The traditional music of Central Asia is lovely - subtle and complex with strands of the music of both the Arab and the eastern world combining with the age-old rhythms and cadences of the nomadic bards of the steppe. The instruments it is played on are just as attractive - wonderfully organic shapes form the sounding boxes of 2-, 4- and 5-stringed instruments, drums and tambours. Stop a while with one of the instrument sellers in Samarkand and Bukhara to listen to and appreciate its soft melodies.
Anywhere else, you're more likely to hear the beat of Uzbek rock however - the louder the better it seems.
Older Uzbek men often wear a chapan - a long coat - all year round, lightweight in summer, padded in winter, plain for everyday wear and spendidly striped for best. Whilst young men tend to choose Western (Russian) dress for everyday wear , when mornings start to get chilly many of them join their elders and opt for a traditional thickly padded chapan. You'll see piles of them for sale in bazaars everywhere.
They become totally splendid, in velvet encrusted with beautiful gold embroidery, for celebration wear. Again in the bazaars, you'll see mass-produced machine-made versions, but go to the museums and there you will see royal chapans that are worth a king's ransom, so fine and opulent is the bullion work on them. These are known as zarchapan
Old photos show the emir's guards and courtiers respendent in brightly coloured silk chapans - what a sight they must have been.
The name, Timur, Uzbekistan's all-conquering hero and favourite name for newborn baby boys, means "iron" and metalwork of all sorts has a long and illustrious history all through Central Asia. Beautifully wrought metal grilles and screens can still be seen in buildings, bronze ewers and bowls are for sale in the markets along with a fearsome array of knives and blades of all sorts. Once there were dozens of blacksmiths working in Bukhara, some 40 blacksmiths remain. The master blacksmith at the Museum of Metalwork in Bukhara will proudly show you his work - including stork-shaped scissors of amazing sharpness.
Chased metal is another ancient craft that hase been revived - these metal crafts suffered as much neglect under the Soviet regime as all the other crafts but Government initiatives actively encourage the re-establishment of centres for teaching and craft museums for study so that all these old skills are undergoing a considerable rebirth.
Look beyond the initial kitch appearance of Khiva's wedding palace with its stork over the exit and plastic flowering trees and you will see ancient symbolism here. The little blue tiles inset in the brick walls are ancient Zoroastrian symbols - they were inserted when the palace was built - not as a government building but as the Mohammed Amin Inak Medressah in 1785 - and all around the walls are signs of the Zodiac, astral bodies that carry great weight in this part of the world - nothing is being left to chance in setting each new marriage off on the right track.
Bread, known as non, holds a special place in Uzbek society. Every region, and indeed every baker, has its own distinctive style, from the flaky pastry-like offerings in Bukhara to these elaborately decorated loaves in Samarkand. Patterns are created by stamping the unbaked loaves (you can buy the stamps in many souvenir shops in Bukhara for instance) and the bread is then baked in a traditional tandyr oven (see photo 3) – the loaves are slapped onto the walls of the oven, and when they drop off they are ready to eat.
The loaf commands great respect. It should never be served or placed upside down on the table, and if dropped on the ground should be picked up and kissed. Traditionally, when a son left home to fight or to seek his fortune, he would take a bite from a loaf that would then be kept, hung on display in the house, to await his safe return.
For the modern-day traveller the bread is often one of the tastiest items served at a meal and we found it a great staple when our digestive systems started to revolt against all that grease!
One of the things I admired as I learnt more about Uzbek society was the strong emphasis put on the importance of community, or malhalla. The community is there almost as an extended family, and can be called on to support people when needed, e.g. in times of illness or bereavement. This could be financial, practical and emotional support.
The older people in society are accorded particular respect, especially the old men, known as aksakal or “white beards”. The knowledge and experience they have acquired over the years is valued, and they have earned the right now to spend their days sitting in the shade, sipping tea and talking quietly among themselves.
Like non (bread), tea is of great importance in Uzbek society, and there are rules and rituals attached to it. Tea is always served in small bowls, Chinese style, not in cups as at home, or in glasses as in other parts of the Arab world. It is considered impolite to fill the bowl – little and often is the rule – and the first pouring is returned to the pot, sometimes several times, as part of the brewing process, though it’s not expected that foreign visitors will do anything than gulp it down!
The most commonly drunk is green tea, “kok chai”, served very simply without the addition of lemon or milk. This is a very refreshing drink, and in its way can re-energise you in the hot weather as effectively as a cold drink. It is also a welcome antidote to the greasiness of much of the cooking here.
We found that our friendly small B&Bs in Bukhara and Samarkand were always happy to serve this tea at no charge, and it was always included with meals in local restaurants. But the most traditional place in which to drink your tea is the chaikhana, and here again certain rules and rituals should be observed. Most importantly, you should always remove your shoes before taking your seat on the dais or kan, and this applies too if the dais is in the shady courtyard of your hotel as here (photo 2) in the Hotel Mosque Baland in Bukhara.
Drive down practically any country road or highway in Uzbekistan and you will be struck by the miles and miles of mulberry trees that line the roadsides and fields. They are an essential part of the country's silk industry. For a short six weeks in spring everybody who can possibly be spared from other work will be harvesting the leaves to feed the family's stock of precious silkworms.
A normal stock (taken from a central supplier) weighs only about 20 grams, but so prodigious is their growth, this little bundle has grown to enormous proportions by the time they are ready to form their cocoons by spinning out the mile or so of the prized filament. By the time this happens their guardians are working night and day to keep up with the demand for leaves - up to 300kilos a day need to be cut. No wonder the trees are reduced to little more than a bare trunk!
Mulberries are capable of their own rapid growth though and it isn't long before new branches sprout green leaves and by the time spring comes around again they have their full crown of foliage, ready for the whole cycle to begin again.
This is what the well-dressed Uzbek woman used to wear when she went out. A heavy velvet cloak with long, impossibly narrow sleeves that served only for ornament known as a chevtan and a thick face-covering veil made of woven horsehair ,paranji, turned her into a stiff cut-out shape that bore absolutely no resemblance to the human form. Whilst looking out through the veil was no different from looking through fly-wire mesh, the cloak was incredibly restricting and in the intense heat of an Uzbek summer it must have been suffocating.
Photos 1 and 2 show the chevtan and paranji as worn by wealthy women.
Photo 3 dates from the late 19th century whilst photo 4 dates from the 1920s and shows how ordinary women worn the paranji but not the chevtan. It was taken in Tashkent by photographer Max Penson and is reproduced here under the conditions imposed by the website www.maxpenson.com. The website is a wonderful archive of photos of Uzbek life from the 1920s to the 1940s.
Public veil-burnings were staged by the Soviets as late as the 1960s and, although at the time this was fiercely resisted by menfolk with traditional attitudes, there is no sign of the veil returning across most of the country.
Nappies (diapers) and nappy rash are unknown to babies who sleep in a traditional Uzbek cradle known as a beshik. An ingenious arrangement of a hole in the base, a little wooden device (one for girls, a different one for boys - and don't ask me how it works - there are some things even the most eloquent hand gestures can't really explain), firm swaddling and a bowl on the floor beneath the cradle makes nappies redundant.
Placing a new baby into its cradle for the first time is accompanied by a ritual known as beshiki toyi - in effect an Uzbek baby shower. This takes place when the baby is six weeks old - it sleeps with its mother until then. The family bring the cradle along with baby essentials, toys and food to the new mother's house. Whilst the younger guests party on the oldest women in the family wrap the baby in its swaddling bands and place it in the cradle. Only then is it shown to the rest of the family who shower the cradle with sweets and sugar to wish it a life filled with success and happiness.
Infants spend nearly all the first two years of their life in this cradle. As if being constrained by tight swaddling wasn't enough, the cradle is almost always covered with an embroidered cover, a gavora posh, which excludes all sunlight - it's no wonder that rickets is a common problem.
Although many women wear standard western dress these days, others choose a charming mix of the traditional and the modern. For high days and holidays, the wonderfully colourful Ikat silks that the country is famous for are greatly favoured, whilst everyday wear often features a synthetic version of the same patterns. A long tunic ( kuljak) over trousers (ishton)is the norm, the fit and flare of the kuljak depending greatly on the figure beneath, and the owner of that figure's self-confidence or modesty - some choose an extremely figure-flattering style whilst others opt for something more concealing. Whatever the shape of what's on top, the trousers beneath sometimes reveal the ankle and are trimmed with a little tassle on the inside seam. It's a lovely touch, and more than a little flirtatious.
2009 update Autumn was coming when we visited Uzbekistan this year, and most women had exchanged their silky ikat prints for more wintery velours and velvets, gaudy florals mostly with added embellishments of sequins and gold. The bazaars were full of it - home dressmaking is obviously still all the go in Uzbekistan.
More than any other item of clothing, it is the vast array of little skull caps that are the most recognizable thing about Uzbek dress.
Virtually all men over the age of 35 or 40 wear the square black, brown, grey or blue doppi or tyubiteika trimmed with white embroidery - satin or velvet for best, cloth, leather or even printed card for everyday. Wearing the the doppi could be taking on a new meaning also - recently a law was passed forbidding the sale of white skull caps - the government considers them alien, an undesirable manifestation of Arabic-influenced Islam, anathema to this determinedly secular state. Although not exclusive to Uzbekistan, wearing a doppi signals an allegiance to Central Asian traditions.
Many of the very old men still wear a loosely wound turban, particularly in the countryside.
Married women mostly wear a head scarf tied at the nape of their neck these days for everyday use, widows wear a big white scarf draped loosely over their head, newly-wed brides signal their status with a white hat, and the prettiest and brightest embroidered caps are those of unmarried girls.
We noticed some women wearing their headscarf hijab-style - firmly anchored under the chin and spreading across the shoulders - on our most recent visit, a sign perhaps of a growing Arab-style observance of Islam. What will be the government's reaction to trhat if the trend continues, I wonder?
Different regions have different styles and use different stitches to embroider the hats. You'll find them for sale everywhere, some mass=produced and costing avery little, others are museum pieces and will cost a fortune, but more of that in the shopping section.
You can buy doppis, wedding hats and some others worn as everyday dress at markets. Hats worn for weddings, by both bride and groom, are particularly elaborate. The bride has a white embroidered and beaded square hat with a long beaded fringe that hangs down her back and she will wear this for some time after the wedding when she is dressed up and going out. The groom's hat is usually a golden turban, which he isn't expected to wear it anywhere but the wedding. The market ones are factory made or, at best, mass-produced
If you're looking for something more special, you'll find Bukhara probably has the best selection spread over a number of traders in different places.
If you're just looking, there are wonderful examples of old hats to be seen in museums around the country - Tashkent's Applied Art Museum and Fine Art Museum both have excellent collections but there are museum quality pieces for sale too - at a price. The shop in Tashkent's fine art museum had some lovely ones - I fell in love with a tiny baby's skullcap, made for a newborn to wear at the cradle ceremony but left it there when told the price! as I did with the fabulous Tajik girl's caps in Photo 5 - they were in an antique dealers in the Cap-maker's bazaar in Bukhara and at a starting price of $1000 for the one I liked best, it stayed in the shop too. Not that I didn't bring some home with me (photo 3).
Weddings are a time for great celebration everywhere in Uzbekistan. Often costing a huge amount of money ( a recent presidential decree has called for a reduction in the spending on weddings as costs , and rivalry to put on a bigger and better "do" spiral), a traditional wedding involves at least two days of celebration. A ceremony at the local Wedding Palace fulfills the legal requirements of civil law. For this, the bridal couple dresses in Western style, a suit for him and an fantasy of white dress and veil for her. After the ceremony the whole party goes walkabout around the town, visiting the monuments and places of note, stopping along the way for photos and impromtu dancing.
Then comes the real party, and out come the traditional gold-encrusted velvet robes, the best of which are worth a king's ransom. Mountains of food are cooked, with special wedding plov the star dish. Music, dancing and traditional games are all part of the fun. The guest list is huge, no-one is left out.
October is the favoured wedding season, the harvest is over and the weather's reliable.
The chaikhana (tea house) is completely central to the Uzbek way of life. Whether it's a shady, green oasis like those around the Lyab-i Khauz in Bukhara or a couple of carpeted low day beds with tables fixed in the middle (a takhta)out under a tree along a country road, elaborately balconied amid thick trees in Samarkand, a swish affair of tented pavilions in a Tashkent park, set down beside a cool canal in Fergana or set inside the walls of Khiva , no day is complete without some time spent sipping tea, talking over whatever needs talking over and watching the world go by.
If the chaikhana has a takhta, etiquette dictates that you take your shoes (though not your socks) off before you step onto the carpeted platform to sit crosslegged.
When the tea arrives, with small china cups, the custom is to pour some into a cup and then empty it back in the pot and to do this three times -loi, moi, choi - mud, oil and, finally, tea. The pourer always takes the first cup - to show it's not poisoned. Not such an old necessity in this land where murder and intrigue was a reality in the not so distant past!
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