A review of the 1931 classic German film “M”

September 30th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

German cinema in the 1930s gave the world some striking and innovative work and this thriller directed by Austria-born Fritz Lang is one of those classics. It is notable both for the unusual subject matter and the humanistic approach to that subject and for the original use of sound in its storytelling.

Loosely inspired by the criminal case of serial child killer Peter Körten, it portrays the attempts by the local police, the criminal underworld and the general public to apprehend a child molester played by Peter Lorre. The presentation is surprisingly modern in not demonising the killer but instead showing how the murderer is himself the victim of uncontrollable forces and – again in modern style – we are offered an ending which is inconclusive and open to some interpretation.

This film was made shortly after the arrival of sound when cinema was still in a state of transition. So the work looks back to the silent era in the somewhat exaggerated acting style of Lorre and the occasional slapstick behaviour of police characters. But it embraces sound in a limited way so that, outside the actual dialogue, there is little of what is called diegetic sound (that is, sound that emanates from the storyworld of the film). Sound also plays a role in identifying the killer since he frequently whistles a tune from Edvard Grieg’s “Hall Of The Mountain King”.

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How many countries are double landlocked?

September 30th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

A country is “doubly landlocked” or “double-landlocked” when it is surrounded only by landlocked countries (requiring the crossing of at least two national borders to reach a coastline). There are two such countries:

I have just returned from almost two weeks in Uzbekistan but I have never visited Liechtenstein.

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Holiday in Central Asia (27): conclusion

September 29th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

It was always apparent that this trip to Central Asia would be a challenging one.  In the end, we visited four countries and not five (because Turkmenistan would not allow us entry); we made seven flights instead of nine; and we stayed at 16 hotels instead of 18. So, not quite what we expected, but still a very full programme with lots and lots of travelling often on very poor roads.  The weather was fantastic but typical temperatures in the mid 30sC could be quite wearing. 

In a group of only eight, one went down with covid and spent three days in bed, two had such severe diarrhoea that they need medical attention and a drip, and all but three of us – that included me – had bouts of diarrhoea necessitating the use of Imodium. Even without these problems, three of the group had walking difficulties. I was pleased that, even at my advanced age, I was able to manage everything physically. But a problem for me was that at least three voted for Brexit and I had to try hard to avoid political debates. 

In spite of challenges and issues, it was a simply fabulous trip. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were mostly about scenery: canyons, rocks and lakes. Uzbekistan was essentially about architecture: mosques, mihrabs, minbars, minarets, madrassas, monuments and many many more miles. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are poor countries but Uzbekistan is thriving and I was pleased to find it more politically relaxed and more economically advanced on on my previous visit.

We had lots of knowledgeable local guides but most of them spoke too much and too fast and their speech was heavily accented, so that concentrating on the information was hard. The toilet situation in Central Asia is something else. When you can find them, they are probably squatting affairs with no paper and no running water. The highlights of the trip were our visits to Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.  Although I saw each of them 16 years ago, I loved seeing them again.  

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Holiday in Central Asia (26): Tashkent in Uzbekistan

September 28th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Our last day in Central Asia (Day 25) was one of the very busiest of a consistently full itinerary. 

In Nukus, the hotel offered the smallest breakfast selection of the trip.  We left the hotel at 8 am and reached the airport in a mere 10 minutes and then the flight to Tashkent was just over an hour. Back in in the Uzbek capital, the temperature was a comfortable 28C and our local guide was a woman called Sayora. I saw some of Tashkent in 2006. These days, it is very different: a thriving modern city full of new shopping malls, accommodation blocks, cafes & restaurants and bright lights, with a population swollen to 4M. 

Our visits before lunch could not have been more different, First, we went to the Khast

Imom Square to see the oldest Koran in the world: the huge 7th century Osman Koran. I saw this book on my visit in 2006, but the square and its buildings are new and the final new building, an enormous new mosque, is due to open in 2025.

Next we did something that I have not done before: we travelled a short distance on the famed Tashkent metro system which, in terms of grand design, is apparently second only to that of Moscow (where I have never been and do not expect to visit any time soon). The Tashkent metro has 46 stations and there is a security guard at the entrance to each. We admired two of the stations: one named after the Uzbek poet Alisha Noveji with a roof of domes and walls with turquoise panels and one named Cosmonauts and dedicated to the pioneers of space including the first man in space Yuri Gagarin and the first woman in space Valentina Tereshkova.  

At last, it was time for lunch.  Our meagre breakfast was about 7 am and it was now 1.30 pm. At the very large and overly ornate “Sim Sim” restaurant, we enjoyed kebabs. The afternoon involved two museums: one on the official tour and the other an optional extra.

We spent half an hour at the Museum of Applied Art located in the former palace of a 19th century Russian diplomat. The museum contains some beautiful artefacts. Then, having booked into our hotel (we were back at the Lotte City), those who wished to view a second museum – only me and two others did – had a few minutes to find our rooms before walking round to the newly recurated National History Museum. This proved to be more interesting than feared with a final, extensive section on post-independence Uzbekistan, so it was an hour well-spent. 

Back at the hotel, there was barely half an hour before the group was off again for a special farewell evening. It started with a classical concert of just over an hour and a half delivered by a full string orchestra.  I am a lifelong lover of classical music, but I did not recognise any of the four pieces (the last and longest was ‘Stabat Mater’). but I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. Then, we had a late-ish dinner at a restaurant with live music called “Caravan”. So it was about 10.30 pm before we returned to hotel, over 14 hours since we had left the previous hotel in the morning. 

Day 26 was all about travelling home: a four hour flight from Tashkent to Istanbul and then a three hour plus flight from Istanbul to London, again both with Turkish Airlines. I was met at the airport by a car arranged by VJV, so I reached home 16 1/2 hours after leaving the hotel in Tashkent. While I had been away, I had grown a beard and the UK had obtained a new prime minister, a new monarch and a collapsed pound. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (25): Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan

September 26th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

It was our penultimate day (Day 24) in Central Asia and, leaving behind Khiva after three nights, it was back to travelling, back to bumpy roads, back to the endless desert. However, the temperature had suddenly fallen from around 35C to about 25C which was more comfortable. 

Over the last few weeks, we have spent a lot of time in different parts of Uzbekistan, working roughly from east to west, starting in the north-east at the Fergana Valley and finishing now in the north-west in a region called Khorezm which is the delta of the Amu-Darya River. Historically, what the Nile is to Egypt, the Amu-Darya has been to Central Asia.  

For this morning, we reunited with local guide Ana to travel to a part of the Khorezm region called Elliq-Qala (Fifty Fortresses). We visited two of these fortresses quite close to the town of Buston, but otherwise in the middle of the empty desert. 

First was Ayala-Qala which was at its height in the 6th & 7th centuries. It was quite a tough climb to the top and only three members of the group – I was one – bothered to do it.  The second was Toprak-Qala which dates from the 3rd & 4th centuries.  A new set of stone steps made access relatively easy. Before leaving the area, sitting in our coach we had a packed lunch.

After lunch, we drove a further 150 km (over 90 miles) to a place called Nukus which “The Lonely Planet” calls “one of Uzbekistan’s least appealing cities”.  This is the capital of a semi-autonomous part of Uzbekistan which is styled the Republic of Karakalpakstan (the name means ‘black hat’). It has an area of 166,590 sq km – a bit bigger than England & Wales and over one third the total area of Uzbekistan – but a population of only two million. It has a right to leave Uzbekistan at any time, but it is so poor that this would not make any sense. 

Nukus’s only real tourist attraction is the Savitsky Museum, an impressive art gallery founded by the Russian Igor Savitsky (1915-1984) who somehow managed to curate the world’s second largest collection of Soviet avant-garde art (the largest is in St Petersburg). The museum opened in 1968 and the new building was completed in 2017. We spent about an hour and a half here with a museum guide called Muhabbat who knew the collection extremely well but had never heard of Frida Kahlo. 

Dinner was just around the corner of our hotel at a Turkish restaurant called “Sofram” – it was good to ring the changes with two types of pide. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (24): around Khiva in Uzbekistan 

September 25th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

Day 23 found us still staying in Khiva and it was a light day with simply a morning trip to two nearby locations with a local guide called Enessa. 

On the outskirts of Khiva is the Palace of Nurullabay which was built between 1906 and 1912. Like the Summer Palace outside Bukhara, this is a mixture of Eastern and Western or Uzbek and Russian styles. The rooms are largely empty, so one admires the ceramic chimneys, large mirrors and gold-embroidered ceilings. There is a collection of early photographs of the various khans and some of their subjects.  

Further out of town –  north-west towards Urgench –  is a place called Ulli Hovli (Great Court) Fortress. Some three centuries ago, this became home to around 100 Turkmen families who were unhappy living in Turkmenistan and allowed to move to Uzbekistan. In 2014, it was turned into a Turkmen Cultural Centre. Given that our group had been refused entry to Turkmenistan, this was the the best way on this trip to learn something of the Turkmen way of life and the complex includes the breeding of Bactrian camels and Ahalteke horses and access to yurts and crafts.  We had lunch here.  

After free time in the afternoon, we returned to the walled city for dinner at a restaurant called ”Odilbek”. This evening, we were treated to a display of traditional music and dance called ‘lazgi’. There were five men performing string, drum and pipe instruments and three dancers – two brightly dressed women and a young boy – presenting narratives dances. I was prevailed upon to represent the British by joining in one of these dances. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (23): Khiva in Uzbekistan 

September 24th, 2022 by Roger Darlington

We are now in Khiva (Day 22). Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were all caravan cities on the legendary Silk Road, the ancient trading route that led from China through the Middle East and into Europe, and Khiva is the most intact and the most remote of these Silk Road cities.

The place has existed since pre-Biblical times and it was at its most powerful in the 16th & 17th centuries, although the oldest remaining buildings are only 19th century. Since 1967, Khiva’s status as a museum city has ensured that it remains the most homogeneous collection of architecture in the Islamic world. Today it is a city of 80,000, some 3,000 of them located in the legendary inner walled city. Holiday in Central Asia (23): Khiva in Uzbekistan known as Ichan Kala. The walls are 26 feet (8 metres) high and run for over a mile (2.2 km).

In the morning and early afternoon, we had an excellent tour of some of the many sights of the Inchan Kala with a tiny local guide called Ana. It was another really hot day. 

Entering by the South Gate, we started at the Islam Hodja Madrassah (1908) and the Islam Hodja Minaret (1910) named after the Grand Vizier of the time and constructed by a poor architect who was subsequently buried alive. The minaret stands 146 feet (44.8 metres) high, only a little shorter than the Kalon in Bukhara.

Next stop was the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, named after a character who lived from 1247-1325 and – unlikely as it sounds – managed to combine being a wrestler, a poet, and a furrier. This mausoleum was created between 1810-1835 but, during the Soviet era, it was transformed into the Khorezm Museum of Revolutionary History.

We called into workshops for carpet and wood carving before admiring the imposing Kalta Minor Minaret (Short Minaret) which was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to stand at 230 feet (over 70 metres) as the biggest in the Islamic world, but abandoned in the wake of his death while standing at only 85 feet (26 metres). It is still a beautiful sight with bands of different coloured tiles glistening in the sunshine. There was music and action as an outdoor puppet performance entertained the tourists. 

Now we visited the complex known as the Kuhna Ark (Old Fortress). The foundations of the Ark date from the 5th century but most of the structure was added to piecemeal in the 19th century. At the heart of the complex is the Summer Mosque which is also known as the Ak-Sheikh Bobo Mosque. Black elm pillars support a structure of majolica tiles housing the usual mihrab (a niche facing Mecca) and minbar (a pulpit). The other impressive feature of the complex is the Kurinsh Khana (Throne Room) which was built in 1804-1806. Here the khan would grant public audiences. Indeed, as luck would have it, we witnessed a guy dressed up as the khan pontificating to a group of subjects also wearing period costume. 

Next we came to the Sayid Allauddin Mausoleum. This tomb dates from 1310 when Khiva was under the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire and is known as the earliest standing building in Khiva. It was restored in 1825 and is decorated with gorgeous majolica tiles. 

Then we were on to the Juma Mosque of 1788. What makes this particular mosque memorable is the forest of black elm pillars which makes it reminiscent of La Mezquita in Spain’s Cordoba. In total, there are 213 pillars, each 10 feet (3.15 metres) apart, but they are of very varying ages (the four oldest being 10th century). A scene from the movie “Orlando” was filmed here in 1992. Beside the Juma Mosque is the 154 feet (47 metre) Juma Minaret. 

The final visit of the tour was a highlight: the Tosh-Hovli (Stone House) Palace built between 1830-1838 on the orders of Allah Kuli Khan. It is a complex of 163 rooms and three courtyards, consisting of a harem for the four wives and 37 concubines, a reception court (Ishrat Hauli), and a court of law (Arz Hauli).  The complex’s first architect was executed for failing to complete the task in two years. 

We had free time in the afternoon. In a part of that, I returned to the Islam Hodja Madrassah to look around the Museum of Applied Arts. Then dinner was a buffet affair at the hotel. It was a rather mediocre affair, but then we have been spoiled by lots of excellent dinners in splendid restaurants. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (22): the road to Khiva in Uzbekistan 

September 23rd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

If our trip had gone according to plan, we would have driven into Khiva from the border crossing between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan a short distance away, having spent three nights in Turkmenistan. Instead on Day 21, we had to travel to Khiva by road from Bukhara, a distance of  some 450 km (over 300 miles) and the longest road journey of our holiday. 

Now, in 2006, I did this road journey in the opposite direction from Khiva to Bukhara. It was a grim experience. Last time, it took six and a half hours with two very brief stops to relieve ourselves in the open; this time, it took eight and a half hours but with stops at locations with toilets and with an hour or so for lunch. 

What was exactly the same, of course, was the terrain. Most of the journey is through a kind of desert known as Kizil-Kum which translates as ‘red sand’. In fact, in dry conditions, the sand is more brown-coloured and, every few feet, there is a type of tiny tree which looks more like a thin bush.  

Otherwise, nothing: no towns, no villages, no houses, no hills, no rocks, no animals (although lizards and snakes are hiding in the sand) – just a road stretching straight ahead all the way to the horizon and very few other vehicles. This only changed when we crossed the Amu-Darya River (historically known as the Oxus) when suddenly the land becomes greener and people and animals can be seen.

Everything else was different: a much better coach, improved roads (until the river), no checkpoints, and even occasional service stations. Indeed, we were astonished when, about half way to Khiva and literally in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at a service station which had a restaurant called “Zahratun” where we had a very decent lunch. 

Our hotel in Khiva – Asia Khiva – is actually the one where I stayed in 2006. After some time to rest, Timur took us into the Inchan Kala (the walled city) through the Tosh Darvoza (South Gate) just opposite our hotel and up to a viewing platform at the Kuhna Ark to see the sun set – a magical experience. Then we had dinner at a restaurant called “Tapas”, sitting outdoors on a terrace overlooking the Kalta Minor Minaret – more magic. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (21): still Bukhara in Uzbekistan 

September 22nd, 2022 by Roger Darlington

As yesterday, it was a slow day (Day 20) in Bukhara instead of an intensive day in Turkmenistan. 

We started by visiting the workshop of a world renown artist of miniatures. Davlat Toshev has exhibited in the Louvre and hopes to have an exhibition in London sometime soon. His work ranges in price from $50 to £20,000. Next we strolled around the former Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Since independence, almost all of Bukhara’s Jews have emigrated to Israel or the United States, so the remaining synagogue is rarely open but we were fortunate. 

We then drove the short distance to a park on the western side of the city to view the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. This place was discovered in 1934 by the Russian archaeologist Shishkin who found it buried in accumulated sand and earth which had ensured its survival during the Mongol destruction. It was completed in 905, making it over 1,000 years old. Indeed it is arguably the oldest intact structure in Central Asia. It is a 35 foot (10.8 metre) cube made of baked bricks laid out so that the ornamentation is never the same when the light shines on it.

It was time for another bazaar and a large one was walking distance from the mausoleum with an array of colours and odours to enjoy. Next stop was the Chashma Ayub Mausoleum. The name translates as Job’s Well and legend has it that the prophet struck his staff in the ground and found water here. However, there is no evidence that Job ever visited Bukhara and, since he lived in pre-Biblical times and the original construction dates from the the 12th century, this is clearly just a legend. Today the building houses a small museum about water management in Bukhara. 

Lunch was in an amazing place called Akbar House The building was 270 years old and started out as the home of a 19th century Jewish merchant. Today it is a protected structure so that the design and contents have to stay the same. After lunch of traditional but local plov, the hostess displayed suzanis to us.

Since we were supposed to be in Turkmenistan today, our extended programme in Bukhara had run out of steam and we were given the afternoon at leisure. I had no appetite for more mosques and mausoleums, so I remained at out hotel where I wrote and read. 

Diner was at another splendid location: a trendy restaurant called “Andara” where we had pike perch fish on the rooftop terrace. 

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Holiday in Central Asia (20): around Bukhara in Uzbekistan 

September 21st, 2022 by Roger Darlington

At this stage (Day 19), the whole pace of our intensive holiday changed. Instead of crossing into Turkmenistan, we remained in Bukhara for a leisurely day In the area.

First, we drove the short distance out of the city to a place called Sitorai Mohi Hosa. This is popularly known as the Mir’s Summer Palace since it was built by the Russians in 1911 for the last Emir Alim Khan to persuade him to leave the Ark Fortress. There are three main courtyards and these days the buildings are mainly occupied by local art & craft museums. The style of the architecture and furnishings is an odd mix of Russian and Central Asian.

Next we drove further north to the little town of Giyduvon to visit a place called “Farzona” which is a centre for ceramic and weaving crafts set in a large family home that is also a guest house. After the traditional greeting of tea, the owner – 8th generation master Alisher Abdullaev – showed us how the clay is fashioned and the threads are weaved before we had lunch out in the courtyard. 

Back in Bukhara, we were given the opportunity of a hour of free time back in the Old City. I chose to find my way to somewhere I had seen on my 2006 trip which had not been covered this time round: the Bolo-Hauz Mosque of 1718, the emir’s official place of worship. 

The 39-foot (12 metre) high diwan still stands as one of the highest, most graceful, and most beautifully decorated in Central Asia. A distinguishing feature of the mosque is its 20 pillars. In fact, the building is often referred to as the 40 pillar mosque because of the reflecting pool in front of it, but sadly the water is so low and turgid these days that the effect has to be imagined.

Dinner was in the Old City. Again it was in a  restaurant with a wonderful ambience and good food. It was called “Anor” which means pomegranate. Afterwards we had a walk to see the Kalon Minaret beautifully illuminated.  At the foot of the minaret, a rock band was just finishing an open-air concert. 

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