Silk On The Road

The artist Mandy Romero is taking a large square of silk along the Silk Roads from China to the Bosphorus. Along the way it wraps around her in various ways, and accompanies her as she discovers new places and experiences,and sometimes it escapes to make its own explorations. This is a record of its adventures – and some of Mandy’s.


Ashgabat Excursion



Yuri Niyazov, (no relation to the First President, I assume) is a veteran. He shows me some pictures he’s taken of a dance company but I sense behind them years of news-assignments, promotional jobs and routine capturing of moments. He’s up for the job anyway and on good terms with the driver, Chary. They chat away while we cruise across town to the bazaar. One thing Yuri is a master at is cajoling other people into shots. When he understands that I don’t have to be seen on my own he’s in his element, sweet-talking people of all kinds into joining me in a picture. He’s quick off the mark too, – a couple of clicks, a thumbs-up, and we’re away to the next capture. It’s a laugh a minute and I find myself smiling all the while. I don’t know what the bazaar people made of it all, but I had a great time. At one point a market manager tries to intervene but thanks to Yuri he’s soon on our side escorting us around.

Then we go to Independence Square to nail the shot of First President Niyazov in all his golden gory and then to the Neutrality Arch – something futuristic and very Ashgabat which is a future city if there ever was one. Yuri has a veteran’s eye for a background too. It is one of the strangest places I’ve ever visited. Friends in Almaty looked worried when I said that I wanted to see and be seen in Turkmenistan. It’s known as the most fundamentalist and hard-line of the republics, as well as one of the most supervised, policed and intolerant of difference, but maybe there’s nothing a trans can’t do with charm, a nice piece of silk, and a good photographer. Eventually it’s back to the crazy Hotel for Yuri to hand over a whole folder of shots. These are just two of them. I’ll be reliving my time in the capital city for years to come and showing off a few more in the future.

Yuri SM

Bukhara Photo Gallery

Bird-shot 1 SM

Minaret Shot SM

Birdshot 2 SM

Shavkat Boltaev is a wonderful photographer whose work I discovered in Bukhara on y first day there when I didn’t go into the Art Gallery but wandered into his photo-gallery instead. I fell in love with the photographs instantly. Several photographers have work on display there but most of the pictures are his. If you never get to Central Asia but would like to get a sense of what its life is like here you should see if you can find his photographs (he’s active on Facebook as “Shavkat Boltaev”). They show people getting on with their lives, – gypsies, Jews, families, young brides, parents and children and some are among the finest pictures of old people I’ve seen. I liked the place and I asked to meet the man, because I’d decided already that I wanted him to take a portrait of me. I also wanted to buy some of the prints. His son told me that he would be in the Gallery on Monday morning.

Monday morning, eleven o’clock, and there he is, handsome, in his “Security” jacket, with the prints I’ve asked to be put aside. I like his style. He’s been documenting Bukhara and Central Asian life for thirty years and started with a camera as a boy. He is keeping alive with his work the culture of many Uzbeks who otherwise might be forgotten in the rush to be modern. We talked and I said that I would come back in the afternoon with the Silk.

He was ready for me. His Gallery is at the back of an old 19th century caravanserai (travellers’ hotel) and the courtyard is busy with birds. I remember that one of his great influences is Henri Cartier-Bresson and I’ve seen how he uses birds in his photographs, so… well, who wouldn’t want their photograph taken with a white dove? That one was fun to do, and produced a couple of great shots. We moved outside the courtyard and found the local minaret and pool. I don’t know if I was in a merry mood or not but I made some good faces there, and nothing says “Bukhara” like a minaret. Then back into the courtyard because I’d seen a bike-repair shop there and nothing says “Bukhara” to me personally like bicycles which everybody rides about on all the time, as in a lazy Amsterdam or Copenhagen (I think Shavkat has been there).

We get that shot, sit and have a smoke together and then we go into the office to see on the computer screen what we’ve done. It’s the first time I’ve sat by a photographer while they’re processing the images and it’s fascinating. We agree on the best ones and then Shavkat gives them a bit of a crop, a bit of emphasis, some tidying-up, all through the wonders of Photoshop, and after some concentrated work – voila! ten great images. There’s art in them, but a natural kind of art, and I have now joined the ranks of Shavkat Boltaev’s subjects.  Maybe one day I might be in the Gallery.

With Shavkat SM

His work might be better known than I think, but if it isn’t it should be. When the world knows more about Central Asia it will do it through Shavkat’s lens. And if you’re in Bukhara you must visit the Gallery.

Bukhara Silk Smile SM

On my way back to the Hotel people wanted photographs. One little boy on a bike used my camera to photograph me so I returned the favour.


In Tashkent


Speed is of the essence – Mukhiddin is a busy man, the British Council says, much in demand,  – so when I get in the car after breakfast we already know where we’re going. First stop is a Soviet memorial, on a corner by a busy road. We walk along by a canal to get there and the water’s presence is welcome in a day which will reach 30 degrees by early afternoon. It’s all so bright, but Mukhiddin knows what he’s doing. He even has an assistant who isn’t needed that much and I like that fact that he has chosen the locations and has some idea about what the shots should be.

My only request – apart from the “make me look good” instruction which almost goes without saying – is that I’m photographed with something Soviet which “says” Tashkent. It’s a very Soviet–feeling city, and Mukhiddin’s choice is spot on. We are at the memorial to the 1966 earthquake which levelled much of the city, (it was rebuilt in full Soviet style which is why it feels as it does) and the man-woman-baby statues are immense. There’s crack in the paving and in the memorial stone to suggest the earthquake – at one point I stand astride it. I’m rather moved, – so many Soviet monuments are of the Great Patriotic War and fighting (the one in Almaty was particularly fearsome), but this one felt human. Mukhiddin tells me that he likes it too.

He works quickly. I try to not to betray the fact that the sun is shining straight into my eyes. I’m particularly pleased with my look which has something of the worker-in-the-fields with the headscarf and big strong lips (although the silk doesn’t quite fit that bill). Then we go to another location, not Soviet but strong and very Uzbek. It’s a graffiti painted on the end of a container, next to a restaurant, and nicely shaded. Mukhiddin has brought a traditional head-covering, part of the ensemble which would involve a veil. We’ve talked about this in the car. The veil is one of the most debated clothing items in Uzbek history, and its own history is more complicated than its Islamic associations would suggest – removing it under Soviet instructions was liberating but also an oppressive cultural imposition. Nowadays, says Mukhiddin, women wear it as an expression of traditional culture rather than in religious subjection.


My wearing is more dramatic and the red silk still gets a look-in. Very few people on this Saturday morning pay much attention to us, which is nice considering that Uzbekistan as a country is not famous for its open-minded tolerance. As I always say – look gorgeous or interesting enough and you can get away with anything. And when we stop at a shop after the shoot there’s not much reaction either, except that quiet interest and admiration which most people feel. It pays to look good.


Mukhiddin speeds away to his next engagement.


The Botanical Gardens – Dushanbe

Nargis Silk 2

Bird-song, and drifting music, Chinese in colouration, the sound of running water, greenery all around, scent of old pines hereabouts, red flowers. I’m here to look good, – with Nargis.

I find her on a wedding-photographer web-site (everywhere seems to have one) and her rate was good. This time Facebook was no use but an E-Mail finally got a reply – in Russian. I may have a downer on the Internet at times but here the Translate function did the trick, even if it took a long time to get the meeting agreed (and God bless the Hotel management for finally putting a phone-call through and mediating in Russian).  The end result was my setting off first thing in the morning in a taxi for the Botanical Gardens. It was Nargis’s idea and I went with it because I like gardens, especially in the morning while the air is fresh.

I was hovering at the Gardens’ gate trying not to look too conspicuous when Nargis bounced round the corner, a bit taller and rounder than I had expected, and all the better for that – most re-assuring. She had brought a full suit of traditional male clothes in her back-pack, and wanted to give them to me as a present but I had to say no as my luggage is already bulging with everything from souvenirs to make-up. The silk really needs a good specialist cleaning, but it had had a good dusting down the night before with a brush which I bought at the Bazaar, and the look was, I suppose, Grecian goddess.

Nargis is a wedding photographer, when she’s not working in the Philology Department of the Tajik-Slav University, so her dedication was to make me look cute. We found an old cottage building with the bits and pieces of rural life scattered around the front, including an earthenware pot which I balanced on my shoulder in traditional style, and I was encouraged to try various poses from folk-dance. I’m not sure that cute is my style, but I gave it a good go. The most dramatic shots came from an earth-walled niche in the cottage. And I was delighted when a classic figure found their way into one of the shots – that timeless figure, the woman with the brush. Nothing says Central Asia to me more than that brush wielded gently but firmly by a woman in a headscarf. Altogether we had an hour and used it well, even if I had to miss many of the other delights of the Gardens.

Later in the day Nargis turned up at the Hotel with a pen-stick and I transferred her selection of pictures onto my computer. They have a lovely soft, gracious quality about them, I think. If I ever get married I shall consider calling her.  And she did insist on giving me a hat.

Nargis Silk 1 SM

By The River At Khorog

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ibrohim is no photographer – being a great driver, historian, storyteller, naturalist, and the main man of the Mountains, is enough – but I ask him sweetly if he will take some portrait pictures of me by the river as a reminder of my time in the mountains. He’s a good man, happy to oblige, and quite brave as Khorog is his home-town and being seen walking along the street with an outrageous tranny might compromise his reputation a bit. One incentive is that we will also try using the Go-Pro camera, which he is interested in, as he could make some great video’s of his driving if he decided to buy one.

I do cover up my shoulders in respect to the local sensibilities and we simply walk across the bridge to the Park where some of the young girls are suitably impressed by my look, and I play with the silk in the breeze which lifts it wonderfully. Ibrohim snaps away enthusiastically, and the results do catch something of that high-altitude lightness and brightness of the river valley. If the town isn’t Shangri-la it’s lovely enough to be a film-setting, and I was proud of us both for having done the shoot.


Hommage to Daniel


I am advised that Transgender in public may be a contentious thing in Bishkek so I             make contact with the Beloshapkin Brothers, Vitali and Dimitri. Having traced them down via the internet as running a photo-studio in the vicinity of the Hotel, I finally make contact via Facebook. Can they possibly do a photo-session before I leave Bishkek for Osh? And possibly a few shots in front of some Bishkek landmarks? There may be an ethical issue, they suggest, and opt for a studio session. They’ll pick me up from the hotel at 6.00.

Vitali arrives in a funky two-door 4WD with his friend Regine who will help with translation and, since I ask her – and she is a sophisticated, cute babe, stylish, – with art-direction. Vitali is a veritable hipster, red-bearded, high hair, casually dressed, and does have English. It’s not far to the Studio where I meet Dimitri, the other brother. He’s the cropped, serious, tech-orientated one, who has no English but takes the pictures, while Vitali manages the business, – and so we have a session.

Regine does very well as style-advisor and Dimitri is very much on the case, with a ready eye for a shot, and the challenge I’ve set us is to pay homage to the famous Daniel Lismore picture but with the Silk instead of an embroidered curtain and a photo-studio instead of a museum. We work at getting the Lismore look. It takes a while for me to get into the “emotion” bit but, standing on a chair with Vitali and Regine holding the Silk in various fold-y fetching ways, the outcome is a rather good set of shots, some of them positively iconic. I give them fulsome thanks for joining in my adventure.

On the ride back to the Hotel I discover that Regine is a journalist, and knows the art activists SHTAB and also some gay/drag clubs. She’s anchored for the State TV, but is now working for an independent news web-site. Vitali is also a journalist, with an ecological brief. We talk uranium spills and hydro-electrics and economic shortfalls. I should have met these people on arrival but they’re great contacts for another visit sometime.

They drop me off into the welcoming presence of Gulkan, the hotel duty manager. I show her the pictures. She thinks them wonderful and later takes a picture of me on her phone. One up for tolerance and celebration in Bishkek – it’s always the women! But the local scamps have got wind of my female presence and crowd up to the Hotel door for a look and a laugh. In these apartment-closes much goes on, I’m sure, both naughtier and more innocent. But there’s life here.

Bishkek Soviet

Bishkek Circus SM

Uncle Lenin SM

Having got a taste for the Soviet icons the Silk went in search of them when she arrived in Bishkek the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, and found lots more, including the Circus, and a statue of Uncle Lenin. On the way she took in a war memorial and a big statue of a warrior called Manas, before waiting patiently for a cold drink by the roadside,

Bishkek Memorial SM

Manas SM

Drinks SM