Guest post: Reflections from 1988

Whilst I (Charlie) spent two weeks at home to celebrate a friend’s wedding, Chris’ parents, Jane and Alan, flew out to Uzbekistan to keep Chris company. They had previously visited Uzbekistan in 1988 on a trip with Jane’s parents, Michael and Peggy. The following post is of their time in Uzbekistan, both in the past and present, written by Jane…

Here is an extract from Alan’s diary:

Monday 22 February 1988:
Finally arrive at Tashkent at approx 8am. We all managed to sleep a bit, but the stewardesses keep us on our toes providing meals and helpful advice as we are falling asleep.

Short sleep then off to do a city tour. Not been able to have a wash due to lack of hot water – it just didn’t come out of the tap.

Tashkent does have interesting sites but I got just as much enjoyment from seeing the ordinary everyday sights and scenes.

With my parents, Michael and Peggy, and while I was pregnant with Chris, Alan and I celebrated my 32nd birthday in Tashkent, now the capital of Uzbekistan. Of course, it wasn’t a country in 1988, but part of the USSR and we had arrived from Leningrad via Aeroflot. In 1988 we met highly cultured and educated people, who spoke numerous languages and could enthuse us with their tales that represented the broad sweep of history that engulfed them and their lands. Our Intourist guide from Leningrad didn’t have such a high opinion of them.

This is what happened in 2019:

Again we arrived at approx 8am, but Uzbekistan Airways was lovely – we used its twice weekly direct flight from Heathrow. Arriving in Tashkent the first difference was immediately visible – unlike in 1988 there weren’t lots of military planes being repaired and refuelled at the airport for flying into Russian semi-controlled Afghanistan.

We visited Hotel Uzbekistan where we had spent my birthday 31 years ago. It looked the same, only emptier of guests. The same sort of grime, uneven staircases and surly service. But all around were beautiful modern buildings typical of cites around the world. Where we stayed was a world away from the Hotel Uzbekistan – a hostel, the Jules Verne, painted white and grey, spotlessly clean with cheerful staff.

In 1988 we took the night train to Samarkand from Bukhara and arrived very late. This is Alan’s description:

We four are in a compartment together; it is extremely cosy having four bunks within about a foot of each other. The tea man arrives and we have four green teas at 6 kopeks each. We notice the compartment is hot, very hot. Michael sees a knob pushes it and thinks he has pushed the emergency stop as the train begins to slow. Still hot. We remember Eric Newby and “the Big Red Train Ride” when he tries to open the window and suggested a large screwdriver should be taken on certain trains. We don’t have one and so we get hotter.

In 2019 our first journey in Natalie was to Samarkand and very impressive she was. With filtered water and a fridge on board together with perfect air con it was great. But the best, which is what I love about all Land Rovers, was the view. In my diary I said:

Very clever Christopher, twisting through traffic to get to the road – then easy driving despite bicycles and cars coming the wrong way on the dual carriageway and cars just stopping in the road – to buy something from a street vendor or simply for a chat. No hotel parking despite promise, but best place in the world by the Bibi Khanym Mosque.

This is our car park at the Bibi Khanym hotel. You can see how  the modern buildings encroach on ancient monuments. If you look carefully you can also see the gas pipe – wherever it needs to cross the road it just crosses in the airspace above, in whatever part of Uzbekistan one happens to be in.

Our hotel in Samarkand was gloriously situated and all we needed to do was sit outside our room and enjoy the view. But I went to loiter outside the Bibi Khanym madrassa and immediately made friends. We neither spoke the other’s language but I think our communication was real. Then a man and his son came to talk – it was the end of the school day and I realised that many ambitious youngsters came straight to the public areas to practice their English on tourists. Apart from us there were no English tourists so we were popular. We discussed with them whether it was better to study Russian or English at school and what would be a good subject to study at University in London.

These lovely ladies asked me to take a photo of them with their camera and then I sought permission to take one with mine. We were all enjoying the beauty of the Sha-i Zinda tombs.

In searing heat the next morning we crept though a broken gate and climbed up a tiny path through a modern cemetery. The headstones were shades of black and grey and the ground was dry and desiccated. We were completely alone. We turned a corner and unexpectedly looked down on a sea of blue and turquoise domes which shone and sparkled with iridescence. We had arrived at Sha-i Zinda tombs by the back and top down route. By this time I was seriously hot and a bright shade of pink. Inside the tombs was much cooler and we found a man singing beautiful prayers and the spiritual uplift enabled me to shuffle back to the hotel, stopping thankfully in each tiny bit of shade.

The inside of the tombs were as intricately decorated as outside. They were all entirely different, only sharing the colour pallet of blues and turquoises on the tiles.

In 1988 this is what Alan said of Samarkand:

Awake at 4am to find Jane rummaging through her bag – ask why. She is cold. It turns out most of the floor is cold. Not sure why as the heating is on constantly. Jane decides to stay in bed to keep warm and misses breakfast. It is curd cheese, eggs, apple juice and bread and jam. Jane has breakfast in bed…

Registan Square, three mosques and madrassas – 14th, 15th and 16th century – all in the same place around the main square – actually an “Assembly of the Dead” square as in Marrakesh. We stroll around and see marvellous gold leaf etc. Most has been recently restored, but unfortunately some of the repair doesn’t seem too good – the tiling is cracking…

Despite it being quite late there is lots going on at the market. Standing next to a scarf stall the lady is attracted to Jane’s paisley scarf. She wishes to swap it for one of hers. Not being quite what Jane wants, and also being concerned about getting cold she doesn’t take part in the bargain. We visit the meat section, honey and cream cheeses and are offered a turnip.

This photo was taken in the market in Samarkand in 1988. The structure of the market is a bit stronger, and there is now more for sale, but not  a greater variety of goods.  The photo was taken in February which accounts for the thicker layers of clothes.

So I think in the market not much had changed, but I have very strong memories of the Registan in Samarkand, and much had changed. I thought it was a faulty memory, but our photos from 1988 and photos we found in museums confirm my memory. Despite the significant restoration carried out in the 1970s and 1980s there has been later restoration or what might be better described as Disney-fication or wholesale new building (one can hardly call it re-building).

This is the outside of a madrassa or mosque in 1988. The archways are still standing, whereas lots were beyond repair. This photo shows, I think, the typical state of repair of the ancient buildings in 1988.

Still I loved it and the whole of Samarkand. There were wide boulevards between the main tourist destinations and at night people strolled and played on bikes, or with luminous balls – for all the world as if in a wealthy Mediterranean town. There were lots of gift shops, but most gifts were high quality, many made by artisans, not factories. The tourists seemed to be from other Central Asian countries, really enjoying their holidays. The grass was watered and the paths were really quite even and clean. The market was busy and thriving, we particularly loved the old prams commandeered to transport flat loaves baked throughout the day. The dried fruits, nuts, vegetables, fabrics and metal buckets all looked great and the smoked cheese we purchased as a present for Chris was very tasty although very smoky.

This photo was taken at the end of the day in the main market in Samarkand. Earlier in the day one would see maybe ten of these prams in a row all filled with fresh bread. Most people had gone home by the time of the photo although there were still buyers.

Our hotel was in a perfect situation to contemplate the turquoise and blue domes of the madrassa, with grass growing through tiles, and provided a superb view of the soaring antics of the swifts in the evening eating their insect supper as we ate ours.

These are Alan and Chris ready for a day’s sightseeing in the lobbey of our hotel. You may detect Alan’s more forward stance which could indicate he is more anxious than Chris to get out into the heat of the day.

We loved all the places Charlie has described in her blog on Uzbekistan’s Big Three. Possibly our favourite in Samarkand was the Gur-i-Amir where Uleg Beg is entombed. We went in the evening and it was a very long way to walk. The walk back was not far at all, in the dusk, with fountains chuckling and much cooler temperatures.

Before heading to Bukhara we visited Uleg Beg’s observatory built in the 1420s. Uleg Beg was the grandson of the great Timur or Tamerlaine, a cruel but effective ruler and the founder of the Timurid dynasty in Iran, Central Asia and India. Uleg Beg was a weak ruler, but he was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer, linguist and patron of culture and learning (he also, says Wikipedia, had 13 wives). His observations enabled him to calculate the length of a year which was so accurate, so tells the excellent little museum, that his accuracy wasn’t bettered until the late 20th century and then by only 1 second.

This is a quadrant of the sextant designed and used by Uleg Beg. The sun light comes through a small hole and depending on the time of year and of day the beam hits a marker in the marble sextant and enabled Uleg Beg to calculate the length of a year.

In 1988 Alan wrote:

Uleg Beg’s observatory is next. A most impressive place even though very little of it remains. We are told we will see the astronomer’s sextant. I expect something brass about 1 x 1 foot. Instead we are shown something about 50 m long and 20 m tall, half underground and made of marble. Apparently the sun shone through holes in the building constructed above it and told the time etc etc. Also from the hill on which the observatory is located we see the mountains south of Samarkand.

My diary says:

The observatory was dug into the ground so although the top bit was trashed in the late 1400s by religious fanatics the quadrant remained unscathed.

After leaving the observatory our journey became very businesslike. Chris needed to buy diesel, a very hard to come by commodity.

My diary says:

First you go to where you have bought diesel twice before, but the blonde haired lady says ‘no’, not even 40 litres. So you go to an untested place. They have fuel so you negotiate the price. Then you ask for some in a clear bottle. No clear bottle, so you empty your water bottle into another, but your clear bottle has a green tinge which doesn’t help. Then you swirl, smell, swirl again. Eventually you decide there are not too many floating bits or too much dilution by water or petrol. The deal is done and Natalie is filled up.

Of course, in reality the ‘you’ is Chris. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had decided not to buy the diesel because as far as we know there was no other diesel station anywhere else in Samarkand. The trucks travelling from one end of Uzbekistan to the other apparently brave the border crossings into Kazakhstan, buy their diesel there and use the faster, safer roads to sort of hop from one end of Uzbekistan to the other.

And so we travelled on to Bukhara and stayed in a hostel with cats – the first we had seen. In the morning we needed to buy train tickets to Khiva as it was too dodgy to drive in case we ran out of diesel. Chris was incensed that although we had come to the station we were still expected to pay for the privilege of booking ahead. The station mistress had to take us into her quiet, clean and air conditioned room to calm him down. She has the same disease as most Brits – if you talk slowly and loudly in your own language eventually the person you are talking at will understand you. It didn’t work. At the station it also became obvious that the currency had inflated too much. People had to bring shoulder bags full of wads of notes to pay for their train tickets.

From there we went to the last built palace of the Emir (1922, I think) before the Bolsheviks took over. Chris and Charlie had come about two weeks before when there had been a road. Now there wasn’t, just piles of rubble that we had to clamber over to reach the entrance. More indignation from Chris – it was a state run museum, but the costs to visit was different from before. He didn’t understand why the price had to be negotiated. Alan and I were more phlegmatic, is it because we have got used to not being able to understand the bureaucracies of our own country and places we work so why should we expect to understand other bureaucracies? My diary says:

It looked as though it has been empty for months or years – the mud cracked as if it were a Hockney swimming pool painting without the blue. The buildings were very run down, but reminiscent of some in St Petersburg. There were exhibits of beautiful textiles and jewellery – reminding me of a photo of Ghandi’s parent’s wedding. The husband wore Edwardian clothes and his wife, tribal clothes with massive tight neck jewellery and heavy earrings.

Chris assured us that two weeks ago when he and Charlie had visited the Emir’s palace this road was smooth and functional.  We had to climb over heaps of rubble and across narrow duck boards and jump over gaping holes to get to the entrance of the Emir’s Palace.

On our return home we found we had been here in 1988.

In the afternoon Alan and I went into the centre of Bukhara and what a difference from 1988. There were lots of new ‘old’ buildings. The caravanserais, no longer decrepit and disused, were brimming with dusty and probably old silk carpets for sale. It was lucky Chris was so strict with us about not buying anything because of the weight limits in the car, otherwise we would have been writhing with uncertainty about which of the beautiful rugs to buy.

You may struggle to see much in this photo, it was taken in 1988 and shows the outside one of the caravanseris in the centre of Bukhara. They are all composed of a huddle of domes and this must be what makes them cool in the summer (and probably warm in the winter). You might notice the dust and mud which was what passed for public highways in the centre of Bukhara in 1988. Oh, what a difference lots of years makes!
Inside the caravanseri was delicious cool air, simply by design, no air con here. Now full of carpets or other wares that might have been used  by  merchants in their trek across the silk road with their smelly, recalcitrant  camels.

The next day we went to see the Poi Kaylon and I felt sure that when we had seen it in 1988 it was isolated. Now it had a madrassa and mosque close by.

On reading Alan’s 1988 diary when we returned home my recollection wasn’t clarified. All he said was:

Of particular note was the 50m 16th century minaret from which people were thrown.

This is a 1988 photo. I am surprised to see that in 1988 as in 2019 the Poi Kaylon is close to the mosque, but you will see the lack of decoration on the mosque and the general sense of abandonment, now replaced by a lving, working mosque.

When we returned in the dark and again when we visited some days later it was one of our favourite spaces. The Poi Kaylon was beautifully lit and didn’t feel nearly so disneyfied as some other places.

The Poi Kaylon didn’t look Disney-fied, simply statuesque and beautiful. There were people at prayer in the mosque when we visited in the evening. The madrassa on the other side of Burkhara’s Registan was a working madrassa and not open to the public.

We didn’t find any markets, which was a pity because Alan noted in 1988 that:

the people were very friendly and one gave Jane a pear which was just as well as they cost 1 kopek a pound.

This is the lovely man who gave me a pear in 1988.

Our days were occupied in visiting the Ark (a sort of walled town inside the town where the ruler lived and now a serious of ramshackle, but interesting ‘museumettes’), madrassas and mosques. In my diary I noted:

one afternoon we bought lots of drinks and bread to take back to the hostel, but the heat was so intense on the back if my calves that we had to stop for 20 minutes in a caravanserai and drink most of the iced tea we intended for the hostel.

On one hostel return we found there were five overland bikes in the courtyard – three large BMWs from Lithuania, a small one from Holland and a Triumph from the UK. The Lithuanians were in earnest conversation with the hostel owners, talking in Russian, the language of their oppressors. Ben who had back packed through Pakistan was a source of valuable information for Chris.

Alan also talked in 1988 about an evening stroll:

Our Intourist guide for Bukhara insists how easy it is to get to the centre from the hotel. So we try. After a road wide enough to land an aeroplane we dodge into narrow alleyways. Not like Chicago, perfectly safe said the guide and so it was. But not quite as exciting as we had imagined. The town centre was not quite the bustling night spot of cafes and bars I had thought. It seemed to be either the grocers or cinema for entertainment. We chose tea and apples in our room.

Well, a 2019 Bukharan evening is a real change from 1988 – bars, cafes, lights and scantily clad girls, but also families enjoying the cooler air and a saunter.

Our arrival in Khiva was quite magical, after an uneventful train journey we entered the town as the sun was setting over it. I have no reflections from 1988 for Khiva as we hadn’t gone there. My 2019 reflections are of the Jama mosque, visiting it when there was a crowd and then later on my own and feeling the ghosts of those who had worshipped long ago. A museum of the photography of Dennonov taken at the turn of the 20th century. An exhibition of the first president and the world leaders he had mixed with. My diary noted about going out on my own:

I went off on my own and really had to concentrate to be able to find my way back. Actually it is very easy on your own when you aren’t trailing behind two people walking faster than you.

This is the Jama mosque which I had to myself. It felt ancient and hauntingly empty. Each of the wooden pillars was carved differently. Between the bottom of the pillar and the  stone base was a small wodge of camel wool and a metal plate. This, I was told later, was what protected the structure from the frequent earthquakes.

On our return to Burkhara Chris haggled with the taxi driver who started at 60,000 som and Chris started at 25,000 som. We paid 25,000.

I wanted to see a 19th century merchant’s house. It was hard getting there, walking along a boulder strewn road with huge puddles of sand, but I was looking forward to the cafe that was bound to be there. We went in and it was amazing, but after a bit of a wander we were told it was closed for disinfecting. So instead we walked across Bukhara to the Chor Minor set in a garden of apricot, apple, cherry and medlar fruit trees under planted with basil and mint. Its neighbour was a very quirky souvenir shop.

This was some of the merchandise in a shop opposite the Chor Minor. These are Soviet uniforms covered with Soviet badges and medals. Other objects for sale were stranger and I found difficult to photograph.

In the evening on our way back to the Poi Kaylon we stumbled across the synagogue and were entertained by some of the very few Jewish people who have remained since Uzbekistan’s independence. It was thought they had arrived about 2,000 BC so had become very cut off from the world Jewish community. We were shown their 1,000 year old Torah written in Bukhara.

On our journey a large contingent of German overland vehicles drove past at speed. This caused Chris to be somewhat concerned for the rest of the journey in case they got to our diesel station and bought all the diesel. They didn’t, but when we arrived at our hotel we were able to read, a real treat only available because we didn’t have to filter water or use Natalie’s green washing machine because the whole of Samarkand, we were told, had no water. Alan and I then spent hours in the evening revisiting all the beautiful sights. On our return there was still no water, but later, to our fury, we found that Chris had enjoyed a short shower whilst water was restored momentarily.

Trucks like these or cars overloaded with a family’s complete household possessions piled up, seemingly randomly, were every day sights, but we never saw a load collapse. Was that just luck?

On our return to Tashkent we had to stock up for camping in the mountains and purchase oil for a full service. We also needed a top up of the local phone from an extremely smart shop where everyone wore uniforms, but the only person with any English was loafing around in dirty jeans.

The route to the mountains was past a reservoir along which were a string of holiday hotels and beaches. We knew we were on the right road, because instead of everyone selling bread or everyone selling melons on the route everyone was selling brightly coloured lilos, beach balls and rings. No photos were allowed by the dam, but further on the reservoir became a beautiful lake.

We finally took a tiny track with fords across fast flowing water. Alan and I thought we would like crossing the fords on foot, but this was difficult and we only managed with the help of a nine year old child who held out her hand to me and then pointed the way onwards. Chris found a super camping and car servicing spot and everything was mostly set up by the time we arrived.

I awoke really hot at 7.30 the next morning to find cattle licking the tent and a small tent and four people camped just about as close as they could be to us, despite acres of empty space. During breakfast we had a display flight of 20 or 30 white headed eagles. Servicing Natalie included rotating all the tyres, and renewing all the oils. It took Chris all day and half the next in temperatures of well over 40C – no wonder he has been losing weight. Alan and I walked further up the mountain and met a man who told us about his medicinal honey and special water. Then we saw a very large snake and retreated.

On Sunday we set off to find the waterfall with Chris and hordes of local people, all burdened with picnics, towels and rugs. Each time we had to ford the river the water was so cold it numbed our feet and we couldn’t tell how badly we had stubbed our toes. We were slow, so slow compared with everyone else who just surged ahead and we realised this endless surging ahead was how they drove as well, not taking any notice of difficulties or obstacles – was that a good or bad trait? But when we left later that day and drivers coming the other way saw Natalie ford the river it was quite amusing to see them try to do the same and get completely stuck, time and again.

Natalie has no trouble at all in negotiating the really fast flowing and surprisingly strong river, but  people who watched her and then tried to get their SUV through were very disappointed, especially when we didn’t tow them out – we had to return to Tashkent for Charlie’s arrival.

I think this is one of the aspects of this new country I liked so much – people seemed to be endlessly optimistic despite, sometimes, high odds.

The next day Charlie arrived back. We all went to see the world’s second oldest Koran and they needed to sort the huge bagful of medicine Charlie had brought and stow it properly in Natalie ready for the journey into Kyrgyzstan, China and beyond.

We were very sad to go, but we hope to meet Chris, Charlie and Natalie again, probably in Burma. And we were pleased to see a much more confident and cheerful Uzbekistan than in 1988.

Since returning to the UK I have thought about the Disney-fication and realise it is the same as what has happened in and around St Petersburg and many other places. Maybe this frantic rebuilding, rather than restoration or conservation is simply a different way to pay homage to the past and its artists. Or maybe not…

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