THE KAERU KID: On the silk road in Uzbekistan

bioline_KaeruKidEditor’s Note: This is the fourth part of a series.

I have had the most exciting discoveries many times when it was least expected. On the other hand, many places that I’ve looked forward to visiting and read about extensively were disappointing because I had built up an image that was difficult to achieve in person. Uzbekistan was not even on my radar, but I went because it was nearby and the cost and hassle of returning to the area would have been much more costly.

This is a continuation of my visit to Iran. We left by air from Tehran for Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) at about 4 a.m. Uzbekistan is an hour and a half ahead and the flight was about two and a half hours in length.

What a complete surprise to see this city. I expected to see ancient buildings, but no, there are wide tree lined boulevards with many modern buildings, parks with fountains and monuments, a modern metro system and a population that some say is close to four million.  Tashkent was leveled in 1966 by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, so very few old structures remain and a modern beautiful city was built in its place.

We stayed in a five-star InterContinental Hotel, where I noticed Iranians, Russians, Koreans, Italians, Germans and Australians, but no other Americans. Breakfast included bacon, ham, waffles and other items. The fruits looked delicious but were not that tasty.

The downside to staying at an upscale hotel is high prices for everything. Rather than having lunch in the hotel, I crossed the street and had a tuna sandwich and drink for a little over $5, whereas it would cost four times as much at the hotel. Instead of change, I was given some gum.

Our tour of the city included a visit to Imam Square and the Friday Mosque, so called because everyone who can do so, comes on Friday to pray. Smaller mosques are in each quarter, where everyone living in the area can attend any day. Madrasas are schools associated with the mosques. One has to pass tests to qualify. Religious studies are emphasized and astronomy and other sciences if time permits.

President Islam Karimov was democratically elected, but he wields tremendous power and it has been said that he is able to influence future elections so much that he is grooming his daughter Gulnara Karimova to succeed him.

Three modern subway lines are guarded to include inspections of passengers, and no photos are allowed.

A huge bazaar sold all sorts of food, clothing, and house wares.  A food court provided a spicy tasty dish called lagman, consisting of thick noodles mixed with vegetables and bits of meat.

Independence Square had a large peace gate topped with storks representing peace.  A statue of Lenin was torn down when the country achieved independence and replaced with a globe with a map of Uzbekistan and a mother cradling a child. An eternal flame memorial is dedicated to more than one and a half million Uzbeks who died during World War II.

There is also the beautiful Navoi Opera House that was designed by Alexey Shchusev and is a popular gathering spot in the evening. Japanese prisoners of war in 1947 built it and several other structures. The Soviets in the 1950s ordered that all POW cemeteries be razed to the ground and that nothing be left to indicate the sites, but pious Uzbeks refused.

Later, some Japanese families started to visit to pay their respects, and by 2002 with the help of the Japanese government, the cemeteries were rebuilt with the names and birthplaces of the dead soldiers. Sakura (cherry blossom) saplings were planted and Shinto monks consecrated these sites. Japanese tourists and diplomats make it an obligatory stop.

We left by train for an 18-hour trip to Khiva. VIP compartments meant we had only two per room and the door could be closed for privacy. We had a box dinner of chicken with soggy French fries, cabbage salad, bread, a pastry, banana and water. I shared the compartment with our guide. The bed was not very comfortable. The bathrooms had Western type seats, but still were not very appealing.

My guide told me that a one-year military service is compulsory, but by paying $1,000, it can be reduced to one month for marching and small arms training. According to the CIA, the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in 2014. My guide said his friends in New York, Pennsylvania, and California take whatever jobs are available and take classes and soon move up to better jobs. Family size depends on wealth and the rich can afford large families.

In ancient times, the fabled Silk Route was so-called because silk was considered more valuable than gold, as only the Chinese knew the secret to making silk. Roman women especially coveted the material, much like nylons were in demand after World War II. China also produced other unique products such as ceramics and is the reason our fine dishes are called china. The Silk Route was notable for not only carrying trade goods, but also exchanging ideas about culture, religions, and even disease. Some believe the black plague started from China with flea-carrying gerbils (not rats). Along the route, one can see many faces with Asian features. Uzbek features range from blue-eyed blondes, coarse featured dark hair faces to Asian ones and everything in between.

Few people traversed the entire route. Traders would exchange goods at major cities marking up prices at each junction. Marco Polo was one of the few who made the entire journey, and his chronicles are legendary.

Khiva was one of the main stops along the Silk Route and huge adobe walls surround the old town as it did hundreds of years ago. The ancient structures are repaired and maintained so that if someone from hundreds of years ago came back they would feel as though nothing had changed. Tourism is the main industry and to be transported back in time and see buildings as they were then is a great thrill. Legend has it that Shem, a son of Noah, discovered a well in the middle of the desert and exclaimed Khi-wa “sweet water.” It was an important slave trading post until abolishment of slavery in 1917. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.

Our hotel stood at the entrance to one of the main gates. There are many beautiful towers with glazed tiles that housed famous schools, mosques, mausoleums, and palace with its large harem. Space does not permit describing all the interesting buildings and their historical backgrounds. One might download the Wikipedia descriptions, since even guides will not give as much information.

I saw a poster saying there would be a free movie in the evening about Nasruddin Hodja in an outdoor theater. Subtitles were provided for this foreign film about a clever folk hero that I enjoyed immensely.

I recommend reading “A Carpet Ride to Khiva” by Christopher Aslan Alexander before coming here.  It describes a Westerner who helped revive carpet weaving to help local people earn income. The original shop is here and worthy of a visit.

Our small group continued to Bukhara on a minibus. Bukhara is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Silk Route. It was famed for its many schools, trade, and religion.

There’s a synagogue with an excellent school located here, where many Uzbeks send their children here for an education. However, Jews have long been persecuted here, and it’s no wonder that many have left for Israel and the USA.

Bukhara, like Khiva, continually maintains its ancient structures so the minarets, mosques, madrassas, mausoleums, and fortress appear to be just like they were when first built. A young British embassy diplomat sneaked into the city in 1938 and wrote a memoir “Eastern Approaches” describing it as an enchanted city whose buildings rivaled the finest Italian Renaissance architecture.

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Nasruddin statue in Bukhara. photo by the Kaeru Kid

There was a statue of Nasruddin in a square here and I would not known its significance if I had not seen the movie in Khiva.

We continued our journey on a minibus over a well-paved road but then had to jog to the other road.  We were told road construction was given to Germans and Koreans. The German-built road is fine, but the Korean one is falling apart and must be replaced.

Remains of Timur the Great’s Palace entrance

Remains of Timur the Great’s Palace entrance. photo by the Kaeru Kid

We arrived in Samarkand. This was once one of the great cities of the ancient world being located between China and the West.  Naturally, it is also on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Alexander the Great, Mongols, Persians, Turks, and even the Chinese Tang Dynasty had conquered it. One of the most well known conquerors was Timur, who was lame, but with greatness comes a name change from Tamerlane to Timur the Great. He was responsible for the construction of much of the city’s glory when he made it his capital. Ulugh Beg, a great astronomer, built the Samarkand Observatory, which was said to have been the largest sextant at that time. Religious fanatics destroyed the observatory in 1449.

We were taken to the Registan containing fine Islamic architectural gems such as the three Madrasas. The city abounds in other historical sites. Timur’s castle is in disrepair but is still impressive and one can get the sense of his powerful status.

I was asked to shorten the trip description, which prevents me from conveying how much I enjoyed seeing Uzbekistan, but  I urge those who want to see exotic places not to miss a trip here where costs are relatively low, conditions are safe, and where one can see the past just as if it were yesterday.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

 

Las Vegas Tidbits

The Bellagio hotel and casino has been adding Japanese cultural items to its displays, including a Japanese garden display with music in their famed conservatory, which is now over.

They will provide a kabuki program set against their fountains Friday, Aug 14 through Sunday, Aug. 16.  I am not a kabuki (Japanese classical drama) fan, but it should prove very interesting: http://lasvegassun.com/vegasdeluxe/2015/jul/21/bellagio-fountains-feature-30-minute-kabuki-show-a/

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