Amazing Arts and Crafts
Arts and crafts have long flourished in Uzbekistan, reflecting the diverse culture of ethnic groups and ever-changing layers of history. Today, spurred by independence and growing tourism, traditional skills are proudly handed down from one generation to the next. From the old trading domes and Aladdin’s caves to glittering stores, the stunning displays simply take your breath away.
This is after all the heart of the Silk Road, the vast network of trails where caravans traded myriad goods between East and West, most precious of all the beautiful Chinese silk. Out in the Uzbek countryside, worms are raised on mulberry leaves as they have been for centuries and a single cocoon can produce a thread up to 1200 metre long. In the Fergana Valley, at the crossroad of ancient routes, the pretty town of Margilan is a top producer of hand-made silk and you can learn all about it in a factory visit. But right across the land, silk beckons in shimmering colours, scarves, dresses, ties, wall hangings and more. Most sought after is Ikat when fibres are tied in a specific pattern then dyed before weaving to create gentle slightly blurred colours, different every time.
Silk or cotton, the embroidered textiles known as suzanis are so special they’ve been featured on postage stamps. Some are designed for home decoration, when several pieces can be stitched together, others for daily or festival wear but every province has its favourite style and colours, often symbolic. On the tourist trail, Bukhara and Samarkand are a treat, hats, bags, skirts, bedcovers and throws with motifs ranging from leaves and flowers to fruit, especially pomegranate, the auspicious icon of the Silk Road. Once upon a time, girls would create their best suzanis for a dowry, featuring the luxurious gold thread still used today or patterns of beautiful jewels, seen only in their dreams.
Rooted in antiquity as discovered near the source of the Chirchik, the local jewellery has evolved over time, influenced by Persia and India and reaching its highlight in the 19th century. Ancient skills and modern technology now come together to produce attractive ornaments of gold or silver, enhanced with precious or semi-precious stones such as coral, garnet, lapis lazuli or the vibrant carnelian. Multicoloured pieces of glass are also popular. Masters often work in craft centres, some specialising in silver filigree, but bracelets, earrings or pendants, all articles delight visitors and the local women who may like to wear them as talismans, pearls for good health, turquoise for luck and so on.
Other traditional crafts involve leather, wood and metal work, hand-made paper used for cards, handbags or papier mâché puppets, delicate miniature paintings and ceramics, an applied art beyond the monumental architectural wonders. Teapots and mini-bowls, plates, jugs, vases, toys and tiles, these lovely painted ceramics are both decorative and useful. Colours depend on the local glaze, mostly blue, white and green in the Fergana Valley and Khorezm (around Khiva) while Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent have deep glowing shades of yellow, brown and red. Definitely something for everyone.
On a much larger scale, if you can afford it, carpets are pure magic. Did you know that the more you walk on a silk carpet, the stronger it gets as you tighten the knots? Silk, cotton or wool, hand or machine made (check this out), Uzbek carpets are both artistic and functional. My favourite was a hand-woven silk rug in Samarkand, ‘two for the price of one’, said the guide, for as you turned it around, the colour changed, all from natural dyes of course. Tempting but not cheap. Fabric aside, the cost depends on the intricacy of the design and when hand-knotted -the finest technique-, the number of knots which may reach over 200 per cm2. Knotting requires dainty fingers, so this is mostly a woman’s job though in this technology age, girls can check up the pattern on their smart phones. Other items include felt mats made by nomads with left-over sheep wool, modern flat-weave and embroidered carpets.
“Carpets warm your heart and please your eyes”, say the locals, and in my view, this is true of all arts and crafts in Uzbekistan.
I travelled with Jules Verne on the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Local currency is the ‘som’ (currently 10,000 to £1.00). You only need it for small purchases so change a little at a time (changing back can be difficult).
US dollars (clean and undamaged) are widely accepted, so are credit cards for large items on the tourist trail.
Bargaining is expected in most places, start around 65-70% then move up slowly.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne