WE TOOK A TURBO-PROP ON THE GOLDEN ROAD TO SAMARKAND
A journey by the hostess of CBC-TV’s Take Thirty and her husband through the exotic, ancient splendors of Russia’s Asiatic plain
GOING TO SAMARKAND has something of the air of the mythical about it to me. Samarkand, Persepolis, Troy, Trebizond, they are all cities lost in the sand, as the fabled Atlantis was lost in the sea. But when I arrived in Moscow to join my husband Steve who was on the University of Toronto-Moscow State University faculty exchange, he told me that we had visas not only for Samarkand but for Bukhara and Tashkent as well, deep in central Asia, close to Afghanistan.
Moscow is very well served for airports and Domodedovo is modern, looks from the outside like a tiny replica of Orly, but is miles from the city and takes an hour traveling at top. manic. Moscow taxi-driving speed to get there. Our cab driver hurtled us off in his Volga into the plummy dusk of the Moscow night, a luminous blue-pink until nearly 10.30.
Driving for an hour through the suburbs of Moscow at speeds averaging 65 miles an hour, I saw the rows of apartment buildings, dusty and square and depressing, with children playing at the feet of babushkas; signs proclaiming “Glory to the Communist Party” and “Let us implement the resolutions of the Twenty-third Congress”; snow fences piled neatly together at the edge of the road; and then those exquisite birch woods that we see so often in Russian films, white and tremulous in the twilight, eternally and mysteriously young.
Steve and I concluded that taxi drivers must pay for their own gas, for they have the most peculiar way of economizing: they go into top
gear, roar along, Aarn/Ar/ze-fashion, and then shift into neutral, letting the car coast for as long as possible; then
the whole routine starts over again.
The only plane that leaves for Samarkand from Moscow departs at midnight and perhaps that is what gives this airport its peculiar look of refuge. Although modern and containing lounges with seats and benches. whole families huddled by the main windows of the building, staring out into the night, or leaning against one another in that attitude of total fatigue that one sees so often in Russia. I was suddenly aware of the va-
riety of races that make up the Soviet Union; swarthy men with high cheekbones and slanted eyes and drooping moustaches, pink-and-white dumplings of Slavic women, children who looked like American Indians. We had been asked to be at the airport an hour ahead of time and, as we both have a horror of being late for anything, we were very obedient and ended up sitting in the lounge for 50 minutes, drinking kefir, a kind of buttermilk, and writing postcards. Long, narrow.
lightly padded benches stretched along the windows of the lounge and men and women were sleeping on them, their dusty shoes neatly placed beside them on the floor. The man sleeping at my right elbow rolled over onto his stomach, yawning, took out a cigarette and we exchanged a friendly glance while he lit up and took time out from his dreams.
When we lined up with our baggage. 1 noticed that everyone was carrying enormous string bags filled with
oranges, and that they treated them tenderly, as though they were gold; another man had a tricycle with a pony’s head on it — fruit or machinery, you are constantly reminded that Moscow is the centre of distribution in the Soviet Unon. But the people with the string bags were quite right, for not once in central Asia were we able to find an orange, or to have lemon in our tea. As soon as it was recognized that we were innostranyi (foreigners), we were given priority in the handling of our tickets and in being placed first in the plane. When I was in Russia seven years ago, 1 had people let me into queues in stores, at museums and in cafeterias, because I was a tourist and they were being kind. Now, though, we felt uncomfortable, being shoved to the head of the line because our dollar was so valuable; the crowd muttered, too, and we did not want to meet their glance.
The trip to Samarkand takes four and a half hours in a turbo-prop plane. The ride was smooth and uneventful. but many of the passengers used their sick-bags. As the time difference is two hours, we arrived in Samarkand at 6.30 in the morning.
We had been constantly warned by Canadian and Russian friends that it would be terribly hot in Samarkand, but as we stepped off the plane, a dry cool breeze spun around us and the air tasted delicious; I forgot for a moment that 1 hadn’t brushed my teeth. All of the foreigners were herded into a dingy pale-blue room marked Waiting Room in English and we sat in a stupor, unwashed and breakfastless, waiting for the right transportation to arrive. The only reading matter consisted of New Times in French and English. Culture and Society, containing a lengthy paean to Paul Robeson, and an interview with Cyrus Eaton in the Moscow News. Finally, the Intourist travelers were placed in taxis and we were placed in a kind of small army truck (one fare being the equivalent of only 25 cents), and we drove past yellow-gold adobe-type houses and shops in the beautiful morning light which sharpens all the edges, even to sleep-dredged perceptions: donkeys carried old men wearing long, multi-colored striped robes and high boots and breeches, women with white or flowered shawls over their heads balanced water or small parcels on their heads, and everywhere there were more children than one ever sees in Moscow — children with bright, dark eyes filled with fearless curiosity, even the tiniest girls with pierced ears.
On our ride in from the airport we suddenly glimpsed the towers and brilliant turquoise domes of the Registan Square, a complex of three buildings with monumental facades and minarets, thrusting the weight of its beauty and history out of today’s onestory provincial Samarkand into the heady blue sky. We kept saying, “Oh my God. look at that,” to one another as the truck slowly circled around the square and all the facets of those mosaics and tiles glittered and beckoned to us, echoing the sky which looked so close and the sea which is so far away.
Our hotel room was neat and adequate with a large, gloomy shower that sprayed the toilet seat, no matter which way you turned the nozzle. The
two monastic beds were separated by two tables, a desk and a chair, a distance of about seven feet. A French couple whom we met told us that their holiday was ruined by les lits séparés, but I'm sure that Intourist was more concerned with the principle of two to a room than of hindering connubial bliss.
We decided to take a taxi with a guide to get an overall view of the monuments. A French-speaking guide, we decided, would be more fun, and
besides, the poor things had been languishing over the dearth of French tourists during the summer due to Gallic commotions. The guide was a girl who had just graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages a year ago and now worked full-time with Intourist. Her French was precise and correct, lacking anything of slang or everyday speech and she constantly asked me if she was speaking correctly. She, of course, had never been abroad and when I asked her if she
hoped to go, she said, “Oh yes. but of course I meet so many foreigners in my job, it is the next best thing.”
The temperature was about 90 degrees, but it is so dry in Samarkand that you don’t feel it and the sun and wind envelop you and make you part of them. When the air is about the temperature of your own body, you feel much more connected to every shaft of sunlight, every little wind and even the warm sand that falls into your sandals; there didn’t seem to be
any separations. We stood on the site of Oulug-bek’s observatory and looked down at the remarkable marble, curved track which he used to look it the stars and heard the sad fate of this grandson of Tamerlane’s — assassination and destruction of his scientific work. Nothing remains of the three-story observatory but that one long slide of marble, its view of the heavens obscured by a brick protectin' tunnel.
As we drove along, we were struck
by the greenness of the city. Trees, flowers and grass grow in profusion, yet the desert is all around. This area has been an oasis, irrigated and cultivated and cherished for centuries; little canals, a foot wide and twice as deep run beside the sidewalks. We leaped over one to the entrance of Shadi-Zinda, a group of mausoleums built for Tamerlane’s sisters, courtiers and favorite wives. Each person, or family, had his domed area opening out to a central staircase area;
each is a tiny jewel, using every shade of blue tile to indulge the Moslem fantasy that must ignore the human form. The effect of these tombs is anything but funereal: they are gay, elegant dwelling places, filled with the same light and beauty that filled the lives of these people. There is an octagonal mausoleum built for eight men who were friends and one can imagine them having ghostly converse over cups of green tea. Tamerlane's favorite wife, who was reputed to be a
C hiñese princess, has a place of honor near the huge tomb of a holy man who walked around carrying his severed head in his arms, much like the Christian St. Denis, and finally ended up in a well, which is just outside the tomb. The domes are covered in turquoise and though many of them have been restored, others have grass pushing the tiles off, little green tufts declaring the triumph of nature over art.
1 he enormous, almost completely ruined mosque of Bibi-Hanim presents beautiful, broken, blue remains to nests of swallows that fly everywhere with that elegant swoop of wing which is their trademark. Only three portions of the mosque, the largest in Samarkand, remain; the rest is olive and acacia trees.
The kiss that burned
1 he guide told us a charming story about the building of the mosque. Bibi-Hanim was a favored wife of 1 amer lane and while he was away conquering half of the world, as was his wont, she commissioned an architect to build the finest mosque to celebrate his return. Naturally, the architect fell in love with her, and he asked her for a kiss as the price of his services. Bibi-Hanim gave him a plate of hard-boiled eggs, each decorated differently, and she said that although they all looked different, they all tasted the same. He, in turn, presented her with a glass of water and a glass of wine, saying that both quench thirst, but the wine creates even more thirst in drinking it. So Bibi-Hanim let the young architect kiss her cheek through her hand, and the force of his passion was so great that his lips left a burn on her cheek. When Tamerlane returned, he was delighted with the mosque, but less delighted with the burn on his wife's cheek, so he had her taken to the top of the tallest minaret and hurled from it. What happened to the architect, no one seems to know.
In time, of course, even wily Oriental conquerors must die and Tamerlane’s tomb attests to it. Blue-domed, with a large square in front of it, the tomb contains his remains, buried at the foot of his religous master; his grandson and heir lies beside him. The tomb was opened by Soviet archaeologists and, from the bones, they have concluded that Tamerlane was really Timur the Lame, with one leg shorter than the other. It is like the question of the length of Cleopatra's nose: would history have been different if Timur had not been lame? But I suppose anyone of the post-Freudian generation would wonder that. While we were in the tomb, a group of Uzbekistan children came into it and were lectured by their teacher; their faces were attentive and pure Mongol, much as Tamerlane’s must have been.
It is because of the prohibition on reproducing the human form that we have no record of how Tamerlane looked, but, curiously enough, there are vaguely human faces on the facade of the medressah of Registan Square (a medressah is a kind of monasterycum - civil - service - training institute which the Moslems had). The facades show pointed porticoes, which are repeated around the squares in the inte-
rior, one portico to each room, each heavily decorated in an infinitely varied number of patterns.
It was in Registan Square, the guide told us, that the Uzbek women tore off their veils (sign of feudal servitude) at the time of their conquest by the Red Army and burned them in a massive bonfire. Certainly it is true that very few women are veiled now; we came across only one, who must have been at least 60, who quickly pulled her scarf across her face at the
sight of Steve. And in this formerly great city of Moslem culture only one mosque is still functioning and it is situated seven kilometres from the city. Our guide, who had described all the Arab writing on the ruins and on Tamerlane’s tomb as “religious propaganda,” stated that she was an atheist and asked if we were, too. For the 50th time since we had been in the Soviet Union, we said that we were practising Christians, which was regarded with great astonishment.
We were urged to go to the museum and we dutifully spent a few hours shambling through room after room of antique tiles, maps and armor badly displayed and badly lighted. In every museum but one in Uzbekistan, there is a strange leap from feudal times to the days of the great October Revolution; no mention anywhere of the conquest of the Uzbekistan Republic by the Red Army, just blatant suggestions that Uzbeks aided the Revolution at every possible turn.
If that is the way they want to look at their history, or feel they have to, that is fine, but it does leave the visitor feeling cheated and suspicious. What happened to the artisanal life of the area — the jewelry, the exquisite world-renowned rugs, the handloomed silk, the inlaid furniture? Nobody seemed willing to answer this question, but I could hazard a guess that the feelings of individual need for beauty which these sorts of things express are not the sorts of feelings considered to be necessary in the socialist state. So now their furniture comes from factories in Moscow, rugs have disappeared, even from museums, jewelry is nonexistent, except for the rare turquoise or agate (certainly the craft of jewelry has disappeared), all material is standard in pattern and design, and it is mostly cotton or the most common kind of silk. I wore a black Ban-Lon dress most of the time in Uzbekistan and it was a limitless source of conversation — little girls in the street stared hard at the almost fluorescent flowers on it, a street sweeper and his family asked where I got the material, and on the plane going from Bukhara to Tashkent a tiny hand crept between Steve and me from the seat behind to finger a fold with curiosity but great delicacy.
Pyandjikent lies 60 kilometers to the south-east of Samarkand and for the trip we hired a taxi with a delightful Uzbek driver wearing the slightly peaked black hat which many Uzbek men favor. We drove through flat fertile plains full of cotton, tobacco, pear trees and grape vines. The houses of the villages presented only blank walls to the road, as they do in the old quarters of Samarkand and Bukhara (I love that kind of dwelling — an honest declaration of privacy, with the heart of the house an open space). There were high mountains all around Samarkand and we were heading directly for some of them — snowcapped, receding as we approached them, they were like the Sierra Nevada in Spain — a vision of remote coolness seen across the distance of a hazy, dry plain.
Our driver, it appeared, had no idea where the ruins were to be found and we wandered around a quarry for about a half an hour before we climbed a paved road and discovered remarkable remains of what must have been an imperial city, so extensive is it, covering the tops of four or five very large hills. It was noon when we started clambering over those stones; on the last hill, there were five or six excavators and a large troop of brown, pudgy-tailed sheep. The sun was hot and the whole area of what looked like tunnels, but were really sunken streets, glimmered sandily. I don’t know why we found it so exciting. It was not like Pompeii where everything is marked and the smallest pebble is identified as having served this or that service. But it was a discovery for us, almost as though we had dug it up ourselves, it was so free of Intourist guides and the inevitablemarch-of-progress theory of history. It reminded me of what Mycenae must have been like when Schliemann first began working there — a skeleton revealing itself, inviting the observer to flesh out its bones. Little continued on page 48e
wild daisies and what looked like wild portulaca grew on that windy hill and the sand and dust were clean and fine, like talcum powder. At the foot of the very steep hill nestles the town of Pyandjikent, verdant, surrounded by a canal and proudly boasting of a lake filled with mountain water. The mountains press in very closely on the other side of the village and the colors of those treeless slopes — ochre, red, grey and yellow — increased the sense that you could touch them, that they were really close enough.
We had brought our swimming suits because of the lake, but when we saw it. undoubtedly clean but rather filled with water plants, we lost our enthusiasm. Our driver's face fell and he muttered in a low tone that he had been looking forward to a swim. So we all went for a swim and it was a delight, despite the weeds — very cold and fresh, with a statue in the middle of a heroic little girl in a Lenin-like posture, hand outstretched.
We were absolutely parched with thirst and our driver took us to an Uzbek tea garden, where we sat at a round table under a canopy and watched men sitting on what looked like beds without mattresses, or on long low tables, playing chess and drinking tea. These tables and bedlike structures were scattered throughout the park, and the sunlight dappled the grey shirts, the black hats and the gaily - flowered robes of the men as they concentrated and drank.
Stares in a tea garden
We had an enormous pot of green tea, and the manager of the place came and sat down with us and asked where we were from. When we said Canada, he repeated, “Canada, America?" incredulously, until we assured him that we were telling the truth. He looked at us with an intense curiosity, utterly devoid of hostility. I noticed that look often in Uzbekistan; it was frank and open and never made us uncomfortable. In Moscow, people look at you but the moment you catch their glance they look away. In Uzbekistan, they look at you until they are satisfied that they have seen everything that can be seen on first glance and then they stop; if you look in their eyes, they stare back, unsmiling, without embarrassment. There were several bearded old men wearing turbans with one loose end hanging over their shoulder, looking at us for about 20 minutes. The tea garden manager went and told them where we were from. They nodded slowly, then got up and left. Our taxi driver insisted on paying for our tea and refused a tip.
We ate that night in the Gorky Park of Rest and Culture, in an outdoor place serving the inevitable shashlik (shishkebab) piled high with chopped green onions, and we drank a very pleasant dry white wine from the region, which was cheap and had a faint pearly cast to it. Food in Uzbekistan is quite interesting as it mixes the cultures. Whoever said East is East and West is West never saw the twain meeting in this part of the
world where civilization flourished 3,000 years ago and which served as the route for spreading Eastern culture into the West. Marco Polo traveled through Samarkand by the Golden Road (which is now paved of course, but we flatter ourselves that we have stood on it). Alexander the Great conquered it. and what remains
is a strong race of people, astonishingly varied in physiognomy, with a language and culture of their own. We ate luginan soup, a vegetable-andmeat mixture with lots of spaghettilike noodles, manti, steamed dumplings with soft chopped meat and onions inside covered with paprika, plof, a pilaf with rice and meat and little
yellow carrots. The food tends to be a bit fat (“Greasy, very greasy," said a British tourist) but that is probably due to the widespread use of mutton fat. and we did not find it offensive. Afterward, we each had exactly 100 grams of ice cream, carefully measured on a scale, and then rode on the Ferris wheel and watched the outdoor billiard games.
Eating in Uzbekistan was not only more interesting, it also was more quickly served than in Moscow where
tourists resignedly put aside three hours to have dinner. Their flat round bread with raised sides, usually served warm, is very good, as is their kefir. Yellow cherries were the only fruit to be had, and tomatoes and cucumbers were the only salad vegetables.
In Bukhara, our hotel was identical to the one in Samarkand, even facing west identically. 1 had spent a harrowingly sleepless night in Samarkand because our room was above the bus stop and the main door of the ho-
tel and there was a great deal of shouting and greeting and spitting going on all night. In Bukhara we were put into a similarly situated room, and again 1 spent a sleepless night. The next day, after much complicated haggling, we were put in a room on the courtyard and that night we were treated to the voices of 30 Russians in a wedding party singing My Darling Clementine and We Shall Overcome phonetically to the strumming of three balalaikas.
Wc saw mosques and meclrassahs and minarets, but none of the monuments were in as good repair as the ones in Samarkand. Very little of the tile work remained and the whole effect was of brown and sober brick. In the Citadel, called the Ark, we mounted a steep cobbled tunnel to reach the cluster of buildings from which the Uzbeks had made their last stand against the Red Army. The interior wall had been a debtors’ prison and gruesomely realistic figures lan-
guished in the cells — presumably a subtle dig at the evils of capitalism, in which there are such things as debts! Another crowded, dark museum which looked like someone’s attic, then we were out on the tallest point in Bukhara, seeing the ruins of the old civilization still clinging to the foreground, while new apartment blocks of the kind one sees from Leningrad to Odessa surging behind. I gripped the wall of the Citadel to hoist myself a bit higher and a whole piece of history came off in my hand: clay mixed with straw had been used to restore the wall, because clay mixed with straw had originally built it. These are cities of sand built on sand and it was hard not to feel rather Old Testament, standing there in the hot dryness, with a piece of crumbling wall in my hand on the site of the last nationalistic stand against the force of revolution.
We had met some interesting French people in the early-morning, inevitable wait at Bukhara airport and we decided that we would all take a French guide together. However, Intourist informed us that the French guide was resting that day, and so we were given an English-speaking Uzbek girl — half Uzbek, half Russian, as we later learned. One notices immediately that the important jobs are held by Russians — Intourist officials, waitresses — so our guide was a bit of a surprise. She asked me how old I was and when I told her that I was nearly 30, she was incredulous. Most of the tourists, she said, looked younger than they really were. I was unable to resist the opportunity to tell her that in North America women use a lot of cream, don’t eat bread and never take jobs that would tax their strength, like house-wrecking or plastering or jack-hammering. I also couldn’t resist emphasizing the fact that our husbands insist upon our taking care of ourselves for their aesthetic delectation. She looked thoughtful at this, but seemed to understand.
Curiously enough, this conversation took place beside the bathing pond, now somewhat scummy, of the harem (400 strong) of the last Emir of Bukhara, ousted by the Revolution. From an elegant pavilion, wooden and brightly painted, the Emir used to throw apples to his bathing ladies, tokens of favors to come. I thought that if fruit was as scarce then as it is now, it might have been worth being in a harem. The guide looked a bit shocked at this, but was obviously still preoccupied by the preservation of feminine attractiveness after marriage. We had been told in Moscow that there is now a national effort to glamorize Soviet women, and obscure quotations from Lenin about the eternal feminine are being dug up to encourage the women. Certainly, women’s underwear and cosmetics are a little more than utilitarian now, and brassieres of knitted string and magenta lipsticks were not to be seen on this trip.
We had our lunch in the local Park of Rest and Culture in the heart of the old town, near an evocative building of clay built for Indian merchants traveling the old Golden Road to the West. Multi-domed, thick-walled, it is now a milk factory. The friendly Uzbek foreman told us that it had been
a centre for the trade of the fabulous jewels of the Orient. It was not difficult to imagine the haggling that went on in the cool, damp interior between the Indian travelers and the merchants of the capital of the kingdom of Bukhara. We ate steamed dumplings in an open tea garden beside a pool leading to a mosque. The pool had beautiful proportions, but the garbage floating on it robbed it of charm. Our French friends shunned the dumplings because they came from a large tin pot with flies hovering over it, but Steve and I found them delicious. Hunger, I find, is usually stronger than considerations of health.
In the market we found some big dill pickles being sold out of a barrel and ate them while walking around looking at the produce of the local collective farm. On the whole, Uzbekistan is better served for food than the Moscow region. The meat is of excellent quality, but in Uzbekistan, as in the rest of the Soviet Union, the whole carcass of an animal is cut up in chunks the size of stewing beef and sold for two standard prices: good and a little less good. No such thing as a cut of meat exists, except in the foreign-currency gastronomic stores. The only vegetables are the inevitable tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and green onions. We found a few plums, some cherries, sold directly from the suitcase in which the merchant had lugged them from the countryside.
The tombs remain
An impressive ruin lies 10 kilometers from Bukhara itself — again a mosque, medrassah, minaret and mausoleum. It rises out of the grass in the middle of nowhere, staring with wounded eyes into the flat plains around it, decaying quietly in the sun. At some time, it had been at least superficially restored, for wc could run up to the top of the minaret and get a view of the whole area, tomb after tomb after tomb. After all that glorious history of art and conquest and elegance, it is the tombs that remain, some marble and covered in fretted marble lace, some simple brick tunnels. The emphasis is on mortality, but there is also a curious feeling of acceptance and happiness about it. under that blue sky with the air smelling sweet and the sand soft under your feet.
Wc were able to mount to the second floor of the medrassah. Each room was slightly different, even in window detail or placement of the delightful hooded fireplaces. Some of the rooms were beamed in cedar and traces of wrought iron could be seen on the doors. As at Pyandjikent, we were alone (except for the French couple); we happily discovered that we couldn't fit a guide into the car — it is amazing how a thing like that, after touring in the Soviet Union, can give you a let-early-out-of-school feeling. We wandered at leisure across the open space where the courtyard had been and through elegant tomb after elegant tomb, open to the sky with tiny scented shrubs growing between the stones. An old Uzbek woman, using the ruin as a shortcut to her home, asked where wc were from
and. when we said Canada, she nodded sagely and walked on. as though Canada really existed in the magic blue and gold of the central Asian plain.
One thing that was noticeable at Samarkand and Bukhara was the high interest quality of the tourists; I have come to the conclusion that the more remote a place, the more fascinating will be the people who will visit it, especially if it is not a Hiltonized island of pseudo-culture insulat-
ing the traveler from pure experience. In my beloved Paris, 1 have noticed that many of the voyagers are there because it is the thing to do; they are in Europe anyway, and they usually hate it. In Samarkand, you are there because you want to be there. Only the beauty and the evocations can make the Spartan conditions and the long voyage worth it. We met the French couple who were living in Iran and working for an international company, a young English chemist on
exchange through the graces of the Royal Society, a retired Scottish woman doctor, an Australian woman of at least 70. a pair of young German medical students who had hitchhiked from Istanbul by way of Afghanistan — and they were all exceptionally delightful people with whom we immediately had intense conversations over meals or on long walks through the intoxicating night.
We arrived in Tashkent looking ugly and red, having paid for our in-
sistence on changing our room at Bukhara by being eaten by bedbugs. They are momentarily annoying, but we had had them before and our lives were not shortened; as Steve said, there are worse things that can happen to you at night in a strange bed in a foreign country. Our chemist friend invited us to share the car that had been sent for him from the Chemistry Institute where he was giving a lecture, and we rode into the city of two million people still recovering from
the earthquake of 1966 (which, alas, destroyed the old town) and were deposited at our hotel.
After a delicious breakfast of yogurt and two kinds of blinchiki (pancakes with sugar and cottage cheese and pancakes with meat), we set out for the Uzbek museum of history, for we had been told that it was higher in standard than the others and paid a great deal of attention to Uzbek nationalism. We knew that it was not considered good for us to go there:
Intourist guides had dismissed it as uninteresting, Tashkent visitors whom we met in Samarkand had been told that it was closed in the morning and too hot to go there in the afternoon, and other people had been told it was very difficult to find — in fact, “not possible.” “Not possible” is a phrase you get used to hearing often in the Soviet Union — it covers everything from bureaucratic inefficiency to official discouragement. An Englishman from Borneo handed us a little hand-
drawn map just before he left Samarkand, with directions of how to get there — rather like receiving feelthy peectures! After trekking across the theatre square and a Park of Rest and Culture, we discovered that the museum was closed on Mondays. So much for the intrepid Western tourist!
That evening we went to see the traveling company of the Moscow Operetta doing My Fair Lady. It was utterly faithful to the original, right down to Professor Henry Higgins’ baggy cardigan. But it lacked the irony, the tension. It was basically a very romantic production, with a Russian attempt at English phlegm which was hilarious when it wasn’t embarrassing. The singing and the orchestra both were excellent, and even in this small way we were reminded of the excellent musical taste of the Russians. I had expected the class angle to be emphasized, but only in the ludicrous periwigged footmen and maids who were Henry Higgins’ staff, did we get a hint of that. The audience loved it and the large theatre, decorated in a bizarre style that I would call Red Arab, was packed with a hot, enthusiastic audience. The East German sitting next to Steve said glumly that he didn’t think it compared to the Rex Harrison production, but then, he was a tourist.
Since Stalin: progress
As all the interesting monuments were destroyed in Tashkent’s earthquake, we only stayed long enough for Steve to pay a visit to the Institute for Eastern Studies, where he was to have some official meetings. He was told proudly that they are placing great emphasis now on their Moslem and Uzbek past, with study of documents of the Middle Ages. In other words, they are having a kind of cultural renaissance as they seek to re-establish their historical associations with India, Persia and China. As Western observers, we tend to look for contradictory things in a place like central Asia. We want the beauty and the history and happy natives fond of dancing and light wines; we also expect a modern society. Toward the past they are showing a consideration; in the present, they have made progress, especially since Stalin. We saw a delegation of Indian agronomists being received with bouquets of roses at Bukhara from members of a kollwz. and one thinks that in the light of the Indian predicament of overpopulation and poverty, the Soviet situation looks very good.
On our way to the airport to return to Moscow, we stopped off at a tiny museum of Uzbek applied art. Situated in a shady street at the back of a courtyard, it is the former summer residence of the ambassador from Russia, in the days when Uzbekistan was independent. The walls had been carved in Arabian Nights style and there were exquisite examples of wall hangings, costumes, ceramics and jewelry. In the last room there was a huge velvet wall hanging with the traditional Uzbek design and a large hammer and sickle embroidered into the heart of it.
Perhaps that is what central Asia means today. ★