A THOUSAND MILES OF TRIALS AND TREASURES
In a journey filled with bazaars, bribes, and brides, Torie Olson
travels into the deep corners of Uzbekistan, discovering wardrobes saturated with color and mystery, plus an irritable
encounter with the KGB.
At harvest time, my friend Rosie and I take a thousand-mile road trip across Uzbekistan, from the Black Desert into the Red Desert and up to the disappearing Aral Sea.
Through remote market towns and fabled Silk Route cities, we ride in a little square car, Russian made and unequipped
with seat belts, in the company of a charming Tajik driver and a sweet, young bodyguard riding shotgun. Behind us in the trunk are ten liters of bootleg gas bought at back doors along the route.
Before traveling by Yak (and not the kind you think) to Khiva where we begin our cross-country trajectory, we take a side trip to the Ferghana Valley where, after decades of Soviet suppression, the traditional arts are having a revival. Here, Russification has been replaced with a new nationalism and silk ikat is its flag.
The road from the capital is shared with donkey carts, men on horseback, and herds of sheep and goats. It funnels through tunnels, dips in and out of Tajikistan, and comes within spitting distance of Kyrgyzstan. When the Russians reformatted this territory, they mixed everyone up in hopes of preventing an ethnic stronghold.
Heartland of Uzbekistan, the Ferghana Valley is largely given over to the state’s cotton commerce which in addition to feeding a world fabric industry also provides wood to fire local bread ovens and oil (mixed with rendered sheep fat) for use in the regional cooking.
What has also grown in this fertile valley is Islamic fundamentalism, which Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet despot has done his best to quash with a secret police force still referred to as the KGB. The call to prayer has been banned, but bearded and skullcapped men still fill the prayer halls. I’m surprised by the number of valley mosques until I realize that half of them are banks with minarets. Apparently, Money and God are using the same local architect.
By the roadside are mountains of cotton awaiting export, piles of Persian melons overseen by lounging purveyors, and roadside bread stalls where women in flowery kerchiefs and floury aprons rush up to the car windows to tempt us with hot non.
At our first chaikhana or tea house, this bread is not cut, but torn into pieces by the man at the table who is Anvar, our guide. Over the next few days, he will take us to mud brick villages where artisans work in the old ways.
At the threshold of each Ferghana workshop, Anvar sings his hellos, stretching Salaam Alaikum! into a melody with a dozen notes. “If the door is open, it means the husband is home – not a good sign for the boyfriend!” he says with a wink. I laugh at his joke, and also because my best guide ever speaks English like Borat.
We visit woodcarvers who create Koran stands, ornate columns, and tapchans or tea beds from local mulberry and walnut; ceramists reinventing the colors of the desert sky with glazes made from minerals and mountain grasses; horn makers welding ceremonial brass trumpets that are two meters long; knife makers crafting handles from the horns of mountain sheep, gazelle, and Bokhara deer; and skullcap makers who construct tetrahedral hats out of cardboard and fabric. To each master we sing Chi roy li! This is the phrase Anvar has taught us to show our appreciation for fine work. I think of it as the Uzbek version of Oh, wow!
Finally, we meet the silk wizards who produce ikats for Uzbek and international clients including Oscar de la Renta. In the courtyards of the silk houses, men are winding, tying, and drying warps. Women are reeling cocoons and peeling onions for a communal meal. They will save the skins for the dye pot beside the baskets they’ve already filled with walnut hulls, grape and mulberry leaves. In the dye works, men stir steaming vats of flowers, fruit skins, and insects harvested from pistachio galls. And in a hall full of clacking, wooden looms, brilliant-hued, blurryedged patterns are taking shape. Unlike many traditional textiles, ikats do not tell a story. Their designs are not figurative, often unrecognizable, and some say magical.
Several of the contemporary craftsmen are wearing chapans, the dazzling, quilted robes that are t-shaped and cut to move with your body. During their heyday in the 19th century, chapans were like gold, a form of currency. To showcase their wealth, people dressed for success with chapan on top of chapan, layers and layers of them held together with ornate silver belts. And sometimes there was another reason to wear your whole closet....
There is a story of a woman on death row who was
saved by the forty robes provided as bride price by her husband. She was wearing every one those padded garments when she was flung off a minaret. Impressed by her bright idea and the cushioning power of chapans, the emir did not command the executioner to try, try again.
In addition to the forty-robe bride price, chapans have been treated as heirlooms, passed down through generations, and bartered in times of need. They were used as bribes and as decorations for victorious athletes and war heroes. In fact, there was a chapan called a “four head robe” and a finer one called a “forty head robe” that were presented to soldiers after they’d beheaded four or forty enemies.
In the early 20th century, the Bolsheviks confiscated all of these robes as evidence of a bourgeois lifestyle. During Soviet times, Uzbeks were forced to dress in the same drab work clothes and labor in factories. Individual expression was sacrificed at the altar of the masses, and craft production was replaced by mass production.
The centuries-old guilds were outlawed, but their artistry was not lost. Extensive skill sets were passed in secret to the next generations. To make one ikat, twelve masters were required, including a designer, a warp binder, a Tajik dyer (to hot dye reds and yellows), a Jewish dyer (to cold dye with indigo), and a weaver to bring the brilliant silk abstractions to life. There was also a finisher who coated the ikat with egg white, polished it with a thick hemisphere of glass, or calendared it with a wooden hammer to create a moiré effect.
After each demonstration at today’s silk houses, we are invited to buy. Anvar sees me anxiously eyeing robes I am sure I cannot afford. “Not to buy, just to try,” he says, summoning a full length mirror. I shrug into a wealth of cloth. OMG! Chi roy li! I cannot help but whirl. The ikat blurs further and the sumptuous silk catches the light, changes colors, rustles like autumn leaves, bird wings, the softest kisses. These designs are called cloud patterns, not because they resemble clouds, but because they, too, seem light as air and can change in a flash. I cannot walk away without one, and luckily, I don’t have to pay Oscar’s prices. But the purchase is still hard to rationalize since this chapan will be my bathrobe, not my dowry.
Hearing of my interest in marriage rites, one artisan escorts us down an alley to a home where two daughters are receiving. As brides-to-be, their faces are draped in white peek-a-boo veils “embroidered” with gold plastic and dripping with sequins. They lead us to a gaudily-curtained stage where they have been accepting gifts all day and bowing their thanks. On display are a refrigerator, a sewing machine, a batterie de cuisine, and a sky-high pile of ikat cushions. We present our gifts and they bow the prescribed three times and then bow many times more; apparently, it is further humbling to have foreign visitors in your home. It is a good thing they are still so limber and so young. While by law an Uzbek bride must be nineteen, these two do not look the least bit legal.
Other valley girls pose for us in parandjas. Also bridal clothes, these silk outer robes are woven in fine stripes or
solids, their edges trimmed with embroidered peacocks and gates of paradise. With impossibly narrow sleeves for decorative purposes only, parandjas are worn over the head like cloaks with a black length of horsehair to veil the face. Anvar sees my look of dismay at the horsehair, and all he can offer is, “It makes a good sun screen.” A traditional bride will wear a parandja for the first weeks of marriage then stow it away in her dowry trunk. It will not be seen again until it covers her bier. After her burial, the parandja will be ritually purified and passed on to a daughter.
Uzbek hospitality being legendary, we are invited into many gardens, each of which contains the three fruits of paradise: persimmon, pomegranate and grapes. We recline under mulberry trees on ikat-cushioned tapchans, drinking tea out of small blue and white cups patterned with ikat or cotton bolls. In Uzbekistan, tea making is marked by a transformative ceremony that takes it from mud (loy) to tea ( choy) to wine ( moy). The tea is poured first to warm the cup. It is returned to the pot and once the leaves have “opened,” it is poured out again. It is returned again to the pot and decanted a third time. This cup is tasted by the pourer who must test the waters before his guests are served.
The tea of choice is green, an antidote to the high-cholesterol repast that generally follows: shashliks or kebabs alternating chunks of mutton with chunks of mutton fat; samsas or pastry pockets filled with chopped meat and onions; or plov, the national rice, carrot, and lamb dish. But even here in the most traditional corner of Uzbekistan, there are restaurants advertising “Chizburgers! Chizburgers! Chizburgers!”
Early in the morning, we walk down Ferghana’s bread alley where young men plying bellows scare up huge fires under giant beehive ovens. Others roll out rounds of dough and stamp them with a chekich, a wood-handled collection of nails that creates dotted patterns and keeps the flatbread flat. Glazed with egg wash and sprinkled with nigella seeds, the dough is now placed face down on clay domes and slapped up against the oven walls. In a few minutes, a non is cooked and cooled enough for us to tear and taste.
In Uzbekistan, there are breads made to last one day, one week, and one year. The bread with the greatest longevity is made for the son who goes off to war. Before he begins his compulsory yearlong military service, he takes one bite of his mother’s non. The rest of the round is hung on the wall. If he doesn’t make it back, the bread stays on the wall in remembrance. But if the war doesn’t kill him, year-old bread won’t either, and he proves his prowess by finishing it off.
At Ferghana’s Sunday bazaar, women wheel their fresh-esh-baked
breads in prams, brides try on gold-sequined skullcaps and little boys model circumcision suits with no idea of what’s in store. The marketers and merchants are in chapans combining traditional Uzbek style with the Soviet aesthetic. They are the same t-shaped robes, but made from cheap dark corduroys, padded with cotton, and lined with faded Russian chintz. Underneath, the men wear baggy old western suits. The women’s suits are ikat knee-length dresses with matching pantaloons, but the material is synthetic and the colors look like they’ve been electrocuted. Anvar likes these factory goods about as much as I do and gives us one last directive: “If you want to go straight to paradise, do not take your skills with you. Before you die, you must find pupils and teach them.”
Our transport to Khiva is by Yak-40, a three-engine Russian jet. We were supposed to go on from there to Turkmenistan (another forty miles), but without explanation, the Turkmen border had been closed to all foreigners. No matter. Their red rugs and huge hats are here in Khiva.
A Turkmen hat or telpek is crafted from karakul kid and worn in winter and summer to insulate against cold and heat. Really, it is more hairdo than hat – an Afro wig for a khan. I take one look at this supersized accessory and wonder if the size of a Turkman’s hat correlates with the size of his... wealth. I want one in the worst way (a hat) but I failed to bring my steamer trunk or my porter.
Khiva is a stunning town. Over the centuries, it has been home to 96 mosques, 68 madrassahs (religious schools for boys), twelve minarets, and about five miles of crenellated walls, some dating to the fifth century, most added in the seventeenth century, and all restored by the Soviets in the twentieth century. These days, Khiva is more of a museum than a living city. Like Sturbridge Village, there are costumed crafters around every corner. Next to the milliners are merchants selling Turkmenistan’s Tekke carpets (mistakenly called Bokhara rugs), always red and patterned with the hoof prints of their legendary Ahal-Tekke horses. There are girls knitting slipper socks and embroidering suzanis, the floral silk or cotton spreads that decorate tables, beds, and walls, and are an integral part of an Uzbek girl’s dowry. Chi roy li! we call out as we pass.
We walk the ramparts and visit the Friday mosque held up by a forest of pillars, the oldest dating back a thousand years. We learn that a cushion of sheep’s wool was placed at the base of each column to keep insects from destroying the ornately-carved wood. So far so good.
In the courtyards of ancient madrassahs, we see miniature painters copying fourteenth-century masterpieces, and rope walkers dancing three high on wires stretched between azure tiled walls. We stand with rapt children watching an open air puppet show, but I am less interested in the story than in the costumes. The puppeteers are dressed in Khivan-style chapans which are cloud patterned, quilted, three quarter sleeved, and stiff as cardboard. A pink and purple ikat has caught my eye. Rosie sees my covetous look and says, “Offer her a hundred dollars,” and soon I am wearing a new coat.
From Uzbekistan’s most western city, we take to the
Ferghana Valley girls pose in
parandjas, cloaks worn with a horsehair veil by brides.
road. Our tall Tajik driver pretzels himself behind the wheel and drives at a gallop. With no English, Sanjar looks over his shoulder to speak to us with movie star winks and great devilish grins. We are told that Javlon (who is Karakalpak) speaks our language well, but he doesn’t speak much of it to us. There is no geographic, historic, political, or social commentary on offer. He is uber polite, thoughtful and kind, but his main preoccupations are finding a bride and the next black market... and keeping us out of trouble. Turns out he is our muscle, not our guide.
We head into the Red Desert where the sand is pink and blowing like crazy. At Ayazkala, there is a yurt camp where we will spend the night. I have heard that this area was Amazon country. Our hostess, Rano, is certainly spirited enough to be descended from warrior women.
We have the pick of twelve yurts since it is late in the season and too cold for tourists. It is hard to choose as each one I check out comes with an overwhelming stench of dirty sheep and a dirty dog across its threshold. Another party does arrive, but they are Uzbek: three KGB men accompanied by women who are too wild to be wives. We walk up the hill to a crumbling fortress built by some khan or other. Javlon does not fill in the blanks, but that is not his job. By the time we return to camp, the KGB have had their matinee and gone.
With exuberance and panache, Rano serves us supper in the red rugged, dining yurt. Over a lovely spread that includes a platter of coo roo (chicken) bones in the most delicious sauce, she attempts to tell us her story in broken English, Russian, French and German. We adore her instantly. She encourages us to buy vodka which is the only way to stop caring about the lack of actual coo roo. (Did she feed that to to the dogs and leave us the scraps?!) It also warms me to just above the freezing point and gets me up and wiggling when the Gypsy band arrives.
There is a rabab with strings made from fish skin, and a large tambourine made of bull skin. The third man wears a Turkmen hat and plays the accordion. There is also a dancer dressed in a mass of marigold chiffon. She is quite plump and quite old, but boy, can she spin!
I have a whole yurt to myself. There are four sleeping cushions in a row, each covered by a cotton comforter. I try to sleep under all four comforters. I wear my two chapans and wish I’d bought that big, nappy hat. Even in Princess in the Pea mode, there is the possibility of turning to ice.
At 2:00 A.M., I am forced to come out from under my mountain of cotton. En plein air, I pee as fast as I can, but get frozen in place by the breathtaking temperature and a most spectacular spangle of stars. Pants down and
open-mouthed, I gawk as one meteor after another arcs across the heavenly dome. Never have I seen such splendor in the skies.
Always on the lookout for my late husband, I imagine the star show is his doing. I dream on in a delirium that could be attributed to hypothermia or love. I wave wildly. But on the verge of losing my back end to frostbite, I am forced to zip my pants and return to the tent where I’m almost desperate enough to invite one of those mangy mutts under the covers with me.
In the morning, I defrost and we move on to Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the middle of nowhere with its own tradition of yurt dwelling and wife stealing. This is Javlon’s homeland, but he is not here to kidnap a bride. His mother, a revered school teacher, will negotiate for one. In Uzbekistan, your mother is your Match.com.
Traditionally, a groom’s mother begins the matchmaking process by examining a girl’s dowry, especially her embroidered suzanis. If the candidate’s needlework is outstanding, the groom’s mother will request an “open face ceremony” and the horsehair veil will be lifted. If the girl’s looks pass muster, the groom’s family will pay the bride price. I also learned that Karakalpak brides once married in dresses weighing twenty-five pounds, perhaps another way to survive a minaret dive.
Today Karakalpakstan is home to Karakalpak tribal people and the descendants of Russian intellectuals exiled here after the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result of seventy-five years of Soviet ruination, it has become a land of abandoned factories, empty apartment blocks, barren land, collapsed fisheries, and a disappearing sea.
The reason we are here is one amazing museum. We have come to see Social Realist art collected by a man named Savitsky and created by the Russian exiles and their Uzbek colleagues. These stunning works are the painted and sculpted versions of the photographs we’ve been taking. In Fauvist palette are cotton pickers, tea drinkers, bread bakers, ikat makers, carpet sellers, bowing brides...
We are hours away, but as close as we will ever get, so we ask Sanjar and Javlon to take us to what’s left of the Aral Sea. Over the last sixty years, it has shrunk by sixty percent, and every day, it is losing more ground. The river that fed it was hijacked by the Soviets for irrigation and bled dry. This sea has been sacrificed for cotton.
We travel though remote areas where tourists are not welcome. In one town, there is a large crowd watching a troupe of rope walkers. We stop to photograph but a KGB agent insists on a huge bribe. Javlon will have none of
We have the pick of twelve yurts since it is late i n the season
and too cold for tourists. It is hard to choose as each one I check out comes with an overwhelming stench of dirty sheep
and a dirty dog across its threshold.
that. There is yelling from both sides and a shoving match. Things seem like they are about to go bad. But Javlon has a VIP up his sleeve and, thank God, his cell phone works in the outback. The KGB backs down but the atmosphere is sour, so we move on toward the end of the world.
The landscape does not change from one mile to the next. Its Soviet-style uniformity is unnerving. Nothing here is still alive and that makes me feel like an apocalypse survivor.
Sanjar stops just short of what used to be a harbor. Beached in the new desert is a line of trawlers that have deteriorated into rusty, skeletal hulls with graffiti from stem to stern. This is a shocking, eerie scene: the very visible sea change that was caused by an unbounded cotton hunger.
We visit the fourteenth-century tomb of Baha-ud-Din, a silk textile maker turned dervish. He was the founder of the secretive Naqshbandi Sufi sect and deviser of eleven rules by which to live: Hands to work; heart to God... (I’m down with that.) Be merry every minute... (That, too.) The door to heaven is at the feet of your mother... This last one, put less poetically, is an edict to travel only in your own country. Baha is not my guy.
I wander off to the wishing tree, an enormous, contorted mulberry that was once the saint’s cane, according to local belief. Present day Sufis are digging away at it with their nails, trusting that one chip of this sacred wood will keep them from all harm.
Bokhara is another city of architectural wonders. There are three mud-brick trading domes chockablock full of
Uzbekistan’s fabulous decorative arts at fabulous prices. The chapans I bought wholesale in the Ferghana Valley and off the puppeteer’s back were a steal. Here, I buy enough ikat scarves to trail behind me all the way home.
The real Bokhara rugs are quite different from the Turkmen’s Tekke rugs. In former madrassahs, we see young women sitting on the floor to work with colored silk at frame looms. Between their crazy patterned outfits and the complicated patterns on the warp, it is difficult to tell where girl leaves off and rug begins.
In Bokhara, Gypsies transport the trash in great holey bags perched haphazardly on donkey carts; with their dark eyes and shy smiles, they transport me, too. We also find the Zelony Bazaar, my favorite green market of the trip. Here, fruit sellers sit on the ground polishing their pyramids of peppers and tomatoes. Chi roy li! I compliment their produce. They offer me apples, grapes, and pomegranates. I can’t refuse but with my hands full of gifts, I can’t take photographs. Perhaps that was their intention. I duck around the corner and pay the fruit forward to an old woman down on her luck. She presses her hand to heart in the traditional gesture of gratitude and I return to take more photographs and receive more gifts.
We have dragged Javlon to many food markets as these merchants are some of our most engaging subjects. But he hates hanging around with the vegetables and fruitiers. The chubby matrons and old men would bore any twenty-something wannabe Californian. While Javlon seems to disappear into thin air at these places, there is nothing secret about the secret police.
The KGB are all in black in a sea of women dressed in flowery bathrobes, flowery aprons, flowery kerchiefs, and flowery socks. They don’t like me here any more than Javlon does, and they try to shoo me away. But I am invincible, having been
I am blocked on all sides by walls of silk and embroidery. As the vendors rush at me, I walk backwards to try and fit them into my viewfinder,
but I rarely win at this game.
smoked by a Gypsy with a tin can full of burning herbs that can keep the evil eye at bay. When I ignore the men in black, they shout at me. When I still ignore them, they push me, but before I am toast, Javlon always reappears to extract me.
In some little village between Bokhara and Samarkand, Rosie makes a formal portrait of our shy bodyguard. She’s made him look like Valentino and he is very pleased. Surely the head shot will facilitate his mother’s headhunt, and Javlon’s chances for a pretty bride will increase.
Samarkand is a mind-blowing, mosaicked town, its mud-baked monuments glazed in heavenly blues. In the tenth century, Timur launched a building campaign like no other, resurrecting a city that Genghis Khan had razed. The Registan has to be the most beautiful town square in the world. No longer caravansary and bazaar, it is now a tourist treasury of ancient architecture.
But for me, Samarkand is all about a living art – the suzani, a word meaning needle in Persian. I stay on Suzani Street where needles were once manufactured and go on a spree in a suzani bazaar.
A girl works her first needle at seven, learning the chain and couch stitches that will decorate fields of silk or cotton to fill her dowry chest and mark other rites of passage. Much of this embroidery features flowers, fruits, stems, and leaves. Also popular are the sun and moon symbols from Zoroastrianism, which preceded Islam in this part of the world. Many suzanis feature eight circles, one embroidered each month of a woman’s pregnancy. There is no ninth, because by that time she can no longer see over her midsection to work the needle. Like heirloom chapans, heirloom suzanis are assets sold only in times of need.
Samarkand is Sanjar’s town and he knows it inside and out. He takes us to a Sunday market on its outskirts where we are besieged. Cloth merchants race over to us, pushing, one in front of the other, to display their vintage dowry hangings. Chi roy li! I am blocked on all sides by walls of silk and embroidery. As the vendors rush at me, I walk backwards to try and fit them into my viewfinder, but I rarely win at this game. They play it every Sunday, although today they are more aggressive because we will be the last to buy until the wild tulips cover the hillsides in spring. In the end, I put away my camera and take out my money. At this late date, they ask so little for their silk gardens. They are almost gifts. With hand over heart, I buy from everyone.
Knowing of my interest in Gypsies, Sanjar makes my trip by taking us to an “India” village. They have become sedentary like the rest of the nomadic peoples in Uzbekistan and live in tumbledown Gypsy ghettos on the circumferences of cities. There is no silk here.
At sight of us, Roma women flash their eyes and duck behind doors. The men look menacing, peeping out from behind fake lace and entrances painted with crosses. We are left in the streets with the children – a couple of ragtag, posturing boys and a pack of little girls holding hands and falling over each other like puppies. I love these little girls. They look like they are playing dress up, swimming in flowered dresses that will fit them for life. They must be eight or nine or ten, but there is something in their dramatic demeanor that tells me they have already experienced all there is of life. I imagine poverty, abuse, marginalization, but all I see in the face of that darkness is fierce joy. Their eyes are deep and bright, their laughter is raucous, and their hair is wild and long, with the exception of one whose head has been shorn
(to rid her of lice, I suspect). The most animated of them all, she wears a sweater that says “Limited Girl ” and that just rocks my heart.
Sanjar drives us over the mountains to Shahrisabz, hometown of Timur. We have a guide for the monuments there. She is a beauty and a modern girl, but has, no doubt, stitched a suzani or two by which a groom’s mother can ascertain her worth. Javlon sticks close to us. Subtle is an overstatement in describing their flirtation, but a few peripheral glances is all it will take to set Javlon’s mother in motion. But even he is confused. “Do you think she might like me?” he asks once we are back in the car.
There are more suzani sellers here, but my suitcase is full to bursting, so we sit on ikat cushions under mulberry trees and buy tea instead. Rosie pours the first cup, then pours it back. The cup is warm. She pours the second cup, then pours it back. The leaves are open. She pours a third cup and tests the waters. Loy moy choy. And then it’s my turn to taste the wine of Uzbekistan. Wf
A man enjoying his afternoon tea while mounds of fresh dough are placed inside an oven.
Nearly lost in a cacophony of color, a weaver is guided by a color-coded chart on graph paper.
Rows of bridal skullcaps for sale at Sunday Bazaar, Ferghana.
Sandals on. Sandals off. It’s a matter of preference.
Silk ikat robe or chapan.
Top: A man wearing a telpak, a Turkman hat made from the hide of a long-haired karakul sheep. Middle: A gypsy dancer. Bottom: A woman and her goats at the Sunday livestock market.
Women at the Suzani Market, anxious to make a sale as the tourist season draws to an end.