Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Uzbeks like to celebrate. Wedding parties are the most famous expression of this. Even in humble families, hundreds of people can join the table, have some plov, a wodka or two, marvel at the young couple. (Anthony Bourdain has a nice portrayal in his No reservations episode on Uzbekistan)
Unfortunately, no wedding invitations for me yet, but Monday noon, a number of colleagues and I were cordially invited to a party celebrating the birth of a first grandson, the first being the triumphantly expected one.

Probably two hundred people were present, and a film crew, too interested when I delivered a wodka speech or two, encouraged by a local notable; and the plov tasted great. The picture is a memento all the guests received. No idea why it says 'Super Gamel'.

[A problem for my research: my excellent assistant got seriously ill. For a few days already, I have been searching for a replacement, trying to steal people from my colleagues, but to no avail. I, myself, have been sick too, but just the usual food- related thing]

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lakes and swamps

The last few days, I talked to quite a few people. The chief architect -simultaneously head of planning- received us with mint tea, and he and a colleague explained how they decide which neighborhoods will be renovated, i.e., demolished and rebuilt in higher densities, according to his design. Some of the designs looked like medieval caravanserais, and seemingly, this is what people ask for.

Thursday, I went back to Ashirmat, the ex- Kolkhoz near the Turkmen border, you remember, and to Kushkypir, the district center. Talking to the irrigation engineers in Kushkypir, it dawned on me 1) that indeed this whole area is a product of irrigation design, not of spatial planning, and 2) that, in this situation the Soviets had remarkably little interest in integrated planning of all the rest, even if it would have been easy, even with the organizations in place that could have done it. Later, in Ashirmat, a small place by any account, it turned out that this integration improved somewhat (water experts are brought in for large constructions projects). New regulations aim to turn villages into mini-cities, with apartments in the center, and real estate developers redesigning large chunks of the village core at once. Few examples are actually built yet, so we will have to wait for the results, the effects on water, sewer, roads and so forth.

A village elder there told us about the lake (see picture), according to him thousands of years old, an assertion that might seem trivial in many places, but in a place where the whole landscape is not older than 50 years, it isn't. Most lakes in the region are very young, the by-product of drainage design (no irrigation without drainage here). This one is now connected to the drainage network, but is mostly natural. It rarely dries up, and used to be called Salty lake. He remembered how people used the surrounding wetland for salt extraction. The early American map earlier on this blog, revealed salt marshes, before the Kolkhoz came, and apparently this is one of those. A colleague at the institute told me that in the Bukhara area, to the east, some people still get their salt from the marshes.

[Over the wetland and the rice fields: clouds of dragonflies. Many beautiful birds. In the rice paddies numerous wading avocets. On telephone wires: bluish rollers and greenish bee-eaters. High in the air a few birds of prey I could not identify]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Markets and food

Since my adventures in previous days are somewhat modest -restricted to watching such cinematic masterpieces as Kick Ass, and the often underestimated Hot tub time machine- it might be a good moment to talk about food.

Last Sunday we visited the main market here in Urgench, where I was impressed with the sheer variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Not all of those I ever recognized on my plate, but the food is nevertheless varied, though hearty on average. Influences from Russia and Ukraine can be discerned in soups, potatoes, cabbage, pancakes and certain noodles, but combinations of pasta and potatoes are variously ascribed to Kazakh, Karakalpakstani [just to the north], and Uygur cuisine. Groups of Uygurs moved from western China to these areas for reasons unknown to me. Koreans arriving after the war in the fifties, left their mark, so our Russian cook at the office effortlessly makes an excellent noodle soup, and soy sauce has its place on many tables. Tatars brought here under Stalin [under the motto 'this is where you came from'] imported, among other things, the cheburek, a deep- fried delicacy, a pastry filled with meat, onions and spices. I heard about Greek, Jewish, Armenian dishes, due to diaspora's old and recent, but I didn't discover those yet. And of course, there is the omnipresent shaslik, skewered ground meat grilled over charcoal, a Georgian specialty. Turkish kebap seems to be a recent arrival.

With all the allure of multi- ethnic post- Soviet cuisine, we should not forget about the more traditional regional foods. Walnuts and apples probably came from here, spread east and west along the Silk Roads. Rice arrived from China, and became the main ingredient for plov, widely acknowledged as the national dish. Rice, carrots, meat, generously sprinkled with cumin, sometimes also coriander and parsley, blend exquisitely. Eggplant appears in many dishes, as do tomatoes, onions, beans in all sizes, colors and tastes -see the market picture on top. Samsa is another pastry, filled with meat and onions, baked in a small clay oven -tandir- that also serves to bake flatbreads. Most homes have their own clay oven, in the garden, as shown in this picture, taken in Ashirmat. Manti, pasta pockets filled with meat, boiled quickly, can be found across Central Asia, in many variations.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Maps, maps, maps

The interviews are going quite well. We [me and my assistant] already had a series of interesting conversations with people from the local university, and at regional government, where I was invited for a fishing trip -fingers crossed. For next week, we already have a series of promising interviews lined up. Architects, geographers, water-engineers, historians, surveyors, many people are willing to talk to us, somewhat cautiously, but friendly and helpful.

What proves much more difficult, is finding plans, old and new, and, even more basic, maps. It eludes me why Soviet maps and plans are so important, but that seems to be the implicit statement here. One of the few specimens I found, simply on the web, is the one posted here, American- made, dated 1963. It shows a landscape that clearly predates the agricultural reconstruction of the 40s and 50s; in other words, it is completely wrong. Caravan routes are indicated, desert boundaries that had changed drastically by then, and the new settlement pattern in the irrigated areas is simply not there. Secrecy now and then. But, maybe more things will show up. We'll see. As long as looking around and talking to people can give me a decent understanding of landscape change and organizational change, no drama.

[In the garden, amidst rotting apricots, a huppoo -a beautiful bird, that is. Other than this one, and a few terns hovering over irrigation canals, I didn't see too many birds. Maybe I should look better, and, first of all come out more]

Monday, July 12, 2010


This is Khiva. At least, one of the more famous sights in town.
On the way to this ancient trading town, the taxi driver shared his love for Tajik techno.

Khiva is half an hour drive from Urgench, where I live. Urgench itself is a relatively young city, but its predecessor, old Urgench -now in Turkmenistan- vied with Khiva for importance in the ancient state of Khorezm, a region south of the Aral Sea that was sometimes independent, often under other regimes, but most of the time a clearly delineated political and cultural entity.
Caravans passed through Khiva for centuries -yes, I saw camels- and its heydays were probably in our later middle ages. Some buildings dated back to the 10th century of the Samanids, trading with the Vikings and other westerners, but most of the old town is either 14th century, or more recent, the twilight of the Khiva Khanate, when it was already under Russian rule [late 19th, early 20th century] Somewhere in between, Tamerlane and the mongols of the Golden Horde, competing for Khorezm, destroyed both Urgench and Khiva a few times.

Friday, July 9, 2010

And the image...

After many inquiries, I found out that it would be legally and technically possible to illustrate this blog. Still, electricity cuts, a slow internet connection and a stubborn computer made posting these few pictures an ordeal. So, please feel obliged to enjoy them.

This is the sunken garden in the courtyard of our house. Apparently, a local notable built it, decided he didn't like it, and rented it out to our project. The little platform hanging over the garden is the taptjan, an Uzbek classic, a place to drink tea and talk in the evening, arguably the best part of the home. Some flowers adorn the garden, but mostly, it is functional, tended by the father of the owner, an old man fond of over- irrigating the vegetables, and, doing so, making it impossible to take a shower or flushing a toilet. Natural resource governance...

A first impression of Ashirmat, the village west of Urgench where I try to get a more fine- grained picture of land-use change. This is an irrigation canal, with wild reed -left- right next to a carefully cultivated rice paddy, nested in the canal bed. Ashirmat is on the Turkmen border, far from the river and therefore water security, so every square inch that can used, will be used. Farmers prefer rice over cotton, because they can eat or sell it, but, unfortunately, rice requires much, much more water.

Ashirmat is a former Kolkhoz, a collective farm now privatized. There is a village, and several clusters of homes on higher ground, lining irrigation canals and roads. It looks like these built-up streets are following natural sand ridges that were raised, straightened and leveled by the Soviets, to keep pipes and drains out of reach from the high ground water, always a problem here.
What you see here is the edge of that engineered landscape, sloping down to a lush, densely planted garden.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

'The Field'

The institute here in Urgench is primarily a site for fieldwork, a starting point for data collection in presumably even more exciting places. It took me some time to explain the colleagues that the institute itself was part of 'the field' for me, that I wanted to talk to many of the colleagues, learn from them, hear their perspectives on the changing governance and organization of land in the region.

But, I did have ambitions to venture out of my air- conditioned office, investigate more in depth the history of land use in one small community. Wednesday, yesterday, I finally went there, in a mild 45 degrees, and it was certainly worth the hour-long drive. Ashirmat is the name of the community, formerly a kolkhoz, a collective farm, now the territory of a so-called water user association, an organization that took over some tasks of the old kolkhoz. Right before we left, the rector of the local university showed up unexpectedly, with three professors he rounded up especially for my research -the previous day, John and I had talked to the rector about my research. I apologized profusely, and the relations don't seem to have suffered [not a good start for the networking]

In the field, we were welcomed more warmly than I expected-yet in relatively cool homes. I understood from the colleagues that the farmers had been subjected to so much scientific scrutiny over the years, that I had to be very cautious and patient. I was joining two colleagues on a survey-trip that had been arranged a while ago, to get a feeling for the place and the people, and to get introduced slowly into the community. Indeed, some farmers did not show up, some seemed annoyed or sarcastic, but overall, the experience was heart-warming. I had the chance to talk to some farmers, to local officials, in the shade of a mulberry tree -for the silkworm- or in a living room with tea, bread and sweets. Beer could not be avoided, even in the morning, but I successfully escaped the vodka -for now. It looked like many locals were as interested in me as I in them, and I generously shared my profound knowledge of Belgian agriculture.

Today, Thursday, me, my assistant, and a colleague who had organized the introduction, had an interview with a senior official at the BVO, the organization in charge of the whole Amy Darya basin, an international organization therefore, with its seat here in Urgench. The gentleman in question was very helpful, explaining the current issues in Central Asian water governance, and some aspects of the evolution from Soviet to Uzbek planning. One of the things I hadn't thought of before: deciding on the distribution of water at the international level is also planning, and crucial for that, because it determines everything else you can do in a region. With some slight changes at that level, the Soviets could have shaped Central Asia very differently.

In the meanwhile, at the guest house, the heat does not abate. I got a fan, thank God, but then the noise of the thing kept me awake. Next step in my process of innovation and adaptation: earplugs made of toilet paper. Even those couldn't block the silence after the loss of Germany...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Arrived at last

Yesterday, I arrived in Urgench.
So, yes, I got my visa.

After a rather hectic -but pleasant- stay in Belgium and Holland, I spent a day, June 30th, in Bonn, to talk through the logistics of my work in Uzbekistan with the people at ZEF. That same evening, I had a meeting with Anna, in a nicely terraced beer garden, to go over the work plan. She pointed out, among other things, that it was probably too much. We discussed some of the literature I was familiar with, and she handed to me an additional pile of publications. A recent GIS study could be a good starting point for the analysis of landscape and landscape change at the local level, i.e. in my case site.

The flight to Tashkent became more bearable and interesting because of the company. Usman, from Pakistan, and Fazlullah, from Afghanistan, both ZEF, joined me, and scared me with plenty of stories of disease and disaster. We spent the night in an apartment in Tashkent, were several people awaited us, with tea, cookies and watermelon. Among them Kirsten, who works for an international organization dealing with dry areas. She knew everyone who ever published on Uzbekistan, spoke Russian fluently, and just came back from Turkmenistan, where driving a dirty car in shorts is highly illegal.

The next morning, we woke up at 5, and were picked up by Kostja, the project driver. His help meant significantly less hassle -compared to Frankfurt- with the luggage. This time no lengthy discussions on rules and regulations, no overpaying and repacking. Once arrived in Urgench, we were brought to the guest house, a large building formerly occupied by a local notable, and later to the ZEF/ Unesco office, well guarded, well furnished, and -first impression- a well/ oiled machine. I was introduced to more researchers, most of them rather adventurous types, and had a long conversation with John, the project coordinator.

That proved very useful. He is very well- connected, has an excellent overview of the whole project, covering several years of research in several disciplines, and a good sense for what might work or not work in the fieldwork. More focus on landscape change, and on the history and future of more integrated, more comprehensive forms of planning, seems warranted. Joining some other researchers at first, later going to the field with my own assistant, seems a good way to get a feeling for the landscape and its history. Talking to older farmers and other residents would be a good way to figure out how the place changed, what and who were the driving factors. In parallel, I can gather old maps and planning documents, and interview officials. That way -in the current plan- I could hopefully reconstruct the evolution of the planning system, its impact, and then figure out how this could be made more comprehensive, more aimed at the improvement of landscapes than at the separate achievement of a series of goals in many different policies.

Today then, July 3rd, I got an office, with air-conditioning [a blessing], a desk, and a computer, a rather slow one unfortunately, so we will have to see how illustrated this blog can be. The food up till now is very good -yesterday evening Georgian chinkali, this morning pizza- with as only complaint the excessive quantities, and the formidable and relentless cook that keeps you eating. I'll have to figure out how to sport in the scorching heat.