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As if to confirm Green warnings about the consequences of fiddling with the ‘natural environment’, as we approached Samarkand we ran into a dust storm that had enveloped the entire city.


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Approaching Samarkand the dust storm enveloped us


We were concerned that choking dust and poor visibility it might ruin our visit but within an hour or two it abated. Soon people were out with hoses, no doubt at the expense of the Aral residents downstream, washing down the pavements with water drawn from the Zeravshan (Sughd) River that reluctantly provides water to Bukhara then peters out in the desert before it reaches the the Amu Darya, of which it was formerly a tributary.

Samarkand is a particularly famous stop on the Silk Road.  Like Khujand, Samarkand is near the foothills of the mountains, about 200 km along the Silk Road to the north east. As with most other cities on this trip, Samarkand is predominantly a 21st century city, dotted here and there with remnants from the past and, as in London or Paris, many of these ancient buildings have undergone substantial renovation so that they represent the past rather than typifying it.

Samarkand is the burial place of Amir Timur or Tamerlane the Turco-Mongol conqueror.  There is a big somewhat imaginative statue of him in the main boulevard.  And our first visit, after the dust cleared, was to his mausoleum that has recently been renovated, resplendent in gold tiles.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

The Gur-e-Amir
The mausoleum of the conqueror Amir Timur as it appeared 2018 and in 1890


Second on the agenda was the imposing Registan Square with grand madrasahs (Islamic colleges) on three sides. As we will see later, in the early 19th century Samarkand was in decline so these madrasahs were the principal support for the economy. Students paid to occupy the dormitory cells surrounding the central courtyards.  According to Sir Alexander Burnes in the 1830's these were called 'hoojrus' - I can't find any other reference to confirm this.   The first and most famous of these schools is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, built by Ulugh Beg in 1420, during the time of Timur.  Abdul-Rahman Jami, the Persian poet, scholar, mystic, scientist and philosopher studied and taught here.  One of its minarets has a slight inward lean, due to overzealous correction of an earlier outward lean that threatened its collapse.

Two hundred years later Sher-Dor Madrasah was built opposite, mirroring the external features of its famous companion. The ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur famously flouted the Islamic law against depiction of living beings on religious buildings. He demanded or approved the two tiger mosaics with a rising sun on their back that are all the worse for being ancient Persian religious motifs. Interestingly by the 19th century all these mosaics were in ruins and have since been restored.  So the desire for historical accuracy, presumably Russian, has outweighed religious sensitivity in this case.

The third, Tilya-Kori Madrasah was built ten years later as both a residential college for students and as a new grand mosque. They are all quite secular these days with the dormitory cells taken over by craft and tourist shops.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

Ulugh Beg Madrasah; Sher-Dor Madrasah
Tilya-Kori Madrasah (external and internal)
Tilya-Kori Madrasah & Grand Mosque 1890


In due course Samarkand came under Russian control.  See the history that follows. And although it was not on our tour schedule for a change of religious perspective we dropped in on the Russian Orthodox church near to our hotel.   It is rather beautiful in a different way to the Islamic monoliths of the town.  One can immediately see why Muslims, incorrectly, believe Christianity to be idolatrous.  There's a very subtle difference between praying to a painted or embossed image, or worse a statue, and praying with it, as an aid to reaching the ineffable.  I'm not sure that even some educated Catholics I've met understand this subtlety.  How many angels can one fit on the head of a pin? 


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Cathedral of St. Alexis of Moscow to Samarkand


In addition to Timur's Mausoleum Samarkand is blessed as the last resting place of an army of Muslim notables. Like Westminster Abbey and the Mount of Olives there will be flocks of souls ascending from here when the final judgement or end of days finally arrives.

Shakhi Zinda is a complex of 11 mausoleums on either side of a narrow street, in addition to many other graves and sarcophagi. Shakhi Zinda means 'The Living King' in Persian, because the mausoleum, at the far end is said to be the grave of Prophet Muhammad's cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas who came to preach in Samarkand and was beheaded by Zoroastrians during his prayer.


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Shakhi Zinda Necropolis reached by 40 steps
The inscription on the main entrance reads:
'This magnificent building was created by Abdulazizhanom-son Ulugbek-Guragana,
son of Shah Rukh, son of Amir Timur-Guragana in 838 year' ( c.1434 CE)
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...

This remains a place of Muslim pilgrimage in Central Asia, second only to Mecca.  I was in the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas taking photos when a group of men started to assemble and shortly a Sufi (I presume) started to chant and they responded. I was trapped on the far side and decided to make a quick exit through the middle of the small congregation. I was like a Jew suddenly finding himself at the centre of a high mass.

For believers waters taken here possess undeniable healing powers, as do waters at many other such places sacred to other religions.

For my part I was more intrigued by the sin revealing stairs.  If one's count going down is the same as that coming up one is free from sin.  The reason it's difficult is that coming up one marches, one step per stair.  But going down its almost impossible not to go forward on the same foot occasionally - an extra step per stair.  So one does have to concentrate not to over-count - the main flight has 36 steps, not 39 Mr Hannay!

The number is significant. In total, including the four steps in the covered entrance, there are 40, which represent the path to repentance and prayer.  At one time pilgrims would pray for 40 days before ascending, pausing on each step to recite a verse from the Qur'an and to contemplate God. 

At an early service, held by a Sufi spiritual leader, Kusam ibn Abbas himself appeared riding a white horse - as dead saints are wont to do - most familiar to Roman Catholics in the form of the Marian apparitions (at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe etc).  He spoke to the Sufi and this was witnessed by the congregation, before he rode off and mysteriously evaporated.  Hence Shakhi Zinda - The Living King.

On a more secular theme, on his visit here in 1832 Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the first Europeans to visit and successfully return from here, was told that this is where paper was invented. While that's not exactly true, a fragment of a paper map has been found in China dated from 189 BCE, Samarkand was the Islamic centre for paper making in the 8th century.  So it was from Samarkand that paper making spread to the west.

In Europe papyrus, the Egyptian writing material from which the name 'paper' comes had been available since ancient times.  But when all books were hand copied a book was a huge investment in time and money. Papyrus is fragile, can't be bound with any lasting success and the scrolls must be stored carefully. Bookmakers needed instead vellum (veal skin) or parchment, the skin of various animals - split and prepared for writing.  Paper has many advantages over parchment. The raw materials are plentiful and because its a mixture of various fibres and gums it can be given a variety of properties like insect resistance or translucency.  It can be made in various thicknesses and strengths and sheets can be made uniform without unwanted blemishes. It can also be manufactured in a range of grades from very inexpensive to very fine and long lasting. Books made of paper are both lighter and less bulky than those of parchment and above all paper can be printed.  Once it was mass produced paper became a tiny fraction of the cost of vellum which was soon used only as a binding material. In China cheap paper had long been used as a wrapping and in the toilet.

In Samarkand, as in China, the bark of the mulberry tree was blended with other fibres like hemp, linen and/or fabric scraps (sometimes silk) to make the pulp. According to Wikipedia, the use of water-powered hammer mills, for pounding the bark, was perfected here.  Today, to reflect thirteen hundred years of paper making, a range of locally made mulberry paper products is still sold to tourists. 

The mulberry tree is also very useful for drawing water from the water table helping to stem its rise and the consequent rising salinity that is a serious problem here.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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USA - middle bits






In September and October 2017 Wendy and I took another trip to the United States where we wanted to see some of the 'middle bits'.  Travel notes from earlier visits to the East coast and West Coast can also be found on this website.

For over six weeks we travelled through a dozen states and stayed for a night or more in 20 different cities, towns or locations. This involved six domestic flights for the longer legs; five car hires and many thousands of miles of driving on America's excellent National Highways and in between on many not so excellent local roads and streets.

We had decided to start in Chicago and 'head on down south' to New Orleans via: Tennessee; Georgia; Louisiana; and South Carolina. From there we would head west to: Texas; New Mexico; Arizona; Utah and Nevada; then to Los Angeles and home.  That's only a dozen states - so there are still lots of 'middle bits' left to be seen.

During the trip, disaster, in the form of three hurricanes and a mass shooting, seemed to precede us by a couple of days.

The United States is a fascinating country that has so much history, culture and language in common with us that it's extremely accessible. So these notes have turned out to be long and could easily have been much longer.

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Fiction, Recollections & News

The Book of Mormon





Back in the mid 1960's when I was at university and still living at home with my parents in Thornleigh, two dark suited, white shirted, dark tied, earnest young men, fresh from the United States, appeared at our door.

Having discovered that they weren't from IBM my mother was all for shooing them away.  But I was taking an interest in philosophy and psychology and here were two interesting examples of religious fervour.

As I often have with similar missionaries (see: Daniel, the Jehovah’s Witness in Easter on this Website), I invited them in and they were very pleased to tell me about their book.  I remember them poised on the front of our couch, not daring or willing to sit back in comfort, as they eagerly told me about their revelation.  

And so it came to pass that a week ago when we travelled to Melbourne to stay with my step-son Lachlan and his family and to see the musical: The Book of Mormon I was immediately taken back to 1964.

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Opinions and Philosophy

Climate Emergency




/uh'merrjuhnsee, ee-/.
noun, plural emergencies.
1. an unforeseen occurrence; a sudden and urgent occasion for action.



Recent calls for action on climate change have taken to declaring that we are facing a 'Climate Emergency'.

This concerns me on a couple of levels.

The first seems obvious. There's nothing unforseen or sudden about our present predicament. 

My second concern is that 'emergency' implies something short lived.  It gives the impression that by 'fire fighting against carbon dioxide' or revolutionary action against governments, or commuters, activists can resolve the climate crisis and go back to 'normal' - whatever that is. Would it not be better to press for considered, incremental changes that might avoid the catastrophic collapse of civilisation and our collective 'human project' or at least give it a few more years sometime in the future?

Back in 1990, concluding my paper: Issues Arising from the Greenhouse Hypothesis I wrote:

We need to focus on the possible.

An appropriate response is to ensure that resource and transport efficiency is optimised and energy waste is reduced. Another is to explore less polluting energy sources. This needs to be explored more critically. Each so-called green power option should be carefully analysed for whole of life energy and greenhouse gas production, against the benchmark of present technology, before going beyond the demonstration or experimental stage.

Much more important are the cultural and technological changes needed to minimise World overpopulation. We desperately need to remove the socio-economic drivers to larger families, young motherhood and excessive personal consumption (from resource inefficiencies to long journeys to work).

Climate change may be inevitable. We should be working to climate “harden” the production of food, ensure that public infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, hospitals, utilities and so) on are designed to accommodate change and that the places people live are not excessively vulnerable to drought, flood or storm. [I didn't mention fire]

Only by solving these problems will we have any hope of finding solutions to the other pressures human expansion is imposing on the planet. It is time to start looking for creative answers for NSW and Australia  now.



Since my retirement Wendy and I have done quite a bit of travel, often these days to less 'touristy' places, although that's just a matter of degree. After all we're tourists and we were there.  On occasion we've revisited old haunts after a decade or so absence. 

Everywhere we go there is one thing in common with our home in Australia:  there are a lot more people than there were a decade or so back. Everywhere we go there is evidence of resource depletion, particularly water resources, and environmental degradation. Everywhere we go new dwellings have spread like a cancer across once green fields.and forests. Concrete forests now stand where humble dwellings or open fields once were.

It's no good blaming our parents, the underlying causes of the many environmental challenges we face go back the start of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution when no longer were the great masses of humanity the children of farm labourers, serfs, slaves or servants serving a small cultured elite.

With industry came systematic applied science, engineering, and improved medical understanding. Now workers needed new skills and had to be educated. With education came many benefits, including independent volition, and improved living conditions.  Death rates declined; fertility improved.  By the end of the 19th century world population had more than doubled its pre-industrial record, reaching 1.6 billion.  But then it really took off.

By the mid 20th century many informed commentators were getting alarmed and calling for population restraint.

In 1968 the world human population had topped 3.5 billion, over a billion since the end of World War 2.

That year Professor Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, published The Population Bomb correctly warning that: 'hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.'   Critics claimed that he was alarmist, yet very soon 260 of every thousand babies born in Zambia were dying due to malnutrition before their first birthday. In Pakistan the number was 140 per thousand (source: The Limits to Growth). 

In the same year concerned scientists in Europe formed The Club of Rome.  Three years later the Club published 'The Limits to Growth', the results of a state-of-the-art, yet primitive, multi-factorial computer model that projected the impacts on food consumption/production; pollution and the cost of reduction; energy resources; and non-renewable industrial minerals, of unrestrained exponential population growth. The model forecast multiple disastrous consequences early in the 21st century. The authors feared no less than anarchy, driven by food and resource riots, and the total collapse of civilisation.  The final sentence reads: 'The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether the human species can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.'



My copy of The Limits to Growth


Only a few paid any heed. Several of these were later described as the 'Asian Tigers'.


Singapore's Stop at Two policy
From 1972 Singaporeans were encouraged to have two child families
- incentives included payment for sterilisation and public housing for married couples without children
- disincentives included precluding couples with more than two children from applying for public benefits
The result was a decline in fertility from 4.7 in 1960 to 1.7 in 1980
Although the campaign stressed the need for girls, as in China, cultural factors resulted in a preponderance of boys
- an ongoing social and economic problem
Nevertheless, Singapore has gone from a struggling third-world country to become the fourth richest country in the world (
On the other hand, since independence in 1947 India's population has grown sixfold
- India will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country - visit and compare 


Critics of The Club of Rome, like Herman Kahn, of the Hudson Institute, cried: 'garbage in gospel out', a popular objection to computer modelling at the time, and lo, the Club's projections were soon proven to be overly pessimistic. In the 1970's science came to the aid of mankind. New crops were developed and there was a 'green revolution'; new processes and products improved efficiency and new mining technologies, like remote sensing from aircraft and satellites, together with new extractive methods, like deep-sea oilwells and 'fracking', redefined resource availability. In first world countries rivers and air was cleaned up and pollution ceased to be our number one concern.



The Hudson Institute's Herman Kahn's riposte - one of many
The Hudson Institute was later employed by the NSW Government to help plan the State's future
- no mention of global warning


Everyone breathed a sigh of relief - we didn't have to do anything.  The religious among us were right: God, or the Gods, had it all in hand - it was all part of 'The Plan'. It was business as usual.

Yet today, the Club of Rome's foremost prediction: that unless we did something, by 2020 world population would reach eight billion has proven alarmingly prescient. And Paul Ehrlich's predictions are also vindicated.

In 2013 a Global Hunger Summit in London(2) was told that: 'Malnutrition is the underlying cause of death for at least 3.1 million children [per year], accounting for 45% of all deaths among children under the age of five and stunting growth among a further 165 million [children].'

Although they factored in 'pollution' as a general concern, the research team behind The Limits to Growth said, or knew, nothing about the specific threat of carbon dioxide. Was this an oversight?

With our new skills scientists now have ice-cores, containing entrapped air bubbles, that go back half a million years.  These show a close correlation between global temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  The highest level ever was around 300 thousand years ago, when it was much warmer and carbon dioxide reached 300 parts per million.

Because of man's multifarious activities, including agriculture, the atmosphere broke that half million year record in the 1950's and we have been in uncharted territory ever since. While correlation does not necessarily denote causation, and it's still not as warm as it was back then, I find it rather alarming. Read my paper: Climate Change - a Myth?

It seems highly probable that climate change is at least in part due to the current mouse-plague that we call humanity: clearing forests; digging up the ground; building things; making stuff soon to go to garbage tips; consuming resources without concern for the future and, of course, burning things.

How long can this go on?  I hope there will be a deus ex machina, that some, as yet unknown, aspect of quantum science, genetic engineering and/or nuclear energy will save us.  Failing that, I hope that current civilisation will outlast my grandchildren and perhaps theirs?  One glimmer of hope is the declining fertility in first-world countries as more women have careers beyond motherhood and living standards improve. Yet as I pointed out in 1990 this would consume far more energy than the third world has to hand. Is it now a case of too little too late?

I won't be around to know.

As the The Club of Rome pointed out, and should be obvious to 'Blind Freddy', the indefinite exponential growth, that our economies are addicted to, is unsustainable. 'Soon or later,' as Alice remarked about drinking from a bottle marked 'poison': 'it's bound to disagree with you'.



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