Sunday, 19 September 2010

On the Silk Road: Uzbekistan: Day 3 Samarkand

Shakhi Zinda, Samarkand
We started the day with a trip to the bazaar. Vegetables of every type were displayed for sale; fruit, herbs, carrots (both orange and yellow), eggs, and dried fruit. I went to take a photo of one of the yellow carrots and the shopowner indicated that I would have to buy the carrot for 1000 cym before I could photograph it. It was a nice carrot, but not *that* nice so I moved on to the next stallholder who was happy to let me photograph one of her carrots for free. There were huge watermelons, saffron at bargain basement prices, pumpkins so big that they'd win hands down at any Kumeu Show and pomegranets galore. The dried fruit section revealed a new wonder in the form of dried apricots stuffed with walnuts, yummo. In another aisle there were hats for men and women including “Cossack” style fur hats (not a lot of call for these in Dubai) and hats made from sheep pelts. I wished I was still dancing as there were crowns for sale in every shape and colour. I bought some music cds ($1 each) including one by an Uzbeki singer named Samir who was on one of the dvds played on the train from Tashkent.

From there we walked a short distance to the Bibi Khanym mosque which was built built in the 14th century by Tamerlane. Elephants imported from India were used to haul loads of marble around the site during construction. The interior courtyard was a nice place to sit and watch the shopowners as every hujra or student room around the inner courtyard has been turned into a souvenir shop. From there we walked around the local residential area behind the mosque and we were invited by a local family to go into their house and see the renovations they were doing to their main courtyard and also to see the painted ceiling in their reception area. We continued our walk around the local area in the process meeting several others of the group. As we came round a corner we found a wedding feast in full swing on a broad porch outside the local mosque with the remaining members of our group seated at a table as special guests. A wedding gathering like this is usually for men only but there was no problem with the women of our group attending. The hospitality was wonderful and we caught a glimpse of the bride as she arrived in her finery and went into her home across the street. The call to prayer was heard and most of the men went into the mosque to pray. After prayer we were invited into the mosque to admire the painted ceilings. Interesting that the mullah said I had to perform wudu (ritual washing) before entering the mosque . It would be almost unheard of in the UAE for a non-Muslim to do this, but the style of Islam followed in Uzbekistan appears very relaxed and also, within his own mosque, what the mullah says, goes. So I trailed after my friend Iman to the mosque bathroom, and, once it had been cleared of men, I followed her lead through the ritual. After using the toilet (roughest toilet paper on the planet) the ritual involves an invocation in Arabic “I wish to perform wudu” then washing hands, mouth, face, neck, ears, head, arms and feet each a proscribed number of times (apologies if I have the order wrong). After completing the ritual I was able to put on my hijab and go into the mosque which, in its heyday, must have had a very colourful ceiling.

Earlier in our trip I'd asked Bahador whether Uzbekis were Sunni or Shia and he said he didn't know, “We are all Muslim, that's all.” The relaxed attitude sees vodka flowing freely on all occasions, pork is not unusual on restaurant menus, there are no directional arrows to the qibla on hotel room ceilings, nor are prayer rugs routinely provided in hotel rooms. I've only seen a few women in hijab, even in the country areas. The main head covering for Uzbeki women is a brightly coloured scarf tied behind the neck which indicates that the wearer is married.

The senior ladies gather to celebrate the
wedding.  Note the bride's dowry clothes hung
on the wall.  NB: There is no problem showing
this photo in public as the Uzbeki women in the
family do not 'cover'.
Meanwhile, back at the wedding, the sound of car horns indicated that the groom's procession was approaching and he was escorted by his brothers and friends into the porch area while the musicians played (drum and accordian). The women in our group were invited over to the bride's house to socialise with her female family and to congratulate her. The bride was in one room having her photos taken. She was a very young women wearing an explosion of a wedding dress but she was in complete control bossing the photographer around. It was good manners to stay and watch her for a while before moving into the next room where the senior female family were seated on the floor around the edge of the room with a spread of food in front of them. The room had been cleared of any other furniture to make room for a display of the bride's dowry which included several person-high piles of blankets, floor cushions and rugs and an enormous silver glory box. Hanging on the walls on 3 sides of the room were the dresses the bride had been given as wedding presents, there were easily 20 or 30 including highly decorated evening gowns and a few Western style women's business suits. Meanwhile, the bride's assorted female friends and not-so-close female relatives were enjoying their wedding spread at a table in the main courtyard. After a short visit it was time for us to move on after a wonderful experience.

Next point of call was Shakhi Zinda which is a necropolis dating back to the 14th and 15th century. The largest tomb in this avenue of the dead is that of Kussam-ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet. His grave is at the end of a series of cool, white walled rooms.. Each mausaleum is of a unique design and the small size of each gives an intimacy lacking in the larger though more imposing buildings we'd seen earlier. Despite having fallen into disfavour during Soviet times and at once stage even being used as an anti-religious museum, Shakhi Zinda is again a place of pilgrimage. Adjacent to the complex is a huge modern cemetry which stretches across acres of hillside. The graves here range from grandiose family vaults, looming black marble constructions featuring pictures of the deceased engraved on huge slabs of marble that look like plasma tvs, through to humble graves marked only with a few small tiles. Some couples have purchased joint plots and when one dies they're buried there and their picture is engraved on one half of the marble slab, the other half is left blank for the surviving spouse which might be a bit disconcerting for some. There are 'picto-graves' of old people, couples, whole families with the faces of several generations portrayed above a single tomb, many gents in Soviet era uniforms with acres of braid and medals, and most poignant, small graves with a picture of a sad eyed child engraved on the headstones.  I can only imagine what caused the death of the gentleman who is pictured, cigarette in hand, on his tombstone.

From the Shakhi Zinda we moved to the observatory built by Ulug Beg, the grandson of Tamerlane. The park around the observatory is wedding central on a Saturday afternoon with 3 bridal parties vying for the best spots either in the gardens or using the mosaic walls of the observatory as a backdrop for photos. Uzbeki brides seem to know exactly how they want their photos to be taken while shiny wedding suits for men seem to be the rage. I was distracted from the Battle of the Brides by the action on the road below where cars were attempting to do “Tokyo Drifts” during the lull in traffic between light changes. One of 'the drifters' was a Toyota Corolla and the other, you may not believe this, was a Daewoo Microbus. Its a remarkable sight to see a microbus attempting to slide without rolling or at least falling over. The driver also attempted a wheel stand which he completely misjudged resulting in a lot of smoke as the microbus first reared into the air then nosedrived into the tarmac to the amusement of the crowd on observatory hill.

The evening was spent having dinner in the garden at the home of our driver whose wife prepared a wonderful spread which was accompanied by several bottles of vodka. Once a vodka bottle is opened it must be finished say the Uzbekis and after 2 bottles there were the expected results including a rendition by one of our group of the only song in the English language dedicated to the cauliflower. Electricity supply cannot be guaranteed, so all the lights that evening were powered by a small generator. 

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