United Hats of Uzbekistan

Even though it was more that 30° in Khiva, I couldn’t miss the Telpeks, traditional sheep hats in the Turkem culture…

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But I am not in Turkmenistan, are you gonna say. Yes, technically I am, indeed in Uzbekistan. Though, The borders of central Asia were drawn by the Soviets with little regard for the culture, language and ethnicity of the different regions.

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Many Uzbeks actually identify as Kazakh, Tajik, Turkmen, Kyrgz and Afghan (and others) – speaking these languages, practising these cultures. The city of Khiva is almost on the border with Turkmenistan, and the region and people are historically and culturally Turkmen.

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Those portraits from the 1920′ speak by themselves, don’t they ?
I have found a more recent specimen of the tradition… See below…

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May 24. Prom’ Day for the Uzbek students !

In Uzbekistan, the summer break lasts three months – June, July, August. And we cannot blame them, yesterday the temperature was already over 35° !
Uzbekistan weather is extremely continental… Minus 40 in the winter time, plus 50 in the summer season…
In Khiva, all students were specially dressed and were all over the streets, creating a fascinating white and black ballets in a town usually filled will inelegant tourists.

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The national population growth rate has fallen since independence (although it’s still high at 2.5% per year) with tens of thousands of Slavs emigrating each year and with the sudden disappearance of subsidies for large families. Over half the population is under 15 years of age.

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This place seemed to be the perfect location for young couples to kiss… But the funny thing is that this is a mosque ! And I can tell you that the mosque intendant was really pissed off, trying to make them leave the place… unsuccessfully 😀


D265. May 24. A Sunset in Khiva

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Samarkand-Bukhara-Khiva. This is the traditional cultural tryptic of a successful cultural tour of Uzbekistan !
I’ve loved Samarkand for its extremely impressive monuments. Though, the city is huge and monuments far from each other. The atmosphere of the city is like a random Central Asia town, nothing special… I’ve like Bukhara, smaller, but extremely crowded with tourists… I’ve loved Khiva. Smaller, more cosy.

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The historic heart of Khiva, unlike that of other Central Asian cities, is preserved in its entirety. As a result of a Soviet conservation program in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s now an official ‘city-museum’, encapsulated behind its walls…

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“Khiva is at its best by night when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and medressas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic”, states the Lonely Planet. I couldn’t agree more.

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Khiva certainly existed by the 8th century as a minor fort and trading post on a side branch of the Silk Road, but while Khorezm prospered on and off from the 10th to the 14th centuries, its capital was at Old Urgench, and Khiva remained a bit player.

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t wasn’t until well after Konye-Urgench had been finished off by Timur that Khiva’s time came. When the Uzbek Shaybanids moved into the decaying Timurid empire in the early 16th century, one branch founded a state in Khorezm and made Khiva their capital in 1592.

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The town ran a busy slave market that was to shape the destiny of the khanate, as the Khiva state was known, for more than three centuries. Most slaves were brought by Turk- men tribesmen from the Karakum desert or Kazakh tribes of the steppes, who raided those unlucky enough to live or travel nearby.

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To keep both of these tribes away from its own door, Khiva eventually resorted to an alliance with the Turkmen against the Kazakhs, grant- ing them land and money in return.

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Do you know who is this man below ? Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khawarizmi. Who the hell is that ?

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Well, in Latin, his name became  Al-Khwarizmi… Say it loud. It turns into : Algorithm !!!

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Yes, Ladies & Gentlemen. He came from Khiva and invented algorithms… Beautiful sculpture, isn’t it ?

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As I was taking pictures of Khiva under the sunset lights, some kids were enjoying the last school day of the year. Meanwhile, some others where helping their parents in sorting out different items that tourists might buy an other day…

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Among them, puppets. The tradition of puppet theater in Uzbekistan dates back to the VI-IV centuries BC, to the reign of the Achaemenids. However, it was not until the XIV century, in the reign of Timur and Timurid, when the puppet theater obtained wide acceptance. Especially popular over the course of history were the fantoccini and glove puppets. Even today puppet performances are represented in theater arts of Uzbekistan.

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Among the contemporary puppet theaters of Uzbekistan, the State Puppet Theatre of Khorezm region, located in Khiva, differs with its special coloring. This is the only puppet theater in Uzbekistan, where one can still feel the spirit of the medieval bazaar performances: the theatrical, puppets, plots, style of live action take the audience back to the past centuries. That’s why, the Khiva Puppet Theater is so popular not only among the people in Uzbekistan, but it is also welcomed with enthusiasm by foreign audiences.

The Uzbekistan Silk Road, Part 3

Bukhara > Khiva. 500 kilometers of dry desert…

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… It looks like a local iguana is drying… Strange habits here…

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That’s where we stopped for lunch though !

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So I entered the dark room and…

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And, below, that’s where we stopped four hours later for a biological break…
Difficult to think about the silk road I must say. I was rather thinking about that film, Bagdad Café… Harsh conditions of living here, for the least.

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In a couple of days, I’ll explore the Aral Sea shores, it’s gonna be even more dry and desperate >>> To be continued…

D263. May 22. Bukhara, Central Asia’s Holiest City


Bukhara has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a thoroughly lived-in old centre that probably hasn’t changed much in two centuries. It is one of the best places in Central Asia for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan… Hereunder, you’ll see the places that impressed me the most.

Sitori i Mokhi Khosa : The Palace of Moon & Stars, summer palace of the Bukhara khans built at the end of the 19th century. In the garden, surrounded with roses, with the breeze of May, I could feel like if I had walked in a European park.

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Bahouddin Nakchband mausoleum
This guy founded the most common sufism obedience in Central Asia.

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The bazar…
First time I buy apricot seeds, they are delicious. It is also the first time I get to see a dead mutton head in Central Asia.

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The citadel walls
Or, more precisely, the ornamental camel who lives next by to attract tourists… I just love his haircut !

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The Kosh Madrasa
Madrasas are islamic schools. those two are pieces of art, and the minaret is one of the highest I’ve ever seen.

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The synagogue
There have been Jews in Bukhara since the 12th century, evolving into a unique culture with its own language, “Bukhori”, which is related to Persian but uses the Hebrew alphabet. Bukhara’s Jews still speak it, as do about 10 000 Bukhara Jews who live elsewhere (mainly Israel). They managed to become major players in Bukharan commerce in spite of deep-rooted discrimination. Jews made up 7% of Bukhara’s population at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, but today only about 800 remain.

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Tchor Minor
In a maze of alleys, this was the gatehouse of a long-gone medressa built in 1807. The name means ‘Four Minarets’ in Tajik, although they aren’t strictly minarets but simply decorative towers.

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Next chapter of this cultural exploration, after Samarkand and Bukhara, will be Khiva…


D352. May 11. The snow is coming…

On the day when we visited the Tash-Rabat caravenserail, we left Naryn under the sun (should you wonder where are Naryn and Tash-rabat, please click here).

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Quite an arid land, though, isn’t it ? After an hour of ride, we get a glimpse on the white mounts, in the horizon…

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Then, as we get up in altitude, snow covers the floor. It gets colder and colder.

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We meet a shepherd on his horse. As I get off the car to take a picture of him, I freeze…

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I couldn’t be a Khirgize shepherd, that for sure… As I walk alone on the road (the car parked behind a tree), a car stops: a nice couple asks me if I want a ride. Here, hitch-hiking is pretty common, as many people don’t have a car.

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And my horseman disappears in the white mountains…

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Animals seem to cope pretty well with the climate : yaks of course, but also marmots, and, more unexpectedly, chicken !

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This was before the rain falled on Tash-Rabat. We met a group of students, living in Naryn, who where coming here to visit the caravenserail with their classmates. Like us, they were wearing warm clothes.

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As we left Tash-Rabat and our cosy trailer, snow became intense…

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Sheeps were struggling, and cow as well.

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Only their shepherd seemed placid, in the eye of the storm…

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… And we had a very interesting chat…. Worse watching, really !


D252. May 11. Inside a nomad trailer

As snow is starting to fall on Tash-Rabat, a woman offers to shelter us in her trailer…

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Thousands of abandoned train wagons like this one have found a second use in the middle of nowhere…

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The trailer is split in two rooms. Kitchen, stove and table above, bedroom below.

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She will cook for us.

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Capture d’écran 2014-05-13 à 14.07.19 Frieds donuts. They are empty but you can fill them with jam. On every table in the country you will find two cups filled with jams, generally made from red fruits.

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And of course the tea. We will have here a delicious, precious, unbelievable moment.
While Nick and David warm up and dry, I learn to the little girl how to watch pictures on my LSR camera she catches it very quickly, in a moment she won’t need me anymore. Then, we watch different videos on my phone. The touch screen has no secrets anymore.

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I don’t remember their name. I don’t think I even asked I must confess, knowing that anyway I wouldn’t remember, but I will never forget the couple of hours we spent together.

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D252. May 11. Reportage from the Caravenserail…

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The above sketch is Tash-Rabat imagined by my Dad, while reading my stories…
On my side, I think of Ella Maillart, a traveller born in Switzerland one century ago.

Her book, “Des monts célestes aux sables rouges”, made me discover Central Asia twenty years ago – English translation of the book : Either “Turkestan Solo, One Woman’s Expedition” or “Turkestan Solo, A journey through Central Asia”.

In 1932, she passes through Turkestan and Kirghize lands on a horse, she climbs the “Celestial Mounts” (Tien Shan) on skis, next to China. She visits Tachkent, Samarcand, Bukhara, before dealing with the “red sand desert”, East of the Aral Sea, on a camel….

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I am now walking on the very places she passed by, in places that have amazing names : Silk road, caravenserail, Celestial Mounts (Tien Shan), Pamir… Next time I’ll go to China and will pass through Turfan, Uruqmi, Kashgar, and the Tacla Makan Desert. And next week, I should discover the “Red Sands), next to the Aral Sea…

Coming back to my story, I’d like to encourage you in downloading the following videos. It might take some time but it’s less than 10 minutes watching, and, frankly, what you will see is worth it…

D252. May 11. The Tash-Rabat Caravenserail…

Tash-Rabat… A stop on the silk road. Let me remind you what where those roads in a few paragraphs, and you will understand how mythical this place is…

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Parthia, on the Iranian plateau, was the most voracious foreign trader and consumer of Chinese silk at the close of the 2nd century BC, having supposedly traded an ostrich egg for its first bolt of silk. In about 105 BC, Parthia and China exchanged embassies and inaugurated official bilateral trade along the caravan route that lay between them. With this the Silk Road was born – A fragile network of shifting intercontinental caravan tracks that threaded through some of Asia’s highest mountains and bleakest deserts.

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The network had its main eastern terminus at the Chinese capital Ch’ang-an (Xi’an). West of there, the route reached the oasis town of Dunhuang and exited China through the Jade Gate. Here it divided, one branch skirting the dreaded Taklamakan Desert to the north through Turfan, while the other headed south via Khotan. The two forks met again in Kashgar, from where the trail headed up a series of passes into and over the Pamirs and Tian Shan (two such passes in use today are the Torugart and Irkeshtam, on the Chinese border with Kyrgyzstan).

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Traffic ran both ways. China received gold, silver, ivory, lapis, jade, coral, wool, rhino horn, tortoise shell, horses, Mediterranean coloured glass (an industrial mystery originally as inscrutable to the Chinese as silk was in the West), cucumbers, walnuts, pom- egranates, golden peaches from Samarkand, sesame, garlic, grapes and wine, plus – an early Parthian craze – acrobats and ostriches. Goods arriving at the western end included silk, porcelain, paper, tea, ginger, rhubarb, lacquerware, bamboo, Arabian spices and incense, medicinal herbs, gems and perfumes. 

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In the middle lay Central Asia, a great clearing house that provided its native horses and camels to keep the goods flowing in both directions.
Rabat (caravanserais) grew up along the route, offering lodgings, stables and stores.

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The Silk Road was delivered a major body blow when China turned its back on the cosmopolitanism of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and retreated behind its Great Wall. The destruction and turbulence wreaked by Jenghiz Khan and Timur (Tamerlane) dealt a further economic blow to the region, and the literal and figurative drying-up of the Silk Road lead to the abandonment of a string of cities along the southern fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. The metaphoric nail in the Silk Road’s coffin was the opening of more cost- effective maritime trading routes between Europe and Asia.

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So here I am, entering the Tash-Rabat caravenserail, 25 km from the Torugart pass, on the boarder with China, at 3000 meters of altitude. When entering the place, going through this corridor, entering the different small rooms, the three of us were very moved.

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The snow is starting to fall. From the caravenserail roof, I have an amazing 360° horizon view. a few hundreds meters from here, a yurts camps. The snow is starting to fall…

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