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)

4000 years in 7 days-Turkmenistan



Darvaza Gas Crater, Karakum Desert

Sep 23 Bukhara • drive to Mary, Turkmenistan
Sep 24-26, Mary and surrounding area
Sep 27-28, Ashgabat
Sep 28 drive to Darvaza
Sep 29 • drive to Kunya Urgench • Nukus, Uzbekistan


Map from National Geographic, “Caspian Sea”, 1999. Black line is the route through Turkmenistan and the green circle is the are of ancient Merv and the Gonur-Depe.

An early morning departure from Bukhara and on the road to the Turkmenistan border, the most important stop before the border was to find a toilet, for there was no way of knowing if facilities would be available at the crossing. Abdu, my guide, directed Sherizod, our driver, to stop as what looked like a restaurant/hotel. As soon as the car stopped, we heard loud music coming from the building. Since the time was 9am, I assumed a wedding party was just coming to a close…but I was wrong, it was a breakfast party to celebrate the 60th birthday of a well-known local man. In true Uzbek hospitality, the group of men standing outside insisted we join the celebrations. We were ushered to a table filled with delicacies of plov and samosa, meats, salads and fruits; music played to welcome us and we soon met the honoree. After many pictures and congratulations were had, we set off with handfuls of sweets for the border crossing. After several hours of typical border red tape, I was in Turkmenistan!

After crossing the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, I was met by my guide, Elias, a native of Merv. Elias’s first comment was to reassure me that he and his ancestors were quite harmless and sincerely friendly. He insisted that he should not be judged by the local proverb: “If on the road you meet a viper and a Mervi, kill the Mervi first, and the viper afterwards.”

Being sufficiently reassured that I was in safe hands,  I turned my thoughts to Turkmenistan, a flat, dry country dominated by the Karakum Desert with ancient civilisations buried beneath the moving sands. IMG_4594

Turkmenistan consists of five major Turkmen tribes and is also a country to delight any anthropologist or archaeologist.


Five tribes:are Teke (Tekke), Yomut (Yomud), Ersari (Ärsary), Chowdur (Choudur) and Saryk (Saryq), on Turkmenistan flag

In Turkmenistan, I would visit civilisations spanning from 2300 BCE at Gonur-depe to the 11th to the 16th century CE monuments of Kunya-Urgench. Turkmenistan went the same route as Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan first colonized by Russian tsarist in 1881 and Sovietised from 1917, with Stalin drawing the countries borders in 1934. Watch this 1972 movie, “The Daughter in Law”, about life in Turkmenistan after WWII.  The photographs that follow are things that are still present in village everyday life:  felt rug, yurt,the vessel for tea, saksaul branches (Haloxylon, See http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/ebook/dissts/Koeln/Annaklycheva2002.pdf, page 68), reed mats, dowry chest.(run cursor over pictures for information.) The abundance of saksaul branches demonstrates the wealth of a family.



The first town after the border crossing is Turkmenabat, the area in which caravans crisscrossed from the Karakum desert and agricultural land of Uzbekistan. The river Amu-Darya (River Oxus), provided a natural resource to sustain travellers making their way to and from the Caspian Sea (see map). The Silk Road was in its decline when Genghis Khan’s army invaded the area in 1221 and levelled the city, Turkmenabat, which was known, then, as Amul.  Then from the north, more invasions from Timur and his armies. During this time, the Song Dynasty (960-1279CE) was vying with the Arabs trading by sea routes diverting goods from overland trading, another reason that destabilised the caravan routes. But still today, there are remnants of the many caravanserai that rise above cotton fields along the road to Mary (Mari) and the ancient city of Merv; the direction, south, that we are headed.

Remains of caravanserai in the area of Merv:


Merv was a crossroads of the world religions. Christians (see photo of Nestorian church below), lived side by side with Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Manicheans.

Merv stood on the crossroads of the main routes of the Great Silk Road. Routes through Merv went in a number of directions: north to Khorezm (through the Karakum Desert or to Bukhara); east to Termez (near Afghanistan); southwest to present day Iran; and west to Nisa (ancient Parthian city near Ashgabat). The Merv channel from the north imports of such products as wax, honey, and furs came. From the southern route connected land and sea routes enabling the intensification of trade with Arabia.


During the Russian tsar era, a fortress was built around 1881 and  Turkmenabat became known as Charjou. For me, Turkmenabat is a rest stop to recover at a restaurant straight from the 1970 world of disco equipped with dance floor and 360degree revolving mirror. After some Lagman soup, another two-hours drive and we enter Mary (Mari), a former settlement for the Tekke Turkmen tribe that surrendered to the Russian tsar in 1884.

The significance of Mary is the proximity to the earliest history in the Merv Oasis: the 4000 year old complex of the Gonur-depe, medieval Merv, and the intersection of four caravan roads in the Silk Road. Gonur-depe was the capital of one of the great but little known ancient civilisations. The earliest history of the Merv Oasis in former delta of the River Murghab can be traced to the Bronze Age culture, 2300-1700 BCE. Over 4000 years of its history the cities at this site have borne different names in different periods – Mouru, Margush, Mariana, Merv, Mary – and these made an impact on the development of Central Asia.

Uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in the mid-20th century, the fortress town of Gonur-Depe was once a thriving center of a Zoroastrian civilization populated by thousands. The Bronze Age site dating back to around 2000 BC was surrounded by strong fortress walls, and made up of adobe homes and buildings, the remnants of which are still subsiding in this rural corner of Turkmenistan located about 45 miles north of Merv.

In Gonor-Depe the remains of a variety of Zoroastrian sites were discovered, including a palace, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and a necropolis. Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by Zoroaster, who lived in Persia sometime between 1000 and 600 BCE.  Fire is seen by Zoroastrians as pure and sacred, and is the central element in their temples.DSC_0185


Elias, myguide, at Gonur -Depe


Chariot wheels and bronze pot and camel skeleton

The Murghab river oasis was occupied at least as far back as the beginning of the first millennium BCE although the earliest structures at Merv date to the early Achaemenid period (sixth to fight century BCE). Merv known as Margiana or Margushe in Alexander the Great’s time by the end of the second century BCE Margiana fell under Parthian control. It was considered religiously liberal with populations of Nestorian Christians,


Nestorian Christian church, Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine identified with Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople.

Buddhists and Zoroastrian. Merv reached its peck of trade between 11th and 12th century when the Seljuk Turks made it their capital.

People I met at the ancient monuments of Merv on pilgrimage from different parts of Turkmenistan. (Move cursor over picture for information about the various monuments.)


Zuleyha is from the Beluch tribe that moved to southern Turkmenistan from their ancestral  community in Iran about four generations ago. The Baluch in this region have retained many aspects of their material and social culture. I asked Zuleyha about the embroidery on her robe and she said that it was store bought. She said that the women use to embroider their robes but no one has the time or interest to do so now.


Some monuments at ancient Merv site:


Ashgabat, the ‘city of love’ and monumental marble buildings and capital of Turkmenistan is not far from the Iranian border.  One of the visa requirements was to purchase a ticket to the Asian Games being held during my journey there, so off I went to the ballroom dancing competition and to my surprise (or maybe not so surprising), Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country competing!



20170926_121734Before leaving Ashgabat, a visit to Nisa,  the first seat of central government of the Parthians.(reigned c. 250 BC–211 BC):




And a visit to a centre for horse breeding of the Akhalteke race horse, Turkmenistan’s prize breed, that has application to the UNESCO for inclusion of the breed in the World Heritage list:




Ring of fire in the Karakum desert: human error creates mesmerizing nights in the desert…

DSC_0496From Ashgabat to Konya-Urgrench to cross the border back into Uzbekistan takes us through the Davaza Gas Craters.  Elias describes the road as the worst road in the world. Definitely, the drive was difficult not only because of the pot holes but the camels walking down the middle and across the road. We are headed to a camp grounds provided by the government. The yurt or tent accommodations are on a first come/first serve. The jeep turned off-road and on a sandy piste to the crater, which takes experienced driver as the way is not marked. Roman, our driver, is superior at his skill and luckily,  a first-class mechanic and barbecue expert! First stop, however, is the village of Yerbint, which gives a glimpse of rural life in the desert.

Elias asks around to find if felt rugs are for sale though not for tourist consumption, he finds a lady willing to sell her rugs. The patterns in the felt rugs (see Kyrgyzstan to watch how felt is made) are handed down from generation to generation. When bargaining is finished, one young boy reminded his mother that he had helped her roll the rug and slyly asked if there would be any profit for him. Little did I know that Elias’s insistence on this purchase would save be from a bitter cold night in the desert, not only an authentic piece of work but also I pulled the rug over me against the raw desert night air.


Felt rug , pattern handed down for generations, centre is the Zoroastrian ring of fire surround the four seasons, the rams on either side signify wealth and the borders are the moving sand.

The Darvaz gas craters are a human mistake during the Soviet era gas exploration  but nonetheless, it draws tourists from Ashgabat. Roman explains that most tourists make the 3 hour drive to watch night fall at the crater only to return the same night through the ‘worst road in the world!’ This crater had been set alight in 1971 since the collapse of an underground cavern of natural gas. Engineers set it alight to prevent the spread of methane gas but it has never stopped burning. The diameter of the crater is 69 metres, and its depth is 30 metres.




In the morning we break camp early to cover another rough road to the Uzbekistan border with enough time to explore the monuments at Konye-Urgench, which was once  the centre of the Islamic world. P1030064P1030061

Meet Elias Djumyev, my guide (on left) in Turkmenistan and Roman, expert driver.IMG_0786 (1)


(all rights reserved, copyright 2017 .To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required)copyscape-banner-white-160x56

Uzbekistan: Sogdians, Soviets and 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. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bezeklik_Caves#/media/File%3ABezeklikSogdianMerchants.jpg 

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: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sogdia


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-Zindi. They asked where was I from… and were quite surprised with my answer.  Everyone with smart phone in hand, taking pictures was the first task and then with smiles and congratulations on our delight to have met. The chance encounter ended in Abdu getting his ears pulled by the grandmother for which he said  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 Ladik, 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 that recently wrote about her work and the caravanserai.  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, they 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 yet we both retained photographs taken probably in the same year of our parents and here in Samarkand, our paths cross. (Happy Bird Art Gallery and Craft’s Center. Facebook: gallery bird. Leg_igp@list.ru/ 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 caravanserai 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. (Www.alesha-art.com)



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 descendents 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 (born in Bishkek,Kyrgyzstan), sent 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 fared better as he made a deal with the Bolchivicks and got safe passage to Afghanistan. (Uzbekistan was colonized from Bochivicks era, 1917, to  Independence in 1991. Everyone speaks Uzbek and Russian.)


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 principles of Naqshbandi  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baha-ud-Din_Naqshband_Bukhari

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


Bazaars Here candy seller in Samarkand

Meet Abdu Samadov, my guide throughout 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 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 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chagatai_language

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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


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 and this notation was not wrong.

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 cook plov(the national Uzbek dish made of rice, vegetables and meat) for me. Over and over I met confident, outgoing women inviting me into their lives.

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: umarov_h@list.ru

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. Khasen has participated in the International Folk Art at Santa Fe.

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 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ali-Shir_Nava’i

At the Bolshoi Theatre:IMG_4391IMG_4388

Many thanks to Abdu Samadov who introduced, encouraged, and translated. Through Abdu’s openness and enthusiasm for his country, I had the opportunity to meet many interesting Uzbeks. Besides being a super guide, he is also an accomplished doira player.


Abdu Samadov

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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 any city street in Kyrgyzstan. 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.

Kyrgyzstan is in the heart of Central Asia; a country with breathtaking scenery dominated by  the natural beauty of snow-capped peaks and craggy ridges of the Tien Shan range (meaning mountains of heaven).


crossing the Tien Shan range


hydro-electric dam

The semi-nomadic Kyrgyz is still a way of life. Jon Thompson explains in his book Timbuktu to Tibet:

Nomadism is an organized form of existence that uses the terrain to support life at all times of the year. Two or more sets of terrain are combined to provide a livelihood; nomadic people move between them with their livestock. To achieve this requires that all the equipment necessary for daily life is portable, housing being the most important, and that suitable transport animals be available to carry it all. To own everything necessary for a mobile life and to have all the animals needed calls for a certain level of material wealth, if nomads become impoverished they are obliged to settle.



DSC_0700Leaving 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, whose people are reserved yet 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.

Meet some Kyrgyz people:


DSC_0272Kyrgyzstan 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 Chinese, 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 Kyrgyzstan retained their strong nomadic identity and traditions that are still apparent today.

The area called Kyrgyzstan 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 became Kirghiz Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic. Stalin trying to keep the Central Asian countries from breaking away, drew the boundaries for the existing  ‘Stan’ (meaning ‘the place of’) 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   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.


N.A. Khalfin writes in Russia’s Policy in Central Asia 1857- 1868:

Russia’s policy in regard to Central Asia was powerfully affected by events in the 50s and 60s of the 19th century. Defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) obliged the Tsarist Government to suspend action for the time being in the Balkans and the Near East and to switch attention to the countries of Middle Asia. The khanates of Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva were already in close commercial relationship with the Empire and commanded a lively interest among the governing classes of the day. The geographic proximity and the complementary economies of these khanates and Russia during the first half of the century explained the attraction.

FullSizeRenderFor 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.


Read: http://www.aramcoworld.com/en-US/Articles/September-2016/Epic-Nation

It was an early morning arrival into Bishkek from Urumchi, China.  I felt something oddly familiar when entering Bishkek’s  wide, shady, tree-lined boulevards of beech, willows and maple trees. The map showed the city streets in a grid pattern,with broad open squares. The air was light, cool and fresh and with déjà vu; a recollection of northern Colorado (Loveland) in the 1960s where one-story, box-like houses with brightly framed window  and two-story apartments with the family owned grocery store line the street and above the trees stretches the high, snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains. In Bishkek, the snow covered mountains are the Tien Shan, and the houses that line the street are of the same construction. I asked Farhat about the people who built these houses.  He explained that Bishkek was under Russian influence during the time of the Tsars and then the Soviet era and many Russians and Volga Germans came to Bishkek to settle.


The German presence in the Russian Empire goes back to the late 18th century when Catherine the Great invited farmers from Saxony and Prussia to help populate territories in southern Russia, the Volga basin and the Crimea. In the late 19th century , when Russia conquered Central Asia, Germans from the Crimea and Ukraine were offered free land in present day northern Kyrgyzstan. Still villages with German names like Luxembourg still exist.

This information had my head swimming! My great Auntie Maude told me many a time that the Loveland area developed swiftly in the early 1900 when hard-working Ukrainians and Russians (possibly 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 that I began the journey through Kyrgyzstan.DSC_0549

Starting in Bishkek, Farhat, my 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.

4th World Epic Festival:

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 Xinjiang  Province to Osh, Samarkand and beyond.P1020057 Petroglyphs

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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Karakol is a well-kept secret for hikers, skiers, and mountaineers unless from Central Asia and Russia. Karakol, formerly named Przhevalsk after the Russian explorer, Nicholay Przhevalsky who died in Karakol of typhoid while preparing for an expedition to Tibet. Przhevalsky’s grave, a memorial park and a small museum dedicated to his and other Russian explorations in Central Asia are some 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) north of Karakol at Pristan Przhevalsky, overlooking the Mikhailovka inlet of Issyk Kul Lake where the former Soviet torpedo testing facilities were located.


Two religious institutions, Dungan (Dunhuang) Mosque and a Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church have fascinating history. During the Soviet era both institutions survived by being used for coal storage and schools.

The Dungans are a Muslim people of Chinese ethnicity that can be found in most parts of Central Asia and Mongolia, but have settled predominantly in Kyrgyzstan. Read about the Dungan people here. The Central Mosque was built by Ibrahim Aji who invited Chou Seu and 20 carvers from Beijing to build the mosque with traditional Chinese architecture. No nails were used in the building of the mosque. Construction began in 1904 and completed in 1910. There are 42 pillars and encircling the building is a wooden cornice decorated with images of grapes, pomegranates, and other fruits.



The Russian Orthodox Cathedral was built of stone in 1872 when Karakol was a garrison town as an outpost during the Tsarist Russian Empire. It was destroyed in 1890 by an earthquake. It was reconstructed using wood in 1895. During the period of construction, a yurt served the congregation as a church. In 1916 during the Bolshevik uprising the monks were brutally murdered. DSC_0190There is still so many more highlights of my journey in Kyrgyzstan but I will end with an evening with the Epic of Manas, a Kyrgyz epic poem with a million lines. Mirbek recites manas, a saga that tells of Kyrgyzstan history and culture that has survived a thousand years.  Mirbek began reciting manas at the age of 12. He says he knew this was his calling and dedicates himself to honing his recitation. As the manaschi becomes deeper into the poem, he crosses into another realm that is sometimes difficult to bring the one who recites out of that space.


Mirbek, the Manaschi

Many thanks to my Kyrgyz super guide, Farhat!P1020216 Farhad.jpg



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