The Silk Road
August 29th - September 21st 2006
Tuesday 29th August
We met the other members of our group at Heathrow, including what turned out to be our exceptionally excellent guide, Angie Carpenter. Angie's diary of the holiday is included, in blue, at the end of ours.
Our long first day started with an overnight flight to Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways followed by another to Bukhara. Somehow we felt that the old Soviet influence might be waning but had not disappeared! An hour's delay warranted no comment by the crew; the on-board meal was served by unsmiling staff; and the bureaucracy at Tashkent meant that speeding through to catch our connecting flight took just under 2 hours! ..although, to be fair, this was due in part to several people's luggage (including Jill's) being packed in a container to go to Amritsar rather than being sent onto the airport carousel for collection! However, our welcome and our impressions of Bukhara overcame this.
We were very tired. Zoe had driven us from our new Wedhampton home of just 7 weeks to Heathrow for a flight at 9.15 p.m. On arrival at our hotel in Bukhara it was 12.30 pm on
Wednesday 30th August (8.30 a.m. English time).
Lunch was scheduled at the hotel when we arrived but we chose a quick sleep instead! By 2.30 p.m. we were in the coach for an afternoon tour of the city. This included a visit to the Summer Palace. Dating mainly from the 19th century, this contained many beautiful Islamic mosaics and other works of art. The complex had been lived in by the Emir, and previously his father, before communism took over in 1920. In a section reputedly constructed as a harem, we encountered a wedding ceremony where the guests and bridal couple seemed delighted that we should be interested in taking their photographs. Within an hour of returning to our hotel (during which we used the internet there as our phones would not work) we needed to be ready to leave for a cultural show in a former Madrassa. This included folk dancing and a fashion show as well as dinner. We sat with Julian and Valerie from Downe and another Julian, from Reading. We were back at the hotel by 8.30 p.m. and went almost immediately to bed. Not surprisingly we had little difficulty sleeping that night!!
Bukhara is an attractive, low rise city of 275,000 people with a history going back 2,500 years. Despite Russian rule from 1920-1991 it has many beautiful old buildings. In fact it markets itself as an "open air museum". It seems that quite a number of buildings have been "restored" for which read in certain cases "rebuilt", but photos in one museum show heavy bombing and artillery damage in the past.
The communist influence remains, with much government control in business, but a considerable rise in private enterprise. Islam is present but seems not to be as in control as in many countries - women go unveiled since a protest burning of veils in 1927 and some mosques and madrasses are used to house traders to enable buildings to be maintained.
Thursday 31st August
Our group of around 37, mainly in the 55-65 age group, spent an intensive day site seeing. Celebrations were taking place this day and the next to mark 15 years of independence from the old soviet regime. Many streets were closed to traffic but the roadblocks were removed to let our coach through - tourists being very highly regarded and valued. We visited the mausoleum (9th century), the Ark - a citadel with largely 16th century walls and buildings, and finally, a disused mosque, before retiring from the heat for lunch. We shared a table with David and Anita from Brentwood (ex city broker), their friends Geoff and Anne from East Horsley (ex Money Market), Valerie and Julian and Terry and Roger who have been friends since attending Theological College in Letchworth and subsequently in the clergy. Terry, now retired, is working part-time for the Diocesan Board in Salisbury and Roger has returned to Letchworth and oversees an Alms House.
The afternoon was a walking tour of certain old buildings, mainly now used by street traders. This presented some conflict between a cultural tour and the desire of many to investigate the tourist goods on sale. We were given a short amount of free time in a Madrassa which was very reminiscent of those we had seen in Morocco.
In the evening we had the privilege of prime seats at the city's Independence Day Celebrations. After a long and boring (to us) speech by a dignitary - possibly about the increase in cotton production?!! - there was a presentation of a book and a red rose to a number of young people who were perhaps high achieving students or sportsmen. Then, following a short military demonstration, there was a series of brightly clad girl dancers. We felt we gained some insight into the nation even though we understood almost nothing that was said or sung.
The hotel kindly kept their restaurant open for us after its normal closure time so that we did not miss our evening meal. Again, not much difficulty sleeping tonight.
Friday 1st September
Leaving at 8.30 a.m., we headed along a modern, if bumpy dual carriageway to our first stop - a ceramics workshop. A further journey of almost four hours brought us to our hotel. The intervening scenery had been of cotton fields, maize and a number of villages. There were also considerable areas of desert. Apparently 60% of the population live in the country and are dependent on agriculture. Our general impression was that, whilst the country is not wealthy, it does not have the poverty that we have seen in many others. 2O% of the population go on to university. We had conflicting figures but it seems likely that the average wage is in the region of £6K p.a. The country is rich in gas and petroleum as well as minerals. It maintains strong trading links with Russia, despite our perceived impression that people have little good to say about the Soviet era. There is the usual story of suppression of the local culture, history and religions. However, at least the two cities we have seen so far seem not to have been blighted by ranks of high rise flats.
After a brief lunchbreak at our new hotel, we left for a tour of the city of Samarkand. It has a population of 366,000 but gives the impression of being much bigger and more prosperous than Bukhara.
Our first stop was at a fifteenth century observatory created by the grandson of Tamburlaine (Timor in Uzbek). We moved on to a complex of religious buildings associated with Tamburlaine and his family and mainly dating from the fifteenth century although some were earlier. We also walked through the adjacent Moslem cemetery where each deceased person has their photograph etched into their marble tombstone. Those with black marble are the wealthiest.
Odd facts given by our guide included that education and health service is free. Students other than in Tashkent, will lose their bursary if they do not work 40 - 50 days in the cotton fields handpicking the crop. Russian attempts at irrigation in the 1960s had so diverted water that the Aral Sea is drying up and currently has a depth of 15 metres compared with 60 previously. The country is the biggest exporter of silk in the world.
Saturday 2nd September
Long road journey to Tashkent - 6.5 hours. Largely dual carriageway except in towns. Usual crowds over roads near markets. Some donkey carts, sometimes in opposing direction (as we have seen in other countries). Very flat and arid but with cotton where irrigated. Large number of buses/ coaches but generally few tourists. Usual problem of pedestrians crossing or just straying onto the road.
We arrived at Tashkent at 3.45 with Jill feeling very poorly. Adrian's turn yesterday. The city is much more modern and like others. Much more traffic - even a small Lada car with a settee and 2 armchairs on the roof but no sign here of donkey carts. Whereas the other cities had mainly minibus transport, this has bus, trolley bus and underground. The impression is of a green city. With a population of 3.5 million it has 70 parks. It also has the usual rows of blocks of flats, but much less so than some places.
In the early evening Adrian joined the group for a 2 hour tour of the major sights, Jill not being at all well. It is clear that Tashkent ("City of Stone") is a very modern city. Much of this seems due to an earthquake in 1966 that demolished the predominantly single story adobe buildings. There are now many attractive new buildings of which the government ones seem to predominate. In particular, Independence Square is surrounded by these and is made more attractive by lovely fountains. There is a modern theatre with more traditional Uzbek brickwork but many modern styles and all interlaced by very wide roads and by areas of parkland.
It is difficult to get the measure of this country. The people seem relaxed, friendly and not poor, but from what we learn there is a very authoritarian government. When we arrived, we had an e-mail from the Childs re oppression of religious groups by making harsh punishments for sharing their faith or even having 2 copies of the Bible/Koran etc. (Apparently less than 3% attend religious services. ) The punishment for stealing a car is 15 years. For possession of drugs it is life (which here is literal). The death penalty will be scrapped next year. Marat, our local guide says the government is wise because they have Afghanistan as a neighbour and they want to avoid similar problems. When independence came, the government found it necessary to be strict as things started to become more lawless.
Marat told us that many Russians had been sent here and that on independence, a large number returned. They still constitute about 30% of the people in Tashkent. His own great grand parents had been sent here in the 20s. They had a shop and flat and were considered wealthy - so these were taken away and they were sent here.
In Soviet times flats were owned by the state and were free. Houses were privately owned.
(Missing day in the Diary)
Monday 4th September (Jillie's birthday!)
Jillie not at all well last night. It is such a pity. By 10.00 a.m. seemed a little better.
Today we flew to Bishkek. The plane was 2 hours later than planned and by the time we got there it was really time to eat and go to bed!! Not much of a birthday for Jill, but the rest of us enjoyed the birthday cake at the close of the evening meal, Jill being in bed feeling no better. In fact she and 2 others saw the hospital nurse that evening.