Seven Years on the Silk Road

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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.

17 Responses to “The Book”

  1. Michael Eccles said

    Hi, I have just finished reading your book and really enjoyed it. I spent a lot of time in Russia in the 1990s/2000s and was deported on my last visit unexpectedly so reading about your experience of being deported backwards and forwards brought back some memories. Luckily I only had to spend 1 night at Domodedovo airport in Moscow. You made Khiva sound like an amazing place and I would love to visit one day!

    Best wishes,

  2. Fiona said

    Thanks, Chris, for a fantastic book which I discovered totally by accident while browsing online for information on old carpet designs. I ordered it and read it and felt so sad at the end. It’s not often these days that I read something I really can’t put down – your book went everywhere with me for a couple of days. Well done for all your many years of hard work in Khiva, and good luck with the Yaks. I lived in Azerbaijan for a number of years, travelled extensively within the country, got smitten, and I frequently go back. Very best wishes for your future projects, please keep writing about them, Fiona

  3. Patty said

    I have just finished your book and was in tears by the end of it. Such a beautiful country and people, most of who struggle to survive each day and yet welcome complete strangers for a bowl of tea.

    I was in Uzbekistan in September 2009 and wish that your book was available last year. I know exactly where the Pakhlavan Mahmud’s tomb is and am kicking myself why my friends and I never visited your carpet workshop. Our guide didn’t point it out either; perhaps she was one of the guides who you wouldn’t give a “gift” to 😉

    Hats off to you and Madrim, for starting such an enterprise that has given many local Khivans a source of income, pride, and dignity. The world needs more big-hearted people like you.

    Best wishes,

  4. Yvette Lewis said

    Thankyou Chris! your book was given to me for my Birthday buy a discerning friend who remembered my fascination with and love of the Silk Road.
    It was so hard to put down when it REALLY was time to sleep!…and sad to finish the wonderful ride.
    As I reflected on what I’d read, ‘Weaving’ is such a appropriate metaphor for your story. I can use only it to describe the way you combined elements of history with your warm first hand accounts, endearing and amazing characters, alarming and humourous experiences, trials and victories to create a beautifully balanced and finely detailed composition.
    Others are duely credited with helpng you refine the work but you have given them gorgeous material with which to work.
    Even as your writing told eloquently the story of Your seven years, it very clearly displays the Hand that was weaving events in your life to bring about His higher purposes. Designs and skills were redeemed from the shadows of history; but more precious are the lives that were (and are being)redeemed from the chains of the past.
    The Light that shined on the designs of old now illuminates the faces of those called forth to be part of this work of restoration and re-Creation. Images of mourning being turned to dancing and sackcloth being exchanged for joy are woven into the fabric of lives once characterised by devastation and despair.
    Indeed you were amply Qualified for this Work by He Who called you to the alluring but long suffering Silk Road city of Khiva. The ‘deep end’ is more fun! Well done for your faithfulness.
    ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’ is a triumph, a delight and an inspiration.

  5. In awe of your stamina…hope radiates for mankind. Thank You Chris. My journey with my daughter to build the House of Hemp supporting a viable agricultural crop is kind of similar but EASY compared to your work. Just knew to read the book after your article in The Journal for S,W,&D.learning the weaving process for the hemp concepts. May the Love surround you Always. Jane Pasquill

  6. Sally said

    I enjoyed reading the My Travels article in the Guardian on Saturday… and have a request. I write a blog on tomatoes and on Sundays I cook a tomato recipe. I loved the market exchange on the spy and juicy tomatoes – along with the beautiful photo of the women in the bazaar.
    Would it be possible for you to pass on a Uzbekistan tomato recipe for me to try back here in the UK? I am not sure I could honour it with a tashkil but I’d love to do a blog post on it.
    Kind Regards

    • HI Sally,
      thanks for your posting. I’ll be honest with you; I’m not a huge fan of Central Asian cuisine, which tends towards time-consuming and hard work, but without much to show for it at the end. It’s a shame really as Central Asian tomatoes are incredible and I find back in the UK I really can’t buy supermarket tomatoes, even ones on the vine, as they don’t taste of anything. My favourite tomato-based recipe is a Tajik dish called ‘krutob’. Freshly-baked round of flaky-pastry are torn into chunks and placed in a large, flatish wooden bowl. Poured over this are re-constituted yoghurt balls (it tastes nicer than it sounds) which could maybe be substituted with fresh yoghurt, and slow-fried onions. This is topped with a generous amount of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. The blend of hot pastry and onions with the cool yoghurt, tomatoes and cucumber is part of its signature. You can eat it with a spoon or fork, but it’s really best eaten messily with fingers. Let me know how it turns out!
      yours, Chris

      • Sally said

        What a great description – thank you. I will most definitely make this. And intrigued as I am by the idea of being able to make yoghurt into a ball (although a walk down a UK supermarket aisle demonstrates no lack of imagination when it comes to turning yoghurt into a myriad of products…and yet as you say – no tasty tomatoes!)
        I promise to let you know how it turns out!

  7. […] a carpet for today’s tomato dish. Not magic but hand woven silk from Uzbekistan, courtesy of Chris Alexander, author of A Carpet Ride to Khiva , Seven Years on the Silk […]

  8. Sally said

    Hello Chris

    Thank you again for the recipe. Whilst I’m sure it would have been doubly delicious as part of a laden table, I enjoyed making and eating it – and have added reconstituted yoghurt balls as something to keep my eye out for in order to have my first taste !
    Here’s the link to my blog post
    Kind Regards

  9. russo_file said

    Dear Chris

    I bought A Carpet Ride 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. You succeed in revealing Uzbek society through the microcosm of the carpet workshop. A lot of what you describe about the corruption etc is horribly familiar to me, as I lived in Russia in the 1990s. My husband is from Ukraine and I see a similar dynamic at work there, which has been accelerating since the 2010 elections.
    I also found A Carpet Ride a very sensitive and compassionate book, in your 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”) you keep your self firmly in the background. You were so modest I found myself actually wanting more personal detail. I loved your 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.
    I impatiently await your next book and wish you well with your current projects (couldn’t find the yakyakstory website). Incidentally my own publishing journey brought me into contact with Tatiana Wilde. I found her very supportive and helpful.

    Congratulations on writing a classic
    With my very best wishes
    Caroline Walton

    • Thank you for your kind comments Caroline. I’ll definitely order your book, ‘The besieged’. A few years back, during one of my visits back to the UK, I left London by coach to Cambridge in the middle of a snow storm. I was reading a book about the siege of Leningrad. Our bus ground to a halt with all the other traffic in the M1 and we were stuck there overnight. There were plenty of panicked phone calls around me, and my stomach was growling by the following midday when we finally arrived, but the book help put things firmly in perspective!
      As for the Yak Yak website, I was accused of being a Swiss spy by the Tajik government (yes, seriously, and no I’m not Swiss) and told to leave. So the project is no longer running. I try to see it as good material for my next book! I’m now in Kyrgyzstan in a small village called Arslanbob (yep, a village with my name on it) where I hope to start a school for wood-carving as Arslanbob boasts the largest and oldest natural walnut forest in the world.
      yours, Chris

  10. Barbara Schwarz said

    Dear Chris,
    I read the book with great interest especially as I have a textile background. I very much liked the mixture of your personal experience with the detailled descriptions of dyeing, weaving and silk production.
    I would like to know whether the book has already been translated into German. I would be most interested to translate it.
    I also tried to access the Yak Yak wbsite, then read the comment above.
    I wish you better luck with the wood-carving project.
    Greetings, Barbara

    • Dear Barbara,
      thank you for your kind words. No, the book has not been translated into German, although it is coming out in Swedish soon. I will put you in touch with my publishers who can tell you more. As for your other questions about why the Yak Yak website no longer works and what I’m up to now, I should probably write a proper update for my blog. Thanks for the reminder!
      yours, Chris Aslan

  11. Trudie Mundell said

    I’m really enjoying your book ready for a trip to Uzbekistan next September. Textiles are close to my heart and I’ve always been interested in natural dyes and weaving.
    Good luck to your ventures.
    I do hope you will update your web site with your current news.
    best wishes
    Trudie Mundell

  12. Great book! Really enjoyed the first-hand account… so I recommended it on my blog CulturTwined:

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