By Harry Glickman, with Jeannette Glickman, 1998
It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Uzbeckistan, Turkmanistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, countries with names impossible to pronounce let alone try to remember. But with the magical Silk Road stories and the birthplace of the beautiful Buchara rugs that adorn our home we jumped at the opportunity to join an English-speaking tour that was taking off from Israel. Fortunately we knew so little of what lay ahead that we forgot about the fact that Jen will be 80 this year, and as I tell my grandsons who want me to play basketball with them, I am pushing a hundred. So we took off with eleven youngsters, aged from about 30 to 60, into the desert of central Asia not cognizant of the fact that the inhabitants of that area are mostly children and their grandparents are contemporaries of our children. Like it must have felt to the elders on the camels in the caravans of old, we wondered on that third day if we were capable of surviving this 'vacation'. Debby ordered a folkcrafted box made and used extensively in the area. Should we get two, a five-footer and a six-footer in which our remains could be transported back to Israel? I thought about this story and a title, 'From the Silk Road in a Box', or 'Ending on the Silk Road'.
The ride to Tashkent in a new Boeing 767 was easy, with the night in a first- class private German-operated hotel. In the morning we visited the city, where millions of trees were planted after the earthquake of 1966. The bus rode through the Old City that had not been destroyed, its houses of 'mud' with wooden framework allowing them to sway and bend during the trembling of the earth beneath. A short visit to the bazaar with brightly dressed women from the country displaying for sale the vegetables that they grow on small tracts of land alongside their homes. We were impressed with the cleanliness and relative quiet. (Remember, we are used to the shuk in Netania.) There were vast amounts of spices, small raisins, almonds, sunflower seeds, a huge area exclusively for meat, and another just for pita-type bread. Not enough time here, as we were off to catch the flight to Khiva, an ancient restored city, about 600 kilometers East across a vast desert. Located between two deserts, Kara Kum (black sands) and Kyzyl Kum (red sands) Khiva is the most intact and remote of the silk road cities. It seems that most of the mosques and madrassahs (Moslem schools) date from the fourteenth century and have been restored to their original splendor.
It was here that we got our first taste of Uzbek life as the hotel was the home of a family now in the hotel business. Two nights in this place gave us lots of atmosphere but what we needed was comfort and some decent food. How many tiny raisins and finely chopped beets and carrots can one eat? I became convinced that the chair is as great an invention as the wheel after trying to get comfortable sitting on the floor under the huge table to nibble at little dishes of soft salads until the soup arrived, followed by rice covered with a meat gravy. The rice dish actually did have a good flavor. I describe this meal in detail as it is what is served for every meal and followed by green tea. I would be remiss without congratulations for the complete in every detail Seder brought from Israel so that we could recline in traditional manner!
From Khiva we traveled by bus to Turkmenistan to see the results of the exploits of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes. We were accompanied by two Russian guides who were with us for the full twelve days, the local guide, the bus driver and his brother assistant, and, of course, Alex the leader and promoter of the tour. At the border the officials get excited about a tour bus wanting to cross and make the event into an international incident requiring proper negotiations. Alex prepared us and Sirgay with instructions to Sirgay to lecture about anything, just keep talking. The fees for the visas were doubled, as it seems that the particular day was some sort of holiday. It was an hour to clear this outpost in the desert, where the officials were happy to have their boredom interrupted. The vast space of Turkmenistan meant an endless drive to the famous Kutlug Timur minaret, the tallest in central Asia, built in the fourteenth century. Over a million inhabitants were slaughtered there by Genghis Khan and his gang, the city destroyed, and now only the minaret and a mausoleum built in 1370 stand. The vast area of the former city, covered with the bones of massacred Moslems, is a holy area.
The long drive to this historic sight was broken only by a stop at another huge bazaar with countless small vendors like a swap meet but disorganized, with lots of people sitting on the ground selling a few tiny raisins or sunflower seeds. And everywhere were rugs displayed on the ground or draped over cars, cloth, food, water, hardware, and always like hundreds of individuals selling pita-type bread. The dough was flattened with a wooden stamp making the four-inch circle in the center thin and tough. Neither Jen or I saw anything that we wanted to buy. Alex, however, did load the bus up with apples, tiny raisins and almonds, a few miserable oranges, many bottles of water, and a dozen huge round pita breads. No lunch stop was required as the food on the huge bus was always available. But what was on everyones' mind, of course, was the fact that the only known toilets were in the hotel which would not be reached back in Khiva until maybe ten that evening. Dinner at ten was OK, but the four or five bathrooms at the makeshift hotel seemed far away. Alex would have the bus stop for any reason at anyone's request. A flower growing in the desert, a native with a herd of goats, a camel, but mostly it was a 'pit stop', ladies to the right and men across the road. I'm sure that I was not alone in the worry of becoming sick and having 'the runs' in a region that has not yet geared up for tourism.
That evening when Jen opened the bathroom door and Jeff Isaacson stood naked coaxing water out of a showerhead, then to find that the roll of toilet paper had fallen into the bucket of water used to flush the toilet, that we started to feel that we were too old for this sort of vacationing. But it was off to Bukhara, a familiar name at last, in the morning. We would be crossing the Kyzyl desert about three hundred kilometers West which thankfully would bring us a little closer to Tashkent from where in nine days time we would depart back to civilization.
Hg with Jen May 6, 1998.
We will try to record the next episode for next week.
Here is the continuation of Uzbek, you now have Uzbekistan. I hope you find it as interesting as we. hg
The long trip to Bukhara was delayed for a visit in the old city of Khiva to the home of a dealer in old rugs. Upon entering the family home I felt as though it was a set in a Hollywood film. Dimly lit with low doorways and ceiling, a baby on the floor, teenagers and women busy pouring tea and serving dishes of tiny raisins to the foreigners who, for some mysterious reason, were willing to pay real money for worn-out carpets. And the fact is that almost every one in our group, other than Jen and me, was ecstatic over these old shmates, which we could hardly distinguish coming in from the bright sunlight outdoors, and bought several pretty good rugs. The law making it illegal to remove any handmade article over ten years old from the country adds to the excitement and intrigue of the purchase. The vendor provided a receipt stating that the article complies, but warns that there is risk of being held up by officials. Now, concern about problems at customs joined our continual worry, where and when would we again need a toilet.
Bukhara was one of the interesting cities in which we were to spend three nights, a welcome respite from the busy morning to night touring of the past three days. Arriving at eight thirty in the evening we checked into a brand new hotel, an eight story monster with only the sixth and seventh completed. It was back in the lobby at nine for a short ride to a home in the old city where the family operated a restaurant for tourists. No change in menu, but for the first time we sat on chairs around a large table in the courtyard. The following morning it was back to the same area of the old city, again dating from the fourteenth century with the mosque, madrassah and other beautifully restored buildings left from the heyday of the Moslems. Today, after 70 years of Communism, only these old treasures remain with very few active mosques left. The late afternoon brought us to the Jewish quarter for a visit to the synagogue and into a home where matzo was baked in a concrete oven in the courtyard. Like the general population these families seemed poor but not in need of basics. With rent practically free and food, including meat, costing pennies, it was the 'luxuries', automobiles, telephones and TV that most are in need of. Like the Moslems of the region, culture and history are important; few are now orthodox. Practically every family has relatives living in Israel and many of those whom we met have visited.
It was three nights in Bukhara but the expected rest near the hotel was a fantasy. It was three nights but only one day; in the morning we were off early heading toward the Himalaya Mountains and across the border into Tajikistan for a visit to some ancient city ruins reminding me of the old stuff in Israel from before the Common Era. It was here that we saw a new city that looked like an old village of 40,000 peasants employed in the collective farm system. Very few cars but children coming home from school were all neatly dressed; they gathered around and followed us to the bus teasing for souvenirs. With free education compulsory through twelve years and free medical and dental treatment, it appeared to me that the families of this remote community of Moslem farm workers, whose income we would consider below the poverty line, were living in a dignified manner. It was here that we visited a museum in which a competition of high school students was in session, with rooting and yelling like at a sport event. It was seven that evening as we passed through a small city when Alex screamed out to stop the bus. A wedding was about to be performed; he, always on the lookout, recognized what was happening behind the six foot high fence on the other side of the road. A short conversation in Uzbecki with the man watching the gate and we were invited in to be treated as honored guests. Participating in the dancing and applauding the teen age couple who looked nervous and frightened, we left before the feast of tiny raisins, grated soft vegetables and the mountain of rice was served, but not until after a short talk by Alex of congratulations, translation by Sirgay, and presentation of a gift to the newlyweds. Again it was long after dark when we arrived back to the luxurious hotel and our private bathrooms; then off to another makeshift-in-a-home restaurant in the old city of Bukhara before retiring close to midnight for our third night in this city. We would depart early the next morning for the 'Jewel of Islam', Samarkand, the city most visited by tourists today and usually the only stop in Central Asia by travelers touring China or India.
So it was off again in the huge intercontinental bus to which we transferred in Bukhara that was not built for these chuckhole-poxed roads. Like riding in a boat on a rough sea, the vehicle seemed top heavy swaying from side to side. But the extra space in this 50 passenger monster was welcome, and the tiny toilet room provided a feeling of security even if we didn't use it, the open air facilities on the side of the road much less confining. Visiting more madrassahs, markets, and the ruins of the palace of Tamarlane in Shakhrisabz dating from the year 1336, it was late afternoon when we arrived at the toll pass over the mountain short cut to Samarkand, a spectacular winding climb to the summit which we were told saved driving over 200 kilometers to our destination. Worry, of course, whether the pass would be open and if our driver was licensed to drive the bus on this road.
As usual it was after dark when we finally arrived into what appeared to be a bustling city, a first class hotel and, for the first time, a significant number of other tourists. Two full days in this city famous for the grandiose and magnificent Registan Square with its museums, madrassahs, and mosques. Also, the Shah-i-Zinda, the most beautiful and holy of the mausoleums. Even I was impressed with the immensity and beauty of these reconstructed masterpieces. As I gazed at the huge colorful mosques with their decorative domes I wondered if our Temple could have compared in grandeur.
Jen and I finally got some rest as we managed to siesta two afternoons while our collegues were shopping in the stalls set up in the madrassahs of Registan Square. There was ample time to wander through the streets of the city where the natives seemed as much interested in tourists as we were in the activities of their daily routine. Each late afternoon we attended a performance of folk dance and a humorous play for which we did not need to understand the language. Performances are on any day in the courtyard of a madrassah at the request of tour groups. We sat Uzbeque style on a platform under a low table that accommodated eight people nibbling on the tiny raisins and miniature dry garbonzo beans and sipping green tea from tiny cups.
Our adventure on this part of the Silk Road came to an end with our return to Tashkent. Alex arranged for us to attend a comic Russian opera and to enjoy a champagne dinner to celebrate the fact that all fourteen of us managed to survive without a major mishap the crossing in twelve days of desert requiring months with the camel caravans of yesterday.
Like the story of bringing the goat into the kitchen, home with two toilets and lots of chairs seems much more comfortable than before our Central Asia experience.
Hg with Jen, May '98
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