We arrived at Domodedovo airport on a Sunday afternoon, dazed from the international flight and the general lack of coffee. The half-hour taxi ride to our hotel end up taking four times that long – I dozed against the backseat window, waking now and then at sudden changes in velocity to see flashes of concrete and traffic jams.
We stayed at the Hotel Sovietsky, an aging grande dame from the 50s with marble columns and velvet curtains and black and white portraits of Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher on the wall of honored guests, a red neon sickle and hammer lit up every night at the apex of the façade. Four metro stops from Red Square, it felt like another city entirely.
Twenty-first century Moscow is a sprawling wasteland of urban decay surrounding a crunchy imperialist center. Endless miles of exhaust-choked streets and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks surround the manicured grounds of the Kremlin, a Disneyland fortress of autocracy behind its high brick walls offering a variety of tours and historical exhibits even as the legless cripples left by the USSR beg for spare Rubles on the sidewalks. It's a strange thing, the corpse of totalitarianism on carefully curated display while the suffering of its people is still etched on the silent, cheerless faces on the metro. It's a short walk now from Red Square to Armani Emporio and Prada, but outside the small historical core the city seems more third world than first – tenement-style neighborhoods grayed by smog and circled by traffic jams that never seem to let up.
Moscow is a uniquely unapproachable city, its inhabitants as shuttered as the tourist attractions which were inevitably closed for unexplained reasons. We saw a lot of historic buildings through closed gates. I’ve also never been to a place where it was more difficult to communicate – not only because few people speak English, even in the tourist trades, but also because no effort was made to communicate through signing or common words. It is the first country, for example, where I have been unable to order fast food.
It was a relief to take the train to St. Petersburg on Wednesday evening. Russia’s second city is a sort of second rate European capital – 19th century facades of aristocratic boulevards grimy with pollution fronting courtyards of naked brick, rust on window frames and graffiti adorning the worn plaster. A third of the important buildings are under renovation and draped with scaffolding, while the rest seem in need of similar treatment. We visited the Hermitage and saw great works of art displayed rather poorly – three conjoined palaces turned to a museum, the lavish rooms with frescoed walls and massive chandeliers are rather better at palatial ostentation than effectively illuminating oil paintings.
On our second day we visited Peterhof, the country palace of Peter the Great a half hour’s hydrofoil cruise down the river and across the bay from the city. I’d been there previously, when I was five and the city was Leningrad. At that age, the gilded fountains cascading down into the gardens were taken for real gold, and the recently renovated rooms were unquestionably princely. Today, the restoration (the place was of course gutted completely in the Revolution) is obvious and not entirely convincing – a dictator’s fantasy of a tsarist retreat, the urge to possess what one had destroyed played out on the same monumental scale that turned every public building into a forbidding fortress of industry. Still, it was pleasant to while away an afternoon in the countryside amid the half dozen bridal parties that had arrived to take photographs.
I spent the next morning dashing around to see a bit more of the city – churches and parks and canals and some sort of festival in Palace Square complete with Coca Cola umbrellas, where twenty-three years ago there had been only us and our guide and the heavily-armed guards.
In the evening, after three hours in the Pulkovo airport’s mystifying domestic terminal, we flew to Uzbekistan, only to spend another two hours attempting to get through customs in Tashkent, first filling out forms available only in Russian and then waiting in an interminable line as the customs inspector on duty stepped off for regular cigarette breaks, and then re-filling-out the forms in English when our turn came and he deemed our previous versions insufficient. Eventually we emerged into the awkward care of Anton, our local tour operator who had been sent out to supervise us although he had no training as a guide nor any other discernable expertise beyond the ability to speak English as well as Russian (though not Uzbek, which is of course not taught in the Russian schools, even after it became the official language seventeen years ago upon the nation’s independence from the USSR).
After a few hours of grateful sleep at the slightly dated Intercontinental hotel, we set off on a bizarre city tour, narrated by Anton without any reliable content about the current or historic nature of the sights. Tashkent is a leafy, low density city without a notable downtown, home to some 3.5 million, though it’s hard to see where they’re all kept. A few historic madrassahs of no particular significance are the only interruption to the acultural twentieth century architecture of generic urbanism. We visited a wide variety of parks, all featuring fountains (a sign of wealth in a water-poor state) and oversized bronze statues of Uzbek heroes and symbols which were commissioned to replace Marx, Lenin, et al with more thought for nationalism than artistic intent. We rode the metro back and forth to admire the décor of the various stations, and after yet another park (statue of Tamerlane, a fountain in each quadrant) and some sitting on a bench, we headed back to the airport for an hour and a half flight to Urgench in western Uzbekistan.
The aging Russian plane was of the sort where, even upon a safe landing, one does not quite relax until actually deplaned for fear that it might at any moment spontaneously catch fire or fall apart even when standing still with the engines off. The less said about its temperature control and air quality the better – I will just add that the latter was remarkable even in a nation where subway cars are ventilated by opening the windows.
Urgench is a half hour’s drive from Khiva, a town of some twenty-thousand, the historic core of which is an open air museum, madrassahs and mosques stopped in time from the nineteenth century, when the Khan ruled from the Ark Fortress with absolute power, and the five times daily call to prayers echoed and re-echoed across cobblestone streets from one minaret to the next, cutting through the din of the bazaar where melons and silks and slaves were sold side by side. A city has existed here for two thousand years, first as a desert oasis and then as a stop on the silk road and capital of a petty empire, conquered, razed, and rebuilt a half dozen times over a colorful history (the color in question frequently being blood red).
Khiva was still stuck in the medieval mode, where students of Islam rubbed shoulders with brigands in the crowded streets and the wives and concubines of the Khan presided over a tiny blue-tiled world within the new palace by the eastern gate when ambassadors and spies of the Russian tsars and British monarchs vied for influence in their game of empires, bearing flattering words and exotic gifts to a strategic kingdom too small to resist the juggernaut of modernity bearing down upon it. The city was pressed into service of St. Petersburg, and then socialist revolution brought in the might of the Russian army a final and ultimately devastating time. The illusion of local rule went up in smoke and for seventy years mosques served as granaries and madrassahs as prisons.
Now it is a jumble of confused museums and photo opportunities for tourists as Khiva has become a different sort of cultural crossroads, where tour groups from France and Japan come together in a clamor of accents bearing telephoto cameras and zippered pouches full of cash (a dollar is worth 1,334 Uzbek soum and rising fast). Vendors hawk sheepskin hats and Chinese textiles passed off as handmade in a dozen languages while bands of children beg for bon bons and attention. It is a pressed flower of a city, a salvaged stanza of a forgotten verse, hinting at what once was, suggesting sun-baked afternoons redolent with cut peaches and the sharp odor of unwashed camels, the melancholy strains of a sitar from a shady courtyard, the brush of silk dresses over piled carpets and the clamor of executions in the central square where today men in shirt sleeves sip sodas in plastic chairs.
It is an eight hour drive from Khiva to Bukhara, one we spent cramped in the backseat of a compact Daewoo sedan, as Anton and Ilhom the driver were upfront and occupying most of the legroom. The countryside has two components: irrigated fields reclaimed from the desert by hundreds of kilometers of water pipelines draining the region’s rivers, where homes made of brick plastered with mud and straw or, for the less fortunate, just mud, are scattered among corn and cotton fields interspersed with fruit trees, and the desert itself – flat, scrubby, sandy expanses without any sign of human or animal activity except the occasional construction crew doing work on the highway. The main lesson of the trip was this: if you have a choice between using an Uzbek public restroom and a bush, take the bush and try for one upwind of the facilities.
Bukhara is a regional capital, once the seat of a principality ruled by emirs, a city with a madrassah for every day of the year and a neighborhood for each of the dozen peoples who arrived on the silk road. Trading domes rose around the city: one each for the hat makers, the money changers, the jewelers, the spice merchants, and the silk traders, and desert-weary merchants bathed in one of a dozen hamams and rested in the caravansaries after unloading their goods from their camels into basement storerooms. Six centuries later, the trading domes are still packed with stalls displaying carpets and jewelry, silks and fine metal work and spices, and men still gather around the reservoir pools after work to smoke and eat grilled shashlik. Only two of the madrassahs are still functioning, however – many have been destroyed, and most of those remaining are makeshift bazaars with a boutique for tourists in each student’s cell and an extra large shop in the mosque. One also has a restaurant for cultural shows where girls perform traditional dances for Europeans who drink beer and eat a three course dinner, even during Ramadan.
The Ark Fortress of the emirs was destroyed almost totally by Soviet bombers in 1924 – the front gateway and a few adjacent areas (the receiving courtyard, the mosque, the stables) have been rebuilt. The rest of the compound is rubble with only a few small fragments of walls signifying that it was ever anything but a pile of dirt – it is theoretically an “archeological area” off limits to tourists, but the policeman guarding it will unlock the gate for a small bribe, and its rear edge offers an excellent view of the old city, as the entire fortress is built about fifteen meters above ground level.
We toured the sights on a sun-drenched Wednesday, and then haggled for a carpet before dinner, playing our part in a millennium old tradition of foreign trade. By this point, my mother’s growing intolerance for Anton the tour escort reached an apex at which she barred him from accompanying us on tours or to meals, which he had set out to do with great regularity and very little charm, apparently viewing us mainly as a ticket to an all-expense-paid vacation to places he knew no better than we did. He habitually made up implausible answers to all of our questions. (Q: What’s the inflation rate here? A: No one knows. We do not have one. Q: What’s that big column of smoke off in the desert? A: It is a dust storm. They look like that here. It is very common. Q: Why are we eating leftovers from out hotel’s free breakfast when everyone else at the restaurant has such lovely fresh food? A: This is a very expensive picnic. Much better than the food here. Q: And why aren’t we staying at that hotel we requested? A: It is closed for repair. Q: But then why did the man at the reception desk say they were open and have rooms available? A: They have very bad service.) Anton’s semi-exile required quite a bit of repetition, as instructions to leave us alone wore off at ten minute intervals, but Mom can be quite insistent. His final and total expulsion from our party did not occur until we prepared to depart for Samarkand the following morning, and required a lengthy argument with the manager at the tour company via cell phone on the sidewalk outside our hotel.
Once Anton was deposited at the taxi station to make his way back to Tashkent independently, the mood in our Daewoo lifted immediately, due only in part to the sudden increase in legroom. Our driver put on a jazz CD and also revealed that he spoke somewhat halting English. He began to identify the passing sights for us. We stopped for a few minutes at the remains of a sixteenth century caravansary, consisting of the domed cistern on one side of the highway and the entry portal and front wall of the accommodations on the other. Behind the tall doorway, little but the foundations of the cells remained. Five hundred years ago, these sanctuaries were set along the trade trail, each a day’s camel trek from the last like pearls strung across the neck of the desert. Missing one could mean death. It takes only a glance at the barren scenery to imagine how it must have been – anxious hours of heat and land bare but for dusty thorn bushes that grow without any visible source of nourishment, and finally as the sun sinks behind you, a glint of something on the horizon, a flash of red, and at last the spark resolves into the flaming beacon of a shelter, high brick walls rising like a palace, an answered prayer. There is water for the men and the camels, and hot food, and a bed, and in the center courtyard travelers gather and trade news of India and Italy as much as shared language will permit. A city was not a city without a caravansary, no matter how grand its mosque.
We arrived in Samarkand in the early afternoon. Despite the evocative name, it’s a bustling modern city – once the nation’s capital – and its historic sites are small islands surrounded by wide, busy streets and low rise offices and hotel blocks. In the morning, we saw the Bibi Khanum mosque, built by Tamerlane on a scale too heroic for the engineering of his day – it began collapsing almost as soon as it was completed, and remains one of the few un-restored monuments where the passage of time can be seen. Birds nest in the remnants of the main dome, and the stairs up to the minarets lead nowhere.
Then we visited the Shah-I-Zinda necropolis, on a hillside at the edge of town, a narrow lane of tile-clad mausoleums built over a series of centuries. Reputed (inaccurately) to be the burial place of Mohammed’s cousin, it holds relatives of Tamerlane, generals, and the odd prominent citizen, each with their own chapel. The interiors are lavishly decorated, some with elaborately glazed turquoise tile, others coffered plaster painted with blues and gold.
Our guide in Samarkand was a young woman named Lola, who had spent a year as an exchange student in Portland, during high school and still looked the part. About to start her final year at university, she works as a tour guide to raise money and wants to come back to America, or maybe try Europe, for graduate school. She hopes not to return afterward. It is difficult to be a woman of progressive ideals and independent spirit in Uzbekistan these days.
She took us to Gur Emir, Tamerlane’s grandiose mausoleum, and the Registan, a square flanked by three tiled Madrassahs, where in the evenings a light show flashes red and green at the mosaic facades as sentimental nationalist poetry in English blares from speakers. A series of increasingly ill-advised and amateurishly-executed restorations over the last fifty years has left the Registan looking shiny and new – sort of like a really elaborate Epcot exhibit – making one almost wish for some atmospheric camel dung.
From Samarkand it was a final drive back to Tashkent, one more aimless tour of a city with no real sights, and then up before dawn for the three-stage flight back home. We landed Sunday evening, though my suitcase didn’t arrive until I was at work on Monday, trying to pretend my mind wasn’t twelve time zones away.
A week later, I took my mom to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai. She remained in the hospital for thirteen days – two days less than our sojourn in the east.
Also, my (typically copious) photo album is now uploaded and can be found here. Have some free samples: