Jimi Hendrix’s Favorite Beach Town

January 17th, 2014
Essaouira,Morocco

Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In previous trips we haven’t made it down from Marrakesh…and our buying sprees…to the coastal city of Essaouira.  This time, however, we faced a day of “shops closed” due to the big Eid El Adha holiday, so we decided to try to find out why our Seattle neighbor Jimi Hendrix liked the town so much.  We found out.

Essaouira,Morocco

Street Salesman in Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

Essaouira owes its centuries-old existence to its strategic position along the Atlantic coast.  The Portuguese, the first of several European powers to occupy the site, name it Mogador…a wonderfully sinister-sounding word that supposedly was Tolkien’s inspiration for the name he took for his citadel of evil–Modor–in the Hobbit books.

Essaouira,Morocco

A rug Store in Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

At one time it was called the “port of Timbuktu”, as it was the destination of trade caravans bringing products, including slaves, from black Africa.

Essaouira lies at the crossroads between two tribes: the Arab Chiadma to the north and the HaHa Berbers to the south.  Plus they  have the Gnawa, who originally came from further south, and who are especially known for a special and respected kind of Moroccan music.

Gnawa,Morocco

Fred and Sign About Gnawa Music. © Sharon Lundahl

Gnawa music seems like one long song, but is actually a series of chants which describe various African spirits and is used by followers for a state of trance.  It is also known by its instrumentation, using large heavy iron castanets known as qraqab and a 3-string lute called a hajhuj.  The rhythm is is traditional and hypnotic.

The present fortified seaport of Essaouira dates from the 18th century.  It is a wonderfully atmospheric little beach town surrounded by massive crenelated masonry walls.  Its houses glow white in the sun with embellishments of that wonderfully bright deep Moroccan blue paint.

Essaouira,Morocco

Fishing Port of Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

As expected, most of the shops were closed for the holiday.  We were able to stroll, un-distracted and un-tempted by bargains, along the fishing harbor and through the sunny narrow paths and alleys.  Those were filled with the debris of the previous night’s celebrations of outdoor street barbecues.   It is the custom for each family or group to kill and consume a sheep for this holiday each year.

Essaouira,Morocco

Fred Playing Harmonica. © Sharon Lundahl

Scorched metal bed frames and piles of still-smoking hot coals were often paired with the decapitated sheeps’ heads of the night’s feasts, complete with pitiful open little sheep eyes staring up at us as we stepped around them.  Much of the Moslem world eats the entire sheep, including the head, but apparently not the Moroccans.

Essaouira,Morocco

Dyes and African Viagra. © Sharon Lundahl

Most groups of residents out in the streets and alleys cleaning up the mess were not keen on having their pictures taken.  We were rebuffed until we heard a boy in a group of street kids playing a harmonica.  Fred–who has carried a harmonica in his pocket for over half a century–whipped out his instrument and played along with the young Moroccan to the delight of his friends.  They even let us take pictures.

Essaouira,Morocco

Beach at Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In one of the few open shops, we were finally, at long last, able to score something written in Berber script .  We came across wonderful little badges in Berber and French that said “I’m Berber and I’m Proud of It!”  We bought them all.

Essaouira,Morocco

Goats in a Tree.© Sharon Lundahl

On the road between Marrakesh and Essaouira we came across the iconic photo that is in all the books of a bunch of goats balancing on high branches of an Argon tree eating its nuts…exactly that photo.  We screeched to a halt and piled out in awe to take photos after a fee was duly collected by the owner of the goats.  The goats were not tethered to their high spindly branches, so we could only imagine that they received a cut of the photo fees their owner had collected.

…and we never found Jimi Hendrix’s stash.

Morocco

Our companions on the trip: Linda, Jean, (a Moroccan), Greg and Shevaun. © Sharon Lundahl

Marrakesh, the Red City

January 1st, 2014
Marrakesh,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Marrakesh. © Ron@flickr

Marrakesh is at the place where sub-Saharan Africa meets Arab North Africa.  The name means “Land of God.”

Marrakesh

Kids Playing on our Street in Marrakesh.© Fred Lundahl

It was once again thrilling for Fred and Sharon to drive up to Marrakesh, its unique  red walls and red sandstone buildings of Moorish architecture shining in the sun.  This view gives the city its nickname, “The Red City.”  It is also sometimes called, “The Daughter of the Desert”.

The ramparts encircle the old city (the “medina”)– which teems with life and energy…carts and animals carrying huge and strange loads, and people of all colors and various clothing.  At this point it is wise to leave your vehicle in a parking lot and proceed by foot.   All of our excursions in the medina during the next week were done on foot.

Marrakesh,Morocco,Medina

Busy Street in the Medina. © Fred Lundahl

The medina  is filled with souks (markets) which meander along labyrinths of curving alleys, leading to the most famous (and most fun) city square in Morocco–the Jemaa el-Fnaa.  This square is the heart of the city and the hub of activity.  Jemaa el-Fnaa means “Assembly of the Dead” because it used to be the place where criminals were beheaded–sometimes up to 45 in a single day.  After execution, the heads were pickled and suspended on spikes from the city gates.

Marrakesh,Morocco,RiadLeClosDesArts

Taking a Break on the Roof of our Fabulous B&B–Riad le Clos des Arts. © Sharon Lundahl

Historically the square attracted tradesmen from the surrounding desert and mountains; snake charmers; musicians with their pipes, African drums and tambourines; and dancing boys.  Even now we saw many of the above, as well as henna painters, herb sellers, fortune tellers and monkey handlers.

Perhaps our favorite of the souk stalls are those selling fresh orange juice.  The counters are piled high with stacks of fresh oranges, and a glass of OJ costs from the equivalent of 50 cents.  Different qualities are more expensive and you can pay as much as $ 1.25 if it’s squeezed in front of you and, therefore, clearly unadulterated.

Marrakesh, Morocco

Shopkeeper and Son on our Street. © Sharon Lundahl

At sunset, the Jemaa el-Fnaa makes an astonishingly quick change;  it is transformed into a  a huge open-air show.  Depending on the night, we heard and saw a variety of musicians, storytellers, tooth-pullers and magicians.  This is really the gathering place of everyone who lives in or visits Marrakesh.

Marrakesh,Morocco,JemaaEl-Fnaa

Places to Eat in Jemaa el-Fnaa. © Robbie@flickr

After dark, one whole side of the square is taken over by local “pop-up” restaurants (makeshift food stalls) with grills and long tables, most even without piped-in water, but which often sell fabulous food at low prices.  Hundreds of men and boys in chefs’ dress prepare food every night.  Beware of the stalls with few customers, as their reputation might be for unsafe food preparation.

Marrakesh,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Fred Carrying Purchases to our B&B. © Sharon Lundahl

One favorite of ours had fried squid  served them with a few side dishes.  At one stall, Ahmed served bowls of escargot for $ 1.25.  You also would probably recognize the slow-cooked lamb served in Moroccan bread with a sprinkling of ground cumin.  Moroccon cuisine is a combination of Moorish, Berber and French influences.

Sharon’s favorite dish in Marrakesh was pastilla.  The classic dish is made of pigeon–cooked, chopped and prepared in a flaky pastry, along with finely chopped almonds and pistachios.  It is topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.   Fred’s favorite was a tagine (exotic warm stew)  of caramelized pumpkin and chicken.

Marrakesh,Morocco,

Rug Store in Marrakesh. © Sharon Lundahl

One of the best activities in the souks of Marrakesh is shopping.    Buyers and sellers come to Marrakesh as the recognized trading center of Morocco.  Bargaining is required, and the best products are hand-made.  Many shops specialize in spices and oils; fresh fruits and vegetables; djellabas–long coats with hoods; exotic metal Moroccan lamps; local pottery; argan oil, produced only in Morocco, used for both cooking and beauty; leather goods from their tanning industry; woodwork; antiques of all kinds; jewelry, and, of course, carpets and textiles.

Tuareg,Marrakesh,Morocco

Tuareg Leatherwork. © Sharon Lundahl

While not eating or shopping, we visited many museums and other sights.  Our favorite was probably the Majorelle Gardens.  Established in 1923 by Jacques Majorelle as a Moorish villa with deep blue, green and red tiles, it was later bought by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Berger.  Now the deep blue tiles highlight a garden of tropical flowers, yucca, bougainvillea, bamboo, hibiscus, and so on.  There are more than 400 kinds of palm trees and 1800 species of cactus.

The villa is now a Berber Museum, with incredible displays of Berber clothing and antique jewelry.  The museum shop had prints of YSL posters and books on subjects such as tuareg jewelry.

Once again this trip re-confirmed Marrakesh as our favorite city in Morocco.

Marrakesh,Morocco,Majorelle

The Majorelle Gardens. © Sharon Lundahl

 

 

Fez the Mysterious

December 24th, 2013
Fez,Morocco,Tanneries

Famous Tanneries in Fez. © Fred Lundahl

The medina (walled city) in Fez, the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities, is the best-preserved ancient locale in the Arab world.

Morocco,Fez,MusicForTheEyes

Music Shop in Fez. © Sharon Lundahl

Paul Bowles wrote about Fez in 1984 in a travel article; he thought  Fez among the great cities of the world because there a medieval style of life was still functioning.  He talked about a local industry which was based primarily on handmade goods.  This still exists.

Morocco,Fez,MusicForTheEyes

Chickens for Sale in Narrow Alleys. © Sharon Lundahl

Fez’s fascinating twisting, sometimes dark, up-and-downhill lanes and alleys can be really confusing to newcomers.  On our last visit a few years ago, its crowded casbah with narrow streets really flummoxed us.  To solve the “where am I?” question, we bought a small Garmin GPS.  Not only did it not work in the narrow passageways with no sky view, but Fred’s brandishing it brought unintended attention from a pick-pocket.  I suspect the thief was quite surprised when he realized he had scored not a valuable cell phone, but a useless GPS.

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Jewelry Shop in Old Moroccan Mansion. © Sharon Lundahl

This time was different.  We found a great riad (B&B) inside the walls of the medina with nearby parking for our huge van.  A little study of a pocket-sized city map, coupled with a half-day guided tour to feel out the main routes, made all the difference to our comfort level in wandering the medina.  We were able to find exotic restaurants, as well as shops we could (this time) find a second time…not always easy to do.

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

The Usual Transport in Narrow Fez Alleys. © Sharon Lundahl

One reason we liked Fez was the unusual absence of cars–even though the cries of “Balek, balek” (look out) usually meant a mule or some other animal heavily laden with goods was coming and we had to squeeze to the side.  Because few roads extend within the city walls, it is the world’s largest car-free urban zone.

Fez has the most complex medina with more ancient monuments, mosques, Koranic schools, souks and riads than any other Moroccan city.  Besides those, we saw weaving studios, watched pottery being made, went by wool and silk being dyed, smelled perfumed oils and spices, tasted strange fruits and figs, and listened to musical instruments.

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Scarves for Sale. © Sharon Lundahl

Walking through the alleys off the main walking streets through children playing and neighbors gossiping, largely being ignored even though we were foreigners, we felt like we were really participating in the ancient city’s life.

The most unique and neatest sight to visit in Fez also had the most

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Shops on the Lanes. © Sharon Lundahl

unique and un-neatest smell–the tanneries.  Watching the dozens of men tanning sheep skins by stomping on the skins in vats of vile-smelling liquid made us wonder if this were the most unhealthy occupation in the world.  Still, we managed to score some colorful leather slippers (tarboush) which are now gracing our shop.

A favorite restaurant was one set up inside a building that housed a medieval “water clock” that kept time through water dripping from one box to another.

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Cafe Clock, Popular Hangout in Fez. © Fred Lundahl

Apparently only the builder knew how it worked…so after he died…the clock ceased to work.  It has now become a notable landmark for everyone…”Let’s meet at the water clock at 6.”

UNESCO designated the Fez medina as a World Heritage Site, and we know why.  It is our favorite mysterious, Medieval city.

Fez,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

Sharon Buying Handmade Moroccan Slippers. © Fred Lundahl

The Berbers: Live Free or Die

December 14th, 2013
Morocco Berber Desert

Our Traveling Companions in the Moroccan Desert. © Linda Ridder.

 

Berber Morocco

Arabic, Berber, French and computer languages. Sharon Lundahl

The single most noticeable change in Morocco in the years since our last visit has been the sudden appearance of the Berber language, with its exotic ancient alphabet, on all official Moroccan government signs and documents.

The Berbers were the ancient peoples of Morocco who were forcibly converted to Islam by the Arabs who conquered the country over a thousand years ago.  Thought to

Berber Merzouga Morocco

A Berber in Merzouga. © Graye/flickr

descend from mixed peoples–including, Saharan, Oriental and European–they are of different tribes and do not make up a homogenous race.

More than 60 % of Moroccans now call themselves Berber, and “Berber Pride” is now mainstream in Morocco.

Many of the Berbers still

French, Arabic and Berber. © Sharon Lundahl

French, Arabic and Berber. © Sharon Lundahl

live in the Atlas mountains, although others populate urban areas.  The southern nomadic  Berbers (“blue men”–named because their skin was stained by the indigo dyes of their robes and turbans) live in the deserts.

For centuries up into modern times, the Berber culture has been ignored or sometimes suppressed.  The importance, however unspoken, of acknowledging the Berber segment of the population, has led Morocco’s kings to always make sure that one of their wives was a Berber.

Berber Morocco Food

Berber Food Served in the Dessert. © Linda Ridder

Despite this, the ancient non-semitic “Tamazight” language, while spoken in Berber households, was not allowed to be taught in schools or be accepted as an official Moroccan language.  In much the same way that Kurdish language was suppressed in Turkey, the Berber language was devalued.

Berber in Blue Robes. © Sharon Lundahl

Berber in Blue Robes. © Sharon Lundahl

This changed two years ago when Morocco’s young king Mohammed VI correctly perceived that continued ignoring of the contribution of the Berbers to Morocco could risk the rise of the kind of violent discontent that has marked the Kurdish movement in Turkey.  At his encouragement, the government did a total about-face in its policy towards the Berbers.  Suddenly, Berber, with its ancient alphabet, was recognized as an official Moroccan language.  Berber culture began to be taught, along with the language, in schools.

Berber Ladies' Hats. © Sharon Lundahl

Berber Ladies’ Hats. © Sharon Lundahl

The government began to require that all official documents and even touristic signs be written in Arabic AND Berber.  All of this government attention, especially to an ancient language which has six spoken dialects and no commonly agreed upon written form ,was puzzling to many Moroccans, including many Berbers themselves.

Berber Jewelry.  © Fred Lundahl

Berber Jewelry. © Fred Lundahl

Oddly, these new policies have perhaps had just as big an effect internationally as at home.  Just this year, in a surprising turnabout, the Turkish government suddenly reversed decades of suppression of the Kurdish language and culture; Morocco’s king reportedly had told the Turkish prime minister that just as speaking Berber didn’t make one less Moroccan, speaking Kurdish shouldn’t make one less Turkish.

Back in the tourist shops of Morocco, however, merchants usually well tuned to tourist interests, had yet to pick up on foreigners’ interest in the exotic Berber language.  Our exhaustive 3-week search turned up only one “Teach Yourself Berber” book in French, one shawl with a Berber letter on it, and a single T-shirt with one Berber word  nestled amongst the Arabic.

Our shop (in collaboration with our favorite store in Marrakesh) plans to produce t-shirts with “Music for the Eyes” written in Berber.

Berber Morocco Tents

Berber Tents in the Moroccan Desert. © cbertel/flickr

 

Tangier–Close to Spain

November 30th, 2013
Tangier,Morocco,MusicForTheEyes

A Tangier Sunset. Sharon Lundahl

In October we made our first ever visit to Tangier, Morocco’s gateway to Europe.  The purpose of our visit was to see a close friend, Lisa, from our diplomatic days.  She recently married a Moroccan-American,  and now splits her time between Morocco and the states.

Handmade Tiles in Lisa's House. © Sharon Lundahl

Handmade Tiles in Lisa’s House. © Sharon Lundahl

Lisa and Charlie have been engaged in a several-year struggle to build a Moroccan mansion in Tangier–with recalcitrant workmen and even cultural problems to overcome. Our friends have never lost their sense of humor about it all, and their experiences are similar to the hilarious house-building adventure in Casablanca that author Tahir Shah chronicled in his great book, “The Caliph’s House”..even to dealing with “djinns”, mischievous spirits that inhabit the house.

Shopping in Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl

Shopping in Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl

Being a Tangerine (resident of Tangier), Lisa knows the city intimately and was a great tour guide.  Tangiers, with the coast of Spain visible on the horizon, sometimes seems more like Europe than the Middle East.  Seacoast resorts filled with European-owned condos stretch away from the old city.

Although one hears the Islamic call to prayer, as in all Moroccan cities, few Tangerine women wear headscarves.

American Legation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

American Legation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

The old city still has a famous 1930′s gay bar, “Dean’s”, as well as a centuries-old English church which still holds services for a mostly elderly crowd.  Tangiers is also proud of being the home of many 20th-century expatriate writers, such as the American Paul Bowles and William Burroughs.

Fred Looking at Rugs.   Sharon Lundahl

Fred Looking at Rugs. Sharon Lundahl

Tangiers was the location of the first diplomatic embassy a young United States set up outside of Europe in the early 1800′s.  The purpose at the time was to deal with the 19th century hostage-taking issue of the Barbary Pirates, who preyed freely on U.S. shipping in the area until U.S. Marines intervened “to the shores of Tripoli.”

Selling Fish Products on the Street.  © Sharon Lundahl

Selling Fish Products on the Street. © Sharon Lundahl

The elegant old American Legation building inside the walls of the old city, which has been made into a museum, played a role in another hostage-taking episode a century later during Teddy Roosevelt’s time, when a mountain chieftain (played by actor Sean Connery in the film, The Wind and the Lion”) kidnapped the American consul.  Once again U.S. Marines marched in to force the Bey of Tangiers to ransom Consul Petticaris.  Hollywood naturally thought it best to change the gender of the hostage for dramatic effect, and the victim became Mrs. Petticaris (played by a feisty Candace Bergen.)

Door into the Kasbah.  © Sharon Lundahl

Door into the Kasbah. © Sharon Lundahl

Tangiers was an outstanding surprise.  A favorite outing was to the famous “Kasbah,” former residence of sultans.  We loved wandering in the medina, which was a dense maze of shops houses and narrow, steep paths and streets.

Lisa took us to great restaurants, and we especially remember long paper-covered tables at the port, hidden away from tourists, where local families feasted on freshly cooked platters of shrimp, fish and squid.  Wow.

In all, though, we loved Tangier better for its atmosphere, rather than any specific sights.  We hope to return, especially if our friends manage to rout the djinns from their house.

Vacation Pleasures on the Beaches of Tangier.  © Sharon Lundahl

Vacation Pleasures on the Beaches of Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl

 

Morocco–Exotic Gateway to Africa

November 22nd, 2013
Tangiers, with View of Spain across the Water. © Sharon Lundahl

Tangiers, with View of Spain across the Water. © Sharon Lundahl

Morocco is one of our favorite countries.  We love its multicultural atmosphere–with Berbers, Arabs and Europeans.  We spent most of our time in its ancient medinas–with “souks” (shops) and “riads” (old houses converted into B & B’s).

Berber Rugs Morocco

Berber Women with their Rugs. © Linda Ridder.

When we last visited six years ago, the two of us focused on buying rugs and visiting villages in the Atlas mountains where Berber weavers wove outlandish long-piled asymmetric design carpets.  We had a wonderful time and came home with lots of funky Berber rugs (which few people bought) and a little Tuareg jewelry (all of which sold immediately.

Morocco Ethnic Jewelry

Shopping for Jewelry. © Sharon Lundahl

So this time, our shopping goal was jewelry, not rugs.  Our traveling circumstances were different too.  We were with four friends from Whidbey Island, which necessitated renting a huge 8-passenger Renault van rather than our previous little Fiat.  As long as we were driving on the country’s wonderful highways, the big vehicle was fine.  Inside crowded cities, however, where GPS directions inexplicably led the van into ever-narrower pedestrian nooks and crannies, the van was a headache.

Rabat Morocco MusicForTheEyes

Our Big Van with Gregg and Parking Guy. © Sharon Lundahl

This trip we added the capital Rabat, Tangiers in the north, and Essaouira on the south coast, to our usual stops in Fez and Marrakesh.  We spent a week doing serious shopping in Marrakesh while our friends went to the desert for some camel riding and sleeping under the stars.

Dye Spices

Color is Everywhere in Morocco. © Sharon Lundahl

Morocco was even better than we had remembered.  It has become for Europeans like Mexico used to be for Americans–a cheap, safe, friendly, exotic and sunny spot close by.  Europeans can own property in Morocco, and many do.  At the end of the summer, 40,000 cars clogged the streets of Tangiers waiting for the ferries back to Spain.

A round-trip air ticked from the UK can be had for $ 75.00, so many Europeans visit for long weekends.  We ran into a little group of middle-aged girlfriends who had left their kids and husbands back in Liverpool.

Cooking Lamb

Fred Playing Harmonica with Guys Cooking Lamb on Eid el Adha. © Sharon Lundahl

Morocco is still a deeply Islamic country, but without any visible fanaticism.  It seemed that we saw fewer headscarves on women than we did before.

Last time we visited during Ramadan.  This trip ended right after the big feast of Eid el Adha.  The local people carry on with their traditions amidst hundreds of Europeans with no fuss or bother.  The interactions between cultures continues to grow closer.

Unfettered Access to Communications. © Fred Lundahl

Unfettered Access to Communications. © Fred Lundahl

Most Moroccans give credit to their young king, Mohammed VI, for the peace and prosperity they enjoy.  By implementing clever policies (unfettered access to European TV and encouragement of Berber culture, to give only two examples) the King has managed to become the only leader in the Middle East who has led his country from a discontented Arab winter to an affluent Arab summer…without becoming mired in the mess of an Arab spring.

More blogs on our trip to Morocco will follow.

Morocco, Marrakesh

Sharon with Massimo from Riad in Marrakesh. © Fred Lundahl

Is Tashkent the New Silk Road?

August 15th, 2013
Tashkent,Uzbekistan

Bigger and Better than Tamerlane’s. © Fred Lundahl

We lived in Tashkent in the late 1990′s when the city was still shifting from its status as the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union…to its new role as the modern capital of proudly independent Uzbekistan.

She'll Learn English in First Grade. © Fred Lundahl

She’ll Learn English in First Grade. © Fred Lundahl

While we were there, 70 years of Communism was being erased from the history books, and the glorious past of the great world conqueror Tamerlane was being resurrected.  The huge monuments to Communism’s leaders such as vast plazas and monumental sculptures were already giving way to the new, equally huge monuments to the new government when we lived there.

We watched this transition progress over previous trips every few years since then.  Oddly, tennis has become the national sport–as much as soccer–with huge tennis venues appearing around town.

Korean Deli at the Uzbek Market. © Fred Lundahl

Korean Deli at the Uzbek Market. © Fred Lundahl

A huge monument to “the Martyrs of Oppression” was built to memoralize all those who suffered at the hands of both Russian conquerors–the Czar and the Communists.  New glitzy shopping malls and restaurants appeared overnight all over town, and the formerly bumpy main city streets and boulevards have been paved to an American smoothness.  Inconvenient flea markets and street vendors have been banished to the far edges of the city.

Tashkent,Uzbekistan

Young English-speakers. © Fred Lundahl

There are plenty of wonderful examples of innovative and ingenious new efforts to improve the life of the people, especially children.  Besides free tennis clinics for all, children are now taught English from first grade.  Can you imagine starting a foreign language in America in first grade?  There is now a whole Uzbek generation, raised since 1992, who speak English rather than Russian as their second language.

All That's Left of Seventy Years of Communism. © Fred Lundahl

All That’s Left of Seventy Years of Communism. © Fred Lundahl

Still, the megalomania of ancient leaders, which gave way to the same in Soviet leaders, is giving way to more of the same in the new leadership.  The President’s daughter has, famously, become the final arbiter of taste in the new Uzbekistan.

This was most apparent in what has happened to Tashkent’s main square, once a tree-filled shady refuge for families in the hot Uzbek summer.  I was shocked to find that all, repeat all, of the huge trees in the square had been cut down.  The official explanation was that the leaves dropping from the trees were a mess to clean up.  The obvious real reason was to provide a clear and unrestricted view of the glorious, humongous new conference halls, banks and museum buildings that have been built around the park’s periphery.

The Next Generation.  © Fred Lundahl

The Next Generation. © Fred Lundahl

The “First Daughter’s” new grandiose dress boutique building sits on the square next to a huge conference hall complete with copies on its vast white marble facade of the huge mosaic tigers installed by Tamerlane’s son on his finest religious school in his father’s almost-as-grand-as-Tashkent ancient city of Samarkand.

Tashkent has been through a lot in 2500 years…from Genghis Khan to the Bolsheviks to a horrible earthquake in 1966 that killed thousands.  It will survive after these new emperors too.  And trees can always be replanted.

Tashkent,Uzbekistan

Tamerlane’s Helmet. © Fred Lundahl

 

Shopping Adventures in Central Asia

July 16th, 2013
Urgut,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Fred and Urgut Market Merchants.

SKYPE SHOPPING:   As most of you know, our shop is filled with the detritus of shopping from our trips.  This April’s trip to the ‘Stans in which Fred traveled by himself without the shopping maestro Sharon presented a challenge…but not an insurmountable one.

Urgut,Market,MusicForTheEyes.com

Trying to Sell a Mousetrap. © Fred Lundahl

With Skype and Tango apps on our iPhones, Fred was able to allow Sharon to actually do the shopping in Central Asia from the comforts of Whidbey Island (at least when in a WiFi environment)

Although Fred was on his own at country markets in the back of beyond where there was no WiFi, he could invite old contacts from the early times to bring their wares to hotels and B&B’s with WiFi where he would lay them out and phone up Sharon.  With Fred pointing out the  wealth of

Uzbekistan,Urgut,Suzani,MusicForTheEyes.com

Uzbek textile called “suzani”. © Fred Lundahl

goods arrayed before the iPhone camera, she could ask the price of items she liked and negotiate purchases from the other side of the globe.  It might not have been as fun as actually being there, but the process worked well…travel without traveler’s tummy troubles.

URGUT MARKET:   During our years living in Tashkent, the Sunday market at the little town of Urgut near the border with Tajikistan and only an hour from Samarkand was the best place

Uzbekistan,Puppets,MusicForTheEyes.com

Uzbek Puppets. © Fred Lundahl

to find unique handicrafts and old textiles.  We visited this wonderful, crowded and colorful market many many times for almost four years with dozens of our friends and visitors.. and bought lots of our old rugs and textiles there.

Sharon became so well known in Urgut that shoppers for years after we had returned home to the U.S. could still ask a seller to give a “Sharon discount.”  Fred

Urgut,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Fred and Friends in Urgut Market.

visited the market on three different occasions in later years by himself and, although the merchants were happy enough to see him, they all asked, “Where is Sharon?”

Advising other friends visiting the area to “not miss” this market experience, we have sent numerous shoppers to the small town over the years.  The last few visitors did not seem as happy as we had been with the shopping at Urgut.   Puzzled, Fred trekked out to the market’s new location in April and was dismayed.

Urgut,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Uzbek Man with Tea and Woman with Uzbek Bread. Fred Lundahl

The local authorities had built a gargantuan new covered market of many acres in the middle of Urgut’s cotton fields.  The place was packed with cheap Chinese goods.  Fred finally located his old textile merchant friends in a muddy field on the back side of the covered market.  Their dozen or so stalls were a shadow of their former hundreds.  The old friends could not afford the new rents.

Naturally, there was no WiFi in the mud so Fred was on his own purchasing wonderful old textiles.  As he drove away, several of the merchants said, “Tell Sharon we are hurting.”

Urgut,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Fred and Friend at Urgut Market.

IRANIAN VS. TURKISH CONSUMER GOODS:   Ever since the USSR broke apart in 1992, the struggle for the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of the Central Asians has not been between Russia and the U.S….but between Iran and Turkey (and more recently China)  Both those countries produce a full range of consumer goods for their own people and for export markets as well.

Almost 25 years after the struggle began, Turkey seems to be the clear winner, with a variety of Turkish products available.  There still are some Iranian goods to be had in the markets, and one example might suffice to show the trouble Iran might have making inroads into any English-speaking market.

Barf,Urgut,Uzbekistan

“Barf” means “Snow” in Farsi!

Just as the U.S. has its line of “Ivory Snow” products, Iran has a line of toiletries, including soaps, detergents, toothpastes, and mouthwashes marketed under the brand name of “Snow” to reflect their purity.  Unfortunately, when you write the Farsi word for “snow” in English letters for the export market, the resulting word might lead you to choose another brand of toothpaste.  (See photo.)

The Covered Market at Urgut. © Fred Lundahl

The Covered Market at Urgut. © Fred Lundahl

 

 

The Golden Road to Samarkand

July 5th, 2013
Samarkand,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

15th-Century Religious School in Samarkand. © Fred Lundahl.

During my April trip to Uzbekistan, we had the opportunity to visit many of the places we came to know and love during our residence in the country in the late 1990′s.  We saw the ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva and visited old friends along the way.

Urgut,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Fred at the Market in Urgut, outside of Samarkand.

Tourism is alive and well in Central Asia and, even in April, we saw numerous tour buses along the way filled with foreign tourists.

KHIVA–the hometown of the founder of Zoroastrianism–remains the most restored, with a look of the original walled city…or even better than it ever was.  Although a bit too cleaned up and prettified for my taste, it still has some beautiful mosques, religious schools, and caravansaries and is the source of the wonderful “telpak” hats which are so popular in our shop.

Telpak,Khiva,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes.com

Fred in Telpak in Khiva.

BUKHARA–the middle Silk Road city, has always been a favorite of ours because it is an ancient city that is still occupied by common folks.  In addition to monumental mosques and minarets that were so spectacular that Genghis Khan spared them in his rampage through the area in the 1200′s, the city is filled with old neighborhoods interspersed with beautiful ancient buildings.

Walking down a narrow street, watching school children playing, you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself staring at s 500 or 600-year-old mosque or tomb with an outdoor barbershop or dentist functioning beside it.

Abdullah Badghisi at his Silk Rug Factory in Samarkand. © Fred Lundahl

Abdullah Badghisi at his Silk Rug Factory in Samarkand. © Fred Lundahl

SAMARKAND–is our favorite Silk Road city.  We visited there frequently in the past and still have many friends in Samarkand.  Our good friends and rug mentors, the Badghisi family, run the impressive Silk Rug Factory, a popular tourist stop that is the biggest employer in Samarkand.

Among the VIP’s such as Hillary Clinton and President Putin–whose photographs adorn the walls, you will see Fred and Sharon of

Badghisi,Samarkand,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes.com

Picture of Sharon and Fred among VIP Pictures in Samarkand Silk Rug Factory. © Fred Lundahl.

Whidbey Island in Uzbek garb, along with a display of a very old carpet fragment which I found in a garbage dump years ago and presented to the family.

Another old friend is a hotelier, Furkhat Rahmanov, with whom we first stayed in 1997, when he was renting out a room or two in his old house in the downtown area of the city.  Over the years, this entrepreneur has built up a small hotel empire by adding on floors to his original house until now his top-floor tea house is the tallest modern structure in his part of the old town.

Traveling the Silk Road has changed since we lived here, with new modern airports.  Samarkand is now connected to the capitol Tashkent by a new bullet train which races along new rail beds, shrinking the rail journey time from the previous six hours to two.  This bullet train service in now in the process of being extended to Bukhara and beyond.

Samarkand,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Hotelier Furkat’s Family in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

However, potholes in the Soviet-era asphalt highways remain untouched, I would swear, from our time 15 years ago.  Travel by car, even on major inter-city highways, has become even more bone-jarring and time-consuming than I remember. The potholes even have potholes.

Samarkand,Uzbekistan,MusicForTheEyes

Tamarlane-era Tombs in Samarkand. © Fred Lundahl

 

Amazing Savitsky

May 31st, 2013
Nukus,Karakalpakstan,Aral,sea

Boats on the Sand near Nukus–Aral Sea Disaster

Sharon and I used to visit Nukus– the capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan–in the 1990′s for three reasons.

Igor Savitsky

Igor Savitsky

First, it was the jumping-off place to visit the ever-shrinking Aral Sea and ships beached miles from the shoreline.  Second, it was a major center for Soviet biological and chemical warfare research sites, which the U.S. government was helping to clean up.  Third, the town was the home of one of the largest collection of Soviet-era “avant garde” art in the world.

Savitsky,Tansykbayev,Uzbekistan

Uzbek Soviet-Era Painter Tansykbayev

This stunning collection was gathered by the Soviet archeologist Igor Savitsky and housed alongside the Karakalpakstan ethnographic collection in an old museum building.

It was this third reason–the Savitsky collection–that brought me back to Nukus on this latest Central Asian trip.  Karakalpakstan (or Qaraqalpakstan if you prefer) has always been a rather neglected region.  The fact that Savitsky, a Russian, amassed a huge collection of banned art away from the prying eyes of the KGB was something of little interest to the current inhabitants of the area.

Savitsky,Uzbekistan,Nukus

Soviet-era Painter R. Luppov

Back in the 1990′s amazed foreign diplomats like us trekked to see this incredible collection and help out as we could.  Back then, the U.S. government provided air conditioners to help keep the separate storage warehouse somewhat temperature controlled.

A few years after we departed, the local government showed their utter disregard for this gem in their midst by razing the museum building to the ground and giving the museum staff just two weeks to remove everything for storage.

Soviet-era Painter R. Isupov

Soviet-era Painter R. Isupov

This might have been the end of the art, except that news of the collection and already spread; the outside world reacted in horror to the government’s decision to demolish the museum to build a bank.  The outcry so shook up the government that plans were immediately announced to build a new museum building “better than before…”

An award-winning documentary, “The Desert of Forbidden Art”, which told the story of Savitsky and how he amassed his amazing collection, brought

Nukus,Savitsky,Uzbekistan

Soviet-era Painter R. Rubashkin’s portrayal of Peter the Great.

world-wide fame to the museum.  With groups of foreigners trooping out to remote Nukus to see the art in its new building, the local government began to see that tourism might be an economic boon to the region.

By the time of my 2013 visit, the museum’s director–who had seen her first building demolished without a second thought–was watching the fruits of the international campaign to preserve the collection.  Shaking her head in amazement as we watched excavators digging a

Savitsky,Nukus,Uzbekistan

Soviet-era Painter Smirnov’s Depiction of Buddha

deep foundation for a modern storage warehouse, she joked that she first thought “they were digging my grave.”

Now the museum has a robust worldwide web presence.  Thousands of “Friends of the Savitsky Museum” are interested in helping to preserve the collection, proof that the instant connectedness of the modern

Savitsky,Nukus,Uzbekistan

Uzbek Soviet-era Artist Karakhan

world can affect the survival of unique art in a distant and remote part of the world.

The museum director proudly showed us the old U.S. Embassy-provided air conditioners and said that we had a part in the beginning efforts to give the collection the attention it deserves.

NOTE:  Sharon picked out her favorites of Savitsky art shown in this article.  If you want to see others, go to their website at http://www.savitskycollection.org.

Zoroastrianism,MusicForThe Eyes

Birthplace of Zoroastrianism. © Fred Lundahl