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On The Road In Uzbekistan

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A 2,500-kilometer road trip by Anzor Bukharsky, one of Central Asia’s most beloved photographers and cultural commentators, offers a rare glimpse into everyday life on the backstreets and byways of Uzbekistan.

Two local girls walk near a 900-year-old minaret in the southern town of Minor, near the border with Afghanistan.
Two local girls walk near a 900-year-old minaret in the southern town of Minor, near the border with Afghanistan.
A man rests during a scorching-hot day in the courtyard of his house in Khiva.
A man rests during a scorching-hot day in the courtyard of his house in Khiva.
A set of swings in the dusty expanse of the desert of Karakalpakstan in the north of Uzbekistan.
A set of swings in the dusty expanse of the desert of Karakalpakstan in the north of Uzbekistan.

These are some of the photographs made during a road trip throughout Uzbekistan in early summer 2021 by photographer Anzor Bukharsky. The Bukhara native is known for his affectionate photographs and sharp observations of Uzbek culture.

Bukharsky made the epic journey to show two visiting Russian friends an Uzbekistan away from the tourist sites where, he says, the authorities have attempted to “improve everything with new bricks and tiles, or decorate with rubbish bins and plastic police booths.”

One of the world’s few remaining “towers of silence,” in Karakalpakstan.
One of the world’s few remaining “towers of silence,” in Karakalpakstan.

This 2,000-year-old structure was used by fire-worshipping followers of the Zoroastrian religion as a way of disposing of corpses without contaminating the sacred elements of earth, fire, or water. Bodies were left atop this tower, where the harsh sun and vultures would strip them clean. The bones that remained would be placed into jars and buried.

Two Uzbek women climb to the top of the tower of silence.
Two Uzbek women climb to the top of the tower of silence.
A bustling bazaar in Urgut, near Samarkand.
A bustling bazaar in Urgut, near Samarkand.

“Every time I visit a city in Uzbekistan, I try to get to the bazaar as soon as possible,” Bukharsky says. “With their unique flavor and identity, the open-air markets are the pride of the Uzbek people. Such bazaars have been praised thousands of times in literature, painting, and cinema.

“It’s a pity that recently, starting in 2017, a real war has been declared on the Uzbek bazaars. They are simply being razed to the ground and modern hypermarkets built in their place. A whole layer of cultural heritage is disappearing, and I am afraid that it will never be replenished.”

Local children play on one of the streets of old Khiva on a warm evening.
Local children play on one of the streets of old Khiva on a warm evening.
A Soviet-era truck rumbles along a dirt road in Uzbekistan’s southern Surkhandarya region.
A Soviet-era truck rumbles along a dirt road in Uzbekistan’s southern Surkhandarya region.

Bukharsky believes Surkhandarya has “the most beautiful mountains in Uzbekistan,” where “it’s truly easy to breathe. You can feel incomparable space and lightness.”

A girl pauses for a photo in the bazaar in Khiva.
A girl pauses for a photo in the bazaar in Khiva.

Bukharsky says the original bazaar in Khiva was located at the base of the picturesque city walls but that recently “the city authorities decided that merchants disgrace the appearance of modern Uzbekistan before foreign guests, so the market was moved to another part of the city, hidden from the eyes of tourists.”

The closed entrance to a bazaar in Boysun, in southern Uzbekistan.
The closed entrance to a bazaar in Boysun, in southern Uzbekistan.

Bukharsky adds: “The wave of demolition of bazaars has even reached Surkhandarya. When we arrived at the famous old market in Boysun, it turned out that it was closed because it was being transferred to another part of the city to be made ‘more modern and beautiful.'”

A puppeteer poses between shows in Khiva.
A puppeteer poses between shows in Khiva.
A local of Khiva photographed in her home.
A local of Khiva photographed in her home.
Fences built to contain sand alongside the highway between Bukhara and Khiva.
Fences built to contain sand alongside the highway between Bukhara and Khiva.

Bukharsky says “the sands in the desert are constantly shifting, so these containers, which are several meters deep, are made from reeds to stop the highway being buried.

A military band performs at the base of a minaret in Khiva.
A military band performs at the base of a minaret in Khiva.

“On the streets of Uzbek cities during any holiday, you will see a huge number of people in uniform: police, military, national guard, and so on,” Bukharsky says. “This surprises tourists and they often ask whether there is some threat to their safety.”

A local man leads his sheep past the wall of the Itchan-kala fortress.
A local man leads his sheep past the wall of the Itchan-kala fortress.
A man peers from the entrance to a building in Khiva next to where major earthworks are under way.
A man peers from the entrance to a building in Khiva next to where major earthworks are underway.

Bukharsky told RFE/RL: “It is alarming that in the old cities of Uzbekistan, some kind of restoration or construction is constantly being carried out, often inside the areas protected by UNESCO.”

Yurts at a roadside stop in the empty expanse of the Karakalpakstan desert. The roadside attraction is run by camel breeders.
Yurts at a roadside stop in the empty expanse of the Karakalpakstan desert. The roadside attraction is run by camel breeders.
A giant watermelon monument at the entrance to Samarkand. Melons are a famously varied Uzbek staple and a major -- and growing -- export commodity for Uzbekistan.
A giant watermelon monument at the entrance to Samarkand. Melons are a famously varied Uzbek staple and a major — and growing — export commodity for Uzbekistan.

Bukharsky said that by the end of the 12-day road trip he had learned several things, including that away from the main highways, Uzbekistan’s roads are “unsuitable for traveling by car — our roads look like a nuclear war has been waged.” But most importantly, the photographer said that after thousands of kilometers, he realized that “there is no better city in the world” than his hometown of Bukhara.

Written by Amos Chapple based on an account by Anzor Bukharsky.

Originally published in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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