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The beauty of the spirit

Uzbekistan day four


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A traditional saying tells us that:
‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’
and another that:
‘In all other parts of the globe light descends upon the earth, from holy Bukhara it ascends’

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

Certainly, this is where Uzbekistan really came to life for me. In the ancient streets of Bukhara history weaves itself effortlessly around the present-day lives of its people. Here you get a real sense of continuity – the world of the Silk Road caravans isn’t preserved in the aspic of Khiva, nor tucked into islands among the modern-day bustle of Samarkand, but is an ever-present backdrop to daily life. To walk these streets, duck through the low arches of the caravanserai and trading domes, sit for a while over green tea by the pool of Lyab-i-Huaz; this is what people of this city have done for centuries.

We had a very full day here, sightseeing mainly with our group but also exploring a little bit on our own. I would have welcomed a second day, in order to go back to some of the most interesting sights and also simply to wander the streets or sit for a while in a Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana to absorb the special atmosphere which for me was one of the main highlights of Bukhara.

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The breakfast room at the Hotel Mosque Baland

Our day started with breakfast which was served in the same lovely room where we had enjoyed tea and cake the previous evening. Unfortunately, I was suffering a little with ‘Uzbek tummy’, although not as badly as some travelling companions had done or were doing. I was very careful about what I ate and felt well enough to go out on the tour. In fact, my stomach settled pretty quickly once we were out and about, and I snacked on some bread saved from breakfast an hour or so later!

Ismael Samani Mausoleum

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The Ishmail Somani Mausoleum from Pioneer Park

The first stop on our tour was at this striking small mausoleum set in a park to the west of the old town – striking because of its simplicity and perfect symmetry. Built at the beginning of the tenth century, it is the first known example of the use of fired bricks in Central Asia. And these bricks are used to stunning advantage, to produce eighteen different types of decorative effect. The patterns of light and shade thus created are the building’s only adornment – there is no sign here of the rich colourful tile-work seen elsewhere in the country.

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum

The design of the mausoleum is strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, a religion which was practiced in this part of the world before the days of Islam, and also by the mathematical discoveries of al-Khorezmi, whose story is told in my Khiva entry. Its almost two-metre thick walls form a 10.8 metre cube with identical sides, topped by a small dome. The cube is considered to symbolise the earth, and the dome heaven.

The mausoleum was built originally for Ismail Samani’s father but was used also for Samani himself and thus bears his name. A legend tells that he ruled for more than 40 years even after his death, and that even after his death he would still come to the aid of his people when they needed justice. They would come to his mausoleum, pray and put their statements on his tomb. The next day they would receive the answer and their problems would be solved. It seems some people must still believe this legend, because I saw several notes left on the tomb with a small sum of money.

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Inside the Ishmail Somani Mausoleum

Pioneer Park

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum lies in a small park, which we were told was the Pioneer Park but which present-day maps name as Samonids Recreation Park. We had a little time to wander around here. It was still quite early in the day, but it struck me that this is a good place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play.

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Boating in Pioneer Park

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The lake with city walls beyond

There were some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, which I thought unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK! Beyond these was the lake, popular with families and couples already out enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that we saw a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.

Bolo Hauz

From the Pioneer Park we drove the short distance to Bolo Hauz, after which our tour would be on foot for the rest of the morning.

Bolo Hauz, the ‘mosque near the pool’, is Bukhara’s Friday mosque and is again being used as such after the years of Soviet rule when it served as a workers’ club and a warehouse, having been restored to its former (1712) glory.

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

The exterior is adorned with a beautiful 12 metre high iwan, one of the highest in Central Asia. The shape of this echoes that of the mosque in the Ark which we were headed to after this, and was designed to form a beautiful reflection in the pool opposite, though on our visit this was sadly too murky to produce the desired effect. The colours are vibrant, and the many wooden pillars are all different, as is usual in Islamic architecture – only God is allowed the perfection that would be created by making them all alike.

The interior is relatively simple, as is usual in Suni mosques, with only the mihrab showing rich colours. Incidentally, the upper part of this mihrab is original. I loved the relative simplicity of the cobweb-like design on the ceiling.

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Inside Bolo Hauz Mosque

I was surprised, but pleased, to find that in Uzbekistan there seem to be no restrictions on entering practising mosques, providing you show respect and remove your shoes. Unlike in other Muslim countries there is no requirement to be especially modest in your dress, and in most places photography is allowed. In return for this welcome, we left a small donation – the state here recognises Islam and allows its practice but doesn’t support it financially, so tourist contributions are important.

The man who had shown us around was keen to pose for us, as was the imam outside as we left.

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In Bolo Hauz Mosque

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Imam outside Bolo Hauz Mosque

The Ark

The Ark or fortress of Bukhara lies immediately east of Bolo Hauz. There has been a fortress on this site for as long as the city of Bukhara has existed, though the one we see now dates largely from the 16th century. It was considerably destroyed in 1920 – at first when attacked during the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army, under Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, and then by fire, burned either by the attacking forces or by the retreating emir. Today, therefore, it consists of a mixture of old elements from various periods and other parts that have been restored fairly recently. At its height it would have housed the emir, his family and servants, and over 3,000 other inhabitants in its palace, harem, treasury, barracks, dungeon and slave quarters.

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Entrance to the Ark

We ascended a stone ramp, which climbs from the empty expanse of the Registan square, and entered through the western gateway, which dates from 1742. From here the dolom, a winding passageway tall enough to allow a man on horseback to enter without dismounting, leads past a row of prison cells and torture chambers, and today’s inevitable tourist souvenir stalls. Climbing up here I found it easy, despite these modern-day trappings, to imagine how hard this fortress would have been to attack, and how this sombre entrance might have struck terror in those who had reason to fear the emir’s power.

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The mosque in the Ark

We emerged by the Ark’s only remaining mosque built at the end 18th century. Although partly ruined, the pillars of rare sycamore are impressive and its shape echoes that of the Bolo Hauz Mosque opposite. It now houses an interesting display of calligraphy. In Tashkent we had seen the ancient Koran displayed in the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, so I was pleased to find here its replica which (unlike the original) can be photographed. On my Tashkent page you can read the story of how Chris came to photograph the original!

A little further into the complex we came to the Throne Room, the kurinesh khana. This is largely ruined, due to the 1920 fire, but you can still see the iwan where coronations took place and the remnants of the impressive tilework on the gate.

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The throne room

A number of museums are to be found in the different buildings that still stand within the Ark, including a good local history museum and a very unremarkable (unless you like moth-eaten stuffed animals!) natural history one. In the main courtyard were stables for the horses – apparently when the horses and their stalls were washed down each day the dirty water was swept down the slope of the courtyard and down into the prison cells directly below. Also off this courtyard is the viewing platform that the women of the emir’s court would use to look out over the Registan below without themselves being seen.

And why would they want to look out over the Registan? This once-great square which surrounded the Ark was the heart and soul of Bukhara. pokes led out from the Registan to the four corners of the globe and a seething mass of hawkers, barbers, beggars, butchers, bakers, dervishes and courtiers thronged the bustling square.

In this vast square, under the emir’s reign, tortures and executions would be carried out, and, under the Soviets, mass rallies took place. In those earlier days of executions and flogging the Registan would have looked more like that in Samarkand, surrounded by madrassahs and mosques. All these were cleared away by the Soviets to create the wide-open space we see now, where until 1992 a statue of Lenin took pride of place.

My guidebook described the present-day Registan as ‘leafy’ and an ‘island of green’ but what we saw was anything but – an empty paved expanse baking in the hot sun and crossed swiftly by women shaded by colourful parasols and tourists eager to reach the shade of the Ark’s great gateway.

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The walls of the Ark from the Registan

This is a place though in which to pause and remember all those who were tortured and executed – the dark side to Bukhara’s beauty. The British pair of Connolly and Stoddart for instance, whose lack of deference (as exhibited by not dismounting in his presence and offering too few expensive gifts) offended the emir. After years of suffering in the nearby gaol, the Zindan, they were finally beheaded in this square, but not before they had been forced to dig their own graves.

Up to this point on our tour I had been suffering a little with the after-effects of my earlier attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’ which maybe explains why I took fewer photos than I would normally do. But as I started to feel better I also started to feel hungry, and as we stood in the shade of the Ark listening to our guide I ate the bread salvaged from breakfast. Revitalised by this I started to take in my surroundings more thoroughly and the spell of Bukhara captivated me.

Just as well, as we had a lot more to see, starting with the nearby Poi Kalon complex

Poi Kalon

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Poi Kalon complex

In terms of scale at least, the Poi Kalon complex is probably the most impressive of Bukhara’s sights. A great Friday mosque and working madrassah face each other across the square, both dwarfed, in height at least, by the elegant 48 metre high minaret.

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The Kalon Minaret

This has stood here since 1127, having survived an onslaught on the city by Ghengis Khan (who was so awed by the minaret he spared it from destruction), attack by a Soviet shell in 1920 and an earthquake in 1976. One reason for its durability is the care that went into its construction: its foundations go down to a depth of 13 metres and the architect devised a special mortar mixed from camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood!

In addition to its main purpose, namely the call to Friday prayer at the great Kalon Mosque, the minaret has served as a lookout tower in times of war and as a beacon – a ‘lighthouse’ for those ships of the desert, the camel trains. Its darkest purpose though was to serve as a ‘Tower of Death’, when the city’s worst criminals would be led up the 105 steps to the top, tied up in a sack and thrown to their deaths – a form of punishment that persisted here until the mid 19th century and, like the tortures that took place in the Registan square, a graphic reminder that Bukhara, for all its charm, has been for much of its existence a desperate place.

Today the minaret has been restored (the aforementioned Soviet shell had clipped one corner) and stands almost as a symbol of the city. It is decorated quite simply but beautifully in bands of patterned brickwork. Near the top a ring of turquoise tiles is thought to be probably the first use of coloured majolica tilework in the region. It is possible to climb the tower on payment of a small fee inside the mosque, and I rather regret that we didn’t have time to do this (like so many other things in Bukhara), although the heat would have made it a daunting climb perhaps.

Kalon Mosque

This is the largest mosque in Uzbekistan, and the second largest in central Asia with a capacity in its huge courtyard for up to 12,000 worshippers. Unlike its minaret, the 8th century original was destroyed by Ghengis Khan on his invasion of Bukhara in 1219, when he stood on this spot to order that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the whole of Bukhara (with the exception only of the Kalon Minar) be destroyed.

This present-day building then dates ‘only’ from 1514. When completed it could hold 10,000 worshippers, the entire male population of the city at the time. Although it is a working mosque, visitors are welcome, for a small charge (and an additional fee if you wish to take photos which you will!)

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Entrance to the Poi Kalon courtyard

We entered through the magnificent portal, passed through a cool lobby area and emerged into the bright light and heat of the huge central courtyard.

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The courtyard

On the four sides of the courtyard are colonnades of arches and in the centre of each a further portal allows entry to the cool stone interior with its rows of stone columns and vaulted ceilings that reminded us of a western cathedral. As in Khiva’s mosque, a sense of tranquillity and isolation from the bustle of the city pervades these walls.

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In the mosque
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Looking out from the colonnades

Back in the courtyard, our guide pointed out the central octagonal pavilion, a 19th century addition designed to improve the acoustics and amplify the voice of the Imam as he delivers his Friday sermon.

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Octagonal pavilion, with entrance to courtyard beyond

Above the mihrab in the western section is the beautiful turquoise dome, the Kok Gumbaz. An inscription around its base reads ‘Immortality belongs to Allah’.

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The dome of the mosque

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

Immediately opposite the Kalon Mosque, and with it and its minaret forming the complex known collectively as Poi Kalon or ‘Pedestal of the Great’, lies a madrassah. This was then (2007), and is still as far as I know, one of only three working madrassah in the country – a religious seminary in a country only just rediscovering its Islamic roots after years of Soviet secularism.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The building dates from the mid 16th century and has been in use for most of that time, only closing from 1925-1946 under the Soviets, who in the later part of their rule reopened it as a concession to the region. Today roughly 125 students live and study here, so the madrassah is firmly closed to tourists. You are however permitted to step just inside the impressive portal and may catch a glimpse of the working life of the seminary as we did; my photo shows students in the courtyard who appeared to be taking time off from their studies to clean rugs spread out on the paving stones.

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Peeking into Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

But even if this peek inside is denied you, the madrassah repays your visit with its beautiful façade (best seen in the late afternoon so my morning photo doesn’t really do it justice) and the rich jade of its twin domes.

Carpet weaving shop

Crossing the road from the Poi Kalon complex we visited this UNESCO-sponsored carpet weaving shop. Although we weren’t interested in buying, I found this a worthwhile visit. We were welcomed with green tea and given an explanation of the techniques used in creating the beautiful silk carpets and also the traditional suzanni made and sold here. We were told how a girl would include different motifs in the design of her embroideries to give prospective suitors an indication of her character, such as a snake for cleverness.

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Carpet weaver

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Weaving technique

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Silks for carpet making

No one minded us taking photos, and as a bonus there were clean toilets for visitors’ use – not something to be taken for granted in Uzbekistan!

Ulug Beg Madrassah

Bukhara has two sets of what are known as kosh madrassah, a facing pair of madrassahs (kosh means double). The pair we visited was that on the northern edge of the old town (the other is in the west near the Ismael Samani Mausoleum) where they face each other across Khodja Nurobod Street.

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

On the north side of the street is the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the older of the two by over 200 years. It is a Sunni madrassah (unlike its Shia companion) and was built in 1417, one of three in the country to be commissioned by Ulug Beg (the others are at the Registan in Samarkand and in Gijduvan to the east of Bukhara). The rich blue of its tilework, although incomplete, includes a scattering of stars to reflect the ruler’s passion for astronomy, and a beautiful twisted rope design framing the arch.

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At the Ulug Beg Madrassah

Inside, in the mosque to the right of the entrance, is a small museum devoted to the story of restoration work in Bukhara. I was interested to see some old photos showing the Kalon Minaret before restoration, with its top damaged by the Soviet shell, as well as several good examples of original tilework.

Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah on the south side of the road is the newer Abdul Aziz Madrassah (built in 1652). Unfortunately (perhaps because of the poor light) I don’t appear to have taken any photos of its exterior, which is unrestored but shows clearly the use of different colours in addition to the usual blues and greens, such as yellows introduced to this region by the Iranians.

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Ceiling of the mosque in Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Another departure from the usual practice is the use of floral motifs, especially in the mosque, as my photo of its ceiling shows. This is a Shia madrassah and the ban on images of living creatures was not so strictly observed as it would usually be in a Sunni building. This mosque, on the right-hand side as you enter, is the chief attraction here as its decoration is quite breath-taking, but you can also visit a first floor room on the far right-hand side of the courtyard which shows more intricate floral patterns and the traditional Uzbek niche decorations.

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Detail of frieze in a first floor room, Abdul Aziz Madrassah

The trading domes

More than any other sight or historical building, it was seeing and learning about the trading domes that brought ancient Bukhara to life for me. At the height of its powers as a centre of trade, Bukhara had five great bazaars or toks. These vaulted stone buildings straddled the intersections of the various trading routes that converged on the city. Their great arched entrances were high enough to allow a laden pack camel to enter, and each was devoted to a particular trade.

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The Tok-i-Zargaron

The Tok-i-Zargaron, or Jewellers’ Trading Dome, is the largest and most northerly of the three that remain. The building dates from 1570 and was the centre for the trade in gold and other precious metals, gems and coral. Nowadays, like the other two bazaars to the south, it houses a number of stalls selling tourist souvenirs; nevertheless it isn’t difficult to imagine it in the days when merchants haggled here and deals were struck, while camels and donkeys waited patiently as their heavy bundles were unloaded.

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The domes of the Tok-i-Zargaron

Seen from a distance you can appreciate the complexity of the arrangement of domes that makes up this building, with the large central one surrounded by many smaller ones, as though they had been breeding!

Among the souvenir stalls we found a wonderful stall selling spices and herbs. The smell that wafted towards us as we approached was truly enticing, and the display a photographer’s, and cook’s, delight! We were offered what the owner, Mirfayz, described as ‘magic tea’ to taste, and it was so delicious we bought some – two large bags in fact. The tea was made from six spices: cardamom, cloves, oregano, star anise, mint, and cinnamon. When brewing it himself Mirfayz told us that he always adds a little saffron, as he had to ours. What a wonderful, reviving drink in that heat!

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Saffron at the Silk Road Spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron

To the south of the Tok-i-Zargaron lies the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon or Cap Makers’ Bazaar. This is of a more complex construction than the others as it straddles not a simple crossroads but a meeting of five routes. Its irregular corners and arches once sheltered stalls displaying the various styles of headgear favoured here – gold-embroidered hats, colourful skull caps, fur hats for the cold desert winters. Now like its neighbours to the north and south it houses craft and souvenir stalls.

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In the the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon

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Scissors shaped like a stork

There are also several blacksmiths’ workshops and stalls, selling the traditional Bukharan scissors in the shape of a stork. Not all are of the quality of those sold in the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, just to the south of the bazaar, but the prices are lower and haggling encouraged, so we returned later to buy a pair as a gift for Chris’s father who had set up a sort of mini-museum displaying various objects we had bought him or acquired on our travels. After my in-laws died these scissors were one of the objects we kept from their house and they now hang in our kitchen among many other souvenirs from all over the world.

Just north of the entrance to the bazaar was a smithy. The blacksmith was working outside on his anvil and happy to pose for photos.

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The blacksmith

The Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, is the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes. We didn’t visit this on our tour, but Chris and I had seen and photographed it the previous evening without realising its significance. As the name suggests, this bazaar was home to the Punjabi money-changers, whose activities were critical to the trade of Bukhara. Here traders from many lands would exchange their money for the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that made up the currency in use here. Also here would have been the stalls of the money-lenders, no doubt no less essential to Bukhara’s success as a centre of trade.

Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Walking towards Lyab-i-Hauz we passed the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, which I had also photographed last night. There has been a place of worship on this site for 2,000 years. Today’s mosque was built in the 12th century on top of a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn had been built on a Buddhist monastery and that on a heathen shrine.

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Magok-i-Attari Mosque

My photo shows the main southern portal, rich in elaborate brickwork but with touches too of other decorative styles – carved turquoise tiles still cling to the arch and either side are panels of ornate ganch. This portal, still used as the main entrance, dates back to the original 12th century building, while the eastern façade was added in the 16th century and the two small domes restored in the 20th following their collapse in an earthquake a century earlier. Nowadays the mosque serves as a carpet museum, which we didn’t have time to visit unfortunately.

By the time we reached the pool it was lunch-time. It had been a long morning and we were ready for a break, as no doubt are you! So I will continue this tour on a separate page, after lunch ...

Posted by ToonSarah 18:11 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque history fort market shopping city spices crafts bukhara Comments (22)

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)

To market, to market …

Ecuador day three


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

… To buy a fat pig?

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Maybe not, but Otavalo market is still, despite being very “touristy”, a must for most visitors to Quito. To be honest, when planning our Ecuador trip, a visit here wasn’t one of my top priorities and with relatively little time in Quito I had considered giving it a miss as we’d seen many colourful markets elsewhere. But then I had second thoughts and when our tour company proposed including it I went along with the suggestion. On balance, I think it was good decision as we enjoyed our visit and it is one of the sights of northern Ecuador. But we opted for a half-day visit rather than the more usual full day and packed some other sights into our day out, as you will see. And although a guided excursion is not for everyone, we decided that while not cheap it would be the most efficient way to fit several of the major sights near Quito into just one day of our limited time there. We were very pleased with the arrangement as we had an excellent guide in Jose Luiz, working for local company Surtrek.

We left Quito after an early breakfast, driving north. We stopped in the town of Cayambe to take photos of the volcano of that name and to taste custard apples bought from one of the several fruit stalls along the roadside.

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Volcan Cayambe

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Custard apples

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Posing for a photo

We also stopped at a roadside gift-shop and café near Lago San Pablo, El Miralago, which is clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!

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Lago San Pablo

Here we were able to try the local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!

From here we continued to Otavalo, where Jose Luiz dropped us off not far from the Plaza de Ponchos where the market is held. He showed us where to go, but after that left us to our own devices for a couple of hours, for which I was thankful, as we were happier wandering around on our own than following a guide everywhere.

Plaza de Ponchos

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The tourist-focused market takes place in this large central square. There are markets in every Ecuadorean town, small or large, so what is so special about Otavalo? Well, for one thing, its size. It has to be one of the largest markets not just in Ecuador but possibly in South America – at least on a Saturday, the principal market day, when not only the Plaza de Ponchos is jammed with those selling and those buying, but also the surrounding streets. The other factor in its popularity is its location - only 145 kilometres, and therefore an easy day trip, from Quito.

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Scarves for sale

The people of Otavalo and the surrounding area have been making textiles for centuries. As tourism to Ecuador has grown, their goods have become well-known and popular, and the market has grown because of this, and also because the local people have spotted a good opportunity and made the most of it! They are recognised as the most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.

The textiles are mainly of the practical variety, such as blankets, thick jumpers, ponchos, scarves, hats and so on, rather than the purely decorative wall-hangings that you see in other cultures. But it is not only textiles that you will find for sale here. We saw pictures (lots of Guayasamin reproductions of varying qualities, and some interesting paintings based on pre-Columbian motifs, one of which we bought); musical instruments (mainly the ubiquitous pan-pipes, but also drums and other percussion instruments); hats; jewellery; wood-carvings and tagua nut carvings; leather handbags and larger woven bags; hammocks and cushions and more.

On one side of the square are a few stalls selling simple meals such as roast pork, corn and soups, but otherwise the emphasis is very much on handicrafts (there is an animal and food market elsewhere in town but we didn’t visit that).

Of course the sellers are hoping that you will buy, but we didn’t experience too much pressure, although when I stopped to look at a stall for any length of time I would raise their hopes and there would be a rapid explanation of the goods and how wonderful they were!

For the most part we were happy to wander up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos. A few people were OK about posing, especially stall-holders hoping we might make a purchase, but they tend to do so quite stiffly so you don’t get a natural look and a sense of the bustle and activity of the market. So mainly I used my zoom lens to grab candid shots as I find these more natural and wanted to capture the activity as much as the individuals.

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As I wandered around the market stalls taking my photos I began to realise that all the women were dressed in a similar style, rather different from the indigenous people I had seen in Quito. This is the traditional dress of the Otavaleña. It consists of white blouses, with coloured embroidery (usually of flowers) and flared lace sleeves, worn with black or dark skirts. They wear their hair long, but instead of plaiting it, as I had seen the women of Quito do, they tie it back with coloured braid in a loose ponytail. They usually have many strings of gold beads around their necks, and strings of coral beads around their wrists. Many of the older ones fold a cloth over their heads, known as a fachalina, like those in some of my photos.

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Women in traditional Otavalan dress

The men traditionally wear white trousers, cut off just below the knee, with dark blue ponchos and felt hats. Their hair too is worn long. We saw relatively few men in this costume compared to the number of women wearing the traditional dress, but many had the long hair and felt hat, albeit often combined with modern jeans and t-shirts.

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Traditional hat

Shopping at the market

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Picture on leather

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Necklace

While I always like to bring back a souvenir or two from our travels, neither Chris nor I see shopping as a major holiday activity, and we hadn’t expected to buy a lot at Otavalo, being more interested in taking photos of the activity than participating in it. However a number of things did catch my eye and I couldn’t resist making a few purchases in the market. These were:

~ A pretty silver necklace with inlays of different coloured bits of shell, depicting a bird (a quetzal I suspect), for which, after some haggling, I paid $20, having brought the vendor down from $26 and got him to throw in the silver chain

~ A small picture executed on leather in a style we saw on a few stalls, based on indigenous (pre-Columbian) mythology and symbolism – we paid $8 for this, which we thought so reasonable that we didn’t bother to haggle

Buena Vista

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In need of refreshment and a sit-down after an hour or so of wandering around the market, we looked for somewhere where we might also get a view of the action, and found it at the Buena Vista, which lived up to its name! We climbed the stairs to the first floor room which is quite cosy – lots of wood, a small library of travel guides to browse, and bright cushions on the chairs. We secured a table near the window (there was just one other small group of people here at the time, though a couple more arrived before we left) and were pleased to find a good list of fresh juices on the menu, as by then we had already realised that no other cold drink came close to these for taste and refreshment in Ecuador! Chris chose orange juice and I had passion-fruit, and both were delicious and served in large glasses. As we drank we were able to step out onto the tiny balcony and take some photos of the market from above and all the activity going on beneath us. Just the break from browsing and shopping that we had needed!

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A few more photos in the market

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After another wander around and a few more photos it was time to head to the point Jose Luiz had designated to pick us up. Arriving there five minutes early we were easy prey for a couple of sellers operating on the streets outside the market! Although attracted by the colourful scarves I’d seen on many stalls I hadn’t planned on buying one, as I had a pile of scarves at home, but one older lady who approached us had a good selection, and they were so bright and cheerful, and she was quite interesting (showing us photos of her home near Lago San Pablo), so I cracked and bought one for $2.50 (she had wanted $3 but I had seen similar at two for $5 in Quito so refused to pay more).

And I have to say that I have worn it regularly every winter since, it has retained its bright colours and is often admired by friends and colleagues, so it has more than justified the impulse purchase!

Cotacachi

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Church in Cotacachi

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On the church steps

From Otavalo we drove to Cotacachi, a town a little to the north. The town is known throughout Ecuador for its leather work, on items such as clothing, footwear, bags, belts and wallets. We strolled the length of the main street, where every shop it seemed was selling these leather goods – everything from tiny coin purses for a couple of dollars to very stylish handbags, jackets and even small pieces of furniture. Had we wanted to shop, we could have spent ages choosing, but as it was we soon tired of every shop looking the same! However, a detour off the main road along Avenida Bolivar offered us a glimpse of this striking church which we were pleased to have seen, though there was no time to see if the interior was as interesting as the exterior.

Cotacachi is also considered to be a good place to get a taste of traditional Ecuadorean food. We spotted several places that looked tempting, but as lunch was included in our tour we had to go where Jose Luiz took us. I was at first disappointed to see that the large restaurant he stopped at was apparently catering just for tourists visiting with their guides, but I have to admit that the lunch we had there was excellent – a really good shrimp ceviche to start with, pork (grilled outside in the garden) to follow, and we could also have had desert though both Chris and I were too full and declined this. It was a pleasant, relaxing meal after the bustle of Otavalo market.

Apparently Cotacachi is becoming a popular place for Americans to retire to, and I could see why it might appeal, set in the scenic highlands of northern Ecuador and with a good standard of living for relatively low prices. Too quiet for me though!

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Mural in the town

El Mitad del Mundo

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Monument at El Mitad del Mundo

Our afternoon was spent at the Middle of the World! You might imagine that this is at the centre of the earth’s core! But no. El Mitad del Mundo is the name given to both a monument near Quito, and the area immediately around it which was erected to mark the line of the equator. Rather than cause confusion, as “Ecuador” means “Equator” in Spanish, it was given this more fanciful name.

Today we know that in any case the monument stands not on the equator but very near it instead, but that is because we now have more sophisticated means of measuring such things than did those whose exploits are commemorated here. The monument here commemorates the work of the French Geodesic Mission in 1736. In that year a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean – was sent to this region to try to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference were greater around its equator or around the poles. In doing this they needed to establish the exact line of the equator, and this is where they determined it lay – close, but not quite accurate, although impressive for that day and age.

Around the monument various museums and attractions have sprung up, aimed at the many visitors who come here, and it was to one of these that we headed first.

Museo de Sitio Intiñan

Inti Nan is a tourist attraction in the vicinity of the Mitad del Mundo monument. Depending on your perspective it is either a tourist trap or a lot of fun. We took it all with a pinch of salt and thoroughly enjoyed our visit, but whether it lives up to the grand claim made on its website of being “an educational centre of culture and promotion of our nation” is debatable!

It actually seems to be a bit unsure of what it is, exactly, and the result is a bit of a hotch-potch of exhibits. You go around with a guide (independent wandering seems not to be allowed) – ours was very good but had a rather unfortunate squeaky voice that added to the oddness of the place.

We went first to an area which focuses on the Amazonian region of Ecuador, with exhibits covering the wildlife (snakes and spiders for the most part), the typical lives of its people (there’s a mock-up of a traditional dwelling) and the custom of shrinking heads. This was explained to us in some detail and their prized “real shrunken head” pointed out with pride. Our guide was keen to reassure this that this is thought to be the head of the twelve year old son of a chief who died of natural causes (there are no signs of violence, and heads were traditionally shrunk to preserve an important person for posterity as well as to celebrate a victory over an enemy).

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Head-shrinking

A nearby area is devoted to a collection of totem poles from the various indigenous peoples of the Americas, including Chile, Mexico and of course Ecuador. But the main attraction is an Equator line that the owners of the museum claim is the true line, and although others dispute that it seems to be generally agreed that this is closer than Mitad del Mundo at least. Of course, everyone wants to stand on the line and the guides are happy to take your photo while you do so.

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On the Equator?

They will also demonstrate a series of “scientific” experiments demonstrated to “prove” that it is genuinely the equator. Some say the experiments are fake, and some certainly seemed likely to be so to me, such as the demonstration of the difficulty in walking in a straight line with eyes closed, or our apparent lack of strength here. Others were more convincing, such as the water changing direction as it swirls through a plug-hole (attributed to the “Coriolis effect”, a scientific principle to which our guide referred several times). But even so, when I got home and looked more closely at my video of this last one I started to wonder whether that too might not be faked. Wikipedia would seem to back up my suspicions:

“Water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres can be observed.” See the full Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation, and have a look at my video for yourself to see if you share my doubts.

The tour ends with a demonstration of traditional dancing, which I found more laughable than authentic, but that might just have been the incongruous setting. Generally though it was all good fun – and we even got our passports stamped to show that we had been right at the equator!

Mitad del Mundo monument

The monument that bears the name Mitad del Mundo is a 30 metre tall stone pyramid topped with a globe 4.5 metres in diameter, so it’s hard to miss! It can hardly be considered beautiful but it is certainly impressive. It would be all the more so perhaps if the painted line on which it stands, and which crosses the plaza beneath to feature in so many tourist photos, really did mark the equator, but sadly this is not the case.

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The French Geodesic Mission arrived in what is today Ecuador in 1736. It was undertaken by a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean. The purpose was to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference was greater around its equator or around the poles. The team measured arcs of the Earth’s curvature from the plains near Quito to the southern city of Cuenca. These measurements enabled them to establish accurately for the first time the true size of the Earth, which eventual led to the development of the international metric system of measurement. As part of their work it was of course necessary to ascertain where the equator fell, and they made a pretty good job of it considering that they were working in an age before computers, GPS and so on. But we now know that they were off by a few degrees, and that all those who pose so enthusiastically on this line are not quite where they maybe think they are!

There is a lot more to do here than pose for that photo, but we were short of time after our busy day at Otavalo market and Intiñan. If you wanted, you could probably spend the best part of a day here. There is a museum inside the monument itself, which exhibits a variety of objects relating to indigenous Ecuadorian culture, such as clothing of the different ethnic groups, and in the area immediately around you can visit a planetarium, see a miniature model of Quito, and walk through a mock-up of a small colonial town complete with handicraft shops and cafés. But we contended ourselves with a few photos before rejoining Jose Luis and our driver for the journey back to Quito.

Back in Quito for the evening

That evening we decided to return to La Ronda where we had enjoyed a drink the previous day and look for a restaurant there for dinner. Our choice was La Primera Casa, which is popular but which we found a little disappointing. It was a Saturday evening, when La Ronda was at its busiest and the restaurant pretty busy too, although not completely full. Perhaps that explains, but doesn’t justify, the incredibly slow service. Now, I don’t want to be hurried over a meal when I’m on holiday, and I’d rather that service were a little slow than too quick. But to sit for 15 minutes between ordering our first beer and its arrival, and 30 minutes before the empanadas we’d ordered to go with it appeared, is a bit too much! A shame, as the interior of this restaurant is lovely, with several small rooms decorated with interesting folk items such as colourful masks and a central fire – though we were to find that the latter did not give off enough heat to counter the chill air coming through the door.

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In La Primera Casa

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Fritada

When the empanadas did eventually arrive they were very good – light and crisp, with a tasty filling and a hot salsa aji (chilli sauce) for dipping. Unfortunately though, my main course didn’t live up to this promising start. I had ordered fritada, a traditional dish of pork with different accompaniments – corn (both the local white corn or moté and corn on the cob), lima beans, avocado, white cheese, plantain, my favourite llapingachos (potato patties) and salsa. The meat seemed over-cooked to my taste (though as I found this in a number of Ecuadorean restaurants I started to wonder if locals prefer their meat served dry like this?) The corn and beans were lacking in flavour too, though the llapingachos were very good and the salsa delicious. Chris was somewhat happier with his choice of chicken Cordon Bleu (a popular, albeit international, dish here), but overall we found the meal disappointing and, by the end of it, the restaurant uncomfortably cold.

So, back to the hotel to warm up, and to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure which was to be an overnight trip out of town …

Posted by ToonSarah 04:14 Archived in Ecuador Tagged restaurant market equator quito mitad_del_mundo otavalo Comments (6)

At the crater's edge

Ecuador day seven


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After a good night’s sleep in our cosy room in the Hacienda la Cienega we woke to dry weather and, I was pleased to note, my headache of the previous day had cleared. We had breakfast in the same restaurant which was more of a success than the dinner had been – fresh fruit (melon, pineapple and banana), fresh juice (babaco – related to papaya and very refreshing), scrambled eggs and bacon, and reasonable coffee.

Overall, we had really liked our short stay here, because of the special atmosphere and history of the place, but if you go, take a warm jumper and ask to order your dinner from the main menu (see previous entry)!

Pujili

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Pujili market

We were heading for Quilotoa, the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos), but on the way stopped first in the small town of Pujili to visit the market. As we had been in Otavalo a few days before, I wondered whether this would be similar, but it was an altogether more local and authentic affair. Market days here are Wednesday and Sunday (we were here on a Wednesday) and are a major event for the local people, as the jammed streets around the town testified. Farmers from all the villages in the surrounding area head here to sell their wares and to buy what they need themselves. But this is more than simply a place to shop; going to the market is an important social activity, and locals dress up and take time to mingle, to greet their friends and to catch up on the gossip.

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Shoppers at the market

There were no tourist handicrafts here, though one woman was selling the local felt hats. Instead, it was all about food! Live chickens, fresh fruits (many that I didn’t recognise but whose juices we realised we had been drinking once we heard their names from Jose Luiz), herbs and vegetables and more.

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Fruit for sale, and very fresh chickens

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Guagua de pan

We also saw several stalls selling the traditional Day of the Dead breads, guagua de pan. Most of the customers were locals (in fact, I don’t believe I saw any other tourists apart from ourselves) and were mainly intent on their shopping, though on one side of the square a small crowd had gathered around a girl who was singing and selling her CDs, and a nearby food stall was doing great business.

This was a fantastic place for people watching (and photographing) and for getting a good introduction to local produce, including several of the fruits we had been enjoying as juices but not seen “whole” before. I can definitely recommend a stop here if you’re in the area on market day.

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Stall holders

The drive to Quilotoa

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Returning to the car after our enjoyable photography session in the market we headed towards Quilatoa through some lovely scenery. One thing that amazed and impressed me was just how much of this highland environment was under cultivation. The local people have farmed these lands for centuries of course, and are experienced at getting the best out of them, using traditional terracing and irrigation techniques. Crops grown here include potatoes, maize, beans and other vegetables.

We also stopped at one point near a house built in the typical indigenous style of wood, wattle and daub, with a steep over-hanging straw roof to protect it from the often harsh weather conditions at this altitude (we were around 3,800 metres at this point).

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Traditional house

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Progress was slow however, owing to extensive roadworks along this road. It seemed that every couple of miles along this road, part of it was being dug up. As I commented at the time, “I’m sure it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished!”

The worst road-works, or at least for anyone in a hurry, involved a narrow stretch of road on a tight bend on a steep hill. To widen the road they were using dynamite, which seems to be a popular “tool” here, and this involved closing the road totally (in both directions) for lengthy periods while they set off a blast and then cleared the resulting rubble. Although not the busiest road in the country this is the only route into and out of the Quilotoa area, so this caused considerable jams.

We were stuck in the waiting queue here for at least thirty minutes, but at least this is a scenic spot and we were able to use the time to get out of the car and stretch our legs, enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside and take a few photos.

Quilotoa

This delay, combined with the stop in Pujili, meant that it was late morning when we arrived at our destination. Later the day was to get very rainy, even stormy, but for now it was dry but with low cloud. Although I had hoped to see the lake in sunshine, I have to say that the gloomy light made it very atmospheric and brought out the green colours very effectively.

We parked in a large car park just below the rim, in the small but sprawling village that relies on tourist income generated by the lake. A short flight of steps led us up to the viewpoint. The previous day I had struggled with a headache that owed much in its intensity to the high altitudes we were at, but today thankfully the only symptom was a certain breathlessness as I hurried to reach the famous view! But soon we were there, perched high above the deep green-blue waters, with the lowering clouds reflected dramatically in them. The sight did not disappoint!

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Quilotoa is the westernmost of the volcanoes in Ecuador’s Andean range (the country of course has volcanoes further west, on some of the islands in the Galápagos) and lies at 3,914 metres. Its large caldera, three kilometres in width, is filled with a beautiful green lake, 250 metres deep. The colour of the lake is due to the various minerals that have dissolved in its waters.

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The lake lies about 400 metres below the rim, and a path winds its way down. But partly because of the weather, partly because of my dodgy knee, and partly because we were later than we’d planned (thanks to those roadworks) and it became a choice between a walk or lunch, we opted not to go down. Instead we just took a shorter walk part of the way along the path round the rim (the full circuit would take the best part of a day). If you do decide to go down it’s about a 30 minute hike, and a good hour or more to climb back up, although it’s also possible to hire mules to bring you up.

Lunch at Kirutwa

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Chris and Jose Luiz at lunch by the fire

We ate our lunch in this friendly café which is perched right on the crater’s edge near to the viewpoint. Jose Luiz explained that he likes to patronise this restaurant because it is community-run. Local people take turns at the cooking and serving and the profits are shared among them.

We took a table by the fireplace and one of the women came over to stoke it, as it was a chilly day. We were amused to see that they were burning all sorts of pieces of wood, including an old broom handle and several bits of old furniture, some of which stuck out into the room rather alarmingly. No UK Health & Safety inspector would have passed the arrangement, but it certainly made for a great blaze!

We started our lunch with a bowl of tasty lentil soup which was accompanied by yucca chips (a nice change from the more usual banana) and a hot aji sauce. The main course was pork chops, as it had been the day before in Tambopaxi. Unused to large lunches I opted to skip this course, but Chris had one and said it was very good. Dessert was pineapple, which I love, although it was a shame that it was served in a rather sweet syrup. The accompanying juices were very refreshing however, and we enjoyed our cosy meal here.

One thing I loved about Quilotoa was the way the light kept changing, because of all those clouds. While we were having lunch a thick fog had descended, which totally hid both the lake and the houses of the small village from view, but by the time we finished eating and climbed back to the viewpoint for a final look, the clouds lifted again briefly to reveal the lake below.

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On our way back to where the car was parked we stopped in the nearby crafts cooperative where local people have stalls to sell their handiwork. This is a new initiative and it felt like it too – very pristine and soulless – a bit like a church hall! But I’m sure it will mellow and bring real benefits to the community.

When we visited only some of the small stalls were open and the place was pretty quiet. Some women were knitting and chatting, and we had a quick look round at the various crafts being sold – mostly textiles and paintings. We wanted to support the initiative so we bought a small Tigua painting from a one of the youngest sellers for $5 (we didn’t haggle as the price was so reasonable and the girl so young).

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In the craft cooperative - our young seller on the right

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Our little painting

Tigua is a collection of small Andean communities in this area, whose artists have become renowned for their paintings of colourful rural scenes. Traditionally they painted on drums and masks, but in the 1970s a Quito art dealer persuaded one of the artists to paint on a flat surface, a sheep hide stretched over a wooden frame. This changed the art-form completely, and today most Tigua artists produce only flat paintings, still on the stretched sheepskin.

Paintings are usually quite small, limited by the size of the hide (ours though is very small!) The subject matter is always a rural scene, and favourite motifs include Cotopaxi and other Andean scenery, village life, working in the fields, condors, llamas and more. Our little picture features several of these elements, which is why we chose it. I was really pleased to have this small example of this traditional folk art, which now hangs in our kitchen and brightens our breakfasts on dull winter mornings.

Cañon del Río Toachi

Time now though to head back to the city. About half way between Quilotoa and the main road, Jose Luiz pulled over and led us across the road and past a small grove of pine trees to a viewpoint over this dramatic gorge which you wouldn’t even realise was here if not “in the know”. The scenery down in its depths is quite a contrast to the farmland around it – you really get a sense of a scar cut through the landscape by the fast-flowing river, the Toachi, some 2,600 metres below where you stand. A great little photo stop – thank Jose Luiz!

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Cañon del Río Toachi

Storm over the Andes

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The journey back to Quito was to provide one of the most unforgettable sights of our time in Ecuador – one that was totally unplanned, and which arose out of what might have been seen as a problem. We were stuck again in the same traffic jam that had held us up on our way to the lake, and it was sheer bad luck, or so we thought, that we should be returning through this spot at the same time as they again blasted through the hillside and closed it to traffic while clearing the rubble – not a quick undertaking. There was nothing to do but wait. I passed a little time updating my journal, while keeping an eye open out of the window for anything interesting to happen on the road or in the fields below where we sat. As I did so I noticed that the clouds were descending and swirling around, and the sky growing darker. There were some dramatic flashes of lightening and loud claps of thunder as the storm circled around the valley. Despite the rain I just had to get out of the car and get a few shots.

When the storm and the road block cleared, at about the same time, we were able to drive on, through the still-falling rain. It was easy to see why the fields here seem so fertile and green, as rain in these mountains must be a common occurrence at certain times of year at least. I loved these soft green landscapes, with patchwork fields dotted with small houses and occasional workers, children herding sheep and seemingly suicidal dogs darting out into the passing traffic.

Back “home” in Quito

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Room #21

As we approached the city Jose Luiz explained that as it was Wednesday he would be unable to drive us to the hotel. As I explained in an earlier entry in this blog, the city had imposed a one day driving ban on all residents apart from taxi drivers, based on their car’s registration number, to help manage the heavy congestion on its roads, and Wednesday was Jose Luiz’s “no entry” day! The solution was to call his father, also a tour guide but with a restriction on a different day of the week, and get him to meet us just outside the limit of the central zone. The transfer went smoothly and we were soon back at our base, the Hotel San Francisco, where we collected our luggage from storage and found ourselves allocated a much nicer room than on the two previous stays. This was room #21, just down the corridor from our previous one but worlds away in terms of space and character! It had a beautiful vaulted brick ceiling, a large en suite, lots of storage including some antique trunks, and even an in-room Jacuzzi tub! What a shame that we were only here for a few hours though!

Vista Hermosa

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View from the terrace

Jose Luiz had recommended this restaurant to us, so we decided to check it out that evening. It is located just a stone’s throw from the Plaza de la Independencia, on the top floor of a fairly tall (for colonial Quito) building and enjoys wonderful views from both the inside restaurant and the roof terrace above. It is accessed via an old-fashioned lift complete with equally old-fashioned lift attendant. When you emerge from the lift you have the choice of climbing a short flight of steps to the roof or eating inside. We chose the latter, as winter / rainy season evenings in Quito can be a bit chilly as well as damp, but I imagine in fine weather the roof terrace is a fantastic location for an evening drink or two. Even at this time of year, with the heaters provided, it would be OK just for drinking, but less suited to eating in our opinion, though we did go up to admire the view and take some photos.

Inside, we were lucky enough to secure a window table so could admire the view throughout our meal. We started with a shared bowl of corn chips with guacamole – there were plenty of chips (too many really) but the portion of guacamole was a little stingy we thought. We then shared a pizza; we had been going to order one each, fooled by the reasonable prices into thinking they would be quite small, but luckily the helpful waitress told us that one would be enough, and she was right. It had a good ham and mushroom topping, and Chris, a real pizza fan, gave it his seal of approval although personally I prefer a less crispy base. We had a large Pilsner beer each to wash it down, and very much enjoyed what would be our last evening in Quito for a while.

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Interior

Back at the hotel we had plenty to do to sort our bags, as we were going to store one here for our return at the end of the trip. No need to cart around dirty laundry or our clean “travelling home” outfits, when space on our Galápagos cruise boat would be so limited.

But before that we were off to Cuenca, a rather special city …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountains lakes volcanoes market quito ecuador crafts Comments (4)

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