Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Glimpse of Khivan Woodcarving 1937

Khiva is still famous for its woodcarving today. Image: Richard Marshall
British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting and an informative yet uniquely entertaining style.

Now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in the world, British Pathé is a treasure trove of 85,000 films. And they are all uploaded on YouTube to watch for free.

In the archive there is marvellous, one-minute clip of Khiva circa 1937 (below). It shows tantalising shots of minarets and courtyards, men wearing their big, woolly telpeks astride donkeys, and artisans of Khivan applied arts.

Khiva today still prides itself on its artisans. As you wander the backstreets you see felled trunks of elm, walnut and apricot trees outside homes - a sure sign that within is a woodcarver with young apprentices.

The design is drawn on paper and placed on the wood. Then the pattern is pin pricked through. More experienced workers then chisel and carve the ancient patterns as their ancestors did.

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Young woodcarvers in a Khiva back street. Image: Wendy Relf
Former madrassahs have been converted into woodcarving centres and you can watch the process. Happily there is still a market for superbly carved columns, doors and beds: trade is flourishing.

Smaller items such as pencil boxes, book stands, cutting boards, jewellery boxes and walking sticks make perfect souvenirs of your visit to Khiva.

As you watch the one-minute clip below, remember that it was made in 1937 and overlook some of the commentary (and some factual errors!)

It is a precious record of a marvellous city little changed in 75 years. (If you cannot view on your device, go directly to )

Related posts:
Strolling Through Samarkand in 1930
The Beauty of Khivan Carpets
Mennonites in Khiva 1880 -1935
Lauh - A Wooden Wonder of Uzbekistan

Thanks to Uzbek Journeys client Frank Villante for alerting me to this clip.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Kazakhstan: A Visit to the Arasan Baths, Almaty

Right in the middle of Almaty is Central Asia's largest, and most fabulous, public bathing complex. An architectural Eurasian fantasy, it is a perfect place to spend a few hours relaxing.

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The splendid Arasan baths - echoes of Bukhara's trade domes

Rebecca Beardmore's photo essay in Steppe Magazine provides the historical background as to why this splendid complex was built in Almaty:

 "They were built on the orders of Dinmukhamed Kunayev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan from 1959 to 1986. A close friend of Brezhnev, Kunayev was the only Central Asian representative in the Soviet Politburo, the select committee of super-elites who controlled the workings of the Soviet Union.

With such high connections, Kunayev was able to obtain a generous budget for the city of Almaty, which allowed him to carry out his dream of monumentalising the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, then called Alma-Ata".

The baths have been totally restored and are immaculate. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 0800 - 2400. Even visiting alone it is easy to navigate the baths and services on offer. There are separate areas for men and women.

Depending on the day of the week you visit, the entry price is from 800 - 2,000 Kazakh tenge. (About $5 - $11). If you do not bring your own towel, bathing cap or rubber slippers (all of which are mandatory), you can hire them for a modest fee.

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Domed pool and relaxing area, Arasan baths
Entry entitles you to two hours of wallowing in all the baths, the Finnish, Russian and Turkish style hammams (steam rooms) and the rest areas. If, however, you purchase additional services for at least 5,000 tenge (about US$27), such as a massage or scrub, then you have unlimited time at Arasan.

The reception staff give you a micro-chipped, wristband locker key and all your services are recorded on it: massages, green tea, beer, vodka, pedicure etc. So you can safely leave your belongings in your private locker. When you leave the bathing area, you simply present your locker key and pay.

Start with a thorough wash before your first visit to a sauna or steam room. Then lie down and enjoy the heat. You should follow this with a shower. And if you are game, simply tip a wooden bucket of cold water over you.

Then it is time to use the venik - bunches of dried birch or oak leaves, which have been soaked - in your next steam room session. Gently slap yourself with the venik to stimulate your skin and remove toxins.

Follow this with a shower and a dip in the plunge pool. Then relax a while and start over again.

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Pull the rope of the wooden bucket for a cold shower
Spending a few hours at Arasan is a marvellous treat. Although apartments in Almaty today all have bathrooms, locals come here regularly with friends and family: soaking, gossiping, sipping tea and enjoying the special atmosphere.

After bathing, there are restaurants and bars in common areas. In winter, when temperatures regularly drop to -25 degrees Celsius, the Arasan baths must be a real haven.

Review Arasan's website to learn more about its services, prices and regulations before you visit.

Related posts:
Almaty: Riding the New Metro
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania
Alzhir Gulag for Women - Kazakhstan

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tashkent's Small House Museums

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Tamara Khanum
Tashkent was the fourth most important city of the USSR and many great musicians, poets and artists lived there. Some of their former homes have been converted into museums, dedicated to the life of the artist.

One example is the house museum of the legendary dancer Tamara Khanum, who, in her day, was bigger than Lady Gaga or Madonna today.  She was the first female Uzbek dancer to appear publicly, unveiled. A visit to this house museum, to see her collection of restored and ravishing costumes, is part of an Uzbek Journeys tour.

If you have extra time in Tashkent, there are others which are well worth visiting, depending on your interests. Most of the signage is in Russian, so do go with a guide who can make the museum come alive. Also, phone in advance to check the opening times.

Sergei Yesenin house museum (1895 - 1925)

Known in the West for his disastrous 12-month marriage to Isadora Duncan - he spoke no English and she only a dozen Russian words - Yesenin was a Russian lyric poet, whose work was banned by the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, his poetry was adored by ordinary people and in 1966 his works were republished. Today Yesenin's poems are taught to Russian school children; many have been set to music and recorded as popular songs.

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Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin
He travelled to Turkestan in 1921 and stayed in Tashkent. He enjoyed spending time in chaikhanas (tea houses) and held poetry recitals in the homes of friends. The museum's collection holds over 3,000 exhibits, including manuscripts, photographs and rare documents donated by Yesenin's children and relatives.

The museum also provides a peek into a Russian-style interior of a 1920s Tashkent home. Occasional poetry readings are held there. It is usually open Monday - Saturday from 0900 - 1700.  Call ahead on +998 71 237 11 79.

Gafur Gulyam museum (1903 - 1966)

Regarded as one of the founders of modern Uzbek poetry, Gafur Gulyam lived in this house from 1944 until his death in 1966. He is best remembered for his stories Shum Bola (The Mischievous Boy) and Yodgor. Shum Bola was adapted for the screen in 1977 and, if you are visiting Khiva, it is regularly on the program of Khiva's Open Air Cinema with English subtitles.

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Gafur Gulyam
Gafur Gulyam was also a famous translator, introducing Uzbeks to the works of Shakespeare, Pushkin, Mayakovsky and Beaumarchais in Uzbek. He received many awards in Soviet times and the ongoing respect of his compatriots is demonstrated by a metro station named after him as well as a beautiful park in Tashkent.

His daughter, Olmos Gafurovna, runs the museum, located near the Mukimi Musical Theatre at 1 Arpapaya St; telephone: +998 71 245 4394. Usually open from 1000 - 1700, except Sunday and Monday.

Yunus Radjabi house museum (1897 - 1976)

Yunus Radjabi was a prominent composer and musician, who wrote extensively on Uzbek folk music and traditional instruments.

He revived gazels (poems) written by classical authors of Oriental poetry such as Alisher Navoi, Babur, Fizuli and others.  In 1959, to preserve Uzbekistan's national musical heritage, he organized an ensemble of maqamists (performers of shashmaqams) at the Radio of Uzbekistan, and then recorded this ensemble playing all the pieces from the entire collected cycle of printed music.

 This recording was also the catalyst for further development of this musical genre, which had been suppressed in early Soviet times.

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Yunus Radjabi
Shashmaqam was named a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. It is a modal suite that brings together lyrical and instrumental songs, poetry and dance. Its origins trace back to Bukhara with profound contributions from that city's historic Jewish population, as well as Sufi Islam and Persian classical music.

Yunus Radjabi's son, Khasan, and grandson, Aziz,  continue contributing to this musical tradition and simultaneously develop new, lively forms of music.  As well as displays of instruments and manuscripts, you may listen to recordings by Yunus Radjabi and sometimes concerts are held at the museum.

The museum opened in 1997 and is managed by Radjabi's family. It is open daily from 1000 - 1700 except Sunday and Monday. It is at 20 M. Radjabi Street, not far from Kosmonaut metro station. Call in advance: +998 71 2563 401. There is a beautiful metro station named after Yunus Radjabi on the green line.

To listen to shashmaqam music, visit this Smithsonian Institute YouTube clip.

Ural Tansykbaev house museum (1904 - 1974)

Self portrait Ural Tansykbaev

Although the best works of painter Ural Tansykbaev are in the Savitsky collection in Nukus and Tashkent's Fine Arts Museum, some of his Fauvist and Expressionist studies can be seen at this charming house museum in suburban Tashkent.

The garden is lovely and even Tansykbaev's tapchan (outdoor raised table for lounging and sipping tea) is still there.  After flirting with European art movements in the 1920s and 30s, Tansykbaev became a painter of monumental landscapes after Stalin's 1932 declaration supporting socialist realism in all forms of art. He was recognised as a USSR People's Artist and won many medals in Soviet and European art shows.

His last painting remains on the easel, the kithchen and living room are as he left them.  There are boxes of memorablia you can carefully inspect. 

The address is 5 Cherdantsev Street and telephone: +998 71 262 62 30

Other house museums

The home of Abdulla Kahhar, Uzbek essayist and dramatist, satirist, master of the short story and the authour of the famous comedy Silky Suzani is found at 26 Navrus Street, Tashkent. Telephone: +998 71 256 0804.

Mukhtar Ashrafi

Mukhtar Ashrafi's house museum is devoted to the famous Uzbek composer and conductor,  one of the founders of the national opera, who dedicated his entire life to the development of Uzbekistan's musical culture. The address is 15/25, Centre 1; telephone +998 71 233 2384. Occassional concerts are performed there.

The family of writer Sergey Borodin family has preserved the writer's rooms, library and sitting room exactly as they were on his death in 1974.  One of his most famous works was Stars over Samarkand. This museum is at 18 Nashkar-Begi St and the telephone is  +998 71 233 093.

Related posts:

All posts about Tashkent
Savitsky Museum, Nukus
Tamara Khanum: Legendary Uzbek Dancer