Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holiday Reading 2014: Central Asian Titles

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Cover of Lost Enlightment
Once again, as I prepare for a summer break down the coast, I have packed several Central Asian titles in my bag.

Lost Enlightenment:
 Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

First up is Frederic Starr's book that recounts how, between 800 and 1200 AD, Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields.

Central Asians achieved remarkable breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy and theology.

They gave algebra its name, calculated the earth's diameter with unprecedented precision, wrote the books that later defined European medicine, and penned some of the world's greatest poetry. Rarely in history has a more impressive group of polymaths appeared at one place and time.

After reading the first chapter (free download here) I was hooked and immediately ordered a copy. It is also available as an e-book. If you have read Jonathon Lyons The House of Wisdom, then you will like this book.

Art books: Usto Mumin and Alexander Volkov

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Cover of book about Usto Mumin (painting: The Fiancé)
The second-hand book sellers' area in Tashkent is an excellent place to pick up art and craft books, many of which were published in Russian, Uzbek and English. Generally the reproductions are high quality.

Born in Russia, Alexander Nikolayev moved to Samarkand in 1920 and joined the Masters of the New East movement. He converted to Islam and took the name Usto Mumin.

His avant garde style was influenced by oriental miniatures. Usto Mumin was repressed in the 1930s because of his homosexuality. After release from the gulag, he settled in Tashkent and worked as book illustrator and theatre designer.

In the same series, Masters of Arts of Uzbekistan, from Tashkent's Gafur Gulyam publishing house, I found a similar book on Alexander Volkov, one of my favourite Uzbek artists. Christies held an exhibition of his work late 2012.

Both the Savitsky collection in Nukus and Tashkent's State Museum of Arts have excellent collections of Usto Mumin's and Volkov's works.

Memories of Baku

In preparation for a trip to Azerbaijan next year, I am looking forward to reading Memories of Baku: Beyond the Land of Fire.

Editor and co-author Nicolas V. Iljine, uses a collection of photographs, art and essays to show the changes in Azerbaijan as it became a large oil-producing nation, particularly in the capital city of Baku. Iljine had first started the project after obtaining a postcard collection from the end of the 19th century of Baku, and his interest turned into a "passion for discovering local impressions from further afield in Azerbaijan".

Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin's Dream of an Empire in Asia

uzbekistan tours, central asian book titles, art craft central asia
Cover Setting the East Ablaze
Outstanding journalist Peter Hopkirk, known for his books The Great Game and Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, wrote this account of Lenin's dream to liberate the whole of Asia (starting with British India) in 1984. Hopkirk, a true Central Asian expert, died in August this year. 

Chingiz Aitmatov and his Land

This gorgeous book of black and white photographs was produced by Maek Films with photographs by Bishkek-based Alexander Fedorov.  One of the most famous Central Asian writers, Chingiz Aitmatov wrote splendid novels about the people of the Kyrgyz steppe and the impact of the USSR on Kyrgyz nomads. (e.g. Jamilia)

He was president of the Cinematographers' Union for many years. These stunning photographs are not only of the magnificent Kyrgyz landscape, but also of Aitmatov and scenes from films based on his novels.

New Year Wishes

To all Uzbek Journeys clients and readers of this website - I wish you all an interesting, happy and safe 2015.

Related posts:
Holiday Reading 2013: 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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What's On in Tashkent

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Scene from Love, Death & Rock n Roll staged at the Ilkhom theatre
Tashkent is a marvellous city.  It is so pleasurable to ride the beautiful metro, stroll along the canals, visit the wide range of museums and enjoy the parks. It is a shame that tourists usually just stay one night and then head out to the ancient Silk Road cities.

What is frustrating for visitors, however, is finding out what  events are scheduled in the city. There is no Uzbek "Time Out" publication and staff at Tashkent hotels are usually not up-to-date with what's on.

Here are my tips to enjoy the city's theatre, music and cinema. Note that you will need to constantly use online free translation services - see below for an illustration.

Also note that in summer, from mid-June through mid-September, theatres and concert halls tend to close.

Armed with performances, times and phone numbers, you can then ask your hotel reception staff to contact the venue, double check the information, book tickets. and arrange transport if required. Generally performances start early, around 1800 - 1830.

1.  Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre

This beautiful theatre is under renovation. At this stage it is not known when it will reopen. Instead, opera and ballet performances, as well as pop concerts, are held at the Turkeston Palace Concert Hall. Usually the program is published about 3 weeks in advance. Tickets are around US$10.


2.   Tashkent State Conservatory of Music

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Tashkent State Conservatory of Music
As well as training outstanding musicians, the Conservatory's four halls are frequently the venue for European and Uzbek classical, jazz, techno and pop concerts. The Uzbekistan Symphony Orchestra performs there as well as foreign performers.

Website:  (frequently down, so call: +99871 2445320, +99871 2449508)

3.  Ilkhom Theater

The innovative Ilkhom Theater was founded in 1976 and was the first theatre in the USSR without any links to government. As well as theatre, there are jazz and rock concerts held there, a regular cinema club and art exhibitions. Sometimes English surtitles are provided - look for these words in the program: с титрами на английском языке. However, even if there are no surtitles, try to catch a performance there. The space is cool, there is a café and the energy of this company is remarkable. Tickets less than US$10.


4.   Russian Academic Theatre
tashkent cultural events, tashkent whats on, tashkent cinema theatre opera, uzbekistan tours
Scene from Bulgakov's Zoyka's Apartment at the Russian theatre

If you are a Russian speaker, then this company, performing plays from the classical and modern Russian repertoire will appeal. Tickets about US$8.


4.  Uzbekistan National Academic Drama Theatre

Yes - performances are in Uzbek. But it is a chance for you to experience a slice of Uzbek cultural life.  There are musicals based on Uzbek folk tales, as well as contemporary and classical plays. Tickets about US$6.


5.  Tashkent Events Newsletter

A simple, fortnightly online publication, this newsletter is pitched at expatriates in Tashkent. It includes information hard to find elsewhere (e.g. free yoga classes at the India Embassy in Tashkent!) and is useful for details about exhibitions and craft bazaars.


6.   My Day

This very useful website consolidates "what's on" in the city. There is an extensive food and restaurant section, cinema, theatre, exhibitions and sport.  Be prepared to spend time understanding how the site works. It is in Russian only but well worth the effort.


7.   Afisha

Similar to My Day, Afisha consolidates concerts, theatre performances, exhibitions etc. There is also a section on fashion and children's activities.


Online translation 

There are many free online translation tools, such as Google - . Select the language options from Russian to English, then copy and paste the website address into the Russian box.Click the link in the English box to render the site in English.

Google's Chrome browser offers an automatic translation service of web pages.

tashkent cultural events, tashkent whats on, tashkent cinema theatre opera, uzbekistan tours
Using Google's online translation service

If you know other helpful sites, please send them to me.

Related posts: 48 Hours in Tashkent
Another 48 Hours in Tashkent
Tashkent – A Night at the Opera
All Tashkent posts

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #2

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 regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan.

Part 1 of this article was published last week. It provided an overview of  headdress customs and regional variations. This second part outlines other headdress variations and describes present-day efforts to keep this tradition alive. In particular, Lilya wishes to express her profound gratitude to Aidai Asangulova for providing much of the information for these articles.

Other headdress variations


kyrgyzstan costume textiles, kyrgyzstan headresses, kyrgyzstan tours
Majestic variety of elechek worn by Elechek creative group members. Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs

In 2013, with the support of the Christensen Fund, a research project Elechek, began in Kyrgyzstan. Using material gathered during the Soviet period, the research found that age and marital status had an impact on headdress.

Young,  married women wore:

jash kelinderdin kichine elechegi – a small, creative elechek and
kelin kelek – a newly married woman's turban, specific to southern Kyrgyzstan

kyrgyzstan costume textiles, kyrgyzstan headresses, kyrgyzstan tours
Tunduk - Northern elechek. Image: Erkin & Arthur Boljurovs
The elechek was braided with ruby cloth for newly married women.  Two to three years after marriage,  it was thought that "The tide of newly married is over as well as the term of ruby band".

Middle-aged women's headdresses had no braiding. They wore either:

kaz elechek (principal elechek) – turban of vast size or
tokol elechek (moderate-size turban) – tokol means "second wife" and in the historical sources, there are references to Kyrgyz polygamy.

Elderly women wore  kempir kelek, a poorly embroidered elechek. 

As part of the Elechek Project, thirty women in Kyrgyzstan and the Murghab region of Tajikistan were identified as being able to wind elechek.

However, thanks largely to people such as as Nisakan Malabekova, a resident of Sary-Mogol village of Alay district in Osh Province, the great, long-standing national tradition of distinctively gorgeous head wear creations is being kept alive. Nisakan mentors her fellow villagers on how to wind kelek or sorogoy (protruding or sticking out), elechek specific for the Alay region.

Elechek project

As mentioned above, in 2013 the Elechek project was implemented with the support of the Christensen Fund, to focus on the preservation of this valuable aspect of the Kyrgyz traditional culture for present and future generations.

kyrgyzstan costume textiles, kyrgyzstan headresses, kyrgyzstan tours
Alay Valley, Southern Kyrgyzstan. Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs.
The project working team comprised A. Kalkanova, N. Momunbaeva, E. Tilekov, and was headed by felt maker Aidai Asangulova. They gathered information from the few remaining custodians of the elechek creation method, as well as knowledge about the women who used to wear elechek (or still put it on occasionally).

Invaluable knowledge was passed from one generation to the next, i.e. the project respondents inherited the practice from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and mothers-in-law.

As a part of the research, it was discovered that the interviewees residing in Issyk-Kul, Naryn and Osh, as well as in Murghab Region of the Tajik Republic, possess information on eight types of turban. The eight versions of elechek were then reconstructed.

On the basis of  other data collected,  as well as essential records and images obtained from Soviet manuscripts about the material culture of Central Asian people, five more varieties of elechek were reproduced.

The project's closing stage was marked by The Kyrgyz Traditional Elechek exhibition mounted at the Kyrgyz State Historical Museum, in Bishkek, at the end of 2013.

Director of the museum, Anarkul Isirailova, reported that the exhibition featured the reconstructed elecheks as well as headdresses in the museum's collection, obtained during the 1920s - 1950s. Historical photographs from the State cinema archives and documents from the collections of the State Historical Museum were also included.

kyrgyzstan costume textiles, kyrgyzstan headresses, kyrgyzstan tours
Tunduk - Northern elechek. Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs
Aidai Asangulova, leader of the creative team, will continue researching elechek. A visit to Aidai's felt workshop is included in Uzbek Journeys tours to Kyrgyzstan.

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

Related posts: 
Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #1
100 Experiences of Kyrgyzstan
Yurts of Central Asia Part #1
Yurts of Central Asia Part #2

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #1

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. In this article Lilya, who regularly leads Uzbek Journeys tours in Kyrgyzstan, provides an overview of the traditional  Kyrgyz headdress, the customs associated with it and regional style variations.

Part 2, to be published next week, will
describe present-day efforts to keep this tradition alive. In particular, Lilya wishes to express her profound gratitude to Aidai Asangulova for providing much of the information for these articles.

Overview of Kyrgyz elechek

kyrgyzstan headdress craft, kyrgyz art craft tours
Kiyiz duino festival, Southern Kyrgyzstan. Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs.

The magnificent, traditional headdress of Kyrgyz married women, wound like a turban, is known as elechek.  The shape of elechek varies from simple wraps to quite complicated ones, depending on which region of Kyrgyzstan the woman lives.

An elechek may include a cap-takiya (or chach cap), which is a tiny helmet-like bonnet that fits tightly on the head.  There is an embroidered kuiruk (fabric strip) at the back to cover the woman’s plaits. Soviet scholars believed that cap-takiya and kuiruk are relatively later additions.

Cap-takiya can be supplemented by jaak (earflaps) at the sides. Silver pendants with corals adorned the base of the jaak. A rectangular piece of fabric, covering the neck and affixed under the chin, is placed on top of the cap-takiya. Then a white cloth is used for winding the turban.

Wealthy Kyrgyz women used twenty five – thirty meters of snow-white fabric.  Middle class women settled for five – seven meters of cloth.

kyrgyzstan headdress craft, kyrgyz art craft tours
B. Baizakova, maker of traditional carpets, sipping her tea in Issyk-Kul Province. Image source - Kyrgyz State Archive

A particular type of decoration – kyrgak - was fixed on elechek. The kyrgak was a silver plate on which could be added corals, pearls, and other semi-precious stones, coins, or silk ribbons and embroidery. In addition to all the parts listed above, a fine, ornamented shawl could be rolled over the turban.

Kyrgyz headdress customs

As mentioned above, elechek is for married women. For the first three days of married life, a woman wore a headscarf.  Then rituals that emphasised the woman’s transition to married life accompanied the change from scarf to elechek.

At this ceremony, the elechek was wrapped by a senior woman, usually the bride’s senior sister-in-law. As the elechek was wound around her head, other women would sing wishes for the bride’s happiness and prosperity. They also urged the young woman to respect her seniors.

kyrgyzstan headdress craft, kyrgyz art craft tours
Tunduk - Northern elechek.  Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs.

An elechek was worn year round. It had to be worn in the presence of the father-in-law and brothers-in-law. Even when making a fire and cooking, indeed when doing any household chore, women wore it. It was unacceptable to leave a yurt, even to get some water, without putting it on. It was said that if an elechek was removed from a woman’s head, she would be deprived of dignity and respect.

Elechek also had a practical use. In the event of being away from home, a woman, who had just given birth, could unwind her elechek and use the fabric to swaddle her newborn child. As circumstances required, a snow-white elechek could be used as a shroud for someone who had passed away during a nomadic trip.

At times, the next-of-kin of a deceased woman preserved the elechek as a family heirloom. In some cases, it was possible to see elechek among funeral accessories.

Although still worn into the early 20th century, it was gradually replaced by simple head scarves. On special occasions and festivals it may still be worn, however, most modern elechek are not authentic - a cardboard frame is wrapped in fabric.

Regional variations

kyrgyzstan headdress craft, kyrgyz art craft tours
Tunduk - Northern elechek. Image by Erkin and Arthur Boljurovs
In the past, her headdress could determine a woman’s tribal affiliations.

In northern Kyrgyzstan, an elechek consisted of the following parts: a tiny, helmet-like bonnet with a fabric strip at the back to cover plaits. The turban was placed on top then covered by fine white cloth.  The northerners wound it in spirals – thus the elechek was cylindrical. The end of the cloth then hung on the left side affixed with a pin. (See the photo at right).

In the northwest, the headdress was called an ileki and was either round or oval. The massive upper part and rather small forehead band were regional identifying features.

Historical records show that in Osh province, in southern Kyrgyzstan, the headdress, known there as kelek, was enormous with an impressive forehead roll. Sometimes, a duriya (fine shawl)  was placed over the turban.

The second part of this article will outline other headdress variations as well as describe present-day efforts to keep this tradition alive.

Materials source:

1. Mahova E.I., Collected volume The peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, 1963 
2. C.I. Antipina, Aspects of Material culture and Applied arts of the South Kyrgyz 1962

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

Related posts: Elechek - Kyrgyz Traditional Headdress Part #2
Kyrgyz Chii - Yurt Screens and Mats
Manaschi - Bards of Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
Felted Carpets of Kyrgyzstan 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Propaganda Posters of the Soviet East: 1918 -1940

Workers and Peasants: Don’t let them destroy what was created over 10 years
Who doesn’t work doesn’t eat - Tashkent, 1920
Although this exhibition was held in Moscow over a year ago, it is fascinating to browse these marvellous propaganda posters.

The exhibition was organised by the Mardjani Foundation, which focuses on Islamic studies and Muslim culture in Russia and Eurasia, and the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, which holds over 70,000 posters in its collection.

Posters created for the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus had a special style: they were bright, imaginative, and often in the avant-garde style. Artists were based in Tashkent and Baku, far from the Soviet centre.

Curator Maria Filatova, in an interview with Eurasianet's David Trilling, views the  "colorful posters from the 1920s and early 1930s, with their longer texts and multiple figurines, as direct descendants of local calligraphy and miniature traditions. Filatova feels the relative freedom of the 1920s makes the work from that decade artistically more interesting compared to what followed".

According to Filatova, the work is also revealing about that period in early Soviet history, when "socialist ideas coexisted with Islamic ideology. It was quite wise for the new Soviet power not to crush the old traditions, not to anger the region’s Muslim population. There are several posters from the 1920s where you can see the Soviet red star and the Muslim crescent together."

central asian soviet posters, uzbekistan art craft tours
Workers and Peasants: Don’t let them destroy what was created over 10 years – Tashkent, 1927

The posters, pasted in railway stations, streets, squares and in clubs, use Cyrillic, Latin and Arabic scripts - reflecting the alphabets and languages of the time. However, most people were illiterate and artists quickly focused on strong, bold design and simple messages to educate and mobilise the masses.

Given the shortage of paper in the early days of the USSR, it is miraculous that these posters have survived.

You can read David Trilling's article about the exhibition and see further examples of these remarkable posters. His article also includes an excellent overview of the history of the various alphabet experiments (including the Latin alphabet) in Central Asia during the early Soviet period - by 1940 Cyrillic had become the universal alphabet.

Related posts: Paul Nadar's Images of Turkestan 1890
Kyrgyzstan's Quest for Historical Photographs
A Glimpse of Khivan Woodcarving 1937

Images: sourced from the Mardjani Foundation, Moscow, and the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia

central asian soviet posters, uzbekistan art craft tours
Strengthen working discipline in collective farms, Tashkent, 1933
central asian soviet posters, uzbekistan art craft tours
Central Asians reading the village notice board

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pink Floyd, the Aral Sea - Louder than Words

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
Cult British group Pink Floyd released its first album in 20 years this month - The Endless River. It entered the Official UK Album Chart at number one.

The album is instrumental except the last track Louder Than Words. The video clip produced to accompany that song includes footage of the Aral Sea.

British production company Hipgnosis, which has worked with Pink Floyd for more than 40 years, filmed in and around Aralsk, Kazakhstan, a former bustling fishing village.

Music video director Aubrey Powell was assisted by Kochegary Studio in Kazakhstan. Powell said that the message of the video is that human actions speak louder than words. "It is more important what you do than what you say...The message of the video concerns the Aral Sea. We touched on environmental issues. We shot wonderful, beautiful shots of the sea, ships at a pier. In the video we want to say: "Let's bring back the sea”. That is we hope that it will come back".

Powell noted that he was familiar with the problems of the Aral Sea. When he suggested using this theme to the members of Pink Floyd, they supported it. "When we talked with David Gilmour, we decided that the video had to draw attention to these issues, but not only from a negative perspective. We wanted to show that maybe we can help bring back the sea.

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
When bad things happen in our lives, one can find something good in them too. It is not necessary to see everything in a bad light. The message of the video is primarily positive. (...)"

"Like all Pink Floyd songs, this composition is also filled with deep meaning and philosophy, he said. The video will deal with two generations – the young and the old. The ones who have never seen the Aral Sea and the ones who told stories about the Aral Sea to their grandchildren". The main characters in the video are local villagers, young and old, who dream of a revival of the sea.

Bruce Pannier of RFE/RFL writes that "the Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world until a devastating Soviet experiment led to its drying out. In the 1960s the Soviet Union decided to divert waters from the two big rivers of Central Asia - Amu Darya and Syr Darya - to irrigate fields in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

The diversion of water during Soviet times from Central Asia's two great rivers -- the Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya -- into the cotton fields of the region have shrunk the lake to some 10 percent of its original size in less than 100 years.

pink floyd endless river lost for words
YouTube grab from Louder Than Words
Fishing boats that once plied the Aral Sea are now rusting hulls lying in the desert many kilometers from where the shores of the lake are now.

It was that surreal quality of ships stranded in the emptiness of the desert that appealed to Powell; but as he said, he also wanted to bring an environmental message to people".

Powell said the video is "not so much about the disaster -- that's been written about endlessly -- but more about a generational thing, more about what it means to the younger generation, the children of the impoverished and disenfranchised communities around the Aral Sea that have lost fishing and culture."

Watch Louder Than Words [4:40 mins] and hope that efforts to restore the Aral Sea may bear fruit. (If the clip does not appear on your device, go directly to: ).

Related posts:
Kazakhstan's Beatlemania
Uzbek Jazz is Alive and Well in Tashkent 

Materials source: Rolling Stone magazine
Tengri News Kazakhstan
Bruce Pannier, Central Asia Specialist on RFE/RL

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Bishkek's Mosaics: Fragmented Dream Project

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
Lenin Is With Us, 1978. Image: Lilya Kas'yanova
Readers of this website will know that I have a special interest in Central Asian monumental art, particularly mosaic architectural panels on private and public buildings.

Imagine then my delight in coming across a map of Bishkek's mosaics produced by STAB - School of Theory and Activism Bishkek. This map is the result of a two-year research project which included the attribution and interpretation of the city's Soviet monumental art.

The map includes virtually every major mosaic in Bishkek, located both in the city centre and in suburban areas. Of the seventeen mosaics, six are combined into a walking route. The map, in English and Russian, is accompanied by details about the mosaics and cultural commentaries -  a perfect tool for exploring independently.

STAB wants to draw the attention of Bishkek residents and visitors to the artistic heritage of the socialist modernization project of the 1960s -1980s. As well as offering urban exploration, this project helps preserve these mosaics in Bishkek, since many of them, despite having state protection status, are in poor condition.

(By the way, the last monumental panels were created in post-Soviet times. In 2004 Alexey Kamensky, a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, decorated two panels of the academy. Students were involved in firing ceramics in the academy's workshops and installing them on the building).

STAB also runs regular walking tours of the mosaics, in English. You can contact the group via its English website. You can buy the map (about $3) directly from STAB's office. Just call in advance to check opening hours.

Here are some examples of Bishkek's mosaics.

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
The Path of Enlightenment, 1978. Photo credit: STAB

The Path of Enlightenment, was designed by Kyrgyz painter Satar Aitiev in 1978. It created a stir in Frunze (the Soviet name for Bishkek) at the time: "It was a great event, a shocking event. It was bold, beautiful, new and entirely different from everything else. We all asked each other the question - how was he allowed to do that? How did the Artists' Union accept it?"(Shailoo Djekshenbaev)

Instead of traditional monumental forms, the imagery has given way to a "painting-like haze". It decorates a campus building of the Kyrgyz National University.

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
Female Athletes, 1975. Photo credit: STAB

Many mosaic panels were incorporated into residential buildings in quiet neighbourhoods. Several were created by construction workers themselves, such as the example above, not by members of the official Union of Artists.

Sport was a prominent theme and this image of female athletes, which matched one of male athletes, was created to inspire residents to develop healthy athleticism.

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
Radio and Nowadays, 1967   Photo credit: STAB
The panel above, "Radio and Nowadays" is connected to the building's function as a radio centre: radio waves emanate from the figure of a giant who has tamed visible and invisible substances.

Science was one of the favourite subjects of monumental art - graphs, charts and scientific instruments were excellent representations of the triumph of rational knowledge.

This mosaic is made of stone - in  the 1960s pebbles and other materials were significantly cheaper than ceramics and glass. (Cobalt glass was imported from Ukraine during the Soviet period).

kyrgyz monumental art mosaics, kyrgyztsan art tours,
Detail from Welcoming Guests, 1964. Photo credit: STAB
The detail at left is from the first mosaic that was created in Kyrgyzstan, in 1964, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the accession of Kyrgyzstan to Russia. It is done in the spirit of colourful, socialist realism.

Update December 2014: The Soros Foundation has published a 2015 calendar using images of Bishkek's mosaics. It is available at the STAB office, Bishkek, as are postcard sets of the mosaics.

View the images. (The pdf file may be slow to load, but it is worth the wait).

Materials source: STAB

Related posts:
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #1
Uzbekistan's Decorative Architectural Panels #2
Turkmenistan: Tracking Down Mosaics
Kyrgyzstan: Monumental Art in the Provinces 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Skateistan: Kabul's Skate School Turns Five

kabul afghanistan skateboarding central asia, girls sports afghanistan
Getting ready for an outdoor skate day. Image courtesy Skateistan
On October 29, 2009, the NGO Skateistan opened Afghanistan's first skateboard park. A group of 40 Afghan children, including girls and street-working kids, had been skateboarding for many months at an empty Soviet fountain in Kabul, and now had somewhere to call their own.

On November 9, 2014, the five year anniversary of Skateistan Kabul will be celebrated by hundreds of students, staff, alumni, families, officials, community members, and supporters.

Built on land donated by the Afghan National Olympic Committee, the Skateistan Kabul "skate school" was designed to be much more than a skatepark, also featuring classrooms, offices, a library, and a multi-sport area. Its goal was to provide free educational and recreational programming to some of the most vulnerable Afghan girls and boys. Skateistan Kabul became a rare, safe space for children to play and learn.

Five years later, Skateistan Kabul has registed more than 1500 children into its award-winning sport and educational programming, and has more than 400 children attending each week. Dozens of Afghan youth have graduated from being Skateistan students to volunteers and staff, leading the next generation of Kabul skateboarders. More than 40% of Skateistan students are girls.

afghanistan central asia sport, skateboarding kabul afghanistan
Go Skateboarding Day 2012 - Nawab, kickflipping at left, was killed in a suicide blast in 2012. Image courtesy Skateistan

The 2014 anniversary event will include skateboarding demonstrations by the girls and boys of Skateistan, as well as various student performances (theatre, singing, film, speeches).

The ten most iconic photos from the past five years will also be on exhibition. Skateistan Kabul's success has since inspired replica projects in northern Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa.

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

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Skateboarding in the former gardens of Kabul's Royal Palace. Image Skateistan
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 contents are very cool. All proceeds go directly back to Skateistan.

Update: Listen to Oliver Perovich's interview on ABC radio about SkateistanIt's 18 minutes and was recorded 5 April 2020.

Related posts: Cricket in Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Skateistan - Empowering Afghan Youth Through Skateboarding


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Uzbekistan: Pearl of the Sands - a New Documentary

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At Urgut bazaar. Image: Richard Marshall
The Russian television network «Россия 1» premiered its new documentary about Uzbekistan this month. Titled Uzbekistan - Pearl of the Sands, this 40-minute film provides a wonderful overview of the country, its people, monuments, cuisine and applied arts.

For those of you who will visit Uzbekistan, this docco answers those questions of family and friends who ask "You are going where?" followed by "Why?"

And for travellers who have been there, it is a marvellous way to remember the places visited and the hospitality and warmth of Uzbeks.

The film has not fossilised Uzbekistan as a medieval Silk Road centre. Rather it showcases a modern country, proud of its heritage and traditions, and working towards a prosperous future.

The contributions of the great, medieval Uzbek scientists and mathematicians - Avicenna, Al-Buruni, Ulughbek, Al-Khorezmi - are highlighted.

Tashkent is shown as the modern, green, cultural city it is - the new and old buildings, bazaars, parks, fountains and industries.

Samarkand's Registan - the extraordinary architectural ensemble - is of course featured. But the film visits the master craftsmen, such as the tile makers, whose workshops are nestled in the former student cells of the madrassahs there. Viewers visit the paper making workshop at Konigil and the Samarkand carpet workshop. Ulughbek's observatory, as well as the glorious tiles of Shah-i-Zindar, Samarkand's necropolis are included.

Streets and people will be so familiar to readers who have rambled around Khiva and Bukhara or who visited the ikat weavers in Ferghana. There are great shots of plov, the national dish, as well as bread making.

The final segment, "Soul", looks at ancient Sufism, modern Islam and the remarkable generosity of Uzbeks. Rare footage is included of the thousands of Soviet orphans who were evacuated to Tashkent during the siege of Leningrad (1941 - 1944) and who were adopted by Uzbek families.

Bravo to Россия 1 for making this documentary freely available on YouTube (see below). Settle down with a pot of green tea, some dried fruits and enjoy Uzbekistan. Although it is in narrated in Russian only, without subtitles, it is easy to understand this excellent film. Remember to watch it in full screen mode. ( If this does not appear in your device, please go directly to

Related posts: Samarkand: The Revival of Papermaking
Samarkand's Magic Carpets  
Avicenna of Bukhara and Al-Khorezmi of Khiva
Tashkent: A City of Refuge
Uzbekistan as Film Location

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Paul Nadar's Images of Turkestan 1890

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Outside Sher Dor, Registan, Samarkand
Paul Nadar was born in 1856, the son of the pioneering French photographer Felix Gaspard Tournachon, who was known simply as Nadar. In a highly successful, commercial venture Nadar photographed nineteenth-century Parisians, including Honore de Balzac and Baudelaire.

Paul continued this tradition of photographic portraiture, famously capturing Marcel Proust and Proust's family and friends. Paul Nadar later became the agent for Eastman Kodak in France.

In 1890 he set off on the Orient Express for Istanbul. He then crossed the Black Sea to Batumi (Georgia), then crossed the Caucasus through Tbilisi and Baku, and arrived in Turkestan. (In Tsarist times, Turkestan comprised present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang).

He travelled for two months in the region, taking around 1200 photographs of crowds at bazaars,  sandy deserts, eagle hunts and "exotic people". Paul Nadar was dazzled by the places and people he came across, writing to his mother "I am dizzy and think I have been transported to a land of fairies where everything is imaginary...".

His images were exhibited in the International Exhibition held in Tashkent 1890 and are regarded as one of the first "photo reportages" in the history of photography.

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Happily sweet melons are still sold from stalls like this in bazaars
The French Ministry of Culture has kindly made the collection available online and Claude Malécot's book L'Odyssée de Paul Nadar au Turkestan:1890 is readily available.

Related posts:
Divanov - Father of Uzbek Photography
Max Penson: Uzbek Photography between Revolution and Tradition
Jacques Dupâquier's Images of Tashkent, 1956
Strolling Through Samarkand in 1930 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bishkek's Flea Market - Orto Sai

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Soviet-era soup bowls decorated with traditional Kyrgyz patterns
Sunday is the best day to visit Bishkek's flea market, located in the city's 7th district, east of the regular Orto Sai bazaar.  It runs along one side of Yunusalieva (formerly Karl Marx) street.

Unlike Tezykovka flea market in Tashkent, which is mostly covered, Orto Sai is open air. It takes place not only on Karl Marx Street but all the little sides streets that run off it.

If pottering about looking at old things is your cup of tea, then plan to spend a few hours there. Of course there are sellers of Soviet memorabilia such as Lenin pins and medals. There are book sellers and second-hand clothes stalls.

However, many Bishkek residents simply come and spread a blanket and sell items from their homes. It is at these stalls that I like to spend time - to find small, quirky treasures among quite a lot of junk.

I particularly like Soviet-era soup bowls with Central Asian designs. My collection includes ikat patterns, cotton flowers and stylised birds. I picked up the Kyrgyz ones above for $1 each at Orto Sai - the blue one has a lovely stamp celebrating 50 years of the USSR.

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Cute set of spice tins from Orto Sai bazaar, Bishkek
The cute set of spice tins, in excellent condition, was just $2. Indeed, if I had had the space there were many things I would have added to my luggage: 1970s vases, Soviet-era cameras, a Cyrillic portable typewriter.

There is no need to arrive early morning. Orto Sai gets under way around 10:00 a.m. After a few hours poking about, jump on a marshrutka (public minibus) or taxi to one of Bishkek's many cool cafés.

Related posts:

Tashkent's Flea Market: Tezykovka, Yangiobod
5 Reasons to Visit Kyrgyzstan
6 Quirky Things About Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Chor Bakyr - The City of the Dead, near Bukhara

Nilufar Nuriddinova
Nilufar Nuriddinova is one Bukhara's most experienced guides. She knows the city like the back of her hand. Nilufar graduated from the faculty of foreign philology at Bukhara State University and she will contribute occasional articles about this remarkable city.

Chor Bakr necropolis is one of the biggest architectural ensembles of Uzbekistan, situated 6 kms west of Bukhara at a place known from antiquity as Sumitan. Sumitan means “wool weavers”, as this was the primary occupation of the inhabitants in the past. The ancient road from Bukhara ended right at its gate.

Few tourists visit Chor-Bakr – it lacks the dazzling tile work of Samarkand’s Shah-i-Zindar necropolis. However, it is a calm and beautiful place, well worth exploring. It was entered into UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List in 2008.

Chor means “four” and Bakr was the name of four wise and holy men, all related:

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View of a Chor Bakyr dome
Abu Bakr Saad Yamani - was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and an imam of a mosque in Mecca. When he came to Bukhara he became a spiritual adviser to the ruler, Ismail Samani (The Samanids were the ruling dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries AD).

Abu Bakr Mukhammad ibn Fazl Yamani –  was the richest among the four men and financially supported the caravans which came to Bukhara. He also collected the sayings of the Prophet, known as khadises.

Abu Bakr  Mukhammad ibn Homid Yamani – was a sheik and scientist.

Abu Bakr  Abdulloh Tarkhan –  assisted the Saminid rulers develop laws based on the Koran.

It is said that Abu Bakr Saad heard that on judgment day there would be eleven gates open to paradise and that one of those gates would be in Bukhara. He organised a large caravan bound for Bukhara. It included Sufis, students of Abu Bakr Saad, merchants and scientists.

Even some Arabian masters heard about the caravan and gave Abu Bakr Saad a beautifully carved marble gate, asking him to place it where they themselves would come 
and stay. A small piece of that gate can be seen today - it was hidden by a  descendant of the Chor-Bakrs during Soviet times.

Because of the services that the Bakyrs rendered to the Bukharan ruler, Ismail Samani, they were given 40,000 hectares of private land at Sumitan where they constructed mosques, madrassahs, mills, caravansaries, tim (covered bazaars), bakeries and other workshops. Local people found employment in these businesses and their families received free education. Every morning local people were given 1000 fresh loaves of bread free of charge by the order of Abu Bakr Saad. 

As the area prospered, the Bakyrs bought more land and developed more projects with the local community. For example, there was a canal that was always full of water. However, ordinary local people could not use that water. The Bakyrs bought the canal and let anyone use the water.

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The remnant of marble gate given to Abu Bakr Saad
Abu Bakr Saad and Abu Bakr Homid are buried in the northwestern part of the complex. The other two were buried in a cemetery that was dug up during the Soviet period. After independence a college of law and high school specialising in the German language were constructed on the site. During construction many bones of the deceased were discovered and they were placed in a kind of mausoleum near the college.

In the Chor Bakyr complex there are 36 different buildings: 22 khaziras (burial places), a hammam (bath house), a madrassah, a khanaka (hostel for Sufi dervishes) and mosques.

The people of the original caravan who had come with Abu Bakr Saad and all his descendants are also buried there. Most people who live around the complex today consider themselves descendants of the Chor Bakrs and are called khodjas. Even today, when they die, they are buried in special khaziras not in the common cemetery.

After the death of the four Bakrs the name of the settlement became known as Chor Bakr.  In Soviet times, when large collective farms were created, the area was called Kolkhoz Pravda (Truth Collective Farm). After independence in 1991, the area reverted to  Chor Bakr.

bukhara uzbekistan tours, chor bakyr bukhara, uzbekistan art craft toursDuring the Soviet period the Chor Bakyr monuments deteriorated – no maintenance was done. Under the initiative of the president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, major restoration works were undertaken in the 1990s.

Today the beautiful complex is a pilgrimage site. When you visit such a place you feel something fresh in mind and body: such places have a kind of spiritual power. For me, it is because in this place the holy words of the Koran have been sounded every day for a very long time.

I must add that if succulent lamb cooked in a tandyr oven takes your fancy, then you must stop at the Milly Taom restaurant in Chor Bakyr. It is at the turn off from the main road to the Chor Bakyr necropolis. Such is the reputation of this simple restaurant that people come from far and wide to eat there. Every taxi driver knows this restaurant.

Contact Nilufar at:  nilufar_nuriddinova(at) yahoo(dot)com

Related posts:

Bukhara's Summer Palace: Sitora-i Mokhi-Khosa
Bukhara's Puppet Theatre
Alexander 'Bokhara' Burnes - Great Game Player
Kagan Palace, Near Bukhara, Uzbekistan 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Impressions of Uzbek Women

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Beautiful Girl in the Woodblock Studio, Tashkent
Bernadette Smith travels with neither a camera nor a sketch pad.

Yet on her return from a spring 2014 tour with Uzbek Journeys, she started a series of canvases of her impressions of the country and its people.

She would rise early and roam the back streets. While others were busy snapping images, Bernadette keenly observed the scenes around her and let the impressions just soak in.

Bernadette claims that Uzbekistan "got under her skin" - this is apparent from the bold strokes and colours that dominate her work.

Her first works are these three paintings of Uzbek women.

At right is Nargisa, an apprentice woodblock printer in a contemporary studio in Tashkent. She is a talented, shy and  serious young woman.

The work below, Impressions of Tamara, refers to the remarkable dancer, Tamara Khanum, the first woman to dance without a veil in Uzbekistan. There is a house museum in Tashkent devoted to her, which is visited on an Uzbek Journeys tour.

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Shades of Tamara

Bernadette took a post-tour excursion to the Ferghana Valley. It is a long and spectacular drive over the Kamchik Pass. It was spring and children pick wild flowers and sell them by the side of the road. The painting below, Girl Selling Tulips, Road to Ferghana, charmingly captures one young girl.

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Girl Selling Tulips, Road to Ferghana

Bernadette is now working on a series about Khiva - certainly something to look forward to.

As marvellous as digital photography is, these paintings show how wondrous thoughtful reflections are after a journey. Plus you need talent!

Related posts:
Uzbek Sketchbook
Christine Shoji's Samarkand and Khiva Sketches
Tamara Khanum: Legendary Uzbek Dancer
Tashkent's Small House Museums

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Bukhara's Contemporary Art Museum

Pavel Benkov's Tajik with Tea Bowl
Bukhara possesses a singular allure. Over 2,500 years old, it was one of the most important trading centres of the Silk Road. During the golden age of the Saminid rulers, Bukhara also became the intellectual centre of the Islamic world.

The entire old city is now a UNESCO World Heritage site: it is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with an historic ambience and an urban fabric that has remained largely intact.

It is so easy to spend hours exploring the ancient caravanserais and madrassahs, now housing artisans workshops, antiquarians, fabric boutiques and knife makers. The old Jewish quarter, the residential neighbourhoods set along cobbled streets, all make for marvellous strolls.

And for those travellers interested in avant-garde and 20th century art, Bukhara's small Contemporary Art Museum is a *must-see*. Located between the first and second trade domes, it is housed in a corner, brick building constructed in 1912 as Central Asia's first central bank.

Despite a fine collection of Soviet artists, such as Pavel Benkov, Mikhail Kurzin, Alexander Volkov, Nadeja Kashina, the exhibition space dedicated to that period is not easy to find. Entrance to the museum is at street level and is about US$2. There is usually an exhibition of local painters' works on that level. Ask the staff at the ticket office where the avant garde art is and someone will lead you through several rooms, then up stairs at the back until you reach the modernist section.

M. Kurzin's Portrait of Embroiderer Niyazova Karomat
Pavel Benkov came to Bukhara in 1928 and it was a turning point in the artist's life. Benkov's portraits on display reflect his skill at capturing the essence of Bukharan life at the time. In Tajik with a Tea Bowl he has brilliantly captured a proud man, fully conscious of his own dignity. The museum's collection of Benkov's work is significant, ranging from portraits to cityscapes.

Mikhail Kurzin lived and worked in Bukhara in the late 1940s. (Kurzin was the founder of a Tashkent art group Masters of the New Orient). He was later repressed and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and 3 years exile.  On his release he moved to Bukhara until 1948 when he was exiled once again.

Kurzin painted a series of portraits of well-known Bukharan artisans - engravers, weavers, stone masons, metal chasers, embroiderers and jewellers - all painted in bold, broad strokes. There was a shortage of materials in the post-war years and Kurzin sometimes simply painted on cardboard.

The museum is open daily from 1000 - 1800 daily and closed on Tuesdays. Overlook the rather sad exhibition space and tilted hangings. If you speak Russian, try to arrange a guided tour with one of the art historians there. Call in advance: +998  65 224 5853.  Stopping by this collection is an excellent prelude to the Savitsky museum in Nukus, visited on an Uzbek Journeys tour.

Related posts:
London Book Launch: Biography of Igor Savitsky, Founder of the Karakalpakstan Museum, Nukus
Central Asia in Art: From Soviet Orientalism to the New Republics
Alexander Volkov: Of Sand and Silk, an Exhibition at Christie's, London
Kagan Palace, Near Bukhara, Uzbekistan 

Pavel Benkov's Bukhara Caravanserai

Mikhail Kurzin's Mosque Magok Attor (now the Carpet Museum)