Uzbekistan's cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are tantalising stars in a country shaped by centuries of invasion
It was a spectacular, though terrifying, way to go. That final, reluctant climb to the top of the tower, where the convicted criminal was tied into a sack and hurled out into space, to plummet towards the crowd below.
It was a form of justice still practised in the 19th century, and as I fumbled my way to the top of the Kalon Minaret I found it impossible to dispel thoughts of those pitiful souls whose penultimate journey had been up the same steps.
After the final twist, when I emerged at the top into the blinding light, the rooftops of Bukhara lay beneath me. The turquoise tiled domes of the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah glowed in the late afternoon sun – a magnificent sight, though probably not appreciated by the unfortunate fellows who were about to take the fast route back down.
Genghis Khan was impressed. Not by the view from the top, but the tower itself, which he spared as his army set about razing the rest of the town to the ground. The Kalon Minaret has stood for almost nine centuries now, having seen a succession of rulers come and go, and it stands as a fitting symbol of this part of Central Asia, where beauty and brutality seem to have coexisted for centuries.
Like islands in a violent ocean, the Silk Road cities of Central Asia have succumbed to every wave of invasion, from the horseback hordes from Mongolia, to Arabian armies brandishing scimitar and the Koran. More recently, the Russian empire waged a protracted effort to absorb these remote lands, culminating in their division by Stalin into Soviet Republics. Then, in 1991, the new nation of Uzbekistan emerged from its own dark tower into the harsh light of independence.
The character of these lands has as much to do with their nomadic people and the influence of traders from the east and west as invading empires – hence the patchwork of ethnic groups that you still see reflected in the faces of the people across the country.
For the best part of two millennia traders followed the Silk Road – the ancient routes that stretched from the Mediterranean to China – and brought prosperity to the major settlements en route. Three of the great Silk Road cities lie within modern-day Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva have all survived the austere architectural visions of the Soviet Union to take a renewed pride in their past whilst hoping for a return to the fortunes of Silk Road.
Fulfilment of that hope is a long way off. The Uzbekistan economy is struggling to rebuild itself after an enforced reliance on Russia. Foreign investment has been slow to arrive, and bright new hotels and international airports stand almost empty, awaiting the arrival of foreigners with their much-needed dollars.
Recognising that the future of tourism lies in the nation's links with the past, an ambitious programme of restoration has brought ancient monuments back to their former glory. For the seasoned traveller, able to cope with a few frustrations, this is a perfect time to explore these jewels in the desert.
The road from the capital, Tashkent, held no indication of what was to come. A four-hour ride through an uninspiring landscape, punctuated by pointless road blocks, served only to dull the senses, until tree-lined avenues heralded our arrival in one of the world's great ancient cities.
This 'Eden of the East' traces its origins to Roman times, and achieved the admiration, though not the mercy, of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Its most famous son was Tamerlane (or Amir Timur), who built an empire that spanned Central Asia. He made Samarkand his capital in 1370 and brought craftsmen from his conquered lands to build the monuments to his power and beliefs.
A ruthless yet supposedly brilliant leader, his name is still revered, along with his grandson, Ulug Beg, whose intellect is without dispute. More astronomer than military campaigner, Ulug Beg devoted his life to science and the arts, and was eventually murdered by his own son, though not before he initiated the creation of one of the architectural wonders of the world.
By the time I arrived at the Regista,n its form was already familiar to me – the three great buildings that flank the square decorate bank notes, airline tickets and almost every piece of tourist literature in the country. But nothing can prepare you for a vision that ranks alongside the Taj Mahal as a supreme testament to human imagination and achievement.
The minarets, domes and huge façades of three madrassahs – Islamic colleges – are magnificent both in scale and intricacy. Their colours mirror the desert sands and the blues of the Asian sky, but the patterns and pictures in the tilework and carvings reflect the cultural crossroads that Samarkand once was, with echoes of India, China, Arabia and Persia.
The first madrassah was completed under Ulug Beg's instructions in 1420, the two complementary buildings being added two centuries later. Individually they would be worthy of admiration, but together they are humbling.
I stood at the centre of the square marvelling at the buildings around me, as the afternoon sun shone brightly on the magnificent Shir Dor Madrassah. After a time spent just gazing, I walked through the mighty portal to the courtyard within, which was lined with cells where students once scrutinised the Koran, but are now occupied by craft shops selling everything from fur hats to backgammon sets.
For all the majesty of the mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums that Tamerlane and Ulug Beg built, their bodies lie together in one of Samarkand's simpler monuments. Their remains were exhumed in 1941 to test their authenticity – Tamerlane had the wounds to his right arm and leg that earned him his name (which means 'Tamur the lame'), whilst Ulug Beg's severed head lay next to his body – consistent with the story of his son's treachery.
Today the mausoleum of Gur Emir is an attraction for local as well as foreign visitors; when I visited, a large group of multi-coloured, multi-ethnic Uzbekistani women followed us down through the gate to the tombs. They seemed to represent the full cross-section of the nation's past with features distinctly Arabic, Mongol, gypsy, Indian and Persian. They looked at me and giggled, flashing golden teeth, and breezed past like a flock of party-goers.
The women of Uzbekistan wear brightly patterned robes and scarves, even if working in the fields. The men, in contrast, sport more sombre colours, and seem to rely on headgear for their fashion statements. For this is the land of impressive hats, from the simple black skull cap to great, woolly affairs resembling small sheep.
On one occasion, whilst sitting in a courtyard talking to a group of musicians, I turned to stroke the black dog curled up next to me, only for the singer to grab it and place it on his head. Uniformed officials, and the police force in particular, take the whole hat thing to extremes, with ridiculously broad-brimmed affairs. Rank seems to be in direct proportion to diameter, with the most senior officers cowering under hats the size of umbrellas.
The road west from Samarkand was no less dull than the road from Tashkent, but after a couple of hours the land was discernibly drier. Arriving in Bukhara at lunchtime, it seemed as if the population had left town; the wide streets and Soviet-style buildings of the new town were bereft of traffic. But there was life in Bukhara, and I found it in the Old Town, where people shuffled along the shady lanes between ancient buildings, and the atmosphere of the Silk Road was very much alive.
Fabrics, jewellery, carpets and ceramics tempted the handful of visitors to the bazaars. Blacksmiths offered ornate knives, engravers toiled over intricate plates, and weavers in the old silk bazaar operated wooden looms that seemed as old as the walls around them. In the money-changers' bazaar, money changing was the one thing not on offer. Instead, amongst the bric-a-brac, were an odd collection of Soviet memorabilia, including brass medals sporting the tarnished face of Lenin.
Despite the scarcity of customers, the sell was decidedly soft, with polite encouragements and resigned, golden smiles as I moved from stall to stall. The people of Uzbekistan seem to carry their wealth in their mouths, and in the bazaars of Bukhara men and women, young and old, flashed golden teeth, from a couple of crowns to a mouthful of precious metal.
Smiles were often the only form of communication, for English is rarely spoken; even if I had been fluent in Uzbek it wouldn't have been much use as the local tongue was Tajik. I struggled to recall a few words of Russian, which has become the common language in much the same way that English has in India, but invariably settled for gestures, and the hand on heart that signals a respectful greeting. Sometimes it was accompanied by the words spoken across the Muslim world – asalam aleikum – peace be with you.
Englishmen weren't always so certain of a warm welcome in Bukhara. In the early 19th century, Britain and Russia were engaged in a clandestine war of surveillance and intelligence-gathering in Central Asia, as their respective empires to the south and north made ready for confrontation.
During the height of what became known as The Great Game, a series of ill-prepared British spies made their way to the Silk Road towns to assess the Russians' hold on the area. The few who returned told tales of brutal local rulers holding sway over the people through bloodthirsty excesses. Of those who never made it back, the most famous at the time were Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly, whose miserable internment ended in public execution in Bukhara's main square.
I was pleased to find that today's public entertainment was rather more sedate. At the heart of the old town, around the pool of Lyab-i-Hauz, groups of men clustered in the shade of centuries-old mulberry trees sipping tea and playing dominoes. They were seated on raised platforms that looked like large beds, with cushions at the edges and a small table at the centre. "These are the great social places in Bukhara," our guide Zula explained, "Last time I was here I heard them discussing Monica Lewinsky."
West of Bukhara the land descends to an arid plain and the featureless expanse of the Kyzyl Kum Desert. Seen from the air, the desert lies in great ripples of sand, cut through by the meandering Amu Darya river, whose waters bring a slender lifeline to this inhospitable land. This must have been one of the toughest stretches for the traders who once crossed the plains in caravans of Bactrian camels, to the third of Uzbekistan's great Silk Route towns.
Khiva is like a living museum. Whereas history lies in protected pockets in the modern cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is almost unaffected by the modern world. Its very remoteness, some 400km from Bukhara, spared it Soviet modernisation, and to the approaching traveller the town emerges from the desert as if sculpted from it; a sandcastle citadel waiting for the tide to come in. Today the only building work going on is restoration, and behind the walls of the old town the uniform adobe buildings conceal the cool and exotic interiors of palaces, mosques and madrassahs.
I wandered through one open doorway to a beautiful courtyard, whose walls were decorated with blue tiles. In a shady niche, a group of figures sat talking, and beckoned me over. The musicians had finished the show that they had put on some moments earlier but were not averse to a short encore for a wayward visitor. I was beckoned to a mat, and having sat down an impromptu and exuberant performance began.
The sounds were part sufi, part gypsy, a fusion of folk music from eastern Europe, the Middle East and India. One fellow played a kind of accordion, a golden-toothed guy with a big fur hat thumped at a large tambourine, another plucked at a lute-like instrument and a fourth just shuffled his feet, whilst a bejewelled woman sang soaring tunes with a distinctly oriental air.
When the musicians finished, quiet returned to Khiva. There was no traffic to break the spell of wandering through a forgotten century; just voices and footsteps echoing down the warren of narrow streets and courtyards. The unspoilt nature of Khiva is best appreciated from on high – I scrambled, mostly in the dark and on all fours, to the top of the Jummi Minaret, and from there could appreciate the perfections of the old town.
Khiva today is a small settlement, but its modest size belies its historical importance, for its status just a couple of centuries ago was on a par with that of Samarkand and Bukhara. Once a great centre for scientific study, by the 18th century Khiva had descended into a notorious hideout for thieves and a centre for the slave trade, ruled by a ruthless khan.
It was a brave or foolhardy foreigner who approached its walls, and the Russians' first attempt to take Khiva, in 1717, ended in disaster. The 4000-strong army were first welcomed into the city, before being slaughtered to a man. It was an age when public torture and executions reinforced the strict, Islamic law, which continued until Russia finally took Khiva in 1873, heralding a new order.
Russian control of the ancient Silk Road cities has now gone the way of the khans, though the Soviet architectural legacy is hardly comparable. Today, almost a decade since independence, and with the economy in disarray, Uzbekistan is waiting for the prosperity of the modern world to arrive.
Ironically it is the link with the past that offers some hope for an economic revival, in the form of the tourist dollar. The Silk Road cities are compelling attractions, made all the more impressive for their lack of commercialisation. For travellers eager to savour the rich taste of an exotic history, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva remain comparatively undiscovered, if unpolished, gems.