This Silk Road stop-off is a mix of murderous despots, Great Game skulduggery and dubious politics with matchless architecture and effusive hospitality. Will the real Uzbekistan please stand up?
She was so beautiful even the birds fell in love with her.” Akbar paused, his softly spoken words hanging in the early evening air. He reached for the chipped teapot and poured another cup. “They wrapped her in the finest silk to protect such timeless beauty, but when it was unravelled she had vanished into thin air.
“They say her spirit lives on in the suzani [traditional embroidered textiles],” he continued. “You must look deep into the patterns to see her face.” We sat discussing old Uzbek legends in Akbar’s quiet courtyard, where lanterns twinkled under the pomegranate tree and the murmur of Tashkent could be heard beyond the high stone walls.
Like Akbar, I, too, was fascinated by the tales of the Silk Road: the good, the bad and the gruesome. The original overland odyssey, it has long lured travellers. For centuries, caravans of 1,000 camels crossed Central Asia trading everything from gold to gunpowder. Now it was my turn to follow in their hoof-steps.
Concentrating on landlocked Uzbekistan, I’d anticipated the history and stop-in-your-tracks architecture but what I hadn’t expected from this land of bloodthirsty warlords and evil emirs was such a soppy side. Love is all around in Uzbekistan. It’s everywhere you go.
Every town, village and city seemed full of young brides wearing sombre expressions and poufy dresses. They paraded around with their new hubbies and an army of friends, stopping for photos in front of even the most unlikely backdrops. For instance, the imposing Courage Monument in capital Tashkent – a memorial to the 1966 earthquake, a night likened to being ‘on the back of a berserk camel’ – doesn’t exactly scream romance. But there were the couples, doe-eyed and striking a pose.
Another love story was being played out in the quiet village of Botali, deep in the Uzbek countryside. In the back garden of an old farmhouse, Shohruh was busy shifting bales of straw. His new wife, Gulnora, stood on the doorstep, waving to us with one hand and rubbing her baby bump with the other. We were immediately welcomed inside, such is the way of Uzbek hospitality.
In the middle of the cramped and musky living room was a chest filled with the 12 outfits Gulnora wore during their three-day wedding. Sequinned veils, ornate hats and colourful coats were passed around with an open invitation to try them on. I politely declined.
Shohruh stood in the doorway laughing and the couple gazed into each other’s eyes. It was a touching encounter with two childhood sweethearts. Or maybe not. It turned out that this was a union of chance; the result of one misdialled digit. Gulnora had answered the phone one day, to Shohruh’s wrong number. She was about to hang up but Shohruh, liking her voice, kept her talking. They met 27 days later. The rest is history.
Sadly not all the tales in these parts are quite so heart warming. Our journey from Tashkent took us 290km south-west across desert steppes and river valleys to the ancient city of Samarkand, which has welcomed some of history’s most feared figures. Founded in the fifth century BC, it’s one of the oldest cities in the world, a place that has seen immense power and spectacular decline.
Destroyed by both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, the splendour that stands today is largely the handiwork of Timur, the cold-blooded warlord whose 14th-century empire stretched from India to Russia. Timur became known as Timerlane (often Tamerlane in the West) and Timur the Lame after sustaining a limp caused by an arrow wound. He was a violent man with a habit of leaving severed heads in his wake; it’s reckoned more than 17 million people died as a result of his military quests. “The whole world is not large enough for two kings,” he once said.
Timur felt at home in Samarkand. Fresh from a trip to Delhi, he made it his capital in 1370, vowing to create a mosque without parallel. Slaves set to work, while 95 Indian elephants hauled the heavy slabs of marble.
With great pride, Tahir led us to the Registan – meaning ‘sandy place’ in Persian, a nod to the dunes that once rose here. We stood in what must be the grandest public square on earth, flanked by three majestic medressas (Islamic schools) and mosques of turquoise tiles and fl oral mosaics. Pigeons perched on the glazed domes, which looked like giant Christmas baubles. The most impressive medressa was built in 1420 by Timerlane’s intellectual grandson, Ulugbek. The ground floor, once reserved for learned scholars, now houses souvenir stalls selling puppets and silk shawls. Members of the Timurid dynasty, including Timerlane and Ulugbek, were laid to rest in the nearby Gur Emir mausoleum. The air inside was cool; the walls covered in stars, frescoes, holy scriptures and gold leaf. Hushed conversations stopped suddenly as many dropped to their knees in prayer.
Despite his many flaws, Timerlane remains a much-loved figurehead in Uzbekistan; statues of him pop up across the country. Yet he seemed an odd choice for a national hero, I suggested to Tahir. “Well, we needed one,” he replied simply, and slightly defensively. With few other candidates (did nobody think of Ulugbek?), perhaps it’s not so strange. Life under Soviet rule throughout the 20th century created something of an identity crisis for Uzbeks whose language, culture and customs were stamped out by the Russians.
Timerlane’s tomb was opened in June 1941 by a Soviet anthropologist who apparently found an inscription that read: ‘Whoever opens this shall unleash an invader more fearsome than I’. Days later, Hitler invaded Russia.
South-east of the Registan is Samarkand’s Old Town. Tashkent Street was largely empty, barely a soul to be seen along the parade of polished shops. The place didn’t seem very, well, old. “That’s because it was all done up in 2010,” beamed Tahir.
I was baffled. The hardest thing about travelling in Uzbekistan is not coping with the food or the bumpy roads but deciphering reality from what’s been created to give a good impression. This was a prime example.
The side roads leading away from Tashkent Street had been sealed by white walls beyond that, we learned, was the real old town. A small door stood ajar. There was only one thing for it...
We pressed through and into another world of mud houses, narrow alleys and forgotten old synagogues. The smell of freshly baked bread lingered on Khudzhum Street. Boys whizzed by on bicycles and old men in doppi hats sat around flowing fountains. Most people, however, seemed to be at the market, shopping for shiny loaves, sugar-dusted peanuts, dates and boiled eggs stacked high in rusty prams.
Heading west, it was a long day’s drive to Bukhara – a 270km journey that took six days for early travellers on camelback. Flashing past the window were scenes of rural life: parched fields, the odd farmer and donkey, desolate communities in a barren land. Life here looked tough but Tahir wouldn’t hear of it. “Farmers were given free land,” he told us. “Everybody in Uzbekistan has a house and a car, and everybody loves the president.”
Ah, yes, the president. Despite Uzbekistan’s constitution limiting leaders to two terms, Islam Karimov has been in continuous power since 1990, guiding the country through independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He rules with an iron fist, and rumours of rigged elections and torture abound; two dissidents were allegedly boiled alive in 2002.
With miles of open road ahead, it seemed a good time to ask Tahir about the realities of life in Uzbekistan. Our questions were rebuffed as he continued to paint a picture of a place that made Disneyland look like the underworld. Drugs, prostitution, suicide, sex before marriage, homosexuality? “No, not here in Uzbekistan,” he repeated.
The following day, a stiff breeze rushed through the open courtyards and cosy carpet shops of Bukhara. Market vendors wrapped up under fur-trimmed hats. Stocky women wandered past wearing colourful quilt-like dressing gowns. Some of them smiled, revealing full sets of gold teeth, a bit like 007 villain Jaws. Others had thick, bushy monobrows – a sign of exceptional beauty in Uzbekistan; those not naturally blessed with one continuous eyebrow are known to create the look by filling in the gap with make-up.
The wind also whipped around the tall Kalon minaret. At 47m, it was probably the tallest building in Central Asia upon completion in 1127. Even Genghis Khan, whose horse trampled children when he arrived in 1220, was impressed. He declared it the only building to be spared.
Thieves and criminals were once thrown to their deaths from the minaret’s top – one woman survived by using her skirt as a parachute. People would gather to watch this justice-in-action, but there were no signs of any crowds today. We strolled around the deserted complex of aqua domes and sand-coloured archways, sharing it with a lone lady sat under a mulberry tree.
The cosy Silk Road Teahouse proved to be the perfect retreat from the November chill. Beyond its heavy wooden doors was an interior heady with the smell of ginger and cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. I clutched a cup of saffron tea tightly as the wind howled outside.
Warmed up, we journeyed to the ruins of Bukhara’s oldest building, the Ark. A royal residence from the fifth century, the fortress rose formidably, its tall turrets and bastions looming like giant sandcastles. It was here, in 1842, that two British army officers met a grizzly end. Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were two unlucky players in the ‘Great Game’ of espionage between Russia and Britain. And they didn’t experience quite the same Uzbek hospitality that I’d encountered.
Stoddart had come here to seek the allegiance of Emir Nasrullah Khan, but had the audacity to remain on horseback rather than approaching on foot; worse, he arrived empty handed, bearing no gifts nor letter from Queen Victoria. This displeased the Emir, and Stoddart was imprisoned. Conolly arrived later, tasked with negotiating Stoddart’s release, but found himself thrown into a vermin-infested bug pit too. Eventually the pair were hauled out and watched their own graves being dug before their heads were cut off with a knife.
Locals are rather more receptive to visitors these days. Dinner that evening was a home cooked feast in an 18th-century house tucked down one of Bukhara’s darkened backstreets. Mr Raham was our host. On the menu: plov – fatty mutton with rice and veg, made to an old family recipe from the 1600s. It was hearty fare, designed for surviving the Uzbek winter.
The vodka arrived before the food did, and with it a saucer of small gherkins. Mr Raham must’ve been all out of tequila and lemons. At his intense insistence, we toasted each other, our health and Uzbekistan before knocking back the shots and taking bites of the pickles.
Mr Raham was born in Bukhara but enjoyed a short stint studying in Moscow, he told us. Home soon beckoned however. “My parents made me return. They were worried I would settle down with a Russian girl and never come back,” he said, between more shots.
“Independence changed Uzbekistan in so many ways. It gave us an identity. In the old days, the medressas were used for storage. They were filled with buses and cars. I always knew this country was special. He who has no history has no future,” added Mr Raham.
The vodka continued to flow, the tiny shot glasses chinking with alarming regularity. Voices started to slur and my head started to spin. I could barely focus on the shelves, which heaved with camel adorned plates, models of minarets and shiny copper tins.
Five bottles later, it was time to call it a night. I stumbled up and swayed towards the door but something caught my eye in the corner of the room. Hanging on the wall was a red suzani rug, embroidered with the most wonderful and intricate patterns. I studied it, hoping a face of timeless beauty would reveal itself but there was not a bushy monobrow to be seen.