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Entries about customs

On the ancient Silk Road

Uzbekistan introduction


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Inspired by recent blogs from my TP friend Bob, I have decided that it is time that I reproduced my Virtual Tourist write-up of my own visit to Uzbekistan back in 2007.

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah, Khiva

In the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, ancient and modern meet and intertwine. In the old trading domes of Bukhara, the sun-baked madrassahs of Khiva, the riot of colours that surround the wide expanse of the Registan Square in Samarkand you can step back into the past and feel the weight of history around you.

But (with the possible exception of Khiva’s old town) this isn’t simply a museum or movie set, with its splendours paraded before you behind a screen. Its people live and work among these riches, and those people too are one of the joys of travelling here – eager to welcome you and to share their country and its treasures.

Following the Silk Road

There is something magical in those words – The Silk Road. The sense of a place not quite real, a place of legend or fairy tale. One of those places you might dream of when you first begin to travel, but not understand that you might actually one day find yourself there.

It is said that the secret of silk was smuggled out of China by a princess unable to face married life in the barbarian lands to the west without this one luxury. Through trade it reached Rome and became the textile of choice for the very best togas. What the richest citizens of the Roman Empire demanded, they usually found a way to procure, and the Silk Road was born.

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Domes of the Shah-i-Zindah, Samarkand

For hundreds of years traders faced the dangers of mountains, deserts, hostile climates and even more hostile bandits in their efforts to bring the riches of the east to an eager west – not just silk but spices, paper, even gunpowder. And in the opposite direction went the exotic fruits of central Asia, peaches and pomegranates; wonderfully worked textiles; saffron and even ostriches. To help them cope with the dangers the merchants would travel in large bands, up to 1,000 camels in a train. Caravanserai sprang up in the desert at intervals of about 25 kilometres (a day’s journey by camel) to offer accommodation for men and beasts, and around some of these grew great cities, built on trade and on servicing the caravans. At night stories were swapped, bargains struck, intrigues plotted.

In fact though, this was not one road but several. A network of different routes eventually crossed the continents, but the main ones converged in certain places where trade was best developed or the physical terrain dictated it. And it was not just goods that were traded, but the perhaps even more valuable commodities of information and knowledge. The Silk Road enabled an unprecedented exchange of cultures and ideas, philosophies and religious beliefs, artistic styles and inventions.

The Silk Road flourished for centuries, but in the 13th century the Emperor Ming built the Great Wall and China was cut off from the west. Meanwhile silk production had started in Byzantium, and a maritime route for the spice trade had developed. The Silk Road fell into disuse, and the great cities of Central Asia were left marooned and isolated from the world. Today it is that very sense of isolation that resonates and gives them their magical atmosphere.

Our short tour took us to a number of places, each with its own character and attractions:
~ Tashkent, a largely modern city, thanks to the devastation caused by the impact of the 1966 earthquake, but with some hidden gems.
~ Khiva, the most compact and intact of the Silk Road cities., It can feel more like museum than living city, though people do live there. But this was the place where I found it most easy to imagine myself back in the days when the caravans of traders and camels would arrive after their long and weary journey through the desert, to revive themselves in some green oasis or welcoming caravanserai.
~ Bukhara, my favourite of the cities we visited, retaining a strong sense of the past but as a backdrop for daily life. It is a place where it is easy to realise that our yesterdays are part of today and will still be with us tomorrow.
~ Nurata, smaller and less visited than the other destinations we went to, but worth a stop for its hill-top fortress (said to date from the time of Alexander the Great), a couple of interesting mosques and the sacred pools of fish.
~ A yurt camp in the Kyzyl Kum Desert.
~ Samarkand, larger and less intimate, but home to the most impressive and dramatic of monuments at the Registan and the stunning Shah-i-Zinda.

On a group tour

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With new friends Sue, Georgina and Els

Generally we are not ‘tour group’ people, but we do make an exception occasionally, and this was one of those trips. We chose an Explore tour because we’d travelled with them before and knew that their approach was rather different from the ‘herded like cattle’ sensation that comes with some tours! They have a strong belief in supporting the local economy (so you stay in locally-run accommodation rather than global chains, for instance) and treat customers like adults who have ideas of their own and may want to do their own thing from time to time. They also attract like-minded people, so we found ourselves in a friendly group who on the whole were interested in the same things as us.

So why did we choose a tour? It was partly a case of not having a lot of time available for this trip – doing things yourself in a non-westernised country in particular, where you speak very little if any of the language, always takes longer than travelling with an organised group. Plus, we knew from past experience that an Explore tour would be an acceptable compromise because of their particular approach. The pluses for us were:
- having someone to take care of the practical matters like flights and other transport
- travelling with a local guide who really knew his job and imparted lots of information while not being offended if we wanted to drift off from the group for a while
- getting to know some great travelling companions and swap stories of other trips with them (twelve years on I am still in touch with two of them, Sue and Georgina, and we meet up from time to time in London)

On the other hand, the minuses were:
- having to fit into a pre-arranged schedule (in particular not having long enough in Bukhara)
- probably paying more for the trip than if we’d arranged it all ourselves
- for a ‘small group’ tour, as Explore promote their trips, the group was a bit big, and we did inevitably feel that we were too ‘visible’ at times
- one guy in our group who was very insensitive to the needs of others, and also to the local culture
- occasionally too we felt over-protected by our guide who looked after us almost too well!

Impressions of Uzbekistan

One of the old Virtual Tourist tip categories was ‘Local customs’ and I found Uzbekistan particularly interesting in that respect so wrote quite a bit about the things that had struck me while travelling there.

A warm welcome

Wherever we went in Uzbekistan we were welcomed warmly by the local people. They seemed to really value our interest in their country. For instance, in the Karimbek restaurant in Samarkand a group of women on the table next to ours took great interest in us and one of them came over to say hello and practice her very limited English. They were all full of smiles and greetings. Also in Samarkand, when we visited the Ulug Beg Observatory a local man standing near the entrance broke off his conversation with a friend to welcome us to the city and to his country.

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Sue and me with a group of local tourists at the Kukhna Ark, Khiva

In Khiva a waiter from a B & B where we had dinner came running after us. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home! It was also in Khiva that a group of women were eager to pose with us for their souvenir photo, presenting Chris with a great photo opportunity too!

Photographing people

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Shop-keeper in Khiva

Talking of photo opps, I found that people in Uzbekistan love to have their photo taken – and they don’t expect payment or reward for it. One evening in Bukhara Chris and I were trailed by a small crowd of young children clamouring to be photographed. As soon as we gave in and agreed they arranged themselves in a tiered group in front of a nearby wall and posed laughing and waving. The only reward they sought was to see the photos afterwards (oh the joys of digital photography that allow this) and to follow us giggling to the end of the street.

Adults too were almost uniformly happy to be photographed – the only down-side of this was that they sometimes posed very stiffly, and the resulting images seemed a little artificial. But this was balanced by the fact that the photography ‘session’ gave me a great opportunity to connect and share a moment of pleasure with a local person despite the language difficulties that would normally divide us.

Community spirit

One of the things I admired as I learnt more about Uzbek society was the strong emphasis put on the importance of community, or malhalla. The community is there almost as an extended family, and can be called on to support people when needed, e.g. in times of illness or bereavement. This could be financial, practical and emotional support. The older people in society are accorded particular respect, especially the old men, known as aksakal or ‘white beards’. The knowledge and experience they have acquired over the years are valued, and they have earned the right now to spend their days sitting in the shade, sipping tea and talking quietly among themselves.

Traditional architecture

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Chor Minor, Bukhara

It probably goes without saying that one of the main attractions of a visit to Uzbekistan is the wealth of traditional Islamic architecture on display. I found that learning a little bit about the types of buildings and styles of decoration helped me to appreciate it even more, although faced with the splendour of the Shah-i-Zindah or Registan Square in Samarkand, the intense colours of the Kalta Minor in Khiva, the sheer number of ancient buildings in Bukhara I often simply stood and marvelled at the sights – before of course whipping out my camera!

There were four main types of buildings which we saw wherever we went – mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs, caravanserai. Although Uzbekistan is slowly rediscovering Islam after years of secularism under the Soviet rule, many of the buildings originally built for religious use are now decommissioned which in some ways seemed to me a shame but did make them easier to visit for a non-Muslim woman. Many of the mosques are simply monuments to be admired but not used, though others are used, and there are only a few functioning madrassahs (including the one at the Poi Kalon complex in Bukhara); others are now tourist bazaars, venues for folklore shows or, in one case in Khiva, a hotel.

The wonderful riot of colour that adorns many of these buildings was at times overwhelming and I got little sense at first of the variety of decorative styles and crafts that have been used. Gradually though I came to distinguish between mosaic and majolica – the patterns of the former are made from small pieces of different coloured tiles while the latter has its colours painted directly on to the ceramic surface. There are also relief patterns carved into the tiles, and ganch, almost lace-like carvings in alabaster. Another distinction that became apparent is that between the different colours of each city – jade green is common in Khiva, while in Bukhara a more turquoise green is seen and in Samarkand a riot of blues stuns the eye at the Shah-i-Zinda.

Within the buildings too there were architectural features to note and learn names for: the iwan, a portico with decorative pillars; the mihrab or decorative niche within a mosque, and so on.

One debate we had several times on our trip was, to restore or not to restore? There are those who feel the Soviets went too far in restoring all these buildings as they have layered modern tiles on old stones, rebuilt walls with traditional techniques but new materials. I for one though am grateful to them – my imagination could never have conjured up some of the wonders I saw.

Posted by ToonSarah 10:33 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings people architecture history city tour uzbekistan customs silk_road Comments (13)

From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


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It was time to leave Bukhara, much as I would have liked to have stayed another day. After breakfast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel, the Mosque Baland, and farewells to our hosts there, we set off, driving east on the main road to Samarkand.

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

Our first stop was in the town of Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family.

The Gijduvan school of ceramics is unique. It is characterised by an overall brown colouring as a background, with yellow-green and blue hues as accents. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes, and some use of geometric patterns. Unlike other Uzbek ceramic styles, the lines of the patterns are slightly blurred, with a hazy effect created through the use of a dark glaze.

We were first shown around the museum of ceramics housed above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand.

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In the ceramics museum

We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel (see photo above), one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns.

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Painting the pottery

In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

Our tour finished, of course, in the shop where many examples of their work was for sale. There was really something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken with our tour. But one of our group fell for, and bought, quite a large bowl; we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did.

Finally, we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard. Then it was back on the bus to continue our drive.

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

We made another short stop near the town of Karmana to see two ancient buildings which straddle the main road a few miles west of the town. On the north side of the road is the impressive portal of the Rabt-i-Malik, all that remains of a one-time royal caravanserai, where noble travellers would once have rested during their journeys across the steppe.

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The caravanserai portal

Almost opposite on the south side of the road a restored dome covers the well where the camels would have found refreshment. Now instead of caravans of camels, cars and trucks roar past these ancient relics, creating a microcosm of Uzbekistan’s ‘past meets present’ character.

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Restored well

In Karmana itself we stopped by a small park near the bazaar to see the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, built in the 11th century. Its ornamental brickwork, with inscriptions from the Koran set in it, reminded me of the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, though this one is older and less elaborate than that more famous example.

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

Our final stop of the morning was to take a look at some petroglyphs near the roadside. Uzbekistan’s most famous site for petroglyphs is the Sarmysh Gorge, but we weren’t able to visit there unfortunately. However, we did stop to see this small group in the rocks right by the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point Black Crow Pass.

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The road over Black Crow Pass

A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several with these ancient markings, reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

We arrived in Nurata, which lies some way north of the Bukhara-Samarkand road, around lunch time and had lunch in there in a house in a residential area not far from the main road. This was a real family home, and we ate in what was obviously their main sitting and dining room, with shelves of ornaments and family photos for decoration. We sat on cushions on the floor, as is the Uzbek way, either side of a long low table. As elsewhere in the country, I found this home cooking better than many of the meals we had in restaurants, and there was certainly plenty of it.

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Lunch at a family home

We started with the usual range of salads, accompanied by bread of course, and augmented by some tasty cream cheese. These were followed with a bowl of the typical simple Uzbek soup – a clear broth with potato, carrot and meat (for vegetarians the meat was, we suspected, simply removed before serving!) We were then served big platters of plov, the traditional Uzbek rice dish – very tasty, although I for one was a bit too full to do it justice. There was green tea and bottled water to drink, and watermelon to finish the meal.

One small downside was that, inevitably, the ladies of the house were keen embroiderers, and they were eager to show, and of course sell, us their work. I admired, but resisted the temptation to buy, although I believe one or two in the group did get something.

Most of us did however make use of the clean toilet at the foot of their pretty garden! And then it was time for some sightseeing. We drove the short distance to the cluster of sights on the south side of town, where we paid a small fee to the imam at the Friday mosque in order to visit, and take photos of, Nurata’s ancient citadel.

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill-top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. Locals believe that Alexander gave the city its name, Nur, and credit him with building the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe.

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Chris exploring the ruins

Alexander’s fort was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.

Today the fortress is largely ruined, but by climbing the hill we got a good sense of its size and layout. The climb was very easy although it took a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and we were rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques below. The ground underfoot consists in places of adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of feet and by the elements over two millennia. As you climb you are walking in the footsteps of those who built the fort and who lived and worked here.

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

At the top we found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes, probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and ‘everyday’ mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo taken from the hill-top fortress (above), and photo shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier.

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

But the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least also visit the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see he was also keen to pose inside in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo of the mosques above.

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place.

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (guided by Marat we threw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watched them react!), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

We also had time to wander through the nearby market. It wasn’t very large but proved to be a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo above, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian.

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In Nurata market

Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of a group of card-players.

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Chris's photo of the card players

Soon though it was time to go back to the bus to continue to our base for the night, one of several yurt camps in the Kyzyl Kum desert in the area around Aidarkul Lake.

Yangikazgan

Our main tour bus was unsuitable for the rough roads (little more than tracks in the sand) leading to the camp, so it was parked in the village of Yangikazgan for the night where we transferred to an old Soviet bus to drive the final seven kilometres. This gave us an opportunity for a brief look at this small rural village, very different from the Uzbek cities where we spent most of this trip. I was grateful for the brief glimpse it afforded us of genuine Uzbek village life.

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The children of Yangigazgan

The village is a Soviet-built one, so the houses are functional concrete blocks, but as everywhere on our travels we were welcomed with friendly smiles that were much more photogenic than any building. I spent quite a few minutes photographing the children, naturally, and I think they were pleased to be given a couple of the postcards from home that we’d brought with us in return.

I also enjoyed seeing other aspects of life here – the women spinning in the shade of the trees and others with the far hotter job of firing bricks in a clay oven.

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

Our old bus seemed from appearances to be a bit uncared for, but I think that was just on the surface, as it coped very well with the desert conditions. OK, it was pretty uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a long drive in it, but it certainly did the job and got us there!

One great little touch in the bus’s décor caught our eye. Chris and I are big fans of Newcastle United, so you can imagine our pleased surprise to find that this bus had a small sticker of a former Newcastle player (the gorgeous David Ginola) in the famous black and white strip above the door. I can’t imagine that there could be any connection between a French footballer and a remote village in Uzbekistan so I’m not sure how it came to be here. Maybe a French tourist gave it to the driver?

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

We arrived in the camp and were welcomed with green tea and sweetmeats.

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First view of the camp

Then we were shown to our sleeping quarters. The yurts were constructed in the traditional style, with collapsible lattice frame walls, a roof of branches, and the whole covered in felt. As the weather was hot, the sides of ours were partially rolled back to allow the cool air to come in. The floor was covered with felt too, and from the roof hung colourful mobiles.

The yurts sleep four and we’d been warned in advance that we would have to share. Chris and I were allocated to one with the only other couple in our group, while those travelling alone or with friends shared with three or four others of the same gender.

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

Of course, a yurt doesn’t come with an en-suite bathroom! The washing facilities at the camp consisted of two open-air basins and two basic shower cubicles, all fed with water from tanks perched above them, warmed by the sun. The two toilets were ‘long drop’ ones, situated on two dunes a short climb either side of the camp – fine in the daylight, a bit of a challenge to find at bedtime (we went in a small group with several torches between us) and a real concern to those of us (thankfully not me at that stage) who were suffering from the side-effects of Uzbek cuisine and needed to climb those dunes several times in the night.

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

But I am getting ahead of myself, as we had a desert evening to enjoy first.

Camel ride

On arriving at the camp we had been asked if we wanted to go on an optional camel ride – an option that only six of our number took up, which surprised me. I personally rather like camels, despite their (probably deserved) reputation for surliness. Without doubt this was a great experience. We were led out into the dunes and took a circular route at some distance from the camp, so that for most of the ride we could quite easily imagine, just briefly, how it would have been to travel the desert in a caravan at the height of the Silk Road’s domination. And the late afternoon light on the dunes was really special, as I hope my photos indicate.

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

As there were only six of us (so no need for the camel owners to do several trips) we got quite a bit longer than the promised hour, but I for one was still sorry to see the camp come back into sight and know that our ride was over and I had to say goodbye to Kumba, ‘my’ camel.

There was one incident which soured Chris’s pleasure at the ride, however, and he has never felt quite as keen on camel rides again since. He found himself riding alongside one of our travelling companions, Sally-Ann, who unfortunately had been allocated a camel who appeared to be suffering from the same digestive ailments as some of us, and with a lot less control! This at first only gave Chris a problem of smell, and distraction from the beauties of the desert, but then Sally-Ann’s camel decided he would like to walk much closer to Chris’s, and the result was a very unpleasant deposit on Chris’s leg!

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My view from camel-back
- Sally-Ann's camel, top right, is the culprit!

Luckily (?) Chris was wearing shorts rather than long trousers, so only he needed to be washed, not his clothing – and this is how Chris came to be the first in our group to try out the slightly primitive, but thankfully very effective, showers!!

A night in camp

Once Chris had showered it was time for dinner, and the meal we were served here this evening was one of the nicest we had on the trip, in my view. We ate at a long table set up under an awning near the caravan where the Kazaks who run the camp live and cook. First, bottles of water, vodka and port were placed along its length – the vodka very good (if you like strong spirits) but the port a little sweet for my taste, though others in the group enjoyed it more than the vodka. We could also buy beer and soft drinks at very reasonable prices considering that everything had to be brought out to the camp.

The meal started with a buffet table of bread and salads, as everywhere in Uzbekistan, but here there was a particularly good variety of salads, including aubergine, roast peppers, a carrot and cabbage dish, beetroot … After this we were served a tasty hot dish of beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, all cooked in the one pot (a bit like Lancashire Hot-Pot for the Brits among us!)

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Dinner in the camp

The meal ended with slices of very juicy watermelon, and then most of us drifted over to the campfire that had been lit a short distance away in the centre of the camp. Out in the desert of course, the display of stars overhead was amazing, and we had a great time spotting shooting stars and satellites and looking at distant galaxies through the binoculars of a keen amateur astronomer in our group, Lawrence, who was also happy to share his knowledge about what we were seeing. It was a lovely way to end the day, although it would have been even nicer if one of our travelling companions hadn’t though it a great idea to play his transistor radio – not popular with the rest of us, who wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of the desert uninterrupted by the noise of the 21st century!

Then it was time for bed. We made the climb up the dune to the drop toilets in groups before retiring for the night. We slept on mattresses on the ground, which I found a little thin, and were provided with a cotton sheet and coverlet. I used the latter to augment the mattress to give me a softer base – which is maybe why I became very aware of the cool breeze later in the night!

This was a very special part of our holiday, and I for one wouldn’t have missed it for anything! Sleeping here was a magical experience, especially when I awoke at about 4.00am to see a thin crescent moon through the lattice, and when I got up at 5.30 to find myself the only one awake in the camp. But that’s a story for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes people children food architecture desert mosque road_trip history fort market village camp uzbekistan customs Comments (5)

Our Land of Enchantment

New Mexico introduction


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Acoma Pueblo

We love to take a US road trip exploring one (or sometimes several) of the states, and one of the ones we enjoyed the most was our 2011 visit to New Mexico.

New Mexico dubs itself the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and indeed we were enchanted! And what delighted us most was the variety. In two and a half weeks we saw natural wonders and man-made. We followed trails worn down over the centuries by the moccasin-clad feet of early inhabitants, and sat in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions). We marvelled at the legends of those early Native Americans, and at the tales of aliens crashing near Roswell. We stayed in an historic hotel where outlaws had shot and sometimes even killed each other; in a cosy adobe casita; and in a former brothel. We saw ancient petroglyphs, Route 66 Americana, and exciting modern art in the contemporary galleries of Santa Fe.

We drove for miles, often seeing more cattle than cars, with skies, and landscapes, that seemed to go for ever. And as we travelled I came to think that there was more than one New Mexico.

Native New Mexico

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Taos Pueblo

There is ‘Native New Mexico’, seen best in the ancient pueblos such as Taos and Acoma, but throwing its influence over the whole state. Long before Europeans came to settle this area, native tribes lived here for hundreds of years. For centuries, these ancestral Indians lived a nomadic life, hunting and gathering their food throughout the Southwest. About 1,500 years ago, some of these groups began practicing agriculture and established permanent settlements, known as pueblos, while others remained nomadic. As everywhere in North America, the coming of the white settlers devastated the lives of those who called these plains and mountains home, and that too is part of their history. Today 22 tribes live in the state: Apache, Navajo, and 19 pueblo tribes (Acoma, Cochiti, Isleta, Jémez, Laguna, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Picurís, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Kewa, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni). New Mexico’s unique character owes so much to these tribes. The cuisine incorporates elements of traditional cooking, such as the blue corn tortillas and puffed-up sopapillas. The adobe building techniques were embraced by the Spanish settlers and now dominate towns like Taos and Santa Fe. Arts and crafts thrive and are dominated by the pottery, jewellery-making, weaving and painting of the various tribes.

Hispanic New Mexico

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San Jose de Gracia, Trampas

There is also ‘Hispanic New Mexico’. Wherever you go in New Mexico, the Spanish influence is apparent. The most obvious legacy is the large number of beautiful adobe mission churches, of which the oldest is variously said to be San Miguel in Socorro (built between 1615 and 1626, but currently closed for restoration following major water damage) or another San Miguel in Santa Fe (built between 1610 and 1628, thus started earlier but finished later). Very many place names too point to the Hispanic influence: Santa Fe (the city of the Holy Faith), Albuquerque (named for the Spanish Duke de Alburquerque) and smaller places like Los Cerillos, Las Trampas, Quemado – there is even a Madrid! In particular the Roman Catholic religion, introduced by the Spanish, has had a lasting influence on the state. We were fascinated by the way in which the native pueblo churches had combined their own traditional faith with the ‘new’ one, with equal emphasis placed on their adopted saint (San Geronimo in Taos, San Esteban in Acoma) and on the natural spirits that have shaped their lives for centuries. Local crafts owe much to this Catholic tradition, such as the brightly painted pictures (santos) and carvings (bultos) of saints that you’ll see not only in churches but in galleries, restaurants and homes. And parts of the state seemed to us to be dual language, with signs commonly in both English and Spanish, and the latter language heard regularly on the streets. Sometimes you might even fancy yourself in Central, rather than North, America!

Wild West New Mexico

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Sign in Truth or Consequences

Having grown up in an era when both films and TV programmes set in the ‘Wild West’ were popular (‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Alias Smith and Jones’. ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, and many more) we were equally fascinated by ‘Wild West New Mexico’. Anyone who has ever watched a western has seen New Mexico, or something very like it. Vast plains, huge skies, and more cattle than people – it is not difficult to imagine a cowboy galloping over the nearest ridge, and indeed many locals still dress the part. And wherever you go, the ghosts of outlaws past will follow you, most notably Billy the Kid. We ‘met’ Billy in so many places. In Silver City, where he came aged just 13 and got into trouble from the start. In Mesilla, where he was tried and condemned to be hung in the courthouse, now (inevitably) a ‘Billy the Kid’ gift-shop. In historic Lincoln, where he escaped from another courthouse in a shoot-out. And in Fort Sumner, where he was shot by Pat Garrett and buried alongside a couple of his pals. But Billy of course was not the only outlaw. Perhaps our most memorable encounter with the ghosts of the Wild West was in Cimarron, in the bar of the St James Hotel, whose ceiling still bears the bullet holes of the many gun-fights that took place here, and whose halls are said to be still haunted by some of the victims.

Space Age New Mexico

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The Very Large Array

Bringing the story right up to date, there is ‘Space Age New Mexico’, because the state's wide open spaces didn’t just suit cowboys – they are also ideal for certain sorts of experiments, especially those involving space flight or missiles. The barren expanses at its heart, around White Sands, have seen first-hand the power of science, both for good and for bad. It is here, at the Trinity Site, that the world’s first atom bomb was detonated on 16th July 1945. Trinity is only open to the public on a couple of days a year, and I’m not sure that we would have visited even if one of these dates coincided with our trip, but we did see one of the ‘souvenirs’ of that deadly experiment, the fragment from Jumbo, the vessel built to contain the explosion, which is now on display near the Plaza in Socorro. On a more positive note, the amazing Very Large Array provided one of the most interesting mornings of our trip. Here, in the middle of the flat Plains of San Augustin, scientists study the heavens with the help of these huge radio telescopes. And if you’re interested in man’s adventures in space, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo is the place to go. I loved getting the opportunity to sit in the cramped confines of a Mercury capsule (used in the first US spaceflight missions), and to ‘land’ the space shuttle on their simulator.

And maybe it isn’t just human scientists who find New Mexico ideal for their experiments?! There are many who remain convinced that aliens crashed on a ranch just outside Roswell in 1947, and the town has traded on the incident ever since. Whether you believe it or not, this is an opportunity to see tacky Americana at its most glorious, with ‘aliens’ on every street corner and a whole museum devoted to proving the truth of the story.

Natural New Mexico

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Fall colours in Picuris Pueblo

But the setting for all these stories, both factual and fictional, is as important as the tales themselves – ‘Natural New Mexico’. For while humans have made their mark on New Mexico over the centuries, and in a number of ways, it remains for the most part a state of wide open spaces and natural wonders. You can peer down into the depths of 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, travel mountain passes well over 8,000 feet above sea level, wander among the remarkable rock formations of the City of Rocks or the hauntingly pale dunes of the White Sands. Travelling in September and October, we were treated to displays of golden aspens and of flowers in all hues. Nearly half the state’s annual rainfall comes during July and August, and the dry dusty plains respond with a wonderful show. At lower elevations I never tired of seeing the yellows, mauves and reds alongside the road and spreading beyond in the pastures on either side. And at higher ones the vistas were often of waves of dark green and gold, the conifers and late-dropping trees setting off the early-turning aspens to best advantage.

Travelling to New Mexico

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El Paso Airport

It may perhaps seem a little odd that for a holiday spent touring New Mexico we should fly to Texas, but for a couple of reasons El Paso made real sense as an entry point. Firstly flights there from London were just a little cheaper than to Albuquerque, the only obvious alternative. But secondly, and more importantly, it suited my route planning (and route planning for these trips is always largely my responsibility!) to start in the south of the state. I knew that we would want to spend several nights in Santa Fe, and probably only one in most other places en route, so it made sense to make Santa Fe roughly the mid-point of our tour, which would have been very difficult had we landed in Albuquerque.

So El Paso it was. We flew with United, changing in Chicago where we had a five hour layover. That seemed quite long, but once we’d spent over an hour in the queue at Immigration, transferred to another terminal, and then spent a further hour in the queue to go through security, we were glad of the slack time in the scheduling. When we finally landed at El Paso it was 10.20 pm local time, 5.20 am London time, so we were pretty tired. But El Paso is a small and rather charming airport, easy to navigate and to face even when travel-weary. Furthermore we had booked a room for that night at the airport’s Microtel, an easy stagger from the terminal (less than five minutes’ walk across the car park area). Within 40 minutes of touchdown on the runway we were in our room – and there can’t be many airports where you can manage that!

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Our car number plate

We had arranged car hire for our trip with Hertz who have a base at El Paso Airport, so the next morning we walked back across to the terminal to collect our vehicle. We had to do some negotiation on arrival however as we weren’t at all happy with the car they’d allocated us, a Nissan Cube (ugly thing, with poor rear visibility and all the luggage on display however you stowed it, so not ideal for touring). But a quick discussion with a helpful lady on the counter and we were upgraded from compact to mid-size at no extra charge, with the only catch that we had to wait 15 minutes while the Mazda was brought over from another nearby lot – a small price to pay for what proved to be a comfortable and easy to drive car.

And I would defy anyone to tour New Mexico properly without the benefit of a car, except perhaps a very fit cyclist. Although there’s lots to see and do, places can be quite far apart and no public transport serves many of the most scenic routes, although in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque there are buses.

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Our hire car on the High Road to Taos

Plus, driving here is a real pleasure. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, as Chris nobly did all the driving, waving aside my rather half-hearted offers to help! But one reason for that refusal of help was the fact that with just one or two exceptions, the roads were quiet and the driving pretty easy. We covered just under 2,000 miles in the two and a half weeks of our trip, and that felt very manageable and undemanding. Our longest drive was about 220 miles, but most days we did around 100 and on a few very little at all.

So we have our car – it is time to hit the road!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:02 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes road_trip culture history usa science space new_mexico customs Comments (6)

A place prepared

New Mexico day five


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

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Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

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At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

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Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

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View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

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In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

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A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

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Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

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Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

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Building work

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Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

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Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

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Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

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Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

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Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

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Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

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San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

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San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

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At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

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Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

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Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (5)

History and art in Taos

New Mexico day eleven


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Chris in the breakfast room

Our B&B in Taos, La Doña Luz, fell short of some of the other bed & breakfast places we’ve been to in the US in one respect – the breakfast part. There was absolutely nothing wrong with what we got, but it was self-service from a counter and didn’t offer much more than we had got in some of the chain hotels where we stayed on the trip, except that the waffles were made for us by the young girl in attendance.

However, it was served in a lovely room hung with some of the owner’s eclectic collection of art works, and there was fresh fruit to go with the waffles (though I discovered you had to move quickly to get some, as there wasn’t quite enough, unfortunately, to go around all the guests).

Taos Pueblo

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North House (Hlauuma), Taos Pueblo

After breakfast we picked up our car from its spot at the end of the road and drove the short distance north of town to Taos Pueblo. This is an incredible place, and a must-see when you are in the area in my opinion. It’s the only living Native American community to have been designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. Its multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years and are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA.

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Walking tour map - Taos Pueblo

We arrived soon after nine to find the pueblo just opening for business. We were directed to a parking place and went to pay our admission fee at the ticket booth to the left of the gate. When we visited (October 2011) the fee was $10 for adults, and we also paid a further $6 each to use our cameras. Unlike at Acoma, you can take video here as well as still images, but you have to pay for each camera you plan to use, including your mobile phone if using the camera on it. I decided one was enough!

Also unlike Acoma, you are free to wander around on your own, following the map you’ll be given when you pay, although some areas are off-limits to tourists. But we decided to take a tour (free, although tips are of course welcome) and were very pleased that we had done so. Our young guide was excellent and shared more about the culture here than we had learned at Acoma, although she was still a little guarded on the subject of traditional beliefs. We heard lots about the way of life here in the Pueblo and elsewhere on Taos tribal lands, and about her own life growing up here. A university student, she was paying her way through college by working here as a guide over the weekends and in college holidays, but it was clear from how she spoke about her home that she also sees this work as her way of giving something back to the community – she would not dream of taking work outside the Pueblo.

She also told us something about her hopes for the future, about the balance between traditional and Catholic beliefs, and about relationships (and marriages) between different tribes. I really felt I got to know so much more about the people here than at Acoma and the place came alive for me as a consequence, rather than seeming to be mainly a historic curiosity.

San Geronimo Church

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San Geronimo

Our tour of Taos Pueblo started here, at the church that sits in the heart of the village. And isn’t it a stunner, with that combination of adobe and white against the blue sky? I could have photographed it for hours! Only the exterior though, as photographing the interior is strictly forbidden.

This church, the third in the pueblo to be dedicated to Saint Jerome (I have also read four in some sources), was built in 1850 to replace the previous church which was destroyed by the U.S. Army in 1847 in the War with Mexico. That church, whose evocative ruins still stand near the entrance to the Pueblo, was first built in 1619, but destroyed in the Spanish Revolt of 1680 and rebuilt on the same site.

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San Geronimo

St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo and a santo of him can be seen in the church, as well as one of the Virgin. It is the custom to change the clothing of the santos several times a year, according to the seasons and festivals. When we were there Mary was dressed in a gold-coloured cloth, for the autumn and harvest.

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San Geronimo

The church has the traditional heavy viga ceiling and is very much in use as a place of worship. About 90% of the Pueblo Indians describe themselves as Catholic, although the majority of these practise that religion alongside their traditional beliefs. Our young guide explained that they saw no contradiction in doing so and that the two belief systems were quite complimentary in their eyes.

The old church and cemetery

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Old church and cemetery

As the Spanish conquered the area now known as New Mexico, they brought with them their religion, which they imposed on the defeated inhabitants. Thus the first Spanish-Franciscan mission was built here in Taos Pueblo by Spanish priests using Indian labour in about 1619, and was dedicated to St. Jerome – San Geronimo. It did not last long. Worsening relations between conquerors and conquered gave rise to the Pueblo Revolt. This uprising was co-ordinated by several different pueblo communities, through a series of secret meetings held here at Taos Pueblo and covert communications between tribes. In August 1680 more than 8,000 Pueblo warriors attacked a number of Spanish settlements, killing 21 Franciscan friars and over other 400 Spaniards, and they drove around 1,000 settlers out of the region. During this uprising, the San Geronimo church at the pueblo was also destroyed. Some accounts also tell of a previous uprising, in 1637, when an even earlier church was destroyed, but the official Taos Pueblo website only mentions the 1680 one.

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The old church

Twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish re-colonized the province. There were on-going skirmishes with the inhabitants of Taos Pueblo, who were repeatedly attacked for refusing to provide corn for starving settlers in Santa Fe. However by 1706 things had settled down enough for the San Geronimo Mission to be rebuilt. This is the church whose ruins can be seen here today. So why is it too now in ruins? We have another revolt to blame for that – one which our young guide talked about still with bitterness in her voice.

In 1846 the United States conquered this territory, which at that point still formed part of Mexico, and installed a governor, Charles Bent. The Mexican loyalists plotted to oust the conquerors, and enlisted the support of pueblo peoples. In early 1847 the uprising began, centred on Taos and led by a Mexican, Pablo Montoya, and a Taos Puebloan, Tomas Romero. The latter led a group of Native Americans who broke into the home of Governor Bent, shot and scalped him in front of his family. Further attacks followed in the area, and the US army retaliated. They moved up from Santa Fe and pushed the insurgents back as far as Taos Pueblo, where they barricaded themselves into the church, thinking that its thick adobe walls would offer sufficient protection. During the battle that followed however, the US military breached a wall of the church and fired cannons into it, killing about 150 rebels and wounding many more. As our guide told it, women and children were also taking shelter there and were killed in the fighting, although other accounts that I’ve read don’t mention this. The US also captured 400 more men, while only seven of their own troops died in the battle. The next day they tried some of these captives in a very one-sided trial and hung those convicted of murder and treason on the Taos Plaza. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fighting, it seems clear there was some questionable use of violence of both sides.

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The old church bell-tower

The ruined bell tower and walls of the church still stand, as a reminder of that bloody battle, and around them lies the burial ground that holds the remains of those died in it. It is thought in fact that this cemetery dates right back to the very first church, and as at Acoma it holds several layers of graves. Unlike Acoma, there are no restrictions on photographing the cemetery, but you are not allowed to enter it, nor to climb on the crumbling walls that surround it. Our guide explained that even the Pueblo residents only enter twice a year – once on the Day of the Dead, and once on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. On these occasions they go to visit the grave, not to mourn but to celebrate a life well lived.

Multi-storey living

The most distinctive structures in Taos Pueblo, and the ones you will see in every photo, are the multi-storied, multi-home North House (Hlauuma in the native Tiwa) and South House (Hlaukwima). These are considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the USA and are really an early example of an apartment block, though built in this manner as a form of defence.

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The North House (Hlauuma)

The North House consist of five storeys and the South of four. They are built entirely of adobe, with walls several feet thick in places. These walls are regularly re-plastered with mud to keep the structure sound. Originally, the buildings had no doors or windows and entry could be gained only from the top of the buildings by means of ladders, but gradually openings have been added over time as the need for defence declined and the need to have easier access took over.

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The North House

The UNESCO World Heritage listing states that the:
‘Pueblo de Taos is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one which, because of the living culture of its community, has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day. ... The multi-tiered adobe dwellings still retain their original form and outline, but details have changed. Doors, which traditionally were mostly used to interconnect rooms, are now common as exterior access to the ground floors and to the roof tops on upper stories. Windows, which traditionally were small and incorporated into walls very sparingly, are now common features. The proliferation of doors and windows through time at Taos reflects the acculturation of European traits and the relaxing of needs for defensive structures. In addition to ovens located outdoors, fireplaces have been built inside the living quarters.’

My photos are all of the North House, by the way, because the South was in shade and harder to capture.

Red Willow Creek

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Red Willow Creek

A small stream runs through the heart of the Pueblo, known variously as Red Willow Creek or Rio Pueblo de Taos. The stream begins high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, at the tribe’s sacred lake, Blue Lake. A traditional belief among the Taos Pueblo people is that their ancestors originated from the waters of this lake. The land that surrounds it had been taken from them to create the Carson National Forest early in the 20th century but was restored to them by President Nixon in 1970. They regard this restoration as the most important event in their recent history, so clearly Nixon got some things right!

It flows gently through the Pueblo, providing the water essential for life here – for drinking, cooking, bathing and for religious activities. Even in the depths of winter, which is harsh at this height above sea level, it never completely freezes. Because the water is the main source of drinking water visitors are asked not to paddle in it – but clearly nobody told the dog in my photo that the stream was off limits!

Pueblo homes

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A pueblo street

As well as the multi-storey homes of the two main houses, there are several streets of smaller individual ones. These are also built from adobe, in the traditional style. Many still have mica windows instead of glass, as you can see in some of my photos. In some you can also clearly see the viga beams that support the roof jutting out through the adobe wall.

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Traditional ladders

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Mica window, and chillies drying

Although all these houses are owned and cared for by a Pueblo family, only a few are inhabited full-time, with most being used more as holiday homes for festivals and special family occasions. The small number who do live here permanently live as their ancestors would have done, without electricity or plumbing. Those that live elsewhere will have ‘all mod cons’ in those properties. The rationale for not doing so here is to preserve a traditional way of life in this sacred spot, not through a more general aversion to modernisation such as that practiced, for instance, by religious groups such as the Amish.

Traditional ovens

After our visit to Acoma we were quick to recognise these ovens shaped like beehives which sit outside most homes here too.

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House with horno

Known as horno, they were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors – so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked.

Traditional crafts

Several of the homes in the Pueblo have been adapted to serve as small shops, selling a variety of traditional crafts. Even though we didn’t especially want to buy anything we did go inside a few for the opportunity to see inside the ancient dwellings.

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Pueblo shops

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Outside the Morning Talk shop

We particularly liked the Morning Talk shop, which had an interesting mix of pottery, drums, dream-catchers, jewellery and more. And I also enjoyed talking to the owner of the Summer Rain Gift Shop where the jewellery looked especially good. We didn’t buy anything at the Pueblo (I was sort-of all shopped out at this point) but I was tempted by the ‘smudges’ – small bundles of cedar and sage bound with grasses that are traditionally burned in ceremonial cleansings. They have a lovely scent and would be wonderful to toss on a fire at Christmas, or simply to leave in a bowl like pot-pourri. I did afterwards rather regret not buying a couple, especially as they only cost a few dollars.

La Hacienda de los Martinez

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La Hacienda de los Martinez

I had read about another out of town sight that sounded interesting, La Hacienda de los Martinez, so before returning our car to its parking place we detoured to visit it. This is an historic house from the late Spanish Colonial period, dating from 1804, and was the home of Severino Matinez and his wife Maria who raised six children here. Their eldest son was Padre Antonio Martinez, a forward-thinking priest and educationalist who argued for Native education, founded the town’s first newspaper, and resisted the attempts of Bishop Lamy to enforce Western European principles on Hispanic New Mexicans.

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At the hacienda

Touring the hacienda’s twenty one rooms is said to ‘provide the visitor with a rare glimpse of the rugged frontier life and times of the early 1800s’. Note I say ‘is said …’ – on arriving here we found that contrary to the information in our Moon Handbook it was closed on a Sunday morning. And although we considered returning later in the day, as it turned out we found more than enough to occupy us in the centre of town and never did so. I had to be content with a few photos of the exterior and surroundings, before we drove back into the centre to park and look for a late-morning coffee.

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In the grounds of the hacienda

World Cup Coffee

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Display in World Cup Coffee

You couldn’t get a better location in Taos than this for a friendly local coffee shop, and it would be hard to find a better selection of coffee drinks too, so the only thing this place really lacks is space. There are just a few seats on a bench outside, and a few more at a counter inside, and if we hadn’t been able to secure one of the latter we would have had to opt for ‘coffee to go’ – although with the Plaza just a few steps away that wouldn’t have been too bad an option. But we managed to grab a couple of those inside seats and enjoyed a relaxing brew – an iced latte for me and a cappuccino for Chris – while watching the world go by.

The Kit Carson House

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The Kit Carson House

We hadn’t been able to go inside the Hacienda de los Martinez, but in town there was an historic house that was open on a Sunday morning, the Kit Carson House. I confess that I didn’t know a lot about Kit Carson before visiting his house, and our motivation for doing so was not so much to find out more about him as to have an opportunity to see inside a historic Taos home, but we did also learn quite a bit, and enjoyed the various displays here.

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In the Kit Carson House

Our visit started with a video about Carson’s life, which I thought was well-made and carried just the right amount of information. In fact, this video was described as ‘award winning’ (I don’t know what award!) and was made for the History Channel, so was of broadcast quality. From it we learned that Carson lived in this house for 25 years, having bought it as a wedding present for his bride, Josefa Jaramillo. His work as an army scout, Indian Agent and army officer kept him away from home a lot of the time – the period of time that Kit he actually lived in this house was during the time he served as Ute Indian Agent from January 1854, to June 1861, when he had his Agency headquarters in Taos. Meanwhile Josefa raised the family here – seven children born to her and Carson, and several more Indian children adopted by them after he had freed them from captors.

Carson was a member of the Masons, and it is they who purchased the by-then dilapidated house in the early part of the twentieth century, restored it and now open it as a public attraction. This gives the presentation of the family history a slight slant perhaps, as naturally they put more emphasis on Carson’s activities as Mason than you might expect, but on the whole I thought it provided an interesting insight into life in a frontier town in the mid nineteenth century.

I especially liked seeing the kitchen, which is sparsely furnished with objects of the period. Each room had an informative notice detailing how it would have been used in Kit and Josefa’s time here, and inviting visitors to imagine the activity around them – with so many children, and regular visits from many of the important men of those times (including Generals and Congressmen), it must have been a lively household.

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In the kitchen of the Kit Carson House

Doc Martin's

When we left the Kit Carson House we were ready for lunch and decided on a return to the Taos Inn where we had eaten last night, mainly because we liked the look of the little patio at the front of the building.

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Grilled apple & blue cheese salad

But we discovered that only the limited bistro menu was being served here, and as we were looking for salads which only appeared on the main brunch menu, we were directed to the restaurant, Doc Martin’s. This is quite a formal place by Taos standards, and more so than we would usually choose for lunch, but we’d been on the go all morning and were ready for the break it offered.

The brunch menu was extensive and with larger appetites I think we’d have found it difficult to choose. But we rarely eat a large lunch, so we focused on the salads. I opted for the grilled apple and blue cheese salad, which was a good plateful and pretty tasty, while Chris chose the Cobb salad, which was OK though nothing special.

Taos gallery hopping

Some of our greatest day-time pleasure in the town of Taos itself was in simply strolling the streets, people-watching in the Plaza, and visiting some of the numerous shops and galleries.

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A Taos weaver

Of the latter, the one that impressed us the most was Lenny Foster’s Living Light Studio. Lenny is an incredible photographer (you can see for yourself on his website) and we were lucky enough to meet him in the gallery and enjoy a long chat – about his work, his general approach to photography and the possibility of him exhibiting in London one day (which we strongly encouraged, although I am not sure that he has yet done so).

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Lenny's calendar

I especially liked his images of New Mexico, while both of us were moved by his ‘Healing Hands’ series. After our chat he kindly gave us a copy of his 2011 calendar, which, although it had only a few months left to run, made a lovely memento of our visit. Sadly however, the prints themselves were a little outside our budget for holiday souvenirs.

In the Plaza

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Plaza bench

We spent the last part of the afternoon in and around the Plaza. Perhaps surprisingly, it would be easy to drive straight through Taos and miss this, as it is tucked away to the west of the main north-south artery, Paseo Del Pueblo. But to do so would be a real shame. The Plaza was intended by the Spanish settlers who created Taos to be the heart of their community, and such it remains today.

Guadalupe Plaza, to give it its proper name, is surrounded by shops and galleries, with its south side dominated by the historic Hotel la Fonda de Taos. We popped in here briefly hoping to see the collection of D H Lawrence’s so-called ‘Forbidden Art’ – paintings by the author which were considered obscene and banned in England, and under threat of destruction until Lawrence removed them from the country and brought them here to New Mexico. Unfortunately a private function in the room where the paintings are displayed prevented us from seeing them, but it was worth going in to see this Taos landmark.

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Statue of Martinez

In the centre of the Plaza is a gazebo which was donated to the town by heiress and long-time resident Mabel Dodge Luhan, a famous patroness of the arts scene here (it was she who encouraged Lawrence to move here). On its south side, in front of La Fonda, is a large bronze statue of local hero Padre Antonio José Martinez, the son of Severino Matinez whose hacienda we had been unable to tour this morning.

Much of the Plaza was taken up by a craft fair (I don’t know if that’s usual at the weekend or if it was a special occasion). We enjoyed browsing the stalls, even though we didn’t buy anything here. But we did shop for ice creams in a shop just next to La Fonda (part of the same building, in fact) which we enjoyed sitting on one of the many benches in the Plaza while people-watching.

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Plaza craft stall

In the south east corner, we found an interesting shop selling Native American crafts, clothing etc. which was well worth a browse. And down the little alley to the right of this we discovered a surprisingly good view of the hills that surround the town.

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The mountains around Taos

Eske's Brew Pub

Eske’s came well recommended by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, and was also just across the parking lot from our bed and breakfast, so it was a natural choice for an evening out, and a great one! This is a casual spot that seemed popular with locals as well as visitors to Taos, and with good reason, as both food and beer were very good. There are a couple of linked rooms, and the only tables available when we arrived were in the first room, so that’s where we settled. There are also tables outside, but October evenings in Taos are too chilly for us to have contemplated that option!

We shared some good hot salsa and chips to start with, while we sampled our first beer (the Artist Ale for both of us) and perused the menu. The beer was fresh-tasting and went well with the spicy flavour – a good meal accompaniment. From the tempting menu I chose the Green Chilli Burrito, which was stuffed with beans and cheese and smothered with a vegetable and green chilli stew – yummy! Chris was pleased to see a German favourite so went for the bratwurst with sauerkraut and mash, which he also really enjoyed.

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My burrito, and Chris's Bratwurst with Sauerkraut

We had no room for dessert, but of course hung around to sample more of their beers. After a taster of the Green Chilli Lager I decided that this was surprisingly good, so had a full one – and another! Meanwhile Chris was drinking, and enjoying, the Seco Stout – described as ‘Irish style’. A super evening to end our too-brief stay in Taos.

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Eske's at night

Posted by ToonSarah 04:11 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art culture history statue restaurants houses museum photography new_mexico taos customs Comments (5)

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