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Monthly Archives

May 2011

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

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For a 300 000 population and for a 1000 year old city which inhabits the mind of so many people, I imagine Bukhara much busier and livelier. I imagine the bazaars to be thriving with tourists and locals. It is just a quiet, laid back city especially on a Friday which is the prayer day, par excellence. The tourists, mainly French and some Japanese are easily recognized and we meet, re-meet often and salute each other.

It is grander than Khiva with its canals and one can feel there are too many medressas, minarets, bazaars. Again this feeling of frozen architecture pervades. The city centre is amazingly beautiful. Like Khiva, it was a centre for culture and science with eminent people Ibn Sina (Avicenne) among others.

The old fortress, Royal Palace – The Ark – escaped Genghis Khan sack but not the Red army in 1920. It is just some ruins within the fortress walls. The Kalon Minaret is one of the only monuments that was saved by Genghis Khan for its beauty.  Every city we have been till now have been savagely destroyed by the Khan and luckily very often rebuilt by Tamerlane.

The locals seem to live quietly with the few tourists and are very friendly. We are welcomed and called by all the children. Some adults Uzbek tourists even want to be photographed with us.  The older people are all dressed in national costumes. The younger women are beautiful but age does not help them. They quickly age and fade away.


Khiva – Uzbekistan: Being an Architect

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Being an architect in the earlier days could be tough. Most clients were as difficult as now. The Khiva Khan threw one of them from the top of the 56m high minaret because he designed a better one in Bukhara. Another one got impaled because he did not want to commit himself to finish a palace within 2 years. It is not good to say no to power. However there are some few instances of lucky architects I know of. One of them married the Egyptian queen Hapshepshut. More recently Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka is famous among any local person as a national celebrity. So does Louis Kahn in Dhaka, Bangladesh. But the number one remains A Tumanyan who is the national hero of the unnamed city of Yerevan, Armenia with his statue and the main avenue named after him.


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Nukus is just a lifeless isolated city with tree lines avenues and soviet style buildings. But it contains one of the best Modern Art Museum of the world. We did not choose to go to Moynaq to see the dying, drying Aral Sea. The Igor Savitsky museum possesses around 15 000 paintings of unknown and forbidden artists from the 20’ies to the 80’ies. Unbelievable collection unseen from the rest of the world (once in Paris and once in New York only) with Russian and soviet artists extremely avant-garde and with an amazing eclecticism. The museum is worth the whole 24h train trip.

Lunch at the Nukus Bazaar with samsas (original and larger versions of the Indian samoosas) and laghman (noodles with vegetables and mutton).

Khiva – Uzbekistan

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Khiva! Kim thought we arrived into faked world. Something designed and built for tourists. We crossed the West gate of the fortified city and walked to Meros Guest house. The whole city inside the walls is a frozen city in time. Frozen architecture at its best! Old origin since the 8th century, it remained a minor outpost until its reconstruction at the end of the 18th century. It was one of the horrible slave market of Central Asia.

Some of its 60 000 local people still live within the walls and most of them live immediately outside. We are happy to be among the few tourists (mostly European) wandering around here although the season has started yet.

We are progressively travelling from the outer posts Khiva, then to Bukhara and finally to Samarkand. Each city grows in intensity and quality of architecture and presence of history and, of course, traces of the Silk Road.

Aktau, Kazakhstan – Kungrad, Uzbekistan

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We are now in 3rd/4th class social mix. The only difference is that 3rdclass get to choose their seats and the 4th take the remaining seats.

Border pass formalities were smooth and easy with the immigration and customs officers joking to us naming all the French celebrities. Zidane always comes first.

The landscape is dry, barren till the horizon with a few horses and wild camels. These are sometimes domestic animals.  There is no tarred road to Uzbekistan and all the goods trucks and cars ride on sand tracks with a long dust trail behind. Paris-Texas film scenes and landscapes.

Beyneu - Kungrad11




The real action starts at the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border at Karakalpakstan. All the vendors jump on board the train and start selling their wares. I have only seen that before on a bus between Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon. The vendors are young, and old children, women, men  shouting and advertising their products. You can be fed – Pilmieni, Samsa, Shashlik. You can drink, coke, water, tea, beer. You can smoke – cigarettes. You can wash yourself after – Kleenex, soap, razor blades and toothpaste. You can get dressed and/or dress your kin – girls’ dresses, t-shirts, trousers, shawls. You can go home loaded with gifts – toys, napkins, DVD, loudspeakers, perfumes or play the music yourself – Musical instruments. You can call/write home – mobile phones and sim cards, pens and notebooks. And if you don’t have local currency, the black market exchange comes to you; 50 US$ gets you a book thick of 1000 som notes (biggest note = 0,25 US$) . It is an uninterrupted flow of vendors up and down the corridor.


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On the way to Seki. I am amazed by the wealth of culture present in this part of the world. The Azeris love life and culture. They will spend hours at the table feasting with their guests. Each toast is a poetic tribute to life, to their values (family, beauty and emotions). Mugham, their traditional music, has exceptional qualities. Their modern versions have jazz tones and even “fusionned” with jazz at the Montreux Festival. Each traditional song is immediately embraced by the whole restaurant singing passionately their love for their country’s landscape or just some happy/sad love story. Till now they have poetry national competitions (des joutes oratories) widely followed and discussed by the whole population. Poets become national heroes and are remembered till now. The theatres and opera house have a full spring-summer programme from ballet to Don Quixote, Aida and Carmen.


Wine is another wonderful surprise. I would know whether we should qualify their wine as coming from the New World since it was an exceptional Shiraz, given that Shiraz the Iranian city is just a few km away. Yet another example of a very moderate form of Islamic practice. A discreet and respectful way of following one’s religion.