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On the ancient Silk Road

Uzbekistan introduction


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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

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Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah, Khiva

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

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

Following the Silk Road

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

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

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Domes of the Shah-i-Zindah, Samarkand

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

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

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

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

On a group tour

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With new friends Sue, Georgina and Els

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

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

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

Impressions of Uzbekistan

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

A warm welcome

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

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

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

Photographing people

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Shop-keeper in Khiva

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

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

Community spirit

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

Traditional architecture

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Chor Minor, Bukhara

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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)

The middle of the world

Ecuador introduction


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Mitad del Mundo monument

The name “Ecuador” means Equator, which this small but very varied country straddles. Indeed, there is a monument near the capital, Quito, which marks “El Mitad del Mundo” – the Middle of the World.

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On El Panecillo

We came here primarily because we wanted to see the Galápagos Islands, but it is too interesting a country not to see something of the mainland as well, so that is what we decided to do. And we were not sorry, as we found so much to like and enjoy here in the middle of the world.

While the Galápagos were, as we’d hoped they would be, the highlight of our trip, we had a wonderful time on the mainland too. We started (and finished) our trip in Quito, which I grew to really like – a slightly mad, bustling city surrounded by volcanoes and with a lovely old colonial heart.

From here we made various trips out of the city – to the famous market at Otavalo, to the hot springs of Papallacta, and to Cotopaxi to the south.

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On Plaza Sur

After about ten days in and around Quito we flew south to Cuenca, a city with which we soon fell in love. I can see why so many Americans choose to retire here. A likeable mix of historic architecture, good restaurants, lively bars and a welcoming atmosphere left us wishing we had allowed more time for our visit to this very likeable city.

But the Galápagos Islands were calling us, as they had been for some years. We were originally due to visit them in January 2009, but when Chris’s father fell ill we had to cancel the trip. Since then various events had conspired against us rescheduling the holiday, but finally, in November 2012, we were able to fulfil our dream.

Like us, you will get there eventually if you follow this blog, but meanwhile some general points about our trip.

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At sea on the Angelito

It was my original intention to put the trip together myself, booking our Galápagos cruise on our chosen boat, the Angelito, through their Quito-based agents, Cometa Travel, and arranging time in Quito either side of it, from where we would have done tours to various parts of Ecuador in the north. But out of curiosity I also contacted a UK company, Real Ecuador (now Real World Holidays), to find out what they would charge if they were to put together a package for us – not a group tour, but to book the accommodation, internal flights etc. Their quote was of course dearer but not as much so as I had expected, and it included a couple of overnight tours from Quito, as well as a flight to and few nights in Cuenca in the south, which I really wanted to see. So we decided it was worth the extra to book with them, and I was very satisfied with everything, especially their flexibility. The original quote had included things like a guided tour of colonial Quito, which we didn’t want as we preferred to explore on our own, and a hotel in the city’s Mariscal district, whereas we wanted to stay in the old colonial area, and there were no problems changing things around to suit us. In the end I reckon the costs worked out only a fraction higher this way than if we had done exactly the same things but made the arrangements ourselves!

The only major thing I did arrange separately was our flights from London to Quito and back. We also chose to do our own sightseeing in Quito, as I said, and were able to spend two of our days there with the parents of a London friend who introduced us to some of the well known, and less visited, sights of their city. Meanwhile the arrangements made on our behalf by Real Ecuador for the other elements of our stay worked out very well and we were very happy with the decision we had made.

Here is a brief overview of the main places we visited – much more detailed entries will follow in due course:

Quito

We spent four nights in Quito at the start of our holiday, a couple more between tours to various places in the north, and two more at the end of the trip.

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View of the city and church of Santo Domingo from our Quito hotel

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El Panecillo

I grew to really like the city – the contrast between its traffic-filled, somewhat manic newer areas and the colonial quarter at its heart, and its situation in a cleft between the Andean volcanoes. This situation has resulted in the city developing in an unusually thin and long shape – only 5 km at its widest east-west point, but about 40 km from north to south. It is also unusually high – at 2,800 metres above sea level, the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is often cited as such, and is certainly higher, but is not the official capital of that country – Sucre is the legal capital despite most government functions being in La Paz). Anyway, whether highest or second highest, Quito is certainly high, and if you arrive from sea level you will notice it perhaps in some shortness of breath when climbing one of its many hills.

The old colonial quarter is near Quito’s centre, at the foot of the small hill known as El Panecillo, from where the Virgin of Quito watches over the city. The modern city stretches both north and south from here, with the northern part being more affluent and containing the museums, shops, hotels, bars and restaurants most likely to attract visitors. Most choose to stay here, but we opted for a hotel in the colonial old town, which, though lacking the vibrant nightlife of the Mariscal district to its north, had a charm that appealed to us much more.

We spent most of our time here in the city’s colonial heart, which was one of the first two places in the world to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (the other was Krakow in Poland). We visited many of its churches, people-watched in its attractive plazas, wandered its streets and ate in its restaurants at night.

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Cathedral and El Sagrario at night

But we did venture further afield at times. We were lucky enough to have friends in the city, or rather, the parents of a London friend, who had offered to spend time with us and introduce us to some parts of the city that they especially thought we would like. So with Betty and Marcelo we enjoyed the views from El Panecillo and the Parque Itchimbia, visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional and the Fundacion Guayasamin, ate in a couple of very good restaurants in the Mariscal, shopped in the market and toured some of the outlying districts such as Guapulo and Nayon.

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Church in Guapulo and stella at the Fundacion Guayasamin

We also had some tours outside the city with a guide, Jose Luiz, which we had arranged prior to departure from England as part of our tour package with Real Ecuador and their Ecuadorean partners, Surtrek. One was a day trip to Otavalo, famous for its market and to the Mitad del Mundo monument which marks the line of the Equator (although in practice it is slightly off the line as its location was based on a scientific survey carried out before the accurate measurements later made possible with GPS). Another was an overnight tour to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa, and we also spent a night at the lovely Termes de Papallacta.

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In Otavalo market, and Chuquiragua flowers on Cotopaxi

Cuenca

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has apparently become a favourite place to retire for Americans, and I can see why. It has lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, good restaurants and of course the cost of living is low by US (and UK) standards. But it’s also a great place to include on a holiday itinerary for all the same reasons!

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Cathedral in Cuenca

The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderon, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching. We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. We had a great couple of days here, and I left wishing it could have been longer.

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Independence Day parade

Galápagos Islands

For many years, I have wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. Fortunately, the experience more than lived up to my expectations! A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special.

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One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood.

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Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him.

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On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured.

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And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Fabian, our Galápagos guide

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea.

No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. We were fortunate too to have a great set of travelling companions (important when living in such close quarters) and overall couldn’t have asked for more from our Galápagos experience.

Join me in my following entries to share our Ecuador adventure ...

Posted by ToonSarah 22:39 Archived in Ecuador Tagged tour galapagos quito ecuador cuenca Comments (13)

Walking the city

Ecuador day nine


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Cuenca

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Another view from our room

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At breakfast

After a good night’s sleep in our lovely room at the Hotel Victoria we sought out the included breakfast which was served in the large restaurant, Le Jardin, which as its name suggests overlooks the pretty garden and was very good. We sat at a table with a hummingbird visiting the feeder just by our window and enjoyed fresh fruit, papaya juice, a choice of bacon or ham with eggs cooked to order, rolls and much better coffee than we had become used to at our Quito hotel.

City tour with Terra Diversa

When planning our trip to Ecuador I was conscious that we were only going to have very limited time in Cuenca so when our travel company (Simply Ecuador) suggested pre-booking a half-day tour of the city I acquiesced, thinking it would be a good way to see a lot in a short time. But when we arrived, and I realised how compact the city was, I wondered if we would regret that decision as it seemed quite possible to cover a lot of ground even in the couple of days we had available. However, I have to say that the guide we had, Wilson from local company Terra Diversa, was absolutely excellent, with the result that we were very pleased to have secured his services. What made it so good a tour was the variety of places he took us, his flexibility in listening to our preferences (and adjusting to the fact that I couldn’t walk as far as I would have liked with my still-dodgy knee), and the wealth of interesting information he imparted. Terra Diversa offer lots of tours and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again, directly – and would certainly ask for Wilson by name!

Our tour started when Wilson collected us from our hotel at 9.00 and should have lasted four hours, but he was as happy as we were to over-run a bit and in the end we spent nearly five hours exploring the city with him.

"Panama" hats

In many accounts I read of visits to Cuenca a trip to a “Panama” hat factory was mentioned, so I was quite pleased that one was included in our tour with Wilson, despite being concerned that it might prove to be little more than a sales pitch aimed at persuading us to buy one. As it turned out it was a very informative visit and with only a little pressure to buy – which we resisted, more or less!

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Unfinished hats

The factory we visited was one of the most respected in the city, Homero Ortega & Sons. The visit started with some history, and an explanation of the name, Panama hat. Everyone in Ecuador will tell you that the hats come not from that Central American country, but from Ecuador – and a specific part of the country, near the coast, where the toquilla plant, from whose straw they are made, grows. The reason for the misleading name comes from the fact that, like many other 19th and early 20th century goods from South America, the hats were shipped via Panama to be exported to Europe, America and even as far as Asia. They were popularised by President Roosevelt who wore one when he visited the Panama Canal during its construction – thus probably also contributing to the adoption of the name, Panama, for the hats.

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Mock-up of hat maker's village home

Wilson told us all this and more as we studied the photos in the first of the three rooms at the factory that make up what they slightly grandly call “The Magic of the Hat” Museum. In the second room we learned about the process of making a hat, only part of which happens here at the factory. The hats are first woven by local women, working at home in the villages outside the city. They are delivered to the factory where they are examined and graded.

Homero Ortega buy only the best of the examples sent to them, so those that don’t make the grade will be sold instead in local shops at rather lower prices. Those that are selected are graded according to the weave (more strands of straw to the inch gives a finer quality hat) and sent back out of the factory, this time to specialist hat-shapers, usually men, who trim and neaten the edges and shape the hat on a mould. When they come back to the factory for the second time they are bleached, dyed, reshaped and given their final trim. They are then ready to be sold – here in the factory’s shop, through specialist outlets or sent all over the world. The best hats fetch huge sums – some over $1,000! We were shown photos of many famous people wearing Homero Ortega hats, including film stars, politicians and pop singers.

From the little museum, we went into the working part of the factory, but unfortunately as it was a holiday weekend very few people were at work and we could only see the machinery (very simple and unchanged for generations) and have an explanation of how things were done.

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Trying on a hat

Naturally the factory has a shop, and naturally our tour of the factory ended there. But I have to say that there was minimal “hard sell”. We were persuaded to try on a few hats (and I at least was happy to do so, as some were gorgeous!) but no one forced the issue when we said we didn’t want to buy. Had we wanted to do so, the price range was considerable – from $25 for the simplest men’s ones, made from the coarsest straw, up to around $1,000 for a couple of special ones displayed in locked glass cabinets. Wilson explained that, sadly, making these ultra-fine hats is a dying art, with only a handful of people known to be producing them. They sell through agents, and even the factory owners don’t know where these skilled workers live, or anything about them. It is assumed though that they are by now fairly old, and that when they die there will be no more hats of this quality, so these are usually bought as an investment. Not an investment we chose to make however!

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Our little tile

In a room that led off the hat shop was another shop, selling a good range of high-quality souvenirs including Tigua paintings, jewellery, organic coffee and chocolate and more. Here we did spend some money, buying a small ceramic tile with a picture of a blue footed booby that caught Chris’s eye (in anticipation of seeing the birds very soon in the flesh) and a packet of my favourite chocolate-covered coffee beans so that I could get my caffeine fix “on the move”. Then it was on to our next stop with Wilson

Mirador de Turi

I had read about and wanted to visit this viewpoint to the south of the city, so I was pleased when Wilson told us that we would be going there on the tour. It is a popular spot because it affords such a good panorama of the city, including the historic colonial part. You can pick out the blue domes of the new cathedral and from there orient yourself and find other landmarks such as the Parque Calderón. From this spot it is easy to appreciate the grid layout of the early city planners, and also see how the rivers wind through the city throw that plan out in places.

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Mirador views

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Iglesia de Turi

Next to the viewpoint is the Iglesia de Turi, which dates from 1835. We didn’t have time to go inside on this tour so were unable to see on the main altar the sculpture of the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of the parish (made in Spain, about 80 years old), and on a side altar the Calvary with the image of the Lord in Bethlehem. This latter is also commemorated in a grotto a short climb above the church.

According to a local legend, the Christ Child appeared to a Cañari shepherd boy on this hill, and since then the Cañari people have had a special devotion to him, coming to the grotto and to the church to leave offerings such as bird feathers, animal feed and small model animals at his feet, thereby ensuring that throughout the year their animals, their livestock, their crops and products are blessed.

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Horno

From the Mirador we drove through an area to the south west of the city famous locally for its restaurants and street-food, and in particular for its horno or roast pig. The smell (to a non-vegetarian) was delicious! And we were interested to see how the pigs had been decorated with flags to mark the independence celebrations that weekend.

Once back in the colonial city Wilson parked the car and the rest of our tour continued on foot.

Plaza San Sebastián

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In the Plaza San Sebastian

I thought this was one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Cuenca, although there is a gory piece of history attached to it. It was constructed in the 17th century to serve as an open marketplace for the western part of the city. The church (which was unfortunately closed when we visited) is recently restored and has a carved wooden door, single tower and octagonal raised dome. In front of the church is the Cross of San Sebastián which marked the western limit of the city.

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Iglesia San Sebastian

As we strolled around with Wilson he told us the tale of a member of the French Geodesic Expedition, the surgeon Juan Seniergues, who had come to measure the Equator and later settled in Cuenca. He was by all accounts a bit of a womaniser, but made the mistake of turning his attentions to the former girlfriend of a local dignitary and became embroiled in a dispute between the dignitary and the girl’s father. At that time (1739) the plaza was the venue for bull fights, but one evening at one of these a fight of a different nature broke out here, between the surgeon and some local “heavies”, and he was murdered. It had the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but it is generally accepted, according to Wilson at least, that his murder was ordered and planned.

Today this is such a peaceful scene that it is hard to imagine that it was the location for such an occurrence. And on the south side of the plaza is a great little museum.

Museo de Arte Moderno

This museum is worth visiting even if you have little interest in modern art, because of the lovely building in which is located, but even better if you do have such an interest because of the manageable size of the collection and exhibitions, and the way in which they are presented.

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Museo de Arte Moderno

The building is the former Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance), built in 1876 to house people with drinking problems. It later became a convent and then an orphanage before being restored in late 1970s and opening as a museum in 1981. The building has been very sensitively adapted for this new role and provides a somewhat unique setting for the art, which is for the most part displayed in the series of very small rooms (some no larger than cells and housing a single sculpture) which open off the pretty courtyards. You could spend a very pleasant hour wandering from room to room and then relaxing in the greenery of one of those courtyards.

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Exhibits outdoors and in

The exhibits are a mix of those from the small permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. When we were there the latter included some intriguing sculptures as well as paintings exploring how modern technology is changing who we are as humans (or so I believe from the limited amount of Spanish labelling that I could guess at, and the works themselves).

The chapel of the Temperance House has been restored to its former appearance and is used as a venue for talks etc. If not in use, you can pop inside to see the lovely painted ceiling and friezes.

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Chapel ceiling

A traditional craftsman

Next to some art of a different and far more traditional nature. Leaving the Plaza San Sebastián by its south-eastern corner Wilson led us down a street of small traditional houses, far less grand than most of those nearer the centre of the old city around the Parque Calderón. This is Coronel Guillermo Talbot and in one of the houses on the west side a traditional craftsman, working in tin, has his workshop. Wilson took us in to meet him. It was a fascinating place, the walls covered with examples of his craft and his tools laid out on the small table where he worked – tools he has clearly been using for decades. He proudly showed us his newspaper cuttings with several articles from local papers in which he has featured. Wilson acted as translator as he explained that sadly his son, like most younger people, has no interest in following in his footsteps and the craft of engraving in tin as he does it is dying out.

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Tin craftsman

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Engraving the tin

Of course all his work is for sale, but I’m sure you could come and visit just to see the work. Probably though, like us, you will feel that you want to make at least a small purchase to acknowledge his time and support him – and as a memento of the visit. We bought two of the pretty tin stars that he makes, to give as Christmas tree ornaments to my family. If you want something more than this there are photo frames, larger ornaments and pictures, many (but not all) of a religious theme. We paid $6 for each of our stars, which is at the lower end of the prices. If buying a more expensive item I reckon it would be possible to haggle but we didn’t as we were mainly buying to thank him so haggling seemed to go against that somewhat!

Plaza del Cruz del Vado

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Cruz del Vado

Continuing our walk, we came to this little square perched on a ledge above the Rio Tomebamba on the southern edge of the colonial city. There are good views from here over the more modern city on the other side of the river. Its main feature is a cross, called the Cruz del Vado, which is protected by a six-sided structure. This cross was erected as a symbol of protection for travellers who had to cross the waters of Tomebamba.

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Greasy pole sculpture

Next to the cross is an interesting modern sculpture depicting the Ecuadorean version of the traditional greasy pole contest. Women in local dress watch as two young men try to climb up to where a selection of pots, pans and other household objects dangle above their heads – such very practical prizes!

This square is located in one of the most traditional neighbourhoods of the city. Houses near here are for the most part less ornate than near the centre and some are run down and in need of restoration. Others though have been smartened up, and several have the traditional roof tile decorations to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. It’s an interesting area to explore and I was pleased Wilson had brought us here as it wasn’t a part of the city I’d read about at all.

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Traditional roof decorations

And nearby was an even more intriguing place. Wilson asked if we were easily offended, which seemed an odd question, but we assured him that we were not, so he proposed stopping for coffee in a rather different sort of café.

Prohibido Centro Cultural

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In Prohibido Centro Cultural

In one of the old houses on La Condamine, which are gradually being restored, a local artist with a bizarre but very creative mind has undertaken a restoration very different in style. Yes, the old house (dating from 1810) has retained its traditional layout, with small rooms leading off open courtyards. But the décor in those rooms would I am sure shock the original inhabitants, although if you go with an open mind you will be intrigued and entertained.

You must knock for entry (apart from when one of the regular music events is going on) and will be charged just 50 cents. Believe me, it’s worth it! The whole house is an intriguing shrine to the macabre. There are skulls, coffins and tombstones; religious imagery with more than a twist; designs inspired by tattoos, heavy metal music and black magic; even a guillotine! And if you want to use the bathroom facilities (and you must!) you will find yourself washing your hands in water that flows from the “private parts” of an appropriate sculpture – a goddess for the men and an impish creature for the women.

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Light-fitting

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Typical of the art here

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Hand-washing and guillotine

As you can imagine we spent quite some time looking around and taking photos, but after a while took our seats with Wilson in the small open courtyard where we had a coffee. The artist’s wife sat with us and was stringing flowers as she chatted, preparing them for their afternoon visit to the family graves as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. We wanted to treat Wilson to coffee but she said his was on the house, so we paid $3 for our own two. This is definitely something worth doing when in Cuenca if you want a change from the more conventional sights – and if, as Wilson put it, you are not easily offended!

We finished our tour with Wilson by walking some more interesting streets, peering into a few shops and ending up, a lot later than intended (by mutual agreement!) in the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, which we had already seen and which I have already described in a previous entry.

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Locra de papa

Having said our goodbyes (and tipped generously as was deserved), Chris and I headed for a late lunch at nearby Raymipampa, where we had enjoyed our fruit juices the previous morning. We had a short wait for a table, but only a matter of minutes. I had the traditional soup, locra de papa, which was very good (one of the best I had on the trip) and a sparkling water, while Chris had a toasted cheese sandwich and a Coke.

After lunch we spent a bit of time relaxing in the Parque Calderón and enjoying some of the festivities there and in the surrounding streets, before heading back to the hotel. There we went down to explore the garden and enjoyed meeting the resident cats. There are some chairs set out here for guests to relax in, and you can access the hotel directly from the river through this garden.

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One of the cats

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Cheers

Before dinner that evening we decided to try out the offerings at La Compañia Microcerveceria. It claims to be the first micro-brewery in Cuenca and when we saw the sign we decided we just had to go in and sample its beers. We liked the rather higgledy-piggledy arrangement, with tables on different levels and a friendly buzz, but were less impressed with the beers themselves – which were sort of the point! My Irish Red was OK, if rather cloudy, but Chris’s Golden Ale somehow managed to be both watery and a little acidic in flavour.

It was good to see that local entrepreneurs want to produce local beers, but we concluded that they would have to get better at it than this to really make an impression on the ubiquitous Club / Pilsner duopoly in Ecuador. Although having said that, the bar was busy enough when we went and many people were sinking back large glasses, mainly of the stout, so maybe that is a better beer than the ones we tried?

Las Monjas

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On our first evening in Cuenca we had eaten at the restaurant rated number one in the city, and the only way to follow that seemed to be to try the one rated as number two, Las Monjas. And to be honest, based on just one visit to each, I would give this one the edge. The only surprising thing is that it isn’t busier. This was a Friday evening and we were amazed to find only two other tables taken as we had worried that we might not get in, having not got round to making a reservation. This really deserves to be better known!

In contrast to the traditional décor of Tiesto’s, the atmosphere here is cool and modern. It looks expensive, but while you can certainly eat more cheaply in Ecuador, the prices here are not really much higher than many a less-good restaurant and we thought it was excellent value for the quality of the food.

They describe the cooking here as “New Andean” – a kind of Andes/European fusion. That may sound odd, but judging by what we ate, it works! The cover (which like everywhere we went in Ecuador was complimentary) was garlic bread with four delicious sauces – two with chilli and two we couldn’t identify. We then shared a mixed starter platter (one of two on the menu) which consisted of my favourite Ecuadorean treat of llapingachos (cheese-filled potato patties), cheesy empanadas (sprinkled with sugar as is quite common here), a stuffed green chilli and slice of pork in an apple sauce.

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Garlic bread & dips, and starter platter

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Corvina, and chicken

My main dish certainly reflected the fusion theme – corvina (sea bass) in a quinoa crust with an olive sauce, served on a bed of nicely al dente fettuccini (Ecuador meets Italy!). Chris chose one of several chicken dishes which had pieces of chicken, peppers and other vegetables in a sauce flavoured with tree tomato and accompanied with rice. We had no room for dessert despite a rather tempting menu.

On the way back to the hotel somehow our feet took a detour and we ended up back in the Wunderbar for a night-cap – a margarita for me and beer again for Chris.

Our time in Cuenca was drawing to a close, although we would have the following morning to take in just a few more sights …

Posted by ToonSarah 06:27 Archived in Ecuador Tagged art views restaurants city museum tour ecuador crafts cuenca Comments (6)

Rajasthan: Land of Kings


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Jaisalmer

Picture India, and you are quite likely picturing Rajasthan. A land of ruined fortresses and long-abandoned palaces whose stones speak evocatively of past maharajas. A desert land where rural life is tough and little-changed over the centuries, yet vibrant and full of colour. A land whose people know how to celebrate and how to welcome strangers.

There is also an excellent tourist infrastructure, so it is an easy place to visit. Many of those old forts and palaces have been converted into hotels, ranging from the rather special to downright luxurious. The cuisine is varied and excellent, there is music and dance wherever you go and people are friendly and keen to engage with you. The distances between the major cities, though sometimes long, are easily covered by car or train, or on a tour, so you can see a lot in a couple of weeks, as we did.

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Jaisalmer and Chittaurgarh
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Udaipur and Ranakpur

Our trip to Rajasthan was a private tour with a driver, Mehar, who stayed with us throughout. In most of the cities we visited we also had a guide, but in some, where no sightseeing tour was included, we had what little assistance we needed from Mehar, as we did also on the road if we made sightseeing stops.

We originally planned on doing a group tour in India - not because we prefer travelling with a group (though we have enjoyed a few such tours in the past) but because my parents' frail health at that time made booking not too far in advance a priority and therefore organising a tailor-made tour somewhat harder. But when we contacted TransIndus about their "Rajasthan: Land of Kings" tour, which seemed to visit a good selection of major sights but also the off path places that interested us just as much, we were told that no one else had booked that tour for our chosen dates and that for an additional £125 per person we could do it as a private tour. We wouldn't have a guide to accompany us throughout, but would travel in a car between all the places on the route and have a guide in each. That seemed a good deal to us so we booked the tour and also a suggested extension to take in Ranthambore for (hopefully) some tiger-spotting. The places we visited included a couple outside Rajasthan, but I include them here for the sake of completeness:

Delhi part one and part two
Agra part one and part two
Fatehpur Sikri
Abhaneri
Amer (for the Amber Fort)
Jaipur
Khimsar
Khichan
Jaisalmer part one and part two
Dechu
Jodhpur
Narlai
Ranakpur
Udaipur
Chittaurgarh
Bundi
Ranthambore

A tribute to Mehar, our driver

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We first met Mehar in Delhi, where, along with our guide there, Rajesh, he met us at the airport on arrival and the next day drove us around the city, coping admirably with the challenges of the manic Delhi traffic. He then drove down to Agra, meeting us off the train there the next day and driving us on our sightseeing tour there too. But it was only on the following day, when the three of us set off together on the long drive to Jaipur without an accompanying guide, that we started to get to know him. We were to find that when a guide was with us Mehar largely kept quiet and focused only on driving, but that once alone with him he would become not only driver but also unofficial guide, telling us a lot about the places we were passing through and about the way of life in India. We also learned about him and his family - his village in the north, his wife and children, his life as a driver. In return he asked us about England - what it was like to drive there (very, very different from India, we said), houses, lifestyle.

Throughout our tour he looked after us very well; he drove safely (by Indian standards!), recommend good places for us to grab some lunch or a cold drink (none of which caused us any health problems) and was always willing to stop for photos when we asked, and to spot good photo opps even when we didn't - antelopes, camels, farming activity, etc. He also added a few additional sightseeing stops not on the TransIndus itinerary, such as the Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan.

Mehar is not an employee of the tour company but a freelance driver, and he also arranges and leads tours himself. He doesn't profess to be an expert guide to the historical sites, where he instead arranges local guiding or audio guides, but he has more than enough knowledge about the many destinations of interest to tourists to be able to both organise a tour and provide general guiding and information as you travel, based on our experience. If you'd like to cut out the middleman and book a tour in northern India directly with an excellent and experienced driver, you could do far worse than contact Mehar via his website: Raj India Tours

Our time with Mehar ended when he dropped us at the Tiger Den Resort in Ranthambore. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves. They will have had a safe transfer to their hotel, I am sure, but they weren't as fortunate as we were to have had the pleasure of travelling with and getting to know a great driver, Mehar Chand.

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With Mehar in Ranthambore

Rural Rajasthan

One reason for choosing the tour that we did was that it would take us to some of the smaller, less visited towns and villages of Rajasthan. We were interested not only in seeing the major sites such as the Amber Fort , and the famous cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, but also in seeing how people lived and meeting some of the locals. Driving between the cities with Mehar we were able to stop from time to time to take photos, and he was keen to help us see a variety of aspects of rural life in the state and quick to understand the photo opps we were interested in and to find them for us.

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Life is tough in many parts of this largely desert state. Families do manage to grow some crops but it is hard work, especially as many have to work without modern machinery. We saw them ploughing their fields with oxen or buffalo, irrigating those same fields with an ox-driven waterwheel, cutting and threshing by hand, transporting the crops on a camel cart. But wherever we stopped to take photos we got smiles and waves. People were sometimes amused by our interest but never offended by it. Where we got especially good photos we offered a few rupees in thanks, which were usually received with a smile but on at least one occasion politely refused (though Mehar persuaded the lady to accept). We got some great photos and they got something which we hoped was of use to them in return.

The faces of Rajasthan

Wherever I travel I like to indulge my enthusiasm for street photography, shooting candid pictures of the local people. Unlike many places we have visited, I found everywhere in Rajasthan that even if people spotted my camera they seemed happy to let me continue to snap away, only occasionally indicating that I should refrain from taking their photo. And many were happy, even keen, to pose for photos, like the woman in traditional dress in my main photo here whom we met in Narlai. In fact all of these photos were taken with the subject’s permission apart from the third, which was snatched on the streets of Jodhpur.

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We were also often approached with requests to appear in other people’s photos. We posed with young school boys in Chittaurgargh, a family in Jaipur, another family in a restaurant car park (see photo below - they all piled out of their minibus to pose with me!), fellow tourists in the Sahelion Ki Bari gardens in Udaipur and at Fatehpur Sikri. Mehar joked that we were becoming more famous than a Bollywood star!

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I hope this entry has whetted appetites for what will follow as I describe our journey through Rajasthan: Land of Kings ...

Posted by ToonSarah 09:47 Archived in India Tagged india tour rajasthan Comments (7)

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