Thursday, October 23, 2008

Three Magic Cities

We spent a little over 3 weeks in Uzbekistan and saw most of the main sights. The main attractions are the ancient silk road cities of Khiva, Buhkara, and Samarkand.

The first of these that we visited was Khiva. We went here after the Savitsky Museum in Moynaq in a shared taxi. Khiva is a breathtaking place. It is a world heritage site and the inner city is essentially an open air museum which is little changed from the way it was 100 years ago. The inner city is surrounded by it's original mud fortification walls; walls that until 100 years ago were still repelling invaders and keeping people safe. There is little stone in the area so all the buildings are made of mud or baked clay.

The main attraction in Khiva is the numerous minarets (towers) which poke out from everywhere, as well as a couple of wonderful medrassas (religious schools) which date back as far as 1200 AD. When you walk around the streets the tour groups vanish and you can try to imagine what it was like 200 years ago when this place was ruled by ferocious warlords.

We spent about 5 days in Khiva soaking up the atmosphere. One of those days was spent doing a side-trip to visit some ruined forts in the surrounding country side. We hired a car with Shane (our Australian friend) and took a tour to 5 different forts in various stages of ruin ranging from little more than eroded mud walls to a few somewhat better restored sights. The ruins themselves were not that interesting but they were breathtaking in their scale and age. Whole walled cities with thousands of people dotted this area 2000 years ago and now we know almost nothing of the people who lived there. Kings who created huge walled fortresses and ruled huge areas of land have vanished so completely that even their names are forgotten. All that remains is mud walls and the outlines of the extensive irrigation system that was turning the desert into fertile farmland before Jesus walked the earth.

From Khiva we went to Bukhara which was our favorite city. Bukhara also has a very compact historical core, but it is a bit more spread out and we really enjoyed the laid back feel of the place. In Bukhara the main attraction is dozens of medrassas, all studded with blue tile mosiacs. The Uzbekistan government has been criticized for overdoing some of their restoration efforts and many of the building feel a bit too new, but overall we were very impressed by the architecture. Many of the buildings date back to just after when Ghengiz Khan razed the city to the ground. The exception is the Talon Minaret, a tower 1000 years old that so astounded Khan that he ordered it spared. It apparently survived until the early 1900s without any restoration work before the Russians bombed it and put a bunch of holes in. Luckily it didn't fall down and they fixed it up very nicely.

In Uzbekistan the government rents out space in a lot of the tourist sites to vendors who sell all range of wonderful crafts from textiles to pottery to carving. The quality of work here is really quite amazing and I'd have to say that I've probably seen the best pottery, carving, textiles, and metal working of my life in the markets here. Many of the pieces belong in museums and it was a lot of fun to shop for them although they sometimes distract a little from the buildings that house them. Still, many of the buildings are themselves ancient bazaars and it lends them life. The vendors are also pretty mellow on the whole.

Our hotel was very close to the center of town where there is a 500 year old pool surrounded by trees that were planted the same time. There are a couple of very reasonable restaurants around the pool and we had a number of meals there.

Our final stop was Samarkand, which we had already spent a few days at on the way in. 150 years ago few westerners had seen it and , although it was an important stop in the silk road. Now we could get there in 3.5 hours on an express train.

Unlike Khiva and Bukhara, there is no big concentration of sites in Samarkand. The sites that there are though rival anything in the world in their scale and beauty. The best known site is the Registan, a set of three six hundred year old medrassas that are lavishly decorated with tiles and paints. The restoration work is excellent and it is breathtaking to imagine what the ancient city must have looked like before it was wrapped in modern Russian suburbs.

We spent a few days in Samarkand and then headed to Tashkent, the laid back and pleasant capital. The best thing in Tashkent is probably the subway system. The stations are beautifully decorated, each one a unique work of art and architecture. On had tilework on the ceiling reminiscent of some of the old mosques. Another series of stations had beautiful pillars and really nice wrought iron lamps hanging from the ceiling. The subway would make a great photo art book if it weren't for the fact the for some unexplicable reason it is illegal to take photos!

No comments: