Uzbekistan Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz
These are from my trip to Uzbekistan in June.
Rather than focus on describing the monuments and my experience, I devoted most of the captions to describe the suprising history of the whole of Central Asia, its prominence and decline,
in a very brief way. I believe it's largely unknown, but fascinating and very telling and relevant.
Uploaded on: 2014-12-20.
Welcome to Istanbul, actually!
Well, since there were no direct flights to Uzbekistan from London, I decided to visit Istanbul on the way, one of my favourite cities on earth.
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Corn, corn everywhere
I've already uploaded two galleries from Istanbul - Istanbul Sights
and Istanbul life
so this time I didn't feel the need to shoot anything meaningful or profound.
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No ablution here
Couple of hours in Istanbul, and it was time to return to the airport and board the plane to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
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Uzbekistan used to be a Soviet republic, so Tashkent has a Soviet-era underground, and boy, does it show
. Opened in 1997, it was the seventh metro built by the former USSR. [1
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The country was conquered by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, which at the time wanted to gain
land in the south in order not to have to depend on American cotton, and growing cotton requires a hot climate. Eventually, Uzbekistan would become world's second
biggest producer of cotton, after the US. [3
Tashkent itself, however, was captured not on orders from St Petersburg, but by the adventurism of local generals [6
], which is reminiscent of the French colonial activity
in North Africa. [20
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Long-time Russian presence has had a profound impact on Uzbek culture. He's an architectural example - a concrete fortress of a hotel! We wanted to stay there for the experience,
but the hotel hosted countless chess players at the time, so we couldn't.
After Tashkent suffered from the devastating earthquake in 1966, it was rebuilt with Soviet money
and in a Soviet style, and so it is very much reminiscent of the self-defeated Soviet world. [5
] It's a strange mix of Soviet architecture
with Uzbek motifs.
Most hotels in Uzbekistan officially expect a marriage certificate to be provided by couples staying in the same room ("I was like what"), but we were never asked. However,
they do require a record of all the previous Uzbek hotels you stayed at in order to check you in! See also: 1984. You end up travelling with a folder of documents to satisfy the demands of what
presumably is Soviet-era bureaucracy.
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We met Marjona in the immaculate Amir Temur Square. Interesting: I've been to many Muslim-majority countries - Uzbekistan is the first clean one!
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Her brother, Abdumalik, could speak good English. They were both visiting Tashkent too, coming from another Uzbek city, not far from the border with Afghanistan,
if I remember correctly.
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Quite amazing how they were not sweating in the heat - after maybe an hour I was already completely wet in the merciless sun.
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Grandpa, a lot more chilled out than the grandma, as it usually happens.
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Marjana with a fan
Marjana posing with a fan, and behind her we can see Timur (or Tamerlane), locally considered a hero, but not so outside of Uzbekistan, generally speaking.
"Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population." [2
He sacked Baghdad, Damascus, Delhi, and other cities, seriously and arguably forever damaging Islamic civilisation as a whole. And he was Muslim himself.
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As Uzbekistan was acquired in order to grow cotton, that led to industrialisation and provided, for the first time in Central Asia, railways. On the downside, however,
it led to a nearly complete specialisation of the economy and to a huge environmental disaster - the terrible devastation of the Aral Sea, which has almost disappeared;
up to 90% of children raised in the region still suffer from various diseases caused by water and land contamination.
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But they keep on wasting water, as you can see.
Uzbekistan is a Muslim-majority country. While communism brought "morbid secularisation", it did not aim to eliminate the official clergy, but to tame it instead, and at that it was successful. They managed to keep the extremists under control.
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Curiously, when, after the fall of the USSR in 1991, Uzbekistan became independent, they were, unlike the people in Eastern Europe, not really thrilled about the fact.
Confused, rather. Unsure. Surprised even. Unprepared.
Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states supposedly received more from the USSR than they gave back, so the Soviet empire wasn't
viewed in a negative way as much as elsewhere.
Communism wasn't all bad, after all - it increased literacy, women received equal rights, and steps were taken to improve public health.
The Russians also made a huge positive contribution to the economy. [3
] The czarist Russians in the early years
of the conquest made an attempt to abolish slavery. [6
] Finally, it was Soviet scholars who rescued Central Asia from oblivion. [14
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Not unlike in post-colonial Africa, the question of national identity arose. Find a new one? Mimic your conquerors?
Since even before the Soviet era Uzbeks identified themselves by clan and by khanate, they now had to start to search for a new identity. [4
The majority of the population of Central Asia felt themselves to be Turks or Muslims,
not Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Kyrgyz, or Kazakhs. That was an artificial communist division imposed by Stalin, who was supposedly
afraid of a unified, Muslim Turkestan. [3, 6, 13
After the fall of the USSR, in one year the number of mosques in Central Asia increased from 160 to 5000, which, according to some, can
be seen as using God as means of identity. [3, 13
(Meet Afrosiyob, the high-speed rail connection between Tashkent and Samarkand.)
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Not this again
(Inside the train though... No, just kidding. We didn't get the tickets for the super-fast Afrosiyob, so we had to board a regular train that takes ages!
I have to say, buying domestic train tickets in Uzbekistan is no fun at all. It's as much effort as buying a plane ticket and obtaining a visa to another country;
and it's not any easier for Uzbek citizens either. You have to present your passport. After a couple hours we just paid someone else to go through the pain for us. The whole
system appears to have been designed by Franz Kafka.)
Communism removed whatever political liberties there were, and that resulted in a power vacuum when it went away. [3
Not that much changed after 1991; the old leaders stayed in place, unlike in most places in Eastern Europe, for example. [3
Today, Uzbekistan is a democracy only in theory. In practice, they have had the same president since the fall of the USSR, but he is supported both by the West
and by Russia, as he manages to keep Muslim extremists in check.
Central Asian leadership decided to try to follow the secular nationalist model of Kemal Atatürk, with a varying degree of success.
Uzbekistan left the GUUAM organisation after two of its members, Georgia and Ukraine,
had peaceful revolutions that democratised the governments... [4
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The conclusion of the previous captions is obvious: if adopting communism generally improves
the situation of a country, that situation must
have been really
bad to begin with. And so it was in the case of Uzbekistan. However, it hasn't always been like that... Registan, the square you are looking
at, is now the centre of nothing, but it used to be the centre of the world
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If you have heard of Samarkand, it's likely because it was once an important city on the so called Silk Road, one of the early examples of globalisation,
the 6,500 km long series of trade routes that used to connect the West (especially Italy) with the East (especially China). It was in operation from about the 2nd century BC
to the 15th century AD. 
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In reality, it wasn't silk and it wasn't a road. The term itself was coined by a German traveller, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen, around 1877. There were many more
goods transmitted other than just silk, and silk wasn't even the most important one. The goods included cotton, paper, or gunpowder. And it wasn't one road,
it was more of a network of roads. 
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Girl wearing a green dress
If, like me, you imagined the Silk Road as a route through which caravans travelled from Venice to Beijing, that is wrong too. In fact, the caravans would only
travel on fairly short distances, back and forth. The animals used to carry goods simply wouldn't be able to survive anything more than that, certainly not all the
different climate and geography conditions.
Each time the goods were sold, their price increased. 
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It was the nomadic Turks and their influence extending from Mongolia to the frontiers of Byzantium that made the cosmopolitanism of China's Tang dynasty possible.
Similarly, European missionaries first reached China when Eurasia was under Mongol rule. 
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The Silk Road also enabled the exchange of genes, and so modern populations of Central Asia are highly heterogeneous, with both western and eastern Eurasian markers present. 
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In fact, we met a man who said "I am currently not drinking vodka, but it's not
beacuse of Ramadan, I just thought my liver needed a break, ha ha ha!"
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This is Shah-i-Zinda, the Samarkand necropolis. There is a local legend that says that Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad, was buried there.
His head was cut off, but he picked it up and went into the deep well, where he's still living now. [10
Some mausoleums here are from the 9-14th centuries, while others are from the 19th century.
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It is Islam conquest that initially brought prosperity in the 8th century. Let's have a closer look.
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Inside one of the tombs
These days, Central Asia is valued for its natural resources rather than intellectual achievements.
Chances are that you, like me not so long ago, had no clue about this - but Central Asia used to be the centre of civilisation, the most advanced place on earth,
roughly between the 8th and 12th centuries. [14
At that time, Western Europe was a primitive wasteland inhabited mostly by barbarians, and ruled by the Catholic Church (so not unlike modern Poland).
ISO 800, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/15s.
While the Europeans lost the ability to read Greek (or even tell the time), Central Asians translated many ancient Greek works, and further developed them. [14, 15
Islam, among other things, brought Arabic, the lingua franca of the era, that allowed Central Asian intellectuals to communicate and argue with their counterparts in other Muslim countries.
While Islam is often associated with the Arabs, Harvard's Richard N. Frye observed that "with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars both in the religious and intellectual sciences [were] non-Arabs." [17
They were primarily Persians and Central Asians.
Let's briefly look at a few Central Asian intellectuals then.
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Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina, who grew up in Bukhara (today in Uzbekistan), was a polymath and wrote Canon of Medicine
, which was translated into Latin, and triggered the start of
modern medicine in the West. [14
It's not him in the picture, no.
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Another polymath was Al-Khwārizmī, whose "systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations led to algebra"; he also made contributions
to geography, astronomy, and cartography. [16
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Not yet restored
The famous poet, Omar Khayyam, constructed a geometrical theory of cubic equations. He might have been the first to accept irrational numbers as numbers. [14
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Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī, championed the concept of zero and negative numbers, and broke new grounds in their use. He was the first anywhere
to measure the hardness of minerals, and, centuries before Columbus, he "used astronomical data to postulate the existence of an inhabited land mass somewhere between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans"
that we call America. [14
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All of them had many more achievements, and of course there were many more intellectuals still; and major contributions were made also to optics, chemistry, geology, history, architecture, and other fields.
One of the first maps to include Japan was made, subarashii
! The fields of anthropology, intercultural studies, comparative linguistics, and comparative religion were founded.
What's even more fascinating is that in the eyes of its critics, the philosophy of Central Asia was sceptical, irreverent, and profane. Sounds like a good recommendation to me.
There were many sceptics of religion and atheists engaging in the debate!
In the West at the time, Aristotelian logic lost out to Scholasticism... [14
ISO 200, 50mm, f/3.2, 1/1600s.
(The food I didn't like at all... It wasn't as bad as Mauritanian cuisine
, sure, but still disappointing. In the photo, non
or traditional Uzbek bread. The bread was okay.
The 19th century English traveller, Alexander Burnes, tells us that the Uzbeks drink their tea with salt instead of sugar, and sometimes mix it fat (it would then be called keimuk chah
Is that much worse than what the English do to their tea, diluting it with milk? Of course it's not.)
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Even in the realm of music, achievements were made, and "Central Asia can be considered the genetic homeland of the violin". [14
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... They even had proper erotic literature, with concubines, homosexuals, and everything... [14
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Here we return to the Silk Road. None of that progress occurred in isolation. It was through interaction with India, China, and the Middle East,
that Central Asians were able to make their achievements.
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Of course, it wasn't all so perfect. For example, in early Muslim societies, "it was considered dangerous for women to write because they could use this skill for unlawful communication with men."
As a result, there was not a lot of scholarly and intellectual input made by women (although some became successful rulers). [18
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Regardless of its imperfections, Central Asia was the enlightened land at the time, centuries before the Western Enlightenment. But then it came to an end, and Central Asia never
The obvious question is - what caused its decline?
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That is not an easy question to answer. It's a loaded question, to begin with, and there are multiple theories trying to explain what actually happened that terminated the
Age of Enlightenment in Central Asia. Isn't it fascinating that one of the most backward countries on earth, Afghanistan, could once produce leading scientists and thinkers? [14
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(This is what they think you want to bring home with you - crappy Chinese souvenirs.)
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(Yoko managed to find this nice plate though, decorated with floral Islamic patterns.)
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(As I was writing postcards, the lights went out. We were quickly provided with candles, and got to enjoy the beautiful and impressive night sky.)
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Street where the hotel was
In Central Asia, during its Age of Enlightenment, there was religious pluralism present, in that there were functioning churches, fire temples (Zoroastrianism), and stupas (Buddhism).
Even the pious Muslims had to acknowledge the bright minds of the infidels. Besides, over the centuries, each religion brought its own language (Old Persian, Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac or Aramaic,
finally Arabic) and culture that added to the mix. [14
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But, after the year 1000, that tolerance was beginning to fade, and Sunni vs. Shia conflicts arose, too, and it took its toll on the quality
of the debate. [14
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The profound intellectual decline of Central Asia happened some time after 1100. According to the Beirut historian Ahmad Dallal, it was caused by imposing limits
on freedom of speech, and after the tenth century expression of freethinking was no longer possible. Omar Khayyam had to apply self-censorship, or hold back
his work from wider circulation. [14
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Another theory mentions climate change, but then the so called Little Ice Age came too late to explain the decline (1550). [14
(This man really wanted to be photographed, and then asked for me to send him the photo, but couldn't remember his own home address. We then agreed I would send it
to the organisation running the building behind him. All in body language and pidgin Russian, and I don't even speak Russian.)
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A convenient excuse, as always, is to blame someone else, and since "the Crusaders" are geographically not an option, some blame the Mongols ("playing the Mongol card"), but that also happened too late, and was more of a symptom than cause. [14
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An economic theory of decline says that the Silk Road was simply replaced by other, more convenient routes, and Central Asia could no longer benefit from the trade,
and could not afford scientific growth. [14
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Then, there is a theory which singles out one person as primarily responsible for the decline, together with his many followers. That man was Muhammad al-Ghazali.
He succeeded in marginalising the philosophers, cosmologists, epistemologists, mathematicians, and theoretical scientists, when he published his work entitled
The Incoherence of the Philosophers
. After that, Central Asian intellectuals never recovered.
Sadly, his work wasn't rebuked until much later, and in far-off land of Muslim Spain - Ibn Rushd (Averroes) wrote a response called The Incoherence of the Incoherence
But by then it was too late, and the Muslims largely ignored his book, although its Latin translation was appreciated in Europe. [14
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Whatever the actual reason was, what followed the decline was Sharia law, and regional states turned into medieval theocracies. The Enlightenment was gone. That lasted until the late 19th century,
when the so called Jadid
reformers appeared, willing to embrace modern science and education, but they were later suppressed or killed by the Soviet rulers.
And again, whatever the actual reason for the decline was, its symptoms are clear: closing down of schools and libraries, limiting freedom of speech, religious education replacing scientific education, etc. [14
(A little bit of good old fashioned baksheesh got me up there, so that I could take this shot...)
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(Welcome to Bukhara! Another city of the Silk Road in the middle of the hot steppe, hundreds of years ago famous for its refreshing drinks cooled with ice, among other things. [11
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Tower of Death
(This is the remarkable Kulyan minaret of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque complex. It was built in 1127, and it is made of baked brick. Because it's
more than 45 metres high, it was used until the 20th century as a killing device, as it were - criminals were thrown from the top; that earned it
the nickname Tower of Death. [12
Genghis Khan himself ordered the minaret to be spared because he found it so impressive. Everything else was destroyed.)
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(After the Mongols sacked it, the city revived under Timur. [6
] Interestingly, it was his great-great-great grandson, Babur,
who founded the Moghul empire in India. Timur's revival was only temporary, though.)
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Some say that although Enlightenment in Central Asia was lost, it wasn't entirely wasted, as it was continued by the three Muslim empires that drew heavily
on the Central Asian tradition, namely the Mughals in India, the Safavids in Iran, and the Ottomans in Turkey.
Those empires, however, made very little scientific and intellectual progress, and their greatest achievements lay, sadly, only in the aesthetic realm. [14
ISO 200, 11mm, f/10, 1/80s.
Arches in a mosque
All of this reminds me of the other Enlightenment, the one in Muslim Spain, that was also lost, although not completely wasted, as it managed to plant the seed of European Enlightenment. [15
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What is left of the greatness are the awesome landmarks you have seen in this gallery. Here, the gate of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque.
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Islamic art (please note that this term is so imprecise some advise against using it at all! [13
]) is famous for its impressive geometric patterns.
While the patterns are generally thought to have no symbolic meaning, they are nevertheless a marvel that requires a bit of training to fully appreciate.
And so it happens that there is one more fascinating mystery hidden here in Uzbekistan... [21
There are several designs that Muslim artisans used, and arguably the most difficult one to make is the fivefold one, as periodic
tiling (tessellation) in fivefold design simply cannot be employed. In other words,
regular pentagons cannot be tessellated to cover a surface area, as they will either leave gaps or overlap. In 1960s, scientists believed that as many as 104 different polygons were needed
to perfectly tessellate using fivefold design, and it was only in 1970s that it was mathematically proved by Roger Penrose that only 2 would suffice. [23
Now, check this out. Mr. Peter J. Lu, an American physicist, went on a trip to Uzbekistan couple of years ago. He had a look at Islamic geometric patterns, and thought "Now, hang on a minute...!"
It turned out that it was exactly what modern mathematicians only established in 1970s, except made by Muslims artisans 500 years ago! [22
] They managed to tessellate using
the fivefold design. No one quite knows how they did that,
but some suggest it is impossible to randomly stumble upon such design without profound mathematical knowledge, and there is historical evidence that shows that the artisans did indeed
consult mathematicians. [21
] Very impressive.
Fivefold designs are featured in this gallery, so have a close look at the photos...
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That kid had a really intense stare!
Let's have a look at a few more shots from Bukhara.
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In front of a wooden mosque
This is the 17th century Bolo-Hauz mosque in Bukhara. It's also known as the Forty Pillar Mosque. [19
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And its minaret.
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The cavernous inside of the mosque and its small mihrab showing the direction of prayer (Mecca). I was told off for touching the copies of the Quran.
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Here's a babushka (old woman) sat in front of an unused Islamic building - I am not sure what its original purpose was.
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The cat is not pleased
We decided to visit the local amusement park, and met this young man on the way, who proudly presented his cat.
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Near this eerie amusement park there is the mausoleum of Ismail Samanid - there is a crack made in his tomb through which
believers post their petitions to him. [3
] Both in pre-Soviet and Soviet times it was very difficult to obtain
a permit to go to Mecca, so local clergy recommended that hadj be replaced by visits made to local holy sites. Now that the USSR
is no more, the same clergy speaks against the practice. [3
] It's a bit like when the Catholic Church decided
it was OK to eat meat on Fridays, after all.
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Got to make a living
Most people were okay to pose, which I now appreciate more and more after having visited the Maasai
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Carousel from hell
The place was nuts. It reminded me of a similar creepy amusement park in Moscow
, where the atmosphere was such that you were just waiting for a clown to cut you in two
with a chainsaw.
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... and a "mouth fabulous with gold teeth".
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We're having so much fun!
You could even buy cotton candy - that took me back, what, 25 years? Within 5 seconds I accidentally dropped it on the ground, though. Never too clever.
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There's one sad story which, I think, is worth recounting. When Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union, symbolic desovietisation took place, and so
for instance statues of Lenin were taken down. But there was another Soviet-built statue that was removed, that of Nurkhon, the first Uzbek woman to have cast away the veil, for
which she was killed by her brothers in 1929. [6
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We didn't get cut in two, so it was time to return to the hotel.
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Before flying back, we visited the Tashkent market. Look at this architectural style, Soviet and Uzbek blend. The market sells excellent almonds.
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And finally, a poem by the aforementioned Omar Khayyam, the 12th century polymath from Central Asia.
Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.
And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret, and denied it me?--
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/800s.