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Day 17 – Ten Second Tornadoes on the Road to Samarkand

17mount.gif“The Road to Samarkand” and not a sign of Bing Crosby or Bob Hope (one of Paul’s jokes for the oldies on the web).

We set off early from Baysun and received a ‘right royal’ send off from the mayor and deputy mayor – they carry our luggage and grip our hands in gratitude for spending time with them and ask us to return. As the ‘Nomadmobile” heads off out of the town a morning light glances low over the Zerafshan ridge. The vertical landscape is dotted occasionally with Yurts, small ‘ten second tornadoes’ and herds of goats. We have to swerve precariously close to the edge of steep gorges narrowly avoiding various bovine animals.

17sign.gifOur driver, Bahadir who has just had his fifth grandchild, is fully in control. Gradually the heat rises and the hills disappear as we come out of the mountains. A big right turn at Karsi and we are on a fast, flat, perpetually straight road to Samarkand – the only interest being an occasional near vehicle crash either through potholed roads or badly misjudged overtaking. Eventually we near the outskirts of Samarkand and say good-bye to Sasha, he has to catch a bus to Tashkent. “Farewell comrades”, he says.

This trip has had its highs and lows, from the exhilaration of meeting wonderful musicians to the frustration of having no petrol. Through it all one figure seems almost unruffled by anything. Always patient, calm and considered, Sasha, our translator and advisor is a kind of centre of gravity, a point of stability for us. He has been on the road with us now for ten days so is used to our strange ways. He has acted far beyond the call of duty, and his understanding of Uzbek social graces has been invaluable . He always seems to be considering some “problem” (a word he likes to use) or reading a book (preferably in classical Persian). Suddenly something will amuse him and his bearded face will ignite with infectious laughter.

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Things work at their own pace here and Sasha understands this better than anyone. It’s easy to forget that this mild mannered man is an accomplished scholar, he wears his learning lightly and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

In one conversation with Sasha I caught a glimpse of the difficulty musicians here face trying to communicate with the outside world. Sasha gave the analogy of an Asian musician trying to describe Beethoven using his own musical terms of reference. Inevitably distortions would arise. This situation compares roughly with the efforts of some European scholars who come to Central Asia to research music. Sasha was at pains to point out that there were Europeans who understood this music better than some local scholars.This problem of unconscious Euro-centrism is something which musicians treat with indulgence here. Sasha kindly added that our project had a completely different brief, to introduce this music to a wide audience.

Patience and wisdom are rare qualities, Sasha possesses them in abundance.

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I arrive in Samarkand to find there is no room at the inn (again!). Samarkand only has two ‘bed and breakfasts’ and they’re full. I’m shunted off to a small courtyard with some abandoned bedrooms and parking space for the Nomadmobile. Gary is concerned that we have a clear line of site to the Indian Ocean – whatever that means. (Satellite?) I’m just happy to wash the dust off my feet.

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Samarkand is often described as the ‘Pearl of the East.’ The tall madrassahs supporting deep blue domes and the majesty of scale could produce a thousand descriptive superlatives. The city is, like Bukhara undergoing major refurbishment and soon celebrates its 1250th year. It also hosts a week long “Music of the East” Festival starting 25th August, this is one of the biggest events in the area for many years.

The Registan, one of the most celebrated monuments shows signs of preparation – tomorrow I will see it in the dawn light and get you some photos. When we arrive twenty traditional trumpet players rehearse their fanfare and stage positions for the opening ceremony – it reminds me of a Dad’s Army drill. The whole city has a sense of life and movement. Things are changing, fast. There is transition and excitement in the air, music and dance are commonplace on the street and in the specially designated tourist areas. I will explore this more in the next two days.17regs.gifEverywhere in the world, folk culture is presented as entertainment for “package tourists”. Samarkand is no exception. At 6 pm every evening local musicians and dancers re-enact an Uzbek legend with music, mime, puppetry and fire eating. It’s beautifully done and although stylized maintains a joyful innocence.

17musi.gifThe costumes are probably exaggerated, the music simplified, the legend made larger than life with roaring flame. Yet for all that bemused confused tourists get a taste of a wonderful culture. If they want to know more there are CDs and ‘Musical Nomads’. I was particularly impressed by the doira (frame drum) players with their intricate poly rhythms – I arranged to see them for a detailed session on Usul – the rhythmic patterns of Central Asia. The chang (oriental hammered dulcimer) player is also worth a closer listen.

Join me tomorrow as we explore the city and meet frame drum and other traditional Uzbek folk musicians – I may even get to meet my first Central Asian flautist

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