Without a doubt, apart from the stunning buildings and ruins, the ongoing respect for a wide range of handcrafts would have to be a defining feature of Uzbekistan. These include rug making, knife making, embroidery, silk making, jewellery and pottery.
A good place to view traditional embroidery is the quirky Summer Palace of the Emir of Bukhara. This is a delightful building designed by Russian architects and decorated inside by local artisans creating a fusion of Russian and Asian styles. Suzanis, the intricate, locally produced embroideries are featured on the walls here. The walls themselves use mirrors to very good effect, mounted behind carved alabaster or wood. The harem is no longer standing but it was here the Emir would make his selection from 40 girls, before bathing her in donkey’s milk in preparation for the evening to follow. Lucky we’ve moved on from those times. The emir was exiled to Afghanistan only three years after rebuilding the palace, by Russian troops.
Bukhara is one of the hottest places in Uzbekistan with summer temperatures in the high 30’s to low 40’s most days making sightseeing arduous. For this reason when we arrive the tourist season is at an end and we survive by taking a lengthy break in the hottest part of the day.
We visited a seventh generation pottery which is still functioning pretty much as it always has, with a donkey being harnessed to huge grinding stones to grind down the natural substances to make the glazes. Don’t feel too sorry for the donkey, he only works one day a month. During Soviet times there was much hardship and the business was continued in secret.
Before leaving Bukhara we needed one more cultural experience. The hamam. I went along with one of the other travellers to the women’s hamam where we entered an ancient domed stone building. The owner informed us to place all of our clothes in the locker and then with our modesty covered by a Turkish towel we were off to the steam room. This room already contained 5 other sweating naked women and before we knew it we were naked too. The owner then appeared dressed only in her knickers and commenced the exfoliation of our bodies which removed what little tan we might have gained over the trip then the washing of the bodies began. All this took place in the ancient, stone, domed, hexagonal building where we all had a stone bench to sit on. After a rinse off it was then time for the massage which thankfully was a very pleasant experience apart from the fact we were face down on a stone bench. Then it was off to the recovery room where the other clients were dressing in their traditional top to toe Muslim garments including head scarf and it was back to the outside world. The other girls did comment on how white Sue and I were. The men reported their experience was much the same leaving you feeling very relaxed and even a little drowsy.
Bukhara once had a Jewish population of 500,000, but with the uncertainty of the fall of the Soviet Union they left en masse for Israel, USA etc. and now there are only about 400 remaining, still living in the ancient winding streets of the Jewish quarter. The jewellery making skills in Bukhara were passed on by Jewish master jewellers.
The tour concluded on our return by train from Bukhara and the other travellers returned to their homes on a number of flights. We had an extra day to look around and spent it walking the magnificent green spaces of Tashkent, visiting some of the spectacular subway stations and returning to Chorsu market, which was considerably quieter, to purchase cooking knives, a speciality of Uzbekistan.
We also visited the State Museum of Fine Arts which housed an amazing collection of embroidered throws, furniture, pottery, highly decorative furniture, Muslim caps, men’s embroidered robes and paintings depicting Uzbek people going about their daily lives. A great museum which reinforced all the amazing things we have seen and experienced in this incredible country.
Then we came full circle with our return to Beijing in considerably less time than it took to get to Tashkent, only a six hour flight.