Reflections from The College – Time in one of the ‘stans’

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand

By Richard A Roberts, BA TEP CTAPS.

They say that travel broadens the mind, and two weeks in Uzbekistan provided a variety of experiences which certainly stretched the mind. One of the ‘stans’ of central Asia Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly land locked countries in the world, and famed for being on the Silk Road, with the cities of Samarkand, Bokhara, and Tashkent all being great centres of trade. When I visited the human rights record was poor, there was substantial human slavery, male homosexuality was illegal and substantial environmental damage was being sustained. 

The trip was memorable for many reasons, not least our guide Timur whose shepherded us through the whole 14 days and gave us some fascinating insights into the struggles of daily life as Uzbekistan opens its doors to an increasing number of visitors.  Most people who visit do so to admire the architecture of the Silk Road, the colossal Registan in Samarkand, madrasas, mosques, and even brutalist modern Soviet architecture attract many travellers, but beyond that the country can offer much more.

Not unsurprisingly given its trade route location textiles remain at the heart of the country.  Bokhara, where we stayed for a few days, is famed the world over for its rug making and to watch the intricate patterns being woven by hand is a mesmeric experience. Of course there are more modern rug factories springing up to satisfy demand, but the old traditional process remains prominent and productive. Sitting cross-legged, drinking tea, discussing the motifs in certain rugs is a very pleasant way to spend a morning.  

Equally pleasurable was an evening event featuring a meal of Uzbekistan’s signature dish – plov – followed by a fashion show worthy of Milan or Paris Fashion Week and showcasing remarkable silks and cottons for both men and women. Uzbekistan has some amazing modern designers and producers and I was very impressed by the ranges on offer, even for men.  

However the sadness for us tourists with both the rug makers and the clothes makers was that it was almost impossible to buy anything due to the almost total lack of retailers with credit card facilities, and less than 10 cash machines in the whole country and those only in Tashkent. Ready cash was in very short supply everywhere. It was heart breaking seeing real craftsmen producing unique and beautiful hand made items and then not being able to sell them to eager and wealthy tourists. We only managed to acquire a Bokhara rug with a great deal of ingenuity and Timur’s help. For some reason the Uzbek government seem unwilling to promote credit cards or cash machines, and the effect on ordinary people is immense. 

By the way, plov is a main course typically made with rice, pieces of meat (any meat, some of it of dubious origin), and grated carrots and onions. It can be served and usually is served with monotonous regularity morning noon and night.

Two hours by air west of Tashkent is the town of Nukus and home to the Igor Savitsky Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, which not only holds the title for longest museum name in the world but, for me, stands out as one of the world’s must visit art galleries.  Tucked away in this unremarkable town literally at the back of beyond is a collection of art that is breath-taking in many ways: forbidden Russian art of the twentieth century. 

Savitsky, born in 1915, was a painter, archaeologist and collector who became increasingly concerned by the negative impact of Soviet cultural policies introduced under Stalin. Having decided he could not simply stand by and watch an entire generation of Russian culture disappear, he began collecting hundreds, even thousands of paintings and other works by forgotten or forbidden artists branded as formalists and took them to the relatively safe haven of remote Nukus. There he was able to assemble the largest collection of Russian Avant garde art over a 10-15 year period. Ironically, considering that most of this collection was officially banned, Savitsky connived to use public funds to finance his acquisitions, although funding was a constant source of worry and it is alleged some artists still wait to be paid for their work.

We were lucky enough to have a full guided tour of both the galleries and the conservation studios with the Director herself and then with the head conservator and hear first hand why Stalin wanted to control the people by restricting what they could see, and how Savitsky created this treasure house of art in this remote ‘closed’ town which was only open to visitors after 1991.

The following day we drove to the Aral Sea, a striking example of total ecosystem collapse. This has been caused by Soviet government action to divert water supplies coupled with increasing salinity, and general ground pollution. Once the fourth largest inland lake in the world, it has been reduced by 90% of its size. At its height 40,000 people were employed in the fishing industry and it supplied one sixth of all Russia’s fish needs. Now it’s a desolate place, inhospitable, its remaining population trapped into everlasting poverty and persistent poor health. An eerie lunar like landscape where once there were vibrant communities makes for sombre reflection. Add to that a former political system that controlled its art, and a current regime that stifles free enterprise by restricting access to credit or cash, and this holiday certainly broadened my mind. 

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