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On the Modern Silk Road, Discover the Colors and Characters of Uzbekistan

By Anya von Bremzen

10.10.19

From the November/December 2019 issue

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Plates of fruit set out for a ceremonial meal in Bukhara

Photo by Rena Effendi

Plates of fruit set out for a ceremonial meal in Bukhara

Writer Anya von Bremzen reveals why now is the time to experience the Central Asian country’s ancient flavors and traditions.

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It was when the blue bowl fell and broke that a desire to revisit Uzbekistan swept over me in a sudden tremor of remembered colors and patterns.

The bowl, made from fragile, salty clay by the masters of Khorezm, a historic pottery center in western Uzbekistan, sported an intricate, pale azure design I could gaze at forever. It was my trophy from a trip I had made in 1990 to Uzbekistan, the history-saturated crossroads of the Silk Road.

The trip was an act of homage. My beloved paternal grandmother, Alla, was born in 1917 in the fertile Fergana Valley east of Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital. She was raised there by her grandmother, Anna, a prominent Bolshevik women’s rights activist. In the 1930s, Anna was transferred to a political job in Moscow, and later, like many Bolshevik activists, she ended up in a gulag. Alla never talked about Anna—except on those special occasions when she got very drunk and made great fragrant mounds of plov, the carrot-strewn Uzbek lamb pilaf.

Though she lived in Moscow most of her life, Alla never lost touch with Uzbekistan. She visited often and returned with packets of intensely smelly zeera (wild cumin), green tea, shriveled black barberries, and striped fabrics from which she’d sew my pajamas. When my mother and I moved to the United States as refugees in 1974, Alla stayed behind. And when she died at age 60, I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.

And so, on that 1990 visit, I ate buckets of plov and drank liters of vodka in Alla’s honor. The memories of that trip remain in my mind as a chaotic swirl of battered blue-tiled domes, Soviet exhaust fumes mingling with the smoky scent of street-grilled kebabs, bazaars exploding with striped winter melons, and such ethnic diversity—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Koreans, Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians, Uighurs—as I’d never encountered even in polyglot Moscow.

Visitors to the Naqshband Muslim shrine in Bukhara

For decades, politics put on hold any possible repeat of that dream visit. Uzbekistan didn’t improve once it quit being Soviet in 1991. The subsequent 25 years under President Islam Karimov featured harsh repression, restrictive borders, poverty, and forced labor in cotton fields. But when Karimov finally died, in 2016, he was replaced by the reform-minded Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who talked of an “Uzbek spring” for his country of 31 million. Uzbekistan began to loosen up and court Western investors and tourists. I’d heard about e-visas; a newly hospitable vibe; boutique hotels; and a bullet train connecting Tashkent with the historic Silk Route centers of Bukhara and Samarkand.

Finally, it seemed, the moment was ripe for return.

For my week’s journey I decided on a circuit of Tashkent, a modern metropolis of striking late-Soviet urbanism; Bukhara, the ancient center of religion and learning, full of heritage mosques and madrassas; and Samarkand, the majestic seat of Timur, the 14th-century conqueror who reigned over great swaths of Asia. It would be a mini Silk Road sampler—all in one country.

My usual rule is carry-on only. But for Uzbekistan? For Uzbekistan I am hauling a mammoth suitcase, empty but for some expandable duffel bags. Because I’m not out to just replace my blue bowl. Bolts of wildly patterned ikat silk, suzani embroideries, carpets, more ceramics—I want it all. But at the airport check-in, my jumbo Travelpro turns out to be the daintiest suitcase by far. My boyfriend, Barry, and I are flying to Tashkent from Istanbul, where we have an apartment, and at the airport, we join a throng of head-scarved babushkas (grandmas) with fierce, charcoaled unibrows and smiles full of 24-karat gold teeth. They slop along in fur vests and sparkly slippers worn over socks—apparently the Uzbek babushka uniform—dwarfed by their plastic-wrapped baggage, cumbersome as refrigerators on wheels.

Chelnoki (suitcase traders),” a slim, well-heeled Uzbek girl informs me in Russian. Turkish clothing, apparently, is much more desirable than the “cheap Chinese crap” now flooding Uzbekistan. Chatter in the line revolves around wedding outfits, or so I gather from snippets of Turkic Uzbek, Farsi-related Tajik, and Russian—the linguistic stew of Uzbekistan.

Children rehearse for a public concert outside the walls of the fifth-century Ark of Bukhara fortress, one of the city's oldest structures.

On our first morning in Tashkent—population 2.86 million—our Samarkand-born guide, Abdu Samadov, orients us at the outdoor Courage Monument. It presents an outsize bronze couple from socialist realist central casting, striding heroically with babe in arms over a fissured base—memorializing the disaster that literally transformed Tashkent’s identity. On April 25, 1966, a ferocious earthquake, followed by weeks of aftershocks, obliterated most of the historic area and left 300,000 people homeless. Comrades and aid from all quarters of the Red Empire poured into the USSR’s fourth-largest city to reformat it, bang, into a Soviet-modernist showcase. Now, boulevards of existential vastness stretch out in front of buildings in a style one critic calls “seismic modernism,” a sort of Soviet concrete brutalism lightened with orientalist latticework. “The city with the world’s most beautiful prefabricated buildings,” Tashkent has been called.

Keeping Tashkent spic and span? Babushkas dressed in eye-popping hues who sweep everywhere with bizarrely elongated twig brooms. “We like our cities clean,” Abdu declares, redundantly. In Soviet days, he adds, local grandmas dressed in sad socialist grays, but a newfound pride in the national dress of independent Uzbekistan turned them into the world’s brightest babushkas.

As we drive through town, we pass a billboard touting Tashkent’s new urban showcase, an internationally financed lollapalooza called Tashkent City. The billboard stars a celeb condo purchaser.

Mike Tyson.

“Mike must like all the gold teeth,” muses Barry.

If so, Mike would love the vendors at ancient Chorsu Bazaar, one of Central Asia’s largest marketplaces, massed under a sprawling green-and-blue late-Soviet dome. I beeline through the battalions of tables to the bright orange haystacks of grated carrots—part of the kimchi displays by Koreans, who flash their own 24-karat smiles. In the late 1930s, Stalin deported the USSR’s entire Korean population to the harsh Central Asian steppes; in time, they became model farmers. Each vendor’s pickles I sample now involve some unspeakable innards: bits of lung, stomach, spleen.

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In front of us spreads a vast section of Chorsu devoted to strangely textured, lurid-red cuts of meat. Horsemeat. It’s the specialty of Kazakhs. The butchers stand dragging on quick cigarettes between customers under big signs featuring bridled heads you’d expect to see in bluegrass Kentucky. As we continue to wander, quails call unseen from cloth-veiled cages hanging overhead. “Not for eating,” Abdu notes. “The tradesmen like their singing.” (“Like their singing?” another Tashkenter will snort later. “Uzbeks love bird-fighting!”)

Rakhmon Toshev, a master in hand-embroidered suzani textiles, weaves in his home in Bukhara.

Now it’s lunchtime. Plov time! We drive across town to join the workaday crowds at the Central Asian Plov Center, a dining space the size of a convention hall. Rising above it all is another monumental Soviet leftover, the 1985 Tashkent TV tower, which suggests a hypodermic needle cosplaying as a spaceship. Outside the dining hall sit the world’s largest kazans, wok-like vessels inset over fire for cooking hundreds of pounds of the cumin-intensive yellow-hued rice. Plov oshpaz (masters) tend the kazans with long, giant spatulas, while assistants feverishly chop lamb shanks, kazi (horse sausage), quail, and other toppings. Inside, a waitress rushes the plov to our table along with flatbreads, pickles, and an iridescent-jade radish salad. At a nearby table, green-uniformed cops gulp green tea from dainty blue-and-white bowls called pialas beneath massive white columns and long scarlet window curtains. The colors!

On our final morning in Tashkent, we cut through a babushka broom brigade to the Navoi State Opera Theater, designed in the 1940s by Alexey Shchusev, the architect credited with creating Lenin’s Red Square mausoleum. We’re here for the exquisite stucco wall ornamentation called ganch. The overload of lacelike inlaid carving in the six small foyers dedicated to Uzbekistan’s different regions is almost hallucination inducing. The theater’s bossy tour guide proudly explicates a Soviet painting of the Great Fergana Canal, a pharaonic irrigation project for cotton fields completed in just 45 days in 1939 by “volunteers” overseen by the NKVD, Stalin’s brutal security forces. “My grandfather perished building that damn canal,” murmurs Abdu.

A four-hour ride on the bullet train from Tashkent takes us to the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) Desert of southern Uzbekistan. The oasis city of Bukhara is no hulking Soviet metropolis. An ancient pillar of Uzbek religion and learning, this is Central Asia’s Florence. Omar Khayyam, the Persian astronomer and poet credited with writing the Rubaiyat, walked its streets in the 11th century; Avicenna, the father of medicine in the Islamic Golden Age, was born nearby.

At dinnertime, we walk through a humble doorway in the old Jewish quarter. It opens onto the multilevel home and workshop of Rakhmon Toshev, an internationally renowned master of suzani, the intricately hand-embroidered textiles I covet. Son of a ganch craftsman, the burly Toshev is a former road engineer and carpenter (he built this house himself) who learned the labor-intensive craft of suzani (the name comes from the word for needle in Persian) from his grandmother. Suzanis were traditionally made by women for domestic use as wall hangings or bed coverings, an essential part of a bride’s dowry. During post-Soviet nation building, President Karimov declared traditional handicrafts such as suzani-making to be important national art forms.

Toshev invites us to a dining table set up in a display room where his suzanis hang from the high ceiling, drape the furniture, and cover the floor. They are vivid with images of pomegranates, birds, boughs, and flowers. Toshev explains that in the post-Soviet era, Uzbeks rediscovered the sources of natural dyes. His elegant mustardy yellow comes from walnut and pomegranate skins, and his grayish blue from boiled mulberries. As we eat a majestic lamb and quince pilaf garnished with quail eggs, in an adjacent studio Toshev’s daughter, Nasiba, is finishing up the intricate chain stitching and detailing on one of Toshev’s more modest designs, which take about 15 days to make. Larger ones take five months—with prices to match.

And so, two stops into the trip, my Travelpro remains almost empty.

 Preparations are underway for a traditional wedding ceremony in Bukhara.

The next morning I turn to my other mission in Bukhara: crashing a traditional wedding. Uzbek families save all their lives to blow ridiculous fortunes on these weeklong extravaganzas, inviting their entire neighborhood and hundreds of relatives. Concerned about the economic stress from all this, as a new president Mirziyoyev proposed officially limiting guests to 150, but his citizenry almost revolted.

Barry and I stalk brides and grooms decked out in striped silk and gold robes at the popular pre-wedding photo-op spot: the palatial Fayzulla Khodjaev House Museum, a piece of exquisite orientalist eye candy. Wedding invites materialize, but the timing is all wrong, and I’m on the verge of despair when Abdu runs into a friend, a celebrated master of the doira, a beautiful, musically serious relative of the tambourine. He and his assistant are playing a wedding that evening. And just like that, we’re on the guest list.

We arrive at the wedding house slightly late, so we miss the ancient Zoroastrian ritual of the bride and groom circling a bonfire outside. “Tonight’s ceremony is traditional,” annotates Abdu, “tomorrow comes civil, next day religious.” Our hostess, the groom’s mother, happily shoves us into a jam-packed side room where ladies in a riot of sequins, furs, and shiny, patterned Uzbek khan atlas silks sip tea and eat Soviet-style candy on floor cushions. The bride is brought in, with her gauzy white veil and robe of heavy burgundy velvet. Two loaves of naan (flatbread) are held over her head—a prosperity symbol—as she’s maneuvered into a curtained corner while the mistress of ceremony recites Koran verses. Now the groom is led in, cheeks damp with emotion, robed in sumptuous blue encrusted with gold embroidery. Loaves over his skullcapped head, he’s led to the bride’s side. The doira master and his assistant burst into percussion. Jubilant whoops erupt. Barry and I join the tight-squeezed cavorting and dancing as the groom’s beaming dad hands out money to dancers. After the festivities, Abdu does a quick count of our wad of Uzbek banknotes. “Wow,” he says, “you guys scored ten bucks’ worth!”

One of the three 15th and 17th-century madrassas, or schools, on Registan Square in Samarkand

En route to Samarkand we stop in the famous ceramics town of Gijduvan to visit the venerable Narzulaev family’s workshop. And there it is! My blue bowl! The exact specimen! Unfortunately it’s on display in the Narzulaevs’ small private museum. “Sorry, my beauty,” I’m told, “even if you go to Khorezm for your bowl, you won’t find it; their potters have long ago switched to [making] tiles.”

I’m crushed.

But then we’re in Samarkand, Timur’s great capital, a center of Silk Road trade for over a thousand years, gawking at the Gur-i Amir mausoleum, its lit-up blue-green dome like a titan’s pleated stocking cap gleaming in the dusk. Timur, the ferocious warrior-ruler whose bloody conquests ranged from western Turkey to India, had this showstopper built for his fallen intended heir. But Timur, too, wound up in the shimmering, faceted chamber where horsehair dangles from a slender pole, an austere totem of Timur’s nomadic heritage.

Our gawking continues at Samarkand’s monumental official square, Registan, which means “sandy place” in Persian. Tonight its grandiose trio of 15th- and 17th-century madrassas has been commandeered for a 3-D light show.

I shiver in the desert wind as strobe lights suddenly blind us. The history of civilization, no less, launches across madrassa portals and arches. We start with cave painters, move on to Silk Road camels, then zero in on Samarakand: Genghis Khan’s Mongolian horsemen sweep in, Timur’s Turco-Mongolian horsemen sweep them out, then Timur appears mounted in glory. Now the starry heavens wheel over Samarkand’s turbaned 15th-century astronomers, starring Ulug Beg, Timur’s astral-scientist grandson. From here, history miraculously pole-vaults right to “1991” projected in grandiloquent numerals, and straight on to today, where young Uzbek scientists with microscopes study cotton bolls, and kids in party clothes shake and jive.

“XUSH KELİBSİZ!” blazes the giant text. “WELCOME!”

“Never seen such lights, even in Moscow,” a uniformed guard nearby exclaims.

“What, in this frigging cold?” grumbles his colleague.

Next morning we’re back on the road, warmed by a plastic bottle of home-made brandy from Akram, our middle-aged, Chopin-loving driver. Next stop: the mountainous Bibi Khanym Mosque. One of the several legends about its origins claims that Timur had the mosque built to honor his favorite wife, a Chinese beauty, and that the architect fell madly in love with her while Timur was off expanding his empire. The mosque’s tremendous, mosaic-clad entry portal that now shimmers under the bright winter sun was a shabby ruin when I saw it back in 1990. Uzbekistan’s independence sparked a fervor of restoration. Timur, depicted as a murderous monster in Soviet history books, transformed overnight, airbrushed into the shining national hero of independent Uzbekistan. At a nearby teahouse, over a bracing yogurt and rice soup we pose for a selfie with a group of elderly Afghan War vets. “America?” one of them asks. “Does it even have cities?”

Finally, it’s time to feed my suitcase. We end our trip at the cacophonous sprawl of the Urgut weekend market, an hour’s drive southeast, with me bargaining hard for suzanis at a cubbyhole antique-fabric shop. A gold-toothed crowd of vendor ladies squeezes in to watch the transaction. I settle on three beauties—red, dove gray, sunflower yellow—50 bucks for the lot.
And then things go haywire.

The ladies pursue me outside, tugging hard at my sleeve, scrambling along, unfurling their textiles while running. With stunning naïveté, Barry tells someone my name, and the whole posse erupts with cackling cries: “Anya! Anya!” More vendors come running up. I stop, look, attempt to resist, buy another suzani, then scurry along muddy lanes past flocks of sellers of quilted robes, past vats of chickpeas steaming away like locomotives—pursued by sellers and their flapping suzanis. I stop again, buy another, then more. Still they swarm. I dash to the toilet, but they clamber along, insisting on paying my toilet fee. “ANYA! ANYA!” An impassable wall of proffered fabric awaits when I emerge from the bathroom. Finally I manage to scare them off by losing my temper, and madly we run back to Abdu, who patiently waits in a faraway parking lot. I am now the beleaguered possessor of 11 gorgeous suzanis.

My jumbo Travelpro is happy at last. And really, so am I.

The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis in Samarkand was built over 800 years.

How to Visit Uzbekistan

by Brooke Vaughan

Located in Central Asia, this iconic stop along the historic Silk Road is famous for its palatial architecture, bustling bazaars, and multicultural locals. Uzbekistan Airways offers direct flights between New York City’s JFK airport and Tashkent. As of 2018, U.S. travelers can apply for 30-day e-visas at e-visa.gov.uz ($20; allow two to three business days). Writer Anya von Bremzen booked her trip with U.S.-based MIR Corporation, which specializes in Central Asia and Russia. For a customized trip, contact a member of AFAR’s Travel Advisory Council.

Where To Go

Tashkent

In the capital of Uzbekistan, ancient mosques and sprawling bazaars are juxtaposed with Soviet buildings and modern skyscrapers. For a glimpse of daily life, head to Chorsu Bazaar, one of Central Asia’s largest farmers’ markets, housed beneath a blue-green dome. For a taste of the country’s most famous dish, visit the Central Asian Plov Center and sample plov, a cumin-laced rice pilaf made in enormous, wood-fired kazans, wok-like cooking vessels. Come early evening, artists and performers congregate along pedestrians-only Sailgokh Street. To escape the crowds, head to Alisher Navoi National Park, replete with fountains and a man-made lake.

Bukhara

A four-hour train ride from Tashkent, Bukhara offers deep immersion in the country’s religious and cultural worlds. Just outside the city center, the Samanid Mausoleum, with its intricate brick exterior, is the family crypt of Ismail Samani, a 9th-century aristocrat. Within the city center sprawls the Fayzulla Khodjaev House Museum, the 19th-century home of a former Bukharan politician and activist, which features hand-painted carved-wood walls throughout.

Samarkand

This UNESCO World Heritage site, about two hours by train from Tashkent, was a key post along the Silk Road. Shah-i-Zinda, in the northeastern part of the city, is a complex of grand, centuries-old mausoleums; it’s now an important pilgrimage stop for local Muslims. In the ancient center, Registan, a collection of three mosaic-clad madrassas, or schools, are located on a large public square. On Saturdays and Sundays, Urgut market fills with vendors of handcrafted souvenirs, including colorful textiles, jewelry, and ceramics.

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