By Dora Ohrenstein

Izzat and I drove from Bukhara to the town of Urgut, where I’d heard there was a particularly good bazaar and was hoping for some special finds. Urgut is near the border with Tajikistan, so it was arranged that we come on the last two days before crossing into Tajikistan.

Izzat informed me that I was not staying at a hotel, but with a family in their home. He said it would be nicer, that I’d have a chance to see how people really live, and he was right. We were met by Sobirjon, a young man in his early thirties, and were taken through dusty streets full of children playing, to the house of Sobirjon’s parents, enclosed on all sides by high walls. Sobirjon spoke a little English but was fluent in German, which I speak poorly but can understand fairly well. He teaches German at college and had studied in Germany, a very cultured fellow from a once wealthy family. He lives in Tashkent with his family, and came to Urgut just for my visit. The family house was elegant and old, with a large porch bordered by beautiful columns, and an ample garden. One fantastic feature was an enormous trellis entirely covered with grape vines, from which luscious bunches of grapes hung. On the other side of the garden were the kitchen and bath facilities. I was given two rooms with no furniture except a couch and a television. The floors and walls were covered with enormous rugs. A comfortable bed was made up on the floor for me by the two daughters of the house. Shoes are never worn in the house, but are left at the door.

As is common, the house lacked modern plumbing. I was shown the toilet, a squatter, and the shower room, both very old and made of stone. They were scary.

To settle us in, we were served bread and tea, and Sobirjon showed me the souzani hanging on the walls of the porch, all made by his mother. More souzani made by his grandmother were kept in trunks and taken out and displayed for me. They were beautiful, but in bad repair. In the same corner was a primitive spinning wheel, and Sobirjon explained that his mother was an avid needlewoman, spinning, making embroidery, and sewing on a machine which bore the date 1894. This machine had been obtained by his grandmother, and when his mother was taught to use it, she became the only local woman who could sew by machine and therefore, said Sobirjon, “She had an image.”

Sitting on the lovely porch, I told them about my interest in crochet, and Sobirjon’s mom showed me one souzani with an elaborate crochet border, which she had made. I brought out my book and she was able to read the stitch charts. The fact that crocheted charts had penetrated this far amazed me. In fact, we all got pretty excited. Soon a married daughter came with her husband, along with a friend who was an accomplished knitter, and the friend’s daughter. I showed them Hand/Eye, a beautiful magazine containing several articles about how Central Asian crafts were being modernized by enterprising folk. Sobirjon’s sister was very interested in the business possiblities. We talked and laughed for a couple of hours in Uzbek, English, and German.

Later I was shown how to use the shower room: water is heated in a large boiler fueled by burning wood, then the hot water mixed in a bucket with cold water drawn from a well. You stood near the drain and dipped a large mug in the bucket of water, then poured water over yourself. The room was very toasty because of the boiler and the fire, and lit only from outside, through a door with small windows. It was one of the loveliest bathing experiences I’ve ever had.

The squatter, on the other hand, was not as pleasant, though quite free of odors. Despite observing strict dietary precautions, I was struck with the dreaded runs — perhaps the wedding food from the night before was the culprit. Mom was trailing me, very kind and concerned, but it was up to me to take care of business.

Sobirjon had made extensive plans for the next day. We began with a tour of an ancient ceramic workshop, but after an hour I felt quite ill, and surmised that altitude sickness was the probable cause. We went back to the house, and I slept all day and all night, barely getting up to have a sip of water. Izzat was also struck and slept. Everyone doted on me but I told them not to worry, it would hopefully pass in a day. And that’s what happened, the next morning I was fine.

Next day we visited the town bazaar, a complete madhouse crammed with goods hanging from the rafters. I was the only foreigner at the bazaar, and the moment money came out, women came running from all directions, poking me in the shoulders and back. It was hilarious! Only very definite hand signals, and reiterating “Nyet, nyet, nyet” (no in Russian) made them quit. Then they smiled sweetly and said good bye, in English. I bought a piece of embroidery with crochet along the edge, and some heavily decorated silver slippers, spending a total of $8.

From there Sobirjon showed us a beautiful park, housing a Sufi shrine with an old mosque, trees several centuries old, a natural spring which fed the whole town with water, and, the highlight, according to Sobirjon: an old tree into which you could climb down to the roots. There was a small room down there for prayer. I was in there with Sobirjon and Izzat and said, “Let’s say a prayer together for world peace.” Immediately they both left. Later on I realized it’s because in their culture men and women never pray together.

At 1 pm we said our goodbyes and Izzat and I left for Tajikistan. At the border I was to be met by a Tajik driver who would take me to Penjikent. We arrived early and spent an hour transferring music from Izzat’s computer to mine, a nice way of taking our leave of each other. The border consisted of several layers of barriers on the road. It was too far to see over to the other side, and I had no way of knowing that my Tajik driver was there. I left Izzat with some trepidation, asking him to stay a while to make sure I wasn’t left stranded. Then I dragged my bags to the Uzbek border patrol, filled out some papers, dragged them further to the Tajik border patrol, filled out some more papers, and emerged into a road where a young man came up to me and said, “I think your name is Dora.”

Sobirjon and his mother



Souzani made by the lady of the house

Another beautiful souzani, notice the unfinished bit top right.

Vintage sewing machine

Home made spinning wheel

Still very much in use

Workshop for traditional wedding chests

Local butcher

At the Bazaar



I believe the hat is made in China

Gold and silver embroidery on men’s robes

Bread baking

Watermelon sellers taking refuge from the heat under the truck

The fresh water for Urgut came from this well located in a Sufi shrine

Urgut is in the foothills at the border with Tajikistan

Entrance to the tree

At the teahouse