A journey on the silk road evokes images of camel caravans winding their way between caravanserais and oases in the desert, destined for the great trading cities of Central Asia: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. These three ‘jewels of Central Asia’ remain synonymous with the remote, the romantic and the exotic, firing the imaginations of poets such as J E Flecker, who penned the famous lines of ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’.
A trip to the ‘Stans offers the adventurous an opportunity to see fabled monuments, to lose themselves in rolling steppe and vast desert wastes, enthralling for their very emptiness. Above all else, the desire to experience life on the world’s most famous thoroughfare, albeit these days plied more often by pipelines and HGVs than caravans, draws travellers to these remote desert outpotsts.
Travelling in Central Asia, the crossroads of the world, it is thrilling to think that you are following in the footsteps of some of history’s most famous figures, and thoughts of Marco Polo wandering the streets of Bukhara, or Tamerlane stalking amidst the glorious blue-tiled magnificence of the Registan square are never far away. You can cris-cross the River Oxus like Alexander the Great before you, and you can stand, awestruck, in the shadow of the Kalon minaret on the same spot as Ghengis Khan when he ordered it spared the destruction he wrought upon all else as he swept west.
For some, a trip to this beguiling region is a long-planned dream, but to many the area is a complete mystery. At home few people seem to have even heard of Uzbekistan, and fewer still can point to it on a map. Instead the ‘-istan’ suffix appears indelibly linked with instability and danger in western minds. But at various times in history, these strategically important countries were far better known and decidedly not the backwaters they are often, inaccurately, considered today.
The complex web of overland trade routes that connected China and Europe only gained the epithet ‘Silk Road’ as recently as 1887. But as a slogan and an idea, the term has caught the western imagination and come to symbolise the exoticism of the region. However, the suggestion that the medieval wealth of Central Asia was based on the westward flow of a single trade good along a solitary route is misleading.
Instead, commodities flowed in both directions, including paper, spices, precious stones, and Central Asia’s famous ‘heavenly horses’ that were said to sweat blood. As the meeting place of west and east, it was also a highway for ideas and technology, and has been described as the internet of its day.
Sitting astride this artery of commerce and technology generated incredible wealth for the rulers of Central Asia. Early civilisations in tropical Khorezm, once a centre for viticulture, built incredible mud-brick fortifications, such as Toprak Qala, forming the ‘Ring of Fifty Golden Forts.’ Exploring the area is an eerie experience as changes in climate have meant these mysterious ruins now rise above a flat, treeless landscape, crusted with salt.
Alexander the Great, during his brief but glorious career conquering an empire that stretched to Afghanistan, spent several years subduing the area, taking time out to marry a local girl. You can explore the remains of one of his forts at Nurata, where his troops garrisoned the far edge of his domain.
Terror from the Steppe
The area continued to prosper until the hammer blow of the Mongols struck. The Shah of Khorezm made one of the greatest mistakes of all time. In ordering the execution of Mongol merchants, he unleashed one of the most destructive forces in history upon his people.
The Mongols did not stop until they had flattened the great cities of Central Asia, scorched the earth around, and chased the Shah to an island in the Caspian. En route, they poured molten gold into the eyes and ears of the governor that had carried out the executions, burned the population of Samarkand alive in the mosque, slaughtered hundreds of thousands, deported or enslaved the rest, and diverted the Oxus to obliterate all trace of Konye-Urgench.
In their wake, Timur the Lame, often contracted to Tamerlane, cut another bloody swathe across Central Asia, by some estimates causing the deaths of 5% of the world’s population, and built an empire centred on Samarkand. But where the Mongols had destroyed, Tamerlane and his successors also built a cultural legacy, and he is remembered for his wisdom. His grandson, Ulugh Beg, built a huge observatory and is remembered as one of the greatest astronomers of the age.
Samarkand Rises from the Ashes
Timurid Samarkand features the most awe-striking monuments in Central Asia. The headline site of the Registan, meaning sandy square, is flanked by three enormous medressas, or Islamic universities. Clad in blue tiles and beautifully decorated, the three buildings tower above you, even though their minarets are shorn of their top storey. Groups of Uzbeks pose for team photos to the stunning backdrop, and guards will offer to take you to the top for a small fee.
Nearby lies Tamerlane’s blue-tile-dome-topped mausoleum, last resting place of the conqueror. Although uncelebrated during the Soviet era, the mausoleum is packed at weekends with local pilgrims come to see the newly-resurrected national hero. Legend has it that when Soviet scientists opened the casket and discovered that Timur was indeed lame in both his left arm and leg, they unearthed an inscription that decreed whoever disturbed Timur’s remains would unleash an enemy even more terrible than him. The following day, so the story goes, Hitler invaded.
Uzbek engineers have worked hard to preserve their heritage, although you might notice that not all of the ancient monuments are quite finished yet, as controversial restorations continue apace. A photo gallery in the Ulugh Beg Medressa shows just how ruined some of the Registan medressas once were. In the Bibi-Khanym mosque, lumps of Soviet concrete and supporting twentieth-century ironwork betray the huge efforts to ensure the monument survives to this day. However, these haphazard and tumble-down repairs make Bibi-Khanym more atmospheric than a lot of the other main sights, which may just seem a little too polished and recently finished.
The tombs at Shah-i-Zinda are one of the country’s holiest shrines and pulse with pilgrims. While examining the intricate blue tilework, expect locals to constantly work you into their photos, sometimes less subtly than others: someone may literally walk up to you, plonk a baby in your lap, snap a photo and wander off without troubling to even say hello. But the mixture of the holiday atmosphere, friendly bustle and religious devotion make a visit to these historic tombs one of the highlights of the whole trip.
The Great Game
Although the importance and wealth of the overland route between Europe and the East declined after the discovery of the quicker and easier sea route to the Indies, the great trading oases of Central Asia were household names again in the 1800s as the arena for the ‘Great Game’ or the ‘Tournament of Shadows’ as the Russians called it. In a hundred years of diplomatic shenanigans, Britain and Russia traded influence over the semi-autonomous city-states in their faded glory.
Such phrases suggest a misleadingly romantic time, when British officers in disguise surreptitiously surveyed the region on foot in preparation for a possible British invasion to protect India from the Russian menace. Adding to the legend, officers like Francis Younghusband chivalrously wined and dined their Russian adversaries in their tents when they encountered each other in the lonely passes and mountain ranges on the roof of the world. Dashing captains attempted to outmanoeuvre their Russian counterparts amidst the intrigue of the harems and despotic courts of the local Khans and Emirs. Lieutenant Shakespeare forestalled a Russian invasion by persuading the Khan of Khiva to release all his Russian slaves, and marched them to the border himself.
But tales of derring-do straight out of Boy’s Own distract from the reality of the Great Game, of murky land grabs and grubby border wars. In a century, the gap between the British and Russian empires shrank from 2,000 miles to less than 20, as Russia absorbed the Central Asian steppe it expanded at an average of 55 square miles every day for four centuries, while Britain invaded Afghanistan three times, and even had a pop at Tibet.
Most notoriously, Colonel Stoddart and Captain Connolly, envoys of Queen Victoria, languished for years in the ‘black hole’ of Bukhara before being dragged out and publicly beheaded by the Emir. Also known as the ‘bug pit’, you can still see the dark, door-less dungeon where they were kept amidst the vermin, without light or food, other than what they could beg through a grille in the wall. These days, Bukhara claims to be home to over 900 historical monuments, and it is a pleasure to wander the streets between historic bazaars, mosques and medressas.
After the Russian Revolution, the last Emir of Bukhara fought the Soviet Army until the airforce bombed his citadel. Now rebuilt, you can gaze out from the walls over the old city and toward ancient mausoleums and mosques, although only the Soviets would have stuck an enormous steel water tower directly in front of one of the most beautiful, at Bolo-Hauz.
On the outskirts, the Summer Palace of the last Emir makes a peaceful daytrip. Although it was barely used before the Emir was exiled, take a book and sit in the pleasant grounds while peacocks scratch at your feet. Elsewhere in the city, the enormous Kalon Mosque has room for 10,000 worshippers amidst the whitewashed, columned galleries and peaceful courtyard. Standing at the mihrab and looking back across the courtyard, the domes of the Mir-i-Arab Medressa opposite are perfectly framed in the archways. In the courtyard, the stunning twelfth-century Kalon Minaret, was used to punish criminals by throwing them from the top.
But as the guidebook declares, you don’t go to Bukhara for the food, and the same could be said for all of Uzbekistan. Although the chunk of spinal cord served up at a restaurant in Bukhara was my culinary low point, the national dish, plov, is considered the greasier the better and the risotto-like substance will certainly put hair on your chest. Kebabs and fatty laghman noodle soups serve as the country’s other staples, and my arteries were soon crying, relieved only by the delicious salads served with every meal.
The Soviet Legacy and the New Great Game
Unlike Bukhara, historic Khiva was spared destruction during the Russian Civil War, and was immediately designated a museum city. As so few people are permitted to live in the old town, the place has a ghost-town feel at dusk, although this has ensured the preservation of the historic mud walls and the palace playgrounds of the Khans. Wile away a day in the dusty streets and alleys of the old city, leading between historic mosques, mausoleums, and medressas, and in the evening you will have the place to yourself.
Synonymous with slavery, the Khan of Khiva’s cruelty was infamous: reportedly a woman’s punishment for adultery was to be sown up in a bag of angry cats and thrown from the walls. Despite all this barbarity, the Khan’s taste was exquisite. You can explore the labyrinthine palaces and harems, replete with beautiful reception and throne rooms, decorated floor-to-ceiling in, you’ve guessed it, beautiful blue tiles.
Under the USSR, the Central Asian states were witness to some of mankind’s worst environmental atrocities. The vast empty tracts of the Central Asian steppe were deemed perfect for for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons-testing. In order to grow the cash crops demanded by the central government, the great rivers were dammed and diverted, changing the ecology of the region forever. Locals will tell of their childhoods spent picking cotton in the fields with their classmates. Failure to pick the requisite thirty kilos a day damaged their future prospects in the communist utopia. Without the rivers that formerly fed it, the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, has been poisoned and drained. Former fishing villages and the marooned hulks of fishing fleets have been left rusting in the wasteland, upwards of five hours’ drive from a lakeshore where no fish can survive.
Visiting during the brief wet season in April, we rode camels through a desert blooming with red poppies to Aidarkul Lake, the creation of one such river-diversion scheme. We stayed at a yurt camp, and spent a memorable night in the desert under felt. Fortified with vodka, we slept well despite the cold, having enjoyed some traditional Kazakh songs around the campfire.
Having formerly been part of a superpower, the inhabitants of the ‘Stans awoke one day in 1991 to discover that they suddenly lived in the third world as the USSR disintegrated. However, since the fall of the Soviet Empire, Central Asia has become the venue for the ‘New Great Game’, as Russia, China and the USA compete for influence and access to the largely untapped oil and gas wealth in the area.
As pipelines snake their way across the region, Soviet-era leaders cling to power with an iron grip, playing the modern superpowers off against each other amid poor human rights records, much as their nineteenth-century predecessors did. As history repeats itself, some commentators have dubbed Central Asia the New Middle East, predicting it is soon to eclipse that troubled region and become ‘the world’s biggest powderkeg.’
But as a holiday destination it is fascinating. In an area rich in history, you will see incredible monuments to fallen empires and faded wealth amidst the inhospitable but beautiful landscape. It is unbelievable to think that an area once so remote is now so accessible, and as you walk across the square in Bukhara where Stoddart and Connolly lie in their self-dug graves, that British soldiers once competed and died on such a far-flung foreign field. Sitting with a beer in the cold evening, you may reflect upon the millennia of history, and the reality of Flecker’s verses, scribbled long ago and far away:
“Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.”