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‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (13)

More tales from Bukhara

Uzbekistan day four continued


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Carpet shop near Lyab-i-Hauz
- a reminder of Soviet times

I finished my previous post just as we arrived at the Lyab-i-Hauz during our tour of Bukhara. It was lunch-time, and as the meal wasn’t included in the tour, we split up to eat, or at least that was the plan. As it happened quite a few of us headed for the same restaurant, a chaikana on the north-western side of the pool. We found a table in the rather grandly decorated but cool interior, where air-conditioning providing welcome relief from the intense sun. We shared some salads, a basket full of great bread (both the flaky pastry and more usual varieties), sparkling water and Sprite.

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Our group in the restaurant

Khodja

We met up again with our guide by the statue of Khodja on the eastern side of the Lyab-i-Hauz. This bronze statue stands among the trees (so hard to photograph, or so I found) and depicts Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool who features in so many stories of this region, riding his donkey. The donkey’s ears are shiny where children have clutched them as they scramble up to ‘ride’ with Khodja.

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Statue of Khodja, Lyab-i-Hauz

Our guide Marat loved to tell us Khodja stories to while away the long bus journeys between the Silk Road cities. Here’s one I remember:

One day a man tried to steal Khodja’s donkey, but he threatened the thief: ‘If you steal my donkey, I’ll have to do what my father did when someone stole his.’ The thief was frightened and ran away. Some bystanders asked Khodja, ‘What did your father do when someone stole his donkey?’ And Khodja replied, ‘He walked home.’

And another:

Khodja borrowed a cauldron from his neighbour. When he didn't return it for a long time, the neighbour came to ask for its return. When Khodja handed him the cauldron, the neighbour noticed that there was a small pot in it. ‘What is this?’, he asked.

‘Congratulations neighbour, your cauldron gave birth to a baby pot,’ replied Khodja. The neighbour, incredulous but delighted, thanked Khodja and took his cauldron and the new little pot home. A few weeks later Khodja came to ask again if he might borrow the cauldron. The neighbour didn't hesitate to lend it, however, again Khodja failed to return it. The neighbour had no choice but to go asking for it again.

‘Khodja, have you finished with my cauldron?’

‘Ah neighbour,’ bemoaned Khodja, ‘I am afraid your cauldron is dead.’

‘But that's not possible, a cauldron cannot die!’, exclaimed the neighbour. But Khodja had his answer ready: ‘My friend, you can believe that a cauldron can give birth; why than can't you believe that it can also die?’

Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Last night Chris and I had seen the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha, which our guide now pointed out, telling us the story of the finance minister and his ungrateful wife. On the opposite side of Lyab-i-Hauz, a few years later, Nadir Divanbegi built a madrassah to complement the khanagha. Or so it appears, but our guide explained that this was not his original plan. This building was intended as a caravanserai, where trade would provide a good income for him. But soon after its completion the Khan was passing and commended the divanbegi on his great religious devotion, having taken it to be a madrassah. You didn’t argue with a khan, who was considered Allah’s representative, so the divanbegi had to change his plans and adjust the building to be used as a seminary, although without the usual accompanying mosque.

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Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Perhaps this story explains the dramatic departure from Islamic tradition in the use of images of living creatures in the decoration on its portal. Admittedly these can be taken as mythological beasts – they certainly don’t resemble any real birds – but even so they are an unusual sight, as are the white does clasped in their claws (these are not pigs by the way, despite a slight resemblance, as this would certainly be unacceptable on an Islamic building of any sort, let alone a religious one).

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On the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

As in so many of Uzbekistan’s former religious buildings this one is now devoted to the sale of handicrafts and souvenirs. We didn’t go inside but I imagine that they are of a similar quality to elsewhere. The main attraction for me was this striking façade with its total and flamboyant break with tradition.

Chor Minor

For our last sights of the afternoon we were back in the bus. We stopped first at the Chor Minor, one of Bukhara’s best known and most idiosyncratic sights, tucked away in its back streets east of Lyab-i-Hauz. I have seen it described as resembling an upside-down chair thrust deep into the ground!

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The Chor Minor

Chor Minor means four minarets, but to use that term for the four small turrets at the corners of this one-time madrassah gatehouse is perhaps stretching things. None of them has a gallery and they wouldn’t have been used to call anyone to prayer, being mainly decorative. I loved the way that, at first glance, they seem all the same, only for a closer look to reveal a host of difference in the decoration of each.

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The Chor Minor's minarets

Today very little remains of the 1870 madrassah to which this would once have given entry, but if you look either side of the building you can see still some remains. My photos were taken from the south side which would have been the madrassah’s courtyard.

This must in its day have been quite a grand building, with a mosque and pool incorporated, and its seclusion in these sleepy back streets really emphasises how its fortunes have changed. It is unique among all the buildings of Uzbekistan, although it was possibly inspired by the Char Minar Mosque in Hyderabad, where its patron, the merchant Khalif Niyazkul, is thought to have travelled.

Sitorai Makhi Khosa

We drove north a little way out of the old town into a more rural area to visit our final sight. This palace, the Summer Residence of the Emir, was built by the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan, who had close links to Russia, making frequent visits to St Petersburg and living an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. In some ways he epitomised this period of 20th century history in the region, as the modern world collided with the medieval and trying to balance the two worlds he straddled. The architectural style of his palace reflects this – a weird mix between traditional Islamic influences and the tastes he had acquired from his visits to the great cities of Russia. He employed Russian architects to design the facades and external structures, while local artisans decorated the inside. The fine line between art and kitsch was often blurred as these artists competed to present the best of their cultural traditions.

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The entrance to Sitorai Makhi Khosa

The first thing that struck me after being in Uzbekistan just for a couple of days, growing used to the favoured blues, turquoises and jade colours of the tile-work, was the shock of the deep red majolica on the entrance portal here. Passing through here we came to the courtyard of the main palace building.

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Main courtyard

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Traditional Uzbek cradle

Part of the palace houses a museum of applied art. This was very interesting to visit, both for the artefacts it houses and the building itself.

The former include an excellent example of the traditional Uzbek cradle. We were told that these are still in use and assured that they are both practical and cause no discomfort to the baby, but they seem strange to western eyes. The baby is tightly bound and carefully positioned above a hole in the cradle’s base, below which a small terracotta receptacle (differently shaped for a boy or a girl) catches what in the west a nappy would absorb.

The decoration of some of the rooms in palace is striking, to say the least, not least the ganch and mirror-encrusted White Hall. It is lit by a huge chandelier imported from Poland; the door locks and door handles came from England and most of the furniture from Russia. The mirrors are of Venetian glass and the tiles for fireplaces were brought from Germany.

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The White Hall

Another room had coloured skylights which lit it up almost like a disco.

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Coloured skylights

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Decoration in the guest quarters

Outside we had a short stroll in the grounds. On this hot summer’s day the temperature here was a welcome few degrees lower and there was more breeze than in the city, so it made a pleasant break.

We saw (but I mysteriously failed to photograph!) the harem, and by it a pool where the concubines would swim, naked of course. A nearby platform apparently allowed the emir to watch this spectacle, and to indicate which one he wished to have sent to his chambers by tossing her an apple. The chosen girl would then be washed in donkey’s milk (one of the emir’s eccentricities!) and delivered to his bedroom.

We also went into a small octagonal building, used to accommodate guests, which now houses a small collection of traditional costumes, with beautifully embroidered robes – one completely covered in gold, and another woman’s robe with the sleeves sewn together as a sign that she was married.

Silk Road Spices Café

The Sitorai Makhi Khosa was the last sight on our tour. It was now mid-afternoon and the bus turned back towards the city and our hotel. On this very hot day some siesta time would have made sense, but you know what they say about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’! We would be leaving Bukhara tomorrow and it seemed to me and Chris that we should make the most of our short time here, so we asked to be dropped off in the centre. My Virtual Tourist friend Ingrid, who had been in Bukhara the previous year, had recommended a café which I was keen to check out – the Silk Road Spices Café, run by the same family who own the spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron (Jewellers' Trading Dome) where we’d earlier bought the six-spice tea. We found it to be a real gem, which definitely lived up to the expectations Ingrid had raised!

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At the Silk Road Spices Café

As soon as we stepped into the cool shady courtyard we knew we were in for a treat. We sat on cushioned benches at one of the long wooden tables and immediately a friendly waitress came to ask if we’d like the fans turned on (‘yes please!!’) and give us the small menu. The choice of drinks wasn’t huge but everything was excellent. Chris had the cardamom coffee while I chose ginger tea. Our waitress explained that the latter is made with several spices, including star anise, black and white pepper, and would be quite hot – sounded good to me, and was! With our drinks we were served a selection of sweetmeats: halva, raisins and nuts.

The family who run the café have been involved in the spice trade for hundreds of years, so I couldn’t think of anywhere more appropriate to sample these drinks while on our Silk Road journey!

We had planned to walk around a bit more and take photos, but after a quick visit to the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon to buy a pair of the scissors we had seen earlier we walked slowly back to the hotel to relax in the shady courtyard and catch up with some of the others from our group over a cold drink.

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Relaxing in the courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

Last evening in Bukhara

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In the courtyard of the
Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai

For dinner this evening we decided to return to the restaurant on the north-western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz, where we had eaten such a good lunch. On the way we stopped off at the Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai near the Tok-i-Sarrafon, as we’d spotted a notice announcing that it was the centre for an organisation called the Development of Creative Photography. As keen photographers we couldn’t resist going inside to check it out and found it was well worth the visit. We met this local man in the courtyard who greeted us and agreed to pose for photos - even though he doesn't look super happy about it in this one!

Inside there was an interesting exhibition of images by local (I assume) photographers, most of a very high standard. It was wonderful to see Bukhara and the surrounding region through their eyes. Some of the best were of local people, reflecting what we had discovered for ourselves – a genuine sense of interest in others that pervades the culture here and an openness of expression echoing the openness of their welcome. I was also particularly fascinated by some photos of Bukhara in the snow – visiting in July’s red-hot temperatures it was hard, even faced with these images, to conceive of what the street outside would look and feel like under those conditions.

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My 'Special dish'

From there we continued our walk to Lyab-i-Hauz and secured a table right by the water’s edge. We chose a couple of salads from a selection brought to our table (so no need to worry about any language difficulties) and the same excellent bread we had enjoyed at lunch time. Chris followed this with a dish of noodles topped with a fried egg (a little odd but he liked it) and I had what was called the ‘special dish’ – layers of meat (mutton), potato, tomatoes and onions cooked and served in the one pot. This was quite tasty and very filling. We washed our meal down with the usual cold local beers and took our time, enjoying the setting and watching all the activity around the pool.

The bonus was a sweet little kitten who stopped by to say hello, climbing up on the next-door table to pose for me!

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Little cat at dinner

After our meal I took a few more night shots on the walk back to the hotel where again we settled on the dais in the courtyard to enjoy a night-cap with some of the others. There was a power-cut in this part of town but the family who ran the hotel were clearly used to these and were quick to bring candles so we could continue to enjoy our final drink in Bukhara.

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Bukhara by night

Posted by ToonSarah 11:41 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged night food architecture mosque history palace restaurants cats spices uzbekistan bukhara Comments (9)

From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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 (11)

‘The spine of the earth is about to crumble’

Uzbekistan day eight


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The great dome of the Bibi Khanum northern mosque

Today was our last day in Uzbekistan, and like yesterday we had a morning sightseeing tour with the afternoon free for independent exploration. So after breakfast at the Zarina it was into the bus for the short drive to our first stop.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is not one mosque, but three: two fairly normal in size, and the third on a truly grandiose scale. This is Tamerlaine’s great work, his attempt to build a mosque larger and more splendid than the Muslim world had ever seen. But his ambitions here overstretched the capabilities of his craftsmen, and the mosque was doomed almost from the start, though not from want of effort. He employed the very best slaves and workers, imported 95 elephants from India to haul the wagons and, when he judged the portal too low, had it pulled down and ordered it to be rebuilt. He himself superintended the work, coming to the site each day in his litter, and arranging for meat to be thrown down to the men digging the foundations rather than have them stop working for a moment.

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The entrance portal

The result was a mosque of never-before seen proportions – a portal over 35 metres tall leads to a huge courtyard, which was originally surrounded by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. The main mosque on the eastern side has a portal of over 40 metres, and all was adorned with the most ornate tilework, carvings, gildings etc.

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In the main mosque

But this splendour wasn’t to last. Almost from the first day it was in use, the mosque began to crumble, putting worshippers in peril. No one seems to know for certain why this was – maybe the building was simply too ambitious for the technologies of the day. Whatever the reason, this is one ancient structure that has so far defied the attempts of modern builders to restore it properly. Thus when I went inside I was taken aback to see not the beautifully restored interior I’d come to expect by this point in our travels but a semi-ruin held together with great iron bolts. Weirdly though, this seemed to me to emphasise, even more than if it had been restored, the great scale of this monument to Tamerlaine’s ambitions.

Back outside in the courtyard we saw the huge marble Koran stand, designed to hold the Osman Koran we had seen on display in Tashkent.

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The Koran stand

An artist was painting quietly in the centre of the courtyard, his paintings arranged around the great marble Koran stand. These were mostly very detailed watercolours of some of the exquisite tilework on Samarkand’s mosques and other monuments. We watched him at work for a while, then checked out the paintings more carefully.

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Artist at work

The work was very fine, and the prices incredibly reasonable, so it was an easy decision to buy one, though a much harder one to choose which it should be. In the end we selected one that we liked, of an entrance surrounded by blue and green mosaic. For this original watercolour measuring about 15 by 20 cms we paid just $7 – what a bargain, and what a lovely souvenir of our visit to the mosque. It now hangs just by our front door and reminds me daily of the wonders of Uzbekistan’s architecture.

The Bazaar

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In Samarkand Bazaar

Next to the Bibi Khanum Mosque is a bazaar/market, and this provided us with complete contrast to, and respite from, Samarkand’s wealth of blue-tiled splendour. This isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a tourist attraction (though tourists do visit) but a real slice of the daily life of this city. People flock here to sell and buy local produce of all kinds – fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat and more.

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, we saw bread in a huge variety of designs – even some decorated with coloured sweets, intended for celebrations and parties. Bread, known as non, holds a special place in Uzbek society. Every region, and indeed every baker, has its own distinctive style, from the flaky pastry-like offerings we had enjoyed in Bukhara to the elaborately decorated loaves in the market here. Patterns are created by stamping the unbaked loaves (you can buy the stamps in many souvenir shops in Bukhara for instance) and the bread is then baked in a traditional tandoor oven – the loaves are slapped onto the walls of the oven, and when they drop off they are ready to eat.

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Decorated non

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Rounds of non

The loaf commands great respect. It should never be served or placed upside down on the table, and if dropped on the ground should be picked up and kissed. Traditionally, when a son left home to fight or to seek his fortune, he would take a bite from a loaf that would then be kept, hung on display in the house, to await his safe return.

Also on sale in the market we saw brooms, caps and other necessities, but it was fresh produce that dominated. There was a separate area for the sale of each, so we walked past stall after stall selling nothing but onions, potatoes, or heaps of fresh herbs. In the spice section we encountered the most enticing smells while in the sections for bread or dried fruits we were offered tempting samples.

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On sale in the market

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Traditional brooms

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, everywhere we wandered people were eager to greet us, to pose for photos and press treats upon us. In fact the willingness to pose became a bit of a problem – it made it hard for me to capture natural shots of people going about their daily business, not because they didn’t want me to, but because as soon as I raised the camera they would break off from their sale or their conversation to smile at me rather stiffly.

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Market traders

This is also a good place to observe local customs in dress and personal adornment. Gold teeth are very popular here – they are considered a sign of wealth and people will often have healthy teeth replaced if they can afford to, rather than wait for the teeth to go bad and give them problems later. Another striking difference from what we in the UK consider beautiful is the custom of the women of some ethnic groups to draw in the space between their eyebrows to create a single line, as the woman in my photograph on the left below has done.

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More market traders

For me it’s as much a part of travel to learn about these cultural differences as it is to see the great monuments, and a market is always a great place to start!

The Registan

But now it was time at last to properly explore the most famous sight in Samarkand (indeed, probably in Uzbekistan) – the Registan. So far we had simply looked at the three madrasahs which surround the square from the road, as it’s necessary to pay to enter the square, so today was our first close-up look.

Ulug Beg Madrassah

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

When Ulug Beg demolished the trading domes of his grandfather Tamerlane’s square, where previously public executions had taken place and royal decrees proclaimed, he changed the emphasis of the Registan from earthly power to heavenly. The first building erected here was the madrassah which bears his name. Built between 1417 and 1420, the Ulug Beg Madrassah has an ornate pishtak (portal) 35 metres high, which is decorated in rich blues and other colours – I found that there was more variety to the colours here in Samarkand than in the other cities on the Silk Road.

Above the main arch is a cluster of stars, reflecting its founder’s passion for astronomy. A Kulfic inscription reads:
This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens, and of such a weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble’.

Either side of this portal are minarets of roughly the same height and framing it perfectly.

The portal leads to a square courtyard lined with 50 hujira, the former students’ cells, which were (like the portal and minarets) largely restored in the mid 1990s and are decorated with the same rich colours – blue, green, gold. They are now, inevitably, devoted to craft and souvenir shops with products of varied quality. One sold cold drinks which were very welcome on this hot day.

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In the Ulug Beg Madrassah

In the NW corner of the courtyard an entrance passage lead us to a small mosque, now used as an art gallery. We enjoyed this – some of the items (both paintings and ceramics) were of a high quality and there was plenty of variety in the styles from traditional to very modern.

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Ulug Beg's classroom

A room opening off this one is known as Ulug Beg’s classroom. This apparently is where he would teach astronomy to the students of the madrassah, seated (unusually for that place and time) on a throne-like chair rather than the floor. The room was cordoned off, so we could peer inside but not enter (or so we were told – when we returned later we did see a small group in there but were prevented from entering ourselves – I suspect that money had changed hands!)

Shir Dor Madrassah

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The Shir Dor Madrassah

Two hundred years after the construction of the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the then ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, decided to complete the ensemble with two further buildings. The first of these to be completed was the Shir Dor Madrassah, which sits directly opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah and is almost a mirror image in terms of size and basic shape, though very different in its decoration.

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Dome and minaret, Shir Dor Madrassah

Interestingly, it obeys some of the rules of Islamic design, while flouting others. So despite being identical in size and shape to its older ‘reflection’, it follows Koranic law in avoiding symmetry. However, like the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara, this one deviates from normal Islamic practice in having representations of living creatures as part of its decoration. The two golden lions that give the madrassah its name (Shir Dor means ‘lion bearing’ chase two white does across the arch. Striped (and thus looking more like tigers), they each bear a sun on their backs, showing the influence of Zoroastrianism. For me this was one of my abiding images of Uzbekistan.

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Golden lions on the Shir Dor Madrassah

The inscription on this portal reads: ‘The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.’

Passing through it you find yourself in another hujira-lined courtyard, though less thoroughly restored than that in the Ulug Beg Madrassah. One of these cells houses a shop selling traditional Uzbek musical instruments where the owner had arranged a few rows of chairs in the small space. When enough visitors had gathered (and our group constituted ‘enough’) he gave a demonstration of the various traditional instruments in his collection. These ranged from some simple two stringed ones (which reminded me very much in sound and style of those we heard on a trip to China) to a banjo-style one, Uzbek tambourine and a flute.

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Traditional musical instrument demonstration

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Lute-style Uzbek instrument

Another cell was decorated as a typical Uzbek room with various pieces of furniture and some traditional costumes, supposedly in the style a newly-wed couple might adopt.

Tillya Kari Madrassah

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The Tillya Kari Madrassah

Ten years after the Shir Dor Madrassah was completed the third side of the Registan was filled in by the addition of the Tillya Kari Madrassah. This building is of a similar height but noticeably wider than its neighbours to either side; it was obviously thought more important to give the square harmony and balance than to follow normal practice in madrassah design. Thus the pishtak here is flanked by two-storied rows of hujira facing out onto the square in addition to the single story row which lines the interior courtyard.

Above the western side of this courtyard a stunningly turquoise dome announces the presence beneath it of the city’s main mosque (built to replace an already-ruined Bibi Khanum).

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The dome of the Tillya Kari Madrassah

The mosque has been restored and is full of the most ornate decoration, covered in the gold leaf that gives the madrassah its name (Tillya Kari = gilded). The ceiling is particularly striking – it is almost flat but the trompe l’oeil effect had me believing that I was looking up into a great dome. The mihrab is similarly gilded. A small museum set up in a side room of the mosque shows pieces of ceramic and terracotta from the restoration work and some fascinating ‘before and after’ photos.

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Inside the 'dome'

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The mihrab

Seeing more of the Registan

Our tour of the Registan brought to an end our official sightseeing in Samarkand. We were to leave this evening, but we had most of the afternoon free to explore a bit more, as well as fit in the somewhat less enjoyable task of packing to go home.

Our tickets for the Registan were good for the whole day so after popping back to Labi Gor for a spot of lunch we returned to revisit the Registan’s madrassahs and do a bit of souvenir shopping here.

But before we could start our shopping, we were approached by one of the security guards who offered (for a fee, naturally) to let us climb one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg Madrassah. I reluctantly decided that it would be more than I wanted to attempt in that heat, but Chris went ahead, paid the guard 3,000 som (with the transaction conducted in secret inside the building, as this was strictly speaking illegal) and made the climb. He told me it was dark and steep in places, but well worth the effort to get some great shots.

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A shot taken by Chris from the Ulug Beg minaret, and the minaret of the Shir Dor Madrassah, taken by me!

I waited in the square below, taking a few more photos. When Chris returned from his climb, we went back into the Ulug Beg Madrassah to browse the souvenir stalls in the hujira. While these can detract (and distract) considerably from the impact of the madrassah, we found them convenient we could browse several places before making our selections. We quickly found however that most of the items available were much the same from shop to shop, as were the prices. The standard items in almost every shop included suzanni (embroidery, usually wall-hangings or cushion covers), small pottery or ceramic pieces, silk scarves, knives, pictures, rugs, musical instruments, cheap beads etc.

We bought a small mosaic picture which reminded us of a typical Uzbek scene, a pre-restoration photo of the Tillya Kari Madrassah and a simple cushion cover for my mother-in-law, all of which we found in various hujira here.

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One of the shops, and the 'Museum of embroidery'

The best purchase for us though was another cushion cover which I found in a more substantial shop to the left of the entrance, which proclaimed itself a museum of embroidery. Here a young girl was working at a suzanne, and the quality of the work on display was very evidently superior to much that we’d seen elsewhere. Whereas the first cushion cover we bought had large areas of plain cotton unadorned by embroidery, the ones here were completely covered with beautifully worked silk stitches. You can see the one we chose in my photo below, still looking good all these years later on our sofa at home. Of course it wasn’t cheap, and unlike in the cells haggling was not really permitted, although when we asked if the price of $35 was negotiable (polite speak for ‘can we haggle’) we were told no – but he would let us have it for a discount at $30!

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Our cushion cover

A few more photos and it was time to go back to the hotel to pack. Our time in Samarkand, and in Uzbekistan, was coming to an end.

Dinner in a family home

As it was our last evening in Uzbekistan Marat had arranged for as many of us as wanted to (almost all of us) to have a final farewell dinner in a restaurant run in a family home in the city’s suburbs.

This was a lovely occasion. A long table was set for us on a raised balcony in the leafy courtyard of the house, laden with various salads, bread and fruit. After the salads we were served a selection of samsas, which are an Uzbek version of samosas, little pastries filled with meat or vegetables – I particularly liked the spinach one. These were followed by a soup with chickpeas and then a dish I hadn’t had elsewhere: a roll of a pasta-like dough filled with meat, a bit like a large manty. The meal ended with slices of juicy watermelon and cake. To drink we had bottled water and Uzbek wine – I chose some red but found it bizarrely sweet and not to my taste.

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Our group at dinner

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Me with Sue, Georgina and Els

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With Chris and Sue at dinner

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Farewell from our host

The one downside to this otherwise excellent meal was that we had to eat it rather quickly, as most of us had to leave on the long overnight drive to Tashkent to catch an early morning flight (which ironically was delayed!) But before we left Chris, who had somehow been nominated by the group, presented Marat with the tips we had collected for him, and gave a nice speech to thank him for being such an excellent guide and looking after us so well in his country and here in his home city.

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Farewell from Marat at Tashkent Airport

Dinner over we hurried to the bus which was waiting outside. Thanks to the last minute changes that had had to be made to our flights (from Uzbekistan Airways to Aeroflot) we faced an overnight drive to Tashkent for our 2.00 AM check-in. As it turned out, when we got to the airport our flight was delayed by some hours and for a while we weren’t even allowed to get off the bus as the terminal was crowded and check-in not yet open. Eventually however we were on our way on the first leg of the journey, to Moscow.

There the delay meant that we had only a very short time in which to make our transfer, so we were horrified to see the length of the queues to go through passport control (mandatory even though we weren’t actually entering the country!) Chris and I, with Sue and Georgina who were on the same flight to London, cajoled those in front of us into letting us jump the queue, only to find that our departure gate was the same one in which we had deplaned, and our plane the same one in which we had arrived from Tashkent! It was refuelling and there had been no chance therefore that we could have missed the flight despite those queues – if only someone had told us, or better still allowed us to simply wait in the lounge at the gate!

After this it was plain sailing (should that be ‘plane flying’?!) and we reached home safely, memory cards and brains overloaded with the rich blues of the architecture of the Silk Road.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:31 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged people food architecture mosque history market flight airport shopping museum music tour crafts uzbekistan samarkand madrassah Comments (8)

Around Santa Fe

New Mexico day eight


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

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In the courtyard of the Burro Alley Café

Although we had enjoyed yesterday’s breakfast at Café Pasqual’s, it was quite pricey, so we looked elsewhere today and found the Burro Alley Café, conveniently located a couple of blocks from our casita. Today it appears to have been turned into a burger restaurant, but back in 2011 it was a bakery and café, perfect for breakfast time. It had a really pretty courtyard opening onto the lane that gives it its name, with some small trees which would have given welcome shade in the heat of the day. This morning though we were happy to sit in the sun. The courtyard walls were adorned with brightly painted wooden shutters which were very photogenic and kept our cameras busy while we waited for our order.

The bakery produces excellent pastries served fresh for breakfast. Chris had a chocolate one while mine was a huge almond one, both served still slightly warm from the oven. With two glasses of orange juice, a cappuccino for Chris and a double espresso for me (hooray, real caffeine!) we paid roughly half the cost of previous day’s breakfast.

Bandelier National Monument

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Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument

One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe was to do a day trip to Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it on Virtual Tourist and elsewhere, and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting. Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier’s area. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting – Tsankawi. So that was our planned destination for today.

Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. The park’s website gives the following directions:
‘Coming from Santa Fe you'll turn from State Highway 502 to State Highway 4. Less than 1/4 of a mile past this turn Tsankawi will be located on the left hand side of the road. There are no signs for Tsankawi on Highway 4. If you get to the stoplight, you've gone too far. A large gravel parking area adjacent to the highway and a sign on the fence will indicate you've found the place.’

We followed these directions and had no problem finding the place, although even so we overshot the parking area and had to turn around.

There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid – they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all. We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it, but they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so, as it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.

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Near the start of the trail

Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term, as while it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going, mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high so as to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.

But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one, as the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember that they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.

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Ancient stairway, and the first of several ladders

The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point. The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs (rock carvings, as opposed to rock paintings which are known as pictographs).

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Petroglyph

We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.

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View from the mesa top

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Looking towards Los Alamos

Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors lived at Tsankawi, while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.

The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has revealed that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here, although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area, so we were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. The village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery, men carving tools from flint or skinning animals, children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.

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The site of the pueblo

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View from the pueblo

The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived, and that is where the trail now took us.

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Cavates

We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk, but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places the ancients called home.

The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them, and as several are right by the trail it is easy to enter them) you will see the ceilings and walls of some blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires, evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment.

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Ladder down from the mesa (you can see the ancient staircase beside it), and looking our from a cave

It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls, as even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.

A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any here, although we did spot some at several points along the trail.

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Petroglyphs

Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries – and no doubt by exposure to people too.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:
‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’

But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi – some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here and are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times (between the late 1800s to early 1900s). But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings. As always on National Park land (or indeed anywhere else of historic or natural significance) the rule must be, ‘look but don’t touch’!

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Lone tree at Tsankawi

Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs, and they were clearly moving faster than we were – especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm, so we quickened our pace to make sure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead. In the event, no storm ensued, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment.

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Storm clouds gathering

We ate a picnic lunch while planning where to go next. I realised that we were quite near Española and as I’d read about an interesting sight there, we drove over to check it out.

Chimayó Trading Post, Española

Española is an unprepossessing town a few miles north of Santa Fe, but is home to a little gem. To step inside the Chimayó Trading Post is to feel yourself transported back around a hundred years, when the pace of life was slower and nothing was ever thrown away, because it might just come in handy one day. And it seemed to me that many of those un-thrown away items have found their way here, to Española. The location of the Trading Post, marooned on a small triangle of land surrounded by busy roads, is somehow apt, because the place itself feels like a perfect slice of history marooned in the 21st century.

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The Chimayó Trading Post

And if you’re wondering why a trading post in Española should be named for a neighbouring town, well apparently the building was originally built in nearby Chimayó in 1926, but was moved to this location in the 1930s. Behind the store is the Trujillo House, dating from around the same time. Both it and the store have been in the Trujillo family ever since, as we were to find out when we met Leo Trujillo inside.

We parked our car next to the trading post – the only car in what was quite a large lot. After taking a few photos of the appealing exterior, we pushed open the door and entered. Immediately a wavering voice to our right announced, ‘This place is going to be in a book you know. But you’ve come too early; it won’t be out for a month.’

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Leo Trujillo

This was our introduction to Leo, the owner of the trading post. The trading post has, as I said, been in this location since the 1930s, and it seemed to us that Leo must have moved here then too, and possibly been sitting inside behind the counter where we met him ever since, as his age and that of many of the objects for sale here seemed about the same, and he seemed as much of a fixture as they did too. From old brass beds to china dogs, kachina dolls to copper kettles, wooden santos to porcelain tea-cups, National Geographic magazines from decades past to antique furniture – even a fairground horse! This place is a treasure trove / junk shop / total dump, depending on your perspective, and all three perspectives are valid in fact – it just depends what your eyes light on next. You could browse here for hours, if so inclined, or give it all a cursory glance and dismiss it as being too chaotic to face the search.

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Items for sale

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Our purchase

As we rootled around, and took our photos (having asked and been given permission), Leo continued to chat, even when we were more or less out of earshot. Mainly he talked about the objects, telling us to be sure to look in this corner or that. But he also mentioned that someone he referred to as ‘the girl’ had gone to buy his lunch, and that when she returned she would show us the house if we would like. We had no idea what that might involve but it sounded interesting, so we agreed.

Meanwhile we picked out a few (old) postcards, and as a memento of our visit I also chose one of the samplers of Native American weavings (they can be seen on the bed in my photo above, and ours now hangs in our kitchen). Leo carefully hand-wrote our receipt in lovely old copperplate, and threw in an extra postcard as a gift.

Just then ‘the girl’ returned with his lunch and agreed that she could indeed show us the house. So she led us to the back of the shop and through a half-open door into the house behind. This was Leo’s home, and had been so for many years. Our ‘tour guide’ explained as we went from room to room that Leo had worked as cabin crew for Pan Am, meeting his wife there, and settling down here in retirement. But before retiring their jobs had taken them all over the world, and wherever they went, they collected the things that most appealed to them, with the result that the house is as much a treasure trove of antiques as the trading post itself.

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Inside the house

So it was perhaps not surprising to see some things that would look more at home in an English country house or Chinese pagoda than in the western US. The kitchen too was fascinating, and more or less unchanged since the 1930s I suspect. We also enjoyed meeting Leo’s cat, named by his owner as Obama (because he’s ‘black and white, like the President’).

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Obama (taken by Chris)

Sadly I have learned from an interesting article I found online while updating my Virtual Tourist notes for this blog that Leo died in 2017 – his nephew Patrick now runs the store (see Chimayó Trading Post is Española landmark). So it seems that the house may well be very different these days (Patrick is planning to open it as an art centre where visitors can meet and buy directly from the artists) even though, thankfully, the store seems little changed.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to both ‘girl’ and Leo and left. Back outside we walked round to the side of the building to see the house’s exterior, and found that to be almost as fascinating a hotch-potch of items as the rooms inside – our eyes being particularly caught by an old street sign from Shoulder of Mutton Alley, a tiny side street in London’s docklands! We also learnt, from a sign on an outside wall, that this house, known as the Trujillo House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

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The Trujillo House

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Outside the Chimayó Trading Post

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Trujillo House detail

If you are interested there are lots more pictures of the house (including some interiors) and store on the Historical Marker Database website http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=34205], as well as one of Leo taken in 2010, not long before we met him.

Abiquiu

From Española we then drove further north up Highway 84, keen to see something of the landscape that had inspired Georgia O’Keefe after our visit to the museum yesterday. Unfortunately the weather chose that moment to turn rather overcast (maybe the clouds we had spotted from Tsankawi had finally driven away the blue sky), but nevertheless the landscape was very impressive and well worth the drive.

Once beyond Española the drive was pleasant enough, but it was after we passed the small town of Chili that it started to get more dramatic. At first the drama came from the contrast between the lush green valley of the Rio Chama and the more barren hills on either side. Then as we neared Abiquiu the rocky outcrops got more eye-catching and the colours richer, with reds and whites predominating.

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Cerro Pedernal from near Abiquiu Lake

The village of Abiquiu, home to O’Keeffe for more than 40 years, tends to keep itself to itself, and visitors are not really encouraged, much as is the case with many of the pueblos. You can tour the O’Keeffe house, but only with a prior reservation. We hadn’t planned that far ahead, so decided to give the village a miss and instead headed for Abiquiu Lake a few miles further up the road. This is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the approach road is a little less scenic than you might hope, as you pass a small power station beside the road, but once beyond this you can park up by the Visitor Centre and stroll up the slope behind it to the point known as the Overlook.

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Abiquiu Lake panorama

Here we had a magnificent view of the lake, and beyond it the distinctive flat-topped of Cerro Pedernal, the mountain that found its way into so many of O’Keeffe’s works. It was rather windy on this somewhat exposed ridge overlooking the water, but in better weather it would be a marvellous place for a picnic. The path leads past labelled examples of local shrubs and flowers, and I was able to identify a couple that I had been admiring during our travels round the state.

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Rock formations at Abiquiu Lake

Because of the wind and rather dull skies we didn't linger long here, and instead headed back to Santa Fe to relax in our casita for a short while before dinner.

Back to the Shed

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Chris at the Marble Brewery

We had reserved a table for dinner at the Shed, having been impressed when we ate lunch there on our first day in the city. Beforehand though we went to a bar we had spotted on the previous day, the Marble Brewery, which had a terrace overlooking the Plaza I say ‘had’, because like several of the bars and restaurants we enjoyed on this trip it has sadly since closed down). There were a number of ‘house beers’ to choose from, all available in three sizes (pint, 10 oz or 5 oz), making it easy to try several different beers in one visit, and the waiting staff were also happy to bring a small taster if you wanted to try one before committing. Chris favoured the India Pale Ale while I rather liked the Marble Red which had loads of flavour.

Then it was on to the Shed for our 8.30 reservation. We actually arrived a little early, but got seated by 8.20 or so. Our table was inside, in one of the smaller rooms off the main one, which was very cosy with only a few tables and less noisy than the larger space where we’d had lunch the previous day.

Having rather bigger appetites than we had come with yesterday lunch-time, we were keen to try the New Mexican dishes for which they have such a good name. So we shared some chips and salsa to start with, which Chris followed with the ‘layered enchiladas’ – two blue corn tortillas layered with cheddar cheese, onion, covered with red chilli and baked – a sort of New Mexican lasagne! I had the taco plate, made with two soft blue corn tortillas filled with cheddar cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce and a choice of meats – I opted for chicken (I could also have had ground beef) and green chilli (I could naturally also have had red). These were served with pinto beans and rice.

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Salsa, chips and a 'Shed Red'

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Taco plate

Both meals were excellent, but mine especially so – one of the best I had on the whole trip! To drink I had a ‘Shed Red’, a margarita with pomegranate juice, which was very good, without reaching the dizzy heights of my green chilli version of the previous evening. Chris had a beer, we shared a cheesecake for dessert, and found the bill to be really reasonable. I can see why this restaurant is a favourite with Santa Fe locals – it would be a regular haunt for us too if we lived here!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:16 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes people food road_trip restaurant culture history views shopping national_park new_mexico santa_fe Comments (4)

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