Carpet sellers

Istanbul's carpet salesmen are legendary.  But when you know you are likely to be moving to work in a different continent within the next six months (where home could be any style of house or apartment in who-knows-what style and colour scheme) - or, if not, that you may be off back-packing round the world whilst deciding what to do next - then the temptation to buy an expensive carpet is pretty easily resisted.

So on my initial transit through Istanbul (on the way to Kyrgyzstan) I let myself be led into a carpet shop to have a look at what they had to offer.  "Just looking".  I was shown carpet after carpet - from Turkey, from India, from Afghanistan, in wool, in yak hair and in silk, and in every colour under the sun.  But sadly I gleaned very little information on carpets, as the salesman was more keen to impress on me how big a discount he would give me if I would go somewhere with him in his car so that he could "show me how he loved me"(!).  No thank you.

However in Uzbekistan, in a carpet-making workshop in the old city of Khiva, I saw a collection of silk carpets and totally fell in love with one.  If only I had somewhere settled to put it, and a spare $2,000...

Back in transit in Istanbul again, thinking no more about carpets (other than the lingering regrets over not being able to buy the one in Khiva), I was walking through a park when I found myself in conversation with a friendly Australian woman, who told me she was in Istanbul for a few months doing some jewellery design.  We chatted a little, and she pointed out a few interesting historical things that we were walking past (that I would otherwise have missed), and then she asked if I'd like to see her jewellery.  Well it seemed a little rude to say no.  But would you believe it, her jewellery was on display in the front part of a carpet shop ... and when she invited me to sit down for a glass of apple tea it was in the carpet showroom.

Whilst I had had no idea that undercover carpet sellers were now roaming the parks disguised as friendly Australians, I have to say that the man in the shop (the Australian rapidly disappeared - presumably to hunt down more victims) was very informative, and totally agreed, when I explained my situation, that now was not the time for me to buy a carpet.

Having listened to his explanations of single -v- double knots, and the significance of the number of knots per inch, I finally asked him about prices.  A very nice wool carpet, about the same size as "my" silk one in Khiva, was worth 1,600, he said.  I told him about the carpet I had fallen in love with and he expressed total disbelief at the price - showed me a much smaller silk one in his collection priced at $11,000...  He wondered if mine might have been made of cheap Chinese silk although even then it couldn't be that cheap (in fact all the silk used in the Khiva workshop is grown in Uzbekistan).  I began to wonder if my guide had mis-translated 20 into 2, or if perhaps I had missed the bargain of a lifetime...

Whirling Dervishes

On both the way to and from my holiday in Central Asia I had a day and a half in transit in Istanbul. This was a great opportunity to finally see the whirling dervishes in action, and I booked myself an online ticket to a Mevlevi Sema ceremony at the Hodja Pa┼ča Cultural Centre, a 550-year-old converted hammam.

To the Mevlevi order, everything in the universe revolves - from electrons round an atom, to the blood in our bodies, to the planets around the sun.  The whirling of the dervishes - which they refer to as revolving - reflects this and is a way of casting off bad habits and becoming one with God.

The dervishes enter wearing long, black cloaks, and beige felt hats which resemble a foot-high fez; these hats represents tombstones for the ego, which is shed (or dies temporarily) during the ceremony.  After many bows, and the removal of their cloaks, they slowly start to revolve.  Initially their arms are crossed with the their hands on their shoulders, but as they begin to revolve, their arms gradually loosen and open, ultmately held up in the air as they turn.  This revolving, at 1-2 revolutions per second, goes on for some forty minutes in total, although with some brief pauses as the ceremony has a number of stages.  Any ordinary mortals would be dizzy to the point of nausea but these guys are apparently experiencing an "intoxication of the soul", and so suffer no such worldly discomforts.

To my surprise there is no joy shown on the dervishes' faces, which remain expressionless throughout.

Although performed for tourists in this location (in fact the Mevlevi order is still outlawed in Turkey and licenced to 'perform' only for tourists), it is still really a devotional ceremony, and so we were told not only not to take photos but not to applaud either.  I found it quite moving but then I have always enjoyed the mystical side of religion, from the incense of the Ethiopian and Greek orthodox churches to the trance music of the Moroccan Gnaoua.  In fact the two things I most want to experience during my remaining time in West Africa are a Lebu exorcism (Senegal) and a voodoo ceremony (Benin).  Both are unlikely, unfortunately.

But in Istanbul on my second transit coming back from my holiday I found another venue with a Mevlani Sema ceremony, not in such an atmospheric venue but one where photos were allowed.

The Silk Road


Aside from my close encounter with a golden eagle, my ten days in Kyrgyzstan involved a lot of walking in the mountains and a lot of layers of clothing as I tried to keep warm at night. The tour mostly involved sleeping in yurts set up on bleak hillsides or in remote valleys. Yurts have been used by the indigenous nomads for many centuries, and the thick layers of felt that cover them do keep out the worst of the cold, but with my relatively skinny frame I needed to wear all the clothes I had packed at the same time to stay warm in the evenings before I burrowed under the layers of blankets they provided for us.

We experienced other aspects of local culture too, from the food (warming meals with lots of meat and fat) and drink (a mildly fermented mare’s milk which tasted of sheep’s cheese), to the famous horsemanship skills. The latter included leaning from their saddles and picking a small (golf-ball-sized) object off the ground as they galloped past – not always successfully but this skill comes from a game using a decapitated goat which, to be fair, is rather larger than a golf ball. Horses are an integral part of the life of the nomads in Kyrgyzstan and on our walks we came across several young boys on horseback driving flocks of sheep and goats around the mountain-sides.

We also saw the ancient (restored) caravanserai of Tash Rabat, an atmospheric stone building in the middle of a remote valley – our first introduction to the Silk Route.

From Kyrgyzstan we travelled to Uzbekistan, only next-door but so very different. We went from green mountains to dry, flat desert, and from moveable felt yurts to solid ancient monuments.

The name Samarkand evoked for me the same kind of exotic image as Zanzibar and Timbuktu; an almost mythical place.  & it didn't disappoint.  Mosques, mausoleums and madrassas, all magnificently restored with their dazzling blue tiles, competed for my attention with the stories of the famous men who had passed through here: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane...  the Shah -e- Zindar (street of the dead) was especially impressive, full of intricately tiled mausoleums still being visited by pilgrims.

After Samarkand we visited Bokhara - more mosques and madrassas, but somehow on a smaller, more human scale.  This was a very relaxed place where I felt I could just wander about, or stop in one of its many cafes for a green tea, or even sit on a bench and read my book.  I was working my way through Hopkirk's "The Great Game" - to learn more about the history of the region - and this was brought to life in Bokhara when I visited the 'bug pit' where British officers Connolly and Stoddard were held by the khan for many months before being executed in the square outside the Ark.

There were some good shopping opportunities here too, with the old madrassas and market domes filled with stalls selling ceramics, carpets, miniature paintings, silk scarves and wonderful embroidered jackets that would unfortunately be totally unsuitable for the hot climate of Dakar.

In Bokhara I said goodbye to the rest of the group, and continued further west.  A long day's drive through the Kyzyl Kum desert, crossing the great Oxus River, took me to Khiva.  Although the wall is older, most of the buildings within the old city here date on the from the 19th century, but the effect is of somewhere much more ancient.  My hotel was actually in one of the old (or not so old) madrassas, with a wonderful minaret forming a part of it - see photo.

An interesting practice here was to build tombs on the sloping sides of the city wall.  This meant that the body could not be buried in the ground but had to be laid in the tomb itself, and I was quite surprised when looking into one crumbling old tomb, as I climbed up the wall, to see what appeared very much to be a human thigh-bone, amongst other fragments of broken bone!

As with the other Silk Road cities, I was surprised to see virtually no other Western tourists.  I was told that this was because most prefer to avoid the August heat and that their numbers would rise in September.  There were plenty of local tourists though, and strangely I was as much of an attraction for them as the monuments, many wanting to be photographed with me.  Then on my final day in the country - in a museum in Tashkent - I was even interviewed for Uzbekistan television, asked my views on Tashkent ceramics (on which I'm a great expert, as you can imagine) and the local way of serving green tea.

If you're interested, the latter involves only filling the bowl half-full, so when the guest asks for more the host gets the pleasure of serving them a second time.

The eagle hunters of Kyrgyzstan


The art of hunting using eagles was introduced into Kyrgyzstan from Mongolia during the time of Genghis Khan. Today there are some fifty men left who continue the tradition, including Talgarbek who came to demonstrate the art with his nine-year-old golden eagle, Tumara.

We were outside the traditional hunting season, as the birds moult in summer and so are left to rest apart from short displays for tourists. In the winter, however, Talgarbek may take his eagle out into the mountains for several days at a time on hunting expeditions. There, her job is to follow her natural instinct and hunt, and his job is to keep an eye on where she is and follow her so as to get a share of the prey. Both animal skins and meat may then be sold to nomads he passes on his route. When “at home” he feeds her (around 600g of fresh meat, usually rabbit) only every second day, as she will not hunt if she is not hungry.

For the display, it is possible to see her kill a live rabbit, but we had been warned that this can be upsetting. Apparently they are tame rabbits brought up by the hunter and his family; the eagle will not hunt/kill when she is hooded and cannot therefore see her prey properly and the rabbits are used to her presence. On a previous display the guide said the rabbit had not even realised it was supposed to run away and so just sat there as the eagle landed until the bird started pecking at it. Not quite the same as seeing an eagle coming down and grabbing a rabbit in its talons and tearing it to pieces, which might be a spectacle worth seeing (given that the eagle has to eat…). So for us he used a fox fur, pulled along the ground by a rope, as the prey. The eagle, left unhooded and free on a rock a little up the mountainside, quickly spotted the fur and swooped down onto it, at which point the hunter ran up, fed her some alternative food (presumably the rabbit!) and removed the fur.

We were each allowed to hold her, by wearing the thick leather glove which she sits on, and when I asked if I could stroke her I was told that was fine. Although she was hooded at the time, it was still quite a thrill to hold such an impressive bird.

Tumara was taken from her nest in a difficult operation requiring climbing ropes, when her flight feathers were just sprouting. At this stage the parents fly off to hunt for several hours at a time, and the young are sufficiently developed to be taken away. There were two young in the nest, a male and female, and Talgarbek chose the female explaining to us that they are easier to train, being less aggressive.

The hunter spends several hours a day with the bird and comes to be seen as the surrogate parent. Indeed that relationship works both ways, as Talgarbek says he will miss her dreadfully when he finally lets her go – that it will be like a daughter leaving home to get married – but that he will have to free her in order to give her the opportunity to find a mate and live out her adult years as a free bird. He will probably keep her until she is about twenty, which will leave her some thirty years of freedom.