Monday, December 30, 2013

Holiday Reading 2013: Central Asian Titles

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Mukhamedov's Bukhara, image courtesy Fleurs de Lettres
As I head down the coast for a summer break, these are the books about Central Asia that I've packed.

En Route pour Samarcande

First up is a charming French book En Route pour Samarcande, published by Fleurs de Lettres, Paris. When this book arrived I flipped through it - now I wish to savour the paintings and text.

Uzbek water colourist Ulughkbek Mukhamedov takes the reader on a journey through the magical Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Each painting is accompanied by excerpts from early European travellers, e.g. Arminius Vámbéry, Alexander Burnes, who visited those places. It is a beautiful, hand-stitched edition on fine-quality paper (Rives Vergé).

If you have already visited Uzbekistan, this is an evocative memory of your visit.  (The book is a very reasonable Euro 25 and the shipping cost a bargain at Euro 2.90. The editor speaks English, so if you are uncertain about ordering in French, just use the website's contact form).

A visit to Ulughkbek Mukhamedov's home studio is now included in Uzbek Journeys tours.

The Orientalist

Tom Reiss' The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life has been in my *must-read* list for some time. Published to rave reviews, this is a biography about the remarkable life of Lev Nussimbaum, author of one of my favourite novels set in Central Asia: Ali and Nino.

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Cover: The Orientalist  by Tom Reiss
Written under the name of Kurbin Said and set in cosmopolitan Azerbaijan at the turn of the 20th century, Ali and Nino is ostensibly a love story about a Muslim boy and a Christian. However, it is really the author's homage to a vanished way of life in Baku.

Atlas of Central Asian Artistic Crafts

Earlier this year in Kyrgyzstan I picked up a copy of Atlas of Central Asian Artistic Crafts and Trade, Volume III - Kyrgyzstan. (I bought it at the bookshop in the yurt at Burana Tower). It is a comprehensive review, in English, of  ancient and modern Kyrgyz craft, with a special emphasis on yurts and yurt decorations. The more time I spend in Kyrgyztsan, the more I value the rich heritage of nomadic craft.

The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839 - 1842 is William Dalrymple's history of Britain's great imperial disaster often referred to as the First Afghan War. I like Dalrymple's style: he is perceptive, thorough and readable.  He has drawn on extensive materials from Russian, Urdu and Persian archives as well as previously untranslated Afghan accounts, including the autobiography of the king himself - Shah Shuja. If it is like Dalrymple's other books on India, this will be "un-put-downable".

Turkestan Solo
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Cover: Ella Maillart in Kyrgyzstan

Ella Maillart was a trailblazing Swiss adventurer who, in 1932, travelled through Soviet Central Asia. Turkestan Solo recounts how she crossed Kyrgyzstan on horseback as far as the Tian Shan range (the Celestial Mountains ) then, with makeshift skis, she climbed a 5000 metre mountain on the Chinese border. She explored Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara and travelled along the Amu Darya (Oxus river). Later, by camel, she crossed the Kyzyl Kum desert (Red Sand) solo to the east of the Aral Sea.

Readers who have visited  Bukhara's Silk Road Teahouse and Spice Shop may be interested to know that the owner's grandfather met Ms Maillart in Bukhara and she was a guest at his home there.


The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

I wish to re-read Chingiz Aitmatov's brilliant novel, The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. Set in the the Central Asian steppe during the era of the Soviet space race, it movingly recounts the journey of Yedigei, a Kazakh railway worker, to bury his lifelong friend according to traditional Muslim rituals. 

Miniatures of Central Asia

Finally, I have thrown in Miniatures of Central Asia, which I picked up for US$1 at the second-hand booksellers area in Tashkent's Golubie Kupola Park.  Written by the noted art historian and scientist Galina Pugachenkova, I am hoping this slim volume will increase my knowledge of this exquisite form.

New Year Wishes

It has been a great pleasure for me to meet and travel with Uzbek Journeys clients. To those clients and indeed all readers of this website, I wish you a marvellous 2014. I hope it includes travel to interesting places, meetings with kind, hospitable people and moments when you can sip a cup of green tea and reflect on how grand life can be.

Related posts:
Holiday Reading 2014: Central Asian Titles
Holiday Reading 2012: Central Asian Titles
Central Asian Art and Craft Books: Holiday Reading 2011 
Silk Road Media: An Uzbek Entrepreneur in London   (for book orders)
Uzbek Journeys Book List

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #1

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Tashkent: Yuri Gagarin and the cosmos
One of the pleasures of exploring Uzbek cities is discovering the splendid decorative panels on residential apartment blocks and government buildings. From time to time I will post images of  my favourites.

Following the devastating 1966 earthquake in Tashkent, a massive reconstruction effort took place. With more than 100,000 people homeless, the USSR dispatched workers from all its republics to build a model city. It took 1,000 days for the new Tashkent to emerge.

The earlier city master plan, already well underway, incorporated administrative buildings, apartment blocks, parks, cultural and sporting complexes fusing traditional Central Asian design elements and architectural practices for a modern, industrialising city.  This plan was adapted to factor in seismic-safe construction practices.

Many high-rise buildings were richly and elegantly decorated in mosaics depicting Uzbek themes, heroic workers, floral and geometric patterns. Some panels could be identified by the construction workers who built a specific apartment block, e.g. Ukrainian symbols. Highly-skilled artists were commissioned to design the panels and the cityscape of Tashkent became notable for these marvellous works.

These panels are not just found in Tashkent. There are gems in Ferghana Valley towns, as well as Samarkand, Khiva, Nukus and Termez.

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Ferghana Valley: glorifying workers, learning and cotton!
Some visitors to Uzbekistan ignore these panels and focus solely on the bland architectural style of the Soviet blocks. I believe that these mosaics form part of the rich, social history of the country. (I am also alarmed that some buildings with splendid mosaics have been demolished).

My hope is that an Uzbek photographer will document the panels before it is too late. It would be a perfect subject for a coffee table book, complete with stories of the artists who produced them, some of whom are still living in Tashkent today. Many of the artists also composed the stunning panels that decorate the stations of Tashkent's metro.

The website My Tashkent had a recent article on this topic featuring the work of the Zharskie brothers who created many panels. It is in Russian, but well worth a look at the stunning photographs. The red-bandana Young Pioneers is a classic.

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Nukus: Apartment facade near Savitsky Museum
If you have a little spare time in Tashkent you can easily enjoy a day roaming around discovering these artworks.

Related posts:
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #2
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics 
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings
Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project
Kyrgyzstan: Monumental Art in the Provinces 
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Kyrgyzstan: Jety-Oguz and One-of-a-Kind Health Resort

Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, will contribute occasional articles about her areas of interest.


Jety-Oguz - The Seven Bulls

“Jety-Oguz” in the Kyrgyz language means “Seven Bulls”. The name derives from its majestic yellow-red sandstone and gravel stone rocks, which bear a strong resemblance to bulls’ heads. These remarkable rocks, set against the background of bright blue sky, dazzling white snow-capped summits and slopes adorned by coniferous woodlands leave an unforgettable impression.

Jety-Oguz village is situated about 28 kms southwest of Karakol town. The wide valley of the Jety-Oguz river starts just behind the village. Gradually, the valley becomes narrow and 15 kms to the south of the village, it turns into a mountain canyon. From both sides the river is framed by sheer walls of red sandstone. The rock “Broken Heart”, which dominates the left bank of the river, is exceptionally stunning.

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Broken Heart rock, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
There is a beautiful legend about how the Seven Bulls rocks derive their name. Once upon a time two mighty khans established their headquarters at the foothills of Terskey Ala-Too mountain range. One of the khans had a well-graced wife: her beauty was compared to the beauty of the moon. The other khan, who was cruel and jealous, kidnapped this beautiful woman.

This evil deed led to confrontations and wars between the clans. The khan, whose wife had been kidnapped, demanded her return. The cruel khan’s advisers proposed that: “You can fulfill your foe’s condition. But you shall kill the beauty first and pass her dead body to your opponent. The requirement will be met, and you will be greatly pleased, as your enemy will never be able to reign over the heart of his beloved.” 

This advice greatly appealed to the cruel khan. He decided to hold a grand gala and invited many people from different clans. As befitted a gala, the khan ordered seven bulls be slaughtered. When the last bull was slaughtered, he plunged a dagger into the heart of the beauty. Blood spurted from her heart and sprinkled the rocks (that is why the rocks of the locality are red). At that very moment streams of boiling water flooded the valley where the scene took place. The cruel khan and his entourage were drowned in the boiling water. The streams carried aside the seven slaughtered bulls and they turned into seven blood-red rocks. Thenceforth, the locality has been called Jety-Oguz (Seven Bulls).

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View of Seven Bulls, image: Lilya Kas'yanova
An extraordinarily picturesque valley stretches behind Broken Heart rock. The western part of this valley is almost entirely occupied by a health resort, developed in Soviet times. (see below) From the opposite side, the resort is embraced by a conifer forest, which covers the northern slope of the Kok-Bel’ Ridge.

The area offers great opportunities for exploring. Visitors can hike to the Ak-Sai area. To reach Ak-Sai, walk through the ravine that starts immediately behind the sanatorium. Closer to its end, the ravine gives way to the pretty valley of Kok Jayik (Valley of the Flowers), which is splashed with motley flowers in spring. Holidaymakers also call this place Kumys Valley, named after the Kyrgyz national drink made from fermented mare’s milk.

The valley also holds an attraction for mushroom gatherers: here are glades of edible fungus. The opposite bank of the river is bordered with woodlands that nestle on the sides of the slopes, above which the snow-capped giants of the Terskey Range tower. In the middle of the valley, a majestic mountain can be observed; it is called Oguz Bashi (Bull’s Head). This mountain has two summits, the highest point of which is 5170 metres. In its upper part, an impregnable rock wall blocks the valley.

Jety-Oguz Health Resort

The sanatorium (health resort) is located at the northern slope of the Terskey Ala-Too range 2200 meters above sea level.

Small hollows around “holy” springs are evidence of the therapeutic usage of hot, mineral waters for bathing from time immemorial. Russians conducted the first surveys of the hot springs in 1910. The same year, at the initiative of the Red Cross, wooden bathtubs and a simple wood-framed hygienic centre were built there. Mostly military officials and local men of high standing used these rustic facilities.

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Valley of the Flowers, image courtesy Natasha von Geldern
The development of the sanatorium started in 1937, when the Kyrgyz health resort administrative department was formed. The mineral waters of Jety-Oguz spa are a unique combination of mineralization, radon content and chemical composition. They are used for balneotherapy, therapeutic irrigation (lavage) and therapeutic drinking treatments to treat a diverse range of illnesses.  Mud treatments are also available. Guests generally stay between 10 and 20 days for a full curative treatment. (Note - it is not possible to visit the sanatorium for a "day spa").

Jety-Oguz' mountain location, dominated by conifer forests, makes it very special. The area is relatively windless with insignificant fluctuations in temperatures and air humidity. The forest also has a positive effect on the body’s nervous system.

The resort was famous in Soviet times and continues to attract guests from Russia, Central Asia and beyond. In 1991, an important meeting between Boris Yeltsin and Kyrgyzstan’s first president Askar Akayev took place in Jety-Oguz resort.

Jety-Oguz offers a variety of alternatives not only for ardent admirers of nature, but also for hikers and mountaineers. On an Uzbek Journeys tour to Kyrgyzstan you visit Jetz-Oguz, enjoy a picnic lunch and a chance for hiking in the Valley of the Flowers.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles. 

Related posts:

5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan 
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan 
Karakol: A Frontier Town in Kyrgyzstan
Holidays in Soviet Sanatoriums  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hidden Treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan

Dr Jean Mulder
Dr Jean Mulder, who travelled with Uzbek Journeys in 2012 and is returning to Central Asia in 2014, is a senior lecturer in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne.

Nearly 230 artefacts from the National Museum in Kabul, Afghanistan, are currently touring Australia. The archaeological treasures that make up this grand exhibit beautifully display ancient Afghanistan’s role as a key player in the exchange of goods and ideas along the trade routes of the Silk Road. Equally intriguing are the modern-day stories that are told of the artefacts’ discovery, excavation, and heroic rescue.

The exhibit covers four archaeological sites. The oldest is Tepe Fullol, a Bronze Age oasis that was in full swing a long time before the Silk Road trade began. Large irrigation systems enabled oasis people such as those of Tepe Fullol to crop the northern Afghanistan desert plains, build fortified settlements and pursue artistic craftsmanship.

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Dragon master pendant 1st century AD
On display are gold bowl fragments, dating back 4,000 years, which are decorated both with local motifs and designs from the distant cultures of the Middle East suggesting that even the people of this era were involved in long distance trade.

The former Greek city Aï Khanum, the second site covered in the exhibit, is also in the region of northern Afghanistan which is known to the West as Bactria.

Different cases bring to life various parts of the city, with the bronze, ivory and stone sculptures not only telling us about the legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire (334-323 B.C.), but also about the melding of local and other Asian ideas, products and culture in this far-flung outreach of the Greek empire. Regretfully, Aï Khanum, which was abandoned around 130 BC., is the only true Greco-Bactrian settlement that has ever been excavated.

The greatest archaeological treasures found in Afghanistan, if not in all of Central Asia, are from the third and fourth sites, Begram and Tillya Tepe. And they are truly breathtaking.

But just as enthralling are the stories around these riches.  Sometime in the first century A.D., in a fertile valley to the south of the massive Hindu Kush mountains, at the confluence of ancient and modern Silk Road trade routes connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, for some unknown reason someone in Begram bricked shut two storerooms filled with luxury goods. There they remained, abandoned, until nearly 80 years ago when archaeologists unearthed the two sealed rooms with their undisturbed array of glassware, bronzes, alabaster objects from the Roman world, fragments of Chinese lacquer boxes and bowls, and Indian-style reliefs carved in ivory and bone. (One can only imagine the celebrating that night.)

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Plate depicting Cybele pulling lions, 2nd century BC
The experts are still debating whether goods in these two rooms are a royal treasure hoard or a merchant trader’s stock. In either event they give us an excellent view of the range and richness of the commodities being traded along the Silk Road at its height. 

In some ways, though, the real highlight of the exhibit is the exquisite collection of gold artefacts from the famed ‘Bactrian Hoard’ – objects from the 2,000 year old graves of six Bactrian nomads discovered at Tillya Tepe ‘Hill of Gold’ in northern Afghanistan in 1978 but hidden from view until 2003.

The objects themselves range from a crown that was collapsible, with five removable trees of life that could be attached to the golden band, to other jewellery, clasps, appliqués, hair ornaments, belts and bejewelled swords, daggers and sheaths. Included in this sumptuousness are shoe soles cut from thin gold sheet. Clearly they were not to be used for walking. (Like some neighbouring cultural regions, they were actually a sign of an aristocratic way of life.)

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Collapsible gold crown, Tilya Tepe, 1st century AD
While the displays show the metamorphosis of Silk Road art into a unique, highly refined style with workmanship of exceptional quality, what is as remarkable is the story of the Afghan heroes who risked their lives to hide and protect these and other ancient treasures of Afghanistan’s past.

I had the good fortunate to see this exhibit just before it finished in Melbourne. It not only left me very nostalgic for my trip to Uzbekistan, arranged by Uzbek Journeys, but it also gave me a greater understanding of the historical timelines  and cultural significance of places and events that I learned about during my recent initiation to Central Asia.

If you are travelling to Central Asia, whether for the first or the umpteenth time, or are interested in the cultural heritage of this region, the exhibit is a must-see. The catalogue is highly recommended.

The remaining Australian exhibition dates are:

Queensland Museum: 5 September 2013 – 27 January 2014
Art Gallery of New South Wales:  6 March – 1 June 2014
Western Australian Museum:  5 July – 16 November 2014

afghan treasures, central asian art craft
Glass flask in the shape of a fish, 1st century AD
Related posts:
Afghan Art - Tradition & Continuity at the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

Alexander the Great's March from St Petersburgh to Sydney 

Image source: All images by Thierry Olivier, Musée Guimet, Paris

Monday, November 25, 2013

Duke Ellington's Kabul Gig 1963

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Ellington arrives into Kabul, Credit: Special Collections, University of Arkansas
Delving into Central Asia regularly throws up unexpected and compelling stories.

Thanks to the BBC's Monica Whitlock I learnt about Duke Ellingotn's 1963 tour to the Middle East and South Asia, including Kabul. Who knew? (Whitlock, by the way, is the author of the excellent book Beyond the Oxus, which focuses on the upheaval in traditional lives after the Soviets arrived in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan).

As part of its Cold War strategy, the US State Department created a "jazz diplomacy" program. As well as Afghanistan, Ellington and his orchestra toured Jordan, Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey for 10 weeks. The tour was cut short by President Kennedy's assassination.

Ellington remembered "riding round all night long" after the concert, listening to Afghan music in cafés.  "They have their own thing going on there, and it's good," he told BBC chat show host Michael Parkinson in 1973. His album Far East Suite was released four years after the tour and won a Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz performance.

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Album cover with Duke Ellington seated on a Persian carpet
Ellington was not the first jazz musician to perform there. Dave Brubeck played Kabul in 1953 and said that the piece Nomad on the album Impressions of Eurasia was inspired by his visit there.

This is a fascinating slice of Afghan history. Iranian-based architect and jazz fan Ehsan Khoshbakht has written an excellent piece on the entire tour Far of the Middle: Ellington's 1963 State Department Tour.

Monica Whitlock's article includes Ellington's interview with Michael Parkinson and photographs of a surprisingly modern Kabul. Her 15-minute interview with Faiz Khairzada, who organised the concert, and now lives in the USA, is fascinating.

Related posts:
Uzbek Jazz is Alive and Well in Tashkent
White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Uzbek Divas: Capturing the Poetic Traditions of Central Asia
Samarkand's Musical Traditions 
Remembering Muhammad Ali’s Visit To Uzbekistan

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Burana, Kyrgyzstan: Medieval Settlement & Central Asia's Oldest Minaret

Lilya Kas'yanova
Lilya Kas'yanova, one of Kyrgyzstan's finest guides, is passionate about the history, art and craft of her country. A graduate in Linguistics and Intercultural Communications from I. Arabaev Kyrgyz State University, she is also a keen photographer and hiker. Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, will contribute occasional articles about her areas of interest.

For hundreds of years the emerald-like mountain areas of what is now Kyrgyzstan have been the realms of nomads, who moved according to the seasons. There are few historical monuments in Kyrgyzstan, however, those that remain are architectural jewels. One of these is Burana Tower, about 80 kms east of the capital, Bishkek.

At the beginning of the 10th century the Karakhanid dynasty came to power in the Semirechie region and the central Tien Shan mountains area.  The Karakhanid khanate was the largest feudal state in Central Asia from the 10th to 12th centuries AD.

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Burana Tower - Silk Road Milestone, image Rosemary Sheel
The minaret is almost all that remains of Balasagun, the Karakhanid’s capital on the Silk Road. It is located 12 kms south of present day Tokmok town, in the Chui Valley.

It was the birthplace of the eminent Turkic scholar and philosopher Yusuf al-Balasaguni, from whom the town received its name. Yusuf Balasaguni created the first Turkic didactic treatise – Kutadgu Bilig (The Beneficent Knowledge). In the poem the author deals with questions of politics, state administration, standards of conduct, and sense of life. At the same time, the book is a mine of popular wisdom, and a valuable source to study the history, culture and life of Central Asian people.

In 950 AD Satuk Bogra-Khan became the ruler of Balasagun. He heeded the persuasions of the Sufi missionaries, and appeared to be the first among the Karakhanid aristocracy who converted to Islam. Later, in 960 AD, his son Musa Baitash, proclaimed Islam as the official state religion in the Karakhanid Empire.

Balasagun did not suffer during the Mongol invasions of Central Asia in the 13th century.  The population practised Buddhism, Manichean and Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and the cult of Tengri (paganism). The Mongols announced religious tolerance and equality and so the Balasagun town dwellers opened the gates and let the Mongol detachment enter the settlement. In memory of that peaceful invasion, the settlement received a new name – Gobalyk, which means "Good Town". Gradually, however, the town lost its importance and by the 15th century it was almost extinct.
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Burana Tower, image Lilya Kas'yanova

The Soviets undertook major exploratory excavations at the site in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970s. The surveys revealed a palace complex, dynastic cemetery, water supply channel, bathhouse, and urban areas that included clusters of dwelling units, shops and workshops.

The medieval settlement consisted of a tetragonal stronghold, representing the central part of the town. A large area surrounded it. The total area covered by the settlement was 25-30 square kms.

Today you can see the ruins of the palace complex or temple, which existed before the 10th century, i.e. before the settlement foundation. Also, near the tower it is possible to see the foundations of three mausoleums, and 150 meters to the northwest from the ruins of the palace complex, traces of a monumental structure.

Based on the results of the excavations, it was found that the tower was built in the first half of the 11th century AD.  Burana tower is considered to be one of the first structures of its type on the territory of Central Asia. Scholars presuppose that the mosque sided with the tower from the west. Access to the minaret would have been through the mosque’s roof or by removable stairs. The tower was 45 meters high and built from burnt bricks on gypsum and clay mortar. The top of the minaret was crowned by a cupola-lantern, which was destroyed during one of the powerful earthquakes in the 15th century.  Today the minaret is 24.7 metres high.

The  tower had three purposes:
    1.     a minaret, from the top of which muezzin called faithful people to pray,
    2.     a watchtower, and
    3.     a lighthouse (reference point) that indicated the way to the settlement for Silk Road merchants

kyrgyzstan tours, kyrgyz art craft
Balbal (grave statue), image  Lilya Kas'yanova
A visit to Burana Tower is part of all Uzbek Journeys tours to Kyrgyzstan. If you visit in spring, the fields it stands in are often covered in red poppies. There is a small museum and shop, which sells books on Kyrgyz craft in English. There is also an open-air museum of balbals – grave statues – moved here from different regions of Kyrgyzstan.

Contact Lilya on: lolya.87(at) mail (dot) ru
Read all Lilya's articles. 

Related posts:
Kyrgyztsan's Petroglyphs #1 - Issyk-kul Hollow
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan: A Tale of Burana Tower

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Studying Russian in Kyrgyzstan: The London School Bishkek

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Apartment block with brilliant mosaics - close to TLSB
Despite moves in the educational curricula in Central Asia to teach English in primary schools and the gradual shift from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, Russian remains the lingua franca of the region.

Speaking Russian ensures you can chat with taxi drivers, yurt makers and bazaar vendors. Reading Russian means you can manage maps and menus. For me, it also means I can have a better handle on the contracts I conclude and discussions I have with my agency partners in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

So this June I undertook a 4-week intensive Russian program at The London School, Bishkek (TLSB). Why Bishkek? Because the program has an excellent reputation and is far less expensive than studying in Russia.  And Bishkek is a pleasant, provincial city, particularly in summer.

Three enterprising women established TLSB in 1998. It provides one-on-one Russian and Kyrgyz programs for foreign students and local expatriates as well as English programs for Bishkek locals, particularly young people.  All Russian classes are conducted in individual classrooms by competent, English-speaking staff and the fee is US$6 per hour.

Students have the opportunity to stay at the on-site dormitory or to live with a Russian-speaking Kyrgyz family. I opted for the US$8 per night dormitory. My basic room had a bed, a wardrobe, a chair, a table and two power points. The rate included weekly cleaning. I shared a simple kitchen and bathroom with one other student and there was also a washing machine. TLSB has a library (though books can only be used in the library itself) and a small cafeteria.

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Jyldyz Abdygazieva - administrator extraordinaire at TLSB
I was enrolled in the morning program: four days a week, from 8:30 a.m. – 2:20 p.m., with three 10-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch. There was no textbook. The program was electronically based, including homework, which regularly took me about five hours a night. The school offers free, revision classes on Wednesday afternoons, which I had planned to do. However, once I arrived I understood why Wednesday is a free day - apart from time for chores, my brain was exploding!

TLSB also arranges day and weekend trips: hiking near Bishkek, visits to Issyk Kul lake etc., for which a modest fee is charged. I did not participate in these, as I know those areas very well and preferred to focus on my studies.

Jyldyz Abdygazieva was the administrative point person for the Russian program. Jyldyz is a dynamo, patiently managing a whole range of issues for a disparate and demanding group of learners.

The school’s location is convenient. It is a 30-minute walk to the city centre or a 10-minute 10-soum ride in a marshrutka (local collective mini-bus). A large shopping centre, VEFA, is just two minutes by foot. As well as a ground-floor supermarket there are cinemas and fast food restaurants on VEFA's top floor. My favourite café, however, was Cave Coffee, around the corner from TLSB at 19 Gorky Street. The decor was cool, the reasonably priced menu included many fresh options and the wifi was fast and reliable. It is open 24/7.

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Inside the very cool Cave Coffee, around the corner from TLSB
I was very impressed with my program and the quality of the staff. Below are some suggestions of easy steps that TLSB can undertake to make its programs even better. TLSB advises me that they already working on some of the proposals, such as a grammar guide for the beginners' program and a welcome kit.

1. Ensure a fast, reliable wifi service.  

This was the most-voiced complaint by students. The wifi regularly crashed and on weekends there was little technical support. Given that all homework is based on accessing the course e-books via wifi, it is crucial that students have reliable internet access.

2.  Provide a simple FAQ/welcome kit for students

It would be very convenient for students (and time-saving for TLSB's staff) to provide an FAQ about staying and studying at TLSB.  For example, sheets (though somewhat smaller than the beds) are provided, but not a towel. Suggest students bring a power board to make up for the lack of power points in the room. (My room had two power points, though most had only one). Advise that from mid-May through mid-June there is no hot water in Bishkek. (To undertake essential maintenance  on Bishkek's central heating system, hot water is unavailable every year from 11 May - 11 June).

Although staying with a local Russian-speaking family seems a sensible option to practise the language, most families with whom students stayed did not have internet access. Some families lived 30 kms from TLSB so commuting times are long. Families take their responsibility of looking after a student very seriously - you are expected to advise them where you are, when you will be back etc.

A map of the city (freely available in Bishkek's hotels) could be included in a welcome kit for students, along with advice about buying a local mobile phone/sim card (cheap and worthwhile), changing money at exchange offices and general tips about staying in Bishkek.

3.  Suggest materials to bring.

It would be helpful to advise students to bring a dictionary and any grammar books they already have. Dictionaries in Bishkek’s only bookstore were scarce and expensive. TLSB's library does not permit borrowing and the programs are entirely online.

4.  Match the teacher's English-language skills with the level of the learner.


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View of Bishkek city centre
For a complete beginner Russian is extremely complex and progress can be expedited if the teacher can explain grammatical rules in clear English.

5.  Fix the errors in the e-books. 

These books form the basis of the lessons and homework. There were many confounding mistakes that could have been immediately remedied by the network administrator. It would also be helpful if stress marks are included on words. Although in written Russian they are not inserted, it could increase reading confidence in the early stages.

6.  Fix the locks.

There were many problems opening and locking dormitory doors and the main gate to the school. This is a basic safety issue that should be addressed seriously by the school.

So – how is my Russian? Not nearly as good as I had hoped, despite the dedication of my excellent teachers! It is such a beautiful, rich language. And such a difficult one.

I thought I had mastered the Cyrillic alphabet and on one level I had. But I struggle with pronouncing three or four consonants together. And knowing where to place the stress on a word is still a mystery, as a stress mark is not used in text. Some handwritten letters bear no resemblance whatsoever to their printed form. I pride myself on my foreign language skills, so it has been a humbling experience.

Overall, my time at TLSB was positive and I have enrolled for another month in June 2014. This time I should be better equipped to manage my time and learning at TLSB and look forward to big strides in my Russian. If you are interested in learning Russian there visit The London School Bishkek's website.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Katta Langar's Masterpieces of Islamic Architecture - Near Shakhrisabz, Southern Uzbekistan

View of Katta Langar's Mausoleum 
What a marvellous surprise to discover Katta Langar's 15th century mosque and mausoleum in the Shakhrisabz region.

I have visited Shakhrisabz many times as a day trip from Samarkand to view the city's World Heritage monuments. However, I was unfamiliar with the surrounding area.

Roaming around there this autumn revealed how important it is to keep exploring Uzbekistan, especially the countryside. Both these buildings are masterpieces of 15th century Islamic architecture.

During the last quarter of the 15th century there was rivalry among diverse Sufi groups: the Naqshbandi order prevailed, and the Ishqiya group retreated to the secluded Katta Langar valley. The mosque and mausoleum were commissioned soon after the group's arrival.

The mausoleum houses the tomb of the powerful, local sheik Mohammed Sadik, who died in 1545, and two family members.  An unknown noble, thought to be Timur's seven year old daughter, is buried there and a Yemeni sheik who, according to locals, saw the mausoleum in a dream and travelled to Katta Langar, where he died. The interior walls are unusually and beautifully patterned in brown, white and black. (Regrettably, photography is not permitted).

Columns and mosaics inside Katta Langar's Friday mosque
The surrounding cemetery is 80 hectares: most of the tombstones are written still in Arabic and the longevity of its inhabitants astonishing. A recently deceased woman was 106, and many villagers lived well into their nineties: testimony to hard work and holy practices.

The mosque was built in 1520 and restored in 1870. The plain exterior provides no hint of the dazzling mosaics and finely carved wooden columns and details.

Wandering around the mud brick village, little seems to have changed. Children ride donkeys, women prepare meals in the courtyards and the men tend domestic animals.

Interestingly, many village folk speak some French and the local French school teacher runs a basic guesthouse. I had a tasty lunch there sitting on a tapchan (a raised platform used in Central Asia for relaxing and reclining outdoors) and enjoying the warm, autumn afternoon.

Local transport in Katta Langar
My guide for the day was Lutfullo Asamov, whose family runs a simple B & B in  Shakhrisabz, about 45 kms from Kattar Langar. Lutfullo and his father are both mountain guides and know the area like the back of their hands. You can contact him on email if you would like him to arrange a trip out to this beautiful village.

Why not consider a rural home stay after your Uzbek Journeys tour?

Related posts:
5 Reasons to Visit Sentyab, North East Uzbekistan  
Uzbekistan - A Rural Homestay in Hayat, the Nurata Mountains

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

5 Reasons to Visit Sentyab, North East Uzbekistan

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Dr Jean Mulder
Dr Jean Mulder, who travelled with Uzbek Journeys in 2012, is a senior lecturer in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Here she describes her homestay experience in the Uzbek village of Sentyab.

Sentyab, where people have lived for more than 2,000 years, is nestled in a fertile green river valley of the Nuratau Mountains, which run for about 180 kms east-west across central Uzbekistan.

As it is about a 4 hour (250 km) drive north from either Samarkand or Bukhara, this Tajik community is well off the beaten track. However, the chance to go beyond the bustle and glamour of the Silk Road and stay with a family in a remote village in a beautiful valley more than makes up for the journey. Some of my favourite memories from our two-day stay include:

1.    Walking around the village 


The homes in Sentyab are constructed out of local rock and are surrounded by gardens with big old fruit and nut trees that have been cultivated for centuries. Small channels have been constructed off the central river so that the gardens and neighbouring rock walled grazing areas are all stream fed. With only a few greetings in common, we were made to feel welcome as we shared a smile and wandered.


2.    Staying in a homestay

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View of Sentyab village
As part of a community-based eco-tourism initiative launched in 2007, three families in Sentyab have converted part of their homes for visitors. The guesthouses are named in honour of the wife and we stayed at Maysara’s Guesthouse, where Maysara Bozorova and her husband, Momin, along with their younger daughter, Mohina, were our hosts.

Like most of the households in Sentyab, they grow vegetables, keep livestock (sheep, cows, goats) and poultry, and produce their own eggs, meat, butter, yogurt and other milk products.  A spring provides lovely, cold drinking water. We slept in a bedroom furnished with kurpacha (mattresses) and for amenities there is an ablution block with a flush toilet and a solar-heated shower as well as an outdoor hand washing basin.

3.    Relaxing and experiencing the everyday


On our first afternoon we slowed down with chai (green tea) on the tapchan (a raised platform that is used in Central Asia for relaxing and reclining outdoors). I thought it would then be a good time to work on winding the silk skeins which I had purchased a few days earlier from the women at the Oblakoulov family’s ceramic workshop in Urgut, into balls for knitting. Halim-aka, our driver, Vicki, my travelling companion, and Maysara all finished up helping me untangle the worst bits.

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Halim-aka, Maysara and Vicki untangle silk skeins
Later, after dinner in the roofed supa (verandah), one of my best memories is conversing with Maysara via translation pages she had and a Lonely Planet phrasebook we had. After working through standard topics such as family members, children, occupations, types of livestock on our respective farms, we ended up having to call over Javlon, our translator, from the men’s group on the tapchan, to translate from English into Uzbek for Mohina, who then translated from Uzbek into Tajik for her mother. While circuitous, we wound up learning about how Momin wooed Maysara, which included building her a house.

4.    Hiking

On our second day, with Momin as our guide, we set off on a 5-hour walk to visit a lake higher up in the mountains.  We followed the central river up through the valley climbing steeply past ever remoter homes, a marked sacred site, a traditional water-mill and several waterfalls, reaching an area with many ancient Arabic inscriptions carved into the rock cliffs.

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Ancient Arabic inscriptions in rock cliffs
Thinking that it would be a good time to taste some of the picnic that Maysara and Mohina had sent along, Momin directed us back along the trail to a homestead up a side valley. After enjoying hot tea and our picnic on our host’s tapchan, we ended up helping her husk walnuts and never quite resumed our trip to the lake. 

5.    Sharing the rhythm of life

While there is electricity in Sentyab, the closest phone reception, and then only intermittently with one of Uzbekistan’s service providers, is a 15-minute scramble up the side of a mountain. Whether or not you actually want reception, from this vantage point, which we named the Telephone Booth, there are stunning views of the village, the valley and the surrounding mountains. Listening to the last call for prayers, watching the sun leave the valley, talking about life with Javlon, I can think of no better spot to chill at the end of the day.

While Sentyab may be a long way to go for a digital detox, when combined with a trip to Lake Aidarkul or a stop off in Nurata to see the trout at Chashma spring beneath the remains of Nur fortress built in the 4th century BC by Alexander the Great, it is a great chance to experience the hospitality of rural Uzbekistan.

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Vicki helps to husk walnuts
Note: On an Uzbek Journeys tour, Sentyab is not included. However, you can certainly make it an optional excursion before or after the tour.

Related posts:
Hiking with Vasiliy Eremin in the Chimgan Mountain Range
Katta Langar - Masterpieces of Islamic Architecture
Alexander the Great's March from St Petersburgh to Sydney

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Uzbek Football & Tashkent's New Football Stadium

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Tashkent's new Bunyodkor stadium
Uzbeks love football and the country invests heavily in the training of school-age boys and girls as well as its top teams. In September 2012 a new stadium, Bunyodkor, holding 34,000 people, was inaugurated.

The stadium was designed by GMP Architekten, Germany, a firm that has designed several world-class stadiums, including Warsaw, Kiev and Shenzen. It is a dramatic addition to Tashkent's architectural landscape.

Football started in Uzbekistan in 1912, i.e., in Tsarist times, in Kokand and Ferghana. In 1926 the first championship of the Uzbek SSR was played. The most successful club in the Soviet period was FC Pakhtakor, the only Uzbek football club that played in the USSR Top League. (Pakhtakor means cotton picker and the Pakhator metro station in Tashkent has splendid mosaics of stylised cotton flowers). Berador Adburaimov, who played for FC Pakhtakor, is regarded as one of the best strikers and greatest football players in the history of Uzbek football.

Tragedy struck FC Pakhtakor in 1979, when the team was flying to play an away game in the Soviet Top League. Their plane collided with another mid-air over the Ukraine and all team members perished. Annually, in August, the club sponsors a youth tournament in memory of the lives lost in the disaster

Shortly after independence, Uzbekistan won the 1994 Asian Games tournament in its debut appearance. The Uzbek Football Federation has built stadiums, academies and reformed team training and the national championship.

uzbek football, tashkent metro stations, uzbek tours
Pakhtakor metro station cotton design mosaics
The results of this large investment in youth football training as well as the sport's infrastructure are paying off. In 2012 the Uzbek team won the Asian Football Federation's under 16 championship against Japan.

Uzbekistan's Amputee Football team has won the World Cup championship three times, most recently defeating Russia in Kaliningrad in 2012. Uzbekistan came up just short in its bid to advance to the final round of the 2012 London Olympics Asian women’s qualifiers.

Uzbekistan had been trying to become the first team from Central Asia to reach the World Cup finals. In September they played Jordan in a two-leg playoff, the winner of which would advance to play against the fifth-placed South American side for a place in the finals in Brazil.  Sadly, Uzbekistan lost in a penalty shoot out.

In May 2013 I visited the new stadium to watch Thailand's Buriram United play Bunyodkor for a quarter-final place in the AFC Champions League. Based on past performance, Bunyodkor was the favourite to take the match. However, despite a raucous crowd, Thailand held the Uzbek team to a goalless draw and secured its place in the next leg. Adding a special Uzbek flavour to the match were mascots dressed in traditional Uzbek clothes pumping the crowd to support the local team.

On an Uzbek Journeys tour you will certainly have a chance to see the stunning mosaics of the Bakhtakor metro station as well as view the outside of the new Bunyodkor stadium. Some clients, who are keen football fans, have watched matches at one of city's stadiums.

Related posts: White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan at the 2012 Olympics
Central Asia at the Paralympics 2012
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tashkent – A Night at the Opera

uzbekistan tours 2014, uzbek cultural highlights, tashkent opera house
Interior hall of Tashkent's Opera House
Tashkent’s opera house, named in honour of the the great 15th century Uzbek poet and scientist, Alisher Navoi, opened in November 1947.

In the mid-1930s, there was no Uzbek architectural experience in constructing large public buildings and a USSR-wide competition was held to build a major theatre and musical performance space.

The winning design was by Aleksei Viktorovich Shchusev, a much-acclaimed Russian architect who had designed Lenin's mausoleum. Shchusev's design incorporated Uzbek traditions as well as modern practices.

Masters from the six regions - Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, Khorezm, Ferghana and Termez - were engaged to design the six lateral halls to reflect the country’s architectural glory.  For example, the Khorezm Hall has carved panels of ganch, repeating the remarkable decorative woodcarving characteristic of Khorezm. The halls and foyer of the theatre are decorated with murals depicting plots from Alisher Navoi's poems and representing the landscapes of Uzbekistan.

Work began in 1939 but was interrupted in 1942 because of the Great Patriotic War. In 1944 construction restarted and in November 1945 Japanese prisoners of war from the Kwantung army were deported to Tashkent to finish the construction. After opening, it has been the venue for remarkable ballet, opera, and musical concerts. International opera festivals are regularly held there.

uzbekistan art tours, tashkent opera house
Poster for The Barber of Seville
As well as performances of operas and ballets from the classical repertoire, Uzbek composers wrote distinctly Uzbek operas based on folk stories and the poems of Alisher Navoi. These includeTolibjon Sadikov’s  Leili and Mejnun and Gulsara, Zainab and Omon. Musicians playing Uzbek instruments formed part of the orchestra of these pieces. Uzbek language versions of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin were also performed.

Uzbek choreographers have created their own works, developing new forms through a synthesis of classical and traditional dance. Amulet of Love, Poem of Two Hearts, and Tomiris are examples of these ballets. One of the most popular is Guliandom (1940) by Vera Gubstkaya and Tamara Khanum. Many Uzbek ballet dancers were trained by Moscow’s famous companies and honoured with the title of People’s Artists of the Uzbek SSR, such as Ferghana-born Mukkaram Turgunbaeva.

The opera house is now undergoing extensive restoration and will re-open at the end of 2013. In the meantime, the opera and ballet companies perform at the Turkiston Palace. Recently I saw Verdi’s Il Trovatore there, with exceptional performances by Olga Alexandrova as Azucena, Ruslan Gafarov as Count di Luna and the Tashkent Symphony, conducted  by Mme Ahmetshina Dilara.
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Baritone Ruslan Gafarov and mezzo soprano Olga Alexandrova

You can check the program at then run it through Google translate. Or phone the box office on +99871 233-33-44. Performances start early – around 6:00 p.m.

Update November 2015: The official opening of the renovated opera house is 14 November 2015.

Related posts:
48 Hours in Tashkent 
Another 48 Hours in Tashkent 
Tashkent - A Stroll Along Anhor Canal

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Skateistan - Empowering Afghan Youth Through Skateboarding

skateistan kabul mazar i sharif, afghan girls sports
Image courtesy Skateistan
What an inspiring project!

Since 2007 NGO Skateistan has taught skateboarding and creative arts to girls and boys in Kabul.  In May 2013 a second facility was opened in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, just 100 kms from the ancient Uzbek city of Termez.

Started by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich, Skateistan works with young people 5 - 18 years old, of whom 50% are street-working children, i.e. they may wash cars, sell lighters or even guns.

Afghan girls cannot ride bicycles nor participate in most sports, e.g. football. Skateboarding, however, was unknown in Afghanistan; from the beginning, Percovich worked hard to win the support of local religious leaders for girls' participation. Girls now make up 40% of the students.

afghanistan sports, skateistan kabul mazar i sharif
Afghan girls make their own skateboards, image Skateistan
Skateboarding is of course the *hook*. It is fun, builds confidence and young people engage with one another. However, the program has a strong education focus as well:

1.    The Arts Based Education Program is equal to the time spent skateboarding. The curriculum was developed and is taught by peers and both literate and illiterate youth participate. Art is used to level the playing field and the workshops include photography, spray painting, theatre and illustration.

2.    The Back to School Program is divided into three four-month semesters.  During each semester students study the equivalent of one grade of school, coming to Skateistan five days a week. The goal of the program is to get children in Afghanistan enrolled or re-enrolled into the public school system. Upon completion of the program students can apply for enrolment into a government school, usually entering the 3rd or 4th grade.

So far 103 Afghan children have been enrolled into school through the program, nearly half of them Afghan girls. Each day, 40 youth (20 girls, 20 boys) attend the Back to School program in Kabul, with a similar program planned for the Skateistan facility in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Skateistan: The Tale of Skateboarding in Afghanistan was published recently. This 320-page colour book features stunning, previously unpublished photographs accompanied by essays, interviews and personal stories from Skateistan's founder Oliver Percovich and the young people who have gone from being students to teachers in the skate park and classrooms.

This is such an uplifting story. Consider buying the book for yourself and additional copies for friends and family.  It is not only beautifully produced, the design and content are very cool. All proceeds go directly back to Skateistan.

See the joy of these young Afghan girls as they learn and skateboard in the terrific 2-minute video clip below with a great soundtrack by Florence and the Machine. (If the clip does not play on your device, go directly to this link: )

Related posts: White Silk Road - Snowboarding Afghanistan
Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Afghan Art - Tradition and Continuity
Skateistan: Kabul's Skate School Turns Five

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Samarkand: Fashion Show & Uzbek Concert

uzbek tours 2014, uzbek art craft, central asian fashion
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.

uzbekistan fashion, uzbek tour 2014, central asian craft tours
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.

uzbek toursn 2014, uzbekistan art craft holidays, centrsl asian arts
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.

kyrgyzstan tours 2014, kyrgyz art craft, central asian tours
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