Saturday 31 December 2011

The disappearing Aral Sea and the Savitzky Museum of forbidden art - Uzbekistan 3

Uzbekistan by Yekkes

One of the many "ghost" boats stranded on what was once the Aral Sea

The Aral Sea which borders Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is the site of one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century. The sea was once the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world but between 1960 and 2011, the sea has decreased to just 10% of its former size.

What caused this? The siphoning off of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers to feed thirsty cotton crops established during Soviet times, described as white gold, but responsible for the lingering death of the once beautiful Aral sea. As well as the sea disappearing, so has the once thriving fishing industry, leaving towns like Moynaq, a former fishing town, now more than one hundred kilometres away from the sea. 10,000 people once worked in the fishing industry, now completely gone.

The former sea bed near Moynaq is a vast desert of sand, wild grasses and abandoned and rusting boats. Many of the boats have now been removed but some have been left for tourists to photograph and perhaps as a reminder of what once was. There is a smell of salt in the air, a warm wind and unusual, beautiful but threatening cloud formations above the dry seabed. The Aral sea was once an attraction for its beautiful waters and plentiful fish - now it draws tourists who want to see the site of a man made disaster of epic proportions.

Some way south of Moynaq and not far from the border with Turkmenistan lies Nukus, the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. The Karakalpaks are a distinct ethnic group, but there are also significant numbers of Uzbeks and Russians there as well as other "nationalities". 

The main reason to visit Nukus is the Igor Savitsky Museum, home to thousands of paintings by Russian artists from the 1920's and 1930's, prohibited by the Soviet regime along with all art that was not deemed Socialist Realist. Savitsky was an artist himself but is more famous for saving the works of artists such as Viktor Ufimtsev, Aleksander Volkov, Alexey Yusupov, Elena Korovay and my own favourite, Ural Tansykbaev. Tansykbaev was an Uzbek artist and several of his brightly coloured works from the 1920's and early 1930's are displayed in the museum. They show an idealised Uzbekistan of apple harvesting, fruits and spices, musicians and herdsmen.

Crimson Autumn - Ural Tansykbaev

Savitsky purchased many of the paintings from impoverished artists, unable to work because of Soviet policy, artist's widows, and its even said that some were rescued from skips. Savitsky, a Muscovite, worked with Marat Nurmukhamedov, an Uzbek scholar to collect and preserve the collection as well as many examples of Karakalpak traditional arts - at one time discouraged by the Soviets as part of a policy of suppressing non-Russian culture. Many examples of these crafts can also be found in the museum.

Aleksey Isupov

Tea House by Alexey Usupov

Savitsky eventually died for his art. Not because of offending authority, but through not taking appropriate safety precautions when using noxious chemicals to restore and preserve his precious paintings. A whole day could easily be spent at the museum which has a good cafe and a small gift shop. An excellent film has been made about Savitsky and his collection called The Desert of Forbidden Art. More information about the museum (and the film) can be found at


Dyers by Elena Korovay

Friday 30 December 2011

Bazaars, camels and a Tashkent wedding - Uzbekistan part 2

Uzbekistan by Yekkes

Wherever you go in Uzbekistan you will find a bazaar. Bazaars have everything from fruit and vegetables, to teas and spices, clothes as well as bread, sweets, meat, household goods, knives, fabrics - whatever you want.

The central bazaar in Samarkand is a real treat. Stall upon stall of spices, teas, herbs, nuts, sweets, pomegranates (see above)...It was here that I bought my herbal and flower teas to bring home. Many stall holders in the bazaar have a few words of English so I wasn't surprised to be asked where I was from. But when I said "London" and was asked if Oldham or Swindon were in London I was a little taken aback. The stall holder told me he had sent students there to learn about herbs and spices. Strange but true.

After buying my tea I asked if I could take his picture. He duly obliged with the slightly stern, ever so serious look that seems to be de rigeur in a lot of ex Soviet countries when pictures are requested. Just as I was taking aim, an elderly woman laughed at the strange tourist wanting the stall holder's picture and he laughed too...resulting in a rare smile for the camera - which you can see below. Thank you lady whoever you are!

Uzbekistan by Yekkes

Camels no longer take produce to the bazaar but there are still many to be seen in Uzbekistan. Many roam freely and on the journey from Khiva to Bukhara - almost nine hours of being driven along a road that practically disappeared in some places by an almost silent Russian speaking Tajik - we stopped at the side of the road to get some pictures of a couple of families of camels. I never expected to see kissing camels but the picture is posted here to prove it.

I did the tourist thing and had a camel ride near Ayaz Kala - the remains of a 3rd or 4th century BCE fortress. The camel point blank refused to take me anywhere other than round in circles and would go nowhere in the direction of the nearby lake. The Kazakh man caring for the camels explained that a number of them had seemingly committed suicide by walking into the lake and the remaining camels were terrified of it. Perhaps its best he didn't tell me until after the ride. I can't swim.

Uzbekistan 2011 by Yekkes

A real highlight of my trip came on the first night in Tashkent when I was very honoured to be invited to a wedding party. There were around 500 guests in a huge restaurant. An Uzbek orchestra played and two well known male singers sang modern and traditional Uzbek songs. People danced - men and women in the same room but mostly in single sex groups with hand clapping circles forming and dancers being pulled into the circle to dance alone or in pairs. Yes, I was included in this and decided the best thing to do was go with the flow and jump about bit too. It seemed to be appreciated and my guide who was fast becoming a friend gave me a "well done".

I was seated at an all male table. A few of the young men spoke English but all made sure I was well fed, putting fruit on my plate, making sure I had a constant supply of bread and filling my never empty tea cup. A couple of surprises. The buffet on each table included plates of sliced ham. I asked my guide about this and he shrugged his shoulders. I was also invited to try out a special Uzbek tea from a new pot. It turned out to be vodka. It seems several of my table mates were under age and their parents were in the room. Ingenious.
Uzbekistan 2011 by Yekkes

Thursday 29 December 2011

Beautiful Bukhara - travels in Uzbekistan

In September 2011 I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Uzbekistan. It is a fascinating place of many contradictions. The historic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand have Tajik majority populations, rather than Uzbek. The country is nominally Islamic yet vodka is consumed with great enthusiasm and ham seems to be readily available. The Aral sea, once beautiful and a major source of food for the country is famous for more or less disappearing.

Uzbekistan by Yekkes
Entrance to the Palace of the last Emir of Bukhara
My favourite place has to be Bukhara. The city is filled with well preserved or carefully restored mosques and madrasses from hundreds of years ago. Most of these are now either museums or act as centres for the production and sale of arts and crafts. Uzbek arts include silk and carpets, but most famously the silk, cotton or mixed fibre suzanis - beautiful wall hangings with different patterns for each region. Quality varies and most traders are not pushy and will give honest advice about the fabrics used. My own experience was not only that there was no pressure to buy, but that some traders were exceptionally trusting - I asked if I could return to complete my purchase, needing to go to the bank, but was trusted to take my suzani away and bring the money back the next day. The trader used the deposit I left to touch every other item in his shop - the first dollar of the day is expected to bring luck and more sales.

Bukhara is a riot of colour and the former mosques and madrases are varying combinations of blues, purples, greens, reds and yellows. The historical heart of the city is Lyab-i-Hauz which has a pool and a series of chaikhana or open air tea houses where gallons of green tea are consumed every day. Chaikhanas can be found across Uzbekistan and are raised wooden beds, usually designed to seat four people (normally men) with space to lounge, drink, eat, chat and play backgammon.

Uzbeks are tea drinkers. Coffee devotees might be a little disappointed with the nescafe that is offered in many establishments, but whilst in Bukhara I paid a couple of visits to Silk Road Spices. Here, as well as saffron, ginger and many other teas, you can drink real coffee with cardamon accompanied by a plate of sticky local sweets. Not only is the tea and coffee great, but the cool convivial atmosphere is extremely relaxing and you can while away an hour or so over a few cups. The owners claim to have been in the tea business since 1400 and it is not difficult to imagine weary travellers stopping off here whilst traveling along the Silk Road.

Silk Road Spices Tea House
For another "relaxing" experience, intrepid travellers might like to try the hamam opposite Silk Road Spices. Not normally my cup of tea, my guide persuaded me to visit the hamam for a massage. An experience it certainly was. The routine begins with some serious sweating in the steam room followed by a soap and warm water wash before the massage which seemed to involve being twisted and folded into the most amazing positions that even the world's most accomplished contortionists would envy.  Then, a short recovery before the masseur walked on my back which was followed by a rub down with spices - beware, that means ginger and honey and it is HOT! Then it was another short sweat before a warm wash and a couple of buckets of freezing cold water to rinse all the sweat away and invigorate the customer. I was intrigued by the back walking element - it wasn't painful at all and the masseur was experienced enough to be able to talk to me whilst he did it. I found talking a little more difficult than he did! There was free green tea afterwards in the hamam's tea room. I had several cups.

My hotel in Bukhara was very close to the Lyab-i-Hauz and carried the same name. The hotel is in the 19th century former home of a Jewish merchant, and has been subject to sensitive restoration. Breakfast is served  on a beautiful terrace overlooking an open courtyard and the dining room still features Hebrew inscriptions on the walls. Bukhara was once home to a large Jewish community, many of whom were involved in the silk trade before Soviet times. Following independence large numbers left for Israel but about 350 remain - enough to support two working synagogues and a Jewish day school. All can be visited.

Uzbekistan by Yekkes
Courtyard of the Lyab-i-Hauz Hotel
Bukhara is known for its monumental mosques and madrassas. My favourite is the ensemble around the Lyab-i-Hauz, much of which dates from 1620. The small artificial reservoir (hauz in Farsi) is the focus of this complex and was constructed on the instructions of the Grand Vizier Nadir Divan Beghi. The madrassa which is the star of the complex bears his name - Madrassa Nadir Divan Beghi, and as well as being visually stunning it is interesting for the fact that it flouts the Islamic prohibition on figurative art. The riot of coloured glazed ceramics that cover the madrassa includes a mosaic of two simurgh - creatures from Persian mythology as well as two deer. The central figure is a sun with Mongol features. One wonders how these were received by the faithful, but sacrilegious or not, these images are one of Bukhara's best known features and attract many visitors.

Detail,  Nadir Divan Beghi Madrassa 
Whilst on the subject of figurative art, just in front of the Madrassa, there is a sculpture of the story-teller and joker Nasreddin Effendi or Nasreddin Hadji. This comic figure is claimed by many Turkic peoples but is especially loved in Uzbekistan and many figurines of him with his donkey are offered for sale. 

Away from the large monuments, I visited the much simpler but also beautiful Chor Minor. Chor Minor means four minarets and legend has it that the man who had this built had four daughters each with a particular personality. Hence the design. Technically none of the towers are minarets since they have no terrace and so there can be no call to prayer. 

Uzbekistan by Yekkes
Chor Minor

Away from the main tourist areas the backstreets of Bukhara are extremely quiet, dusty and at first glance deserted. However, persevere, go a little deeper into the network of streets and you will catch glimpses of once beautiful courtyards, smell home cooking and see old people and small children sitting on back steps or playing in the street - many will nod or smile or say hello to you. All will be happy to give directions if you are lost. This is an Uzbek tradition and in Samarkand when I was confused about the way back to the main drag, an elderly woman gathered up her grand daughter and led me for 15 minutes back to the centre of the city before leaving with a smile and a waive.

It was on the roof of an old house in a narrow Bukharan back street that I came across Minzifa - a small restaurant where I had the meal I enjoyed most in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is a meat eaters paradise, but at Minzifa I managed to find a vegetarian version of the ubiquitous "plov" a rice based dish similar to the pilaf you might be familiar with from other eastern countries. I was able to enjoy this at my own small table, watching the sunset and listening to Chopin being played on the restaurant's piano with the streets below descending into almost total darkness. Ah, Bukhara.

You can see more pictures of Bukhara and other cities in Uzbekistan here.
(This post was originally published in December 2011 and was updated and expanded in July 2013).

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Building the revolution - a Royal Academy exhibition

This is the title of one of the current exhibitions at the Royal Academy, which I finally managed to visit today.

The exhibition surveys avant-garde Soviet architecture from 1915-1935, using photographs, drawings, plans and works of art from the period to illustrate how architecture was used in the attempt to transform a society. The early days of this transformation improved living conditions for many people but also emphasised social differences with special provision for military leaders, some doctors, the Cheka (later the KGB) and other leading Soviet groups.

The grandeur of much of Soviet architecture is illustrated by a courtyard reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin's proposed but never built Monument to the Third International. The vastness of Tatlin's plans is demonstrated by the tiny human figures at the foot of the tower.

A number of the buildings featured are now in very poor condition, including my own favourite - the Narkomfin Communal House on Novinksi Bulvar in Moscow, built in 1930 and designed by Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis. The House was one of many experiments in communal living with a shared dining hall, kitchen, reading room and a laundry as well as a number of self contained apartments for families not ready to participate in a more communal approach to living.

Detail of the Narkomfin communal house in 2012
I have to confess I was unaware of these attempts at communal living that strongly remind me of some of the ideals of the kibbutz movement in Israel or the less structured communality of Tel Aviv in the 1930's where many of the apartment buildings had committees and shared space on the roof or in courtyards for shared activity.

The exhibition features photographs of the Narkomfin House in 1931 - all pristine white exterior, clean lines and modernist furniture in the communal areas, again highly reminiscent of Tel Aviv during this period and of the Bauhaus School in Weimar Germany. These contrast with the current very sad state of affairs recorded in Richard Pare's photographs from the mid 1990's showing the House crumbling both inside and out, its future uncertain.

Many of the buildings featured in the exhibition are in Moscow, but there are also many more in St. Petersburg, Kharkov (which the Soviets temporarily designated as capital of the Ukraine instead of Kiev), Ekaterinburg and Baku which is today the capital of independent Azerbaijan.

The modernist images from the early 1930's are extremely optimistic and it is sad to see the current situation of many of them - crumbling, collapsing and disintegrating in the same way the Soviet Union eventually did. It is telling that the modernist experiment was ended by Stalin's intervention, with a directive to return to classicist references in Soviet architecture.

Some visitors will be surprised to find that Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn also feature in the exhibition, having been commissioned by the Soviets to design a range of buildings for them. Mendelsohn's case is especially interesting as only parts of his design were used provoking a furious response from him that Soviet architecture was sub standard and doomed to failure!

I should have confessed that I have a weakness for many things Russian - Chagall, Goncharova, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, "style moderne" architecture and the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. I love the grandeur, the "bigness", the idea that a place with such a terrible history has produced things of such stunning beauty. This exhibition reminds me of why I admire Russian art and artists so much, especially the avant garde movements of the 1920's and 1930's. It has also given me some extra places to look for when I visit Moscow in September next year.

Model of Tatlin's unbuilt Monument to the Third International in the courtyard of the Royal Academy
Update - I managed to visit Moscow for a second time in 2012, hence the photograph above of the Narkomfin House. I was also able to view a number of other avant-grade buildings from this period, some in terrible condition and in danger of being lost. You can read more about them here. Incidentally, some people compared the model of Tatlin's proposed monument to the tower in the Olympic Park at Stratford. You can see what they mean...

Monday 26 December 2011

My Soho

Although I rarely go out in town these days, I still have a lot of affection for Soho. When I first came to London it was the place I spent most of my free time in and loved best.

Walking around Soho today I realised how very different it is from when I first came here. Some of the old favourites have survived and prospered - the Algerian Coffee shop and the original Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street, Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and the enduring French House in Dean Street. Some places have survived by adapting themselves. Maison Bertaux has expanded into adjoining premises but - sadly - the French House let its first floor restaurant go some time ago - it's now an Italian restaurant managed (and owned?) separately from the pub.

Algerian Coffee Stores - Old Compton Street, Soho by Yekkes

Other places have completely disappeared. Who else remembers the Old Compton Cafe in the street of the same name - a step up from a greasy spoon, but much loved by late night revellers, now replaced with a small branch of Balans? Does one street really  need two branches of Balans?

On the other hand, there is at least one example of what was once a small independent cafe taking over the world in the shape of Cafe Nero. The branch on the junction of Frith and Old Compton Streets was the first one in the west end as far as I remember and has now spread right across the city and beyond. I remember eating pretty bland slices of pizza there late at night, after having had too much to drink, then throwing down a cup of the strongest coffee you could get in London at that time.

A couple of the long time food outlets of Old Compton Street have survived - Camisa, the wonderful Italian deli at the Wardour Street end still sells onion bread, cut meat, italian rice (for risotto!) and a variety of other delicacies, and Cafe Espana the slightly run down but oh so popular Spanish cafe nearby is still with us. However, devotees of Cafe Espana may need to worry - there is a for sale sign on the front of the building advertising both the lease and the business. Another one bites the dust?

As well as eating, Old Compton Street and surrounding area has always been a spot for pretty serious drinking. My favourite has always been the French House in Dean Street. Originally called the York Minster, it took its name from the preponderance of French customers during the second world war - several of whom were linked to the then French Government in exile. It has to be one of the cosiest (yes and very small too) bars in the west end. It still attracts a theatrical crowd, in all senses of the word, who gaze up at and are gazed down on, by the many pictures of celebrity drinkers who have graced "the French" in the past.

Maison Bertaux - Greek Street, Soho by Yekkes

In rowdier days I was very fond of the old style Comptons pub, which was then ground floor only with a central, horse-shoe bar, a varied clientele and for a few years at least a terrifying and permanently inebriated Scottish landlady who took no s--t from anyone but became coy and giggly if given complements or told she'd had her name in the paper. She was typical of a number of characters who have mostly disappeared from Soho these days. Whatever happened to the spectacularly grumpy and often rude old plastic bead wearing queens who worked in Maison Bertaux, terrifying staff and customers and the actress lady who ruled the same shop with a rod of iron? Not to mention the landlord of the Coach and Horses...

Coach and Horses - Dean Street, Soho by Yekkes

I also liked to drink at the still extant Ed's Diner, on Moor Street. Ed's is primarily a burger bar - also a fairly large chain now - but used to, and probably still does sell American beers to diners late into the night. My favourite was Rolling Rock which the staff swore was Elvis Presley's favourite beer, accompanied by a strange concoction known as "wet fries" - chips in a kind of stodgy gravy. Best of all were the individual juke boxes in front of every stool at the deco-ish bar, where for 5p you could select favourite songs from the 50's and 60's, like It Might As Well Rain Until September, by Carol King, Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes and other goodies.

Ed's Easy Diner - Moor Street, Soho by Yekkes

Ronnie Scotts is still with us in Frith Street.  The best jazz club in the world has been running for more than half a century having opened in 1959 and still attracts sell out crowds for the biggest names in jazz. If I go anywhere in Soho these days, this is the place I go. It costs a fortune but its worth every penny to have seen Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Liston Smith, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Stacey Kent and others over the last few years. The club had a major makeover a couple of years ago and the no-smoking legislation means its very different from the first time I visited in 1982 when Ronnie Scott was still alive, hosted the evening and told bad jokes, but its still a great musical experience.

Ronnie Scott's - Frith Street, Soho by Yekkes

To prove I don't entirely live in the past, there are some really good new or newer places too. Its great to see places like Princi in Wardour Street and Yauatcha in Broadwick Street take forward the area's tradition for fantastic patisserie, albeit a bit specialist and super-expensive in the case of the latter. Food still looms large amongst the other newcomers - I love Humous Brothers in Wardour Street, (well I would) and Busaba Eatthai across the road is also a favourite, although its some time since I went.

Its interesting that the area can still support a fair number of pretty good newsagents selling a range of specialist publications. Specialist in the usual sense that is, with great coverage of the arts, overseas newspapers, fashion, music and other media, rather than "specialist"in the old Soho sense! There are two really good newsagents in Old Compton Street and a couple more in Wardour Street - I even managed to pick up a copy of a new Azeri magazine "Baku" recently without the shop keeper even batting an eyelid when I asked for it.

I wonder how much longer these hardy independent souls will be able to hang on as leases end and rents rocket? Many of the chains already have a presence in Soho - Starbucks, Pret a Manger, Paul and others - all fine with me, but what a pity it would (will?) be if and when we eventually lose all of the shops and cafes that have given the area its character for so many years.