Khiva, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

I will remember Khiva for a very pretty ensemble of old buildings and … the family. I was upset that, in the urgency of crossing the Turkmen-Uzbek border, I did not take a shot of a nice, smiling father with whom we shared the short drive across the no man’s land. The next day we were walking along the main pedestrian street, which links the West and the East gates, under a beautiful sun and blue sky, a marriage was taking place in the middle of it, we got closer, I took shots, and no sooner were we face to face with the four of them! Ethnic Uzbeks living in Dashoguz by Konye-Urgench (the old city), they had crossed the border to see a physician of their own kind in Urgench (the new city) for Kunduz, the older daughter (above). Having finished their business they were visiting Khiva before heading back to Turkmenistan. They were a living example of the cross-border mix, the cultural mosaic so common throughout Central Asia… and Africa and Latin America for that matter. We had a great time visiting the place with them. Fourteen year-old Dilfuza was just what an adolescent is, bubbling over with curiosity and energy, she kept calling us, looking for things to buy, standing by me for repeated photos, demanding a portrait from Blanca, and that is why she is posing here, against fat, short Kalta Minor minaret (see her in the introduction to Central Asia).


Bukhara, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

Young boy jumping out of the Emir Alim Khan medressa, a children’s library right under the shadow of Kalon Minaret (Kalon is Tajik for great). At 47 m the tallest building of Central Asia when it was built in 1127, the emirs used to throw off it those whom they deemed to be criminals till the Russians forbade it. The latter also drained the canals and 200 pools of the city which had been the cause of several plagues, Bukharans’ life expectancy was no more than 32 years in the 19th century. Disease and killings. A Hungarian traveler, Arminius Vambery, described what he saw in 1863, “eight old men lying on the ground having their eyes gouged out, their tormentor wiping his knife clean on their beards as he proceeded […] impalement was a favorite method of execution, with victims taking up to two days to die […] people caught smoking or drinking alcohol, which the khan of the day had forsworn, had their mouths slit open to their ears, leaving them with a permanent silly grin” [Lonely Planet, Central Asia, p.328]


Boysun, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

We found the easiest way to cross from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan, thoses places who do not have cross-country international buses. Onwe hundred km short of Afghanistan and famed Mazar-e-Sharif, we turned east via Boysun, a starkly wild area, where we went through the biggest ever sandstorm (not on this photo). Quite impressive, an immense tornado of sand soon covered the whole horizon, the sky above a village became the color of clay, deep red, we had to stop twice for we could not see even the front of the car, that lasted for several kilometers. They say it happens often there, not a surprise, we were on the fringe of the grand Amu Darya valley and less than fifty kilometers from Turkmenistan, this was the three countries meeting point, the beginning of the great steppe and desert.


Bukhara, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

We followed alleys to go back to the old city center till we were called upon by Mohinur. She was a well-spoken Bukharan, using a very sweet and convincing voice, she knew quite good English yet she was only 14-year old. She made us promise to go to the Kukeldash Madrassa on Labi Hauz, once Central Asia’s biggest Islamic school, turned nowadays, sure enough, into a bazar where she had a small stall selling the caps her father made. Here she had just returned from school. The same afternoon I got one cap to please her for she was charming and promised to write, she was already pleased we had visited her shop, “Tourists always promise but never come”. We told her we were not “normal” tourists and we valued very much these social encounters. Unfortunately the cap’s colors bled at the first wash.


Bukhara, Uzbekistan, September 2008.

Meanwhile we continued through the back alleys, and found the well hidden Char Minar, Four Minarets, well hidden but not difficult to find, as soon as we appeared, locals pointed us the way, actually it is a gate-house of a gone, early 19th century madrassa with four towers, quite cute and compact, it used to be locked, now there is a… shop inside, so we gave it a miss but sat under the shade of the trees of this peaceful little plaza.

You wouldn’t believe Bukhara’s name came from the word vihara, meaning a Buddhist monastery… indeed it was quite a cosmopolitan place under the Samanid dynasty who had it as its capital toward the end of the first millennium, when Europe was right in the middle of the Dark Ages. Very famous Persians stayed there such as the poets Rudaki and Firdausi, the author of the Iranian epic Shahnameh, which fused Zoroastrianism with Islam. Many Ismaili philosophers and law men, philosopher Avicenna (980-1037 CE), who wrote 450 treatises on a wide range of subjects, and is considered the father of modern medicine with works like The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine, which were used as text-books in the universities of Montpellier (France) and Louvain (Belgium) as late as 1650. Scientist al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) who, at age 17 calculated the latitude of Kath, his birthplace near Urgench, at 22 wrote several essays including a methodology on how to project a hemisphere on a plan, at age 27, calculated the radius of the Earth, used half a millennium later in Europe. And mathematician al-Khwarazmi (780-850 CE), who wrote Al-jabr wa’l muqabalah, the origin of the word “algebra”, and copied the first Arabic geometry from the older Hebrew Mishna Hamidot, which possibly came from China [Michael M. J. Fischer, introduction to Bacon, p.xxiii]. And the Queen, as I called her, the mother of 9 year-old Malika, which means Princess. She worked in the citadel selling her husband’s watercolors.


Bukhara, Uzbekistan, September 2008.


Charvadar, Uzbekistan, September 2008. We had to go to this remote village to find some local handicraft on sale.

Throughout the whole country the monuments did not have one spot not covered by something for sale, Bukhara had hundreds of shops, and all sell the exact same junk at insane prices allowed by the idiocy of the tourists who zip through the country in one-week tours.

I learned later about the reason for this uniformity, which is similar to the cotton industry process, or the coffee production in Central America: an export-driven economy.”The best work was being sent to Moscow” said Miss Meakin, an Englishwoman who visited Turkistan in… 1896 and 1902, I should have known, in El Salvador, the country of coffee, you can find only some weakish, brownish liquid, for the real thing is shipped to the States.

And of course, “Uzbek and Tajik girls embroidering for the Moscow market were less careful than when working on pieces for home use and that among Turkoman rugs in the bazaar at Merv, ‘cheap work and cheap designs abounded, but the Turkoman carpet of worldwide renown was not there’”. This 19th century traveler concluded, “As for the Bokhara of seven years ago, the Bokhara of Vambéry, Schuyler, and Curzon, it was gone forever… In the bazaars that once had not their equal, there is hardly a booth that has not procured its wares directly from Moscow. I spent hours in searching for curios that I could take to friends in England, but there was literally nothing Bokharan left except a few knives” [Bacon, p.110]Over a century later, the markets still sell foreign wares – distributed by the same merchants all over Central Asia, just like we found the same trash anywhere in Western Africa. That or Chinese products, as cheap and as ugly.