“Why do you come here?” asked an inquisitive young man. “There is no beach,” he added in meek and belated patriotic defence.
That was true – Uzbekistan is a landlocked country. “I come here for the people, to see something different, and for your wealth of history,” was my attempt at a reply. Not the most articulate answer that I have ever given but one that was certainly accurate.
Uzbekistan sits at the confluence of the ancient Silk Road, a misnomer that was, in reality, a network of routes that brought silk, paper, the compass and gunpowder to the West and horses, gold and wine to the East. The names Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand resonate with romantic and overused images of camels, caravanserai and cargoes. Aside from commercial trade, it was also the meeting point for thinkers, artisans and ideas. Due to its lucrative location and the ephemeral influences of diverse dynasties, Uzbekistan’s past is rich, its people eclectic.
My journey, as most now do, started in the capital, Tashkent, a city that betrays little of its history, the romance of its past buried beneath the boulevards of Soviet socialism. As I wandered around this modern city of 3 million people – the largest in Central Asia – I found a pervasive sameness to the layout and buildings. The city spreads outwards in a series of squares and streets, seismic activity of the past (1966) a constraint on the height of its buildings, the surrounding space no limit to the sprawl. Although clean it appears soulless, there is no atmosphere, and there is no vibrancy.
No doubt I am being unfair to Tashkent, blinded by what I had read of the region’s exotic history, looking at Uzbekistan purely from the perspective of the past and blind to its present and potential. It is important to appreciate that Uzbekistan, the land of the Uzbeks, remains a very modern creation and is still soul searching, eager to shake off the shackles of the Soviet era.
Perhaps this is why Karimov, the strong man leader of Uzbekistan, has strived to portray Timur as an Uzbek hero, displacing Marx. Timur, a common name meaning iron, ruled over the greatest extent in the world conquered by a single ruler. Wounded in battle he earned the affectation the lame and hence the European corruption Tamerlane. The Uzbeks are more generous in that they have bequeathed him the title Amir (the Great), and in spite of the fact that he was of Turco-Mongol stock, he has been adopted as the father of the people. To learn more of the great man – Timur as opposed to Karimov – I headed to Samarkand, the seat of his ancient capital.
Festooned with epithets, Samarkand’s billing lived up to expectation. Preeminent among its sights is the Registan, which means sandy place, a name that demeans the architectural and decorative treasures on display. Curzon described it “as the noblest public square in the world” and, in essence, three madrassahs form three sides of a square. Their facades are imposing, giant complexes of gateways, domes and minarets. It is not just their size that inspires but the intricacy of the detail, the complexity of the calligraphy and the vibrancy of the colours of the mosaics. My head was repeatedly turning, my camera continually clicking – too much to take in at once.
On entering each madrassah, I was disappointed to discover that the academic and religious study of the student cells had been replaced by the creed of commercialism. Short-lived, my disdain of the gift shops was tempered on seeing old photographs which exposed that a century ago the madrassahs were home markets albeit selling to a more local clientele. The photographs also revealed the state of disrepair of the madrassahs. Whilst the restoration had snuffed out the strange vitality of ruin, I was hugely appreciative to be able to enjoy the glories of the Registan close to its original grandeur.
Samarkand has a wealth of sights spread throughout the city. Gur Emir, literally ‘tomb of the ruler’, is the resting place of Tamerlane, one of the greatest military leaders the world has seen. Humbling as it was to be at his tomb, it was the delicate and refined architecture that was most entrancing, enhanced by the tranquil birdsong in the trees. On the other hand, rent by fissures and cracks cascading through the brickwork and plaster, Bibi Khanum Mosque, Tamerlane’s own attempt to build a mosque without parallel and one of his foremost expressions of power, was a stark reminder how vulnerable these old buildings are to the ravages of time.
In the shadow of Bibi Khanum mosque is the market. Whilst the concrete slabs and counters speak of a more recent Soviet past, the bustle and banter of trade are faithful to centuries-old tradition. As throughout the country, the people were hospitable and inviting. An Uzbek welcome is one of the warmest and most sincere, often resulting in a broad smile of an entire row of gold-capped teeth.
Sweets were cheap and plentiful – is this the reason behind the golden smile? – and so too fresh-baked non, the beloved round flatbread of Uzbekistan. Non plays a part in every meal, which is not insignificant given the Uzbek tradition of enjoying delicious food and unhurried conversation at a friendly table. The Uzbek national cuisine has a centuries-old history and reflects the diversity of the customs and traditions of the people. Popular dishes include Laghman – pulled noodles, manty – a steamed dumpling, both still bearing the same name in China, and shashlik-grilled meat on a stick of Turkic origin. Like its people there is great variety in the food and each meal may span several eras and ethnicities.
Dubbed the most interesting city in the world, Bokhara’s history is murky and mysterious. Named after the Sanskrit word for a monastery, vikhara, the city could not be more inappropriately labelled given its image of iniquity which reached its nadir with the reign of the deranged despot Nasrullah in the nineteenth century. There is little evidence of such cruelty today, the character of the city largely cleaned up through the auspices of restoration which still continues aplenty. The Ark Fortress is the imposing and dark heart of the emirate. Its western facade and entrance is forbidding but now only in size, the torture chambers of the past now replaced by artisans selling their wares to tourists who are much less resourceful and daring than their European predecessors who tried to enter this fabled city as ‘players of the Great Game’ in the nineteenth century.
In spite of such sanitisation, Bokhara does contain some real gems. The originality of Ishmael Samani Mausoleum and its breathtaking brickwork is an architectural treat. So too, the elegant and towering wooden pillars of Bolo Hauz Mosque with its craft and colour. However, the Kalon Ensemble most impressed me. I am in auspicious company for legend has it that the size and sight of the minaret humbled even Genghis Khan some eight hundred years ago. So much so that he specifically instructed that it was to be spared whilst his troops razed the rest of the city to the ground. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the Minaret is the defining symbol of Bokhara. The Kalon Mosque is aptly named: kalon means great. The huge central square surrounded by a collonaded arcade of columns and arches was a peaceful sanctuary and a treasured reflective moment in the late afternoon sun.
Khiva is a spectacular open-air museum, both in the sense that it is home to many treasures and also in that it lacks atmosphere. UNESCO’s decision to make Khiva into a world heritage site led to the eviction of much of the local populace from the old city. It is now too pristine and the romance of the past has gone. Yet in spite of this, I was heartened to see the amount of Uzbeks that had come from around the country to spend time in and enjoy the delights of this ancient desert post.
“There are many more young children here,” I commented as we walked through the dusty streets of the fabled city of Khiva. “No electricity,” my guide quipped with a smile. His reply showed both the sense of humour and also the disarming candour that was such a pleasant surprise during my time in Uzbekistan.
I had hoped that the sights would be impressive and was not disappointed. As in anywhere that I am lucky enough to have travelled to, what makes a destination stand out is its people and your ability to be able to connect with them. Uzbek friendliness and hospitality make certain of this.
Smiles of gold, requests for photographs, impromptu dancing with a wedding party wandering the streets, good-natured nods of welcome, the kindness of strangers, politeness, the right arm raised to left breast in respect and greeting. Uzbekistan is full of warmth and history waiting to be unearthed.