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A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road [Hardcover]

Christopher Aslan Alexander
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)

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Book Description

24 Dec 2009
The Silk Road conjures images of the exotic and the unknown. Most travellers simply pass along it. Brit Chris Alexander chose to live there. Ostensibly writing a guidebook, Alexander found life at the heart of the glittering madrassahs, mosques and minarets of the walled city of Khiva - a remote desert oasis in Uzbekistan - immensely alluring, and stayed. Immersing himself in the language and rich cultural traditions Alexander discovers a world torn between Marx and Mohammed - a place where veils and vodka, pork and polygamy freely mingle - against a backdrop of forgotten carpet designs, crumbling but magnificent Islamic architecture and scenes drawn straight from "The Arabian Nights". Accompanied by a large green parrot, a ginger cat and his adoptive Uzbek family, Alexander recounts his efforts to rediscover the lost art of traditional weaving and dyeing, and the process establishing a self-sufficient carpet workshop, employing local women and disabled people to train as apprentices. "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" sees Alexander being stripped naked at a former Soviet youth camp, crawling through silkworm droppings in an attempt to record their life-cycle, holed up in the British Museum discovering carpet designs dormant for half a millennia, tackling a carpet-thieving mayor, distinguishing natural dyes from sacks of opium in Northern Afghanistan, bluffing his way through an impromptu version of "My Heart Will Go On" for national Uzbek TV and seeking sanctuary as an anti-Western riot consumed the Kabul carpet bazaar. It is an unforgettable true travel story of a journey to the heart of the unknown and the unexpected friendship one man found there.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 334 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd; First Edition edition (24 Dec 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848311257
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848311251
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 13.8 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 493,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

The British author collected his middle name in Turkey where he was born, his fearlessness from a childhood spent in war-torn Beirut, and his idealism - one has to deduce this, because he's personally reticent - from a can-do brand of Christianity. Volunteering to work in Central Asia for a Swedish NGO, he begins to compile a guide book to the medieval Uzbek oasis of Khiva. Meanwhile, he finds himself embarking on a much more quixotic project: to set up a carpet workshop, in which the ancient arts of Khivan dyeing and weaving will be brought back to life.

Hand-made carpets did not sit well with Soviet ideology, as the labour-intensive process was predicated on poor producers and rich buyers, so factory ones became the norm. Turning a derelict madrassah into his workshop, and enlisting some of the remaining traditional dyers, Alexander starts to put the clock back.

At which point his book changes character, its splashy prose suddenly acquiring such force and focus that one hangs on every word. He tells us everything he sees and thinks, he details every problem and its solution, and offers vignettes of every character in his newly-constituted kingdom. Because he's clear-headed and single-minded, the picture which emerges hangs beautifully together, giving a pungent sense of what life is like for ordinary Uzbeks today.

If you're poor, disabled, or merely a woman, it's pretty terrible, as Alexander finds when recruiting apprentices from the most deprived corners of Khivan society. Soviet attitudes to disabled children still persist, with the state all too ready to bang them up in institutions: some Uzbek children grow up learning Braille when a pair of glasses could solve their problem overnight.

The Soviets may have done much to release Muslim women from feudal bondage, but things have now slipped back. When female weavers turn up at the workshop black with bruises, their colleagues don't need to ask why: wife-beating is common and anything can trigger it, particularly in a place where unemployment is the norm, with men forced to migrate north to Russia for work. We all know about the dissident whom the Uzbek government boiled alive five years ago: Alexander shows how that was the tip of a more widespread evil, with the secret service penetrating every corner of civic life.

Financial corruption pervades his story like a poison. Alexander's laudable fair-trade policy is constantly undercut because every civil transaction is oiled with bribes, on which teachers, doctors, police, and local politicians all depend for their livelihood. Alexander's eventual reward for refusing to play this game, as his workshop becomes a celebrated success, is deportation from the country as undesirable alien.

But the fascination of his book lies in the flip-side to all this grimness, as Alexander falls deeply in love with his work-team, his adoptive Uzbek family, and with the ancient designs he rediscovers in miniatures and on ornate medieval doors. He notes the multifarious folk customs and superstitions which permeate daily life, and goes native in all the seasonal rituals.

His book also serves as a primer on the mysteries of sericulture, and on the endless ramifications of the natural-dyer's craft. His pursuit of powdered madder root takes him deep into Afghanistan, whence he emerges after close shaves. This remarkable young man has now set up a yak-wool workshop in the Pamirs: his next book should be just as good. --The Independent, January 22nd, 2010

Sitting down to read A Carpet Ride to Khiva over the festive season was like entering an oasis of peace and quiet.
Khiva is a small walled town in the Uzbek desert close to the Turkmenistan border. It lies on what was once the ancient Silk Road. Christopher Aslan Alexander spent seven years there, arriving as a 24-year-old post-university volunteer and being drawn into the great Uzbek tradition of carpet-making.

During that time, he taught himself the skills of knotting carpet threads, finding designs for looms, going far out into the desert to find the plants needed for the dyes, and having the carpets made. His final triumph during his stay in Khiva was enlisting workers to dye and handweave carpets using patterns copied from 15th-century miniatures illustrating the words of the Persian poet Nizami.

Uzbekistan is the homeland of Amir Timur, known in the West as Timur the Lame. Celebrated as a fearless hero on the battlefield, Timur also had an eye for beauty. He captured artists from the cities he conquered and force-marched them to Samarkand to decorate his great palace. I have to confess to a personal grudge against Timur, as he stole from Damascus - my favourite city in the Middle East - the greatest ceramicists of the day, leaving that city bereft.
But that was then and this is now, and if anyone makes Uzbekistan come to life it is Alexander.

During a drought, when there is no water for his cold shower - an activity which horrifies the Uzbeks - Alexander takes a plastic container to the town well, where he causes consternation among the local maidens: manly men don't draw water.

At the men's baths, he is again stared at: Uzbek men shave their pubic and armpit hair.
Like the carpet patterns so intricately interwoven and linked, Alexander's account of his seven years in Khiva gives us a feel for daily life looped and crisscrossed with weddings, corrupt officials, journeys in rickety buses, gossip at the looms, domestic violence and village hospitality, and all of it centering on the carpet project.
Knowing that child labour exists in Khiva, Alexander makes a rule that no one under 17 can be employed by him. Next, he goes looking for people who would normally find it difficult to get work, drawing in people with disabilities, some of whom are women with no chance of marriage. Payment is realistic and, he discovers, more than a teacher would get. But he later learns that teachers top up their meagre salaries by an ingenious system whereby students pay cash up front for good results.

Alexander has a type of double vision which allows him to see not only the beauty of tiny desert plants in bloom, the sensuous movements of an overweight woman as she dances or the excitement when a treasured carpet is finally finished, but also the cruelty to women subjected to a forced marriage, the horror of male circumcision - he gives a firsthand description of such a ritual - and the appalling list of human-rights abuses.

Alexander finally ran foul of the system when he was refused a return visa to Uzbekistan. He suspects the hand of the local mayor, who expected but did not receive the gift of a carpet.

Trying everything to get back in to Uzbekistan to at least say farewell to his many friends in Khiva, he spends no less than seven days in the airport transit lounge before finally getting on a flight home.

Or is home the right word? For the past two years he has been living in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, working on a knitting project making sweaters from yak down. Seems there's no stopping him.
________________________________________
Mary Russell is a writer with a special interest in travel --The Irish Times, January 2nd, 2010

Having spent time in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, learning the language, Alexander made his way to Khiva, a walled city on the Silk Road. His aim was to write a guidebook.
In Tashkent, still recovering from Soviet rule, he had found a "society looking for identity, marooned somewhere between Mohammed and Marx". But in Khiva, a Unesco World Heritage site with beautiful Islamic architecture and a rich culture, he found a home - and stayed seven years instead of the intended two.

Alexander was drawn to the ancient craft of carpet-making, and learned traditional weaving and dying techniques. The fact the author lived and worked among Khiva's inhabitants for so long distinguishes A Carpet Ride to Khiva from many travel books, as we glimpse life in a Central Asian "desert oasis" of silk, carpets, and extraordinarily colourful natural dyes. --Financial Times, January 26th, 2010

No stranger to adventure, Alexander was born in Turkey but grew up in Beirut and spent two years at sea before he moved to Khiva, a desert oasis in Uzbekistan. Fuelled by a childhood fascination with the Soviet Union, he spent time in Tashkent on a language course before moving to Khiva, where he immersed himself in the local culture by setting up workshops to produce kilims. Alexander is an excellent guide through the chaos of local life, and his writing is thick with his adventures in this walled city, drawing a vivid portrait of the domestic lives of his Uzbek hosts with great affection and humour, while also casting his eye over the history of trade on the Silk Road. Equally compelling is his portrayal of Uzbek women, with whom he worked closely when weaving, illustrating how they are learning to balance traditional life with the reality of their post-Perestroika present.

Extract
"A carpet-seller had given me a ginger kitten as a gift, which was now fully grown. He flopped dramatically anywhere shaded, rousing himself only at mealtimes to beg for food. The family taught me that cats in Khiva were fed on mouthfuls of masticated bread... What mine wanted was meat and I fed him surreptitiously with chunks of mutton brought by Koranberg's mother who had come to live with us for the summer... When the cat wasn't available, she did as all Khorezm grannies still do, and lifted the corner of a carpet to deposit the dregs of tea beneath it." --The Sunday Telegraph, December 30th, 2009

About the Author

Christopher Aslan Alexander was born in Turkey and grew up in war-torn Beirut. After university he moved to Central Asia. While writing a guidebook about Khiva, he fell in love with this desert oasis boasting the most homogenous example of Islamic architecture in the world, and stayed.

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Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
This was my first foray into the "travel" genre, knowing next to nothing about Central Asia in general or Khiva in particular. Although carpets aren't really my thing I admit I was engaged from the first page, chuckling and snorting every couple of pages at Alexander's amusing anecdotes and lively writing style. And I learnt a whole lot about Silk worms too! The book reads like a humorous and informative conversation, departing every now and again from Alexander's personal experiences into juicy little cultural tidbits, observations and relevant Silk Route history and politics.

Alexander is obviously lively company and my favourite minor episodes include him baffling a hawker by referring to 'International Pomegranate Day' and successfully teaching a downtrodden blind lad macrame. The chief thing that drew me in, however was how the relationships developed as he mastered the language and settled into the culture with his beloved host family, despite his ginger kitten and vegetarianism.

There is also the darker gut-wrenching reality of life lived behind the president's mass propaganda, including wife-beating and the awful Andijan Massacre.

There was slightly more about the donkey-related sexual proclivities of local men than was my taste, but I guess that is part of the cross-cultural education.

He doesn't dwell on this aspect, but it is clear that his presence in Khiva benfitted those around him hugely, with his blend of creativity and enterprising business sense bringing income-generation and discovery of hidden talents not only to employees of the carpet and Suzani workshops, but to many others along the way.

The colour plates are engrossing and authenticate the whole narrative. It's great putting faces to the names and being able to examine some of the authentic works of art that inspired the carpet designs.

I recommend this book very highly and feel much the richer in understanding.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic indeed! 20 Mar 2010
Format:Hardcover
This book is far more than a record of '7 years in the life of...'. Chris Alexander has resisted the urge to make this a book about him and his experiences, but has instead allowed us to 'use' him as our introduction to the remarkable people, history and city of Khiva. There is a huge wealth of information, historical, agricultural, architectural, psychological and so much more, but all of it presented so artlessly and vividly that you feel that you have been there and seen it with your own eyes, rather than 'merely' read about it. I laughed, cried, groaned and learned - but, most of all, the book left me wanting to go to Khiva and see it for myself; I can think of no higher praise.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Tricky to write this review since I know the author and I was initially reluctant to give it a 5. However, on its own merits the book probably deserves it, though I guess it would be difficult to find one reader who is able to appreciate everything it has to offer. For the book transcends categories, the book cover suggesting it is a travel/memoir but it is part also written for those with an interest in textiles and finally (and the stand out aspect for me) a powerful anthropological insight into the changes occurring in the post-socialist world and how development projects can make a small but significant difference.

As a travel book it wanders off into other parts of Uzbekistan as well as Afghanistan but is at its best when at home in Khiva. The author has a great eye of the absurd, and the book is chocked full of wonderful insights and the recounting of dramatic tales. However those wanting to find out more about, say, Bukhara, might need to know more than that is is the home of cunning competitors and human organ exporters. So it won't replace a good general guide book, but for the traveller whose itinerary would take in Khiva reading this book would enrich the experience enormously as it brings alive the history as well as the present realities of this fascinating city.

As a memoir it packs real emotional punch as the politics of the country cruelly cut short the love-affair with Khiva. To those interested in the history of textiles and the bringing of past designs back to life, this is a must read.

However for me, as someone interested in the development of society in Uzbekistan, the book's greatest value is as an insight into the plight of provincial towns in post-independence Uzbekistan.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magic Carpet Ride 1 Jan 2010
Format:Hardcover
Its all there, the happiness and the sadness, the achievements and the frustrations, the facts and the fables, the sites and the smells as Chris Alexander tells us about his seven years living and working in a World Heritage site in the deserts of Uzbekistan. The book takes you from from the humble beginings of going out there to write a guide book for tourists through to the stage where his workshop was the largest non state employer in he city hand making silk rugs using designs from the time of Tamberlaine.
You to meet the women and disabled who work there, others who are jealous of the enterprise and try to spoil it and the bureaucrats who ultimately lead to Chris`s expulsion. His writing shows how a travel book should be, interesting, amusing, informative and with pace. The reader learns about history, silk, design and the people who live and work in a city where a hundred year ago there were still slaves.
Read it and enjoy your own magic carpet ride to Khiva
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended. Something for everyone: armchair travellers,...
5 stars because I was in Uzbekistan as I read this book and I totally loved the insight it gave me to this interesting and beautiful part of the world. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars 1st class
Loved this book! Paints a wonderful picture of the Uzbeks and Khiva especially. Highly recommended read from a wonderful storyteller.
Published 3 months ago by Medina
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book
Fantastic book which really draws you into the Uzbekistan life, the people with plenty of touching and or funny/absurd anecdotes and the world of carpet making (who knew it was so... Read more
Published 4 months ago by KR
4.0 out of 5 stars An insight into a very different society
I had a couple of goes at getting started with this book before I stuck with it, perhaps the writer takes a while to settle into his style. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Alison Young
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read!
Absolutely loved this very personal and entertaining account of Chris's time in Khiva. Having recently visited Uzbekistan the descriptions of both the people and the places... Read more
Published 5 months ago by GLM1
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books
There are various reasons, why I like this book.

a) I am from Central Asia, I lived in Turkmenistan and I was kinda transmitted back in time and in space while reading... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars My favourite read so far this year
And I read a lot of books. Well written, well observed, entertaining and informative - and the author is such a nice man. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Unbelievable
That a young man helping the handicapped in Ubekisthan could be refused to enter the country again. I was inspired to do a project on this subject as I was so fascinated by it and... Read more
Published 7 months ago by choomary
5.0 out of 5 stars Kept me spellbound
I found it difficult to put this book down. Author wrote with a great deal of empathy. No unnecessary dramatisation. Pragmatic and realistic. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Sarah.U.
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and an insite into another culture
I love social history and this was right up my street. A true story set in Uzbekistan. brilliant I would recommend to anyone who has similar interests.
Published 8 months ago by Annie B
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