Sogdians and Soviets: Monumental Samarkand and the Holy City of Bukhara

Sept. 17 Tashkent • train to Samarkand (drive day trip to Urgut)

Sept. 18-20 Samarkand
Sept. 20 Samarkand • train to Bukhara
Sept. 20-22 Bukhara
Sept. 22 Bukhara
Sept. 23 Bukhara • drive to Merv, Turkmenistan


Map from Lonely Planet, Central Asia, by Mathew, Elliott, Masters, Noble p. 140

The world is a caravanserai, with one entry and one exit…

– Omar Khayyam

Samarkand and the Holy City of Bukhara are probably the most photographed cities and probably the most name-recognizable cities in Central Asia. The waves of people who have gather to stay and marched through Samarkand and Bukhara have left overlapping chronicles of monuments, languages, and traditions while others have receded from history’s memory forever.

Sogdians are a people that once lived in modern day Uzbekistan. Their influence once reached far into China between the 4th century BCE to 7th century CE yet knowledge of them was lost until the 19th century. Afrasiyab (also spelt Afrasiab, Afrosiyab, or Afrosiyob) was the name the Sogdians gave to their city that we now call Samarkand. Afrasiyab was the city the Sogdians built a fortress built on high ground for defensive reasons. The habitation of the territories of Afrasiyab began in the 7th-6th century BCE, as the centre of the Sogdian culture. Before visiting Samarkand, I came across references to Sogdians in Turpan, China’s at the Bezeklik’s Thousand Buddha Caves where Sogdian faces are painted in the grotto of the resting Buddha. 

Listen to podcast: Mystery Abound #89.


In Samarkand, I had a formal introduction to the Sogdians. Samarkand, known as Afrasiyab to the Persians, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, along with Aleppo and Damascus, in the world.  All roads led through Afrasiyab to China, India, and Persia for trade, artisans, and armies. Goods travelled through China and Central Asia along caravan routes through middlemen based in Asia towns such as Dunhuang and Turpan, China. The Sogdians played a major role in facilitating trade between China and Central Asia as late as the 10th century CE. They established a trading network across the 1500 miles from Samarkand to China.

The Sogdians were known to the Greeks in the 4th century BCE and the city was taken from them by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE and named the city, Marakanda. Alexander the Great married a Sogdian princess, Roxanna, of Bactria (modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan) and encouraged his soldiers to take wives from this area.  He was impressed by the size of the fortress and strength of the city walls, which was more than 12 kilometres in circumference. Some references state that before the Greeks, the Sogdians were fierce warriors but when defeated by the Greeks, they were never war-like again. However,they became great traders and entrepreneurs with their language the lingua franca of Central Asia. Over the centuries, the Sogdians played an important role in spreading religions, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity but it seems that when the Arabs conquered Samarkand, the Sogdians either left the city or converted to Islam and lost their identity. In China, the Sogdians were persecuted under the Tang Dynasty changing their names to survive. Then the Sogdians were lost to history until the 19th century when letters were found in Dunhuang and Gansu, China, that told about the Sogdians.

For a good overview of an excellent example of people moving through China and Central Asia , read:


Samarkand is located in a fertile valley between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya. A natural site for people to live. After the Greeks, the area came under the Kushan Empire that included northern India. Then in the 7th centuryCE Samarkand was under influences from Turkic and Persian tribes and the Tang Dynasty in China. In 751CE the battle of Talas, (near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) the Arabs fought against the Chinese for claim to the area, the Chinese lost the battle and eventually the people converted to Islam. After this battle, the secret of Chinese paper-making was revealed to the West and the technology swiftly spread to the Middle East.

From this period Samarkand was ruled by various groups including the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad but in 1220 it was totally destroyed by the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan. After 150 years, Timur ( r. 1369-1405), built Samarkand to its glory we see today, though depending on what side of history one is on, Tamerlane (as the European named him) was another brutal conquerer or a brilliant leader ; Timur built Central Asia’s wealth and culture. His astronomer grandson, Ulugbek, ruled until 1449 and made Samarkand into an intellectual centre and built more magnificent monuments that we see today in Samarkand.

Overtime Samarkand decayed and in 1897, there was a devastating earthquake. During Soviet rule and to their credit, major restoration took place to restore the crumbling buildings to magnificent monuments. Here, The Registan, meaning sandy place in Persian, is the centrepiece of the city. DSC_0441The grand plaza is surrounded on three sides by enormous madrasahs built after Timurs death in 1405. The first to be built was Ulugbek Madrassa in 1420, followed by Shar-Dor Madrassa in 1636, and Tilly’s-Kori in 1660. The architecture, each has high vaulted archways at their entrance, with the Ulugbek and Shar-Dor flanked on either side of their archways by 35 meter decorated minarets. The exterior of the three structures are covered with intricate Islamic patterns and calligraphy of millions of ceramic tiles.

The ancient necropolis of the Shah-i-Zinda (meaning Tomb of the Living King) mausoleum, survived Genghis Khan’s troops. This mausoleum was built for the family of Timur and his grandson, Ulugbek and also the resting place of Qasam bin-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed.

Shah-i-Zinda is an important place of pilgrimage. In the 19th century Shah-i-Zinda was in ruins with collapsed domes and minarets and the Soviet restorers again came to the rescue and painstakingly restored and rebuilt these treasures.


Stairs to Shah-i-Zinda: A superstition that some people believe is that if you count the same number of step ascending as descending, then your prayers will be answered.



My guide, Abdu, and I stopped at a bench to talk about the history and saw an elderly lady descending the steep stairway. He commented that because of her head scarf she was from the south of Uzbekistan. Soon she sat on a bench opposite from us and I asked Abdu to inquire if she was from Samarkand. We soon met a feisty 80 year old woman who had come with her two sons, their wives and children from a village next to the Afghanistan border for a pilgrimage to Shah-i-Zinfandel. They asked where was I from… They were quite surprised and generously hospitable. We began taking pictures with smiles and congratulations on our delight to have met. The chance encounter ended in Abdu getting his ears pulled by the lady for which he said that was a blessing from her area. Poor Abdu had red, sore ears the rest of the day!

Then we took a little detour to visit Lena Latik, a Ukrainian textile artist who opened the Happy Bird Art Gallery in 2005 in a portion of an old caravanserai.  Her gallery is filled with original handmade Uzbek clothing, textiles, ceramics, and artwork, it is a combination of upscale shop, museum, and antique store. The director, Lena Ladik, is committed to supporting traditional Uzbek arts and handicrafts that incorporate natural materials, fair trade, and eclectic tastes.  Lena made Turkish coffee and we sat around a small table getting to know one another. She showed me a Russian-language edition of Vogue Magazine recently wrote about her work and the canaversari.  Then our conversation veered off to quite another subject. Lena showed me a picture of her mother and father. It was taken right after WWII, he was in a Soviet uniform and her mother had a 1940s waves and curl hairstyle. Both, in early 20s, were smiling sweetly. On the other side of the world, I have a picture of my mother and father, in the same pose taken right after WWII. My father in a US uniform; my mother with a 1940s hairstyle; they had just gotten married and they too smiled sweetly.  Lena and I, close in age, marvelled how our parents and our lives were lived on opposite sides of the world in vastly different situation but our paths cross in Samarkand. (Happy Bird Art Gallery and Craft’s Center. Facebook: gallery bird. tel: +998937204215. Trip Advisor)IMG_4444

Before leaving Samarkand, we met with a block print master. It was another  serendipitous meeting that started in the town of Margilian and continued to Bukhara.   I met Vladimir Akhatbekov, a Russian Uzbek, at the Atlas Birham Festival put on by UNESCO in Margilian. His workshop was closed but he unlocked the door to show us his work. The meeting led to another chance meeting in Samarkand. Vladimir recognised me at the canaversari that I met Lena and invited us to his workshops and he spent many hours explaining his trade. To honour his craft, once back in Cairo, I will write a separate post. (Meeting Vladimir prepared me to appreciate the Sufi complex of Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi. (Naqshbandi is the name of his father meaning block printer).DSC_0818

Before saying good-bye to Samarkand, I attend a fashion show put on by Russian fashion designer Valentina Romanenko’s.  Moscow-trained Romanenko has transformed her traditional Uzbek home into a workshop and display area. (



Arriving by fast train, Bukhara is less than two hours from Samarkand. Ibn Battutu’s words rang in my ears: ‘the mosques, colleges, and bazaars are in ruins …’ He reported this in 1333 one hundred years after Genghis Khan had destroyed the city. The only structure that Genghis Khan’s army spared was the Kalon Minaret and the Ismael Samani Mausoleum.


Kalon Minaret built in 1127 was the tallest building in Central Asia, 47 metres tall.


Ismail Samani Mausoleum was the first mausoleum built in 940 after the Arab conquest. The architects were Muslim but their skills reflect the early symbols of the Zoastrianism.

Before 1220, Bukhara was a city of pious scholars. It was ruled by the Smanids in the tenth CE true you and was the centre of Islamic learning attracting students from Arabia and Spain.One such scholar Ismail al-Bukhary, born in 810 in Bukhara, is renowned in Muslim world for 1000 years as the author of the hadiths, “AI-Djami as-salih”, or literally in English Book “Trustworthy”, which is the second most important Muslim text after the Quran.

Bukhara only started to come back to its former life some fifty years after Ibu Battuta visited the city when Tamerlane started to rebuilt the city, from about 1390. In time Timur and his decedents in the succeeding centuries were once again to turn the city into one of the most magnificent in all of Central Asia. The next time Bukhara was damaged was during the Russian Civil War when Bolshevik commander, Mikhail Vasilievich Frunze, send planes to bomb Bukhara and Khiva in 1920.

In the evening of my first day in Bukhara, I headed for the Lyabi Hauz,( a Tajik name for ‘around the pool’) a pond in a central square surrounded by mulberry trees. Until the Soviet era , the ponds or hauz, were abundant throughout the city but because of pollution and disease all but a few were filled in, The central area of Bukhara is the old town is made up of small alleyways opening into small plaza with impressive ancient buildings along the way.

One of the most historically important architectural landmarks in Bukhara is The Ark or Arg. The Ark is a massive fortress surrounded by 20 meter high mud walls almost a kilometer in length. From the earliest days the Ark was the fortress of the rulers, the Emirs of Bukhara. It was destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries. Inside its walls were military barracks, arsenal, administrative offices, a mint, workshops, stables, water tanks, prison, and of course, the harem. Archaeologist, Maksuma Niyazova, who delivered a lecture and provide private access to expositions in the Ark, which gave an instructive information of the history of the area of Bukhara as well as The Ark.


The Ark or Arg or Arq

One of the sites that was off the beaten path was a 19th century house built by a wealthy Bukhara merchant built by Ubaidullah Khojaev in 1891. Faizullah Khojaev, the son, conspired with the Bolsheviks to over throw the Emir of Bukhara, Emir Alim Khan. He succeeded but soon he ran afoul with Joseph Stalin and was sent to the Gulag and died in 1937. The Emir faired better as he made a deal with the Bolchivicks and got safe passage to Afghanistan.


House of Faizullah Khojaev

On every corner, in every shop, at the doors and in the windows are pieces of needlework called Suzani. Whether in Samarkand or Bukhara, women sell all shapes and sizes of hand-embroidered and machine-made material.  At the Suzani Workshop in Shafrikan Village, Oysara Ruziyeva , master suzani, has worked 20 at a community cooperative where local women take part in the stitching process of pieces of Suzani. At this workshop they start with silk cocoons, dying, design, drawing and embroidery in the centre. I meet Oysafa at the Madrassa as she is participating in the Bukhara Craft Fair where her daughter has just won first place for her suzani piece. Suzani simply means ‘needlework’. There are different types of stitches, different materials and threads, and hand or machine made suzani pieces. (Can be reached at +998942472735)DSC_0890


Oysara’s daughter, Nigora Hamdamova,  wins first place in the Suzani category at Bukhara Craft fair. This is the piece that takes first place.

“Your hands should be busy with your job, your heart busy with God.”

This is the saying that Abdu, my guide, related to me that sums up Naqshband’s Sufism.

Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari Sufi Complex.DSC_0092
Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari (1318-1389) was the founder of what would become one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi. (Naqshbandi is the name of his father meaning block printer). Baha-ud-Din was buried in his native village, Qasr-i Arifan, in 1389. In 1544 Khan Abd al-Aziz built over his grave a tomb and surrounding buildings. The Memorial complex is located 12 kilometers from Bukhara and is today a place of pilgrimage-Read: 11 Princples of Naqshbandi

Just not enough time to write about all the people I have met, so in Cairo:


In Urgut, Numon, a  6th generation potter


Mustakam family , a story of persistence



Meet Abdu, my guide in Uzbekistan with famous Samarkand bread. DSC_0843

My last afternoon in Uzbekistan was spent in a courtyard of a traditional Bukhara house. At the house of the famous miniature artist, Daviat Toshev, we at the national dish, plov (this time with quince and quail eggs).FullSizeRender Daviat invited musicians from the Drama school and here is there a sample of their music. Shakir on the tanbur, Mustafo on the doira (percussion) and his student, Mirshod,  on the doira.  Here they play 16th century Persian poetry in the extinct language of Chagatai. (See

Uzbekistan – the People

Wed, Sep 13: ​Osh • drive to Ferghana , Uzbekistan
Thu, Sep 14​: Ferghana  • Margilan • Rishtan • Ferghana
Fri, Sep 15​: Ferghana • Kokand • train to Tashkent
Sat, Sep 16​: Tashkent

(Note: I am unable to finish writing about Kyrgyzstan for now,. When I return to Cairo I will write about ‘manas’, the recitation of Kyrgyz history and making the Kalpak, a traditional Kyrgyz hat.)


Map from Central Asia, Lonely Planet p. 140

What is it about a border? Is the line on a map a barrier like mountains or deserts or waters that stop humans, language, and even pollination from movement, from communication? With Internet, a line between countries has the possibility of minimizing differences. Although the Internet (as well as genetic engineering) has the ability to make humans the same, it hasn’t happened yet and , in my opinion, that is a good thing. If everyone in the world shopped at the same stores,  ate the same food, talked about the same things, lived in the same style house, and looked alike, a traveller would become extinct.

Crossing the border from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and entering the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, history says that Stalin divided this area, land of the Uzbeks, into two countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, to keep the tribe from uniting against the Soviets. This tactic succeeded and encouraged regional disunity. From the Kyrgyzstan side of the border to the Uzbekistan side, these people share the same history, religion as well as a similar Turkic language, yet, I understood that when crossing the border, there would be a change in the character of people.

One of the first things my Uzbek guide, Abdu, said was to list the Uzbekistan’s  natural resources and agricultural products, adding that there is a population of  32 million. He said, “Uzbekistan’s greatest resource is its people.” I was soon to find out the truth in his statement.  From the first meeting of Uzbek people, my introduction was that of an inquisitive, outgoing, and confident people.

After crossing the border, we stopped at a Farmer’s Market in Ferghana . People smiled easily and asking questions, wanting to practice their English or say, ‘welcome to Uzbekistan’. I met Malika who sells wedding bread and soon we were discussing possibilities to marry off my sons! One of the first question is always about my age.  Malika revealed that she was two years older than I so we had a good laugh about who looked younger. Other ladies gave out free samples of what they were selling like the sunflower seed lady; Mohabad from Toslaq village who sells handmade Do’ppi hats and who dreamt of going to Mecca insisted that I return home with her so she could make me ‘plov’, the national Uzbek dish made of rice, vegetables and meat.


Then to visit al-Farghani Gardens, formerly Lenin Gardens, and the al-Farghani statue. The astronomer, mathematician, and geographer, Abu al‐Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani (798-865) born in the Ferghana Valley. He also has a statue at Roda Island in Cairo (see :AlFraganus ). One of al-Farghani’s many contributions was a unique device “Nilometer” – the construction of water level in the Nile.


The Ferghana Valley, surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountain Range and watered by tributaries of the Syr Darya River, is the most fertile part of Central Asia.  Alexander the Great In the valley c. 329 BC.  Traders from China came this way as they created the trade route in the 1st century BC.  The whole valley became a rich oasis, with irrigated fields producing grains, fruits, silk, cotton, nuts and vegetables, and supporting horses, cattle, sheep and camels.  There is evidence that Buddhism made its way here from China before the advent of Islam in the 8th century CE.

Ferghana Valley extends into modern-day Kyrgyzstan and is where the Han emperor, Wu Ti sent his army to bring Fergana horses into China ( c.113BCE) one of its early imports from Central Asia. The horses were most desirable and Emperor Wu Ti named the renamed the horse, ‘Heavenly Horses’. He sent an army of 40,000 men in 104 BCE 5,000 km to Ferghana, but they were defeated. Another army of 60,000 men was sent in 103 BCE and they managed to negotiate the acquisition of 3,000 horses. The Chinese attributed to horses magical powers second to dragons. Ferghana horses had size, stamina, and a muscle structure particular to them which decreased a bulge on each front topside of the rib cage over which a rider could camp his legs, hang on to and street by doing away with the need for reins, thereby freeing his arms for shooting arrows from his bow.


Gansu Flying Horse in Lanzhou

The Han dynasty bronze statuette Gansu Flying Horse is most likely a depiction of this breed. In Osh, there is rock art carved high ona rocky gorge that is thought to be a depiction of the Ferghana  horses.DSC_0912

These horses played an important a role in China’s expansion and came to be seen as status symbols for rich men and officials. A good example of this is that horses are buried with the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an.


Terra Cotta Warriors with their horses in Xi’an

The need for horses became so intrinsic a part of Chinese life over the centuries that China went on trading for them along the Silk Road, paying with bales of silk cloth. The West acquired a taste for the luxurious silk and was no less a passion than the Chinese’s desire for horses.

In Margilian, I visit a silk workshop, Yodgorlik Silk Factory,  to observe the process of silk-making, and learn more about the traditional ikat and khanatlas or “king of satin’’ pattern distinctive to Uzbek silk fabrics. (For silk process in Syria, read: Queen of Fabrics-Silk). Silkworms are raised here on mulberry leaves (the only leaf a silkworm feeds upon) and the cocoons are unraveled to yield the raw material.

Natural dyes to produce stunning pieces using traditional Uzbek ikat design.Ikat is the name for textiles produced using a special method of dyeing the threads before they are woven.  Uzbek ikat patterns often have blurred or “cloudy” edges caused by this method.

Ceramics Master’s Workshop, Rustum Usmanov,  in Rishtan
The village of Rishtan is famous for its ceramics. There is evidence of earthenware in the foothills of the Alai Range dating back one thousand years. Pottery became prominent in this region due to the unusual amount and excellent quality of locally accessible raw materials – red clay and pigments made of minerals and mountain grasses. Modern Rishtan ceramics are characterized by elaborate floral and geometric designs in bright blue and green hues painted on a creamy white background.DSC_0084

Kokand was first mentioned by Arab travelers in the 10th century as an oasis town on the trade route between India and China. ( The Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, now mainly in  Xinjiang Autonomous Province in China stretched to the Kokand Kingdom.) Kokand was known throughout history as a prosperous trading and religious center during the 19th century, it was the centerpiece of a powerful khanate stretching from the Fergana Valley to the southern Kazakh steppes.


Palace of Khudayar-Khan in Kokand
The Palace of Khudayar Khan was built between 1863-1873. At the time of its construction it was one of the most luxurious palaces in Central Asia

Lunch with a Knife and Sword Master, The Art of Knife Making:

Hasan Umarov , Tel+998 (73) 5437521; +998 (91)1416889; email:

DSC_0225Khasan Umarov is third generation knife and sword blacksmith. His father was known as a great knife craftsman in the Fergana Valley. DSC_0218Khasen follows in his father’s footsteps and crafts hand-forges knives, daggers and swords by combining hard and soft stainless steel with tungsten carbide to control strength and flexibility of each blade depending on its use.

In Uzbek culture the knife is considered a sacred object and has a protective function as well as a practical one. Khasen’s blades come in different sizes with bone, horn, or mother of pearl inlaid handles. His signature is found only on his favourite knives.

Of course, I cannot forget the scrumptious lunch that Khasen’s wife prepared…plov, the Uzbekistan national dish.


Boarding the train in the late afternoon, it would take almost 5 hours to reach Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. After leaving the fertil plains of the Ferghana valley, the land is increasingly dry and treeles as the train ascends towards a mountainous region,near the border of Tajikistan (another border by pen, the Tajik border extends almost 200 kilometers between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Passing through the canyon, the train pulls to the Kamchik Pass at 2270 meters, a tunnel through a part of the Chatkal mountain range, a spur of the Tien Shan mountains, gets us to the other side just as the sun is setting.

Although it doesn’t look it today, Tashkent is one of the oldest cities in Uzbekistan. Rock paintings in the Chatkal Mountains about 50 miles away show that humans have been here since perhaps 2000 BC. In the 2nd century BC the town was known as Ming Uryuk. A major caravan crossroads, it was taken by the Arabs in 751 and by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Tamerlane feasted here in the 14th century and the Shaibanid khans in the 15th and 16th. The Russian Empire arrived in 1865, and Uzbekistan was not an autonomous country again until 1991.

Tashkent lost much of its architectural history in a huge earthquake in 1966, and although it is an old city, most of it has been built since then. Today, the city has wide tree-lined boulevards, oversized 20th century Soviet buildings and reconstructed traces of the old city with mud-walled houses, narrow winding lanes, mosques and madrassahs.

Abul Kasim Madrassah
Visit the Abul Kasim Madrassah, where each tiny student cell has been transformed into a different craft workshop. Here you can observe craftspeople painting their brilliant lacquer boxes, woodcarvers fabricating elaborate stands for the Koran, and painters working on miniatures. Outside of the madrasah I meet a group to women who came to Tashkent for the day from a neighbouring village of To’yteppa. One lady, Oyzoda, meaning the moon, stops to chat. I learn that she is my age, 68, and is a retired nurse and lives in a one story house. DSC_0257

Oldest Quran
The Uthman Quran, considered by Sunni Muslims to be the oldest Quran in the world, is safeguarded in the library of the Tillya Sheikh Mosque in the Muy Muborok Madrassah. Written on calfskin some time after the death of Prophet Mohammed, the manuscript is believed to have been compiled in Medina by Uthman, the third caliph of Islam. Only a third of the manuscript remains, about 250 large pages bound into a huge book. It has been inscribed onto the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Photographs were not allowed but here is a description:


Shahid Memorial Complex
The Shahid Memorial Complex honors the innocent martyrs (shahid) who were killed during Stalin’s purges in 1938. The blue-domed rotunda and cooling fountain that mark their graves are set in the midst of a green area with a canal running through it.DSC_0353

Courage Monument
Tashkent is built in a seismically active area, and has suffered from earthquakes all during its history. In April 1966, at 4:23am, a 7.5 quake destroyed the homes of 300,000 people, hitting the older sections of the city hardest. The Courage Monument was built near the dividing line between the old town and Tashkent’s newer section to honor the workers from all over the Soviet Union who came to Tashkent to help rebuild the city.DSC_0233

A rare opportunity availed itself when I was asked if I would like to attend the premier opera/ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Tashkent of  Khamsa, by Alisher Navoi. ‘Alisher Navai (1441 – 1501), also known as Nizām-al-Din ʿAlisher Herawī was a Turkic poet, writer, politician, linguist, mystic, and painter. He spoke Persian, Arabic and  Chagatai (a lost language) and wrote much of the poetry in Chagatai. Some say he was the founder of Uzbek language and literature more likely his writings developed the language much like Shakespeare did for the English language.  His plays have universal qualities as he writes of different peoples, different historical eras, religions and traditions. For example in the play Khamsa, his characters are from diverse backgrounds: one character is Chinese, another Arab, another Armenian, Persian, and Greek. His themes are are of freedom, love, and happiness


Bolshoi Theater in Tashkent

There are two statues of Alisher Navai that I have come across in my travels. One outside the Osh Market in Kyrgyzstan and one in small village, Urgut, Uzbekistan.

Khamsa – the common title of the five dastans by Nava’i that were written in 1483–85. With this work Nava’i established a precedent for quality literature in Chagatay. The five dastans included in Nava’i’s Khamsa are:

Hayrat ul-Abror (Wonders of Good People) – 64 chapters, 3,988 verses long; written in 1483;
Farhad wa Shirin (Farhad and Shirin) – 59 chapters, 5,782 verses long; written in 1484;
Layli wa Majnun (Layli and Majnun) – 36 chapters, 3,622 verses long; written in 1484;
Sab’ai Sayyor (Seven Travelers) – 37 chapters, 8,008 verses long; written in 1485;
Saddi Iskandari (Alexander’s Wall) – 83 chapters, 7,215 verse long; written in 1485.- Wikipedia’i

At the Bolshoi Theatre:IMG_4391IMG_4388

Kyrgyzstan- Keeping It Real

September 3rd to September 12th. Orange line from Kashgar to Naryn to Koshkor was the planned road of travel however because of the Chinese border closure, the Kyrgyzstan journey began in Bishkek, to Koshkor, around Issyk-Kul Lake to include Jyrgalan, Chon-Kemin, Toktogul, and Osh.


It was difficult to select a title for this post. But as this journey is about the Silk Road…a road of communication, of exchange. I found it fascinating that there are no glaring Starbucks or McDonalds signs on every street in Kyrgystan. There may be ‘fingers in the pie’ from all corners of the world but so far, the people of Kyrgyzstan honour their traditions…eagles, felt, horses, yurts, national dishes and national dress… are keeping it real.


Flying into Bishkek from Urumchi, China, I felt something oddly familiar. The city has wide, shady, tree lined boulevards of beech, willows and maple trees, set in a grid pattern, with broad open squares. Rather typical, so what was this feeling? It didn’t take me long to figure out why! I am reminded of northern Colorado in the 1960s: along the boulevards are one-story, box-like houses with brightly framed window surrounded by patches of flowers; two-story apartments with the family-owned grocery store at the street level. Similarly, the valley along the foothills of Loveland, Colorado, stretches out to the high, snow covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In Bishkek, the snow covered mountains are the Tien Shan, and the people who built these houses were influenced by Russia during the time of the Tzars and then the Soviet era. My great-aunt told me many times that the Loveland area developed swiftly in the early 1900 when hard-working Ukrainians and Russians (Volga Germans) came to the area as sugar beet farmers and workers. Those people built houses in northern Colorado similar to the houses found on the streets of Bishkek. So it is with a feeling of familiarity with the surroundings that I begin the journey through Kyrgyzstan.

Leaving China and coming to Kyrgyzstan is like going from a disco with flashing lights and high energy to the slow, slow countryside. Kyrgyzstan is a country of exceptional beauty, craggy-snow peaked mountains, whose people are open and friendly, the country, however, has only 6 million people (about the population of Shobra and Imbaba in Cairo) and is 94 percent mountainous. Their national resource is water with around 13 hydro-electric dams and some gold. The national language is Kyrgyz but Russian is spoken by most everyone. Kyrgyzstan is surrounded by resource-rich neighbours – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. It borders with China, another powerhouse. And, of course, Russia is deeply involved in the countries politics, economy and emotions. Russian intermarry with Kyrgyzstan people and apparently this was encouraged by Stalin, in particular.

Kyrgyzstan counts 40 nomadic tribes in their history that goes back 2000 years, at least.


Although geographically isolated by its mountainous location, caravan routes played an important role in trade along the Silk Road (here, they call it the Great Road), particularly from Osh to Uzgen to Kashgar (China) was a major caravan route. Chinese trade with Central Asia dates back to before the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BCE, when trade missions and Chinese diplomats were sent through this area to Samarkand. This area now called Kyrgyzstan before 1876 was ruled by empires such as Uyghur Empire, Mongols and Uzbeks and Turkic and Iranian tribes.  Islam first appeared in Central Asia with the Arabs between the 7th and 8th century.  In 751 CE, the Chnese, Tang Dynasty forces, fought an iconic battle of the Talas River against the Arabs, not far from Bishkek, and lost. This was one of the events that lead to the spread of Islam as Buddhism receded. In Central Asia, influences of Persian, Indian, and Chinese waned between the power struggles of the Arabs, Tibetans, Uyghur and Chinese. With the decline of Central Asian Buddhism, Islam became a dominate cultural force. However tribes in the area of Kyrgystan retained their strong nomadic identity and traditions that are still apparent today.

The area called Kyrgystan today became part of the Russian Empire in 1876. After the Tzars fell in 1917, the Bolshevik took over and formed the USSR. In 1926 it becameKirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. Stalin trying to keep the Central Asian countries from breaking away, drew the boundaries for the existing  ‘Stan’ countries. Stalin drew the lines through ethnic groups so as to separate them and keep the groups weak, much like a father who keeps his sons jealous of one another so he will remain the authority-figure.  For example the Fergana Valley populated by ethnic Uzbek was divided into Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Then when the USSR broke up, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from Moscow in 1991. However, my guide, Farhat,  explained the history in a little different way than the history books.  Farhat said that it was true Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, but the reality was that when the USSR collapsed, Kyrgyzstan was abandoned like a child to make its own way. The results destabilised the country resulting in two coup d’etats within twenty years. On October 15th of this year, Kyrgyzstan will hold an election to decided the country’s road forward.

For a patriotic but well documented movie about the history of Kyrgyz people through the life of , Kurmanjan Datka (1811 – 1 February 1907), stateswoman in Kyrgyzstan who fought to keep the Kyrgyz tribe in tact under duress when Tzarist Russia colonised the region.


Starting in Bishkek, the guide introduced me to Kyrgyzstan history through the statues in the city…Lenin, Kurmanjan Datka.

Bishkek was minor trading settlement along the Silk Road one of the caravan routes through the Tien Shan mountains, Bishkek got its name Pishpek (also there are other meanings but I could not confirm).We visit a local business, Studio Bukon, who makes special orders for American and Swiss clients. In a small second story room they produce high quality items for Fair Trade exhibits and European fashion.

In the evening, the 4th World Epic Festival opened on September 4th at the Bishkek Philharmonic Theatre. An ethnographic village “Kyrgyz koch”, was opened, where an exhibition of arts and crafts and folk art was organised in yurts. In the evening, a concert with the participation of epic storytellers from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Kalmykia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Bashkortostan, Kyrgyzstan. This day set the standard for the remainder of the journey, which turned into experiencing Kyrgyzstan’s traditional art, crafts, music, and sports.

The drive to Kochkor is not far from Bishkek on the way to Naryn. It is about 200 kilometers from Bishkek to the western end of Lake Issyk Kul, meaning warm lake. The hills and mountains began to close in on both sides and we descended a deep, narrow, and arid valley with rugged mountains and a high wind was blowing. Issyk Kul is the second largest lake mountain lake in the world. Surrounded on all sided by towering snow clad mountains, it has proved an oasis of travellers and inhabitants of the region for thousands of years. After traveling through desert and mountains, this body of water must have been a great relief for travellers along the Silk Road and provided a welcome stopover, whether making their way from Xianjing Province to Osh, Samarkand and beyond.

Kochkor’s was once named after the Russian Tzarist Prime Minister Stolypin, the town has lost its former German population and today is largely home to working class Kyrgyz. In this small city are many opportunities to take advantage of Community Based Tourism (CBT) programs that aim to promote each region’s best attractions. CBT is supported by Swiss Helvetas and has helped small tourism, home stays, and artisans develop their market. We drive 10 minutes outside of Kochkor to visit a woman, Guljan, who makes felt in the traditional way and teaches younger people and foreigners the craft.


Guljan at her home in Koshkor

Kyrgyz use felted wool to cover their yurts, and to make rugs, bags, slippers and hats.  In 2012, the art of making these felt rugs was included on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.  The people who know how to make them are mostly older women.  As the nomadic lifestyle is lost, and synthetic rugs become cheaper and more available, the demand for the shyrdak (appliqué) and ala-kiyiz (rug) may be waning but there is a push by the government to highlight Kyrgyz traditions.


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The next day, we went to an all day festival, Salbuurn (meaning hunting), high on a mountainside at Bokonbaev. The festival was sponsored by USAID, Qatar and another European foundation, which I could not clarify. The festival gathered people of the area to compete in the skills of their forefathers: hunting with eagles, hunting with falcons, horse polo and to show how traditional crafts are made and food is prepared.

Hunting with eagles competition:

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Kok- boru is a brutal game,but may be the original game of polo. My friend, Stefano, who lives in Kazakhstan writes, ” a Kokpar is Kazakh for Kok Boru, still better known internationally under its Dari name Buzkashi.” It starts with a slaughtered goat and traditionally ends in a feast of goat meat.  There are eight horses and riders at a given time fighting over the headless, hoofless 70-plus-pound goat carcass.

Highlights from the Festival:

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Many thanks to an A+guide, FarhatP1020216 Farhad.jpg

To be continued…






Foiled at the Finish Or Happy Eid el Kabir

August 30th – September 3rd


The plan was on September 1st to leave Turpan by train for Kashgar on a 16-hour overnight sleeper, then to spend 3 days in Kashgar and then drive over the Torugart Pass (3,750 meters) into Kyrgyzstan on 4th of September. Twenty minutes before boarding the train, the news arrived that the Chinese had closed their border with Kyrgyzstan for the next 5 days because of Eid el Kabir. Do I continue onward to Kashgar and hope for the best; hope the border will open one day before my visa expires?  Do I wait in Kashgar but risk being delinquent in exiting China? I was told that there would be a fine incurred if I stayed past my visa date. Having experience in these matters in Africa, I knew, this breach could incur quite unpleasant circumstances in overstaying one’s visa deadline. Another concern was that since arriving into Xinjiang Province, the security had noticeably tightened. The Chinese government, worried about problems in this predominant Muslim region, put tight security precautions in place. I knew from experience that one can not expect latitude in these situations, anything out of the ordinary would be questioned. Running through my mind was: do I take the long train ride to Kashgar, spend 24 hours and catch a plane to Urumchi (the capital of Xinjiang Province and closest international airport) and then fly to Beshkik, Kyrgyzstan involving long lay-overs in two airports? Or could the driver and guide who just dropped me at the train station and was heading themselves to Urumchi, return and take me with them on the 2 1/2 hour drive? A quick decision had to be made. I decided rather than to climb the ‘wall’ , the best way -though it meant giving up my goal of traveling completely across China, not seeing Kashgar, and forfeiting a fascinating part of the trip – going around the ‘wall’ was the best decision. So I exited from Turpan railway station. And found myself, several hours later, in Urumchi the capital of Xinjaing Province and on a Southern China Airway’s flight, the next day, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

So back to Turpan…
It is a city in Xinjiang Provence, an oasis 260 feet below sea level; a city of extremes – harshly hot in the summer and caustically cold in the winters. Yet it is an agricultural city that produces a variety of the finest raisins in China (possibly the world) with 22percent of sugar.  The grapes are dried in drying house usually on the roofs of houses and hung from the ceiling to be dried by the hot, arid wind.

Fruits, vegetables and cotton (water-needy) are also abundant crops. Yet the city is surrounded by bare, flaming hot mountains where eggs are cooked in the sand.

How is this possible? The discovery was truly amazing…the land is irrigated by an underground canal system known as the Karez System. The Karez is made up of vertical wells, under ground canals, above the ground canals and small reservoirs. A 2000 year underground , man-made irrigation system that captures the melting snow from the high Tien Shan (peaks reach above 5000 metres)  and through underground dug out parallel system of water way-like pipes, the water flows to the lowest part in the oasis. This along with the type of soil gives life to the area that has enticed people to stay, farm, and trade.


Aerial photo of Karaz system

Turpan is in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a Chinese administrative division that contains up to 37 different ethnic groups including the Uyghur, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Han and Russians. This region has the most diversity of ethnic groups than any other region in China. Ancient references call this area the Chinese Turkestan. The people, before Islam, followed Buddhism, the remnants of the religion can still be seen at Bezeklik’s Thousand Buddha Caves, which are an example of portraits of Buddhist religious art. There are 77 caves at the site with the story of Buddha’s life. The faces painted on the walls are as diverse as the ethnic population that one sees on the streets today and as vivid. DSC_0343


Thousand Buddha Caves

Yar City also known as the city of Jiaohe is nearly 2000 years old. It was an important trading post on the Silk Road. It is an independent islet formed by crossing of two river valleys.


Aerial view of Yar City in Turpan

The ancient city was built on a plateau that contained government buildings, Buddhist temples, and private dwellings. An ingenious construction technique was employed by digging downward creating room-like basements and the dug-up soil was used to construct structures on ground level. The city islet (1650 meters in length, 300 meters wide at its widest point) in the middle of a two rivers formed a natural defense, which would explain why the city lacked any sort of walls. Instead, steep cliffs more than 30 metres high on all sides of the river acted as natural walls. The layout of the city had eastern and western residential districts, while the northern district was reserved for Buddhist sites of temples. In the 13th century the area was overrun by Genghis Khan’s army and destroyed although my guide’s story was that the city was destroyed by the introduction of Islam, which divided people’s loyalties and eventually destroying the Buddhist city.DSC_0379DSC_0380

The Emin Minaret was named after a local Turpan general, Emin Khoja. During the Qing Empire, the general sided with the Qing Empire against the Dzungar Mongols and defeated them. The minaret was completed in 1778 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796). It was built to honor the exploits of the Turpan general, Emin Khoja. Local craftsmen  constructed the first of its kind minaret  in China using local materials. It is an elegant, circular, tapered Islamic dome, 44 meters high, one of the tallest minarets in China.DSC_0299

The highlight of the Turpan was visiting a women’s workshop/business named BAGRIM, meaning My Heart. Founded by Hawahan Tursun three years ago, she decided that women in the village should continue the Uyghur embroidery craft as well as to make extra money, she opened a workshop to teach and promote handmade Uyghur textiles. Soon, her daughter, Rahile Hoji, joined her mother to help with marketing. Even her grandmother, Hawahan Osman, embroiders Uyghur hats. It takes her 4 days to make one hat. If there is interest in supporting this project by purchasing their products, please email Rahile at or .

Seventy-five year old Hawahan Osman says that the years of her youth were years of starvation.  But today there is plenty of food even too much of everything! She says life in China is good and plentiful.


Grandmother, Hawahan Osman embroider of Uyghur hats


Mother and founder of BAGRIM, Hawahan Tursun; entrepreneurial daughter, Rahile Hoji


Returning to the hotel in the hot afternoon, we came upon the first bread open oven (similar to that of Syria and Egypt) in this trip. A village women was bent over the wood burning brick oven making bread loaves called naan. She waved for us to stop and generously gave us a loaf of bread to share. Hot from the oven, the bread was delightfully chewy with a slightly crunchy, salt and black sesame seeds added to the tastiness.

The last evening dinner in Turpan was enjoyably spent at the home of a Uyghur family. Sitting on the typical raised table in the centre of grape vineyard, the family prepared a scrumptious typical Uyghur meal of a rice dish, noodle soup, chive dumplings, fried-twisted crispy dough with the ever present and ever-replenished  bowl of tea. A meal to remember in Turpan.



The following photos are the guides that insured that my trip was a safe, comfortable, nourishing, knowledgable, and successful 7500 kilometres through China. Each one gave me a piece of their Silk Road to carry with me and savour over the years. I am eternally grateful. Although guiding and driving is their job, they all took pride in showing me their country and I will carry the admirable impressions of China to others along my journey because of their outstanding efforts.

The Silk Road was about migration and transfer of ideas, ideologies, religions, intermarriage, language and trade. It was about invention, movement, and discovery. Walnuts, glass, pomegranates, horses, lions, camel, coloured-glazes (cloisonné), herbs, musical instruments, chairs are just a few of the things introduced to the East. While the East carried porcelain, silk, iron ware, gunpowder, tea, paper to the West. Curious and desirous seeking people took up the journey for profit and power, and survival. There was suffering and hardship; life lived and life lost. The Silk Road then and now, remains the same.


Good-bye Magnificient China!

With the Eastern roads behind, I head West into Central Asia.


(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)





Lanzhou to Dunhuang: the Hexi Corridor

August 26th -August 29th, 2017 Llasa-Lanzhou-Dunhuang-Liuyuan (yellow line on map is roughly the Hexi Corridor between Lanzhou and Dunhuang, not to Llasa)


My first introduction to Lanzhou was an overcrowded, polluted, traffic snarling city. Mountains hemming the city in on both sides with the Yellow River dividing the city into east and west, heavy industry with snarling traffic did not leave a reason to return although I knew I would return on my way from Llasa to Dunhuang. But, Lanzhou holds secrets. Get lucky and give her a chance and Lanzhou brings out another side.

Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, is considered to have been the gateway to the Silk Road and where this road crossed the Yellow River. Historically, this was the most important route into ancient China to what was known simply as the western Regions and beyond to the west, Central Asia. Everyone, merchants to poets, wanderers to conquers passed through the narrow, 1000 kilometres long strip between Dunhuang and Lanzhou (or visa versa) known as the Hexi Corridor. Sometimes as narrow as 16 kilometres wide and surrounded by inhospitable country of Qilian Shan (mountain) to the south and Gobi Desert to the north, any caravan passing through this track had little freedom of movement. This natural bottleneck or the Throat, opened onto the Mouth of China and anyone making the journey from Central Asia to the fertile lands of China had to pass this way.

Fortresses and beacon towers were built along its length. Even the Great Wall extended as far as the Hexi Corridor. The most western remnants of it can still be seen near Dunhuang to Luyuan as well as some at Jiayuguan (not visited) where the Ming rulers built a magnificent fortress in 1372 and has been renovated to its past glory. Here in this photo, I am between Dunhuang and Luyuan, there are remnants of the Great Wall melting into the desert. FullSizeRenderHere, the walls and fortresses built with mud-bricks rather than like the eastern wall (near Beijing) of stone. These areas were the outer reaches and probably used as places of tax collection or ‘immigration and exit’ points. The Shule River once flowed through here, which would have provided transportation as well as protection, fresh water for people and animals, and a source to make mud for building the wall. Now, there are only black goji bushes and and cemetery from the local village that occupies a spot in the Gobi Desert.

(However, at the end of this post, you will note a new ‘great wall’ in the Hexi Corridor.)

After a 25 hour train ride from Llasa, I was looking forward to the in-room foot salt-bath that had been prepared on my first visit to Ningwozhuang Hotel. The hotel is grand and I was told it was for ‘big potatoes’ assuming that meant for official visits. I wasn’t sure how I got a reservation, but certainly, it was one of the finest hotel rooms that I have ever stayed at! (Here the wifi was the strongest that I encountered throughout China.)

The five days while I was in Llasa, it had rained in Lanzhou. The Yellow River was red with silt from the mountains. Even the Bingling Si Caves (see ‘Previously, in Xi’an’ post) which I had visited two weeks previously were closed due to the rough waters of the Yellow River, which had to cross to get to the site. So I was lucky to have seen these caves.
This day is was cloudy with a chance of rain so we headed to the Lanzhou – Gansu Provincial Museum. IMG_3784What a treasure of information and beautifully presented – chronological, interactive, well-lit, labelled in English and Chinese (definitely museums around the world could learn from this museum)!  I would see one of Gansu national treasures, The Flying Horse, a Chinese bronze sculpture that perfectly balances on one leg from the Eastern Han probably the 2nd century CE. Discovered in 1969 near the city of Wuwei, Gansu Province. IMG_3787The Silk Road exhibit, magnificent Quran of the Qing Dynasty and the ancient pottery exhibit was most informative. I was enthralled with the patterns found on pottery (BCE) and the similarities to the patterns found on calabashes in Northern Nigeria. Although probably no connection, the recognition of these patterns were most interesting to me. (When I return to Cairo, I will add to this post the comparison of patterns found on calabashes to these patterns.)IMG_3793IMG_3804

After many inquiries about handcrafts in Lanzhou and the difficulty of getting past the excuse ‘that there is no parking’, we are dropped off at a walking street that offers as many international brand stores as in London. My guide turns off into a quiet alleyway and facing me is a Confucius Temple. IMG_3809Within the alleyways are small stores that offer supplies for calligraphy art, stamp and coin collector shops, and a calabash store. Here, artists have worked for centuries carving beautiful scenes onto tiny to giant calabashes.

I meet Mr. Chang who had just sat down to a bowl of noodles. He offers to share his lunch with me and invites me into the next room where his wife is pulling dough into noodles and placing them in an electric pot full of aromatic broth. Lots of vegetables were sliced up on the table and entered this delightful hotspot. We dawdled and talked, laughed and joked, of course through a translator. Mr. Chang sat me down and tried to teach me his art. With his tools, I tried to make a scratch on the calabash but could not and fearing the knife would slip and I would cut myself, I gave up rather quickly but not without a keen appreciation for his art and craft.IMG_3823

Then off to lunch at the Yellow River Romantic Garden Restaurant looking over youth playing football and beyond the Yellow River. This restaurant’s speciality is for weddings and beside our table was a wedding party enjoying many, many toasts to good life and fortune.


Here I was introduced to pre-packaged 8-treasure tea or sanpaotei! A mug glass filled with all the dried ingredients: green tea, goji beans, walnuts, ju-jube, chili, chrysanthemum blossom, rose hip, rock sugar , wrapped in plastic, and all ready for boiling water, refills free.I was not sure who then owns the glass mug but I left it behind.

Then off to another railway station and another overnight train (13 hours) to Dunhaung. (This time I had an in-suite toilet!)


Dunhuang is at the western end of the Hexi Corridor near the historic junction of two arms of ancient Silk Road coming from the west, one around the north, and the other around the south of the Taklmakan Desert. The Silk Road routes from China to the west passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and Dunhuang lay on the junction where these two routes came together. Additionally, the city lies near the western edge of the Gobi Desert, and north of the Mingsha Sand DunesDSC_0012 (whose name means ‘gurgling sand’ or ‘singing dunes’, a reference to the noise of the wind over the dunes), making Dunhuang a vital resting point for merchants and pilgrims travelling through the region from all directions.

As such, Dunhuang played a key role in the passage of Silk Road trade to and from China, and over the course of the first millennium AD, was one of the most important cities to grow up on these routes.  Dunhuang initially acted as a garrison town protecting the region and its trade routes, established in the 2nd century BC by the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Yü Guan or “Jade Gate” and the Yang Guan, or “Southern Gate” are names of ancient passes along the medieval highway that illustrate the strategic importance position  of Dunhuang.

Over many centuries Buddhist monks, initially traveling from the west, created a sanctuary in hundreds of caves armed out of the dry cliff faces at Dunhuang, where an oasis provided water and the means of growing food. Buddhist monks from India and China traveled this road, and Dunhuang became a repository of Buddhist wisdom and art through the thousand years of trade on the Silk Road.(Also at Turpan’sBezeklik’s Thousand Buddha Caves and the Bingling Si caves outside of Lanzhou clearly illustrate the movement of Buddhism). Eventually, caves were painted and statues incorporated onto the walls and scriptures written as a holy Buddhist resting area. The earliest carvings and frescoes are reminiscent of Indian art, while later dynasties’ artists used different techniques and portrayed figures of their Chinese contemporaries.

DSC_0028The Mogao caves hold one of the greatest storehouses of Buddhist art in the world. That is, they did, until the beginning of the last century when they were pillaged by highly respect European archaeologists carted Buddhist wall painting off to public and private galleries and museums,but then, the Cultural revolution and extremist Islam have also done damage, too. The grottoes spread for 1700 metres along a canyon wall. At the peak of their use, during the Tang Dynasty, AD619-907, they housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns and countless artists, calligraphers, and translators. All this creativity was funded by private donations. At the height of its glory there were more than 400 caves at Dunhuang now only eight caves, selected in rotation from among that number are open to visitors at any one time. The caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Going through the towns bazaar in mid-day was not a good idea as everyone is having a siesta but my guide knows my interest in crafts and he suggests visiting his home to meet his mother and father. His mother makes hand made shoes for children and sells them in the Saturday/Sunday markets. So with a rare invitation, we enter our guides home and enjoy a few hours seeing how these shoes are made.

As I leave Dunhaung for the train station in Luyuang to travel 4 hours to Turpan, I am struck with another, modern Great Wall and provides an example of the continuous improvements in infrastructure that China invests: 200 kilometres of wind mills along the Hexi Corridor.

DSC_0113(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Yogurt Banquet Festival

August 20-25: Llasa, Tibet, China


On my way to the train station after five days in Llasa, (3600 meters) the capital of Tibet Autonomous region in China, I had completed a circle …starting and ending… at the same place. But there is more to the story…my Tibetan Buddhist guide, Tenzim, would approve.


After a 22 hour train journey from Xinging to Llasa,  Tenzim discussed the Yogurt Banquet Festival known as the Shoton Festival, particular to Llasa. It would begin in the morning with pilgrimage to the Sera Monastery and Drepung monastery. ‘Would I like to go?’ We would join pilgrims from all over Tibet to complete an up hill climb to see the unfolding of a 37 by 40 meter thangka (see previous post for explanation of thangka) from high above the Drepung Monastery. It would mean an early start and possibly 4 kilometre walk. ‘Would it be too much for me in this altitude?’ My only question was, ‘what time?”DSC_0329

The Shoton Festival, also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, has been held since the 11th century (this date may vary). The Shoton Festival, usually held in late August or early September, it is the second most popular festival in Lhasa, only following the Tibetan New Year. The origins was on the occasion when farmers would offer yogurt to monks who had finished meditation retreats after staying in the caves and shelters to avoid walking on summer insects and unintentionally killing the tiny critters.

A drizzly morning welcomed us as we joined a long line of pilgrims, many of whom had started at 4am to be present for the once a year unrolling of the thangka. The approach to view the thangka began far from the mountain; Chinese army and police lined the route for crowd control. As we wound up the mountain paths I looked backward and forward at the sea of people from all walks of life. Elderly women and men pushed past me, young children squeezed between the skirts and pant legs, young mothers carried babies on their backs in back packs made of a blanket and cinched with a wide rope under the baby bottom. The solemn chanting of mantras and reciting sutras in a low hum helped me with my own steps forward and pulled my feet forward and upward. People looked at me, greeting me with a smile: ‘hello’…’where are you from?’…I knew I was welcome on their path.


Making it to the top (very grateful for the cool, cloudy weather) and standing below the massive embroidered thangka to which more than 40,000 people had come to pay their respects, I had this rare opportunity to participate in a sacred religious event. Tibetan ceremonial scarf made of white silk that represents respect, kindness and good wishes are thrown towards the thangka. People buy incense to add to the incense furnace. We stand under the grand thangka and admire it as an ancient work of art that has been preserved for four centuries.

Then onto tour Drepung Monastery (founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choge Tasha Palden (1397-1449), one of Tsongkhapa’s, founder of Yellow Hat sect, disciples – see previous post). A visit to the kitchen, the familiar yak butter fragrance permeates the room where massive ovens and vats are used to prepare daily food and drink for the monks. More stairs to descend and we rest with Tibetan families who have made this devotional journey. Then the walk back to the city…round trip 13 kilometers (at 3,600 meters). A welcomed late lunch of Yak curry and naan and then to the hotel to soothe strained muscles!


My seat near the stage!

The next day at the Shoton Festival, there is another opportunity to enjoy the local festivities. Tenzim explained that the Tibetan opera would open at 11 am in Norbulingka Park ( built in the middle of the 18th century during the reign of the 7th Dalai Lama and served as the Summer Palace of Dalai Lamas). Tenzim warns that only the elderly enjoyed Tibetan opera because they are the generation that understand the symbolism and intricate stories. So he doesn’t expect me to stay long. Seven hours later….


My preconceived idea of going to an opera is a theatre with chairs and intermission. I was in for a new cultural experience when Tenzim positioned a small stool near the outdoor, tent covered 360 -degree stage. I would soon experience a non-stop opera, no intermission for musicians, actors, or audience. The musicians played continuously and actors came and went as new characters were introduced to the story, no bathroom break, either, as the opera was so crowded that returning to my space would be impossible.



I sat in a crouched position these hours completely enthralled as those seated around me. Tibetans from the city and countryside sat on the cold stone floor or on blankets or on small stools. They brought large thermos of tea and boxes of yak yogurt biscuits, dried fruit and meat. The hours flew past within the midst of joy and excitement, laughter, and tears, as we watched the opera. The ever present prayer beads glided between fingers and hands, an intractable part of their lives in anticipation and appreciation of the performance.


DSC_0444DSC_0686Dating back to the 14th century, the performance style epitomises Tibetan culture, combining drums, cymbals and bells, piercing recitatives punctuating choruses, villains, leaping dragons, swirling ladies with long silk sleeves. In 2006, the Tibetan opera was awarded national intangible cultural heritage status and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2009. Most of its repertoire is based on Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

Back to the required tourist itinerary…places one must see but, honestly, paled in comparison of the last two days that immersed me in the living culture. Nevertheless formal systems are the foundations of traditions and culture to understand a society and its history. Potala Palace’s ancient architectural complex is considered a model of Tibetan architecture. Located on the Red Hill in Lhasa; it is 3,700 meters above sea level and covers an area of over 360,000 square meters, measuring 360 meters from east to west and 270 meters from south to north. The palace has 13 stories, and is 117 meters high;


Potala Palace.                                                                                                                                            (to Samantha: I thought of your spinning classes while struggling up the stairs!),

Monks Debate at Sera Monastery, the younger monks sit on the ground, each with a monk above him, grilling him on Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. Each question is presented with great thoughtfulness and special gestures, and when it’s time for the seated monk to answer, the standing monk claps sharply. If the answer is judged to be wrong or incomplete, the standing monk berates the seated monk.


Ganden Monastery is at the top of Wangbur Mountain (4300 meters) . Here Tsong Khapa came at 13 years-old to eventually begin the Yellow Hat sect and build the Ganden Monastery in 1409. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1959 and rebuilt in 1980.


Ganden Monastery

The Jokhang Monastery, built in 648 AD, the Tang Dynasty in the style with characteristics of Nepalese and Indian architecture. can claim to be the center around which the city of Lhasa developed. to name a few. It was built in Tang Dynasty. The statutes of Songtsen Gampo, Princess Wencheng and Princess Chizun, another wife of the Tibetan King are enshrined in side halls.


Jokhang Monastery and incense stoves

Living crafts, people sitting along alleyways or within small stores, making their craft that are used in daily life is not seen often in the West. In the Tibetan autonomous region, the making of articles used in daily religious life can be found near a monastery or in the market place. For example, in Llasa, one sees young men sitting in lotus position, eyes inches away from the canvas painting the intricate design of a thangka (see previous post); or printing sutras on wooden tables to be place in a prayer wheel; or carving small statues, or moulding object such as the work of Mr. Luzhin Gyang Tso.

He has been making these objects for the last 14 years, called Taza. They are containers to place ashes of loved-ones after a Tibetan sky burial. These small containers have dried barley blessed by the Buddha at their centre with each point representing 108 Buddha stupas.

They are bought to be placed on a mountain after a love-one has passes away. Along with these, medallions are positioned at the mountain tops to the Buddha of wisdom and compassion.

Closing the circle of my Llasa visit, we end at Jopoli, the Holy Mountain, not on a tourist itinerary. As I began in the procession to pay respects to the 400 year old holy thangka, I end at the holy rock of hundreds of Buddha rock painting. Here is the place where 100 yak butter candles are lit, here, in this quiet square that belongs to a Buddhist nunnery. Young and old people prostrate, and give offering to their ancestors, it is the end of a clockwise circle walked each morning of prayers and prostration. I sit in a shady corner feeling a part of something special; a universal expression to something greater than an individual, a spiritual energy, a dedication to beliefs to make sense of life.


100 yak butter candles


On Mani Payne Hom (Tibetan mantra for ‘Hail Pure Lotus’)

ps. Some of the photos are not clear due to a computer problem. I am not able to correct these until I return to Cairo. Videos of the opera and the monk debate will be forthcoming when I can download larger files.  I hope to be able to include them on this post. If you are interest, please check back.


(all rights reserved, copyright 2017, To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Xiahe to Xinging to the Roof of the World

DSC_0087Thu, Aug 17 Xiahe • drive to Tongren
Fri, Aug 18 Tongren • drive to Xunhua • drive to Xining
Sat, Aug 19 Xining • depart by overnight train to Llasa



Yellow line from Xiahe to Tongren, Green line from  Tongren to Xuahue to Xinging. (This is part of a map that the hotel in Tongren kindly gave to me.)

IMG_0038Understanding China is nearly impossible with just two weeks of travel. Everything is new…the sounds, the systems, the food…but trying to understand the complex history beyond my textbook education often leaves me struggling to sort out this varied and diverse culture and history. One dilemma is to understand how the Chinese government is structured on a local level. China is divided into huge provinces; the further one travels westward the more complicated it becomes. There are three autonomous regions (as I understand): Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinghang. Then there are many autonomous prefectures that give minorities a voice in local governance. The areas I traveled through in Gansu and Qinghai Provinces are subdivided into autonomous prefectures that give minorities a voice such as the Hui and Salar people (Muslims) and Tibetan.

Leaving the Xiahe and continuing through the Song ke Grasslands, the road passes the Labrang Monastery, one of the six great Tibetan monasteries for the Yellow Hat sect. On the road to Tongren, the plan is to visit several Yellow Hat sect monasteries beginning with the Wu Tun Monastery in Longwu 7 kilometers outside of Tongren and at the end of the three days, the Ta’er Si (Tibetan: Laptah) Monastery, the place where Tsong Khapa Lozano-draper (1357-1419) founder of the “Yellow Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, is thought to have been born in 1357 in the area of Xining. (In Llasa, Tibet, (China), I visit Ganden Monastery, which is at the top of Wangbur Mountain (4300 meters) . Here Tsong Khapa came at 13 years-old to eventually begin the Yellow Hat sect and build the Ganden Monastery in 1409. (It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in 1959 and rebuilt in 1980.)

For explanation for the meaning of the colour is yellow for Yellow hat: http://study )


The road to Tongren winds along steep mountains and descends into valleys and passes grasslands where nomads graze yaks and sheep for the summer months. Along the road, we stop at a mountain village named Shang Pen Xi, a village where Gen Dun Qun Pei, a scholar ( 1903-1953) who spoke eleven languages, was born and who is honoured in the town square. (I later see the same bronze statue at Ta’er Monastery in Xining.) The mountain walls and steep passes affirm why these area were left to develop on their own.

Tongren (Tibetan: Rebkong) is small monastic town, Qinghai Province. At the Wu Tun Monastery, I am introduced to thangka (Chinese: Regong) art which is a Tibetan Buddhist painting that depicts a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. The monks at Wu Tun Monastery have had a reputation for creating detailed images of Buddhist deities meticulously painted on stretched fine-weave canvas. Pigments are hand ground from brightly coloured stone such as turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli, gold and silver leaf ground with a resin.

Most thangkas are intended for personal meditation or teaching historical events concerning Lamas or myths associated with certain deities. Tibetan Buddhist painting developed from widespread traditions of early Buddhist paintings that still can be seen at the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang on the Silk Road ( on my itinerary). Historically, most artists were monks. The thangkas were either commissioned or given as gifts. In Tongren, the art form spread to families and at least one male member of almost every family painted the thangka. Today women are allowed to paint thangka art. Rarely is a thangka signed.
I was fortunate that on the morning in Tongren by chance an art school, Qinghai Rebgong Art School, had opened for an official visit and we were able to enjoy the open doors of the school and visit the workshops.

Embossed embroidery is another part of the thangka art form, however, little is documented about this art, which is often seen attached onto thangka paintings. I visited one artist, Qi Mao Tai, in her home and she takes me through the process of glueing pieces of silk on stiff paper, known as embossed embroidery, which she explains is usually commissioned.

Like a line drawn across the mountains, we leave the Buddhist area and see Chinese style minaret in the skyline as we enter a Muslim area. On the way to visit the 10th Panchen Lama’s birthplace, I see people constructing a mud brick building. Asking the guide if we could stop, we scamper to the site where a large group of farmers have gathered to build a house for a neighbouring family. I was interested in the construction material of mud, clay and straw, which is are materials used in the countryside of Egypt and Northern Nigeria.

In Xuahue, we have lunch with a Muslim family in their garden. Helen, the guide, explains that wheat is the main crop of the area and that Chinese come to this region for the wheat noodles. Of course, our lunch is yak stew with wheat noodles while we sip 8 treasure tea. But I could only count six: rock sugar, red chili, green tea, walnuts, goji bean, ju-ju bean. Boiling water is continuous, replenshing the bowl throughout the meal.

Xuahue is mainly populated by Muslim who are known as Salar. The Salar people mostly live in Qinghai-Gansu border region in Xuahue Salar Autonomous prefecture and Hualong Hui Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai. Also there are Salar people in Xinjiang in Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. All this matters to me because it is one of the great ancient Silk Road stories. The Salar people are descendants from the Salar tribe coming from Central Asia: Oghuz Turks. Two brothers Haraman and Ahmad lived in Samarkand area in the 11th century because of persecution from the local king, they and some family members fled with a white camel (a statue in the middle of the town today) DSC_1260and a hand-written Quran (still survives in Jiezi Mosque in Xuahue). The group trekked though the northern Silk Road route and ended near Xiahe while others passed through the southern route and entered into Qinghai. They intermarried with Tibetan, Hui and Han Chinese, and Mongols to form the Salar group. The Quran they brought is preserved in Xuahue at Jiezi Mosque, which I tried to visit but because it was Friday, I was unable to view the Quran but was assured it was protected “in a special box where temperature and humidity are fixed and ultraviolet rays and harmful gas are kept out.”
We are fortunate to visit Xuahue Mosque named He Don ( meaning East River Mosque) built in 1485. In 1988 the mosque was put under heritage protection. Little information is known about this mosque even after a search in Chinese by my guide.
The main prayer is supported by massive wooden pillars, minaret has 6 cornerstone and 17 meters high.

Then a three hour drive to Xinging, the capital of Qinghai Province. Here the altitude is 7,000 feet. Xining has been an important trading center since the 16th century. Only a day to visit Buddhist monastery of Ta’er and stop at the 14th century Dongguan Mosque, which is said to hold tens of thousands during the Eid celebrations.


Xinging is where I leave for Llasa, a 22 hour trip on an overnight train that would take me to the Roof of the World, over the 5000 meter Tangla Pass into Llasa at 3600 meters. I fall asleep listening to laughter of Chinese men in the corridor and soft Chinese music coming from another compartment.

Back to the Wall...
A friend of mine asked if I was noticed by passerby. I think the curiosity is mutual so when someone says hello or wants a picture, I am quite happy to oblige. A lovely example of this was on the third day in Beijing when I visited a portion of the Great Wall of China. I had climbed up one side of a mountain and sat looking across the valley to the other side. What looked like a white ribbon wound its way down the wall. I was fascinated and wondered what group would be so organised as to dress in white and stay in single file. Soon they were out of sight and I descended from the stairs as well. When quite by surprise , I found myself in the midst of a group of girls all dressed in white and quickly realised they were indeed the ribbon across the Great Wall.

ps. Length of Great Wall: “At its height the Ming’s Great Wall covered some 6300 km. Hundreds of side spurs and secondary defence walls protected further valleys, in total, an incredible 50,000 km of wall was built. (-from The Silk Roads by Paul Wilson). In a couple of days I will see the end of the Great Wall, ……km from Beijing.



Traveled kilometres from August 6th to August 25th, 2017, in China:

Beijing to Xian: 912 km

Xi’an to Lanzhou: 623 km

Lanzhou to Xiahe: 233 km

Xiahe to Tongren: 107 km

Tongren to Xinging: 167km

Xining to Llasa: 1919km

Llasa to Lanzhou: 2127 km

(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)