I picked this up after reading the great reviews on Amazon. I'm pleased to say that I was not disappointed. It's a incredibly well written book about how the author sets up a NGO in Uzbekistan.
It is hard to imagine when reading the book that the author was only in his 20's as it is very easy to imagine a much older writer - more of a Michael Palin type traveller. Make no mistake, this is not some gap year back packer trying to a good deed. This is someone who wanted to go and open a carpet weaving business to help local disadvantaged people.
One of the best books I've read in a long time, a real page turner. Very highly recommended.
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.
Having lived among Uzbeks for the past 4 years, I have to say Chris Aslan Alexander has knocked it out of the park with "A Carpet Ride To Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road." The author shows remarkable ability in walking the fine line between criticizing the preposterous Central Asian world of nonsensicality and seeing the Uzbek people for who they really are - post-Soviet shackles and all. But the real gripper is the love with which Alexander portrays this backwater part of the world which has been forgotten by so many and misunderstood by so many more. Entwined throughout the vivid tales of daily grind and the struggle of what is life are woven threads of admiration and true respect for the people with whom Alexander grows to know and value. It is not often that one finds an author who displays, with shocking nakedness, the true stripes of a culture and people - and who loves them dearly because of it - in spite of it. Honest agape admiration shines through the entire text and draws the reader into a similar sort of appreciative relationship. A wonderful read that accurately portrays the silky magic and the stark mundane of life in Central Asia.
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.
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. To spend seven years in a small town, and to make hugely impressive progress in mastering the language and the social norms, means that the author gained a level of trust and acceptance that opened up a window onto the sorrows but also the joys of everyday life. Accounts of domestic abuse and economic injustice are quite depressing, but then there are moments when acts of empathy and compassion deeply move both the author and reader - such as when the fellow weavers club together to buy their colleague a wedding dress. It is telling that while the minarets and murals grab the attention at the beginning, it is the personalities so vividly described that are mourned by the author who can't return, and for whom the reader also feels a sense of loss. For while the workshop projects are admittedly no panacea for the problems the town faces, they did bring both income and dignity to many of the downtrodden, and the project, shaped in part by the author's own stubbornness, was an irritant protest against the corruption that surrounded it. As such it should also be read by anyone conducting community based projects and interested in social change in Central Asia. The account of the project, honestly accepting mistakes made and bringing insight into the difficult choices to be made, make for a revealing, informative and stylishly written introduction.
It's easy to get cynical about aid and development work so it was refreshing to read about Christopher Alexander's work in Uzbekistan. Here was someone who was willing to get deeply involved in the local culture, properly learn the language and then come up with an imaginative project that would draw on local skills and traditions, in this case revive handmade silk carpets and find a market for them. And what an adventure is told. Finding the designs, dealing with local officials, getting dyes including the one from Afghanistan that was just a white powder which inevitably caused problems and just surviving in the intense heat and intense cold. But scores of local women are given useful employment, often those who were otherwise marginalised. It's a very different world and the reader will find their jaw drop open on occasion-the amazing sexual habits of some of the locals-Borat wasn't exaggerating- but all charitably reported and one senses the warmth of the author among people who had become real friends.
Warning: This is no ordinary travel guide. Although the author describes the sights of Khiva with great enthusiasm, this book provides much deeper insight into local life and culture than any other travel book I have read. The history of the region is fascinating, and peppered with very amusing anecdotes. The description of the establishment of the carpet school, and its expansion into embroidery, although unusual for a travel book, adds great depth. The descriptions of nearby towns and adjacent countries also add to the depth and context, allowing local conditions to be compared.
The book is refreshingly honest. The author doesn't try to gloss over unpleasant facts, like corruption and abuse, but handles them even-handedly. I have visited another country in the region, and can confirm that things which may seem unbelievable to Westerners do in fact happen, for example, historical sites being used as latrines. However, the author's sense of humour and compassion imbue these serious issues with a lighter touch and prevents the book from being a depressing catalogue of disaster.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone planning to work or travel in the region, as well as to anyone wanting to immerse themselves in a very different world for 318 pages.
This book combines many categories, including travelogue, memoir and diary. Fast-paced and engagingly written, it evokes the central Asian landscape, communities, history and culture with impressive skill. Most memorable for the personalities it records and extraordinary initiative of the author in the face of endless obfuscation, many of the vignettes live long in the mind and offer much food for reflection, alongside many reasons to be grateful for a number of the freedoms enjoyed in the West.
I bought A Carpet Ride to Khiva because I plan to make a trip to Uzbekistan next spring and wanted some background - and I was riveted. It is a brilliant, extremely well written book which succeeds in revealing Uzbek society through the microcosm of the carpet workshop. A lot of what Alexander describes about the corruption etc is horribly familiar to me, as I lived in Russia in the 1990s. I also found A Carpet Ride a very sensitive and compassionate book, in its portrayal of the locals and their lives. Unlike so many of today's travel writers ("look at me, what a wild time I'm having amongst these funny foreigners") Alexander keeps himself firmly in the background. I found myself actually wanting more personal detail. I loved his mother's friendship with the Afghan general. I was fascinated (and horrified) by the male conversations about women and sex, to which, as a female, I would not be privy. A classic.