Archive for the ‘ Silk Road ’ Category

Uzbekistan: Luster of the Earth; Journey to Samarkand and Bukhara


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.





abstract: This is a report on a journey that began with a love poem. In a widely recited stanza, Hafez, the 14th century Persian bard, had immortalized Samarkand and Bukhara as the ultimate gift a lover could bestow on his beloved. I went in search of those fabled cities. I found their ruins evocative and what was restored dazzling. They made me conjure up the fantastic history of the people who established the greatest civilization of the middle ages in these desert oases. Brushing up against the veneer of modern life, I could feel the pulsating traditional culture of Central Asia. Years of Russian and Communist domination had left surprisingly limited impact. I perceived a satisfying affinity with the many who received me warmly. It was almost as if I had gone home.

            keywords: Samarkand * Bukhara* Persia* Uzbekistan* Silk Road


Entrance (Madkhal)
On a warm morning in September 2005, I walked into Uzbekistan. On the street that connected the city of Osh, in the Kyrgyz Republic, to Andijan in Uzbekistan, pedestrians moved in a narrow marked lane. In a parallel lane on my left, our luggage was being pulled in a cart by a boy of about fourteen. On my other side, under the shade of a walnut tree, a woman who had a small child in her arms, was begging. There were other, older, women in this international corridor between the two cities which, according to Western press, were the centers of on-going revolutionary unrest. Those women, however, were not agents provocateurs. They were privileged agents of commerce in import and export; in these Islamic lands, women enjoyed certain immunity from body search at the border, denied to men.  I saw no signs of “the radical Islamic” Kyrgyz Tahrir party, or Uzbek revolutionaries. Instead, the sidewalks near the border were lined with peddlers of melons and watermelons. Reality has many faces; here I have only registered my impressions.

The Silk Road and Beyond
I was on the fabled Silk Road, as the West began to call it in the 19th Century, or rather one of its tributaries, the Royal Road as the locals now called it. It did not have any specific name when it was the superhighway of globalization, connecting China to the rest of the old civilized world, for over a millennium before the Portuguese ushered in the new age of sea trade with the Orient in the 15th century. Tourists are trickling in now that these former Soviet republics of Central Asia are open as independent countries. They are enticed by the promise of a look at the splendor of the Middle Ages -and, intriguingly, a look through a tinted post-Communist window.

I had a more particular interest as well. This land was the cradle of many Persian poets and scientists. The Persian Islamic civilization reached its zenith here in the middle ages. For Hafez, the most popular of Persian poets, Samarkand and Bukhara were God’s greatest gifts. As he wrote in the 14th century, “If that Shirazi Turk captures my heart/ I would give Samarkand and Bukhara for her Indian mole (dark beauty mark).” The journey to these ancient cities would give me a unique opportunity for reflection about my Persian heritage. Indeed, it exposed a web of relationships between Persia and Uzbekistan which I shall report presently.

“Assalam aleikum,” I said to our local tour guide. Ayoob (some names and facts are changed here to protect privacy) did not merely acknowledge my greetings, he distinguished me from the rest of our group from the West which was now his charge. Having learned that I spoke Persian, he pegged me as Iranian and introduced me as such to the curator of the first monument we visited, just twenty minutes after our arrival in Uzbekistan. The lady at the Babur Memorial Library was pleased. The highlights of her collection included documents on loan from the Archives of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As I soon realized, however, she could not read those documents which were in Arabic script as they used Roman script in Uzbekistan. She did manage to link the names of Babur and Shah Ismail Safavid of Iran with an appreciative smile. The latter, a Turk himself, vanquished the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty which had driven the Mongol Timurid Babur from this land. Babur, of course, was lucky, as he went on to establish the Mughol dynasty in India. My memory was already being challenged on the complicated history of these areas.

History, however, was a necessary context for my true appreciation of what would otherwise have appeared mere mundane. That fact would, in turn, color my observations in Uzbekistan. Reflecting on the contemporary reality I would often be drawn to the imaginary realm of the past. This shuttling characterized my experience in the journey.

At lunch near the Babur Library we were introduced to the Uzbek noodle dish, laghman, and the beef kebab, shashlik, which became our staple for the duration. Pilav (Russian for pilaf) was harder to get, although it was the true national dish. “Ash,” as pilav was called by the locals, is so fundamental a food in this country that their word for restaurant is ash-khaneh (the house of ash). The same word plays an equally significant role in the Persian cuisine where the term for cooking is ash-pazi (cooking ash).

We were eating under a canopy of grapevines. Ayoob said that the music we were hearing was from a wedding at the other side of the restaurant and asked us if we wanted to take a look. We did, and a group of young women, who were dancing separately, Persian style, invited us to join them. I said mobarak (congratulations) to the older guests. They beamed and replied with many more words which, alas, I could not comprehend. I would soon learn that here people understood my Persian more than I understood their vernacular.

Andy’s Yalla, not Eugene Onegen
We paid two dollars each to see the inside of the Tashkent Opera and Ballet Theater, a 1947 Soviet brick structure, combining classical and Central Asian styles. In the auditorium that seats 1,400, a singer accompanied by a pianist was rehearsing. The season’s program, posted at the entrance, included Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegen and Verdi’s Rigoletto operas, and Sergei Radlov’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. The ticket for a performance was 60 cents. “It is cheap because this type of entertainment is not popular,” a grimacing Ayoob explained. “What is popular,” someone asked, “Disco?” Ayoob smiled faintly and nodded. A few days later, in Bukhara, the hotel receptionist Murad asked me, ”Do you listen to Andy a lot?” He was helping me access my email on the hotel computer, patiently clicking for the modem to connect. “Who is Andy?” Murad was surprised. “He is Iranian and lives in California. He is the most popular singer in Bukhara.” Then he asked if I wanted to listen to Andy’s songs: “I have a CD of him on file in this computer.” He brought it up. The modem was now connected too. I listened to Andy sing Yalla, an Arabic tune, while I read my email.

Claiming the Luminaries
Alisher Navoi is a big name in Uzbekistan. The country’s most prestigious performing arts center is named after Navoi, which suits him, for he was a major 15th century patron of artists -poets, writers, and painters. He could do this because he was the trusted advisor of the Sultan of Herat (Afghanistan).  Navoi’s most famous beneficiary was Abdolrahman Jami, who is the last major figure in classical Persian poetry. The lobby of Tashkent’s Alisher Navoi Literary Museum was dominated by a sculpture of these two in precisely that relationship, Navoi looking very much the benefactor. A sign said that the sculpture depicted the “unity” of the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, the two main ethnic groups in Uzbekistan. Alisher Navoi, who was himself an accomplished poet in Persian, is considered to be the father of Uzbek literature for his poems in the Chagatai (Old Uzbek) language. Calling Jami a Tajik, however, is a stretch. He was born in Torbat-e Jam, Khorasan (Iran).

In search of further explanation, I went to the small gift shop of the Museum. They had no books or pamphlets to sell except, incongruously, at the price of a dollar, a free poster issued by the United States Embassy, entitled: “Rodeo in American West”. I had noticed another aspect of this free enterprise system in the corridors of the Museum: its employees were peddling necklaces, earrings, and other trinkets for their personal accounts. “It is not legal, but the Director closes his eyes,” Ayoob explained. I was left to discuss the Jami-Tajik question with Ayoob. I told him that I had thought the term Uzbek, which originally referred to the Arab invaders, by the 11th century had come to mean the Islamicized, Persian-speaking people, as contrasted with the Turkic population of this area. Ayoob did not disagree.

Persian poetry, like that of Jami, has always been enjoyed by the Tajiks and all others who could understand it. Indeed, from the 10th century Persian was the literary language of not only the Tajiks but also the Turks and Mongols in Central Asia. It was the language of the court in Uzbekistan until the Russian domination in the 20th century. In the Ulug Beg Observatory, I saw the New Guragan Tables (Ziji Kuragoni), which is a most cherished part of Uzbekistan’s heritage. It was in Persian. However, to claim Ulug Beg, the Mongol astronomer king of Samarkand, as Persian would also be a stretch.

To reach his lofty height, Ulug Beg had stood on the shoulders of such past Central Asian giants of mathematics and astronomy as al-Khorezmi, al-Beruni, Avicenna, and al-Fergani (mentioned here just by their last names). As our tour bus whizzed by, I made out al-Fergani’s name on the monument to him in his birthplace of Kuva in Ferghana Valley. Uzbekistan also honors Avicenna by a modest museum in his birthplace of Afshona near Bukhara. I saw big statues of al-Khorezmi in Bukhara and near his birthplace, Urgench. Al-Beruni’s face and name are marked prominently on the portal of Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum, along with all of the other aforementioned luminaries, and more: Farabi and Rudaki.

As I read aloud all these names for my fellow travelers from the West, they looked baffled. I sympathized with them; to me this resembled my being in a Greek church looking at some gothic script that purported to list the names of ancient saints. The faces of the notables on the Afrosiob Museum did not help much either; they were all bearded and had turbans.  My conversationalists were not unsophisticated or disinterested -for then they would not be on this trip. “Al-Khorezmi,” however, was a mouthful even if you knew that he invented algorithm, which is his namesake. “Avicenna” was the “Europeanized” version of the original, ibn-Sina, but still it was hardly a household name in the West, even though his Qanun had been the standard medical textbook there for half a millennium until the 19th century. As for “Farabi,” how many Westerners could recall the name of this greatest of all Muslim philosophers who was the channel for transmitting the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle to the modern world?

In the East, on the other hand, these luminaries are remembered only too well; they are the sources of conflicting claims of heritage. Competing with Uzbekistan, Iran considers them the products of the Persian renaissance in the 10th century, when Bukhara blossomed into “the focus of splendor, the Ka’ba of empire, the meeting place of the stars of the literary men of the world, the forum for the outstanding personage of the time” -in the language of the contemporary anthologist Ta’alebi.  I saw some of that splendor manifest in Ismael Samani’s Mausoleum which is Bukhara’s oldest, yet best preserved monument. Built early in the 10th century, the Mausoleum is decorated by the sheer beauty of it brickwork, breathtakingly elegant in complex patterns. This monument to aesthetics is a masterpiece also in combining the early Persian Sogdian and Sassanid architectural elements with contemporary advances in geometry. It became a magnificent template of a building that was emulated for centuries.

Ismael Samani was the founder of the Samanid dynasty that ruled in Bukhara for a hundred years. Both they and the luminaries who made that period Iran’s “Golden Century” were from Persian families and spoke Persian. Rudaki is considered to be “the founding father” of Persian poetry. However, the scientists Farabi, Avicenna, and Beruni mostly wrote in Arabic -because it was the official language of the realm, and the creation of Persian as a technical language was still taking shape. That fact has given the Arabs a reason to also claim these luminaries. How does one resolve the dispute that follows when several nations assert an exclusive right to the legacy of these men? The only solution may be to describe them as the heritage of (all) humanity, to paraphrase UNESCO’s appellation given to so many monuments in Uzbekistan.

Monumental Samarkand
We came to Samarkand by bus and entered into the shapelessly cavernous lobby of the Hotel Afrosiob Palace. The labyrinthine corridor to my room was so long that the bellboy who was carrying my bags had ample opportunity to make his pitch. “I could bring two young girls to you to choose from. I would knock on your door at eleven. It would be only forty dollars.”

Registan, where in medieval times caravans arrived from six directions was behind our hotel. We faced the boulevards that the Russians had built and their Lenin Square, on the site of Tamerlane’s fabled Blue Palace. Since Independence in 1991, the Uzbeks had reclaimed the right to name this turf: it was now Ko’ksaroy Maydoni (Blue Palace Circle). Nearby, a new monumental statute of this 14th century Mongol ruler was just one sign that he was back with vengeance. Limited to the title of Amir (Commander, not Khan) in life- as he was not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan-, seven centuries later Tamerlane was being referred to in Uzbekistan by his quaint moniker Sahibkiran (one born at the conjunction of two lucky stars).

Indeed, this was one lucky person -shrewd, illiterate but highly intelligent- who went from rustling sheep and raiding caravans to conquering more land than any single ruler in history. For thirty five years Tamerlane personally led his troops in non-stop campaigns in foreign lands. His ruthless cruelty became legendary even at a time and place where drinking your enemy’s blood was not uncommon. “Stalin hated Temur,” our guide said -pronouncing Tamerlane’s name in his native language, where it meant “iron”. I searched in vain for irony in the guide’s voice. The Soviet “man of steel” was in a pivotal position as early as 1924 when he was the Commissar of Nationalities. “Our history book only had one line about Temur,” the guide summed up.

The fabulous wealth and the captive craftsmen that Tamerlane brought back made Samarkand the world’s most magnificent city of his time -which was also Hafez’s time. The magnitude of this accomplishment could be measured by the observation of the famous Arab traveler, Ebn Batuta, who had found Samarkand mostly in ruins, just a few years before Tamerlane. “One-half of the booty from Temur’s Indian campaign went to build the Bibi Khanum Mosque,” Ayoob told us. The architect was from Persia. In another rare Tamerlane building which has survived, the Shirin Bika Aks Mausoleum, we saw the earliest true mosaic timeworks in Samarkand which was introduced by artisans from Iran’s Azerbaijan.

It is not surprising that the most illustrious booster of Tamerlane and his city is Uzbekistan’s current President who says: “I was lucky to be born and (sic) grown up in the city of Samarkand. I was surrounded by its heritage, reflecting the great Amir Temur’s genius…. I lived in the shadow of historical monuments that made a valuable contribution to global civilization.” The President’s campaign to glorify Temur is, unabashedly, an effort toward nation-building. “When our country became independent, the personality of Amir Temur again became the symbol of Motherland and the nation.”

People in Samarkand apparently believe in another myth. The holiest site in the city is the gourkhanah (grave chamber) of Kusam-ibn-Abbas in the ensemble of Shah-i-Zinda. The worshipers believe that this cousin of the Prophet Mohammad came to Samarkand in the 7th century to convert the native Zoroastrians to Islam. Beheaded by resentful locals, “he took his head and went into a well and has continued to live there as shah-i zinda, or the living king,” our guide said.  “People here believe that he is the second prophet of Islam,” the guide went on “I had some clients from Tripoli who upon hearing this said to me ‘this is not Islam.’”

Indeed, Kusam probably never visited Samarkand. The Muslims appear to have adapted an existing Zoroastrian myth. “Kusam went down the same place in Shah-i-Zinda that was Siavash’s cave,” our guide said, referring to a mythical figure from pre-Islamic Persia. As related in the great Persian epic poem, Ferdusi’s Shahnameh, Siavash was an Iranian prince who married the daughter of Samarkand’s ruler. Their son, Kaykhosrow, became Iran’s king but abdicated to go and meditate in a cave. By Zoroastrian tradition, he will emerge on resurrection day to cleanse the world of evil. Zoroastrians believe that a cave near Arak, Iran, by the same name, Shah-e Zendah, is Kaykhosrow’s cave. It is regularly visited by Zoroastrians pilgrims.

Further undermining Uzbekistan’s current glorification of Tamerlane is the fact that the glamorous buildings of Samarkand which are still standing were all built after Tamerlane. His grandson contributed one of the Registan monuments, the Ulug Beg Madrassah, as well as the Ulug Beg Observatory. Registan’s two other monuments were commissioned by the Uzbeks after they ended the Timurids’ rule.

Aside from the Koranic verses which had to be in Arabic, all writings on Samarkand’s monuments were in Persian. Tamerlane himself spoke fluent Persian, as did his Timurid successors and the Shaybanid who followed them. The center of power shifted to Bukhara, and Samarkand was then ruled from there. The 1912 issue of the newspaper Bukhara Sharif, which I saw in the Bukhara museum, was virtually in today’s Persian vernacular. The very names of Registan’s two Uzbek Madrassahs are Persian: Tila-kary (Gilded) and Shir-dor (Having Lions). Our guide pointed out that these 17th century monuments had the same design patterns as the early ones, playing on the three elements permissible in Islam: epigraphic, geometric, and floral. Additionally, however, they had pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbols. In the Shir-dor this was dramatic. From the back of the lions on its portal rose the emblematic Persian fringed suns with human faces.

The Sogdians
I stood on the ruins of the ancient city of Afrosiob, squinting. In the glare of the sun, the sprawling structures dating from the 6th century B.C. -which would become Samarkand- were now mostly acres of dry loess with patches of green scrubs, some turned brown in this autumn season. There were huge cuts caused by ravines and archeologists. Only the outline of the citadel’s walls, settled into the earth, was visible. It was history that beckoned me, for Afrosiob, the namesake of this site was the ruler of Turan (outer Iran), made legendary in the Shahnameh.  The people who then lived here were the Sogdians, whose abode was honored in the Zoroastrian sacred book Avesta as “the second among the best localities and countries” created by the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda. Sogdiana was, in fact, a satrapy established here by the Persian Achaemenids after the campaign that began by their great king, Cyrus, against the marauding Sakas (Sycthians)in 530 B.C.. In this land, in that pursuit, Cyrus gave his life.

For our knowledge about the Sogdians we owe much to the Russian archeologists. I saw their finds in the Afrosiob History Museum a few steps away. There, statutes of Anahita introduced her as the water goddess of the nearby Amu Darya (Oxus River). Greek style knives and swords showed the legacy of Alexander’s conquest in 329 B.C.. The Sogdians left their own impact. Their armed resistance halted the Greeks. To pacify them, Alexander married the Sogdian Roxana from Tashkent. She gave birth to his only son.

The Sogdians thrived in peaceful times. They were a vital link in the exchange of goods and ideas along the Silk Road. They remained Zoroastrian but received in their midst the followers of other religions: Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, Nestorian, and Buddhism. The Sogdians were pivotal as the channel for the transmission of Buddhism to China from the Kushans in India.

Thus it was with awe that I walked before a series of magnificent 7th century Sogdian murals, more than six feet high, that covered a circular room in the Museum. A bridal procession depicted a princess astride a white elephant who led several maids, camel-riders, horsemen, and swans. The ruler of Samarkand was in another panel, accepting offerings from foreigners: Chinese with gifts of silk, Turks with long hair, Koreans with pigtails, and villagers from the mountain of Pamir. In the next frame was a Chinese beauty sailing in a boat and, on the banks of the water, several horsemen hunting a leopard.

The Sogdians would soon face the crusading Arabs. They fought these invaders valiantly for nearly a century, with the help of the Turks and the Chinese, before the battle of Talas in 751 sealed the domination of Islam in this region. Their cause, however, would not die; it was rekindled some twenty-five years later in one of the world’s earliest partisan warfare, the rebellion of the colorful sapid-jamagan (wearers of white) which lasted three years.

Alta-noi and Promises
It was dawn in Bukhara. The sun had not yet risen but the moon of the 14th night of the month was shining full, unveiled and unclouded. The old town was empty. I noticed a dog. Near it, two men were slaughtering a sheep in the shadow of ancient domes; I could see the blood running from the beast’s throat. A hundred yards away the stores were opening. Outside a grocery store there were sacks of carrots and onions as well as the ubiquitous watermelons and yellow melons. Next, on a raised step, jars of yogurt and milk were on display; two women and a man were picking up some. A boy had just brought loaves of fresh round bread. On the other side, I noticed a girl spreading her goods on the sidewalk. They were mostly ceramics. I walked up to her.

I smiled and asked her name. “Alta-noi,” she said. We talked a bit. I asked how old she was. “What do you think?,” she asked. “Twenty?” I said hesitantly; she had sounded mature. “No, thirteen,” she protested. Alta-noi told me that she had started selling postcards when she was 5, and now owned this business. “Do you go to school?” I asked.  “Second shift,” she said, “and when I am at school, my mother watches over my business.” I asked what her father did. “He sells water.” Alta-noi told me that she spoke Uzbek, Tajik, English, Russian, French, Spanish, and German. “Not Iranian,” she said. I said “I want you to make a promise: stay in school and go to university because you are so smart.”  Her response was matter of fact: “of course”. She asked me what other languages I spoke. “Some French,” I said.  “Comment vous-applez vous?” Alta-noi asked. I told her my name. She complained about tour groups.  “Tour guide brings them to favorite shops for a percentage.” She gave me a small ceramic bowl as a gift. It was blue. “This is washable, the red is not.” I declined. She insisted, looking hurt. I took the bowl, and presented her with some dollar bills. Alta-noi frowned and did not take them. I said “my gift.” She still refused. Then she said “bring your group.”

I left the bowl with Alta-noi, saying that I would pick it up after my walk. When I came back, she picked the bowl up and handed it to me and again said “Bring your group.” I promised to do that. Later that day, we all came back this way. Alta-noi called out my name, followed by four other girls about her age who also shouted my name. They were all selling souvenirs and they made me promise that I would stop by their spaces on the sidewalk, each establishing her priority: “I am 2nd, Keyvan,” “I am 3rd, Keyvan,” “I am 4th, Keyvan,” all after Alta-noi.

Dinner at Abdolrahman’s
Two tourists whom I had met earlier that day were sitting at a store and talking to a young man. They told me that they were going to dinner at his mother’s house where they were promised pilov. “You can come too and the price is four dollars.” Abdlorahman, the young man, agreed to come later and fetch me from my hotel.

That evening I bought a bottle of the local red wine, Omar Khayyam, and walked with Abdolrahman through the streets of old Bukhara. We talked in English and Persian. We saw a man in front of a hotel. “Khasteh nabashid, (may you not be tired),” he said.  I said “you must be Iranian; that is surely a Persian expression, not Tajik.” He was indeed, and he owned the hotel and invited me to come back for tea after dinner.

Resuming my conversation with Abdolrahman, I learned that he was studying international commerce and wanted to become a tour guide because he would make much more money than in other jobs. I asked about his family. He said his sister had just “sabok kardeh ast” (lightened her burden) which I understood to mean she delivered her baby as Abdolrahman was pointing to an imaginary bulging stomach.  I said “in Persian we say zaeed” (delivered). We were now passing through Bukhara’s old hat bazaar, full of karakul fur hats and gold embroidered skull-caps. A shopkeeper, hearing our conversation, interjected to say that zaeed was used for animals and sabok kardeh ast for humans.

We went into Abdolrahman’s house which was in a narrow alley and I met his mother. Several other members of the family arrived later but did not join us. The table was set for the three guests in a brick-floor courtyard surrounded by one story buildings. Abdolrahman served us. We had ash (pilov), tomato and cucumber salad, eggplant salad, and cabbage salad. For desert there was fruit: green and red grapes and kharbozeh (a crunchy melon).

After we finished dinner, Abdolrahman’s brother-in-law, Umid, came up to me. He spoke nearly fluent Persian. He said he was a tarjoman (interpreter). Both his in-laws expressed great pride in his ability to speak several languages which included Spanish and Russian as well as English and Persian. He said Persian was zaban madari (the mother tongue) of all present. He explained that until the end of the last “Amir’s” rule, in Bukhara many could speak much better Persian.

In Umid’s vernacular, the pre-Russian “Amir” sounded avuncular, in contrast to the name “Khan,” preferred in Western texts for the past rulers of this region which conveyed an almost prurient image of an Oriental despot. In fact, Umid’s history was correct. The Magits who were the actual rulers of Bukhara kept the Jamids as the nominal Khans, while choosing for themselves the title of amir al-mo’menin (the leader of the community of faithful).

Umid was a Tajik. He said the language of people in Samarkand was similar to the language spoken in Tajikistan, while the language people spoke in Bukhara was closer to that of Mashad in Iran. “Tajikistan was called Bukara-e Shargi (Eastern Bukhara) under the Amir,” Umid said. “Since then many words, especially Russian words, have entered the Tajik language,” he continued. Nevertheless, Abdolrahman’s family told me, they could all understand my Persian even though they could not speak it well.

They spoke with warmth when talking about their sense of connection to Iran, and with a bit of nostalgia. I said we were baradar (brothers). They said yes, baradar. Umid told me that “many Iranians came here with Nader Shah Afshar in the 18th century when he took Bukhara. They settled in Afshar Mahalleh, still a thriving district of this city.” Nader was the last ruler of Iran to control Bukhara. Two centuries later, in the early days of Uzbekistan’s independence in the 1990s, Umid said, “many Iranian students came to Bukhara. They helped us with our Persian. But now the government does not allow in students from Iran.” The Uzbek rulers fear the spread of Iranian Islamic militancy.

Ayoob had also told me about Iranians “who moved to Samarkand during the Nader Shah period. There were 20,000 of them. They are all professionals now. Their ‘passport’ (identity card that all Uzbek citizens carry) says ‘Iranian.’ They don’t intermarry with others because of their religion.” Elsewhere, I had heard of a still different settling of Iranians in Uzbekistan: a group of Shiites who were moved from Marv to Bukhara some 50 years after Nader Shah. What all these conflicting narratives had in common was, of course, the element of religion.

Abdolrahman’s family referred to Bukhara as Bukhara Sharif (Holy Bukhara). Umid helped correct his in-laws’ recitation of the following in accented Persian:

“Bukhara ghovvat-e isalm-e deen ast
Bukhara is the strength of the Islamic religion

Samarkand seyqal roy-e zamin-e ast.
Samarkand is the luster of the earth.”

Their chanting resonated with me, stressing that religion was the key to understanding Bukhara, and Bukhara’s relationship with Persia. Until the Soviet suppression of religion, Bukhara had been the stronghold of Sunni Islam in Central Asia for more than six centuries. Religion furnished the rationalization for violent confrontation with the Shiite-dominated Persia. The Uzbek campaigns of plunder into Iran’s Khorasan were sanctioned by the Sunni jurists of Bukhara in the guise of religious duty against the infidel Shiites, as was the Uzbek practice of taking Persian civilians captive and selling them in slavery in Bukhara -where the majority was still comprised of their ethnic brothers, the Tajiks. What appears as an internecine problem of many centuries in Central Asia was in reality a fight between alien Turkic rulers of its inhabitants, in the name of an equally alien religion from Arabia.

Sense and Sensibility
Liam had been working in Saudi Arabia for more than two years and when I pointed out the beauty of Uzbek women -Muslims who did not cover their faces- Liam’s eyes widened in wonderment. “You know,” he said “not to see a woman’s face is one of the worst aspects of living in Dhahran.” This was a comment on esthetics; Liam, a married man from the United Kingdom, was very correct and restrained in his manners. No one had ever before communicated to me, so effectively, this particular sense of deprivation inflicted by the Islamic veil. The old Uzbek version of the hejab had been removed by the Soviets and it had not returned to the places we visited. Indeed, what made Uzbek women attractive was their free interaction with men. Far from being shy, they were outgoing. The ones I encountered often laughed easily. Theirs was an open laughter; it almost made their eyes laugh too.

In Khiva, a street vendor had a gallery of little dolls, all pinned on a board. It occurred to me that, together, they depicted the female ideal in the Uzbek culture. In most the hair was black, the eyes were light and large, the lips small, and the cheekbones high. They were all dressed in traditional costumes. Although Russians have long lived and intermarried here, there were no blonde or Eurasian dolls. I imagined that I had met and talked to various ethnic types presented on that tableau: Tayyareh, the street peddler in Margilan who was tall, with a long face, dark eyebrows and sensuous lips (a Kyrgyz?);  the fortune teller Zarnegar, with almond-shaped eyes, olive skin, and a penetrating expression when she told me about the recent death of her young husband in an accident (a Tajik?); Madana, the ambitious travel executive from Tashkent, with a round face and round eyes (an Uzbek?); and the playful fruit seller in Khiva with narrow eyes and a mischievous smile (a Turkmen?).

Firuzeh, an Uzbek girl of 19, and her two friends came up to me when we were at the top of Tamerlane’s Ak Serai (White Palace) in Shakhrisabz. “Mister, how old are you,” she asked; she was practicing her English. She was a student and wore Western clothes. Below us, in the park around a huge statue of Tamerlane, there were about forty wedding parties, strolling as if being presented to the community. I asked Firuzeh if she belonged to any of them. “Yes,” she said, and she took me to her cousin the bride. The bride wore white and the groom black. They looked so serious, as did the other young newlyweds there. Their slow procession was led by three young men in casual outfits, two playing the drums and one a long horn. “As the wedding gift,” Ayoob had told me, “the groom gives the bride forty dresses, several quilts, and two sandoog storage boxes.”

The Russians I met in Uzbekistan were not striking n appearance except for one, a haughty statuesque hostess on a domestic flight who ignored Ayoob’s complaint about his broken seat belt. Then there was Julie Christy. That was not her real name and she was not from Uzbekistan. The name was given to her by the border guards in Turkmenistan as she looked like the famous actress, even though in reality she was a tourist from Manitoba. My group preferred to call her “the Cleavage at the Pond.” For it was her cleavage in her black dress -in contrast to the modest style of the local women- which caught our attention when we first saw her at the Bolo Hauz (Near the Pond) Mosque in Bukhara.

To her credit, Julie had avoided the other current fashion statement from the West, the exposed mid-riff. She was smart. She was a scientist traveling with another young woman. The two of them were traversing the whole length of the old Silk Road by themselves. She loved to travel, needless to say, but I probed for the reason. She deflected my question with a laugh, “I will continue to travel until I find a husband.”  Julie’s dress merely matched her bold joie vivre. The Uzbeks seemed pleased with her presence; she mingled freely among them. No place was off limits or too dangerous for her. She was disrobing Bukhara!

Exoticism of Underdevelopment
While tour groups were told about the highlights of Uzbekistan, the more adventurous solo travelers came to discover its quirks themselves. Tim had just journeyed by land from Afghanistan when I met him at the Lab-i Hauz (By the Pond) café where Bukhara relaxed. The water was lined with old mulberry trees and, in the crimson of the dusk, it reflected the ornate portal of  of a nearby 17th century Sufi khanegah. Some men were sitting cross-legged on the carpeted takht (wooden platforms), drinking tea, and playing nard (backgammon). We chose the plastic chairs and table and ordered the good local beer, Setareh. Hovering over us was a statute of Khodja Nasradin, the fool-savant of the Turco-Persian world, seemingly smirking at the neighboring gaudy sculpture of camels which was erected for the benefit of the European tourists.

“The biggest groups are French and German who come to see the Silk Road, or Seidenstrasse, a name which was coined by the German explorer Richthofen in 1877,” Ayoob had told us. It was the replacement of those caravan roads by the sea routes to the Orient in the 16th century which had disconnected the landlocked Uzbekistan from the new vital centers of civilization. The oases of Bukhara and Samarkand then succumbed to stagnation and regression as Europe prospered and developed.

The emergence of the “underdeveloped world” in this region is a story of profound significance for our times. It remains to be told. After the Spanish Ambassador R.G. Clavijo reported on his visit to Tamerlane’s Samarkand in 1404, and Anthony Jenkinson reported on his trip to Bukhara in 1558 as the envoy for Russia, no European came this way until the “Great Game” era in the late 18th century. The object of that “Game” for Russia – one “player”- was imperial expansion southward, while for the other “player” -Britain- it was resisting Russian expansion as it threatened British India. The spies these Great Powers sent to this long-forgotten area brought back fantastic tales of local khans and their fabled cities, generating sensational interest in Europe. Tim, an Englishman, was reading the classic book on the subject, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. We both had just visited Bukhara’s old zindan (prison) where some of characters in that book had been held. Two days later, I saw Tim in Khiva, another major forum of the Great Game.

The Good Guide Ayoob
Ayoob was an ideal guide: knowledgeable, experienced, diligent, and articulate in English. His Soviet era education showed in the lexicon of his speech. Thus, he would say that Tamerlane’s military campaigns were “predatory,” while the Arab invasion was “ideological”, or that the Uzbeks played a significant role in the “Second Patriotic War”. He would tell us the “etymology” of the unfamiliar words in this “polyglot” country. I did not have to agree with him to accept that Ayoob -indeed even his shortcomings- reflected contemporary life in Uzbekistan. We spent eight days with him going to many sites in that vast country. I engaged him in private conversation innumerable times, especially on long bus rides through deserts when I sat close to him and asked questions.

Once, he let me know that I was asking too many questions, but he grew to accept my inquisitiveness. In fact, we became friends. He asked me to offer the toast at our group’s last dinner when he provided the wine. Later, while we were waiting for our last flight, Ayoob asked me to have a beer with him and told me about his personal plans for the future.

Our first encounter, however, was all business. Upon my arrival in Uzbekistan, he probed to see if I was interested in hiring him for an extended tour afterward. His reaction to my Persian heritage was ambiguous at first. He would introduce me to the museum guides, vendors, and ordinary people: in kas  as iron (this person is from Iran).  On one such occasion, in Samarkand, he then turned to me and said “you should be proud to be from Iran.” The next day, however, he was telling me about the Iranian Jews in a tour group from Israel. “The others in the group did not have high regards for them,” he said. “They were exceptional bargainers. The Jews are good anyway, but these Iranian also knew the language.” He pretended that this was a compliment but his smile betrayed otherwise. When he came to respect my interest in the history and culture of his country, he allowed himself to ask my help in confirming some of the things he was telling us. This was especially true when there was a Persian text on a monument in Arabic script. He was cut off from his heritage when the Cyrillic script replaced Arabic in Uzbekistan.

“My grandfather was Tajik and he lived in Samarkand,” Ayoob told us. “When the Soviets divided the old Turkistan on the basis of nationalities in the 1920s, he was told that if he wanted to continue living in Samarkand he had to declare Uzbek as his nationality. Otherwise, as a Tajik he had to move to Tajikistan. He chose to stay in Samarkand. There are many such Uzbeks in Samarkand who are really Tajiks.” Ayoob’s father married a Russian. “The Soviet time was my golden years,” Ayoob told me. As a young communist he went to a summer camp in Estonia where he met his wife who was attending from Lithuania. “She is Catholic,” he said. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion became important. Ayoob had a crisis of identity. “I went to protestant churches and I was encouraged by them to study,” Ayoob said. He attended a seminary for two years, but he did not become a cleric. Ayoob called himself a Protestant, but now he was more interested in improving his career.

“There are too many interpreters in Samarkand,” Ayoob said. He gave this as a reason for wanting to move to Tashkent, where “there are fewer.” Also, his daughter found Samarkand too provincial. “She could not meet boys here,” he said. “It is different in Tashkent.” Getting the necessary permits to live in Tashkent was not easy, Ayoob said. “It would cost me $10,000 to get the permits.”  The documents would be forged but they would do. Ayoob earned $1,000 a “season”. He first had to buy a place in Tashkent. He was not daunted.

Nor was he fazed by his nettlesome “clients.” He told me that he had learned to ignore unhappy tourists. Not everybody in our group was satisfied with Ayoob. I gave him a fanny bag which I had bought in China. He was thankful and wore it all the time. It broke after a few days.  “These Chinese products!” Ayoob said in disgust. I felt embarrassed. I decided to tip him more at the end of the trip. For me he had been a valuable window to this land.

Emerging Capitalism
“We don’t have any political problems in Uzbekistan,” Ayoob said when prodded by us about the unrest reported in the West. “We have economic problems. We need foreign investment.” A few minutes later, seemingly intending no connection, he announced that our driver had sum, the Uzbek currency, if we wished to exchange our U.S. dollars -which was the only foreign currency the Uzbeks would take. The rate that the driver offered was less favorable than the guidebooks advised these foreigner investors. We had just spent about 3 dollars each for a fairly substantial lunch and our already bulging luggage allowed no splurging on the equally cheap souvenirs.

These facts, however, did not overcome that particular frugality that seizes Western tourists when they contemplate exchanging their convertible currencies into local money. Some of us insisted on going to a bank. The branch of the government bank in Kokan which we finally found was protected like a medieval fort. We had to register our passports with the two guards who defended the entrance. Our business was unusual enough to cause a minor turmoil. Three clerks attended to our request and as their halting explanation of the required forms, the rate of exchange, and the limits on the amount of local currency available led to our utter confusion, a bank officer who could speak better English was requisitioned from the loan department.

We now understood that the bank could exchange no more than 400 dollars which we had to divide among the 12 of us. As we proceeded, each person’s name and the specific, varied, amount desired were entered by long hand in the bank’s ledger. Each dollar bill was carefully checked by the clerks, and any that was not crisp was rejected as potential counterfeit. The bundle of sums given to us was then counted by a volunteer group from among us and allocated appropriately.

In the midst of all this, our driver decided to discount his rate by 10% to match the bank’s rate. There was still another offer from a man who was identified as the teacher of English at the local high school. He would exchange our dollars at a value 5% more than the bank. “Why is he doing this, how could this make economic sense?” I asked Golbahar, the loan officer. She answered that he was “hedging on the much greater inflation rate in sum, which was 40% last year.” Unlike the teacher, she explained, the driver did not have the staying power to eventually reap this advantage over the much lower inflation rate in the US dollar. Golbahar told me that the bank loans which she approved for business customers bore the same different interests, 40% if in the sum, and 5% if in dollars. These loans required government guarantees or collateral, and averaged about $100,000.

Correspondingly, I did not see big private enterprises in Uzbekistan. In Richtan we visited what was perhaps typical of businesses that could succeed. Adelya who was painting a small ceramic cup which I then bought for 4 dollars, told me that her father, the famous artist Rustam Osmanov, established the shop in 1998 when he quit the big government-run ceramic store. This was still a family affair. Rustam was away exhibiting in his hometown of Gazan, Russia and his wife Nazirah was running the shop. “Working for hokoomat (government) pays very little,” I was told by a man who had left a job with the Bukhara airport authority to open a guest house. Another low-paid employee who stayed with the state-run Uzbekistan Airline, demanded and received a bribe of $30 at the Tashkent airport before checking my “overweight” luggage on the flight out of the country.

I saw cotton plantations that made the Ferghana Valley countryside lush, and pipelines of oil and gas that accentuated the monotony of the Kyzyl Kum desert. These and various minerals -gold, silver, uranium, copper, zinc and lead- are the sources of potentially fabulous wealth. They are also temptations for corruption. I asked Ayoob who was the richest person in Uzbekistan? He chuckled and said “the mafia.”

In the alleys of Bukhara’s Zargoran (Gold Jewelers) and Tilpak Furushan (Hat Sellers) bazaars, the traditional bourgeoisie that survived 70 years of communist rule stared me in the eyes.  [[Shopkeepers]]  reclined on carpeted benches behind their merchandise in small stores, arranged in rows of guilds selling the same products. This was the marketplace of the medieval urban population, the sarts. Looking less established were the covered stalls of the otherwise open market of perishable foods. In this bazaar individual vendors specialized but there was no guilds  separation: the fruit seller stood next to the produce seller whose neighbor, in turn, was the dairy peddler. The food markets were less organized in smaller cities. The Margilan bazaar was like a general market, where clothes were sold next to melons, and instead of stalls, the merchandise was spread on the ground.

Our regression toward the nomadic Uzbekistan was complete in Uyshun’s Dehqon Bazori (Farmers Bazaar) which we came upon on the road from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz. Here chaos ruled.Goods of all sorts and vintage useful for the simple life were traded by the locals who had parked their horses, donkey-driven arbas (carts), tractors, and occasional cars wherever they pleased. You could see how “bizarre” found its root in “bazaar”.

Back in the bus, we drove by the fences that marked the American air base, outside Khanabad. The planes were hidden behind the hills and we could only imagine guards in the distant observation towers. I saw no American in uniform. If fact, I noticed no American in Uzbekistan, other than the few in our group. The local communist leaders of this nation upon becoming the rulers of the newly independent Uzbekistan, in the early 1990s, had found it expedient to denounce the Russian “colonialists”. Capitalism was now their creed.

September 11, 2001 opened a new chapter in their relations with the United States. That was when the airbase was established. The warm embrace, however, did not last long. It was now the season of mutual suspicion and acrimony. The U.S. was castigating its host as undemocratic. Uzbekistan asked that the rent for the base be increased. “The dispute is about money: the U.S. did not pay for water and gas, “ Ayoob told us. An Afghani diplomat had given me another explanation, in an appropriately conspiratorial hush: “The Uzbeks are worried that the Americans might engineer another toppling of the president, as happened in the Kyrgyz Republic earlier this year.”  On the day that I left Uzbekistan, my taxi had to stop far from the airport terminal as the security demanded: the Russian Defense Minister was arriving for an official visit.

As Khiva Awakes
The oasis of Khiva has been the western gateway to Samarkand and Bukhara, the settlement closest to Iran. On the day that I visited it, in the pre-dawn light, the plaza before Ichon Qala (Inner Fort), Khiva’s gated old town, was serene. The main street of the Fort was impeccably clean even as an old man was sweeping the dust with an broom; it was lined sublime in the light of the moon by the magnificently cohesive architectural ensemble of Katla minaret, Amin Khan Madrassah, Jummi and Ak mosques, and Anusha Khan Bath. There was no life here yet. I went out of the old quarters through the east Darvoza (Gate) and saw Khiva awaking. The faithful were entering the Shalikar Mosque. This was built in 1835, as its portal announced in Arabic script. The vintage was almost the same as the more grand buildings I had just seen. I imagined that the rhythm of life had not changed much either.

On the side streets, however, a television satellite dish and a parked small car were incongruously superimposed on the medieval dried mud walls and dirt roads. From the front yard of a house, a bed with a mosquito net jotted out onto the sidewalk. Two young boys ran by. A sign in Cyrillic over a white door read Sartarashkhaneh (The House of Cutting Head), with a logo of scissors and a comb confirming that it was a barbershop. I saw small taxis arriving, burdened with sacks of goods, in the square before me. The sunlight was golden on an aged truck nearby and on the produce stands of a bazaar which I now entered.

I saw other colors: the red of tomatoes, the darker red of peppers, the royal red of pomegranates, the aubergine of eggplants, the yellow of apples, the white of onions, and the green of cabbage. Butchers were hanging their red carcasses on the periphery which enclosed the market. The fruit and produce vendors were all women and the fabrics of their dresses were glorious. So were their hospitable smiles; I saw many gold-capped teeth, standard in Soviet era dentistry. They posed for me and with me. I was given two apples and a pomegranate as a gift which I could not refuse.

A Museum City
The old Ichon Qala in Khiva was disemboweled when it was restored by the Russians. Its new content feels plastic as it aims to please the tourists. I saw two school boys on bicycles traversing it, and a wedding party strolling its streets which at one point broke into a spontaneous dance. There was a silk workshop where the men threw the yarns up the brick walls to dry, and the women wove at the spindles self-consciously. There was a woodworking studio where the master marketed his art to the visitors. Every other corner of the place was filled with peasant women turned shrewd peddlers of hats, scarves, and plain pieces of colorful fabrics.

For a fee, a man invited us to see a “circus” in the ornate courtyard of a madrassah. To the live music of a surnai (Persian Oboe) and a drum, three young boys executed a feat of balancing on wires. Underneath them only a thin kilim covered the brick ground. Later, a performance of folkloric music, singing, and dancing by a group of eight men and women was arranged for us in the Throne Room of the Old Citadel. At the end, we were asked to join the dance. Then I had a conversation with the leader of the group. Upon learning that I was Persian, he beamed and said: “Sa’di Shirazi! (Sa’di from Shiraz!)” I was surprised; it was Hafez, the other Persian poet from Shiraz, that I more expected him to know. Not only did he know Hafez too, but prompted by my reciting Hafez’s famous poem about Samarkand and Bukhara, he broke into a recitation of its translation in Uzbek. I felt content at the serendipitous way that my journey was coming to an end.

The most celebrated monument in Khiva is the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. Mahmoud is the “patron saint” of Khiva and his tomb is the holiest shrine in the city. Born in Khiva in 1247, Mahmoud was a furrier by profession, and this mausoleum was built on his original furrier shop. Mahmoud is famous, however, as the greatest wrestler of all time, and a beloved Sufi leader who wrote poetry in Persian. In Iran where he is called Puriya-y Valy, he symbolizes sportsmanship; he gets a special mention in gul-e koshti, the presentation of poetry at the beginning of a wrestling match in zoorkhaneh (the traditional gymnasium). I saw this ruba’i (quatrain) by Mahmoud adorning his tomb:

Sad kuh-e qaf ra be havan sudan
Crushing one hundred Caucasian mountains in a pestle

Noh taq-e falak be khoon andoodan
Sealing nine skies with blood

Sad sal asir-e zendan boodan
Being in prison for a hundred years

Beh zankeh dami hamdam-e nadan boodan
Is better than passing one moment with a fool

The vehemence of the Sufi sage’s exhortation not to suffer fools was striking. Metaphorically, this could well have been the mystic’s call to ejtehad (striving) toward enlightenment from jaheliyat (the state of ignorance), perceived as the true promise of Islam. Historically, however, this was an epithet better suiting his compatriot of some 250 years past, Avicenna. That genius was known for his disdain of even the most reputable scholars -including, famously, Beruni- when they failed his nearly unattainable standards. Avicenna was living in Urgench near Khiva when Mahmoud Ghaznavi, who had just been appointed the Sultan of this region by Baghdad’s Muslim Khalif, invited him to join his court. Recognizing that the new ruler’s rigid religiosity did not allow for free thinking, despite his desire to surround himself with scientists and writers as ornaments, Avicenna refused the Ghaznavi’s entreaties and fled central Asia. Chased by the irate Sultan, Avicenna suffered much hardship in travels through harsh deserts to ever further distant points in Iran and even spent some time in jail.

Avicenna’s companion in that flight from the obscurantist Islamists of Central Asia was the learned Bu Sahl-e Masihi, a Christian. Older, he fared even worse than Avicenna, perishing early on in the desert. My imaginary Samarkand and Bukhara that attracted and nourished so much talent, could also repel its best sons. This theme of exile would now follow me to the situs; it was, coincidentally, the eve of my own departure from Uzbekistan.


The article entitled Luster of the earth; Journey to Samarkand and Bukhara was published on the Website of on December 28, 2005, which has the related pictures.      


Crossing Kyrgyzistan


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: We had to cross the Kyrgyz Republic on a rutted segment of the Silk Road to get from China to Uzbekistan. Short of material comfort, Kyrgyz, with its stark beauty, is best suited for the more adventurous visitors. Along with majestic mountains and roaring river streams, it shows the scars of neglect that followed the failure of the Communist experiment in the medieval setting of a poor Central Asian country. Traditional nomadic tents dot the landscape outside of towns, while urban life here evokes images of centuries past only barely modified by the advent of the modern age. The memory of my trip to Kyrgyzstan is vivid, however, because of the bright faces of its children and the unvarnished hospitality of those I encountered there. 

keywords: Kyrgyz Republic* Kyrgyzstan* Yurt* Sari Tash* Osh*


Beyond the barbed wire that separated us, Kyrgyzstan looked forbidding. An unshaven young man with an automatic weapon slung on his shoulders was ruffling through the pages of my passport. He said a few words to another man standing next to him. My eyes were averted to the grey brown parka the latter was wearing. There were food stains on it. I did not understand what was spoken between them. There were two more young men just behind them. They were short and stocky. They were curious about us. There were 13 of us, tourists who had come from China. Our bus had left. We could not return to China, for we had gone through the Chinese immigration checkpoint. Our luggage was on the ground. We were waiting for our Kyrgyz guide without whom we could not enter this country.  Inexplicably, there was no sign of him.

We were high up in the Pamir mountains. The landscape was scraggy and barren – no trees. A dirt road led to the horizon. It bent about a mile from us. A vehicle appeared, turning the bend. We squinted to see it better. It was not the tourist van we were hoping for.  As it came closer, we could make out an aging Russian truck with bald tires. It groaned under the weight of the scrap metal that was its cargo. This road was the newly opened passage to China, where the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan sold itself in dissembled pieces on those trucks.

When our guide Pasha finally arrived, he did not make any excuses for being late. He drove us to a shack two miles away which was the Kyrgyz immigration office at Irkeshtam crossing. He distributed forms which we could not read as they were in Cyrillic script, but we signed them anyway as they were required for our entry. Pasha was a cheerful type and delivered his first commentary as if it were a bonus for our tribulations: we would have lunch and dinner in the closest village which was four miles away. We were hardly prepared for this.  We wanted to see as much of the scenic Kyrgyz Republic as possible in the 24 hours of our transit to Uzbekistan. “The road is closed just outside of the village until seven in the evening,” Pasha said, “due to construction.”

Our hostess in the village was a school teacher with gold-capped teeth and rosy cheeks. Tall, grinning, and very much in command of her house and husband, she served us freshly baked bread, cheese, tea, and a greasy mutton stew. We ate sitting on the carpeted main room of her house, leaning against stuffed pillows. The toilet was an outhouse, refused in favor of the outdoors even by the women in our group because it was too rickety and malodorous.

We followed our hostess on a muddy path to the schoolhouse that was perched on a hill. We were expected there. The classroom we were taken to was full of children sitting at their desks. They quizzed us with their gaze. Eight teachers lined up on the periphery of the classroom. The kids sang some patriotic songs. I took their pictures. They giggled. Our hostess went to the middle of the classroom and pulled a boy of about nine out of the group and posed with him.  Pasha translated for her, “take a picture of me and my son.” Then I called the children around me to show them their pictures on my digital camera. Groups of them posed anew, asking that I take more pictures.  Eventually, the teachers intervened, and we went to a room where there was a framed portrait of the man the school was named after, a local Soviet war hero. The flag of the Kyrgyz Republic was on the wall. “The rays on our flag are for the 40 Kyrgyz tribes,” our hostess said, “We believe our nation had 40 mothers and one father who was a dog.”

Pasha now introduced a man as the school’s English teacher. He chose not to share his language skills with us -until recently he had been the biology teacher. We communicated with him through Pasha. We felt an urge to offer something for the school. The teacher said the best thing would be to send paper as they had a serious shortage.

We still had several idle hours to spend in this village. The scenery was stark and beautiful.  Green slopes of the mountain rose to the clouds.  There was hay on a truck.  Three men bicycled on the  road to nowhere.  A little girl had a red bow in her hair. Four men sat leaning against a crumbling wall and smiled when we photographed them.  A man accosted us. He was drunk. “Vodka,” Pasha said gravely.

We left the village a few minutes before seven, when the construction would stop and traffic would be allowed. For some time we were the only vehicle on the road. Soon we saw more trucks with scrap metal heading our way. The road was in disrepair as it had not been maintained in the quarter century since the Soviets had left. We drove for hours. I tried to polish my Cyrillic, the script of the realm. I fell sleep. When I woke up I saw white on the side of the road that was winding up another mountain peak. “This is serious snow,” I said, alarmed. I was corrected by those who had stayed awake, “No, it is just sand on the dirt road.” The moon was out. The land was like the surface of the moon.  We were stopped at several checkpoints. Pasha would run into the guard house, some inquisitive eyes would peer through the windows of our bus, Pasha would hop back on the vehicle, and we would resume the trip.


The lights of Sari Tash exaggerated its stature. It was a collection of some modest brick houses. One was our destination. We were “homestaying.” A yurt, the traditional tent of nomadic Kyrgyz was pitched in the backyard. The large interior of the yurt was furnished with carpets which had geometric designs. There were mattresses for 10 persons, ready with colorful quilts. For some of us sleeping in the yurt was the main allure of Kyrgyzstan. Others chose the rooms in the house, which had heat on that cold night. A simple electric coil sitting on two bricks laid on the floor provided this heat. We were warned not to get too close. Most city lights were turned off by midnight; the stars at 10,000 feet blinked gloriously.

In the morning, we used the wash basin as there was no bath. The yurt was rearranged for breakfast. We sat on our knees at a low table and ate hot bread and fresh eggs. We saw more yurts, in their natural setting, on the skirts of the hills, wet with morning dew, as we descended toward Osh. The open country, spread before a 21,000 feet Pamir peak, was a spectacular composition of rock landscapes, canyons, and grassland. Pasha called the peak by its old name, Peak Lenin, but said that since independence it had been renamed, curiously, Kuh-i Garmo, meaning warm mountain.

There were more people, buildings, and cars, as we approached Osh which is the second largest city in Kyrgyz. Farmers had blanketed the road with their hay so that it would be thrashed by passing vehicles. Now we saw several older model Mercedes sedans, the automobile preferred by the Kyrgyz nouveau riche, we were told. This area was the stronghold of Bayaman Erkinbayev, a 38 year old wealthy politician, and former marshal arts champion whose trainees, numbering thousands, played a major role in overthrowing the Kyrgyz president just a few months before. Roaming through Osh, they had staged their own “people’s revolution,” capturing government offices, burning police stations and blocking key highways. Critics had charged that Erkinbayev’s supporters also included criminal elements. Pasha declined to elaborate further.

Despite its population of more than 400,000, Osh looked provincial. In its main square the highest structures were two story buildings. All of its important sights were in one place, in that square.  There was also a café here, where guests sat cross-legged on the traditional takht (platform) with a little table on top of it. For some in our group one main attraction was the Western style toilet of the café, the only one we saw in Kyrgyz. We did not mind that its lid was missing.

Osh was established about 3000 years ago and gradually evolved into a major crossroads on the Silk Road. To me it looked as I had imagined old Central Asia. We bought bread and cucumbers from a small grocery store. We then drove through town to a dusty street that was the Kyrgyz frontier with Uzbekistan. Pasha hired a teenage boy with an old wooden cart to carry our luggage to the international border. He then got exit forms in Cyrillic from the Immigration kiosk. At a counter outside, we signed those forms as Pasha told us, and prepared to leave Kyrgyzstan.


This article entitled as Crossing Kyrgyzistan; Seeing as much as possible in 24 hours was published on the Website of on February 27, 2006, with the related pictures.


From Shanghai to Kashgar China is Seventy-Thirty



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.




abstract: When I was 24 and innocently presumptuous, I lectured about China in my classes on politics at Colby College. In 1962, the “East was Red” and Mao was its Sun God. My roommate then was the scion of a wealthy Shanghai family that fled from the Revolution to Brazil; he taught English literature at the College. Over the years, the conflicting sources of my knowledge about China grew ever more complex due to the surprising developments in that country. I also became wiser so as to acknowledge my inability to really comprehend “China”. The word now evoked a mostly visual response in me: I pictured the vast size of China on the map. It was in the hope of better managing the formidable concept of China that I decided to embark on a journey across its width, from the east seas to the western mountains. I sought a sense of the place. The sights of China beguiled me, and the variety of its people intrigued me. This report, however, is more about me, my experience in China.

keywords: Kashgar*Lanzhou*Dunhaung* Turpan * Urumqi* Xian* Shanghai* Beijing* Labrang* Silk Road*



Many a Miles to Go

It was five minutes to nine in the morning. The guard at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, a young Russian émigré, was looking covetously at the shiny convertible Lexus which was parked at the curb. When he turned his face to me, the guard blushed, mildly embarrassed. I was thinking of how tempting it was to pontificate on the significance of this symbolic convergence of the trajectories of the world’s three greatest Powers on the emblematic Japanese export. Presently, however, I had to answer a more specific question posed by the Chinese visa officer who was examining my application: “Where is Kashgar?” I had a long, learning trip ahead me, and Kashgar was only one of the several unfamiliar cities in China I would visit. My application for a visa also included Lanzhou, Dunhaung, Turpan and Urumqi, in addition to the “regulars,” Shanghai, Beijing and Xian. “Is Kashgar in Tibet?” the young uniformed woman wanted to know. I told her no, it was in Xinjiang, which is a region of China proper. The visa officer checked this fact with her colleagues and, assured, told me that my visa would be ready the next day.

This was my first trip to China, but my interest in that country had a long history. China made me a news junky before I was 10 years old. I remember following its civil war of the late 1940s in the daily newspapers. Its staggering dimensions left indelible marks on my mind. Armies with millions of soldiers were contesting thousands of miles of territory in an epic struggle. At stake was the future of a civilization with two millenniums of glorious past. These big numbers provoked intense curiosity, but they also induced a certain feeling of futility: how could one possibly comprehend China! Indeed, it seemed that the more I learned, the more elusive the whole concept of China became. In chasing it, I became especially enticed by China’s meaning for the country of my heritage, Persia. Evidence of the globalizing interchange of these two cultures in ancient times abounded in the string of Silk Road settlements from Beijing to China’s western borders.  I wanted to get a feel for these places, just as I wanted at least a glance at the Beijing and Shanghai that had evolved into a post-Mao hybrid of Communism and capitalism. Limitations of language and training would, of course, inhibit me from reporting on China, but I was after something else: cumulative vignettes of my own experience in China.


First Transaction

Outrageous charges by rogue taxi drivers are a common nuisance at international airports. In Shanghai I deflected three such hustlers before agreeing to go with the fourth after he reduced his price for taking me to my hotel from 40 Yuan, first to 35 and then to 30 (about 4 dollars). I would try my negotiating mettle in this fabled land of entrepreneurs, I rationalized. In reality, I was too tired to look any longer for the conventional transport at the end of a ten hour flight.

The car was not at the curb, which surprised me; we had to go to the parking garage. There we met the real driver; the party to my contract proved to be a broker. He sat with us, however, and we drove until we came to a toll booth plaza. Now the car stopped and the broker got out, telling me that he needed to go to the bathroom. The driver spoke no English. Soon, he left the car too. I saw him go and stand behind the trunk. I came out and saw another cab being flagged by the broker. He talked to the new cabby and told me that the latter would take me to my hotel. I was pondering my choices as the first driver started to transfer my luggage to the trunk of the cab. He then swiped his hands together as a sign that he had retained nothing. The broker now asked me to pay him the fair. I said I would pay at the hotel. The broker got some money -his cut- from the cabby, which made the latter look disgruntled. As I sat in the cab, to deal with my mild concern, I took its tag number. We reached my hotel without further incident.

Scenes from a City

Garden Hotel was chic and comforting. Here, for the first time, I saw a “Washlet Toto” which is a combination of Bidet and Spray with warm water. This hotel also had a pedigree. Built as Cercle Sprotif Francais in the French Concession district, and in that era, it was liberated by the Chinese Communist into the People’s Cultural Palace. Chairman Mao stayed there when in Shanghai. The hotel displayed no picture of him.

Next day, however, I was watching Mao Zedong on the television screen of Bus No. 26 in an operetta. As a young woman sang a heroic aria, the background film depicted scenes of glory from the Communist years -marked in decades, 1949, 1959, 1969, up to 1999- dominated by period pictures of Mao, Deng, and Zamin.  There was only one shot of Chou En-Lai, standing next to Mao at the 1949 proclamation of the Communist State in Tiananmen Square, although I was to hear often that he was the most beloved of the Red Chinese leaders.

This was a morning commute bus. I had taken it to see ordinary Shanghainese going to work. I was the only non-Chinese looking person on the bus. It was full and I had to stand up, holding on to the straps that advertised the logo of 7up and its Chinese character. When there was a pause in the sound track of the television, the noise of a radio, which was also on, could be heard. Underneath both there was incessant conversation, reduced to a steady hum.

This particular public vehicle had a “star” sign which meant that it was air-conditioned and hence it cost more. A digital thermometer showed that the temperature inside was 23 degrees centigrade, 10 lower than outside.  The conductor was a woman who never smiled but was uniformed and neat in her make-up, with big half-moon arches as eyebrows. She wore white gloves. So did the many traffic officers I saw on the streets outside. There were at least five of them at select intersections: one in the middle and one at each of the four corners. While at first this seemed like overkill, I realized it was necessary when I saw the chaos at those intersections which, inexplicably, were not attended by any traffic officer.  The famous plethora of bicycles had not been replaced by the increasingly excessive number of cars in Shanghai; it was merely absorbed in them. I saw no accident, no fight, no armed police, no overt sign of an authoritarian regime.

Not everyone was hurrying to work this morning. I spotted men in their underwear, sitting on stools at low small tables on the sidewalks, playing games. I got out of the bus and walked.  When I stopped at a street corner to write down my observations, I became an observed object myself. Passerbys took time to look with curiosity. They allowed me to take their pictures, even if we could not communicate much.  At the counter of a food shop I bought dim sum and by motions asked for a napkin. Misunderstood, I was first given chopsticks and then toothpicks.  I picked up a peach from a vendor who sat squatting on the ground in the fashionable Huailai Street. He weighed the fruit in a ancient scale held by hand. A wedding-clothes store was the busiest shop on that block. I inquired about internet cafes from a groom to be, and was taken to a “computer house,” a big hall where many teenagers were playing video games and chain-smoking while a tape played a Chinese singer botching the line, “Son of a gun, down by the Bayou”.

Bund and its Apparitions

The landscaped promenade that is the Western embankment of Hunagpu River was a good platform to see the Bund and the apparitions of its past glory as the heart of the cosmopolitan Shanghai of pre- World War Two.  I looked across at the bell, “Big Ching,” on top of the Customs Building, which had been removed during the Cultural Revolution but restored in 1986 for Queen Elizabeth’s visit. Then I entered the Peace Hotel.

I went to see the fabulous Art Deco in the corridor just off the main lobby. Sharing my visit was a couple that spoke Spanish. I marked them as Argentine, for the woman had that special exquisite scent of feudal wealth and the man was polished almost to effeminate perfection. A charming partners desk caught my attention. The sign on it said “Assistant Manager.” He was not there. I sat in the guest chair. A smiling middle-aged woman approached me, followed by a man with an air of self-importance. She told me that she was from Israel but now lived in England. I happened to mention that “Bund” was the Anglo-Indian pronunciation of the Persian word band, meaning embankment. “Isn’t it a shame what has happened in Iran,” she uttered gratuitously, “Look how much progress these people have made,” referring to the Chinese. Her husband had the accent of the more established Jews of England. I was framing him in an imaginary Pinter play when he complained about the decline of the Peace Hotel, “We had to change our room three times here, before we got a decent one.” In the 1930s the Peace Hotel was the castle from which Victor Sassoon, an émigré Jew from Iraq, ruled over the financial Shanghai, and facilitated the refuge of over 20,000 European Jews here.

My Guide Becomes My Charge

I must have looked lost in the maze of Shanghai’s old town. A Chinese man in his early forties asked me if he could help. We struck up a conversation. I welcomed this as an opportunity to learn about a Shanghai “man on the street”. He said his “English name” was Steve; his English was halting but adequate. He was an accountant for a school district about 80 miles away. Steve was born and raised in Shanghai and his grandmother still lived here. He would come to visit her whenever he had vacation time.

Steve explained that the reason he could not find the street I was looking for was because Shanghai was changing so much and so fast. He pointed to the new high rise apartment buildings, “They were not here a few years ago. And these other small shops will be gone the next time I visit Shanghai.” He led me to a big store so that he could ask for directions. When there, he talked to a clerk and told me that we needed to go upstairs to see the manager. I followed him. They were serving tea on the next floor. Steve asked if I wanted tea. We sampled some tea. I asked about his parents. They were professionals. The Red Guards had inflicted so much indignity on them that Steve was bitter toward Mao. “He was a bad man,” Steve said unqualifiedly. We did not get into details.

Steve took a container of tea from the salesclerk and handed it to me. The price was 12 dollars. I figured this was how one paid for the tea tasting. I paid for the container as it seemed Steve would not have the money. I gave it to him as a gift. He said no, “You take it.” I said I had a long way to go in my trip and did not want to carry the tea. No, Steve insisted, “Maybe we could have dinner later.” This seemed like a moment when I could cause him to “lose face,” a big issue in cultural exchange. I resigned myself to buying him dinner in addition to dealing with the unwanted tea jar.

It was still a few hours to dinner time and we were running out of interesting subjects to talk about. I said I would want to go the “Saga of Shanghai,” the show that the hotel concierge had told me was “typically Chinese”.  That was how I ended up paying for Steve’s theater ticket. The show was mostly acrobatics. The price was steep, and that became the core of our conversation at dinner which followed. Steve told me that he was yearning to visit Beijing and the price of that theater ticket would be enough for a train ride to Beijing. I was now looking around at our restaurant.

It was divided into several private rooms. In each room there was a television screen and a video player. In the room next to us, there was a group of people. One young man had a microphone in his hand and sang. The others served as a chorus. This was my introduction to karaoke in China. Steve did not suggest that we sing.  Instead, he was busy ordering food. In addition to crab and shrimp which I liked, the waiter brought some dish which consisted of dark brown meat with darker skin on ribs. I found it too chewy, with an unfamiliar taste. Steve told me its name in Chinese which I never quite learned; he did not know what it was called in English. Later I learned it was sea turtle. Steve would take my portion with him.

The haste with which Steve ate once again reminded me of the gap between his meager resources and what a foreign visitor could afford. It made me uneasy.  This was one reason I declined Steve’s suggestion that we explore the nightlife of Shanghai. He sounded surprised, “Eat and sleep?” When I said goodbye to him, Steve asked for money “to take a taxi to my grandmother as it is too late for buses”. This was not quite like a guide asking payment for his services. It occurred to me that Steve was not alone in finding it easier to ask for “favors” instead. Shanghai had an unusual number of beggars at its tourist spots.

Amy’s Boyfriend

I did not think Shanghai would be for prudish visitors, but its offerings were more blatant than I had expected. My hotel was in a gated compound where the taxis stopped at the entrance inside. The one night that I walked through the gate, I found it attended not only by the hotel security guards but also by prostitutes and pimps, each respecting the other’s turf. A woman greeted me longingly, and a man hustled me. “No money, just look,” he pointed his fingers at his eyes. Then he said “Massage, 30 dollars.” At the hotel I noted signs advising that guests register their visitors. In its elegant lobby, a demur Chinese girl was playing classical music on a grand piano. I ordered a drink and sat not far from a man with a green jacket. We began a conversation. He was ahead of me by two drinks, and jovial.  He told me that he was from Central America and on a business trip. We talked about Garcia Marquez and he told me about a new book by the famous author about a virgin prostitute. I told him about what I had just seen outside our hotel. He laughed and told me the following story which I will try to recall here faithfully:

“I was walking on Nanjing Lu earlier tonight, quite impressed by its lights. You know, it reminded me of Times Square, except bigger. These two young girls came up to me. One asked my name, and introduced herself as Amy. She said that she was a college student and wanted to practice her English. She asked me where I was going and I told her that I was looking for a restaurant to eat dinner. Now her friend, who had taken a few steps away, joined us. They said they had eaten but offered to show me a good restaurant. We went to a “Barbeque” place. Amy was becoming increasingly friendly. She was calling me “my boyfriend,” and holding my hand. She asked me ‘what is your job?’ I told her that I was a banker. She took out her little translation gadget and punched in ‘banker’ as I spelled it for her. Chinese characters came on the LCD and the gadget said ‘banker.’ She repeated ‘banker,’ as she looked at me admiringly. We were given a private room. There was a television screen and a karaoke video machine there. Amy’s friend turned them on and began to sing. They ordered food and drinks, at first only the few items I wanted, but then more. The friend now ordered Scotch. Amy was affectionate toward me, while the friend was telling me to drink her Scotch. “Let’s get crazy,” she said. I was amused at first, but eventually I said “let’s not order any more.

They brought the check. I looked at it and it was far beyond the amount I had feared. It was for $750. I refused to pay. A man with dyed blonde hair, a lilt in his voice, and dramatic motions appeared and demanded that I pay for what ‘your girl friends ordered’. I said his bill was outrageous and I only had 100 dollars on me. He said he would take a credit card. I said I did not have my credit card or debit card with me.  When he acted agitated, I said we should call the police to settle this matter. ‘Why the police? The police is for criminals. Are you a criminal?’ he said. I did not yield. The fellow eventually offered a compromise: ‘I give you 20 percent discount.’ I did not accept. Now an older Chinese man came to us. He seemed to be the owner and more pragmatic. He did not speak English, but obviously had a moderating influence on the other fellow. He now asked the girls how much money they had. Amy said she had nothing, but her friend had the equivalent of $20 which she handed to him. I gave them my cash, except for $10 which I used to take a cab back to the hotel. Amy was calling after me as I was getting into the taxi, but I ignored her. As the cab drove by, Amy was yelling at her friend and talking on her mobile phone at the same time.”

My conversationalist laughed, rather inebriated, as he finished his tale, “Now I ask you, were they prostitutes or just interested in having a good time with somebody from the West?”

Business of Shanghai

I met several other foreigners who were in Shanghai for business. They all complained about how hard they had to work. Standing in line with me for the breakfast buffet was a woman from Kansas who worked for Hallmark Cards. This was her second visit to Shanghai but she had not seen anything of the city as she had to work everyday “until 9 in the evening”. A businessman from Bangladesh was on the same city tour which I took, his first opportunity in three trips here. An Israeli who sold textile machines took time off from exhibiting in a show -mostly, it seemed, to complain to me, and anyone else who would hear,  about how hard it was to work with the Chinese: “They continue to bargain even after reaching an agreement with you.”

I sat next to Charlie on my flight to Beijing, and let him create the profile of a Shanghainese businessman in my imagination. Charlie was proficient in English and pleasant to talk to. He was going to Beijing on business. He was in his thirties. His father was a banker and his mother was a physician. They were not hurt in the Cultural Revolution “because we lived in a small town.” Charlie had worked six years for other businessmen and then, recently, formed his own partnership with two other persons. They were in “exporting auto parts.” International trade meant “exporting” to Charlie. If their venture in the auto parts did not work, Charlie said, he would get into exporting other goods. He rattled statistics which, if correct and relevant, would clearly assure his success.

Gallery Tiananmen

I walked toward Tiananmen Square with a sense of awe for its historical grandeur, and promptly fell into an amateurish marketing trap. On the wide sidewalk leading to the plaza, Candy and her friend May told me that they were art students from a college in Xian and if I bought a painting from the government gallery at Tiananmen which exhibited their works they would get one month free instruction from their art teacher. I agreed to go to the gallery with them as this late in the day the Tiananmen monuments were closed.

On the way Candy told me about her parents and sisters. Her father was a farmer and her mother sold the vegetable and fruit that he grew in his small lot. They gave away their first child, a daughter. Candy did not know where she was. Candy now had a younger sister. Because they lived in a rural area, her parents were exempt from government limitations on the number of children; they self-limited after three attempts did not produce a boy. “What do you think of Chairman Mao? Do you like him?,” I asked Candy. We were now standing under Mao’s giant face at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where two couples were posing stiffly for a photographer. Candy looked baffled. “Of course,” she answered as though mine was the silliest question.

Candy referred to Xian as “the Chinese Midwest”. She said, “all kids in our school in Xian are given English names.”  Candy said she learned English mostly by listening to special government radio broadcasts. In the gallery I met their art teacher. He was wearing a baseball cap that said “District Attorney, East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana” in a circle around a judicial scale logo. “This was given to me by Edward, my friend, the famous lawyer,” the teacher explained. By sheer coincidence, the following morning, on the hotel television screen I first saw the devastation that the hurricane Katrina was causing in that Parish.

I bought my first Chinese calligraphy painting from that gallery in Tiananmen Square. The currency note I could give them was more than the price and they did not have change. They gave me another painting instead, at a discounted rate. I was left to worry twice about carrying paintings on the remaining many miles of my trip.

Beijing Tourist

            Mao’s Mausoleum.   In Tiananmen, the next day I was surprised to see that the line at the Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum was short. No sooner had I joined it, however, than a man shouted, “No bag!” as he tapped my backpack. He grabbed me and wanted to drag me somewhere. He was not uniformed and I refused. Instead, I walked in the direction that he pointed to, but I soon returned as I could not find any place that would take bags. Now I saw the same man holding onto a European fellow and running with him across the hazardous traffic of the wide boulevard on the side of the Mausoleum plaza.  I followed them and at a distance noted the place they had gone to. Then I saw them running back to the Mausoleum. That place, I realized, was where you checked your bags. By the time I got there, however, they had stopped taking any more. That European fellow was their last customer for the day. I missed seeing the embalmed Chairman.

            Opera House.  I went to the old Beijing Opera house where the Mao’s favorite, the Monkey King, was to be performed. The audience was mostly Western tourists; the Chinese themselves did not care enough for traditional operas to pay the considerable admission fee. I was seated at a table which I shared with a party of three. I was served a portion of watermelon, nuts, dried cherries, and one cookie. Ice cream and beer were available at an additional cost, as was an audio recording in English to guide you through the performance. I rented one. It broke down several times. The usher finally gave me a new one. Then I discovered that way up above the stage, there were supertitles in English which proved much more helpful.

They performed two shorts operas. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them as this was my first exposure to the genre. I could not find the names of the operas, however, as there was no program. I asked the usher. She did not know, but she dialed a number on her mobile phone and handed it to me. The voice on the other end spoke sophisticated, albeit accented English. He introduced himself as the Director of the Opera House and told me that I had just seen the Monkey King. I had read enough about that opera, however, to tell him that the story line was different. He paused, told me to wait, and then apologetically corrected himself and said tonight’s performance had been changed to two other operas.

            Temple of Heaven Park.   I took a taxi to go to the Temple of Heaven Park. At the first intersection, while we were waiting for the red light to change, the driver opened the door and spit out on the street. This was a first for me, but not the last. Almost all of the other cabbies I rode with in Beijing repeated this defiance of the Chairman’s famous decree.

At the Park, a young Swedish girl asked if I could take her picture, handing me her camera. All of 20 years old, she was traveling alone, had come on the Trans-Siberian train, and was going to Tibet if she could obtain the rare permit from the Chinese authorities. She had a cold and was taking a pill that the drug store had given her. She showed it to me, asking if I knew anything about it. It was Contact, and I told her it was not harmful. I admired her courage, while I also feared for her innocence.

Outside the Park I saw a small food shop with several tables where the customers looked obviously local. I wanted some dumplings. The smallest order was a plate of 8. They were good but a bit bland. A hunchback who was sharing my table pushed a bottle of vinegar my way. It tipped and the content soiled my backpack. Back at my hotel, a motherly American lady told me that she used vinegar to remove other smells, but that she did not know what could remove vinegar’s smell. For days to come that smell on my backpack would remind me of the hunchback of the Temple of Heaven.

            Great Wall.   It was hot on the bus that took us to the Great Wall. The heat did not prevent two Chinese women and a man from vigorously working out at the elaborate gym facilities which were planted right on the sidewalks of Beijing. As I watched them perspire, through the window of he bus, what felt natural to me was to slip my feet out of my dock shoes. “Put your shoes on,” the tour guide gently chided me. I was put off guard so much that I did not ask what particular Chinese protocol I was breaching.

I was not the only misbehaving passenger on that bus. The guide quoted for us Chairman Mao’s saying that “a person is not a man till he climbs the Great Wall”. Ignoring this, one fellow tourist refused her friends’ pleadings to go with them and climb the wall; she stayed in the parking lot, saying “I was here two years ago, and the last I heard the Wall had not changed.” An Egyptian man violated the spirit of Mao’s command; he chain- smoked as he climbed the Wall all the way to the top, even though he was seriously overweight. It also seemed that far fewer Chinese than foreigners were doing the heavy lifting required by the Great Wall; they amused themselves instead by viewing a small zoo of black bears curiously maintained at its feet.

            Traditional Clinic.   We stopped at a traditional Chinese medicine clinic. Chairman Mao had been treated by the doctors in this clinic and his pictures were on all the walls. When they asked for volunteers to demonstrate their examination of patients, I offered myself as I happened to be sitting in the front row of the room. The doctor asked questions about my age, cholesterol count, blood pressure, and the frequency of my visit to the restroom. Then he took my pulse on both wrists. His diagnoses would have worried me if I had not been checked by my regular doctor just a few weeks earlier. I was given a prescription for herbal medicine that would have cost $300, a substantial sum in China. They said they would be glad to fill my prescription on the premises.

American Outpost

Xian is the Western outpost of American tourists in China. There are many attractions in this city that was China’s capital for many centuries ,but the Americans congregated at the big tomb of the thousands of Terracotta soldiers -more exactly, in the cafeteria of this place. That was the case, at least, on the day I visited it. I saw so many big men and women in shorts and polo shirts talking aloud with a thick East Coast accent in that eatery that I felt misplaced; they brought back memories of my trips to the crowded cafeteria in the famous Bear Mountain Park near New York City.

There were no other Americans in evidence on the rest of my journey to the western borders of China, a tour of the old Silk Road which now began. The exceptions were the three from Arizona in our group of 13 adventuring tourists. One of these lost her purse on the streets of Xian. This inauspicious beginning, however, had a happy ending. After returning to the U.S., she received an email from a Chinese student, asking her how best he could send her the purse which he had found.


The Xian Museum displayed a good introduction of what lay ahead of us. It also provided me with the experience of mixing shopping in today’s China and the old-style Asian haggling. The Museum’s gift shop had an exquisite replica of a Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) gem: a pottery camel with five musicians riding on it while playing their various instruments. The asking price, however, was too high and the piece was too big and fragile for transport. This was, however, the singular souvenir of the journey which I was hoping to find, so emblematic of the Silk Road as the ancient highway of peaceable globalization. Fortunately, my problem was mitigated when the salesclerk cheerfully informed me that the Museum would ship the piece. The price still remained a hurdle. We negotiated but reached a stalemate. I boarded the tour bus and we were about to leave when the salesgirl ran into the parking lot and climbed the bus to announced a new price authorized by the director of the Museum, who had now become personally involved. The offer was not good enough even for a counter. Later in the day, however, I regretted my refusal. I used our local guide’s assistance to deliver my counter offer. It was rejected, and we left Xian.

Several days later, after a futile survey of alternative souvenirs, I sent an email message to the guide in Xian to declare that I would accept the last offer by the Museum. She responded that the salesclerk was now saying that the Director had reprimanded her for their offer as he thought it was too low, considering the risk of breakage in shipping such a fragile item. The negotiations, however, were not terminated. If I agreed to pay a certain additional sum, the guide continued, the Museum would deliver the Camel. I recalled the Israeli businessmen I had met in Shanghai. I emailed my capitulation. I am still waiting to hear from Xian.

Portal to the Muslim World


Xian is China’s doorway to its western, Muslim, neighbors. We had our main meal at a Muslim restaurant, visited Xian’s colorful Muslim bazaar, and went to its big Mosque where we were formally received by the assistant to the Imam, the leader of Xian’s 60,000 strong Muslim community. He told me that he had just come back from a visit to Iran. A Persian stone tablet in the mosque, probably from the 14th Century, testified to the ancient ties. The Persian words still current among the Xian Muslims were clues to the origin and reasons for those ties: bamdad (morning), and sham (evening) -used especially in reference to the times of Muslim prayer-, doosti (friendship), doshman (enemy), and khoda hafez (goodbye). The walls of the huge main prayer room of the Mosque had wood panels with the Arabic verses from the Koran inscribed in small letters. I had never seen such remarkable display of what could well be the whole of the holy book.

Horse on the Train

The train station in Xian was dimly lit as we hauled our luggage up and down many steps that night. “The porters could not be trusted,” our tour guide explained, “they stole clothes from some tourists’ bags last week.” We were divided into groups of four on this night train to Lanzhou. There were four beds, two each on the top and bottom. We were still strangers and this was our first opportunity to “bond”. One man set up his Ipod with its speakers, another opened a bottle of Scotch Single Malt and the third began a story about his son, while we drank the liquor from our emptied water bottles. Soon the door to our car was opened and we saw a thin Chinese man grinning at the threshold. “Can I join you?” he asked. Before we could answer, he asked again: “Where are you from?” He continued without a pause, “I know where you are from is beautiful.” By now he was sitting on one of the beds.

We welcomed him, albeit reluctantly. He said his English name was Horse. He told us that he was a graduate of the Xian Technical School and worked as a “network engineer” in Lanzhou. His English did not enable him to follow our conversation which we had decided to resume. However, he would interrupt us repeatedly by initiating comments and questions on other subjects. He stayed in our car for quite some time.

Humor as Protest

Our guide in Lanzhou, David, was a study in the use of humor as a safe means to protest under an authoritarian regime. “Our politicians in Beijing like to do Tai Chi,” he said. Demonstrating, he moved his body following both stretched hands to one side as though throwing something out: “not my responsibility,” he said, pretending to be the imaginary politicians. Then he reversed the motions of the body and hands to the other side: “not my fault.” We laughed. Cleverly, he did a balancing hedge.  Pointing to the constant mist and fog of Lanzhou which is the center of Chinese nuclear weapons research, David said “the CIA’s sophisticated aerial surveillance has concluded that these consist of umbrellas that China has put up to conceal its research facilities.” Another laugh, this time at the expense of foreigners, allowed David to come back to his domestic subject. He told the story of a farmer with a donkey who was being taught by the police not to cross the intersection when the light was red. At this very time, however, some military vehicles drove by and blatantly ignored that traffic rule. The farmer now admonished his disobedient donkey: “Why are you crossing while the light is red. Are you the military?” David would later explain, “You see no soldiers on the streets in China. They are called armed police.”

Inevitable Accident

David’s territory included the sensitive areas of “Minorities” in China, and it was on the way to their domain that he used the metaphor of suppression. “We need machine guns,” he said. However, he was not referring to the Minorities; his targets were drivers in an accident that delayed us for more than two hours. The highway that connects Lanzhou, a transportation hub, to points south is important for commerce and it was crowded with trucks as well as buses and cars. Only a narrow two way road, it looked neglected compared to the numerous superhighways that ring Beijing to facilitate the “politicians” commute. Long stretches of this road was under construction, not to expand it but to rectify a mistake in the original construction that neglected to provide for adequate drainage. As a result, in many places the road was reduced to one lane, with a big hole dug on the other, where pipes were being laid. Opposing traffic had to take turns at these points, which was unappealing to many impatient drivers. Their game of chicken finally produced a head-on collision between a truck and a bus near the town of Linxia. Traffic backed up on both sides, with vehicles parking on every inch of the both lanes, while police, insurance adjusters, mechanics were called.

Despite David’s cynical expectations, no fight broke out. In fact, a carnival atmosphere emerged in the beautiful green countryside with the hills in the distance. Curious cows crossed the shoulders to mingle with us. There were so many idle people around that a French tourist suggested that shovels be brought so that we could manually fill the hole in the lane next to the accident to enable passage. As with so many ideas from France this sounded good in theory but evidently no Chinese in charge thought it would really work.


“Their features are almost the same as the Hans; the only difference is their religion,” David said in reference to the Chinese Muslims who are the majority population of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture. In fact, these Muslims compromised several “Chinese Minorities”: Hui, Dongxiang, Baoan, and Salar. To our untrained eyes, however, both they and the “Chinese Minority” Tibetans were distinguishable from the Hans (“non-Minority” Chinese) not physically but by their clothes, foods, and the architecture of their buildings. In Linxia I bought a rimless hat of the type the locals wore -which allow the Muslims to touch the ground with their forehead as they pray- and my first flat bread made in an open oven of the type found in Central Asia. We also had our first taste of noodles with spices distinct from those customarily associated with “Chinese food.” Both here and in the town of Quanghe we saw numerous mosques.

An elaborate gate on the road physically separated this Muslim Prefecture from the neighboring Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.  On the other side, the hilly road rose from the valley steadily to the Labrang Monastery at about 10,000 feet. There were other Buddhist temples and buildings along the road, but they were dwarfed by this lamasery.  We stayed at the nearby hotel with its bare rooms and virtually no heat or hot water, and woke up at 4:30 to witness the monks’ procession to their morning meditation in the great hall. Starting at 5:10 they came individually and in small groups from all directions. Their fuchsia color robes almost touched the ground. Some wore special hats. They sat in rows on cushions. The leader was in the center with the light focused on him. They chanted. After twenty minutes we were motioned to leave, because the main event was over. In all, this was colorful and uplifting.

Outside we saw two women who walked fast circling the main hall several times, in a devotional exercise.  Slowly, the sun came out. The scenery was superb, but I suspect it was the mystique of “Tibet” that caused our group to stay around and take so many pictures. We realized we had reached saturation when we found ourselves photographing each other taking pictures. Then we went to a store that sold souvenir trinkets not any more authentic than you could find in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. I had no choice but to go along with the group’s wish. I felt cold; I was bored and I could not conceal it; my expressions annoyed avid shoppers in our group.

Yellow River Buddhas

In our short time in Lanzhou we also squeezed in a visit to the Binglingsi Thousand Buddha Caves. To get there, after a long bus ride, we sailed on the boat upstream on the Yellow River. We landed at the entrance to the caves in the middle of magnificent huge red rocks -only the carved Buddhas were more impressive. We were greeted by women peddlers who swung their beads and textiles before our eyes while saying “you come back”, the sole marketing slogan they had learned.

Middle Kingdom

David was an exceptional guide. I especially liked his enterprising spirit. He knew a lot about digital photography which he had put to good use. He showed me the marvelous collection of pictures of children which he had just had printed. He would show them also to his many contacts along our tour road. He had been in the tour business for more than ten years, accommodating different employers. He held two jobs; the other was with an adoption agency. I took him to exemplify those who were now shaping China. Once, as we were waiting for others to board the bus, I was showing him my pictures of Tiananmen Square which was dominated by Mao’s visage. I asked, “Why haven’t I seen any  sign of him in Lanzhou?” David said nothing, but led me to the other side of the street and pointed at the Statute of the Chairman at the intersection which I had missed. “Is he popular?” I persisted. David smiled, “Mao is seventy-thirty; seventy percent good and thirty percent bad.” Then David hedged, characteristically, “That is what people say about him here.” David wanted to avoid attribution. On the map of China, Lanzhou is close to the center. I was willing to accept that assessment of Mao, and the Communist regime which he represented, as the view of “middle China”.

Toll of the Trip

The pace of our tour had exhausted most of us by the time we took the plane out of Lanzhou that night, at 10:30. In the past three days we had been in the bus driving on roads full of potholes for more than 10 hours a day, having slept on the train or in uncomfortable beds for no more than 5 hours a night. When we landed in Dunhuang, it was past midnight. Very few lights were on in the airport and in the confusion, our new guide missed my bag when he delivered our luggage to the hotel. My anxiety that someone might have taken it was real that night, even if unfounded, since the bag was still in the airport the next morning.


The landscape in Dunhuang was dramatically different from what I had seen thus far in China. This was a desert and a beautiful one at that, claimed to be the most scenic in all of the Silk Road. It was easy to accept that local boast as I rode a two-hump camel, for fun, on the yellow sand dunes just outside the town toward the small Lake of the Crescent Moon. This was my first such ride, even though as a child in my hometown I had seen camels used routinely for delivering goods.

Buddhism was brought to China from Central Asia via the Silk Road by travelers on the camel’s back. Their legacy was spectacularly recorded in Mogao Caves near Dunhuang. There I saw old wall-paintings which combined Chinese styles with influences from Persia and India, still in vibrant colors. These and equally precious statues, created over a millennium from the 4th Century onward, constituted a truly unique art gallery in the desert. Our docent was, appropriately, a research associate at the Dunhuang Research Academy, which is dedicated to “Dunhuangology,” or the study of not only these art works but also volumes of religious texts and many manuscripts found here on history, economics, medicine, literature, and customs. The guide took us to Cave 17 where these remarkable documents had been found in the late 19th Century.  She informed us that the manuscripts were in many languages. I told her of my special interest in the Sogdian texts, as they could illuminate the crucial link that the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people of Central Asia, played in connecting China and India. She took me to her office and I met her associates. We agreed to stay in touch.

That afternoon, we drove from Dunhuang to the hamlet of Liuyuam to catch the train to Turpin. The local grocery store was surprisingly well-stocked with the provisions we sought for our overnight trip. The train station was overcrowded, and everyone was talking at the loudest decibel. Station agents had to make their announcements with a hand-held bullhorn, yet they were barely audible over the cacophony. We rode that night parallel to the imposing shadow of the distant Altai Mountains.

Chinese Turkestan

When we arrived in Turpan at dawn, we were met by another striking sight: many people were lying on blankets spread on the street before the station, waiting to board the next train. Very few of these looked Chinese. We were now in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region where the dominant group was the Turkic Uygurs with physical features distinct from the Han Chinese. In the West, when I heard about the Chinese “Muslim problem” the reference was usually to Xinjiang. Historically a part of Turkestan which extended to the Caspian Sea, this had been the region of China most exposed to influences from Islamic and Persian and civilizations.

When the bus that took us from the train station arrived at our hotel, I read its name inscribed in Persian at the entrance:   Boostan Mehmankhaneh (The Garden Hotel). The long pedestrian mall that connected the hotel to the center of town was covered by a grapevine-wrapped trellis, creating a Middle Eastern ambiance. Around the mall store names, many of them Persian, were written in Arabic script. That evening we went to a concert of folkloric music in an outdoor setting which transported me, in imagination, to Turkey.

The most prominent building in Turpan, the Emin Minaret, was built by a Uygur ruler in the 1770s. In the Mosque which was next to the Minaret, I met a venerable looking Muslim Imam and his entourage. They all wore white. They responded warmly when I greeted them, “Assalam aleikum.”  [20] In the outskirts of Turpan we visited its other major attraction, the irrigation system of karez [21]. A succession of wells connected by underground channels which used gravity to bring water from high elevations, karez (a Persian word, interchangeable with qanat) was an example of Persian technology, long ago transferred to China via the Silk Road.

“Turpan Expeditions” from Europe in the 20th Century, unearthed ancient manuscripts in the ruins of the city of Gaochang, a few miles from Turpan, which revolutionized oriental, religious, linguistic, and literary studies. Among them were the only extant Manichaean scriptures, illuminating our knowledge about that long lost Persian religion, and revealing the exodus of the followers of Mani, the ancient Persian prophet who challenged the official creed Zoroastrianism. To explore the dusty remains of Gaochang, we joined the local tourists and rode a donkey-driven cart. This frolicking atmosphere was accentuated by the presence of souvenir vendors with their colorful goods.  The one who engaged me, communicated her prices by writing the numbers on the palm of her hand.  It was from a shop at an opening to the karez, however, that I bought a documentary relic of contemporary China: a 1960s poster showing Mao and his lieutenants -including the then favorite Lin Piao- all waiving his Red Book.

When we went to the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves, we met the more serious Japanese tourists. They had come in search of their own heritage, the ancient traces of Japanese Buddhism as transmitted from Central Asia. The murals of these caves survived in rich and fresh colors to tell the history of a thousand years. In the 20th Century, however, European explorers cut up and removed the best of them to museums in their own countries. The ones they left had long been subjected to desecration by the local Muslim fanatics who considered them symbols of idolatry. In China one often hears about the intentional destruction of cultural monuments by the Red Guard. In that, they were not original.

Colonial Seat

We drove by bus from Turpan to Urumqi on a road that passed through pristine pastures before the majestic Heavenly Mountains.  We saw many windmills, indication that we were approaching a much more modern city. Urumqi was established by China in 1762. It was first called Dihua, meaning “to enlighten and civilize,” which was the Chinese attitude toward the local population. Today, it continues to be the capital of Xinjiang and it is still largely populated by the Hans. The picturesque parts of this big city, however, are its Uygur markets, like the Erado Qiao which we visited.  A new feature for us here was the outdoor Shashlik cafes, the evidence of years of Russian influence in this bordering part of Xinjiang. I climbed the tower in the middle of the market. In the circular room on the top, the walls were covered with pictures of government officials from Beijing.

We went to the Urumqi Museum because one member of our group was intrigued by reports that it had ancient blonde and blue-eyed corpses in its collection. He was from Scotland and speculated that the corpses might be from his homeland -many were looking for traces of their heritage on this trip. There were indeed several well-preserved ancient corpses in the Museum, but each had been identified to be from a specific local ethnic people.

The Museum had other ancient artifacts described in English and Cyrillic.  One was a vase tagged with its Uygur name, ghadah kuzeh (pottery vase). I read it loud. Two steps away, a woman and a child were squatting, eating watermelon seeds. The woman was surprised that I could pronounce those Persian words. She now volunteered to show us the museum. We learned that she was, in fact, the museum guide, having come from Shanghai only a month before. She gave me her two email addresses to send the pictures we took with her. Both included the number 5. I asked why. She said the number referred to her family of two parents and their three children. Once again, the vaunted Chinese population control rules showed us a loophole.

Our Guide Sarah

Our national tour guide in China, Sarah, was a Han who lived in Urumqi. She disliked her job. It took her away from home on difficult trips throughout China. She was paid only $12.5 a day. Sarah was diligent, efficient and courteous, but she did not have the ebullient personality required to please foreign visitors.  China’s vibrancy dissipated in her presentation. She had been at this job for five year and she was burned out. Sarah told me that next year she would try to get a job teaching school, like her mother. I wondered if she did not reflect the ennui of the larger Han community of Urumqi who were transposed upon the Uygurs of Xinjiang to guard China’s far away western frontiers.

Sarah’s one big mistake was failing to screen the hotel chosen for us in Kashgar by the local guide. As we arrived in the lobby late at night, we were greeted by a man in his pajamas who, we later learned, was the manager. The soiled carpet here was partly covered by a long white rag; its dirt and tear were more exposed in the corridors of the second floor where my room was. There was no water in the toilet but the plumbing leaked elsewhere in my bathroom. We were served breakfast in a hall which had an empty frame for a missing television screen, affixed to the upper corner of a wall. Sarah responded to protests from many in the group by hastily arranging a move to another hotel the next morning -designated for foreigners, she explained, unlike the previous hotel which was for Chinese tourists. A row of four receptionists welcomed us at the entrance to this hotel which had a newly carpeted lobby and “three star bathrooms”.


The government buildings that the Chinese Communists had built encircle Kashgar. Inside, it is a medieval town of riotous colors. I sat in the front seat of a taxi as it maneuvered through men, animals, and a wide assortment of vehicles toward the covered bazaar. Along the way we passed mosques and minarets of different vintages, representing the many phases of the history of this city which was first mentioned in Persian documents of some 2000 years ago.

The main bazaar was the town’s regular marketplace for all kinds of goods.  We also had the special treat of visiting the weekly Sunday Bazaar on its own separate grounds. I passed through rows of watermelons which the local farmers had brought to sell , and came upon cobblers who were repairing shoes while their customers waited barefoot. There were food stalls exuding exotic aromas. Behind them, the sheep for sale were arranged in double lines, creating the illusion that they had their heads screwed on backwards.  You could also buy cows here. The most animated scene, however, was where the horses were. Here I saw three customers testing their choices by galloping them up and down the field.

Kashgar’s Idkah Mosque is the largest in China with the capacity for 10,000 worshipers. Only a few were there on the day I visited it.  Our Muslim guide said he prayed in a mosque only once a day.  He was not particularly knowledgeable about his religion; he said that in praying he faced the prophet’s tomb but he was corrected as the orientation is instead toward the rock of Kaaba in Mecca. Idkah is a Sunni Mosque but its only elegant furnishing was a carpet from the Shiite President of Iran who visited in the 1980s.

I could picture joyous celebrations in the beautiful space that was the plaza before the Mosque. Idkah was a most appropriate name as it meant a place for festivities in Persian. The alleys around the Idkah were jammed with traditional shops. There were copper smiths, haberdashers, tea shops , pharmacy, and shashlik stands.  Some men were playing chess.  I walked into a store that sold local musical instruments. A man in his forties was playing the kamanche, an ancient Persian string instrument. I sat next to him, listening. The piece was Beethoven’s Fur Elize, unexpected in that setting but very soothing. He told me that he was a fifth generation kamanche maker.

For dinner we went to Chini Bagh, once a famous center of international intrigues. It was the residence of British India’s representative in Kashgar during the Great Game rivalry with the Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. A most charming building and evocative of nostalgia for British visitors who flocked there, Chini Bagh now seemed totally out of place. It was flanked on one side by the crumbling mud houses of the oldest district of town [38] and on the other side by a plaza hosting one of the biggest statutes of Mao I had seen in China -at a height of 60 feet.

Passage Out


Historically, Kashgar’s raison d’etre was its location near the gaps on the high Pamir Mountains which allowed passage between China and its neighbors in Central Asia. Early on the morning of my last day in China, we boarded our bus to go to the Irkeshtam Pass at the border with Kyrgyzstan. As we climbed the steep road, the temperature dropped. We stopped at a road-stand and bought bread for breakfast. It now began to drizzle. The potholes were getting bigger too, and we felt the discomfort of our aging vehicle even more. Suddenly we came to a full stop. A police car had blocked the road, and beyond it we saw an idle construction truck. A stream was running over the road. It was hard to tell if this was a runoff of the current light rain.

We had no choice but to wait, but we were getting anxious because there was only a window of a few hours for crossing the pass. We had been told that much advance planning had been required to synchronize the brief times that the border offices of these two countries at this pass would both be open. When the truck driver resumed work we sped to the frontier and reached the Chinese customs and immigration offices at 8523 feet above the sea. We were processed with deliberate speed. Now we had to make arrangements to cross the long “no-man’s-land” which was the distance to the Kyrgyz border. At first we were told that a Chinese official vehicle would take us. Eventually, however, a Chinese Officer boarded our bus and we started off.

We drove slowly through one mile of desolate space. At the end of it there were some structures that housed the Chinese observation post. When our bus stopped we were told that our Kyrgyz guide was on his way to meet us. Our luggage was unloaded. Our Chinese guides were apologetic because they now had to go back with the Officer in their bus. We were no longer their charge, but they departed reluctantly as there was no sign of our Kyrgyz guide. We were left standing with our luggage in the cold barren land, facing the Kyrgyz border guards who looked very young with their big weapons hung on their shoulders. We did not speak their language and they spoke very little of ours.


This article was published on January 24, 2006 on the Website of which also has the related pictures.              

Silk Road: The Ancient Highway for Globalisation


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: There could be no greater wall between the two major civilizations of the ancient world: one in Persia and the other in China. The Pamir Mountains rose up to thousands of feet. Yet they were bridged by the sheer cooperative instinct of humanity. Last fall, I crossed the Irkeshtam Pass as I looked on both sides of the fabled Silk Road which I traveled from Xinjiang all the way to Beijing on the East and from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all the way to Khiva on the West. I saw the genius of our common heritage long-ago exchanged in what remains of the once fabulous Samarkand, Bukhara, Osh, Kashgar, Turpan, Dunhaung, and Xian. They conjured up parables suitable for our times of need. I brought back memories which I would like to share with you here.   

keywords: Silk Road* Globalization* Persia* China*




            The wall separating the two great civilizations of the ancient world, Persia and China was real; it was physical. The Pamir Mountains are so called, meaning the “foot of Mitra”, because they were so high: they were the closest that man got to the Sun God of Mithraism, the ancient Persian religion. Passage through these mountains is still extremely difficult. I experienced this on the morning of September 12 of last year. I was at the Irkeshtam Pass. We had to cross the Kyrgyz Republic on a rutted segment of the Silk Road to get from China to Uzbekistan.  Beyond the barbed wire that separated us, Kyrgyzstan looked forbidding. An unshaven young man with an automatic weapon slung on his shoulders was ruffling through the pages of my passport. He said a few words to another man standing next to him. My eyes were averted to the grey brown parka the latter was wearing. There were food stains on it. I did not understand what was spoken between them. There were two more young men. They were short and stocky. They were curious about us. There were 13 of us, tourists who had come from China. Our bus had left. We could not return to China, for we had gone through the Chinese immigration checkpoint. Our luggage was on the ground.  We were waiting for our Kyrgyz guide without whom we could not enter this country.  Inexplicably, there was no sign of him. The landscape was scraggy and barren – no trees. A dirt road led to the horizon.

            That day we did make it to Sari Tash and then to Osh at the border of Uzbekistan and beyond. The real miracle was that people had done it as early as centuries before Christ. A good evidence for this is the Manichaean manuscripts found in the ancient city of Goachang, near Turpan, Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan). They reveal the exodus from Iran of the followers of Mani, the ancient Persian prophet who challenged the official creed, Zoroastrianism. Goachang, which I had visited just a few days before, was in a desert 260 feet below the sea level!  Note, however, the equally remarkable fact that from early on the exchange across these formidable barriers was not just of goods but also of ideas.

            As it is in human history, the basic ideas have not changed that much; their applications have changed due to the change in the circumstances. Take the first insertion of Persian power to this area. It was to eliminate the terror caused by the marauding Sakas (Sycthians) that in 530 B.C brought Cyrus the Great here. Some two centuries later, Alexander the Great came this way in his relentless ambition to expand his empire. A hundred years after that, the Chinese Emperor Wudi sent his emissary, Zhang Qian, to Ferghana valley in present day Uzbekistan in a quest for alliance with the Yuezhi people against their common enemy, the Huns.

            It was not only security, peace, and stability that preoccupied the travelers of the Silk Road. The territory they traversed in Central Asian was controlled by the Sogdians, who were Persian speaking and Zoroastrian. They were, however, tolerant of other creeds, and received in their midst the followers of other religions: Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, Nestorianism, and Buddhism.  In Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum I saw a series of magnificent 7th century Sogdian murals, more than six feet high, that covered a circular room. A bridal procession depicted a princess astride a white elephant who led several maids, camel-riders, horsemen, and swans. The ruler of Samarkand was in another panel, accepting offerings from foreigners: Chinese with gifts of silk, Turks with long hair, Koreans with pigtails, and villagers from the mountain of Pamir. In the next frame was a Chinese beauty sailing in a boat and, on the banks of the water, several horsemen hunting a leopard.

            The Sogdians were pivotal as the channel for the transmission of Buddhism to China from the Kushans in India. In Dunhaung , west of Xinjiang in China, I visited caves that have yielded invaluable manuscripts about this phenomenon. Due to shortage of paper, these Buddhist religious texts were written on whatever scarps which could be found, including the reverse side of ordinary commercial and personal correspondence.  Based on these documents, Dunhuangology has become a special field that has revealed as much about Chinese Buddhism as it has about the social and economic history of the globalizing highway that passed through here. Many of these documents are in the old Persian language of the Sogdians. In the fifth and sixth centuries, glass, horses, and perfumes were imported here from the West and raw silk was exported from China. In other parts of the Silk Road, westbound caravans brought furs, ceramics, cinnamon bark, rhubarb, and bronze weapons; while the eastbound traffic contained gold, precious metals and stones, textiles, ivory, and coral.

            By the 8th century the Persians had learned the art of sericulture from the Chinese. They, in turn, transferred a most valuable technology of their own to China, the irrigation system of karez  which I saw in the outskirts of Turpan. A succession of wells connected by underground channels which used gravity to bring water from high elevations, karez (a Persian word, interchangeable with qanat) was vital for the agrarian society of these arid lands.

            The Silk Road continued to be the main channel for Globalization even after the sea routes gradually eroded its commercial role. By the end of the 8th century ships from the Middle East were regularly calling on the Chinese city of Guangzhou (Canton). The spread of Islam, however, came by land. After the battle of Talas in 751 sealed its domination of Central Asia, Islam introduced a complex mix of religion, art, and architecture, imbued with local elements, which spread to the frontiers of Xian , the ancient capital of China. For many centauries, the polyglot and multiethnic peoples of Turkestan, a vast territory that extended west from Xian to the Caspian Sea, identified themselves simply as Muslims. With Samarkand  and Bukhara  as their pivot, from the 10th century to the mid 15th century they established the most advanced civilization of the time, the Persian Islamic civilization. With the exception of the Persian Samanids, the rulers were mostly Mongol and Turks — nomads who adopted Persian culture and language. The scope of their ambition was universal. Genghis Khan’s descendants — who even ruled China for sometime — were succeeded by Tamerlane and his descendants, and then the chiefs of various Turkic tribes.

            The luminaries who had major roles in developing that glorious civilization are now claimed by disparate groups in this fragmented region. I noted in the Museums of Tashkent and Samarkand that Uzbekistan has appropriated the legacy of many as its own. Thus, among its favorite sons   are: Rudaki who is considered to be “the founding father” of Persian poetry; Al-Khorezmi” who invented algorithm, which is his namesake; “Avicenna” whose Qanun had been the standard medical textbook in Europe for half a millennium until the 19th century; and Farabi,

the greatest of all Muslim philosophers, who was the channel for transmitting the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle to the modern world.

            These same luminaries, however, are claimed by Iran because they were from Persian families and spoke Persian; they were indeed the principles in Iran’s “Golden Century” under the Samanids. On the other hand, the scientists Farabi and Avicenna mostly wrote in Arabic — because it was the official language of the realm, and the creation of Persian as a technical language was still taking shape. That fact has given the Arabs a reason to also claim these luminaries.

            How does one resolve the dispute that follows when several nations assert an exclusive right to the legacy of these men? The only solution may be to describe them as the heritage of (all) humanity, to paraphrase UNESCO’s appellation given to so many monuments on the old Silk Road.

            Let us now pause a moment and ponder the word globalization, the broader subject of this presentation. It evokes the shape of the globe. Depending on where you are on that globe, the rest of the globe looks different: it is on your right, or left, or above or below you. This metaphor gains huge significance when regarded as the phenomenon of ethnocentricity. In that light, it is noteworthy that the Silk Road did not really exist until it was coined by the German explorer Richthofen in 1877, as Seidenstrasse. The ancient superhighways, with their multitude of tributaries , which were the conduit of many exchanges of goods and ideas between the Persian and Chinese civilizations, did not have any specific name. The silk that went to Rome was not, in fact, a very significant part of this process of globalization. For the European scholars of the 19th century, however, it was the focus of attention. In that sense, theirs was a warped view. On the other hand, in the books on China, the attention is focused on the significance of the Silk Road for that country. The difference is understandable. So is the reason for the claims by various Islamic nations to this region’s luminaries as noted above. What all these perspectives suffer from is the fragmented vision of the one earth we all share. What is needed — for the common good — is the integration of those visions.


This Article was delivered as a paper at the Globalization for the Common Good Conference in Hawaii in June 2006. It was published in 2006 on the Website of the Journal of the Globalization for the Common Good; and then separately at the Website of the Protocol Processionals Inc. They both have the related pictures.