She’s joining me today for a quick (and not dirty) Q&A about her wandering soul and its many journeys. Travel with us will you.
Three places on your travel wish list: Russia, Iceland and Japan
An unforgettable experience from a journey: A haunted rented house experience in Bari, Italy. Doors would open and close by themselves. Another one, learning to kayak on the ganges was overwhelming but an experience that pushed me way out of my comfort zone.
Five things you always carry on holiday: My camera/iPhone, sunglasses, sunscreen, multiple shoe options (just-in-case) and pepper spray.
Would you rather head to the beach, the mountains or city streets: If I had to pick one, it would be the mountains, But I try and give my trips a combination of at least two. (Greedy me!).
A place you’d like to visit again and again: Italy. Anyday!
A place you wish you hadn’t visited: None. I’m glad that hasn’t happened yet.
A person (real/fictional) you’d like to go on holiday with, and where: Can I ignore this one?
Your holidays are incomplete without: A trip to the local food markets and a local movie at the theatres.
A stranger you met during a journey who you’re still in touch with: A (now) dear friend named Parvati whom I met in Halong Bay, Vietnam in 2012 on a terribly boring couple-y cruise 🙂
With his tall, thin frame and bespectacled face, alongwith a Turkish middle name sandwiched between his Christian roots, Christopher Aslan Alexander would have stood out in most places. As destiny would have it, this Turkey born, Beirut-bred lad from Britain found himself in Uzbekistan in the late ’90s, while volunteering with an NGO to write a guidebook about Khiva. At this western border desert oasis close to Turkmenistan, Aslan (his adopted name during his stay) was nearly 700 kilometers away from Samarkand, the tourist-poster city of Uzbekistan.
During his seven year stay here he would find a loving family, a crumbling town still reeling under a Soviet hangover (“Khiva was to play a crucial role in pushing Russian south towards India”, Aslan informs us early on), a voracious appetite for bribes amongst all government machinery and a nation united in their love for a Mexican soap opera.
In his diary from the time, ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road‘, Aslan takes us to the heart of the city, on foot alongside him through the labyrinthine streets within the Ichan Qa’la, or walled city, (‘the most homogeneous example of Islamic architecture in the world‘). He is also our guide in navigating the ways of this desert world, when he begins setting up a carpet weaving workshop, with help of his local family, recruiting marginalised members from nearby villages – the differently abled, the women secluded from society and those battling the rules laid by missing men.
The designs for these carpets are a stunning study in history, from Timurid patterns to Persian and Mughal miniature paintings. Traveling back to England during the time, Aslan meets with Jon Thompson, Oxford professor of carpet history, and gets his hands on Amy Briggs’ essay on Timurid carpets to prepare design inspiration references to take back to the workshop, being run out of an erstwhile madrassah. He enlightens us along the way on the motifs and their significance. Speaking about distinguishing features of Timurid carpets he writes, “The main giveaway that a carpet from Timurid was in the border, which consisted of stylized letters, evolved and embellished to appear like Celtic knots in some cases.”
In reference to miniatures, which are another major source of inspiration for the carpets created at the workshop, he tells us how the word itself has been derived “from a reddish-orange pigment ‘minium’, that was popular with Persian and Mughal minaturists” and “the centre of a miniature would never contain a human being, as only Allah could ever occupy this position.”
The love affair with silk is similarly illustrated through snippets from history, “Until 1924, the Khanate of Khiva was the only country outside China to use silk money, each note handwoven and then printed in the mint located in the Kunya Ark.”
When he is avoiding boisterous parties that end in intrusive questions on his non-existent marital life, this vegetarian traveler watches mountains of “plov, the national dish, ‘of rice, carrot-shavings and raisins topped with dumps of mutton and fat’” being readied for festivities, participating in them as much as a local.
We also follow him across the border into Afghanistan on a sourcing trip for natural dyes, a mis-adventure that is a reminder of what Aslan’s work in this region really entails. His love affair with the town, its people and his desires to make the workshop self-sustainable, are abruptly impeded by local authorities, threatened by the freedom, sincerity and appreciation the workshop has received. He is the outsider they would like to keep away and in the end they do, exiling him without proper documentation to prove the charges.
This book is a journey into a fascinating culture and its crumbling edifice, of daily triumphs amidst layers of corruption, of a young man finding a new life, a new family and a purpose in a land he now calls home.
“I wrote A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I needed a way of gaining closure on my time in Khiva, and I didn’t know what else to do”, Aslan said in an interview in 2010. He continues to find his way back to Central Asia, most recently working with yak herders to find distribution for their wool. When he’s not writing, he is “living the sequel”, one the world is waiting to read.
If, like me, you’re fascinated by this region, here are some more books on Uzbekistan to add to the reading list:
Travels in Central Asia by Arminius Vambery
A Ride to Khiva by Frederick Burnaby
Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.
– Emily Dickinson
What if one lived in someone’s head, with all the thoughts, memories, fears, prejudices and secrets for company.
The room would often be filled with music, tunes that change every minute, songs that tell stories, words that will never be forgotten.
Mundane thoughts would line the walls, as would faces that belong to another world.
Secrets would flit about trying to hide their true colours, while desperately hoping to be heard.
Doors to memories might stay locked or welcome one on a journey to a different time.
Fear would lurk in corners, shying away from admitting its presence.
Shadows of dark and dreary moods would create patterns on the walls.
Happiness would pay a fleeting visit though it may be the most honoured guest.
Passion would cloak itself as love and play its game of hide-and-seek.
Pain would ask not for sympathy but only for a silent companion.
Dreams would take shape before one’s eyes and tempt one to participate.
Life would lie exposed in all its sundry detail, .expecting only that it not be judged by those who haven’t lived it and asking only that the tenant in one’s head stay faithful till the end.