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Timur’s Tomb


September 12, 2016: Timur, aka Tamerlane, the ferocious conqueror from my last post, was born in Shakhrisabze, 100 miles from Samarkand across an arm of the Pamir-Alai mountains, but he made Samarkand the center of his empire. Archaeologists date the founding of the city to the sixth century BCE, and it was already both famous and fabled when Alexander the Great took possession in 329 BCE, saying “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined”. The city was to fall and rise again several times over the ensuing centuries, although in 630 CE the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang was as captivated as Alexander. (The scriptures he brought back from India were housed in the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.) At that time the inhabitants were Zoroastrian, but Muslim Arabs took the city in 712. Again, the city would rise, and fall, and then be annihilated by the Mongols.
Timur revived the city, and started the building program that would be continued by his grandson, the astronomer king Ulug Beg. Although Timur planned to be buried in his birthplace, he built a magnificent mausoleum, the Gur Emir, in Samarkand for his favorite grandson, Mohammad Sultan, beside the madrassa and khanaga Mohammad had already built. When Timur died unexpectedly on the way to China, he was buried in the Gur Emir, where he remains, alongside his tutor and sons and grandsons including Ulug Beg.


Samarkand, in its various incarnations, was a destination to dream of, and to reach, if at all, through hardship and danger. Although at the junction of major trade routes – to Iran, India and China – the “Golden Road” crossed deserts and mountains. It almost seemed like cheating to arrive from Tashkent by rail, in considerable comfort. The detailed itinerary for the MIR tour still assumed that we would arrive by road, and with only time for a short introductory tour before dinner. Since we actually arrived in the middle of the morning, we had plenty of time for more, and started at the exceedingly impressive Gur Emir. 


The actual bodies in a mausoleum like this are in the crypt below ground, and the apparent tombs are markers. Timur’s marker is a six-foot long block of jade from Mongolia. Originally intact, it was damaged during a Persian invasion in 1740, but is still a remarkable sight. But it is eclipsed by the mausoleum itself, the outer tiled dome covering an octagonal chamber decorated with onyx, marble and gilding. 
Suitably impressed by this introduction to Samarkand, we ate lunch in an attractive restaurant before dedicating the afternoon the piece de resistance, the Registan.


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September 11-12, 2016: Early Sunday morning we got back in the cars for the return drive to Tashkent. With the sun now behind us, I found the trip much more enjoyable, although while I admired the mountains the cotton fields were monotonous. Abdu told us that we would not eat lunch until after we checked back into the Shoddy Palace, but I was relieved and appreciative that after I said that I didn’t think I could last that long we stopped on the road for borscht and kebabs. The next day we would take the new fast train to Samarkand, and I was looking forward to the experience. I was less pleased by the instruction to pack an overnight bag so that our big bags could go by coach. My day pack was not really big enough to double as an overnight case, and I had just spent a month managing my own luggage on trains in the UK. But I did as I was told.

This was the afternoon we should have visited the Applied Arts Museum, but since it was shut for the holiday we rode the metro instead. The metro stations are one of Tashkent’s tourist attractions, and the decorations were indeed worth seeing, although without the grandeur of Moscow’s. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed. Instead I took quite a few photos of the martial statue of Timur on horseback, situated near the Hotel Uzbekistan. The hotel had been designed by Soviet architects and I found the lattice work facade intriguing. I wondered how the interplay of light and shadow looked from the inside.


But back to Timur, aka Tamerlane, the real reason we were in Amur Timur Maydoni, a rather empty plaza, from which Tashkent’s main streets radiated in all directions. While best known as a remarkably brutal conqueror and despoiler of cities in the mold of Chinggis Khan, he was also responsible for the revival and beautification of Samarkand. Born in 1336 he had become ruler of Transoxiana by 1370, and subsequently fought from Damascus to Moscow to Delhi, and was headed for China when he died in 1405. His particular signature was a pyramid of skulls, and as many as 17 million people may owe their deaths to him. While he must have been an astute general, his empire did not long outlast him.


The next morning my alarm went off at 5:45, and I was not best pleased after we arrived at the station and were all on board by 7:30, given that the train would not leave until 8:00. Uzbekistan’s new high speed trains used Spanish Talgo rolling stock, and we were in business class, the equivalent of Spanish Preferente, which I had experienced the year before. The seats were just as comfortable, but we traveled more slowly, and certainly less smoothly. The ride was too bumpy for me to write. We arrived at 10:05, and immediately headed for the Gur-Emir mausoleum and Timur’s sarcophagus, followed by a remarkable street of tombs and mausoleums. The mausoleums were stunning and deserve their own post.

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September 11, 2014 (continued): after lunch we drove back to Margilan to visit a silk factory. The itinerary said we would visit the workshop of Master Turgunbay Mirzaakhmedov, and I assume that was where we went, but the place was closed, with just one caretaker on the premises. Since this visit had been high on my list of sights, I was particularly disappointed, the more so when I learned that it was closed because of a religious holiday, Eid al-Adha. Now it is true, that since Islamic holidays, like Christian Easter, are set according to the lunar calendar, they change every year, but they are still predictable. MIR would have known that we would visit during the holiday, and that some sights would be closed, but they did not change the dates of the tour. We would run into the same problem on our return to Tashkent the next day as the Museum of Applied Arts, also very high on my must-see list, would also be closed. Those of us staying a little longer in Tashkent at the end of the tour would see it, but three people would miss it, and we all missed a good tour of the silk factory.

The caretaker did explain the technique of extracting silk from the cocoons, but as with wheel-thrown pottery, I was already familiar with the process. His explanation of the technique that produced the warp ikat silk patterns for which the area was known was very hard to follow, and I had to research it later. The warp threads are resist dyed, but the weft threads are a solid color, producing a “blurry” pattern. Apparently, men are responsible for tying and dying the warp threads, but the actual weaving is done by women. Our visit to the silent looms was followed by an extended shopping op. I had thought I might buy a scarf, but nothing really caught my eye.


After a failed search for coffee in a neighboring park we returned to Fergana where an already long day finished with a dinner of plov at a private house. Unlike the other “house” restaurants on the tour, this one was in an actual private house, where we met the family and watched the preparation of the main dish. I suppose it is an exaggeration to say that the plov was a disappointment, as I hadn’t really expected to care for it. I don’t usually enjoy these staged visits, but the family were welcoming. I did feel that a rather precocious young boy was given too much encouragement to outshine his equally engaging sisters, and I suspect this was a sign of a patriarchal society.


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Ceramics in Rishton


September 11, 2016 (continued): Legend has it that ceramics have been produced in Rishton, half way between Kokand and Fergana and almost on the Kyrgyzstan border, for 800 years, with the skills passed down from father to son. Whether or not that is true, it does seem to be true that the local red clay is so pure that the only additive needed is water. Most of the ceramics for sale across the rest of Uzbekistan are said to come from this area. The traditional colors are blue and green, with a glaze called ishkor. I have seen enough pottery throwing demonstrations over the years that they no longer hold much interest for me, but I am still very interested in the end product.
So, after the lively Kumtepa Bazaar we drove over to Rishton to visit the home, museum and pottery of Master Rustam Usanov. After the demonstrations, most of the group shopped and I visited the museum, before we ate lunch. Once again, this was a stop that begs for photos rather than text.





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September 11, 2016: Our one full day in the Fergana valley began with a visit to the Kumtepa Bazaar in Margilan. This market sprawled over a big area, part covered, part not, and was very clearly a market for the crowds of locals, not tourists. Anything they might need, from beds and wardrobes, through jackets and shoes, to car parts and motor oil, was for sale somewhere in the vast area. I never saw anything that could be considered a souvenir. I didn’t find any meat for sale, but I did find produce, including piles of golden onions heaped on the ground. And I found an eating section off to the side, where men sipped tea and kebabs were grilled in clouds of smoke.
Lots to see, not so much to say, so I’m just going to post a few of the photos I took.



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Khudayar Khan’s palace

September 10, 2016: Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a reproduction of the Han dynasty “Flying Horse of Gansu”. The original statue is old (likely second century CE), but the horse’s pedigree is older still, as it was descended from the blood-sweating heavenly horses of Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, first brought to China at the end of the second century BCE. The desire for those horses, wanted for the fight against the pesky nomadic Xiongnu, was what drove the Chinese to first open trade routes to the west.
Look at the Fergana Valley today on a satellite view, and you will see a fertile area some 190 miles long and 100 miles wide, wider at the east than the west, ringed by mountains, and watered by the Syr Darya, formerly the Jaxartes: a coherent whole. But look at a political map and you will see a jigsaw, with the valley split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the irregular boundaries drawn by Stalin in a textbook example of “divide and rule”. Should you wish to follow one of the main branches of the Silk Road east from Dzizak in Uzbekistan, you would cross into Tajikistan to visit Khujand, founded as Alexandria the Furthest by Alexander the Great, go back into Uzbekistan for Kokand, Fergana and Margilan before entering Kyrgyzstan near Osh for the final leg to the Chinese border. You would, of course, have obtained the necessary visas beforehand… But even worse than the political jigsaw, or the forced end to the nomadic lifestyle, or the suppression of religion, was the Soviet insistence that the valley produce cotton. Although the valley was naturally fertile, cotton consumed far more water than had been needed before, and the resulting irrigation starved Kazakhstan’s Aral Sea to the point of ecological disaster.


Besides cotton, the area is known for crafts, and I was looking forward to visits to an important pottery and a silk factory. While I had visited silk factories before, I was interested in the ikat weaving that was a local specialty. I would love to visit the other parts of the valley, but for this trip I would just be in Uzbekistan. We set off from Tashkent the morning of day two of the tour, by car. Apparently, coaches were not allowed to cross the mountain passes. Normally I would have preferred the car, but since I was in the front seat, we were heading directly into the sun, and the AC was off most of the time, I felt I was being broiled. I was very happy to change seats when we stopped part way. At one point we had a good view of the new rail line from Tashkent that had just been finished – perhaps future tours will travel by train, now the line does not go through Tajikistan?
The mountains did not reach the snow-capped heights of those that flank the valley further east, but were nonetheless quite scenic. Still, I was glad to arrive in Kokand for some afternoon sightseeing (we had lunched on the way), although it was really too hot to fully appreciate the buildings and by common consent the last stop turned into a drive by. Rather than keep mentioning the heat in future posts, I will say now that afternoon temperatures were consistently in the mid to high 90s, and we frequently spent the early rather than the late afternoon sightseeing. When I provided feedback on the tour I suggested that it should run a bit later in the year – what made sense 30 years ago has been overtaken by global warming.


I did not take good notes that afternoon, but I did take photos, and I have the itinerary (plus books and the internet). Since one of the photos is of a sign saying “Kokand Regional Studies Museum” I know we visited Khudaya Khan’s Palace, as that is its current incarnation. Only 19 of the original 113 rooms were intact, a sad remnant of the time Kokand was the center of a powerful khanate. Admittedly the khanate was often at war with its neighbors, and the royal family was given to internecine strife, but it was the Russians who finally put an end to it in 1868, even before the palace was finished. Russian control did not lead to peace, as the valley was the source of numerous revolts against both the tsars and the Soviets. After independence the rise of Islamic extremism was met by a crackdown by then President Karimov, culminating in the 2005 Andijon Massacre (the casualty count, of unarmed protestors, ranges from the official 187 up to 1,500). The valley may look peaceful, but its history says otherwise.
But the standout for me was not the palace, but the Jummi (or Jami, or Juma) mosque. Once Kokand boasted 600 mosques and 15 madrassas, but few remain. This, in English the Friday mosque, dates only from the beginning of the 19th century, but the beautiful carving of the 30 foot open arcade on one side of the courtyard seemed timeless. The honeycomb carving at the top of the 98 supporting columns echoed some I had seen at the Abakh Hoja tomb in Kashgar, on the western edge of China. A reminder that it was not only merchandise that traveled the Silk Road, but ideas as well.
Then we traveled, by coach, another 55 miles to Fergana, where we would spend two nights in the Asia Fergana hotel. Another tour group hotel, this was part of a local chain we would encounter again further west.

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One reason I chose the MIR tour of Uzbekistan was the small group size. On my tour there were just eleven of us: two trios (a couple with a woman friend), two duos (one couple, one pair of sisters), and me. Everyone was well-traveled, some had lived abroad, and several had used MIR before – one of the trios had met on a MIR tour of Iran the year before. Even better, everyone was friendly, and everyone was hyper-punctual. Only eight of us met up for introductions and lunch on the first day, as one trio was flying in from Seoul that afternoon, having chosen to avoid Istanbul.

Although there were only eleven of us, lunch, as with most meals, was at a tour-group-friendly restaurant (Taroma, in this case). Another group was already there, and an online check indicated that music and dance accompanied dinner. But I certainly couldn’t complain that we were underfed. The meal started with Indian-style samosas, followed by cream of potato soup, stuffed cabbage and peppers and dessert (which I mostly skipped). And bread, Central Asia’s other staple food, alongside plov. Not only is it a staple, it is treated with great reverence, and left over bread is never just thrown away. Cooked in a tandoor style oven, it comes in rounds, with a thick raised rim, the size and style varying with location. (One of the photos below is from Tashkent, and one from Bukhara.) However, it was always made from white flour, one of the bad carbs I was avoiding.



Sightseeing started after lunch, with a drive to the Chorsu bazaar. Chorsu means “four ways” or “crossroads”, and this area served traders even under the Soviets, who built the two-story dome that sheltered the main section, where meat, vegetables and spices were sold in clean and orderly surroundings. Less-favored vendors sat on the ground outside, and after giving us time for photos Abdu led us round the corner to a clothes section, offering both everyday gear and wedding finery.



The day was hot and getting hotter, but we pressed on to the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shoshi mausoleum, which held the sarcophagus of a tenth century doctor, philosopher and poet, although most of the building dated only to the 16th century, followed by the Moyie Mubarek Library Museum which sheltered the 7th century Osman Quran, said to be the world’s oldest. The library held a number of other interesting Qurans, but unfortunately no photographs were allowed. More beautiful tiled buildings flanked the large Khast Imom square, including the residence of Uzbekistan’s grand mufti (think archbishop).


After this visit to old Tashkent (although a number of the buildings were new) we returned to the present day at the Crying Mother Monument. Built in 1999, it honored and memorialized the 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died in WWII. Their names were recorded along the corridors leading to the weeping mother and the eternal flame. This was clearly not a memorial to heroism or glory, and I find it interesting that war memorials are becoming less grandiose. I was reminded of the memorial to the Russian dead from the Afghan war I had seen in Ekaterinburg, centered on a tired soldier leaning on his rifle. I found this memorial particularly moving.

We finished the day walking through Independence Square, where we chatted with some English-speaking kids, and were introduced to the storks I had noticed in the morning. A guard warned me off photographing one of the buildings, although I think I had already done so earlier. Then Abdu went off to the airport to meet the final three group members, one trio went off to the ballet, and the others returned to the hotel for food and sleep. I chose to go back to Bar Sylva. Since I passed on the home made wine this time (too sweet), the bill, with tip, was only 36,000 som (about 12 USD at the then current exchange rate, about 10 USD today).



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