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The gold toothed kitty party

Historic and beautiful ... SHARAN APPARAO explores the cities of Bukhara and Samarkhand in Uzbekistan.

The Registrar Square in Samarkhand.

WALKING away from the cashier's desk at a restaurant in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, my eye caught a movement through the glass paned door of a private room at this Soviet style restaurant. My curiosity got the better of me and I ventured to peep through the panes, only to be welcomed warmly by a group of Uzbeki kitty ladies.

I was absolutely amazed — they were all large, all in bright coloured velvet floral dresses and above all they all had "Gold Teeth". It was so, surrealistic to see so many women with gold teeth. It was indeed the gold toothed kitty party. They were the most happy go lucky group. As soon as we walked in they invited us to dance with them and were sorry to see us leave a little later.

The "surreal gold teeth" are a common sight, I realised, as I went around Uzbekistan. It was certainly a country in a time warp caught in between Russian oppression and the discovery of natural gas bringing them to the door of modernisation. The country is a contrast — of ancient history and recent political developments.

Travelling between Tashkent and the romantic cities of Samarkhand and Bukhara, it was easy to fall in love with the simple naïve, enthusiastic, friendly Uzbekies. Old and middle aged women contrast loudly with beautiful stunning dancers as does their historic culture with their present preoccupations.

A food street.... bread is sold atop old perambulators.

The beautiful architecture of Bukhara and Samarkhand was the work of Timur's spoils of craftmen and "interlectulasia" from his conquest in Iran. Timur the great grandfather of the Mughal Emperor Babur, also tried to invade India, amongst other forays, and was the founder of Uzbekistan.

Both Bukhara and Samarkhand were very important points of the famous silk route. They are the most historic and beautiful cities of what I saw of Uzbekistan though I heard Khiva was also worth a visit.

Walking between the courtyards, mosques and carvan serais I discover quaint shops and craftcentres in these beautiful buildings. Majestic arches compete with smiling faces beckoning you to enter their portals and view the carpets, jewellery and textiles piled up. Clean streets are dressed up with silk carpets and bright kilms as you walk from the cool shade of the Labi hauz courtyard to the sarraffon crossing to a restored bath home or hamam, now being used as a restaurant. Unable to resist a monument with an alternative use we made reservations for dinner at this charming Hamam where a dashing young man spoke to us impeccable American accented English telling us how they had converted this hamam into a restaurant and were now facing objections. I was sad to leave this comfortable atmosphere and delicious food. These baths were once used by spice traders and silk merchants who filled the squares, trading their wares and making a lively picture.

Today the monuments, almost neglected by Russian oppression, are once again being restored and going back to being used. Some of them are being converted into art centres and shops for local artisans while some mosques and madrassas have retained their original use.

The Kalon minaret and the mosques around are perhaps the most important landmarks in Bukhara. Little street vendors selling exquisite ceramics at shamefully cheap prices and dense rich embroidered caps and textiles onside the madrassa and mosque of the Kylon invited us warmly to a meal in their home. Thanking them and unable to tear ourselves away we made our way to a local Chailkhana to eat our afternoon meal.

Walking into a local eatery in the middle of a bustling area we were warmly welcomed. To accommodate a vegetarian into an otherwise largely barbequed eatery the owner sent his boy to procure bread from vendors who lined the side street selling different shaped loaves on abandoned perambulators and baskets.

The colourful markets and unbelievable prices in both Samarkhand and Bukhara speak of their naïve culture and untouched spirit.

Sad grey eyes of a beauty mother haunt you as see her begging near an 18th Century mosque. It's a picture of sadness and beauty and yet the hope of the little baby in her arms like the country that has so much in history and the ability to wake up and discover its future inspires.

The trek up the steps the Shah-i-Zinda on a rainy morning was well worth it. This is a long street comprising domed tombs on either side of the walkway and a mosque which is one of the contemporary pilgrimage sites in Samarkhand. These are the tombs of the Timurid women.

A beautiful middle aged Russian girl sits in an alcove in the walkway of the Shah-i-Zinda selling the most exquisite watercolour details of the tie work and calligraphic inscriptions of monuments. The embellishment and detailed design adorning the interiors and exteriors of the buildings are unsurpassable, the sheer grandeur and contrast of colour leave one in complete amazement.

Monuments even in Istanbul, grand and majestic as they are still pale in terms of the intricate tile work. The tile work in Uzbekistan, Turkey and other Central Asian countries originated in Persia, or what is today Iran.

A sculpture of Timur to mark his contribution to build Uzbekistan.

The Gauri Amir Mousoleum is a 64-faceted domed blue tiled structure and dedicated to the graves of the Timurid men. The upper chamber houses their decorative graves amidst profusely inscribed gilted walls while their actual tombs are in a crypt below.

"Registan" is a sandy desert, and in Samarkhand, the once sandy square which was the focal point of all trading activity, became the centre of the three famous grand majestic Madrassas built and rebuilt over the 15th and 17th Centuries. The tile work on the façade of one of these facades is replicated on the currency notes in Uzbekistan.

Driving around in Samarkhand past the majestic statue of Timur, the architect of Uzbekistan, one realises the importance that is being given to the past as the history is being revived and respected. Their architectural heritage is being restored and beautiful old homes are being converted into small boutique hotels.

The people of Uzbekistan are warm and open. They seem like simple folk who are now discovering themselves after the oppression of the last few decades. They realise and acknowledge their naivity with a spirit of happy living that is bound to give them the brightness they deserve provided the few strong politicians do not kill the country; a country that can be a country and not just a gold toothed kitty party.

The writer is a well-travelled art dealer specialising in contemporary Inidan art for close to 20 years.

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