Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Samarkand: Fashion Show & Uzbek Concert

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Nargis  and model wearing a stunning ikat reversible coat
There's a special treat in Samarkand for Uzbek Journeys clients. Talented architect-turned-designer Nargis Bekmuhamedova arranges a delightful fashion show and dinner accompanied by classical Uzbek music in her café and boutique.

Nargis is my favourite Uzbek designer. She understands fabric and structure: her signature touch is combining old and new textiles, sometimes in startlingly different patterns, to create one-off jackets, skirts and dresses.

Reversible coats, jackets and vests are her speciality. She understands body shapes, so garments are flattering and wearable. The models she selects for the fashion parade are also *normal people*, including her anaesthetist daughter, so clients can see just how well her pieces work. Nargis also works closely with Ferghana ikat masters to create unique ikat fabrics.

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Musicians performing during the evening at Nargis' Art Café
Nargis produces a range of accessories: hats, skull caps, belts and scarves that all that bit out of the ordinary and mightily tempting. There is a sewing team on-site: if a garment needs altering it can be done.

And if you have time, she may be able to create a piece just for you. I have a stunning coat made from an old, red suzani with an orange, quilted lining. Whenever I wear it I am stopped and asked about it.

The local musicians provide a chance to hear Uzbek traditional pieces hauntingly sung in Uzbek and Tajik. They use a mix of old and contemporary instruments.

Nargis' kitchen is well known, and rightly so. Her aubergine starters, spinach-stuffed pies, Greek salads and home-made halva are excellent. The cafe's location is unbeatable - adjacent to Bibi Khanum mosque, famed for its dome and romantic legend.

The café, at 12 Tashkent Street Samarkand, is usually not open of an evening unless you let Nargis know in advance. During the day, try to grab a table on the terrace, take in the beauty of Bibi Khanum and sip a cardamon coffee. And of course slip into the boutique: it is a treasure trove, so give yourself time to rummage through everything.

If you would like to visit Nargis' boutique, please consider joining an Uzbek Journeys tour.

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Nargis's daughter models a stunning peacock pattern ikat coat
Related posts:

Nargis Bekmuhamedova - Samarkand Textile Designer
Samarkand's Musical Traditions 
Oscar de la Renta's Love Affair with Uzbek Ikat 
Valentino Haute Couture Meets Suzani

Images: Courtesy and copyright Tom Tauber.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats

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Kyrgyz chii braided in traditional designs
Kyrgyz people cherish their nomadic traditions. Although these days they do not live in yurts year-round, many Kyrgyz families set off to high pastures and erect their yurt as a summer dwelling. Even in villages, families may assemble a yurt in their backyards during summer as a family gathering place.

Functional mats and screens, known as chii (also spelt as chij)  are an integral part of yurt construction and decoration.

Chii are made of sedge, which grows in the foothills of the Kyrgyz steppe. The screens are used to cover a yurt's wooden frame. If the weather is very hot, then the outside felt covering is removed and the chii screen permits cross breeze through the yurt: nomadic air-conditioning.  Chii screens are also placed over the felt covering to protect it from being blown off in windy weather.

Chii mats are put under ala-kiyiz and shyrdak (felt carpets) inside yurts to protect them from dampness and wear and tear. Patterned chii mats also serve as partitions to separate the kitchen area of the yurt.

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Chii loom
After gathering chii, women clean and straighten it, compose a pattern then create that pattern by pricking the reed with a pin. Then they prepare coloured wool according to the planned composition and braid each reed, so that when connected the reeds produce the harmonious pattern.

A special loom is used to braid the reed. It is made of two vertical poles tipped with brackets on which a horizontal pole is attached at a height suitable for people to work standing. The woollen threads are  thrown over this pole; the ends of the threads are wound over stones which function as loads. There may be about 20 – 30 such loads placed at a distance of 10 – 15 cm from each other.

The patterns are not simply ornamental, they also invoke magical forces to protect against the evil eye or to promote well being. Stylised floral and animal patterns may also be braided onto the chii.

At Bishkek's State Museum of Fine Arts an exhibition of chii by Nurbek Jolbunov was held in June 2013. Mr. Jolbunov reinterprets ancient Kyrgyz patterns in contemporary chii. His exquisite pieces are keenly sought after by collectors. He works in the remote village Kulanach in the Naryn region and draws on the landscape and tales of his ancestors to produce his chii.
Nurbek Jolbunov's chii using traditional symbols

On the 2nd floor of the State History Museum, there are some excellent samples of Kyrgyz chii. And in a Bishkek bric-a-brac shop I saw a marvellous chii with Lenin's famous profile braided into the reeds.

Related posts:
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan 
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress
Yurts of Central Asia
Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Early Christianity in Central Asia

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Dr. Ken Parry
Dr Ken Parry, who travelled with Uzbek Journeys in 2012, is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. He researches and publishers in the fields of Byzantine history and Eastern Christianity and has travelled extensively in Central Asia and China.

Most of us do not associate Christianity with Central Asia, especially not early Christianity, and yet Eastern-rite Christian communities were established in the region by the 5th century AD.

The Church of the East had a bishop at Merv and a metropolitan at Samarkand by the mid 6th century, and there were communities at Kashgar and Turfan in Chinese Central Asia (Xinjiang) by the 7th century. Most remarkably we have evidence for Christians in China at the Tang capital of Xian by 635. We know this date from the discovery of a stele with an inscription written in Chinese and Syriac discovered in the 17th century.

However, most of the archaeological evidence for the Christian presence in Central Asia was unknown before the early 20th century. It was largely as a result of the explorations by Western scholars such as Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot and Albert von Le Coq that this evidence came to light. Since then many more finds have been made.

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Stele with cross atop lotus flower, Xian
But who were these Christians? Initially they came from Persia where we know there were Christian communities from at least the 3rd century. It was mainly as a result of the international trade on the Silk Road that Christians established themselves in the oasis towns of Central Asia.

The Church of the East used Syriac as a liturgical language, but the discovery of textual fragments at Turfan shows that they also used local languages, such as Sogdian and Uighur. Sogdiana was the ancient name given to the region that covers much of Uzbekistan today.

An important witness to Christians in Sogdiana was the Muslim scholar al-Biruni (973-1048) who was born near Urgench, and who provides first hand information about the Christian communities. Before the dominance of Islam, Christians lived alongside Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Manichaeans in many towns in Central Asia, where they formed part of the melting pot of ethnic groups and religious cultures.

Among the artefacts relating to early Christianity in Uzbekistan are several ossuaries found in the region of Samarkand, as well as the site of a monastery at Urgut, also near Samarkand. Further archaeological finds at Qarshovul Tepe near Tashkent would seem to indicate the presence of a Christian community.

While many of the earlier finds can be seen in London, Berlin and Paris, visitors to Turfan in Xinjiang can see several sites associated with these discoveries. In Xian the stele with the bilingual inscription is on display in the Forest of Steles Museum. The stele was erected in 781 and shows the cross on the lotus flower.

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Christian tile found at the Urgut excavations
If you want to hear more about Early Christianity in Central Asia  Ken will be speaking on this topic at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney on Saturday 7 September 2013. A symposium is being convened by The Asian Arts Society of Australia and the Macquarie Asian Historical Research Society.

Ken is also leading a Silk Road Tour to Chinese Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan in April 2014. Please contact Ken directly about these interesting events:

Related posts: The Ancient Site of Afrosiab, Samarkand
Buddhist Sites of Termez, Uzbekistan
Avicenna of Bukhara and Al-Khorezmi of Khiva

Monday, August 5, 2013

6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan

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Kalpak-shaped bus shelter. Image: Steven Hermans,
I am very taken with Kyrgyzstan. Not only the majesty of the mountains and valleys and the warmth of Kyrgyz people, but the everyday, small things that make life interesting there. After spending six weeks in Kyrgyzstan in June/July, here are some of the things that took my fancy.

1. Kyrgyz Bus Shelters

Bus stop spotting can easily become an obsession in Kyrgyzstan. Dotted on the main highways and country roads, these bus shelters did not follow an austere, Soviet model. Instead they are a riot of mosaics and murals depicting Kyrgyz mythology and patterns as well as patriotic themes from Soviet times. The image above right is a marvellous example: it is shaped like the Kyrgyz national hat for men, the kalpak. It symbolises the snowy peaks and vitality of this mountainous country.

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Hammer and sickle bus shelter mosaic
Unfortunately, there seems to be no bus shelter maintenance these days, and the marvellous structures are slowly crumbling. What a pity - such a great slice of social history. Visit Kyrgyzstan while you can to still see these shelters!

Check out Steppe Magazine's first issue as there was a Top Ten feature of bus stops in Central Asia showcasing Christopher Herwig's fabulous images.

2. There is a 3 soum coin

Despite assurances that there was a 3 rouble coin in Soviet times, having only ever known 1, 2 and 5 unit small coins, I was fascinated by the Kyrgyz 3 soum coin. I loved having them in my wallet and producing four of them to pay for a 12-soum night ride on a marshrutka (local collective mini-bus).



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The quirky Snail Café, Bishkek

3. The Snail Café in Bishkek

This quirky little building is located behind the Tsum department store, adjacent to the Opera House. In Soviet times, it was known as Rakushka (Shell). Rakushka is a classic example of Soviet modernist style, designed by architects V. Krugman and R. Muhamadiev as a souvenir shop.  Even in perestroika years it continued as a souvenir shop and only after independence was it converted to a café.

On a summer's day there is a terrace and shade. The menu is in Russian, but there are English speaking staff.

4. Street Art

There is lots of graffiti in the city. That in itself is unusual in Central Asia. Some of it is tedious tags. But there is also some interesting work on the city walls. Political street art abounds, though regrettably most of the commentary of course in Cyrillic.

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Street art, Bishkek
This painting at left of an alpine scene with lake, possibly of Issyk Kul, was done with immense care, in oil, in an underpass I walked through daily. When I finally returned to photograph it, the painting itself had been tagged.

Architecturally, Bishkek is quite drab, and much of the street art enlivens the cityscape. There are now some established street artists commenting on social and political issues, and evidently street art festivals are part of the Bishkek calendar.

5.   Kyrgyzstan seems comfortable with its Soviet past

Unlike other Central Asian republics, Kyrgyzstan has not *deleted* its Soviet past. Lenin still stands in the centre of Bishkek, albeit he is now moved behind the State History Museum. A Marx and Engels sculpture is nestled in nearby Oak Park.

bishkek soviet buildings, kyrgyzstan tours 2014
Ceiling rosette in Bishkek railway station's main hall
When buildings are restored, reminders of Soviet times are restored as well. This is beautifully demonstrated in Bishkek's main railway station's arrival hall. The ceiling is glorious: the centre rosette is of traditional traditional Kyrgyz patterns wrapped in a Kyrgyz SSR ribbon.

Mikhail Frunze, the Bolshevik leader just prior to the 1917 revolution and once considered a successor to Lenin, was born in Bishkek. (Indeed the city was known as Frunze, in his honour, from 1926 - 1991. Luggage is still tagged to FRU when you fly to Bishkek). The Frunze Museum in Bishkek is fascinating and the State History Museum's second floor is devoted to Lenin and the Russian revolution.

6. There is a sewing machine in the EMS section of the Central Post Office

I had stocked up on gorgeous felt/silk shawls, tops and gloves at Aidai Asangulova's felt workshop and decided to post a box of goodies home. EMS (Express Mail Service), though expensive, seemed the most reliable. The EMS office is open seven days a week and I had hoped to purchase a box there, fill it, complete the customs form, pay and be on my way. But it was nothing like that.

The very helpful staff in the EMS office requested that I write a list of every item to be mailed, which they then checked against the contents. Then they measured the dimensions of my pile and proceeded to sew a sturdy bag of thick calico for my goods. After addressing the bag and attaching customs forms, the tailor-made sack was sealed in hot wax, which was also on hand.

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Making the sack for posting my goodies
Even with a Russian speaking friend with me, this took about 90 minutes. Nevertheless, it was excellent service and the sack arrived at my home, looking like a Christmas pudding, two weeks later. The fee for making the sack was about $1. Evidently the Tashkent Post Office provides this same "sew and seal" service.

Apart from the efficiency of this operation, it was all done with legendary Kyrgyz courtesy and grace.

Related posts: 5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Lenin Still Points the Way in Bishkek 
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
Yurts of Central Asia Part #1 
Kyrgyzstan's Bus Stops