Travel Letters

Uzbekistan: "What's in a name? Everything!"

Bangkok, Thailand

May 15th, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

Have you ever wanted to go to a place just because you liked the sound of its name?

Lake Titicaca?  How about The Transvaal? Timbuktu?

Timbuktu. Say it quietly, "Tim....buk....tooo." Doesn't that sound enchanting? Lake Titicaca? The Transvaal? Do we even know where these places are? Do we care? Don't the names themselves make you want to buy a ticket?

What about Sevastopol? Sounds so exotic.

Patagonia? Sounds so spacious.

I do have a long "To See" list.

Many years ago I did indulge my sonant fantasy. For no other reason than its sound, I wanted to see Sicily. I flew to Rome, rented a car, drove down the Amalfi Coast, and took the ferry across the Strait of Messina.

What a surprise! I had no idea that I would find Greek temples in Agrigento, and medieval churches in Cefalù. The homes of Archimedes, Pindar and Aeschylus are in Siracusa. There really is a town called Corleone. On the Aeolian Island of Vulcano, I took a bubbling-hot volcanic mud-bath followed by a boiling-salt-water-rinse in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In Agrigento, the grilled swordfish on my luncheon plate swam that very morning in the Mediterranean Sea. At least that's what the waiter told me as he gazed beyond the window of the hilltop Ristorante Caprice. He nodded to the sea and proclaimed, "Pesce spada, la mattina, la!"

A few years ago, my acoustic-self flew south to "Mah Choo Pee Choo." Now admit it, doesn't that sound positively seductive? My friends in America, especially you Floridians, indulge yourselves and you will be seduced. Machu Picchu is a dream trip and Peru is closer than you think. ***

Tashkent was another place I always wanted to see. Tashkent? Where was it anyway? I didn't know and I didn't care. Tashkent sounds so ancient! So distant! So daring!

Tashkent: 400,000

Tashkent, Uzbekistan
May 22, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

Now here's a delightful stroll:

The broad, shady walkways around Independence Park are lined with university halls, government buildings, flower gardens and rose bushes. A statue of Marx has been replaced by a suitably patriotic statue of Amir Timur on horseback. At Independence Square, the new senate building is guarded by a tall gate with good-luck pelicans at the top. Near the gate, Lenin gave way to a large statue of a seated Uzbek woman gazing into the eyes of her infant child.

At the far side of the park is another woman, The Crying Mother Monument. The monument was built in 1999 to honor the four hundred thousand Uzbek soldiers who died fighting for The Soviet Union in World War II. In front of the statue is an eternal flame. *

The names of the fallen soldiers are engraved on brass plaques that swing like pages of a book. Many, many books. These books of the dead are attached to the walls of two parallel arcades. The Crying Mother cannot bear to face these pages...

Bukhara: "Need A Rug?"

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
June 1, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

I love oriental rugs. I grew up with them. My parents had one in the dining room in our apartment in the Bronx. My grandparents also owned a few. Eventually I inherited them all. And I bought more.  Like members of the family, the thick rugs of earth tones and deep red and warm blue were always an important element in the interior of my home.

Did you know that I was a rug salesman in Boston? In one of my late "careers" I worked for Newton Oriental Rugs and Able Carpets. On the job I learned that Americans love a "story" and I was good at story-telling. To my attentive customers, I told fabulous tales about each intricate, "unique" hand-made rug imported from some exotic place somewhere. And, could I "hondl" and negotiate!

So when I realized that the city of Bukhara was on my itinerary in Uzbekistan, my first thought was "Bukhara!! That's one of the more popular patterns of oriental rugs."

Bukhara: "White Apricots"

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
June 2, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

"How's the food over there?" you ask.

Here's today's menu:

Breakfast at the Komil Hotel: cherry, apple or apricot juice, raisins, almonds, peanuts, chocolate, fresh apricots and cherries, omelet, slices of cheese, rolls, butter, honey and home-made preserves, coffee or green tea - the national beverage.

Alfresco Lunch today in Nurata: cold salty yogurt soup with scallions, tomato and cucumber salad, bread, and tender, tasty chucks of grilled spicy lamb with onions, green tea.

Alfresco Dinner at the Lyabi-Hauz: noodle soup with small balls of minced lamb, bread, and mimosa salad that includes layers of sliced fish, chopped egg, chopped cabbage, mixed greens with a light mayonnaise dressing.

Sandwiched between my meals were several worthy sights;

Bukhara: International Children's Day

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

June 2, 2009

Dear Family and Friends, 

On my last day in Bukhara I visited several medressas and mosques well as The Ark - the remains of a town within a town.

The Ulugbek Medressa (1417) is Central Asia's oldest medressa and a model for other large projects. Ulugbek, a mathematician and astronomer, was Genghis Khan's grandson.

The Ark is the oldest structure in Bukhara, occupied from the 5th Century until 1920 when it was bombed by the Red Army. The town is mostly in ruins now, but the protective walls are impressive. The royal quarters are used as museums. The Ark is swarming with visitors.

Beside a pool, opposite the Ark's gate is the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, the emir's official place of worship built in 1718. Here it's quiet, cool and refreshing.

The Abdulla Khan Medressa is named for the great Shaybanid ruler. Just opposite lies the Modari Khan Medressa, named for the Khan's mother. On the sun-blasted plaza between these two huge structures is an equally powerful minaret. The plaza is adjacent to Samani Park.

It is the park that provided the unexpected today.

Khiva: The Museum City



June 5, 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

Today's vocabulary word is the Persian word "pharsakh". (The word sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew "parashah" - the weekly portion of the Bible that is read in synagogue every Saturday.)  

A pharsakh (pronounced farshach) is a unit of distance about 5km or about 3 miles. A Genghis Khan messenger on horseback, with stops, could travel 50 pharsakh - 250km (150 miles) in one day across the sands of the Kara Kum (Black Sands) Desert.  A camel caravan can travel 160 kilometers (96 miles).

The distance from Bukhara to Khiva, my next stop on the Great Silk Road, is 470 kilometers (282 miles).  It would take the messenger three days; the caravan five days.  On a proper highway, my driver and I do it in about six hours, with stops.

Who can resist the stops?  Under a cloudless sky, with a charm of its own, the flat, bleak, scrub-mottled desert is interspersed with herds of goats, a yurt camp or two, and endless tracts of cotton plants. Finally, a long, narrow reservoir that feeds the cotton - a major commodity in this part of the world

Agriculture and human settlement go back four, perhaps six millennia in this area.  Legend has it that Khiva was founded by Noah's son, Shem.  By the 8th Century, Khiva was a trading post. In 1592, Khiva became the capital of Khorezem.  The history of Khiva goes on with conquests by the Persians and later the Russians.  Fortunately, the old city is preserved in its entirety. *