A stitch in time

On a trip along the old Silk Road, Sandra Hall admires intricate carpets and embroidery, and the revival of a nation's traditions.

In the courtyard, Mr Akhbar is cooking plov, Uzbekistan's national dish. A form of pilaf with mutton and vegetables, it can be as stodgy as it sounds but Akhbar, we're promised, is a plov expert.

While we wait to find out, we join his wife, Mastura, in their house in the old Jewish quarter of Bukhara. Once one of the key cities of the Silk Road, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the house, built in the 19th century for a merchant and his family, retains much of the original design. The walls of the living room are lined with fluted panels and niches displaying the household's collection of ceramic pots and dishes. But we're here to see its textiles.

Akhbar started the first antique shop in Bukhara after Uzbekistan gained its independence from Russia in 1991. Now Mastura opens a door at the end of the room and begins taking out bolts of fabric, unfurling them as she goes. First come the silk ikats, some of them antique. Then she moves to the suzani, the embroidered pieces that, according to tradition, are essential to every Uzbek bride's dowry. If a bride can't make them all herself, her female relatives pitch in, producing wall hangings, cushion covers, bedspreads and tablecloths.

To take antique pieces out of the country requires a government certificate but the modern embroideries are just as beautiful. And because of the resurgence of nationalism since independence, these handcrafts are being enthusiastically revived, helped by UNESCO seed money and government incentives in the form of tax breaks for artisans and subsidised rental space in former caravanserai.

The silk threads are coloured by natural dyes and certain motifs recur. Pomegranates are an emblem of fertility, apple blossoms mean happiness and chillies are said to be protect against the evil eye. By the time the plov is served - as promised, a great improvement on anything we've sampled so far - most of us are happily nursing a parcel or more. And it's not as if we've been extravagant. In Uzbekistan, the Australian dollar goes a long way.

The next morning, on the streets of Bukhara, workmen are hammering paving stones into place with plastic bottles filled with sand. On our way into the city, we'd been looking forward to sitting over a coffee in the city square, a great local meeting place, and browsing in the shops and stalls on its edge. Now the square is a construction zone. Dust is thick in the air and the nearby shops have taken in their displays of carpets, suzani, pottery and leatherwork.

Preparations are under way for an international festival taking place in three days' time. The organiser is the president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, a glamorous and highly controversial figure whose diverse business interests are said to have earned her a fortune. It's hard to know where to start in describing her ubiquitous role in Uzbekistan's political and commercial life. As well as making a pop video with Julio Iglesias, she has set up a fashion label, designed a jewellery line for the Swiss company Chopard and served as Uzbekistan's ambassador to Spain and permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, where she lives. Let's just say that whatever Gulnara wants, Gulnara gets.

On our third morning in Bukhara, we step out to find that the men with the plastic bottles have achieved the seemingly impossible. The square is paved, the dust is settling and the shopkeepers, who have had to contribute to the cost of the work, look almost happy.


Our next stop is Khiva, which is seven hours away along the most rugged of Uzbekistan's notoriously rough roads. Nonetheless, the trip proves to be worth every pothole. This ancient city, built largely of clay or baked bricks, looks as if it's grown up out of the desert. It's ringed by a wall that still follows the line of the fortifications constructed in mediaeval times and wherever you look there are minarets, madrassas and blue-domed mosques.

It's a city for walkers - full of workshops and market stalls tucked away in courtyards and alleys - and a great place to buy carpets. It's here that Christopher Aslan Alexander, the author of A Carpet Ride to Khiva, lived and worked. An Englishman born in Turkey, he came to Khiva in 1998, as a volunteer with a Swedish NGO, planning to write a guidebook. Instead he established a silk carpet workshop as a way of finding work for local people and stayed for seven years. Handmade carpets had become obsolete under the Soviets but Alexander learnt as much as he could about silk weaving and the enterprise became a success. But Alexander had steadfastly refused to pay the bribes that are frequently part of doing business in Uzbekistan and after tangling with a local official he was eventually denied an extension of his visa. Undaunted, he moved on to his next adventure - a yak-wool workshop with the herdsmen of the High Pamirs of eastern Tajikistan.

But there are plenty of people who remember him in Khiva. Two of our group have pre-ordered carpets from the workshop and we meet the family with whom he stayed while he was in the city. Their house is beside the city wall and when we arrive, one of the sons of the household is painting the downstairs ceiling with an intricate floral design. These patterns and those that decorate Khiva's carved wooden doors inspire the patterns woven into the carpets and the suzani, made in another workshop set up by Alexander and the family. We visit later, meet some of the women who are sitting over the embroideries and, predictably enough, do more buying.

We've already learnt that it's possible to carry the carpets home with us. In the scrubby country outside Samarkand, we stop at a small workshop that trains and employs local women in weaving wool carpets and we watch while a large one is folded into a portable square. And at a much more sophisticated silk workshop closer to Samarkand, two of our group arrange for their pieces to be shipped home by an international carrier. The workshop's owner, Abdullah, treats us to an entertaining and well-practised rundown on the operation - including the revelation that productivity improves enormously if the workshop's weavers are placed with co-workers with similar musical tastes, so they can share an MP3 player.

With its juxtaposition of the traditional and the up-to-the-minute, this is a story typical of Uzbekistan. Like so many developing nations, it's a country of extremes. Poverty and deprivation are found alongside great wealth and the urge to modernise co-exists with an equally strong desire to maintain central Asia's most beloved traditions. For the moment, a traveller can still experience the joy of discovery here.


Getting there

Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Tashkent for about $1930 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. You fly to Kuala Lumpur (9hr), then on Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent (7hr, 35min). Australians must have a visa invitation from an Uzbek travel agency for a stay of up to 15 days.

Staying there

The author's travel and accommodation within Uzbekistan was arranged by Sydney agency Uzbek Journeys, specialising in arts and crafts tours of the country; phone 0404 172 961; see uzbekjourneys.com. A 16-day tour including Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Nukus costs from $2400 a person, twin share. It includes accommodation, breakfasts and a guide. Hotels are simple but comfortable; several are family-run and the most beautiful of them, Lyabi House in Bukhara, is a former merchant's house in the city's Jewish quarter.