Monday, August 07, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map VI

That night we crossed the Oxus, dim in the fading light, which helped to preserve the great river’s mystery, which had held spellbound dozens of writers and explorers. But in this parched part of the world, water is far more important than lore, and the river’s output was abundant to support a number of empires, most notably those of Alexander, and Genghis Khan (though centuries apart).  In modern times, overirrigation had greatly diminished its flow, dramatic proof being the Aral Sea, now one-tenth its previous size.    

The morning dawned to skies as magnificent and blue as the day before.  It was still early when we arrived in Bukhara, beginning the day with a visit to the Kalon Mosque and its adjacent minaret, now off limits, but the scene of a handful of legends involving the ingenuity of the few who survived being thrown from its 47-meter height. The courtyard of the mosque was simply immense, and could handle ten thousand visitors, but we had it to ourselves this day.  Between the sky and its dome and the tilework, it was like a multihued demonstration of the color blue.   

The next two days I spent wandering, exploring all the hidden corners and back roads.  A carpet seller explained heft and weave, all in a flawless London accent. Sellers huddled in the crumbling Abdul Aziz Khan Madressa, their business pitch much more solid than the edifice around them; Char Minar stood alone in a sunken courtyard, quiet and atmospheric and somehow reminiscent of a space shuttle.  Historically there had been snakes here, but I found that difficult to believe, considering it was now hemmed in by houses; I stroll through the labyrinth of covered bazaars, the sellers friendly, unaggressive.  I returned late to buy a drum the following day, but seemed to have chosen the only salesperson in town who took Sundays off;  (I’d eventually but one in a caravanserai, from a musician whose 10 years old son out tapped a few licks before handing it over.)  I also bought a hand puppet for my daughter, its creator considered a national treasure.  Nearby, a European couple sat on the sunken steps before the Ismail Samani Mausoleum, dazzled by its 1100 year beauty.      


A walk at dawn took me down the alleyways, away from the polish of  the UNESCO funded main sites.  I popped into a few madrasa and found that I had them to myself; making it far easier to find contemplation at a time before the symbiotic dance of tourist and merchant got underway.  My feet led me to the infamous Bug Pit, where a pair of poor, cocky Englishmen found ample time for contemplation, and hopefully reflected on their arrogance, which ultimately got them killed.  I sat out front after my visit, looking over at the hulking Ark across the sands, most of the once proud structure reverting back to desert.  In her spreading shadow, three boys played with a Spiderman doll.

I cut back through the carpet marker, locals mainly, as the sellers had no real interest in me.  I settled eventually with a coffee by the pond Lyabi Hauz. I attempted to get involved with my book about Ibn Battutah, but was often pulled away by people who wanted to take a photo with me.  The most persistent were a group of girls, in high school probably, who had dressed up for a Sunday on the town.  (I’d run into them twice more before the day was over.) 

The final evening , our group watched a concert in the Namozgohk Mosque, where on a massive carpet had been laid across the courtyard, and a series of local dances were performed.  It was difficult to assess which was more beautiful, the movements or the costumes.  Between dances, four models drifted through wearing a stunning array of clothing that ran across the centuries.  Swallows flitted above, alight on the bounce of the notes emitting from the percussion and strings.  It was a magical evening, culminating in a dinner in the sprawling home of an apparently successful merchant, who joined in on stirring a massive pot of plov bubbling away in a fire pit at the center of a courtyard.  The Uzbeks had proven to be wonderful hosts, as open and inviting as their spacious architecture.  But sadly we’d be crossing the border that night. 

On the turntable:  Dave Douglas, "The Infinite" 

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