Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bukhara's Puppet Theatre

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Bukharan puppets. Image courtesy Richard Marshall
Theatre seems to have emerged in Central Asia in the 4th century BC, and was known as Maskara, in which performers wore masks. Puppet performances are recorded from the 1st century AD and were hugely popular.

When Islam conquered the region, puppet performances were banned. Happily, in the 9th century, the enlightened Samanid rulers promoted the arts, literature and science. Bukhara became the empire's capital and it rivalled Baghdad in its glory.

The Samanids revived many ancient traditions, including the puppet theatre. It is said that one ruler insisted that after Friday prayers a puppet performance should be staged in Bukhara's Registan (main square).

At the beginning of the 20th century all artists, musicians and puppeteers lived in the same neighbourhood of Bukhara. Puppeteers handed down their skills and secrets to their sons, who in turn added their own improvisations to the stories. Famous characters such as Khodja Nasruddin, remembered for his funny stories and anecdotes, were often included in the plays. And politics of the day were also made fun of.

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Late 19th century street puppet show
In Soviet times theatres received government support. However, by the 1950s, funding declined for puppet shows and they had almost disappeared, possibly because they could be so subversive!

Post-USSR there has been a significant revival in Central Asian puppetry. Kazakhstan today has nine large puppet theatres, some of which are private. Uzbekistan has ten, all state-owned. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both have two state-run puppet theatres.

Bukhara is an excellent place to visit the workshops of puppet makers: Iskandar Khakimov's atelier is located at 2 Centralnaya St., on the south side of the Lyabi Hauz. He explains each step of how he makes his gorgeous puppets, from the papier-mâché heads beautifully painted in oils to the hand-stitched traditional costumes.

It is also possible to watch an early evening puppet show in English at the 16th century Kukeldash madrassah, on the north side of Lyabi Haus. It is  delightful: the story of an Uzbek wedding, combining music, dance and puppetry. There is a sign board outside the madrassah - ask your guide to phone +998 936 512 933 to book tickets. (If there are no advance bookings the show is cancelled). Cost is around US$8. It usually starts at 6:00 p.m. and runs for 45 minutes. Charming.

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Wedding Ceremony puppet performance. Image courtesy Wendy Relf
On an Uzbek Journeys tour you will have the chance to visit Mr. Khakimov's workshop in Bukhara as well as the Koryazov family of puppet makers in Khiva. And why not enjoy the puppet show one evening in Bukhara?

Related posts: Bukhara's Summer Palace
Uzbekistan's Circus Traditions
The Jabbarov Rope Walking Family of Khiva
Khiva's Open Air Cinema

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hiking with Vasiliy Eremin in the Chimgan Mountain Range, near Tashkent

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Vasiliy on a summer hike in Chimgan
Chimgan is where Uzbeks head to escape the summer heat, indulge their passion for winter sports (skiing and snowboarding) and hike in the glorious mountain ranges during spring and autumn. Located 85 kms east of Tashkent, Chimgan is on the spurs of the Chatkal range of the western Tien Shan mountains, in the  Ugam-Chatkal National Park. The main peak of the entire mountain area, Greater Chimgan, is an impressive 3309 metres.

The area was already popular in Tsarist times: the Governor of Turkestan built his country house there.  Later, Russian army doctors had a hospital built to take advantage of the healing properties of mountain air.

It is also where Uzbeks have had their dachas for generations, grown vegetables and fruits and pickled them for winter.

Last October I spent a marvellously clear autumn day hiking around the area near Beldersoy with Vasiliy Eremin. A Moscow-trained teacher of the accordion and other musical instruments, Vasiliy's passion is mountains.

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Vasiliy Eremin on a late-summer hike, Chimgan
He hikes year-round and knows this region like the back of his hand. Vasily is excellent in naming plants and trees (in English) along the way. If he didn't know it, he checked his Russian-English dictionary app to ensure my query was answered!

The beginning of the trail was steep and stony as we hiked up to the Mramornaya river (altitude1500m) then followed the stream to the Urta Kumbel Pass (1850m) then down to the Beldersay river gorge. Vasiliy had prepared a delicious picnic lunch of non (Uzbek bread), cheese and salami, plus kishmish (sweet, small raisins from his garden).

After lunch we hiked up to the second pass, Chet Kumbel, 1880m. The views of the Western Tien Shan mountain range were beautiful. The landscape was more forested, the silence and stillness perfect. We simply walked along companionably, crossed the cable car station and then back down to the hotel.

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Vasiliy is an all-season hiker
Chimgan is also a special place for bird watching. Ornithologists have noted over 40 species in the area including the tawny owl, the Egyptian vulture, the blue-whistling thrush, the white-capped bunting and the red-headed bunting. (The first book on Uzbek birds in a bilingual English/Russian edition has just been published).

If hiking or birdwatching appeals to you, Uzbek Journeys can arrange two and three-day excursions to Chimgan staying at the Beldersay resort hotel. And, if you like, Vasiliy may bring his guitar.

Contact Vasiliy on: vasjan54 (at) mail (dot) ru

Related post: White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Samarkand: Exploring the Aman Kutan Valley

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Living Shrines of Uyghur China - Exhibition at Rubin Gallery, New York

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Lisa Ross's image Black Garden (An Offering) ©2013 Studio Lisa Ross
I first came across Lisa Ross' arresting images of her journeys along the holy places of the Taklamakan desert in Steppe Magazine's 2008 summer issue.

New Yorkers are lucky that the Rubin Museum of Art is showcasing her photographs of mazars in the remote deserts of Xinjiang in western China. The exhibition, titled Living Shrines of Uyghur China, runs until 8 July.

Mazar, which literally means ‘a place for visit’ or ‘place of paying homage’, is a Sufi shrine, adorned with small devotional offerings that mark a prayer or visit. Muslim saints, Sufi poets or healers may be buried there. Or perhaps the mazar marks a holy person's stopping or resting spot.

Uyghur pilgrims have visited the mazars of the Taklamakan desert for over ten centuries, decorating the shrines with ornaments, fabric, amulets, mirrors etc as they prayed.

Cover of Ross' book documenting mazar. Available online
Ms. Ross spent over 8 years exploring the area with assistance from Uyghur ethnographer Rahile Dawut and French historian Alexandre Papas. Her photographs are astonishing, respectful and lyrical. Most sites are not identified, not just because of the sensitivity of the area, but also to protect the sites.

If you are unable to visit the museum, you can share Ms. Ross' experience of the desert by viewing the photographs at her online gallery, where you can also purchase a copy of the book.

Related posts: Rosemary Sheel's Images of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan's Quest for Historical Photographs