A walk on the silken side

July 04, 2002

TAKE THE D.C. Metro in from New Carrollton from now through Sunday, and if you get off at the Smithsonian stop you'll ride the up escalator into Samarkand. It'll be packed, hot, dusty, bustling -- just like the real thing.

Musicians from Kabul might be playing their urban, courtly ballads, maybe the romantic one of Layla and Majnun. Or, nearby, Almas Almatov might be singing his songs from the windswept Kazakh steppes, songs of lonely horseriders, laments that echo the eerie throat-singing of the Altai Mountains. Or perhaps it'll be the music and dance of Bukharan Jews.

Choose one or all. Watch an Uzbek puppet show, indulge in an Afghan chickpea stew. Check out the yurt.

This year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival is devoted to the Silk Road, the age-old route that linked Europe to the Far East, across the heart of Central Asia. Laid out on the Mall are evocative reworkings of St. Mark's Square in Venice, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Bell Tower in Xian, China, the South Gate of the Todaiji Buddhist Temple in Nara, Japan -- and the Registan, the great plaza of mosques and madrassas in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The Silk Road, you'll soon realize, was many things, and one of them was a fault line that lasted almost right up to the present; it was the border where Marx and Muhammad came up against each other. From Azerbaijan to the outskirts of Mongolia, it traced the southern edge of the Soviet Union; and then it went on into China. An ancient culture rubbed shoulders with a now-defunct 20th century dogma. That was in keeping with the Silk Road's role -- an interchange of goods and people and ways of thinking. That's why the Uzbek clothing designers, with their nomad faces, have names like Tatiana and Irina, and why the folksingers chat with each other in Russian.

But the festival brings within its grasp Japanese paper-makers, as well. And Italian glass-blowers, Indian kite flyers, Tibetan monks. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was instrumental in creating the extravaganza. He was there last weekend, applauding the Japanese designers who had traded toys for people's clothes in Uzbekistan, and then restitched the fabrics into new and striking garments.

Never again will the Silk Road in all its rich variety be so close at hand. Do what you have to -- take the Metro, take your car, take your camel -- but go.

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