Tibet, Friendship Highway and more…

copyscape-banner-white-160x565104CC2D-4562-41D9-B124-682CB8F4D89AThe last 8 days of this five week exploration of the lesser routes of the Silk Road in Central Asia and China was spent in the Tibet Autonomous region. Though Tibet is not an official route of the Silk Road, movement between Central Asia, Tibet, India, and China is well documented. Through Central Asia going eastward, one comes in contact with  remnants of the Buddhist religion left from monks and pilgrims crisscrossing the land. So to continue to understand the movement of material culture associated with the migration of peoples, I returned to Tibet Autonomous region to have a broader understanding; however, the region’s history, religion, and culture is rich and complex, this journey and humble post only serves as a grain of sand in this ancient land. 


Map of Tibet Autonomous Region by Chinese Government

Diverse cultures and traditions are fading fast with global homogenisation favouring technology, so it is personally important to experience traditions, culture, food, and languages in a local context rather than in a museum (though I do love collections) or a theme park, (the latter seems to becoming a trend.) Furthermore, last year when traveling through China and Kyrgyzstan my guide/translators became my friends, so I was keen to re-connect in person with Tenzin in Lhasa as I did in Kyrgyzstan with Farhod, and Helen in Xining. 

In this high mountain region of Tibet, arriving at Lhasa Airport at 2.5 miles above sea level was the lowest elevation this week. 


Climbing to the ‘roof of the world’

Fortunately,  the altitude doesn’t bother me, except, I will admit to having Tenzin carry all my things and stopping often to catch my breathe! We head out of the airport to the city of Tsetang. We drive along the muddy, flooding Brahmaputra River also named Yarlung Tsangpo River (flows to the Bay of Bengal) that, this year, has damaged roads and bridges to the high volume of rain. 

If one is to begin at the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism, a visit to Tsetang is vital as it is known as the cradle Tibetan’s civilisation. Tsetang is the capital of ancient emperors of Tibet as Xi’an is the first royal capital to the Han Chinese. Tsetang is overlooked by Mount Gongbori one of the 4 holy mountain in Tibetan Buddhism. One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people who resulted from the mating of a monkey and a beautiful ‘she devil’ or monster ogress.


One of three caves in the mountainside is said to be the birthplace of the Tibetan people In Tsetang

There were many firsts on this trip. The first monastery, Samye, built in 779 CE; the earliest geomantic temple, Tradruk, built in 7th century; the oldest palace, Yumbulagang, built in 7th century; the first time to eat a rose cake in the present. 

Samye, Tibet’s first monastery, is located only 30 km from Tsetang and was founded in 779 CE by King Trisong Detsen.02A4EB38-8564-4FEA-B6BF-AF6CECEA43EE Samye Monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but has been restored to its former glory. The main temple is the only surviving structure. Reconstruction however incorporated the three different styles of Buddhist symbolism: Tibetan, Indian, Chinese. The monetary complex is dedicated to the Indian teachers, Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, whose stupas are located on a nearby mountain.


This original painting demonstrates the complex representation of the Buddhist cosmological order at Samye Monastery

Close to the Samye Monastery are the Chimpu hermitage mountain and San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery. Centred around the cave where Indian Buddhist teachers, Guru Rinpoche (8th century) meditated and taught his disciples.  This mountains is one of the few remaining hermitage centres in Tibet where monks and nuns seclude themselves in years of solitary meditation. 


Chimpu hermitage mountain


San-ngag Zimchen Nunnery

The Tradruk Temple on this rainy morning exudes a feeling of tranquility  even though the history of its construction is gruesome as it is said to be built over a seven headed ogress-dragon. 


Inside Tradruk Temple

About 5 kilometers from Tsetang, Yumbulagang Palace is located high on a mountain edge, looking down into the valley one can see a marker in the field that denotes the spot that the monkey turned into a human:992592AA-647D-4929-8D00-94B96C0FB26AYumbulagang Palace served at the first Tibetan palace for Nvatri Tsanpo who descended from the heavens by a ladder and the people built this palace for him. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but reconstructed to its original beauty. 


Shotun Festival 

Last year, my visit to Tibet centred around the sights of Lhasa and the  Shotun Festival or Yogurt Banquet Festival. Read about it here. This year as last year, I walked shoulder to shoulder with thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who chant mantras, thumb prayer beads and spin prayer wheels for the blessing to witness a huge Thangka displayed on the hillside near Drepung Monastery.70695346-792F-4AA3-81B7-E24C01A98C75

It is now time to hit the Friendship Highway, an 830 kilometre highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu passing Mt. Everest. The Friendship Highway connects Lhasa with the Nepal border at the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge. My travels took me a half way to Nepal. Maybe one day I will return and finish the entire route to Kathmandu. 

After leaving the city of Lhasa,  we drive southeast along the Kyi Chu River, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River (Tibet name for Brahmaputra). We are headed for the city of Gyantse, 280 kilometres from Lhasa. Before arriving, we will have crossed 3 mountain passes. The first, Kambala Pass at 4700 meters, the vibrant turquoise lake, Yamdrok, comes into view. However the Notion Kangtsang peak of 7191 meters is shrouded in clouds on this very rainy day. Descending from the Kambala Pass, we stop at a small town, the road follows alongside Yamdrok Lake to the small town of Nakartse, for lunch in a lightless local eatery with a picture of Mao  staring down over our table, but it didn’t stop us from slurping up a superb yak noodle soup with ground nuts. 

Villagers along the highway take advantage of the onslaught of Chinese tourists during the summer months. Take a picture with a well-groomed goat or yak or sit next to a giant Tibetan Mastiff for a fee, of course, by why not? There are tourist traps all over the world and why not on the roof of the world? So we stop and enjoy a Tibetan tourist trap: 

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Driving onto the second and highest pass at Kharola Pass, elevation 5600 meters lies under the glacier of over 7000 metres high. Continuing on to the last pass, Semingla Pass at 4800 meters where prayer flags flutter high over the emerald green, man-made lake.

From here it is all down hill and we enter Gyantse town just in time to get permits to visit Pelkhor Chode Monastery the next day. The town is located on the ancient trade routes and the Gyantse Dzong fortress constructed in 1390 guards any approach. (Its walls were the site of a four months siege by the British Invasion in 1904.)


Pelkhor Chode Monastery

—Gyantse Dzong fortress

The Pelkhor Chode Monastery was founded in the 15th century with three Buddhist sects, two of which were Gelugpa and Sakyapa, living compatibly within the complex. Today, only the Gelugpa sect remains at the monastery. The Kumbum Stupa meaning ‘place of a 1000 images’ is one of the largest and highest, 35 metres, found in Tibet. 

Driving on to Shigatse passes through fertile plains of barley and rapeseed fields are near harvest time. We stop at a local farmers house to talk about his success in greenhouse farming. Their warm hospitality lays out masala tea and barley kernels that taste like dried popcorn. 

We have seen nothing but rain since leaving Lhasa so the landscape views have been veiled by low hanging dark clouds. As we arrive in Shigatse and before heading to visit the Tashilhunpo Monastery, we decided to stop at a local bakery and try some egg bread. 0C193A43-0AE5-4AD0-A4AD-9B0D6160FA8E

Shigatse or Xikazi, the Tibetan spelling,  is an ancient city and means ‘a manor for the most fertile soil.’ The main attraction is Tashilhunpo Monastery which is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet. The monastery was founded by  the first Dalai Lama, Genshuzhuba, in 1477 at the foot of Nima Mountain, which laid the foundation for a development of the settlement, Shigatse. The monastery contains the tombs of the Panchen Lamas, most notably the 10th Panchen Lama whose 1989 stupa used 547kilograms of gold. Tashilhumpo’s best known monument is it 80 foot statue of the seated Maitrya Buddha, regarded as the future Buddha of the world. 


Tashilhunpo Monastery

The next day we begin the last leg of my journey in Tibet, a 7 hour drive back to Lhasa. We stopped in at the home of an incense-maker who supplies all the many stores around the country with incense for the daily consumption that is needed for offerings. While we were there, the owner was bundling cartons of incense sticks for people to offer at the monastery.

I asked the owner how he makes the incense, and through Tenzin, my translator, he explained, that from juniper berries that he gathers from the mountains, he makes a paste and adds Tibetan medicine and sandalwood. Then he puts the paste in a hollowed out yaks horn and squeezes out sticks that are left to dry. 

An hour out of Lhasa, our car pulls into the obligatory police security line and out of nowhere a car rams into us. On my last day and visions of being taken to a nearby hospital was not in the itinerary! But fortunately for us, the car was all that was damaged though an ambulance was called for a passenger in the other car.

Last sweet bite for a sweet journey…rose petal cake:28271AF7-ACF0-4E3E-ABF0-893A70258083



(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)




Qinghai and Gansu Provinces: Festivals, Minorities and Landforms


66F73AAA-10CC-4E96-84BC-E666BE19165CThis week was spent with my good friend, Helen. Last year she guided me through Qinghai Provence. This year Helen took me on an 8-day trip through Qinghai Provence and the western Gansu Province to visit ethnic minorities, Huzhu Tu  and Yugur, as well as to attend Tibetan mountain god festivals, Shaman, in three villages around Tongren.  I can’t leave out  the stunning Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park! Much more was on our agenda but this post offers these highlights.


Helen and I at Tongren Museum

China has 55 ethnic minorities and the area in which they live are recognised as autonomous regions, allowing for a certain leeway for local rules and traditions to be observed. So far in this trip, I have visited the Uyghur, Tu, Yugur and Tibetan Autonomous areas in China.

Traveling from Xining to Tongren, we begin to see stupas protrude from the greenery and notice prayer flags on high mountain ridges. We pass one village that is Buddhist and then the next is a Muslim village with minarets raising high above the homes. From one village to another the architecture and lifestyle changes noticeably.

Tongren is home to the Rebgong art which is an important genre of Tibetan Buddhist art. This school consists of Thangka paintings, embossed embroidery, architecture coloured painting, sculptures (see: Xiahe to Xining ). From Tongren, we branch to three villages on a very wet and cold day. We are not sure the if the Shaman festivals will be cancelled or not because of rain…8D279A64-9CAE-4AFE-98B1-26CBA093C45D

The annual Shaman Festival observed by both Tu and Tibetan ethnic minorities express their thanks to the Mountain god who protects them from evil. Through an ancient dance to the god, they pray that the god(s) bless the land with an abundant harvest. The three villages observed three different types of dances. (The following is what I was told about the reasons for the festivals, through an interpreter,  so if this information is wrong, please be so kind as to let me know.)

At the first village, Wu Tun, and although it rained heavily, a solemn dance with unmarried men and women, and children began. Here, they thanked the mountain god for sending the Roc bird (in the story,  flew from India) to protect the people from wild animals and evil.  In Tibetan language this bird is called xia qiong. Also, the dance is for  xia qiong to bless the water, wind, and 5 grains of the Tu and Tibetan villages along the 12 kilometre of the river. 3812AAC3-9947-46C3-8CE6-1572FBC650A235B3CFB9-9B5F-4D1B-9977-EBF65BBF3C616C4735E8-0C3A-4AD3-BFE5-4F8AC6754FB0


At the second village, Lanj Jia, dancing commemorated the war between  Tang Dynasty and Tibet. It is a celebration of  peace between them.  Also a Tubo sacrifice to local gods. This is a military and dragon dance and for men only.



Lawa at Lanj Jia village

In the third village, Ma Ha Ba Tu, celebrations are to commemorate the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, a mixed army of Mongolian and Han Chinese  accepted to enlist in Ming Dynasty in the LuWu valley. The dance celebrates peace and tranquility and to pray for ancestors, life and food. Here I met an 8 year-old girl, Do Jie Zhuo Ma, meaning smart or knowledgeable girl, who stayed with me most of the afternoon until her mother called her to dress for the festival. She asked me, “If you are a grandmother, why do you wear lipstick? Grandmothers don’t wear lipstick.”

Some rituals for the Shaman is to insert steel needles into the cheeks or back of males from 8-45 years. This ritual is usually a one time requirement.


Photo courtesy of Helen, my guide

Each village has a human, named lawa, that goes into a trance and is said to open to the gods and becomes a vessel with the mountain god.Below is a picture of the lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu, being prepared for his transformation and a video of the ceremony where he becomes a vessel for the mountain god.


The lawa in the village of Ma Ha Ba Tu

People from the villages:

The rich land of Sunan Yugur Autonoumous Prefecture is located in Hexi Corridor,  (see Lanzhou to Dunhuang) at the northern foot of the Qilian Mountains in Gansu Province. There are more than 30,000people living in Sunan, a third of whom are the Yugur people. Throughout history and today, although the Yugur (not to be confused with Uyghur) group is relatively small, they have been deeply committed to their traditions. 

The Yugur people story begins during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the nomadic tribe migrated from Siberian over the Tien Shan Mountains in search for grass and water, then to the Mongolian Plateau during the end of the first century. This tribe separated and migrated to the Qilian Mountains, assimilated with locals to form the Huihe people, forefathers of the Yugur ethnic group. For nearly 300 years , the Tang Dynasty preserved fundamental peace with the Hiuhu and during this time the Yugur tribe emerged. The Qilian Mountains, natural cover for defence, gave them control of transportation through the Silk Road and they made connection with Central Asia between the 9th and 11th century, and they established the Ganzhou Uyghur Khanate near Zhangye. But it was destroyed and the tribe left the Hexi Corridor. During the 16th century tribes began to migrate eastward, and merged with a branch  Eventually through intermarriage, war, and migration the Yugur ethnic group emerged. 

In Chinese, “Yugur” means wealth and stability. Animal husbandry is the major industry of the Yugur people. The Yugur people believe in the Yellow Sect of Lamaism, their customs and habits are similar to the Tibetans. Only one meal is eaten every day of which their staple foods are primarily rice, wheat and some mixed grain.  Yugur people usually eat beef, mutton, and pork, as well as chicken and camel meat, to which they add some garlic, soy sauce and vinegar.

The Yugur people are renowned for their hospitality. No matter when guests arrive, they will give them a feast. Fragrant tea or milk tea will be immediately presented that lets each guest feel the Yugur people’s friendliness. 

My appointment with Mrs. Ke Cuiling, keeper of Yugur traditions and culture, lived up to the Yugur’s notorious warm welcome and generous hospitality.


Mrs. Me Cuiling in her ethnology museum and showing the woman’s Yugur dress

We were served a feast of Yugur delicacies and at the end the offering of finger glass of traditional barley liquor accompanied with the flicking of liquor to appease the gods and bring blessings to ourselves. 

Like many traditional crafts that are passed down over generations, Mrs. Ke learned the skills from her mother and elder sister from an early age. She worked for many years in the local museum before beginning her own local cultural center. Despite her tight schedule, Mrs. Ke still manages to train young Yugurs in tailoring of traditional clothing, embroidery, and culture during her spare time. Ke Cuiling faces the same problem as traditional artisans face throughout the world that technology and consumerism will erase local and traditional handicrafts. But she is doing something about it by opening opportunities for tourism and summer programs for youth. ( Read: Keeping Yugur Ethnic costume alive.)

Zhangye, meaning extending the arm, is a city in the centre of the Hexi Corridor. Fifty minutes drive and we are in Zhangye National Geopark is located in Sunan and Linze counties in the Quilain Mountain range within the prefecture-level city of Zhangye, in Gansu Provence. Zhangye Danxia is known for the unusual colours of the rocks, which are smooth, sharp and several hundred meters tall. 0E421BB8-B305-47A9-9F0E-577DC480392198465943-458C-4AE6-AC97-02C7DEEC5A4F5B5C5EB0-DB8E-4C14-8295-49646BD6C6E5B597B171-4289-46E8-867B-2CBE1AF6D40DThey are the result of deposits of sandstone and other minerals that occurred over 24 million years. The result, similar to a layer cake, is connected to the action of the same tectonic plates responsible for creating parts of the Himalayan mountains.

Wind, rain, and time sculpted extraordinary shapes, including towers, pillars, and ravines, with varying colours, patterns, and sizes. (Information from Wikipedia)

Of course, one must leave a wish before saying farewell to this awesome geological wonder:DBAE65C1-08B6-4240-859D-E99AD5E0A1AF














(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Hotan, the Taklamakan and Walnuts


On the train again…a 5am train ride from Kashgar to Hotan that skirts the Taklamakan Desert deposits me after 6 hours in this Uyghur city on a chilly rainy day. BE48A65C-1B1B-4D9D-92FC-9FB4D7DE117DThe driver said it was most unusual weather as the summer is hot and dry. I wondered from where this cool air came but had no luck with my inquiries so I just accepted the fluke of weather conditions was to my advantage and enjoyed the cool day, particularly as I was headed into the Taklamakan Desert (tark, “to abandon” + makan, “place”)to visit Rawak Vihara, a ruined Buddhist stupa (a commemorative monument representing the passing of the Buddha) and monastery complex c. between the 3rd-4th centuries CE located northeast of Hotan.


. According to the archeological accounts, sand covered the temple and entire area.


“Rawak means “high building” or “steep house” in Uyghur, and vihara is the Sanskrit term for “monastery.” *



In Stein’s accounts, “the stupa walls were completely covered with sculptures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, life-sized or a little larger. The coloring of the sculptures was of a deep red.” *


Reconstruction of what the original stupa might have been. It was covered in sand when Stein began excavating.

Between 1901 and 1906 Aurel Stein excavated this and wrote about his remarkable finds at this temple on his first trip to China. He found relics that showed the influence of Buddhist religion and Indian cultures. He hid his findings to one day return and when he did return most of what he hid had been stolen. (Read: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road for more information about the excavations of Stein. *Above information from http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/rawak-vihara)

Hotan is the modern city within the ancient Kingdom of Khotan that is on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin of modern Xinjiang Provence. C39803BF-3A56-4A5F-929C-805FF1290FC1Kingdom of Khotan was one of the many small states found in the Tarim Basin that included Yarkand, Turfan (see Foiled at the Finish), Kashgar. To the west were Central Asian kingdoms of Sogdiana and Bactria ( see Sogdians and Soviets). China and Tibet were powerful neighbours. In antiquity, and especially before the rise of Islam in the 9th-10th centuries CE, the region of Khotan was Buddhist for over 1000 years and mainly populated by East-Iranian-speaking Saka tribes until it was conquered by Muslim Kara-Khanid Khanate in 1006. (Read more at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kara-Khanid_Khanate).

Built on an oasis, Hotan mulberry groves allowed the production and export of silk, in addition to the city’s other major products such as its famous jade from the White Jade River.


White Jade River where most of China’s jade comes from over centuries

Hotan was once famous for its silk  production. Unfortunately, sericulture is no longer a lucrative business for traditional techniques of making silk textiles. In Xinjiang Provence preparation of silk for weaving is called ‘atlas’. This technique is used throughout Central Asia. The textile design is called  ‘ikat’ which is when  cotton and silk threads are combined the material is called ‘adras’. If the textile is purely silk, most often, the name is ‘atlas’. Ikat adras and atlas have been practiced throughout Central Asia for a 1000 years. It is an expression of material cultures that spread from (modern-day) Uzbekistan to Xīnjiāng Provence. The inspiration of the designs is from the shapes of flowers, leaves, and fruits, pomegranate the most revered. The process in Hotan silk factory is the same as explained in the Obelisque article : The Ikat of Uzbekistan

The 1300 year-old walnut tree attests to walnut cultivation over millennia. Here, walnuts are revered for not only health benefits but also walnuts were used as trader-travelers moved across trade routes from China to the Mediterranean Sea.


1300 year old walnut tree!

6E4F6C48-8448-4A1B-A3AB-7CDFD55D571F21B4B1ED-F4E9-4E6E-B89E-D53253094388Along these routes travelers planted the nutritious and portable walnut. Hotan climate, water resource and fertile land was ideal to grow walnut trees. 

Hotan night market topped off my stay in Hotan with sweet tangzaza (sticky rice with syrup and yoghurt). Some night market delights:6483EC37-9F0A-4269-BB34-6F2CFF0F98D9

In the video, the song asks, “What makes you happy?” The refrain, “The night market makes us happy.”

Want more information on Uyghurs and Xinjiang Province in China, go to Josh Summers: Far West China. It is excellent!

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Kyrgyzstan: Keeping it Real 2018



Kyrgyzstan flag is symbol of yurt and sun


Neighbourhood in Kochkor

There is something about this country, Kyrgyzstan, that pulls me to it. Maybe it’s the  magnificient mountian scenery or the superlative welcoming people or the nomadic culture or the dedication to the preservation of their heritage. My answer: all of the above.

In 2017, the plan was to arrive in Kyrgyzstan from Kashgar, China over the Torugart Pass but that plan was foiled by the unexpected closure of the border. So in a quick reversal, I took a plane from Urumchi, China to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and explored the north-eastern and western part of Kyrgyzstan. In 2018, I’m back! And, to explore southern Kyrgyzstan and attempt the border crossing to Kashgar. Along the journey, I have had the opportunity to participate in cultural events and Kyrgyz heritage.

I visited Chon (big) Kemin Valley, the valley runs parallel to the border of Kazakhstan between two mountain ranges. There I was invited to participate with women in wrapping a traditional white Kyrgyz female turban, Ak Elechek, made of many layers of a single piece of cloth. The material (silk, wool, or cotton), number of turban layers, and its model depend on the age, social, and marital status of women. The length of the material serves another purpose as well, in case of emergency, the material can be used at births, for wounds, to wrap the deceased, or as a table cloth. In ancient times women would hid their jewellery in the folds for safe keeping.


I returned to visit Guljamal, center in pink headscarf. Last year she taught me how to make felt Kulpak, see Kyrgyzstan Art of Felt

And joined in at Tushoo kesuu ceremony held when a child first starts to walk. The baby’s legs are tied with a black and white lambs wool, symbolizing good and evil. Children of the village compete in races, and the winner gets to cut the rope from the baby’s legs signifying that the baby is ready to walk. 


tushoo kesuu ceremony


Sharing a community lunch

Horseshoe maker and farrier of horses have a special place in the nomadic life style in Kyrgyzstan for centuries. Horses have to be shoed every other month. The farrier makes cleated horseshoes for climbing mountains.

In the village of Koctkor, I met Fatima Ayipova, felt, kurak and saima master. (kurak meaning patchwork and saima meaning embroidery).

Kurak patchwork on first look is a typical pattern used by quilters around the world but in Central Asia small scraps of fabrics are used as talismans that give protective power. In Central Asia people tie scraps of fabric to branches or shrines to ward off evil like scene at Konya Urenchi, Turkmenistan.


From 2017 trip in Turkmenistan, example of using scraps of fabric at shrines

The Kurak patchwork or pieces of fabric take on a protective quality by confusing evil and thus wards off negative consequences. Particularly, repeat triangles hold special power and appear often on a variety of household textiles. Thus patchwork’s ability to protect people from evil gives the craft value.4BE6C4C5-F7D1-4241-B56B-CF0E79D27944

Saima, the Kyrgyz embroidery, is used to decorated caps, bags, clothing  and elaborate wall hangings or tush-kiyiz. Even though the nomads of Kyrgyzstan never maintaining fixed homes, decorated and adorned their dwellings with the same care as settled people.  Saima was used to decorate all wall hangings that were gifts by newly. Married brides to her husband’s household .  Mothers often began these wall hangings when their daughters were babies. Kyrgyz women developed symbols that reflected life on the steppes, plant and animal motifs and sky, sun, and earth motifs.  As sheep hoarding people they had an abundance of wool thread to use as embroidery. In the 19th century and trade with China and Russian Empire velvet and silk were incorporate. But the most common embroidery is wool thread on cotton textile. 249EF379-C28A-4371-AB48-92D52E15AC6D

Before crossing Torugart Pass, a crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China in the Tian Shan mountain range, elevation 3,752 m (12,310 ft). 

Torugart Pass was used since antiquity by caravans but not at the exact point of the modern point.  Russia and China first established entry at the pass in 1881. 

7242BAAE-C44A-4343-BD95-6C506B440C43We spend the night Naryn for the purpose of meeting 8 families of Afghan Pamir Kyrgyz. The week before, I had passed through the Wakhan Corridor in Tajikistan (Afghanistan is across the river, see last post)  so it was a special opportunity to meet these families. 7017CA9B-A66D-42BD-AE86-F763FC3296EE



Fried, multi-layered sugar bread called katama, made for guest

The Pamir Kyrgyz nomads have known many homelands. Fleeing Russian occupation in Kyrgyzstan in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they settled in the Pamir Mountains, spanning eastern Afghanistan and western China. In 1978, fearing the new communist regime in Afghanistan, many Pamir Kyrgyz took refuge in Pakistan and later in eastern Turkey.  In 2017 the Kyrgyz government accepted 33 ethnic Kyrgyz repatriated from the Afghan Pamir. Here is an excerpt from a recent newspaper article:

In fall last year, a group of 33 Kyrgyz nomads from Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s far northern province of Badakhshan moved to Kyrgyzstan to attend school. Both adults and children, including a pregnant woman, from the Small and Great Pamirs, which lie at an altitude of over 4,300 meters, waited for months for their passports to come through in Faizabad city in Badakhshan.Once they had received their documents they traveled overland to Tajikistan – many on horseback. This journey to the border town of Eshkashim took them several days. This was in late September last year and after waiting a week at the border they were finally allowed to cross into Tajikistan where they were met by Kyrgyzstan officials. From there they traveled via Murghab Kyrgyz district of Tajikstan’s Gorny Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan before reaching Osh, a town in south Kyrgyzstan. -https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/group-kyrgyz-nomads-wakhan-settled-kyrgyzstan

The night before I would cross into China was spent in a yurt camp near the 15th century stone caravanerai, Tash Rabat. Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences concluded that Tash Rabat was originally built as a Nestorian monastery in the 10th century.54A37C0B-61A7-464C-A54C-E8CB0863870844F386F1-0B19-4FF2-805F-FFEDE74375AF17FBD532-9941-4651-B424-9F371586B831


Sleeping chambers of royalty, the arrow shows a doorway where royals could secretly escape in case of being attacked

As we ascend the pass , the scenic Lake of Chatyr-Kul appears and no-mans land. 


Micheal, the driver, is Russian Orthodox, a minority in Kyrgyzstan.  The wall of mountains that separate Kyrgyzstan and China

I arrive…10 hours later, in Kashgar, China.


Kyrgyz Afghan Pamir : https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=SIdJnSpFbFg

For an introduction to Kyrgyzstan’s history and country read last year’s post Kyrgyzstan Keeping It Real.

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Pamirs : Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan

copyscape-banner-white-160x56B8D6E02D-A991-4780-9687-2A05DFFB6264Three days out of Khorog, capital of the eastern Pamir, we continue traveling through the Badakhshan Valley hemmed in by the Panj River and Afghanistan always to the right.


Tajik and Afghan roads mirror one another

Before Khorog, the farms and villages on the Afghan side are many and flourishing while on the Tajik side, the rocky, stark mountains skirted the road. After Khorog, it was the opposite and the Tajik side is fertile, farm land with plenty of figs, apricot, apple, mulberry trees along the road. 


Sweet mulberry

The Badakshan Valley meets the Wakhan Corridor ( a long and narrow wedge between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan that leads to China and India.)


Kindergarten school children walking along the road with Wakhan Corridor behind

IMG_20180717_104215_HDR (1)

Wakhan Corridor

Along this corridor, the migration of people, goods and culture traveled over minor trade route. The corridor is a border division created by the Great Game, the competition between the British and Russians Empires for territory during 19th century. The evidence is the many fortresses along the way: 4th century CE ,Qahqaha Fortress built in the 3rd century BCE by Zoroastrians relic from the Kushan Era:


Outer walls of Qahqaha Fortress


Inner walls of Qahqaha Fortress

Yamchun Fortress is oldest monument of Wakhan Corridor on top of the cliff overlooking the valley for unobstructed observation, dating from 3-1st century BCE:


Yamchun Fortress. The distant, snow covered peaks are the Hindu Kush to the right. Straight ahead are peaks named for Karl Marx (6,723 m, 22,057 ft) and Friedrich Engels (6,180m, 20,275 ft). 


Yamchun Fortress


Road leading to Yamchun Fortress

Yamchun Fortress was situated so that any movement from below could be detected, a perfect place for a fortress on the Silk Road:IMG_20180716_101024_HDRIMG_20180716_100042

Panj fortress on Afghan side dates back to 2BCE-1CE:


Panj Fortress

Abreshim Qal’ai (Silk Fortress) dates to 3rd century BCE-1st CE:


Top of hill is (Silk Fortress)

Several of the fortresses have elements of Zoroastrianism ( the religion of Zarathustra), which was still prevalent here before Islam. Also Buddhist caves and stupa  and Buddhist monastery fences with stone walls.


At Vrang Village in Wakhan Corridor, stupa and monastery dating to 4th centuryCE.Looking out past the stupa is Panj River, Afghanistan on the left and Tajikistan on the right. 

The caretakers through the century of the monuments and fortresses have been the people of the Pamirs. We stayed with a Pamiri family who had added onto their traditional home a quarters for travellers something like a modern-day caravanserai. Traditional houses in the Pamirs are known as chid and built with strong symbolism to their Ismaili faith. In older homes, a main pillar represents the prophet Mohamed with five supporting pillars representing each member of their prophet Ali’s family, and four square layers in the ceiling, expressive of the Zoroastrian elements of fire, air, water and earth. The roofs are flat and yak or cow manure is dried there and used for fuel.

There, we ate with the family in the traditional Central Asian way of eating on low tables and sitting cross-legged on thick carpet. Home cooked meals, fresh from the surrounding farms and orchards.

At Yamj Villiage we stay with the family who are direct descendants of the Sufi Mubarak-i Wakhani who is a local Ismaili-Sufi scholar, poet, and traveller who died in 1910. The name of Mubarak-i Wakhani (1839-1903) , a Persian (Tajik) mystic poet, musician, astronomer and Ismaili religious scholar from Badakhshan Valley.  Mubarak has received little attention from modern scholars despite his importance to Ismaili esoteric thought and Ismaili traditions of the people of the Pamir Mountains.


Mubarak-i Wakhani Museum


Mubarak-i Wakhani shrine – grave

The Soviets discouraged the Pamiri Ismailis from building mosques and many homes are converted into prayer rooms or shrines. One evening the family came together to sing and dance. The men uncovered the instruments that have been passed down for generations and began singing ancient Pamir ballads while the children performed traditional dance. 

The Pamir road is only open from Khorog to Osh in the summer months as the winter is extreme thus people in these areas continue to be isolated though many young men find their way to Russia to work as labourers and remit money to their families. One young Tajik I met along the way said he worked in Moscow for 4 years and was able to save enough money to build a house for his family and now is rebuilding his barn/stable:D7DBCCD7-BFD0-4D99-9B1A-0983BDBA653A

Left over vehicles from Soviet times are till very much in use. 

Local petrol-station: 

1950-55 tractor still in use:9EFC70CE-780D-40F0-9558-6BE61957B30FI was invited to meet a neighbourhood ladies group who get together everyday in the afternoon to sew traditional Pamiri costumes. They explained that they make these articles for sale in shops and it gives them extra income plus a chance to share daily ups and downs. 665273A0-EFA5-44F4-ACBA-A0741C67213E

Leaving the Wakhan Corridor, we ascend over desert mountain landscape and come across struggling cyclists.

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Over the Ak-Baital Pass of 4655 meters:45A0D17E-3D12-4E99-8503-3BAEAF2EE76AThe last night in Tajikistan was spent at a dusty outpost and Tajikistans’s highest altitude town, Murghab, where petrol was scarce and air dry. It was time to move north and join the Tian Shan mountains along the Alay Valley of Kyrgyzstan.  The Pamir Highway over the border to Sary-Tash and the landscape changes drastically to green pastures and onto the 3000-year old city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. D8A8843B-995D-41E9-9B3B-4B538609C3FA

(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)copyscape-banner-white-160x56

Pamir Highway, Tajikistan


Leaving Dushanbe, we begin the long drive to Kalaikhumb. We begin on a good highway that climbs to the Nurek Reservoir Dam. IMG_20180712_092513 En route to Kalaikhumb, we stop at the massive Nurek Dam, one of the largest artificial lakes in Tajikistan. The reservoir is a  huge earth-filled dam built by the Soviets between 1961 and 1980 across a deep gorge on the Vakhsh River. It forms a beautiful 38 square-mile reservoir that is the source of irrigation for the Dangara Valley’s wheat fields.  The geopolitics of water in Central Asia, particularly between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and recent improvements in relations has led to re-establishment of cooperation on hydroelectric projects, the re-opening of border crossings, the easing of visa restrictions for citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan traveling back and forth; and the re-launch of the direct air route connecting the capitals of Tashkent and Dushanbe after a 20 year hiatus. 



About four hours out of Dushanbe we see the River Panj, a tributary of the Amu Darya or Oxus River. The river is 1,125 km long and forms a considerable part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and the Pamir Highway follows the river to the city of Langar.


Says: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

We travel through the city of Kolub that was celebrating its 2700 years of history.  The road is  winding but an asphalt road. This days journey has been 9 -hour drive before reaching  Kalaikhum.


Modern hotel in Kalaikhumb with Afghanistan looming in the background

During this long trip we had several stops, one at a women’s cooperative to observe the local embroidery in Kolub. IMG_20180712_141626~22CCE5EA3-510D-4C57-9C1A-24E18B4D84A5Also a to visit to the Hulbuk Fortress, where, as guest, Mr. Khojaev, caretaker, presented me with roses in appreciation for the visit. 91586F21-140C-45C8-9B16-69E6B2455473Hulbuk Fortress historically was an important stop over for the Silk Road between the 8th and 11th century.IMG_20180712_115044 IMG_20180712_113034_HDRDestroyed by the Monguls, little remains or the original structure of the once mighty fort-palace. The citadel lies approx 30 km southwest of Kulob. Already in the Bronze Age, people settled in the area in sight of the salt mountain Chodscha Mumin, which rises 1334 m above the valley. This bronze cat that is now in the Dushanbe Museum of Antiquities was unearthed at Hulbuk Fortress:


But mainly, as we drove along the road that clung to the side of the Tajikistan mountains, my attention was to the other side of the river and Afghanistan. The road on the Afghani side was like a mirror image of the Tajik side. Here are a variety of photos.

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Driving to Khorog, the road becomes mostly gravel, narrow, and leftover asphalt from the Soviet days. It was 7 hours of exhausting, bone-jolting drive but thanks to Zafar, my driver, we arrived into Khorog before dark and in one piece. The Serena Hotel in Khorog is worthy of a mention. It is an old Pamiri house converted to a hotel. Pamiri houses are square and follow the Zorestrian elements of wind, earth, fire, and rain. The view of Tajikistan’s mountains  are stunning and only a stones throw to the Afghan banks.


Serena Inn hotel garden



Across the Panj River is Afghanistan

The Pamir regions occupy a unique position within Tajikistan and is strongly linked to the contest between Russia and Great Britain in the Pamiri in the second half of the 19th century known as the “Great Game”. At the end of this contest, the two dominant superpowers in the region agreed in 1895 to form a Pamir Boundary Commission to define the borders that are still in force today. When Soviet power was established in the Pamiri, the region incorporated into Pamirskaya oblast in 1923. In 1925 a decision of the central executive committee of the USSR remanded the area as the ‘Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast’. After independence and the end of the Cold War, GBAO’s special autonomous status remains.


Pamir Highway on Tajikistan side. Panj River is the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan

GBAO in Tajikistan is roughly separated into two parts: Western and Eastern Pamiri. The Western Pamiri are marked by deeply incised valleys and a multitude of villages inhabited by Pamiri mountain farmers who mails belong to Eastern Iranian language groups. All major rivers flow westward to the Panj (also know in antiquity as the Oxus).

The Eastern part, is named Murghab district has high plateau landscape. Predominantly Kyrgyz livestock herders who speak Kyrgyz, a Turkic language.

The capital of the Pamiri is Khorog combining river terraces with flat area at the confluence of the Panj, Shakhdara and Ghund rivers.

From Kalaikhumb to Khorog we see signs referrring to the Diamond Jubilee on fences and trees.

On July 11, 2017 His Highness the Aga Khan is marked his Diamond Jubilee, or 60th year as the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the world’s Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) promoted a worldwide celebration brings together the global Ismaili community, partners of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), and government and faith community leaders in over 25 countries.Along the Pamir Highway villages have dedicated 2018 as a year of celebration so on Saturdays the villages come together for song and dance to show their appreciation. Along the road, we passed some Pamiri girls dressed in traditional Pamiri costume walking to the festival.IMG_20180713_161409

And today, Saturday, we spent at the festival where there was wrestling and dancing. I sat with an elder group of volunteers. Each neighbourhood gets together and with their own money organizes musical groups. Here is the Gulaken Folk group. E7A1E11B-550E-47EB-98C4-BFA6EEC42CEEThey are women my age who have just started to learn English and go to the Agha Khan center for lessons once a week. They have written their names for me using Latin letters. 9E6EAC28-93A2-40E9-A739-DD84E9C54C52

IMG_20180714_122227The local Khalifa (religious leader) organized a musical performance and food was blessed and given out for free.

Each region along the Pamir Highway is designated with a gate:



(all rights reserved, copyright 2018 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)

Dushanbe, city of roses


Roses in the parks, along the sidewalks and highways were an unexpected introduction to the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe. A quiet, clean city with welcoming population, it was a small village in 1924 now has a population of 1.2 million. Dunshanbe means Monday in Tajik language. The Soviets incorporated this village and 3 others to form the capital city.

I begin with this unusual, beautiful introduction to Tajikistan: my guide and translator, Sitora Nabieva, singing the Tajikistan national anthem in Kohi Navruz Palace.

Three days to visit artisan masters began at the office of the Executive Director of the Union of Craftsmen of Tajikistan. With a delightful introduction and welcome, we were introduced to Khurshed Sattorov, Head of Fashion Design Studio and Nadia Imranova, Fashion Designer, both internationally known Tajik fashion designers. Both fashion designer’s employ women from rural communities to embroider, dye silk, and weave.


Khurshed Sattorov, Fashion Designer

Tajikistan is a presidential republic, headed by Emomali Rahmon, president for life. On the day I arrived, Sitora noted that Tajikistan welcomed the 9 millionth citizen into their country, a country that is 93 percent mountainous with an abundance of water resources, minerals, and agricultural products.

The history of this area is complex with many invaders, empires, kings, and sultans. Tajikistan itself is a new country receiving its independence in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union; its borders haven been drawn by Stalin when he divide Central Asia into countries. Tajikistan suffered a violent civil war between 1992 -1997 that might have seen another war-torn country like Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq. Fortunately for the Tajiks, an insightful leader, Emomali Rahmon, emerged and the country is on its feet, safe and developing. One of the most important points that my guide, Sitora, impressed upon me that the Tajik people are not nomads, they are settled peoples thus they have a great legacy in literature, science, and traditional crafts. Rather than trying  to struggle through the history, here is a is a quick synopsis from Wikipedia:

“The territory that now constitutes Tajikistan was previously home to several ancient cultures, including the city of Sarazm of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age,  and was later home to kingdoms ruled by people of different faiths and cultures, including the Oxus civilisation, Andronova culture, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Islam. The area has been ruled by numerous empires and dynasties, including the Achaemenid Empire, Sassanian Empire, Hephthalite Empire, Samanid Empire, Mongol Empire, Timuride dynasty, Russian Empire, and subsequently the Soviet Union.  Within the Soviet Union, the country’s modern borders were drawn by Stalin when it was apart of Uzbekistan as an autonomous republic before becoming a part of the Soviet Union in 1929.”

Exploring Dushanbe, it is hard to miss the golden arch and bubbling fountains of the Ismail Samani monument in the centre of town. Commemorating the 1,100 anniversary of the Samanid State, this monument honours the Persian Samanid, whose time in power was one of peace and plenty, with great flourishing of the arts and sciences.3D467359-6607-4390-A3BB-BC49ACE93CD5Last year I visited the Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, where Isma’il Samani is buried.

Ismail Samani Mausoleum. See post: Soviets and Sodigans

Isma’il is known in history as a competent general and a strong ruler; many stories about him are written in Arabic and Persian sources.

Another monument in the extensive gardens is Rudaki, born in 858,in (Panjrud), a village located in the Smanid Empire  is now Panjakent, located in modern-day Tajikistan. Biographers write that he was blind at birth yet he was the court poet to the Samanid ruler Nasr II (914-943) in Bukhara.  Rudaki is  the Tajikistan’s  most revered poet. The setting of Rudaki’s statue in a rose garden is appropriate for this 9th-century ‘Adam of Poets’, whose poetry celebrated philosophical musing on the natural world.


My guide and translator, recites a poem of in song about when the king wanted to make Samarkand the seat of government and leave Bukhara, Rudaki wrote a poem that successfully changed the king’s mind and he kept his court in Bukhara.

While strolling through Dousti Square, and living up to the meaning of its name, friendliness, we met tourists from Uzbekistan from the Ferghana Valley and, of course, they are friendly and, of course, we join to share photos together.


Then off to the Art Foundation of Tajikistan, a foundation that supports and encourages the development and preservation of Tajikistan’s deep artistic legacy. Exhibitions and classes showcase today’s artisans and their dedication to keeping alive traditional Tajikistan crafts. Djamshed Djuraev, Master of Florentine Mosaics cleared his schedule to give us a ‘master class’ in his craft.


Djamshed Djuraev, centre. Nassim, right. Sculptor, left.

In an interview before the class, Djamshed explained the process: Florentine mosaics are cut pieces of stone fit together with each other in such a way that you can’t tell that the finished work is, in fact, made up of many little bits of semi-precious stone.With other mosaic styles the spaces between the tiles/pieces are quite obvious, indeed, are meant to be seen. In the technique of Florentine mosaics  each piece of stone – often minute in size – is carved, shaped, filed, measured, and re-filed until it meets perfectly with its connecting piece. Below is part of the process .

Tajikistan has dedicated 2018 as the Year of Tourism Development and Folk Craft. So I could not have come at a better time to meet master artisans in so many fields of traditional crafts.  There are many that I would like to write and will post especially on this subject. E5237437-0A02-46CB-8732-175E0423EB51However, a mention here of the Ceramic Master, Sukhrob Saidov, who is a 10th generation potter and whose family originated in Bukhara. Tajik pride themselves in their hospitality to join for tea, fruits, and hot round, chewy bread. The hospitality and generous spirit to share what they have touched my heart.

Glass…I finally found evidence of glass production  in Central Asia, at least up to southern Tajikistan. In the museums in Bukhara, glass was no where to be found but here in the Museum of Antiquities that displays ancient artefacts of the many cultures and religions that influenced the Silk Road, I found glass remnants.

Tomorrow I begin the journey along the Pamir Highway. Internet might be non existent so it may be over a week before I post again.


-map by Henry Cookson Adventures

In the meantime, I will leave you with the Center piece of the Museum of Antiquities, a 5th century Reclining Buddha, unearthed from a Buddhist monastery complex in Amina Tepe in southern Tajikistan.


Dushanbe to Beijing


Map created by Pablo of Henry Cookson Adventures

Here I go again…this time starting on the Pamir Highway (the old Soviet road known as M41) in Tajikistan and making my way to Beijing, China.


Pamir Highway is a road traversing the Pamir Mountains through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It is the only continuous route through the difficult terrain of the mountains and serves as the main supply route to Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The route has been in use for millennia, as there are a limited number of viable routes through the high Pamir Mountains. The road formed one link of the ancient Silk Road trade route. -Wikipedia

Pamir Mountains. Mountains of  Tajikistan Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains are a mountain range located in Central Asia which are formed by the junction or knot of the Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Hindu Kush ranges. They are among the world’s highest mountains; in Victorian times they were known as the ‘Roof of the World’. They are also known by the Chinese name of Congling or ‘Onion Mountains’…

Mountain peaks as high as 7,143 metres will be skirted and some as high as 4043 metres will be passed over.  This is a high altitude exploration following the migration of material culture along some of the lesser known routes along the Silk Road. I will visit remote communities and artisans over 6 weeks such as…

-In Tajikistan meetings with artisans  such as  Djamshed Djuraev, Master of Florentine Mosaics
– Dilmurof Sharipov, Jeweller
– Daler Mehtojev, Painter
– Karim Rakibov, Kundal Painting Master…to name a few.

-In Kyrgystan:Afghan Palmir community in southern Kyrgyzstan

– In China some highlights are :

Hotan Silk Factory: An important oasis on the historic silk road, Hotan has long been famous for the quality of the silk it produces. Watch the silk-making process first-hand, from boiling raw silk cocoons and spinning thread to weaving generations-old ‘ikat’ (atlas in Uighur) patterns, resulting in richly designed, colourful silk fabrics.

Sunan, China a meeting with Ke Cuiling, a skilled artisan, who has spent her entire life to preserve Yugur culture through clothing. National costumes are noted for their high collars, intricately embroidered designs, brightly contrasting colours of blue, red, black and white, along with tasselled, trumpet-like hats. Yugur are the smallest population of China’s 56 recognised minorities and are Turkic-speaking nomadic descendants of Mongolian Uighurs.

I hope to write as I travel but the roads are rough and long, and the Internet often scarce but I will try and I hope you will follow along.


Roman Glass in Britain (and Bida)

Bangels poster v2Tatiana Ivleva (see Global Glass website)contacted me out of the blue! She came across my journey in Bida, Nigeria. I had traveled to Bida in 2015 specifically to see the glass and brass handmade crafts and techniques, read about:  Bida: Bangles and Beads. Somehow Tatiana came across my post and contacted me through my website, nomad4now.com. Tatiana explained that her research involved the ancient craft of glass bangles particularly seamless Romano-British bangles.  She was most interested in Nigeria’s glass making tradition as it was similar to the Roman techniques. Titiana inquired if she might use a part of my video in her research and in this exhibition. The following video was released for the exhibition: Fashion Frontiers Glass Bangles of Roman North. Tatiana explains the process:


To see the entire process of the ancient and traditional craft of bead and bangle production in Bida view the next video, parts of which have been included in the exhibition video:

Glass making can be traced to the Ancient Egyptians about 3,500 years ago. The earliest archaeological finds of glass objects in Egypt date back to the reign of the Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1504-1459 BC). The most famous of these is the illustration in the Annals of Thutmose III at Kar- nak. (Paul T. Nicholson ,”Glass Vessels from the Reign of Thutmose III and a Hitherto Unknown Glass Chalice,” Journal of Glass, Vol 48, 2006.)  In the last century BC, glass blowing (see Egyptian glass blowers here) was invented in Syria or Mesopotamia which gave rise to a variety of glass objects during Roman times. Glassmaking , the process of making glass from sand and soda ash is said to originate in Egypt. However there are those that disagree and who have researched that the first true glass was made in coastal north Syria in the kingdom of Mitanni, Mesopotamia and brought to Egypt. (Paul T. Nicholson). 

The Bida glass makers in their oral history repeat that their ancestors came from Egypt via Chad, the Bornu Empire and migrating from Kano to finally settle with the Nupe area thus bringing with them the knowledge of glassmaking.

Camel caravans from Kano and Timbuktu carried goods —indigo, salt, ivory, gold to name a few—for thousands of years that interconnected the world by the great trade routes. These historic caravans, particularly in the Sahara, Eurasia, and the Arabian peninsula were as much about trading as about communication. One of techniques communicated along the way was glass making.


bracelets made in Bida, Nigeria using ancient glass making technique

Roman Finds Group (provides a forum in Roman artifacts.) Read about the exhibition at: http://www.romanfindsgroup.org.uk/exhibitions

During my journey along the Silk Road, I searched for evidence of glass making. Other than a reference in literature that ‘Arabs’ carried glass in caravans, I did not see evidence of ancient glass. Pottery shards and ceramic bowls were seen in museums as well as at archeological sites.  Glass would be difficult to transport, however,  why did the technique not travel into Central Asia? Or if it did why are there no surviving remnants of glass, glass making, or glass blowers?

Also see: Une Histoire de bracelets  https://archeoglass.jimdo.com

The Final Stretch – Karakalpakstan



“Karavan” – 1926 by Alexander Volkov (1888-1957) , style: Uzbekistan avant-guard. At Savitskiy Karakalpakstan Art Museum

Karakalpakstan is in the western region of Uzbekistan

Sep 29 Darvaza • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan
Sep 30 Nukus
Oct 1-2 drive to Urgench • Khiva• Tashkent
Oct 3 Depart Tashkent for Cairo


Map from Central Asia, Lonely Planet p. 140

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan was the easiest of the bureaucratic borders yet. The autonomous region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan was created partially from the ancient lands of Khorezm and ceded to Russia Empire in 1873 by Khanate of Khiva. Karakalpakstan people are ethnically diverse Turkic speaking group who, though originally nomadic hunters and fishers, in the recent past did migrate seasonally with their cattle. All that came to an end with the Soviet imposed widespread cotton farming fed based on irrigation from rivers mainly the Amu Darya which fed into the Aral Sea, which eventually turned into an environmental disaster for the region.


“Cotton Picking” 1935 by A.A. Shpadi, Contemporary Kalakalpastan at Sarvitskiy Kalakalpastan Art Museum,

At the end of September, the cotton fields during harvest.

The ancient region of Khorezm or Khorasmia, as it was known to the ancient Greeks, covers the region of Karakalpakstan and the border region of Turkmenistan. Khorezm was a kingdom of the Achaemenids in the fifth and fourth century BCE. Zoroastrianism religion, originated in the region of present-day Iran, spread through Central Asia. Situated on the banks of the Amu Darya river in Karakalpakstan is the Chilpik, an ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence thought to be the earliest example of the traditional funerary ritual, constructed somewhere between the first century BCE and 1st century CE.


Ancient Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, Chilpak

The only reason to visit Nukus was to visit the Savitsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum. Actually,  this journey had two must see destinations: the crossing over Torugart Pass from China to Kyrgyzstan to see Tash Rabat caravanserai and the Savitskiy Collection. The first one was not accomplished due to the Chinese closing the border so I was determined that I would not miss arriving in Nukus. It is not an easy place to visit and coming from Turkmenistan, I began to worry that something would happen to detain me. But my worrying was unfounded and I had the entire day reserved only for the museum visit.

Opened in 1966, the museum houses a collection of over 82,000 items, ranging from antiquities from Khorezm to Karakalpak folk art, Uzbek realism and avant-guard collection and, uniquely, the second largest number of Russian avant-guard paintings in the world, the largest being in St. Petersburg. All of these artworks are by Soviet dissidents, literally saved by the fearless imagination and tireless energy of one man, Igor Savitskiy.


Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984) buried in the Russian Cemetery in Nukus. Bronze statue presented by local Karakalpastan artist, D. S. Razebaev. Epitaph reads: Everything fades only a star does not perish.

The Russian painter, archeologist and collector, Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984), was a student from 1941-1946 at the Surikov Institute, Moscow. During  WWII the Institute was evacuated to Samarkand, thus starting Savitskiy’s discovery of Central Asia. He first visited Karakalpakstan in 1950-1957 to participate in the Archeological & Ethnographic Expedition headed by the world renown scientist Professor Sergei Pavlovian Tolstov that uncovered the ancient civilisation in Khorezm. Savitskiy explored Karakalpakstan collecting the history and folk arts of this unknown population living in the desert. During this period he literally walked across vast areas of northern Karakalpakstan and started a collection of dying folk arts, jewellery, embroidery, woven textiles, stamped leather and carved wood and clothing as well as coins and carpets eventually number at least 7000 pieces. He trained Karakalpak artists and convinced the authorities that Karakalpakstan needed an art museum and he was appointed director in 1966. He gave up painting claiming that one should not combine the two and dedicated himself to expansion of the museum. In the meantime, Savitskiy managed to fall foul of Stalin’s rules about what was and was not acceptable art. Somehow he avoided exile or imprisonment; he achieved it by self-banishment to a far edge of Soviet empire, Karakalpakstan. Savitskiy could not stand by and watch Russian art of the early 20th century perish, he began to conceive of the idea to rescue tens of thousands of works by forgotten or forbidden artists banned as formalist to the safety of Nukus. through friends and contacts in the art world, he made dangerous visits to view works which had been painted in the 1920-30s and then, when they dropped out of political favour, had been hidden from public view. With no money of his own he depended on persuading the artists to have them sent to a safe house in faraway, unknown Nukus. He amassed an incredible 90,000 paintings by artists.

See Website: Savitskiy Collection, Karakalpakstan Museum.

Watch the Movie, can buy it on ITUNES or find it on You-Tube: The Desert of Forbidden Art https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pGX7kKrutpY

Read: New York Times: Desert of Forbidden art.

A few examples of art from the Savitskiy Collection:


“An Uzbek man”-1926 by V.V. Rojdestvenskiy (1884-1963) Russian avant-guard



“Provincial Actors in Bukhara” -1932 by Mikhail Kurzin, Uzbekistan avant-guard.


” Laying water Pipes in Bukhara” by N.G. Karaxan (1900-1970)

Leaving Nukus we drive next along a rail line connecting Tashkent to Nukus; on the opposite side of the road are ruins of an ancient castle perched atop a dramatic mesa like mountain. The remains of this ancient fortress, the walls were standing when Alexander the Great and his armies passed by en route to India the drive to Ugrench crosses the Amu Darya River (Oxus River in biblical times ) The river is at the centre of the scandal over excessive water use for cotton irrigation that has virtually dried up the Aral Sea.

Arriving Khiva was not as picturesque as Savitskiy had painted it in


“Outskirts of Khiva” by Igor Savitskiy (1915-1984)

Sherizod, the driver, pulled the car up to the hotel that was across the road from the Khiva  fortress walls,  dusted in a rosy light. IMG_4809Khiva has an inner and outer city. Those living in the inner walls are not so many these days but if a person from the inner city of Khiva dies outside the walls, they cannot be buried inside the fortress. Thus, people from the inner city were buried on the walls of the fortress, as close as possible to their homes. Another advantage for the people in the fortress was the perception that invading armies did not advance through graveyards as it was a sign of misfortune.

Khiva, the first site in Uzbekistan to be included in theWorld Heritage List is said to be founded by Noah’s son, Sham, who discovered a water well but archaeologist put the origins of the well  in the 6th century CE. In Khiva’s heyday , which did not come until the 16th century, it was the capital of Khanate of Khiva that feuded with Bukhara and Kokhand. For three centuries , Khiva was the most lucrative slave market of Central Asia. Today, it is more like walking through a movie set or a Middle Ages theme park with restaurants, camel photos and touristic trinkets sold along the main thoroughfare.

Maybe Khiva needs a respite from its bloody history…in the 1700s Tsarist Russia sent 4000 troups to Khiva where they were massacred and for the revenge in 1873, Russia sent 13000 troops to descend on Khiva and massacred the city. In 1740 the ancient fortress of Khiva was destroyed by the Persians. In 1920 the Bolsheviks absorbed Khiva as they did with all the Khanates into the Soviet Union.
In an environment of such of harsh history it is perhaps surprising that Khiva should produce a world renowned scientist, Al Khorezmi who developed the theory of algorithms and algebra in his seminal work Al Jebr.DSC_0848

One thing is for sure, Khiva can boast about the sweetest melons:

Captain Frederick Burnaby, in his 1876 book A Ride to Khiva, made similar observations:Melon traders would shovel up snow and ice during winter and store it in deep underground cellars. Then in summer the most succulent melons were packed with ice and placed in large lead containers. These were then heaved onto camels to journey across the deserts to the banqueting tables of the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Peking and the Mogul rulers of Northern India.
Burnaby had the good fortune of tasting an aged Khorezm melon in the middle of a Khiva winter. “Anyone accustomed to this fruit in Europe,” he wrote, “would scarcely recognize its relationship with the delicate and highly perfumed melons of Khiva.” He added that “throughout the winter, melons are preserved according to an old method where they are put into straw or net bags and then hung from the ceiling of a special warehouse called a kaunkhana [qovunxona, or melon house].”- Excerpt from “In Search of Ibn Battuta’s Melon”, AramcoWorld, Nove/Dec 2015


“Old man with a Melon” -1935 by G. Jeglou (1935-2010)Contemporary Karakalpakstan

An impressive view of the town is from the open air pavilion at the top of the Khulna Ark. The Ark, like the one in Bukhara, was a fortress within a fortress; the Khan of Khiva’s palace., his harem, a mosque, reception, and guest rooms, throne room, mint, horse and camel stables, barracks for guards and a jail. The whole complex is now a museum where particularly on the verandah of the Summer Mosque , the mosaic ceramic tiling, carved wooden columns and painted ceilings are some of the most beautiful in Central Asia.

See Then and Now photographs of Khiva at “The Journey to Khiva”.


“Domes of Khiva” , Igor Savitskiy


Same view of “Domes of Khiva”

On the last night of this great journey, I was invited for dinner to the home of a family from Khiva. Dinner was served in a traditional setting, sitting around a low table on the floor. My hosts  were retired historians, I was honoured to learn about their work in education, their traditional life of customs and their growing concern for the youth. My last meal in Central Asia…plov and samosa…delicious!



“Still Life, Pilaff (plov)” by M. I Kurzin (1888-1957) Uzbekistan avant-guard

On October 3rd, I boarded Turkish Airline and headed to Cairo…arriving at Ithaka:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

-C.P. Cavafy

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