Plov is more than just a national dish. It is an institution with National Plov Centres where loads of men and a few women go every day to eat the rice, meat and dried fruit combination with a few chick peas. At the bottom of the large Kazan ( plov casserole in which 2 or 3 men can sit) floats the oil and fat. Thursdays are considered the best day for plov . The bravest men drink this liquid which is supposed to heighten their libido. No wonder more children are conceived on that day.
Today our eyes are glued to minarets, domes and all the Registan monuments, the magic of all the bazaar colours even if they are surrounded and dispersed among soviet style buildings and Japanese noisy cars. They all came here. From Alexander to conquer, Genghis Khan to destroy, Timur to build monuments as well as an intellectual centre, Omar Khayyam for knowledge, the Persians and Chinese for commerce, the Russians to rule. It was Central Asia capital, economic and cultural capital. It is unfortunate to see the aggressive renovation of the communist days and the recent urge to “redesign” the city.
But there is some mitigated feelings about the city. The Old city has disappeared. Large avenues have been cut to create new green parks. The Old city has been walled out by high modern walls to screen off the real life of the people. These modest houses are slowly being renovated by individual efforts each one in his own personal style with new materials in a chaotic way. It is to be feared that the grandeur of the city’s impressive monuments will not be able to divert our attention from this. The result of the main city monuments renovation leaves an impression of diluteness in a city without soul. Scattered monuments with no relation with their immediate surroundings. Khiva and Bukhara had more coherence.
We have not seen much of Tachkent yet. We hired a travel agent for the Tajikistan. That was cool. Kyrgyzstan visa was tough. We waited 3,5 hours for a 5 minute interview and we need to go back tomorrow for a possible visa on Friday at 16H00.
There is quite a difference between Caucasians and Central Asians, especially the Uzbeks. They have known a golden age under Tamerlane somehow lost under the Russians rule. Strong pressure to wipe out the past, and the older generation is still in-between this communist experience and the establishment of a new national identity. The young are already open to the e-world but foreign contacts remain scarce. We are approached by genuine and sincere young people who only wish to talk and exchange a little. Communication remains difficult, their English very bookish and our Russian and Uzbek almost inexistent. We were very impressed by this 51 year old man with traditional hat speaking about all the French literature classics and not about Zidane , G Flaubert, JP Sartre, M Proust , E Zola , G de Maupassant , etc
For me this is one of the peaks of the journey, Samarkand has always been mythical, some kind of Xanadu that only existed in my imagination evocative of the splendid Silk Road. And here we are finally!
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.
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.
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! 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.