Thursday, 29 September 2011


Part two of our trip to Uzbekistan

The unpleasantness didn’t end when our eight hour journey to Bukhara did. Our driver, Goldtooth Punchdrunk, was pissed when he discovered we had already arranged accommodation in Bukhara, meaning he would miss out on a hotel’s commission. He threatened to drop us at the outskirts of town then he said we underpaid him (we hadn’t). The manager at our Bukhara hotel said Goldtooth was a little stupid, I tend to agree with him. Unpleasantness over, our lodgings in Bukhara were much grander than we were used to. For a start, there was a TV in the room and the shower had pressure. Our room had been decorated to resemble a famous palace in Samarkand, with fabulous painted murals (they had even recreated the damage done on the original murals). The dining room was the unrenovated room of a 19th Century Jewish merchant. A large Jewish population had lived here once, co-existing with Muslims, even using a mosque as a place of worship before the first synagogue was built in 1620. Now, no more than a thousand Jews live in the city, most having left for Israel or America during Soviet times.

The dining room of our hotel.

 Bukhara was a slightly busier town than Khiva but not by much. We mingled with the locals and tourists (more backpackers were here than in Khiva but there were still a lot of oldies with their hiking sticks and sensible shoes). We had dinner, reclining on a divan at a restaurant around Lyabi-Hauz, a gorgeous pool framed by beautiful buildings. The town had been full of pools like this where local people got their water but also unfortunately, contracted diseases. The Russians got sick of the ailments and decided to do away with most of them in the 1920s and 30s but Lyabi-Hauz was spared because it formed the centrepiece of a magnificent architectural ensemble, created during the 16th and 17th centuries, which has not been significantly changed since and thankfully so. 
Lyabi Hauz, a tranquil spot. Beware of the shashlik though.

The atmosphere around the pool was great, the food poor and I’m sure the shashlik kebabs were the cause of discomfort I had later in the trip. There was a horde of begging cats that came crawling onto our divan, trying to score some meaty bits of mutton. Even some Muscovy ducks begged for scraps. A statue of Nasruddin Hoja, the wise Sufi fool (yes, that an oxymoron but that is how he is described) sits near the pool, a popular photo opportunity for tourists and something for the local kids to clamour over. Just past Lyabi-Hauz were the first of several domed covered bazaars, filled with souvenir stalls selling carpets, traditional embroidery, hats and trinkets, a reminder that once Bukhara was a thriving and important city, one of the key stops on the old Silk Road. It was also one of the most prominent Islamic cities, known as the Pillar of Islam; Bukhoro-i-Sharif (noble Bukhara) was the name given to signify its holiness, serving as the heart of Islam in Central Asia. Not surprisingly, the oldest mosque in Central Asia is here, the 9th Century Pit of the Herbalists (Maghoki-Attar), standing on top of an old Buddhist and Zoroastrian sight, now acting mainly as a museum and shop. 

Pulling at the medressa.
Bukhara is also famed for its wonderfully restored medressas, again the oldest in this part of the world. The oldest one dates to 1417 (the Mongols destroyed earlier medressas during the conquests of Genghis Khan). Medressas are Islamic schools attended by the rich and smart children. The students (all boys) lived together in small rooms and received tuition from their teachers; 2 students to a teacher, a student: teacher ratio today's parents would approve of. Study began at the age of 12 and lasted for up to ten years; memorizing the Koran and taking subjects such as mathematics, theology, philosophy and astronomy. Medressas were banned upon the arrival of the Red Army and subsequent integration into the Soviet Union. Many of the medressas were destroyed, used as warehouses or turned into musuems. Some in Bukhara have reverted back to their original function but most stand idle, used as glorified souvenir stands and ogled by tourists.

Bukhara’s biggest claim to fame is not its shopping or its Islamic schools anymore (as a sidenote, the shopping was probably the best in the country). It’s most famed for its architecture, in particular the Ark and the area around the Kalon Minaret. Fitzroy Maclean, a British adventurer through Central Asia in the 1930s, described it as ”an enchanted city” with buildings that rivalled “the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance”. It, like Khiva, has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, who said that it represents the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with a fabric that remained largely intact”. Here, the tile-work was ornate and colourful, which contrasted to Khiva’s mostly mud-brick unadorned structures, with large turquoise-coloured domes, huge mosaic door arches and tall minarets.
Kalon Minaret, beautiful detail.
Bukhara’s most famed structure is the Kalon Minaret, 45 metres tall, meaning it was probably the tallest structure in Cental Asia at the time it was built. It was apparently such an awe-inspiring sight that even Genghis Khan chose to spare it during his destructive rampage through Central Asia in the 13th Century, despite burning almost every other building in the city and indeed the whole of Central Asia. At first glance, it looks relatively plain but when you look more closely at it, you can see its inherent beauty. On a day like the day we saw it, its colour contrasts magnificently against the rich blue sky. The lower section has intricately carved calligraphy that is said to include the name of the architect, the date of construction, the name of the benefactor who paid for its construction as well as quotes from the Koran. Up higher, it has fourteen sections of mud-brick tiles, varying in design, marking vertical delineations up the entire length of the minaret. One of the top sections has the first recorded use of the glazed blue tiles that were so prominent in latter Uzbekistan architecture. 

Kalon Minaret and the Azerbaijan delegation.
The minaret serves as the centrepiece of a small square that is flanked by a mosque and a medressa. Locals set up stalls here, selling ceramics, bread brushes and souvenirs. A young mother kicked a ball around with her two toddlers. The mosque, known as Kalon Mosque, was built on the site of one originally destroyed by the Mongols (obviously, the mosque was not as impressive as the minaret). It was used as a warehouse during Soviet times but now sees service as an active mosque, still being restored as we were there. A delegation from Azerbaijan pulled up as we arrived, so we didn’t go into the mosque itself, security being tight. We just admired it from the outside, its large, ornate gate flanked by two turquoise domes. Opposite is the 16th Century Mir-i-Arab medressa, which is now once again operating as a medressa. It was quiet here and we sat for a while. The courtyard had many niches and archways running off from it; a solitary tree sat in the middle of it. Sitting out the far end, you could see both the front gates of the mosque, medressa and minaret. It was quiet, beautiful and relaxing, one of the highlights of the trip.
The courtyard of Mir-I-Arab medressa, looking towards Kalon Mosque and Medressa.
My low point was not far away. The skashlik we had ate around Lyabi-Hauz was having its revenge, my stomach was in knots. I ran across the courtyard, stomach cramped, knees clenched. When I asked where the toilet was, flustered, red and sweaty, I was directed the way I had come, meaning a second, undignified dash of the courtyard, this time trailing behind a boy, who no doubt sensing my discomfort, ran to show me the location of the toilet. A group of angry, elderly French yelled out to me to get out of their shot, tourists made impatient by the lack of people in Uzbekistan, unable to wait to get a picture without people obscuring the view. I gave them little notice and ran on, only hoping that I would reach the toilet and not deface the courtyard. That I managed to reach the toilet came as a relief, both mentally and physically.  

Kalon Mosque.
Bukhara had been one of the capitals of the khanates involved in the Great Game, the race between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire to win influence in Central Asia, (the Russians used the term Tournament of Shadows to describe it which I quite like). For the British, it meant safeguarding their biggest prize, India; for the Russians, it meant an opportunity to extend their influence throughout Asia, grow their empire and maybe eventually gain India for themselves. Bukhara played its part in this battle, which was mostly fought using espionage, spying and networking (although several wars, particularly those of the British in Afghanistan were brought about by fears over growing Russian influence in the region). One such war had happened in 1839. Britain sent an envoy, Colonel Stoddard, to Bukhara (then the capital of the Bukhara khanate, a significant state in Central Asia at the time) to reassure Bukhara’s emir over Britain’s intentions in Afghanistan. The emir, incensed by what he saw as deliberate snubs by the British, imprisoned Stoddard, throwing him into a vermin infested bug-pit behind the Ark where he languished for three years. For the last one of these three years, he was joined by a compatriot, Captain Conolly, who had arrived to try and secure Stoddard release in 1841. The emir mistrusted his motives, and believing him to be in cahoots with his rivals, the khanates of Khiva and Kokand, placed Conolly in the bugpit, along with Stoddard, rodents, snakes and bugs. In 1842, the two were marched out in to the Registan (town square) in front of a large crowd gathered to watch from the Ark, and amid loud cheering and playing of drums, were made to dig their own graves before being unceremoniously beheaded.

The imposing walls of the Ark.
The ark and square where this drama unfolded still stands. It is much larger than its equivalent in Khiva, with tall, mostly intact earthen walls 16 to 20 metres high that loom large over the surrounds. A camel sits under its shadow in the Registan, ready to pose for photos or take people for a ride. A donkey accompanies it so at least it has some company, unlike the lonely camels we had saw in Khiva and at Ayaz-Qala. It served as a city inside a city for the emirs and in times of strife. When the Mongols invaded, the town’s inhabitants sought refuge in the Ark and presumably found death there after the Mongols breeched the fortress walls. Much of the Ark was damaged during the Soviet invasion, both by bombing and possibly through the deliberate actions of the last emir, who ordered parts of the Ark (especially the harem) to de destroyed so as to prevent it being desecrated by the Soviets. It looks imposing, befitting the home of a major, local ruler. It was the survivor and last incarnation of several other buildings that have been raised and destroyed on this site, dating from at least 500 AD. As usual, the Ark had its own collection of souvenir shops and we met some young men selling artwork on the rooftop. One of them, who my travel companions described as the hottest guy in Uzbekistan (no doubt influencing their decision to buy pieces of art from him), had piercing blue eyes. The guy’s friend (Uzbekistan’s top model had little English) said that blue eyes were common in the village where the boy was from, a legacy of people from Macedonia (maybe even Alexander the Great’s soldiers). Alexander the Great had himself taken a Central Asian bride, Roxana, with whom he had a son. If hot guy’s eyes were a legacy of Alexander the Great’s march through here, it is quite remarkable that they could have persisted in the gene pool for so long and serve as an indicator of how Central Asia has been a crossroads between people for millennia.  

One of the domed bazaars.
We had only two nights in Bukhara before we had to head off to Samarkand. We caught a taxi to take us to the train station. Of course, it was a Daewoo. Trains hold a certain appeal to me, although India has made me a little nervous of trains. I’ve been scarred by long waits on train platforms, fighting off flies, unsuccessfully trying to keep clean, being captivated yet disgusted by the antics of rats who proliferate at dawn or dusk, who find a livelihood amongst the train tracks, in Indian railway stations. I’m no Paul Theroux, who seems to thrive on train travel for the sake of it but it remains my preferred form of local transport. It allows freedom of movement (important for someone with a weak bladder who has almost been caught short several times on provincial buses in South-East Asia). The train ride from Bukhara to Samarkand proved to be so much easier than the taxi from Khiva had been (and much cheaper). Instead of being slowly stir-fried in the back of a taxi, we rolled our way across Uzbekistan. The train, known as the Sharq, (neither a reference to Shaquille O’Neal or the marine predator) was neither new nor old but it was comfortable, on time and quick and most thankfully, nothing like an Indian train. For a start, we had entertainment, a video (VHS is still king here) of a show done by a famous Uzbek performer. It was part Bollywood, part Turkish, heavily synthesized and choreographed with traditionally dressed backup dancers with a fondness for flowers. Outside, the desert was still there but civilization was fighting back. Fruit trees and cotton fields made this a greener journey. Samarkand beckoned, the last of the great Silk Road centres we were visiting. It had a lot of live up to. Bukhara had been wonderful. I'll finish with the words of Fitzroy Maclean again, “elsewhere in the world, light came down from heaven, but from Bukhara, it went up”.

Sunday, 25 September 2011


If image is everything, what to make of Uzbekistan? The name draws a blank, for many, Central Asia is an amorphous hole in the middle of Asia, Uzbekistan just another of the stans; totalitarianistic, fanatical, unstable and dangerous. Paradoxically, for a country only 20 years old (it was part of the USSR until it declared independence in 1991) with a youthful population (30% of its people are under 15 years old), the future for Uzbekistan is still the past. It is the spiritual heart of the legendary Silk Road, that trade super highway that connected East to West, Rome to China. This is the place that disproves Kipling’s “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. It’s a place that has seen great conquerors; Alexander, Genghis Khan and Timur and great struggles between competing religions and ideologies. Uzbekistan is not truly Asia, not is it Europe or Middle Eastern but an amalgamation of all three. This can be attributed to the mixing of people, culture, goods and ideas for the past 5,000 years, the raw material for change usually coming along the Silk Road. 

Diagram showing the route(s) of the "Silk Road"
To talk of a single Silk Road is a huge oversimplification; rather than a single road, it was more like a braided river flowing out of China, branching off to go around deserts, mountains or social obstructions. It has several tributaries feeding into it; from other parts of China, India, Russia and the Levant. All lines tended to merge together into one more coherent road in modern day Uzbekistan, meaning that cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva benefited greatly from its trade. China exported silk, porcelain, paper, tea, ginger, lacquer ware and spices. In return, China received gold, silver, ivory, precious stones and coloured glass (apparently the manufacture of coloured glass bemused the Chinese as much as silk production amazed Europe). The Uzbek cities got the benefit in goods and taxes. The Silk Road spread more than just goods. Religion spread along it; first Buddhism then Greek ideas bought by traders and Alexander’s armies spread along it, shown by Hercules motifs found in temples and on statues in Central Asia, India, China and even in Korea. Buddhist statues became more Hellenized. Later, Islam spread along it, replacing Buddhism and Zoroastrianism in Central Asia as the pre-dominant religion.

The Silk Road centres; Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva now form the spine of many travelers visit to Uzbekistan. We started in Khiva with a nervy two hour flight from Tashkent. Flying in a small prop plane in a former Soviet republic would be enough to terrify the poor flier, especially given as we flew only a few days after the plane crash in Russia that killed many members of a Russian ice Hockey team. But we survived and landed in Urgench, a dusty, stock-standard Soviet town. The city was founded by residents of Konye-Urgench, now in Turkmenistan, after that city, once one of the Silk Road’s premier trading posts, found itself short of water after the Amu-Darya River changed course. Now, Urgench’s primary function is as the gateway to Khiva with a side-occupation as seemingly being the only town with a functioning ATM in a 200 mile radius.

As we speed through the countryside in our Daewoo (all cars in Uzbekistan seemed to be either Russian-made or a Daewoo), we saw donkeys pulling carts, women selling melons at roadside stalls, canals and leaking pipelines and cotton fields. The canals, pipelines and cotton are linked. Uzbekistan is the fifth largest producer of cotton, or white gold, even though much of its land was unsuitable for cotton production. The Soviet government changed this situation through the use of extensive pipelines and canals that diverted water from the Aral Sea, once one of the four largest lakes in the world. Since the 1960s, it has been steadily shrinking, to the point where it is now only 10% of its original size. What remains has an extremely high salinity, a saline cesspool too toxic for most freshwater fish to live in. While the waters allowed the growth of cotton, the fishing industry has been destroyed, bringing further hardship to an already poor part of the country. The fate of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; its demise noted as early as 1964. The waters managed to irrigate land once unusable, although they are highly ineffective (initially, up to 75% of the water went to waste). The loss of the Aral Sea is one of the world’s greatest man-made natural disasters. The scale of devastation is hard to quantify. It’s perhaps best demonstrated by the fishing boats that sit high and dry on the lake bed, former fishing towns that now lie 180 kilometres from the lakeshore.

The cotton industry is kept sustainable today through the use of cheap (and sometimes) forced labour. Children are forced from the classroom and into cotton fields. “If they can walk, they can pick” seems to be the slogan of the Uzbekistan government. Schools are closed every fall and workers are given a daily quota (80 kg) of cotton to pick. Students reported being whipped if quotas were not met, farmers and principals placed under pressure to work quickly. Workers, if paid, received the sum total of $2-3 a day. The Uzbekistan government receives 60% of its export revenue from cotton, so is disinclined to stop the use of child labour or to promote the growing of other crops. International pressure has led to child labour being reduced, especially around tourist areas. We saw cotton-pickers in the fields around Khiva but none of them looked school child aged. The picked cotton was accumulated in piles around the fields, looking like mounds of shaved ice. The next day, we stopped at a field to look at cotton. I was amazed by how soft it was in its unprocessed, raw state, already cotton-bud like on the plant.

White Gold: Cotton
Khiva itself is a well preserved town, called museum under the stars in one sign. Its historic heart, located around the Ichon-Qala, a walled city with imposing mud-brick, mono-chromatic walls. In here are medressas, mosques and minarets, many dating from several hundred years ago, from the time when Khiva was the capital of the Khorezom empire. In the 18th and 19th Century, it became a slave market (slaves another of the major Silk Road commodities), unfortunate people captured by Turkmen, Kazahks and later the Russians sold off in the biggest auction of its type in Central Asia. In the East Gate, you can still see the niches where slaves were kept before auction. Nowadays, no-one is in danger of being sold off. Tourists are too important with the local economy to be harmed. Men with golden grills, teeth covered in gold sheen like a villain from a James Bond movie, were a common sight here. The popularity of such dentalwear dates back to Soviet times, where gold teeth were so popular that healthy teeth were often covered. Gold, as well as being bling, also has the advantage of being cheaper than ceramic. Women with cultivated mono- brows man expectant tourist traps laden with hats, woven items, bags and kitsch. Both sexes often wore hats, skull caps for the men and sequinny hats with strings flowing off them for the women. In Khiva, they are waiting for the day when a flood of tourists hits. At the moment, it’s more a trickle of tourists, most rocking a blue rinse. Old aged Europeans, Germans and French, descended from tour buses like locusts on a cotton field. Many carried a walking stick, ambling slowly through the town. Their appearance was unexpected as I had a preconceived idea that Uzbekistan would be the home of backpackers, not package travelers.

Khiva: a living museum.
The walled city of Ichon-Qala is impressive. The most prominent building is the ark (or citadel), guarded by the high mud brick walls that have crenellations on top and rounded guard towers. It must have been an impressive and awe-inspiring site for attackers back in Khiva’s heyday. From the main watchtower, you can look at over Khiva, towering minarets, small alleyways, the mosques and the houses of the locals. 

View from the watchtower
My favourite building was the squat turquoise-tiled Kalta Minor minaret. It stands out for both its colour, vibrant against the pre-dominant mud-brick colours of the other buildings, and its shape. Left unfinished, it was commissioned by a khan in 1851 who reputably wanted to build a tower high enough to see Bukhara, 300 kilometres away across the flat Kyzylkum desert. There was the Juma Masjid, an interesting mosque laced with 218 wooden, carved columns that give it more of a Buddhist temple rather than a mosque feel (although it’s apparently inspired by ancient Arabian mosques). I enjoyed the Pahlaven Mahmud Mausoleum which stands out with its intricately tiled roof and unadorned tombs and Tosh-Hovli Palace that opens out into a gorgeous courtyard full of ceramic tiles and delicately, carved wooden columns. 

City walls
The stall holders sit waiting in all these places but it was a quiet day, so not much stock has moved. We did a little shopping but a lot of eating. The food and good and cheap and many of the restaurants had big divans, where you can stretch out and enjoy the sights as well as your food- like the people, dishes are a combination of influences- one meal we shared was borsch (Russian beetroot soup), lagman (Chinese noodles), spicy Korean style salad and the ever-present shaslik, skewered tender lamb with chunks of fat between them. Kids played soccer, one team in Barcelona jerseys, as we walked home one night. One boundary of their ‘field’ was the old city wall, one goal formed by the back of a palace. Life continues here in this outside museum, kids playing at night, their parents brushing the streets in front of their house and collecting water at dawn. Khiva is a living monument, where people both live and create their own history.

Gate to the ark and Kalon Minor Minaret
We hired a taxi (again, it was a Daewoo) to take us out to some old forts in the desert the next day. They lie old and ruined, 2 hours from Khiva, once part of a thriving community centred on oases in the old Amu-Darya delta that contrasts sharply with the desert it is now (you might recall that the Amu-Darya changed its course relatively recently). Some date to more than 2000 years ago, back to a time when under the Khorezm dynasty, the area had considerable power and prosperity. Now, the area, in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous province of Uzbekistan, is neither powerful or prosperous. This is a land that would seem to be stuck in a permanent depression. Climate change caused by the Amu-Darya changing course, the destruction of the Aral Sea and its accompanying salt storms that are poisoning the land, have led to the area being called apocalyptic. Summer temperatures have risen by 10 degrees, winter temperatures fallen by a similar number. People are suffering from increased rates of anemia and respiratory diseases. In a rude twist, cotton, the indirect cause of much of this hardship is now the major crop grown here (lucrative gas and oil-fields have been discovered in the dried up bed of the Aral Sea but most of these money goes to Chinese companies and their Tashkent cronies).

We saw glimpes into Uzbek life during our drive. We drove through busy farmers markets, women fighting over the freshest products, all decked out in a cacophony of colourful, mismatched clothes. Vans and cars were filled to the brink, with melons, either going to or returning from the market. One car we passed had a pig and a sheep jammed in the back seat. There were more cotton-fields, more road-side melon stalls (this must have been melon season, they was a perfusion of melons all over the country). Dogs chased us and we passed cyclists on small, country roads. Mosques were noticeable by their absence, a contrast to our recent trip to Turkey were every small village seemed to have a substantial mosque, its minarets dwarfing the other buildings. Islam was hit hard under Soviet rule. In Central Asia, during anti-religion campaign “Movement of the Godless”, most mosques were destroyed (by 1940, only 1000 of Central Asia’s 3000 mosques still stood. All of the 14,500 Islamic schools had been closed down). Only 2,000 mullahs were left alive, 45,000 had been executed as enemies of the state. Even since independence, Islam has not had it easy. Karimov, Uzbekistan’s dictator has used anti-terrorism laws to keep Islam in check. Mullahs and other religious leaders are hand-picked by the government, the call to prayers has been banned in many regions. The first time we heard it was in Samarkand five days after arriving in this country where supposedly 90% of people are Muslim. It was just another of the things that surprised me.

45 minutes after leaving Khiva, we came to the Amu-Darya river, a wide impressive, fast moving river that seems out of place in the dry land we had passed through. We crossed it by driving over a succession of barges, lashed together to make a makeshift bridge.The river marks the border between Uzbekistan proper and Karakalpakstan and the land seemed to almost instantly change, getting drier and less populated. The desert, of course, was desolate and the day was hot. The first fort we approached was perched on the only high ground for what seemed 100 miles, a perfect spot to observe approaching enemies. The fort, Ayaz Qola, is actually a complex of three forts. Its heyday was in the 6th and 7th Century AD, when it may have served as both a fort and a retreat/temple for Zoroastrians. We made our own track up to it, a walk of about 10 minutes. We spied a ground squirrel burrowing into the hand sand, checking us occasionally with a weary eye. We saw marks that could have been left by snakes and several lizards, the probable prey of our assumed snakes. We eventually hit an actual trail that heads right into the middle of the fort. Its old mud-brick walls are partially, or in many places, completely fallen down. It’s a more impressive sight from the road, where it looks almost intact. Enough remains to allow you to imagine what was here, gain some sort of insight into the life people might have had here. The views across the desert were great, across to a fast-disappearing lake fringed with salt, down to the yurt village across the road where you could stay, sleeping in the yurt and taking a camel safari.

The second fort at Ayaz Qala
Given our time in Uzbekistan, it came as no surprise that we appeared to be the only three people here so it was a little disconcerting to round a corner and come across a group of tourists (of course, older people) looking around the fort. It turns out that their group is led by an Australian archeologist, who has been working on this and other forts in the area. I had a conversation with two gentlemen, who turn out to be archeologists from Uzbekistan. I asked one about the lack of tourists. He said Uzbekistan wanted more but the numbers never really grew. Had it taken a turn for the worse since the global financial crisis hit (one of the hotel guys had told me that the number of Japanese tourists had dipped sharply). The archeologist replied that he and his friends often chuckled about the crisis, given that this area had been in a financial crisis for twenty years with no sign of a recovery. I questioned him about Karakalpakstan and whether its people wanted full independence. His reply was incisive-when people had to worry about surviving, they weren’t so worried about who was their president. It reminded me of a passage in Game of Thrones where Jorah says to Daenerys Targaryen ‘the common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” Radio Free Europe broadcast a report describing the beginnings of an independence movement in Karakalpakstan, although residents and local politicians deny the existence or desire for a genuine independence movement.

The second fort at Ayaz-Qala was a place where the lord of the area would retreat to from his palace (which was the third ‘fort’ 50 metres further down the hill). A ramp or tunnel would have initially connected the two forts. The archeologist pointed out the canals that run close to the area and said that 1000 years ago that this land would have been fertile and green. The people believed to be Zoroastarians would have had grapes growing here and wine would have been made. This tradition stopped with the change in climate and the arrival of Islam into the region.

Gecko in a old room
The next fort we visited was the Toprak Qala, a massive complex that was the temple complex for Khorezm rulers around 300-400 A.D. It was less impressive looking but more intact than Ayaz-Qala, with massive storerooms, streets, doorways, and rooms that were still intact. In one niche, I watched a gecko eating up a trail of ants, an expert of camoflague in this hostile environment. In another, small black bees swarmed. There was only one other group here, old Americans that we had spoken to the previous day in Khiva. The last fort was Kyzyl Qala, the most broken down up close of the three forts we visited but impressive as we looked at it over the top of cotton fields. Goats were tied up along the side of the road and the cotton was piled up, the sum of a days toil for some hard-working people.

Looking across the cotton fields
Public transport is sparse and difficult to use to get from Khiva to Bukhara, our next step on the Silk Road journey. A shared taxi seemed to be the best bet along roads that everyone, locals and travelers alike, warned us were the worst in Uzbekistan, full of potholes, one lane stretches and never-ending desert. The Lonely Planet said it should take 4-5 hours and loathe as I am to take everything that the guidebook tells me as gospel, I assumed that this would be a good estimate. Our hotel warned us it would be between 7 and 10 hours. But by bus, it could take over 12 hours. We choose to pay more and took a taxi. We started off at about eight, hopeful of arriving in Bukhara for lunch at a reasonable hour. We drove out of the old city as school children were leaving for school, the boys looking like Mormon missionaries in their black trousers, white shirt and skinny black tie. Our driver was one of the gold teeth brigade, ex-military, ex-prize fighter. He looked like he should be the lead in a Guy Ritchie movie. He said he spoke 5 languages and we spoke 3 but none were a common tongue. He had no English so communication was done almost exclusively via drawing pictures, charades or through the use of exaggerated sign language. Despite our language difficulties, we were able to have some good conversations. I gathered that he was not a hater of Karimov, the Uzbek dictator or big man as the driver said. “I driver, big man Karimov like tourists, I drive tourist, I’m happy.” It’s as about as close as we got in the whole trip to discussing politics. It’s always a bit rich to come to a totalitarian country to discuss politics, where you don’t understand all of the intricacies and are potentially placing people in danger, just for talking about it. His other questions portrayed his ignorance, like ‘can you drive from New Zealand and Canada”. Geography clearly wasn’t a strong point in his education.

The road started off well, the only hindrance when we got stuck behind a donkey, a tractor or when we had to stop at checkpoints manned by disinterested looking soldiers. We passed more fields of cotton, more roadside stalls with women selling melons and then almost simultaneously, we hit the desert and the bad road. The road was every bit as bad as it was made out to be. The abruptness of the road only amplified the harshness of the desert, extrapolating its heat, its dust, its monotony. The desert was devoid of landmarks, at least on any scale I knew. Miles after miles of sand, interspersed with scraggly scrub. It was barely there, a marginal existence, surviving but never growing higher than the car.

But at least it managed to grow here. The only other signs of life were strange looking birds who played chicken with the car, thrush sized but crested like mini roadrunners. Apart from them, the only signs of life we saw were 2 donkeys, standing idly on the side of the road. The only people we saw were the old Europeans from Khiva in rich looking tour buses and workers on the new highways being made (one was being made by a Korean company, the other by a German group). The new highways, looking finished, ran beside us for many kilometres, frustrating us, tantalizing us with its flat, straight surface as smooth as a runway. We, in contrast, bounced around our rough road as if we were on the back of a horse cart going along a jungle track, occasionally skirting over crudely made bridges and dodging piles of sand that had advanced from the desert.

There were no houses, no-one fighting to eke out an existence, no nomads with goat herds heading from oasis to oasis. People have lived in present day Uzbekistan for at least 50,000 years yet no-one has tried to conquer this barren land. It came as a shock when we came across a small lake, its brilliant blue providing a stark contrast against the almost encompassing brown coloured sand, appearing like a fabled oasis in an Arabian fairytale. This day made me realize, when we hit the nicer roads again, that the isolation of the desert wasn’t comforting. We often say that we travel to find that nothingness, an isolated spot where you can tell yourself that you are one of the few outsiders to have seen this patch of earth. While I agree and would cite this as part of my motivation to travel, I would rather travel at 80 kilometres on a good road than at 20 kilometres on a poor ride. In the desert, you might not be able to remember your name, but there is also little to remember, bar a sense of desolation and isolation and a realization that you are pleased to not be stuck out there.

Monday, 5 September 2011


Sonny Bill Williams came back to New Zealand rugby via Toulon (who he played 30 odd games for) accompanied with well wishes, hype and fanfare. He had starred for the Kiwis and for the Bulldogs, his mix of high-octane shoulder charges, busts and offloads a fan pleaser. Given his high profile midnight run from the Bulldogs breaking a multi-million dollar five year contract in the process, signed so recently that the ink was still wet on it, he had a lot to prove to the New Zealand public. It all started off well. He had a solid NPC and a highly promising All Blacks tour to the Home Nations in 2010. In 2011, he started off strongly in the Super 15 and earned kudos for donating $100,000 to the Canterbury earthquake appeal. But then came the fall. He focused on a mid-season boxing bout against an out of shape beneficiary to the detriment of his rugby. He won but not with style. It was a strangely tentative, almost timid display from a man who grossly physically outgunned his opponent. After the bout, he lost his edge in his rugby. Then, he reneged on a verbal commitment to remain in rugby in New Zealand. Public sentiment began to change, to shift beneath his feet. A poll showed that many New Zealanders now don’t want him to resign with the New Zealand Rugby Union.

On All Black debut.
So what went wrong with Sonny Bill? The thing is that is definitely two sides to him. In interviews and on the field, he seems a team player, a humble man who just wants to play footy. But then, you hear reports of a different Sonny Bill, a guy balanced with a chip on each shoulder out to do the best for himself and screw any loyalty. To be fair, this version of Sonny Bill is usually associated with the dealings of his manager, Khoder Nasser and another of his high profile clients, former league star and boxer Anthony Mundine (Quade Cooper, the exciting Wallabies flyhalf is also on his books). Nasser is an outsider looking in, a renegade who is trying to change the system from the outside. Maybe he wants to change the system so it benefits his charges; a cynical person would say he wants to change it to benefit himself first then his client. This may be disingenuous. Nasser has a reputation to fight ferociously for his clients. Many boxing authorities in Australia appreciate the work Nasser has done with Mundine, but managing a boxer is different from league or union. Boxing is all about self-promotion, bravado and an independent spirit. In the ring, a warrior only has his own strength, both physical and mental to rely on. A player in a team sport like SBW is only as strong as his team and thus has to fit into a team structure. Highly physical sports like league and union, even more than soccer, thrive on forming bonds, on forming a brotherhood. After all, it is almost like trench warfare at times. People don’t appreciate players if they seem to think they are bigger than the team or the game. SBW is starting to appear that way and he hasn’t put in the hard yards into New Zealand rugby to warrant special attention as yet, unlike a Carter or a McCaw.

His zealous manager, Khoder Nasser.
Apparently, Nasser’s favourite book is Malcolm X’s biography, a man of great passion, a man who fought outside the system he found himself in. Nasser is certainly passionate about his men. It was him who raged for hours with the Canterbury coaches about William’s omission from the Canterbury team for a game last year. The comment was made that “Sonny has never been dropped in his career”. True, but SBW has never played for the world’s best team, fighting for a place against one of the world’s top players, one who has fought back from his own disappointments to cement his place in the All Blacks. No player holds his place by right, especially in the All Blacks.

Anthony Mundine is probably Australia’s most disliked sportsman, despite his obvious skills in both league and boxing. Unfortunately, Mundine, or the Man, appears to be SBW’s guru, with Sonny Bill following Mundine’s conversion to Islam and dabbling in the boxing ring (to be fair to Mundine, he has had a very successful fight career, including winning the Super middleweight WBA belt twice). Unlike SBW, who has always been respectful when speaking to the media, Mundine is outspoken. He said that 9/11 was warranted due to America’s role in the Islamic world and always complained that he was deprived representative honours in rugby league because he is Aboriginal (ironically, rugby league is probably the Australian sport that is most supportive of Aboriginal people. If you don’t believe that, look at Australian cricket that has had very few players of Aboriginal descent). 

Does Mundine have Sonny Bill's ear?
Williams is his own man. But Mundine does seem to have William’s ear which troubles me. Recently, Mundine is what is he saying to Sonny Bill about not being the first choice for the All Blacks.

“Why the hell ain't the all blacks playing SBW ... I think it's crazy???he one of the best if not the best backs in game!!!is there an agenda???"
"Fans wanna see SBW?? and the centres now are both good but they ain't no Sonny ... seriously there is knowbody betta ...he revolutionized rugby”
"Nonu and smith both class players but come on peeps they not on the same level as SBW”
Twitter posts made after he was left out of the All Blacks squad.

Maybe this is Mundine’s way of supporting his stable mate. If so, so be it. But the comments concern me on two levels. First of all, Mundine may be filling William’s with thoughts that he has been unjustly treated. And that is really not the case. To be fair, he probably should have been given a start against either the Springboks or the Wallabies at home early this year. He made little impact coming on as a replacement in those games and in his only test start in 2011, albeit in a weakened All Black side, he failed to shine. Ma’a Nonu’s form at the business end of the Super 15 and in the early internationals this year has been so compelling that there is no way Williams deserves a place ahead of him. Second of all, the talk of an agenda worries me. It clearly can’t be a racial one. While SBW is of Samoan descent, so is Nonu. At least ten players in the New Zealand World Cup squad are Polynesian. The agenda can’t be because of the ongoing contract negotiations or else SBW would surely have been given more than one start. The agenda remains unclear to me; unless the agenda is to sideline the first Muslim All Black which I don’t believe for a second.

Ma'a Nonu: William's AB rival and probably the best 12 in the world at the moment.
What William’s needs to do is recapture the form that has deserted him in recent times. He needs to attack the line with the intent to break it, not just attack the line so he can off-load the ball. Recently, he seems willing to take the ball into contact rather than really back himself to break the line. People point to the fact that he topped the list of All Blacks players attending rucks and mauls in the last test he played against the Springboks. As admirable as this is, it isn’t his core job. His core job is to make tackles and break the line to set up those outside him. He needs to get back to what he does best. Others point out that he needs to play more rugby union. I would point to over 50 top level matches for Toulon, Canterbury, the Crusaders and the All Blacks and say that he has had enough time to get his head around the game.

Sports players sometimes need to stick to basics or pay the price for it. For example, Muttiah Muralitharan, the outstanding Sri Lankan off-spinner, developed a doosra, a ball that spins opposite to the way it appears it should, the equivalent of a leg spinner’s googly. By developing this ball, he had to change the way he bowled his stock delivery. His off spinner now had to be bowled much closely to middle stump for the doosra to be effective. It meant that it negated to a certain extent his ability to get wickets with his stock ball, a big, turning off spinner and it became easier for batsmen to pick off singles, as his line strayed more often onto a batsmen’s pads. The doosra probably reduced his ability to take out top-order, quality batsmen but increased his ability to dismiss lower order batsmen. 
Muralitharan:Evolution probably slightly diminished his game.
His rival, Shane Warne, from Australia, went through a slump mid-career but came back strongly. By the end of his career, he only had two balls, a leg-spinner and a straight ball (he said he had several variations of this ball but I doubt that). By sticking to basics, he bowled as well as he ever did, despite the fact that he didn’t have the leg spinner’s classic other deliveries, the googly (Warne’s googly was always poor and he only really bowled it to lower order batsmen) or the flipper (Warne did have one of the best flippers of all time but it became less effective after shoulder surgery). The comparison of the two can be used to show that basics are often best.
Another thing I feel is holding SBW back is his famous off-loading ability. He now looks for the off-load before breaking the line, as if fans will be disappointed if he didn’t get a couple of miracle off-loads away per game. I compare it to Jonah Lomu, who shot to fame after scoring that memorable try against the English in 1995, where he trampled Mike Catt in the process. The problem with that was that he saw, and people saw, how easy it was for him to just steamroll players. It meant he often took to just trying to run over opponents rather than try to beat them with his footwork (which was great for such a big man). The thing that he was famous for damaged and limited his game to a certain extent. I fear the same is happening with Sonny Bill.
The moment that changed Jonah's life forever.
Returning to league may be his best option (he can return to the NRL in 2013). It suits his style of play better than union, he can put in those big shoulder charges in league which are illegal in union and his attacking game is not negated by him helping out at ruck and maul time. The off-load is more of an attacking weapon in league where teams only have 6 tackles to break the line. Union players can be more patient in the lead-up to a try. I hope that SBW will resign with the NZRU as his presence in New Zealand is very beneficial to the game here. When he is on form, he is a fan favourite and he would push hard for a starting spot. At present, he is no-where near Nonu and will struggle to find a place on the bench, given his surprisingly lack of impact off the bench for both the All Blacks and Crusaders this year, and the fact that he can only really play at 12. SBW needs to know that there is no agenda at play, just for the first time in his career, he is not the best man for the job. How he fights for it will be his legacy in New Zealand rugby. 

Sunday, 4 September 2011


When you are travelling around India, you are surrounded by people, going about their business (often literally). It’s not until you step back that you notice that most of the people you see walking around are men, a gender bias especially visible in the more rural parts of India, like Rajasthan. Women are there but they are often observers, rather than equal members of society, hidden behind doors and colourful veils. For a land known for the Kama Sutra, public life in many parts of India is distinctly non-sexual, conservative rather than erotic, tedious rather than tantric.

There are still flashes of sex in India- a topless women carrying water down the street in Jhansi, secret smiles shared on a train and the sculptures on the temples of Khajuraho. The town of Khajuraho has made its name on the back of its famous temples that have statues depicting sexual activities and lustful behaviour. The temples serve as a fine example of medieval Hindu and Jain architectural styles with depictions of royalty and deities, plants and animals but no-one comes here for the architecture. The crowds are here to see the famed erotic sculptures that make up about 10% of the total number of sculptures on the temples.

Temple at Khajuraho.
It seems all orientations and fetishes were embraced here, man on woman, woman on woman, man on man and even man on horse are shown in the statues. All of the women have large breasts and broad hips, men are generously endowed. The figures jut out from their sandstone monuments, seductively going about their everyday business, washing their hair, playing games, putting on make-up, farming, making pottery and of course, making love. The temples are sometimes mistakenly called the Kama sutra temples. This is misleading, as the statues do not appear inside any of the temples (who are dedicated to Hindu and Jain gods) nor do they follow the intricate positions seen in that book. Like so many ancient things, the point of the erotic sculptures may never be known.

Man seeking horse
Without the 22 remaining temples (85 were originally built), Khajuraho would be just another small, dusty, unmemorable Indian town. The temples were built by the Chandela dynasty between 950-1050 AD and abandoned by 1300 AD. The temples make the town and give many people a livelihood so the current residents must be thankful for their forebears who tried to upkeep the temples as best as they could. Even with their efforts, the complex was largely overgrown by jungle and date palm trees (who gave the town its name, khajur meaning date in Hindi) until the English started to clear the site in the 19th Century, a process accelerated after independence in 1947. Now, the site is all manicured lawn, ornamental trees and flowerbeds.

Am I too late for the orgy?
20,000 people call the town home which makes it a nice size to explore, either on foot or by bike. One morning, I came across a group of buffalos wallowing in a mud-pit and later startled a mongoose as it just evaded my bike as it charged across the road. Another morning, I met a guy who took me to visit a school. The children were all very polite, although the school was rudimentary at best, small rooms made from mud walls with little in the way of equipment or teaching materials. The guy who brought me there seemed genuine but there are warnings that donations often go into the hands of teachers and principals, with not much going to the students or to the school. Hopefully, some of my small donation trickled down to the students.

Talking to the locals (or at least the men) was the same as everywhere in India. Half the town seemed to have an uncle who lives in Auckland and the other half had a brother who owned a restaurant where we could get a good deal. Here, instead of the usual postcards and knick-knacks, the touts sold Kama sutra playing cards, key rings with moveable penises, fridge magnets depicting sex acts. There is an air of desperation. The touts are pushy and it’s a little disconcerting to have a penis key-ring pushed into your face, said appendage then performing a robust sexual act. 30 identical souvenir shops fight for your custom, travel agents fight to sell you bus tickets. A “maybe later’ only encourages them to attack you more vehemently on your way past them later, as if ‘maybe later’ was a legal contract that you would look in their shop. Women give you flowers for “free” and then want a donation if you take them. Luckily, our hotel which was run by a nice Jain man had large, lovely gardens where you could go and relax with a book, away from the touts. If you were lucky, you might even see a pair of mongooses playing. That was a rare peaceful place in Khajuraho though. Sex sells and Khajuraho knows how to sell it.