Those of you who have been following my movements may know that I am in Uzbekistan this week with my son Josh, preparing for our visit next year. Josh has been jotting down some notes about some of the things we've been seeing. Over the next few days I will be sending out some more of our impressions - to whet your appetite and help you prepare for your visit.
Day One - Tashkent:
Never having travelled to Central Asia, I didn't know what to expect, and after a day in Tashkent I'm still trying to figure out what categories to place Uzbekistan in. We were met with a whole range of contradictions: huge Soviet-style buildings side by side with ancient tiled mosques and minarets; Middle-East style bazaars with a strong smell of pickled onions and horsemeat; the oldest Koran in the world and a contemporary art museum; rumours of a strict dictatorship, with friendly and open people and a thriving black market. The long plane ride (which was fairly comfortable, apart from an air hostess who told me she gave pillows to women and children only, before giving in and handing me one) coupled with the five-hour time difference might have added to the dreamy sense of wandering a new and strange part of the world, but we managed to see a fair bit of the city before coming back to the hotel and calling it a night (or a morning, or whatever).
Day Two - Samarkand:
The fabled golden road to Samarkand turned out to be a surprisingly modern high-speed train which sped through the Uzbek landscape, giving us glimpses of anonymous villages, donkey carts and lots of fields. People walking around wearing fur hats and silk robes reminded me of haredim in Jerusalem, and we were wearing the smallest kippot in the town. Samarkand has a long and rich history, and each of the sites we visited taught me more about the past and explained parts of the present that we were experiencing. We saw mind-bogglingly beautiful and huge mosques and madrassahs, an ancient observatory and the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, which was rumoured to grow by 18cm a year and is now phenomenally long. We also started to discover Jewish life in the city, met with some members of the local community, visited the synagogue (with chickens running around the courtyard) and heard lots of interesting stories, which prompted lots of questions we hope we'll manage to answer in the coming days.
Day Three and Four - Shabbat in Buchara:
We managed to fit in a few last visits and meetings in Samarkand before moving along the Silk Road towards Buchara. Buchara is also packed with castles, pools, dervish lodges, bazaars and ancient buildings, but our main focus was on building up a relationship with the Jewish community. The community used to number tens of thousands, but Communism and aliyah have seen it dwindle to around two hundred. We went through the alleys of the Old City until we found the synagogue, and then joined them for a nice Friday evening service. (Their tradition of serving tea and coffee in the middle of the service is something we could think about adopting back home!) We joined a young Jewish family for dinner, and even though our Tajik and Uzbek language skills aren't yet fluent, we managed to hold a conversation in a mix of languages, and swapped Shabbat songs. We also explored the city, and heard more of the story of Uzbekistan, which is finally starting to fall into place.
That's all for now. We are off to Khiva and there will be more to follow ina few days.