Monday, June 29, 2009

To Russia and Back

I've officially returned from Russia as of late last night. All of my most recent Russia posts are on The Coruscating Camera if you haven't been keeping up.
That's the site that was banned in Uzbekistan, but I'm in Uzbekistan no more. Go to my Wordpress site for more pictures from the trip.
Here's one from Elista in the Republic of Kalmykia.
I don't think I'll be posting much more on Asia Central. Blogspot simply is not as easy to use as Wordpress. I have not felt comfortable with the Blogger software.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tashkent Old City

It took us several days to find the old city of Tashkent. We discovered the old market, but the narrow walled streets of Chorsu were elusive. There were some enticing alleys with children playing, but they seemed inadequate for the "old" quarter of a 2200+ year old city of 3-5,000,000 people. We had read about the earthquake that killed as many as 500,000 inhabitants in 1966. The book said that many old neighborhoods survived because they had few windows or doors, just mud and straw flexible walled dwellings.
A couple of days ago we were walking along what looked like a construction site and I noticed a door cut into the green metal fence. Instead of a construction project, behind the green wall was the walled city of Tashkent. Alleys lined with clay led off in every direction.
There were a few larger holes in the green wall to accommodate driving a car into the neighborhood.
Some entered through simple, handle-less closed doors.The green wall began at a bakery that had a marvelous, if understated, bread display along the road.The wall continued to a mosque at the other end of the neighborhood.
I don't know the "why" of the green metal jacket protecting the earthen walkways of this ancient part of town. Maybe the green wall looks better to the outside neighbors than what preceded it. Or maybe the old district chose to erect it to keep people like me from sticking my head in and bothering them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Tashkent Challenge

Tashkent is one helluva tough town. I thought it was going to be my kind of photography scene-- filled with ugly beauty. Early indications seemed promising when Vivian and I walked by this cafe near our hotel.
"Dadu" is what Tobey and Caleb call me. Vivian took this as I proudly stood out front.

Before I start complaining, here's a list of things I like about Tashkent:
1. The hotel, with live harp music every morning at a good buffet breakfast, plus free in-room wireless.
2. The American Embassy and their outstanding operatives. I really think these guys are altruistically contributing to Uzbekistan's overall well-being.
3. Food that, even when it was bad, was good enough to eat. This includes coffee that wasn't instant and J Smoker's local draft dark beer, which was real good.
4. Taxi anywhere in the city for less that $3. Almost any vehicle is a taxi. You just stick your hand out wherever you are. Someone will stop within about a half dozen cars. You do a quick negotiation and if they aren't interested, there is another car that has moved in behind the first.

The city seems to not be user friendly. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1966 by an earthquake. The Soviet Union rebuilt it with the participation of every Soviet state. This meant that a potpourri of oversized structures, built by a variety of people, created a city of big, bulbous, (mostly) empty interiors and large grass, or cement, filled spaces in between. It's an unenviable experience to be staggering around in 100 degree heat between these buildings. Each guarded proletarian fortress seems to be spaced about a half mile apart. It's kind of like the architecture of UMass except you can't walk anywhere, there is no place to go on foot. The sidewalks are fenced-in so you can barely even get across the street. The roads include around 5 traffic lanes in each direction, plus trolleys. Crossing the street requires the tenacity of a demolition derby driver (without a car).

Nobody in town knows anything about where they are or where you may want to be going. They will give you directions unhesitatingly even though they have no idea what you are asking about. We have never received accurate directions from a person on the street, unless he was driving you there. In that case, it was his gas that he was wasting so he'd figure it out.

That said, the people of Tashkent are very nice. My attempts to make portraits are usually met with one of two responses.
An undesirable smile.... or a, "talk to the hand!"
So, now you know why the 1000 words. I would rather show you a picture.

I did make one picture that I like.
In lieu of posting more good pictures (that I didn't make), here's the illustrated story of our carpet.
The carpet shop was behind a signless doorway in one of those huge buildings I was talking about. The dealer invited us in off the street, led us through a room where a few old guys were drinking tea, then through a very small room with a metal desk and a piano.

Next, through a slightly bigger cement walled chamber-- the showroom.
and finally into a couple of connected closets lined with folded carpets.
That's Nadira behind Vivian. Here she is in the showroom.The long process of looking at too many carpets is more fun than choosing tile and superior to watching paint dry. Vivian is checking the color of this carpet with her toenail polish.We finally pick the best combination of the usual factors and end up with this Bukhara design on an Afghan made beauty.
Vivian's name is up in the corner because we are doing the paperwork to get it out of the country. That's a post for another time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Silk and Clay

We made several amazing stops on our way out of Ferghana and back to Tashkent. Like our previous visit to the 8th century paper mill in Samarkand, these visits were about living history and artisan survival in the 21st century. There is a down side to practicing ancient techniques. They are labor intensive and not financially rewarding. Basically, I wasn't happy to see people who have worked boiling silk worms to death for the past 30 years. This is not a pro silk worm manifesto, I just felt bad for the crafts people who did such grueling work daily. I was also not pleased to see very young young people apprenticing in these trades. I won't go into a "how to" on silk production. I think Stan Sherer and Marjorie Senechal have already written a book or two about it.

These ladies are boiling the silk worms and extracting the silk from the cocoons.
From what I understood, this is the only "traditionally produced" silk factory in Central Asia.
This man is making (or doing) ikat, a kind of tying and dyeing of the silk.
Here's a young person weaving the ikat threads.
Every release of the shutter is an affirmation-- yes, yes, yes (Henri Cartier-Bresson paraphrase). Each camera exposure is an acknowledgement of the present moment. It seems to be cheating to embrace the present moment for the extended period of a print or a blog. And to have each shutter release lead to the next.

Here's a market picture from the Tashkent Old City while I go to meet the US Ambassador to Uzbekistan.

Ambassador Richard Norland is a personable guy who asked me to encourage you to come and visit. I don't think he'll put you up at the Dedeman Hotel, but you can easily ride the elevator.
Now for ceramic arts. This series is for Chuck and Patty. I know I don't have to say much about clay production, so here's some studio pictures from Uzbekistan's greatest living potter.

As I was looking at the beautiful patterns on the plates, I was reminded of my favorite Uzbek popular art form-- bread making. OK, so I haven't had much to eat for the past 10 hours. I do have a squeeze bottle of mayonez (Uzbek spelling) resting on the hotel air conditioner. I think I'll take it with me to market to get a bread snack.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Students and Teachers

A fabulous four hour drive in one of the Embassy's Chevy Suburbans brought us from Tashkent to Namangan. I may get around to posting pictures from the drive through the mountains, but they were mostly shot out the window. I haven't looked to see if they are interesting. In Tajikistan we were often in an armored Toyota Highlander and the windows didn't roll down. The Suburban was an improvement even though it was the biggest non-truck on the road. We only stopped for herds of livestock, loaves of bread and baskets of apricots.

We bought one or two of these baskets of apricots from the girl below. After she sold them to us she ran back into the orchard and filled them up again.
I was thinking about the first 150 years of photography and how peasants and farmers were a major theme right from the beginning. In the 1860s Lady Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron would have their friends and family dress up in costumes to recreate "the olden days" of country life for their own amusement. The Allen Sisters made a living setting up picturesque "genre" scenes of Deerfield farmers and children in the 1890s. They sold prints to city folk. Photographers continue to do the same for stock photo agencies. Now, I'll nip the lecture on photography in the bud (to use a farming analogy), and say enough is enough. (more to come)

We had this wierdo "luxe" suite in the hotel in Namangan.
Yes, that's Vivian on the left entering our suite. This is the third floor staircase. I took pictures inside our rooms, too, but this gives you the idea.
Anyway, we had a balcony with a breathtaking view of cotton fields spreading out like we were in California or something. At about 5:30 Vivian wakes me up to get me to take pictures of the farmers in the fields illuminated by this perfect sweeping dawn light. I took one look at a potential cover shot for a John Deere Annual Report (except there was no machinery) and went back to bed. She took the pictures herself. Again, for me, "enough is enough." These kinds of pictures are tolerable when I see them in calendars on the walls of hardware stores, but they are not for me. I'm having enough trouble making pictures that are fresh and interesting, I don't need all these scenic farmers running around at dawn in their infinite fields.

Let's take a break with this picture at the Namangan restaurant where we ate three times in two days. Now that's an effort to stay healthy.
Note: Stay away from Russian beer. Tuborg seems to be decent, but it's not delicious. If you want a good beer, go to the biggest city you can find, Moscow will do, and search out an Irish Pub (yes, they are all over the world) and order a Guinness (period).

OK, now back to my elusive point about pictures, farming and the world as it is.
Before I took this picture of these girls, who are sitting in a school cafe preparing for their final exam in Uzbek, they were telling me that the cotton company delays the beginning of school until late October because young people are needed in the fields for harvesting cotton. Well, I did a little research and it appears that the state owns the cotton company and that the school children do not get paid for their labor. OK, I'm getting into the same territory that has probably led Uzbekistan to block Wordpress blogs from access in their country. I don't want to have to find yet another blogging site so I'll simply stress that this is an opportunity for foreign aid to step in and donate some damn harvesting machines. I'll also mention that the youngsters I talked to did not complain about this, ie, please don't harass them. In fact, I'm not complaining about it:-)

Now's the time to get to what the blog is about--students and teachers.
I love these guys. They're smart and good looking, and they know how to dress.
Look at this great posture.
These boys are all out of uniform because they took their ties off.All these girls had to do was stand there. They nailed it.Here are some teachers flanked by security and possibly a student or two.More to come...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Samarkand Epiphanies

Our journey to Samarkand was a few days ago by now, but it usually takes me a few days to download, upload and reload. Today was fantastic with a visit to a hand made silk factory in the Fergana Valley, but I've got to show you some other stuff first.

We stopped at this Tajik gas station on the way to the Uzbek border. At least you can tell how dirty your gas is.

This Samarkand bread, that has been a tradition for 1000’s of years, tastes just like a bagel. It is baked, not boiled, but is bagel-like in every other way. Maybe it is more of a bialy.
Nodera is the young woman on the left. She’s our gift from the American Embassy. She’s hip, smart, sassy, sexy and Uzbek. She takes care of us and knows how to do things “in country” that your standard diplomat may be clueless about.
With our crew of US Embassy drivers, we are usually catapulting through the landscape at about 70 miles an hour. These Uzbek guys with diplomatic plates don’t stop for anyone. They zoom through checkpoints and cops and tourists. I didn’t dare ask Abegg (name changed for security purposes) to stop so I could photograph this interesting ruin that was speeding by us in Samarkand.

Samarkand is known as the jewel of the Muslim world. It’s mosques and madrassas are truly spectacular. I didn’t feel up to the task of making pictures of the light, color and spiritual energy in these sites. It seems I could only record shadows and silhouettes.

I wasn’t the only one having trouble meeting the visual challenge. This girl was climbing where she wasn’t supposed to in an effort to get a perfect picture. I simply photographed her because only Allah is perfect.
The funkier un-renovated ruins always attract me. This mausoleum is in a row of ancient tombs that really felt like a power place. It didn’t have the glitter of the main Registan complex, but it is the prime destination for pilgrims in Samarkand.

One of my daily goals is to stick my camera into places that it shouldn’t be. The workers quickly kicked me out of this room, but I did manage to get this picture of the bust through the debris.
I was trying on this hat at a tourist store and then this local kid put it on and I threw in the towel. No camel hair hats for me.

The highlight of our trip to Samarkand, yes, even better than karaoke in the Uzbek night club, was the visit to the 8th century reconstructed paper mill on the outskirts of town. This is a mill where paper is hand made from mulberry trees. The pulp is generated by hand with the help of water power and hours of artisan expert labor.

I'm starting to explain the process after the wood has been peeled and boiled for a long time. Actually I'm not positive if they beat it to a pulp or cook it to a pulp first. I do know this is where the mulberry wood is beaten to a pulp. These pulpers are run by a water wheel outside the window.

This is the guy who orchestrates the beating to a pulp.

This is the room where the paper is lifted sheet by sheet from a slurry of pulp. It is then pressed, and then dried on the window panes. They use sea shells to polish the paper after it dries. You can see how worn out the shell is from all that polishing.
The grounds of the paper mill are totally idyllic. We sat outside and had lunch with the owner of the mill. They made us the best meal so far in Uzbekistan. I was sick the next day. Go figure.