Category Archives: 4 – Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

Uzbek weddings

Weddings are a serious business in Uzbekistan.

On our first day in Samarkand, the owner of our small hotel invited us to a wedding banquet. It turned out that her nephew had been married that afternoon, and they were having a feast at a restaurant. We protested that we had no decent clothes, but the proud aunt said that would be no problem. So we agreed to come for an hour or two.

There were over 400 people in the banquet hall. We sat at a table in the corner with the young men, most of whom were already quite drunk. (As a foreign woman, Marcia is considered an honorary male.) Loud music blared and the dance floor was full, including a couple professional dancers clothed in red hired to liven up the act. A professional video photographer was running a camera on a boom that circled the room and sent its feed to displays on the walls.

When we visited Shakhrisabz two days later, we came across another part of the wedding tradition. There is a monumental statue of Timur in the park around the ruins of his huge castle. On that morning (and probably every morning) there were at least fifty couples in wedding dress having their pictures taken in front of the statue. It was like an assembly line, with trumpets blaring and video cameras rolling for each new limousine that pulled up. Each party consisted of the bride and groom and about twenty family members and friends. One after another they would move into position and pose for their pictures. It says a lot for the Uzbek government’s nationalist marketing that people would want to have their wedding pictures taken in front of one of the great mass murderers of all time.

We learned that this was not the only popular place for wedding pictures. Time and again, we would see wedding parties wandering through historic sites, often mausoleums honoring a famous religious or political figure. Some seemed to be doing a tour of the country to have their pictures taken in all the proper places.

We particularly liked the more traditional spots where brides wore traditionally colorful clothing.

But most of the brides were dressed in white, with the local touches being the glitter and the frilly lace.

In some cases, children also got to go on the video tour in their finest dedication dresses.

We didn’t actually see a wedding ceremony, but we saw some of the lead-up.

One day in Bukhara we heard a lot of loud music near our hotel. We followed the sound through twisty lanes until we came upon a courtyard where musicians were playing and a team of boys were dancing on stilts. They seemed to be a hired team, because we saw the dancers packing up and getting in a car a few minutes later.

On to the next wedding.


We saved the big city for last.

Tashkent is a thoroughly Russian creation. It was only a small town when the Tsarist forces first invaded, but it grew quickly with the arrival of the railroad. During the Bolshevik revolution, Tashkent was the most loyal to the communist cause, and the soviet government quickly established it as the capital of its holdings in Central Asia.

Independence left Tashkent as the capital of Uzbekistan, even though it is in one isolated corner of the country. The Uzbek government added a few monumental structures of its own, and the city now counts 2 million inhabitants, the largest in Central Asia.

With so little history, we allotted only a day and a half to Tashkent. Despite rainy weather, we walked around a lot, first to a disappointing history museum, then to the more interesting old town that still occupies a small section around the pre-soviet bazaar.

On the edge of the old town is the one really unique site, Khast Imom, the Islamic center of Uzbekistan. The huge mosque is new, but nearby is a 16th-century Timurid madrassa and a mausoleum of an early Islamic scholar.

But the most remarkable thing is a small building that holds a huge Koran reputed to be one of the five that Uthman, the third caliph, made to standardize and preserve the text in 651 AD. Most of the copies have been lost, but it is believed that this one fell into the hands of Timur during one of his 14th-century campaigns. The giant book then came to Samarkand, and after a brief interlude in St. Petersburg, it was finally sent to Tashkent. Although its authenticity as the oldest surviving Koran cannot be verified, it is clearly a very ancient copy, written on parchment in Kufic script without vowel markings. Photos were not allowed, but you can see fairly good pictures of the book and its text near the bottom of this external page.

On the morning of our second day, we visited a mildly interesting art museum, then took a taxi to the Kazakh border. This was the last border we needed to cross on foot, and we had no problems once I convinced the guard that our traveler’s cheques were not really money. We had made it through Uzbekistan without a single bribe.


Our other stop in the Fergana was Kokand. Although quite old, Kokand rose to prominence in the nineteenth century when its khanate rivaled Bukhara and Khiva. The khan built himself a lovely palace with a big harem of forty-three “brides” he could marry for one-night stands, getting around the Islamic limit of four wives at a time. He finished the palace only three years before the Russians gave him the boot.

And no, this isn’t a scene from Mamma Mia. As we entered the palace, a group of nurses came out. They all wanted to have their pictures taken with us.

Several other mosques, madrassas and tombs line the streets of Kokand. Most are empty now, shut down by the government as hotbeds of Islamic radicalism. The government is doing massive restorations (reconstructions) everywhere to make Kokand as spiffy and sanitized as Samarkand.

The road back to Tashkent was unnecessarily long because it had to skirt Khojand and its thumb of Tajikistan that juts up into the Ferghana Valley. Stalin’s divide-and-conquer tactics left the region a patchwork of national boundaries that force highways to take circuitous routes across mountain passes.

Silk making

Although the Chinese guarded the state secret of silk making carefully, a Tang-era (7th century) woman smuggled the secret and some silkworms to Central Asia. From that point on, the Silk Road became a factory as well, with production facilities in the Fergana Valley.

Most silk factories are now mechanized, but we were able to visit one in Margilon that is dedicated to keeping alive the traditional methods. The process is done without electricity, much as it has been done for 1300 years.

Women first boil the cocoons, each of which are wound with a kilometer of fine thread. Once soft, the threads are gathered and spun.

The next step is to dye the threads. Men gather bundles of thread and mark the pattern. They then tie strings and ribbons around the places where the dye should not reach. They then dip the bundles are in large vats of natural pigments including sakura blossoms imported from Japan. Once dry, the bundles can be separated into the fine threads that make the pattern on each loom.

The looms are high-speed machines powered by women’s hands and feet. Several times per second, the operator pulls a cord that shoots the shuttle across the loom. Between each stroke, they switch pedals to reverse the threads. Repetitive-stress injuries are no doubt common.

Other workers manually weave and cut the threads of the velvet-like carpets and fabrics that cannot be automated. It can take a day to produce one centimeter, 18 months to make a full rug.

The market at Margilon

After Termiz, we flew back to Tashkent long enough to drop our bags, then flew on to the Fergana Valley that stretches to the east between flanks of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. From the plane, we could see the peaks of the Tajik Pamirs that we had visited a month earlier. As the crow flies, it was only about 160 kilometers (100 miles) back to Sary-Tash, the small Kyrgyz town where we had begun our trip across the Pamir Highway. Because of recent unrest, we had skipped Osh, which lies just across the Kyrgyz border at the east end of the Fergana Valley.

The Fergana valley is the breadbasket and industrial heart of Uzbekistan. Half of the country’s population lives here, and it is well irrigated by the Syr-Darya (Jaxartes) River that flows down from the Tian Shan. It is also the most conservative area, with strong Islamic traditions that have fueled rebellions from time to time. More people were wearing skullcaps and headscarves than we had seen anywhere else.

Our first stop was the historic silk-making town of Margilon. When we landed, we went immediately to the Kumtepa Bazaar, which takes place only twice a week on a huge lot five kilometers west of town. Although it sells everything from housewares to auto parts, the market is best known for its rows and rows of vendors selling bright-colored cloths. Sewing machines nearby were ready to turn them into the fantastic dresses that people wear the streets of Central Asia.


Out of the way and without major tourist sites, Termiz is skipped by most visitors unless they are trying to cross the bridge over the Amu Darya (Oxus) River into Afghanistan. We weren’t going to do that, but we wanted to visit anyway because of a museum and a handful of historical sites in the area.

Termiz was as close to ancient Bactria as we were going to get. Bactria’s center was Balkh 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south across the rolling fields of northern Afghanistan. But it was not safe and probably not very interesting anyway, because Balkh has apparently been ruined even more than ancient Merv.

Our first stop was the town’s historical museum, which had a few interesting artifacts from the stone age through the present. The most interesting were from the Kushan period of the first through fourth centuries CE. This was a Buddhist culture that spilled over the mountains from India, and it was obviously a melting pot of Indian and European cultures and ethnicities.

This was all the more obvious at the ruins of Fayoz-Tepe. A large Buddhist complex on the edge of the ruined Old Termiz, the temple had a remarkable early Buddhist stupa preserved under a dome that approximated one that might have been there in the past. Nearby, a UNESCO-supported museum contained a copy of a complete Buddha sculpture, which still showed signs of Greek influence in the flowing robe that covered the body. Buddhist iconography would not be codified until several centuries later when the religion reached China.

There was a much larger Buddhist stupa in a field a few kilometers away. This one may have been over 2000 years old and it stood 20 meters (65 feet) tall.

Termiz also has some more recent monuments. A mausoleum to the 9th-century Sufi philosopher Al-Hakim al-Termizi drew brightly clad pilgrims.

Another 12th-century mausoleum contained some interesting brickwork in the corner arches.

A medieval castle lay crumbling nearby.

Uzbekistan Airways

Our next destination was Termiz, a medium-sized city on the Afghan border in the far south. We could have gone there by bus from Samarkand, since it’s only 4 hours south of Sakhrisabz, but we had limited time before the fixed date of our entry into Turkmenistan. So we decided to take a break from the pounding of our overland travel and take an airplane.

Uzbekistan Airways is far more professional than Tajik Air, and although some of the flights were on the same Russian Antonov turboprops, at least the seats were in good repair. Several of the flights, though, were on modern 757s and they were quite enjoyable despite the closely packed seats.

The only difficulty was changing planes in Tashkent. Flight connections with checked-through luggage are not supported, since few people would want to fly from one provincial city to another. So we had to pick up our bags, haul them 500 meters to the domestic departure terminal, and check them in again. Fortunately, our flights were on time and we made our connection.


Khiva is the third of the “big three” historical cities in Uzbekistan. Further west than Bukhara and Samarkand, it was an isolated emirate until 1873, when the Russians “accepted” the khan’s pledge of obediance. The khans stayed around as Russian subalterns until 1920, when the Bolsheviks finally evicted them. No one mourned the khan’s departure, since he was every bit as ruthless and arbitrary as the rest of the Central Asian rulers.

Unlike the other two cities, Khiva is almost perfectly preserved. It is newer than the others, with many of its buildings dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, and the Russians took over without having to lob shells at the inner city. And during the Soviet period, it was preserved and restored while its residents moved to proletarian housing. As a result, Khiva has the feeling of a completely preserved medieval city, even if the museum-like atmosphere reeks of formaldehyde.

The largest minaret was actually completed only in 1910. From the top, one can see the vaults of the stone markets and madrassas, as well as one of the khan’s palaces. At 57 meters (190 feet), it is only slightly shorter than the minaret in Konye Urgench, but almost 1000 years newer.

A nineteenth-century khan wanted to build an even taller minaret, but was killed before he got beyond the second story. If he had completed it, the minaret would have been the tallest in the world.

The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum is the best known monument in Khiva, dedicated to a legendary poet, wrestler and saint. Inside its turquoise dome is some of Khiva’s finest tile work.

Khiva was surrounded by two layers of walls. Gates allowed traffic from each of the four directions, and the east gate provided extra niches for displaying slaves for sale, one of Khiva’s specialties. Graves are stacked on top of each other in front of one corner of the inner wall.

Near the east gate is the city market, built in an old caravansarai.

The khans loved to build palaces. The oldest is the Khuna Ark, with parts dating back to the fifth century. But most of it was modern, with large covered iwans for the khan to sit in the shade and dispense whatever he considered to be justice.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the khans were tired of living in their ancestral digs, and almost every one built a new palace. They also built a summer palace on the edge of town. Each palace of course had its own harem sealed off from all male visitors except the khan. It must have been a pretty boring place for the ladies, who had nothing better to do than look at the painted ceilings.

Camels and sand castles

After leaving Nukus, we hired a taxi to drive us around the Elliq-Qala (“Fifty Forts”) area of ruins dating over 2000 years. No one knows quite how many forts there are, but they show that this area was once the heart of a rich farmland watered by the Amu Darya (Oxus) river, once as large as the Mississippi. The Amu Darya still flows nearby but has only a fraction of its water.

The forts are ruins now, but some are still quite impressive, with large walls and multistory dwellings.

We spent the night at a yurt camp in the desert and in the morning we sprung $10 each for a camel ride. We were skeptical because it sounded so touristy, but these were real desert camels and it was actually quite fun. My camel was pretty comfortable, certainly much better than a yak, but Marcia had a little trouble sliding off the hump. Camels are pretty foul-mannered, and they complained as much as the yak while they were being saddled up.

The desert stretched as far as the eye could see.

Voting by fax

There is an American election next Tuesday, and Marcia and I are doing our part to make sure at least California reelects some sensible progressive politicians.

Voting from Uzbekistan isn’t easy. In theory, we could have had Alameda County send us an absentee ballot at a hotel, but that would have required knowing where we were going to be. And most Central Asian post offices are known to take an month or more to deliver mail, so there was a good chance we wouldn’t have been able to receive it or send it back.

Fortunately, some recent legislation has guaranteed overseas Americans the right to vote in alternative ways, and California allows voting by fax. Alameda County faxes a ballot to us, we print and fill it out, and we fax it back. What could be easier?

Well, to begin with, they sent the ballot to us by mail rather than fax. That was no problem, though, because our PO Box service scans everything and we were able to download a much more readable copy than we would have received by fax. We printed it and filled out the ballot and the required declaration that we were waiving our right to a secret ballot (the person receiving the faxes would obviously see our votes).

And Uzbekistan has fax machines, right? Sure, and somewhere one might actually work. The machine in our hotel refused to send over the noisy line. So we went to the post office, which is supposed to have fax machines in every city. It didn’t have one. They pointed to a computer shop around the corner, but its machine was also broken. I had them scan the pages, but the scans were unusable. Marcia wanted to try some hotels, but I was frustrated and didn’t want to keep running up phone bills on failure.

I had to use every piece of hardware and software in my arsenal, but I think I got it done. To get a good quality scan at high enough resolution to fax readably, I photographed each page with my Nikon camera. I then edited each image to make it as purely black and white as possible, then converted it to PDF files. I tried to transfer it to my computer in the basement of my house in Berkeley, but my machine with the fax line was dead for some reason. So I signed up for a trial account at and emailed two 9 MB attachments. One has now been delivered and I’m waiting for confirmation of the other.

Frustration with technology aside, I can still be thankful I am a citizen of a country that still has reasonably free and fair elections. When Uzbekistan last had elections, the token opposing candidate was allowed to make only one campaign appearance – to vote for “President” Karimov, who of course won with over 99.9%. Karimov recently started his third term despite the fact that the country’s constitution forbids such a thing. Who bothered to check?