Uzbekistan – Masks

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There are places in the world of names so magical that you are ready to pack and travel there just for the sound of words like Samarkand or Bukhara. SA-MAR-KAND. BU-KHA-RA. The very heart of the Silk Road. Have you ever imagined what they look like? I have. I saw dusty squares under centuries-old mosques, cramped, messy shops, I felt the smell of the Orient. I saw people of wrinkled faces which reflect remote caravan routes. I saw lively narrow streets and smelled spicy dishes. Sounds familiar? Well, then you’re making the the same mistake that I made. The mistake of daydreamers.

Historical cities of Uzbekistan have two faces. They are like day and night, like Dior and baggy tracksuits, like a BMW and a Lada, like a 5-star hotel SPA and a mountain refuge.

In the front everything is nice. Streets are evenly cobbled and an army of women in blue uniforms sweep them zealously every morning. Grass is trimmed and flowers bloom in flower beds. At night street lights shine. Along shadowy alleys there are benches and rubbish bins. Those alleys and streets join main monuments creating a comfortable walking route for tourists. Ancient mosques, minarets, medresas, mausoleums, bazaars and caravanserais are huge and impressive. There are lots of souvenir shops and stands around selling mementos and local handicraft. Shops are new and sterile and you can hear Justin Bieber’s songs played from loudspeakers. Everything is well-taken care of and the only people that you can meet are other tourists. Sometimes there’s a wall sparing the visitors some less esthetic sights. In the front everything is nice and utterly boring.

In the back a horse grazes. On uneven, dust roads carts with donkeys ride. Around blocks of flats you can find liquor shops with a thick curtain of cigarette smoke inside. Old men in traditional hats play backgammon. Women in colourful clothes queue under a surgery. On a local bazaar, among fruit and vegetable vendors, there are money dealers flapping big rolls of Uzbek soms. Streets are crowded with marshrutkas and taxi drivers with gold teeth advertise their services. Big groups of children in smart uniforms come back from school. Clay ovens smoke outside of chaikhanas or fast food banners hang around. On main streets you will find shops with fashionable clothes and cell phones. Women in smart dresses, socks and slippers stop for an ice-cream. In the back everything is unesthetic and interesting.

What do the words Samarkand and Bukhara sound like for me now? There’s a lot of artificially created better world, much of post soviet poverty and some attempts to belong to the wealthy Western reality. Much less magic though.

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