkestan 1879 –1883. These works were carried out because the then tsarist Russian government was forced to react after mudslides devastated the area causing significant economic hardship.

In autumn 1879 thousands of seedlings were planted. The main species were black locust, American ash, walnut, mulberry, Crimean pine, apricot and almond. Later, trees were planted on horizontal terraces designed by N.I. Korolkov. As well as preventing soil flows, long-living walnuts produce an important crop for locals to harvest and sell.

Several of the original trees still stand and local families keenly monitor the forests to ensure that no illegal felling occurs. The Aman Kutan forest area covers 2158 hectares today.

Archaeological findings

David Natanovich Lev was the leading investigator of the Stone Age in Central Asia, and a professor at the University of Samarkand. In 1947, his expedition discovered many ancient tools and the remains of a young Neanderthal man. These were dated roughly to 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, and are the earliest known human remains in Central Asia.

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Entrance to Lion's Cave, Aman Kutan
The cave where the remains were found is known as Lion's Cave ( lion is the English translation of "Lev"). The cave's length is 80 metres and can be visited. (However, if you wish to visit more than the first two halls, you will need proper caving gear).


It is possible to arrange a one or two day hike in the area, with picnic lunches and home cooking.

Particualrly in summer, Aman Kutan's cooler climate - usually about 8 degrees Celsius less than Samarkand - is ideal for hiking.

Accompanied by a guide, you can hike through the forest, enjoying the seasonal flora. The guide will also point out where the 19th century Russian barracks were and other remnants of the afforestation team's work.

After inspecting the Lion's Cave you can picnic nearby then head back to Aman Kutan village via the old Soviet pioneer camp. Alternatively, you can make a bigger loop by hiking through the pass and back to the village.

Either way, the scenery is spectacular and the history interesting. After your hike, you can enjoy a delicious meal on a tapchan under the trees, listening to the river and rustle of leaves.

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View of the garden and tandyr oven at the home stay 
The family that manages the Jahongir B & B in Samarkand can make all the arrangements for you. The accommodation is simple and comfortable. The garden is pretty and a good night's sleep guaranteed.

The family can send you itineraries as well as Google Earth coordinates for the region.

Related posts: 

Katta Langar's Masterpieces of Islamic Architecture - Near Shakhrisabz
5 Reasons to Visit Sentyab, North East Uzbekistan 
Uzbekistan: Pearl of the Sands - a New Documentary 

Materials source: Man-made Green Monuments of Central Asia

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Samarkand - The Splendour of the Sharq Taronalari Music Festival

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Evening at Samarkand's Registan square during the festival
For some years, visiting Samarkand's world music festival - Sharq Taronalari - has been on my bucket list. This year I finally made it.

Held every two years at the end of August, Samarkand's Registan - called "the noblest square in the world" by Lord Curzon in the 19th century - morphs into a musical melting pot, resonating to sounds, song and dance from around the globe.

The festival, an initiative of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and under the patronage of UNESCO, aims to foster international cooperation by building close contact between artists and musicians from different countries.

This year,  musicians from 66 countries participated in the 10th staging of the event. Groups came from Africa, New Zealand, Central Asia, South East Asia, Latin America, South Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Europe.

Truly, Samarkand was once again the crossroad of civilizations. The late summer weather was perfect for performances, most of which started around 5:00 p.m. Some evenings the music continued until after 11:00 p.m. As a bonus, the Registan's fabulous new sound and light show was screened. The majestic buildings came alive as the history of this extraordinary city unfurled.

I particularly liked the Georgian group Didgori, whose goal is to revive ancient, Georgian folk traditions. As well as classical, traditional music there were interesting fusions sounds such as the Pakistani group Surur and a combination entry from Spain and Indonesia. The Uzbek singers and musicians, in dazzling costumes, were sensational.

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Pakistan's Surur group

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Didgori from Georgia

An 8-member international jury awarded China's Jiangsu Women's Orchestra the Grand Prix and Japan's Shamisen  won 1st prize. Poland and Estonia shared 2nd prize and Costa Rica won 3rd prize.

It was clear talking to the musicians that to perform in such a venue was like a fairy tale. And of course the festival provided many opportunities for musicians to play together, experiment and exchange musical experiences.

Practical information about attending the Sharq Taronalari music festival

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Sher Dor madrassah at the Registan Square
If a visit to the Sharq Taronalari festival is on your bucket list too, here is some practical information:

1.     Book your accommodation at least 6 months in advance.
2.     If you plan to travel by the super fast Afrosiab train, also book your tickets in advance. The train, which takes just 2 hours and 10 minutes to/from Tashkent, was fully booked for a week after the festival ended.
3.    You must have a ticket to gain entry to the festival. This year tickets were issued free of charge to tourists at the Sharq Taronalari office at the Afrosiabs Hotel. You must present your passport when applying for a ticket and again when you enter the festival.
4.    Tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies are issued by Uzbek Tourism to specially-invited guests, diplomats etc. It is very difficult for tourists to obtain those tickets.
5.   There are no food or drink stalls in the festival grounds - make sure to bring water and snacks.
6.     Because of security and festival preparations, the Registan is closed to visitors during the day for about a week leading up to the festival. Bear this in mind if you are planning a trip to Samarkand in that week - there were many disappointed tourists. Also keep in mind that during the festival many roads are closed.

Finally, for a taste of the festival, enjoy this 2-minute video prepared by Euronews. (If this does not appear on your device, please go directly to: )

Related posts:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan - Part #2

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Gorgeous shyrdaks. Image: Rosemary Sheel
This article, written by Lilya Kas'yanova and Penelope Price, was first published in the September 2014 edition of Embellish - the Australian magazine for textile arts. 

Part #1 provided background information on Kyrgyz felting and patterns. This installment looks at the process of making the carpet.
Shyrdaks and Ala-Kiyiz are Kyrgyz felt carpets, handmade using patterns and sewing techniques handed down through generations.

The exceptional expressiveness of Kyrgyz felts is marked by the singularity of pattern arrangement and combination of colors. These carpets are listed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

On an Uzbek Journeys tour we visit the home of famed felter Mairam Omurzakova, a founding member of the Altyn Kol cooperative, Kochkor, in the northern province of Naryn.  After a delicious lunch in her home, Mairam steps visitors through the felting process.

Her cooperative mainly use fleece from Karakol sheep.  This wool is quite coarse, however, it is well suited for making felt carpets. Sheep are usually fleeced in autumn: the wool from the autumn shearing is considered to be finer and more valuable.

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Beating the fleece. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova

Steps in making a Kyrgyz felt carpet

1.   First the fleece is placed on a cow’s hide. Then it is beaten with special metal sticks. This helps to separate the fibres evenly, to make the wool fluffy and, to some extent, clean it.

2.   The wool fibres are then laid out on a chii (reed mat) in several layers.

3.   Next, the wool is dampened by hot soapy water, and this is followed by rolling up the reed mat, then tying the mat in several places.

The reed mat with the wool inside is then wrapped up in a fabric. (This fabric protects the mat from being damaged during the dragging and kneading process).

4.   Family members then kick the roll or tie it to a horse to drag.

This activity, the main stage in felting, helps to meld the fibres together.  It is done for at least an hour.

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Family members kick the rolled wool. Image: Berry King

5.   Next the roll is unwound and the wool is kneaded manually; it is rolled back and forth, from wrists to elbows and back to wrists.

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Kneading the wool

6.   Then the wool is turned over and the opposite surface is processed in the same way. This process, which takes some hours, is repeated several times to ensure the felt is absolutely firm and the edges are finished.

7.   Finally, the finished felt is rinsed in cold water and put out to dry.

To produce a felted piece measuring 3 x 1.5 metres, 12 kilograms of wool are required. After kneading, the finished felt weighs no more than 6 kilograms.

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Mairam and her daughter cut the pattern. Image: Berry King
Maraim’s family also uses appliqué techniques on shyrdaks. These are based on creating positive/negative visual images.

The felt is cut into pieces, then two contrasting coloured layers of felt are placed on top of one another. A design is drawn freehand in chalk on the top layer, cut out, then stitched so that the background and the pattern are contrasting colours.

The results are stunning. What is also impressive is the joyful atmosphere the women create as they work together in Mairam’s sunny courtyard. Lots of gossiping and laughter.

Ala-kiyiz carpets are less durable than shyrdaks - the latter should last up to 50 years. However, ala-kiyiz items are faster to produce and are made by pressing and rolling patterns into the felt. The pattern is marvellously vague and the carpets warm and soft to walk on. This technique is also popular for home decorations.

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Ala-kiyiz carpet. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova
As well as visiting Mairam’s family and watching this process, other felt studios are included on an Uzbek Journeys tour. e.g., a visit to Aidai Asangulova’s, a cutting edge contemporary felter who specialises in nano felting.

Related posts:
Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan - Part #1
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress
Kyrgyz Blues
Kyrgyzstan's Bus Stops