At Home with Tamburlaine
A meandering trip through the ‘Stans
By: Alistair Scott
It is one of the sad ironies of modern times that certain countries that escaped the shackles of the USSR, and bitterly recall their suffering at the hands of Stalin in particular, have chosen to embrace monsters of history as national heroes. Mongolia has statues, films, and memorials aplenty to Genghis Khan. In Uzbekistan, Tamburlaine – or Timur Lenk – is the national hero, even though his conquests and body count rival those of Genghis. That said, it is hard to deny the lasting impact he had upon Uzbekistan – unlike Mongolia, where the physical legacy of Genghis is minimal, Uzbekistan is scattered with remarkable mosques, madrassas, and communities founded by Timur and his dynasty. For the visitor, it now offers a rich cultural heritage, a distinct ethnic identity and varied, though not always attractive, landscape and remains relatively lightly touched by the tourist hordes.
Although there are land borders with the neighboring ‘Stans – Afghan, Kazakh, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, the choice is yours – the visitor is most likely to arrive in Uzbekistan by air into Tashkent. That this is the most Soviet of Uzbek cities is clear, not least from the size of the airport, previously the Soviet Airforce regional HQ and jumping off point for their failed invasion of Afghanistan.
Tashkent City itself is also dominated by Soviet infrastructure and architecture, the result of a major earthquake in 1966 which flattened all but a small slice of the old town. This provided a literal tabula rasa for the Soviet planners to rebuild the city, which now has wide sweeping road networks and colossal hotels and ministries in its center. That said, Tashkent is a very green city with parks and organized plantings and is well worth a stop-over. The remnants of the old town surround the major market, the Chorsu Bazaar, from which the city feeds itself. The remarkable variety of produce here is a testament to the fertility of much of the countryside and a vigorous entrepreneurial culture, which offers the grazing tourist everything from crunchy pistachios to hunks of horsemeat.
Near the market are a limited number of pre-earthquake buildings, particularly around Hazrat Imam Square (alongside some spanking new constructions which might uncharitably be considered vanity projects), but the true glory of Tashkent resides underground. Along with their monumental surface works, the Soviet planners built Tashkent a remarkable metro system, opened in the 1970s, based on airy stations with wide platforms and different designs at each station – usually centered on historic figures or cultural highpoints, the Kosmonavtlar station honoring the space race being a particularly fine example.
To travel the network costs 1,400 Som (around 10 US cents) and, despite slightly aged rolling stock, it is an excellent way to make one’s way around the city. While doing so, you may notice the scarcity of any seriously over-weight people, apart from the odd stout Babushka – some 20 percent of the population is still ethnically Russian – and a sweetly old-fashioned courtesy towards visitors, who will often be offered a seat and perhaps asked to help with English practice. Until recently, schooling here was in Uzbek and Russian but the younger generation now look to develop their English language skills. I was frequently invited by students in different cities to be interviewed (smart-phone cameras at the ready) on a variety of topics. I fear however that I might ultimately have let down three young ladies from a diplomatic college in Tashkent who, having been challenged by their professor to find an English speaker to interview, separately stopped and questioned me at different times on topics such as global warming, English literature and, I think, finance. One can imagine their disappointment when they reported back to college in triumph, only to find they each had similar footage of the same elderly Brit pontificating confidently away.
The Three Pillars of Uzbekistan
Beyond Tashkent, the main temptations for travelers will be the cities of Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand. All three owe their fame and fortunes to that complex network of trade routes running from east to west now known as the Silk Road, a name conjured up in the 19th Century by a German geologist who, delightfully, turns out to have been the uncle of Baron Von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’ flying ace. This Central Asian area, now rather bypassed by global trade routes, was home to many of the richest and most important empires of the pre-industrial area, and these cities were pivotal to the development of trade and culture in the region.
Of the three, Khiva in the far northwest corner of Uzbekistan is the most distant and tricky to reach. The best option if available is an internal flight to Urgench – rail and road options are slow, jarring, and generally tedious.
Like many of its neighbors, Khiva was sacked by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, having already established itself as a major political and economic hub. However, recovery was fairly swift as the city was integral to the Silk Road. Uncomfortably, apart from the usual trade goods, much of its success rested on a flourishing slave trade; apparently, Russian men commanded the highest prices, reminding us that ‘Slav’ is the origin of the word ‘slave’. Much of the physical structure of Khiva including the city walls dates from the 14th century with another surge of building in the 188h – 19th centuries. The city center is still dominated by mosques and madrasas – the colleges usually attached to a mosque but not confined purely to religious study. Several minarets still stand including the iconic (though relatively modern) Kalta Minar, a turquoise stump which was never finished as the sponsor was beheaded by a passing Turkman in 1855 and the builder fled.
Wandering around Khiva old town is highly atmospheric – the UNESCO seal of approval has been bestowed on the whole area, and access is by ticket to control numbers. The streets and alleyways are usually uncrowded as the few tourist groups tend to cluster in the main squares and key sites, and it is possible to wander safely at night when the lighting picks out textures and details of the architecture and helpfully masks the rather dung-colored walls which predominate. There are plenty of guesthouses and restaurants and shops offering a variety of tourist tat and the odd genuine antiquity.
However, you will seek for a normal shop in vain, which rather cuts to the issue when visiting Khiva. The city, rather like a desiccated Venice, is solely dependent on tourism. There are reports that many families have been “encouraged” to relocate outside the old town to create more space for visitors, and the welcome photogenic quietude after dark reflects the fact that few people now actually live here. While full of fascinating buildings, and with its history close to the surface, Khiva has much to offer, it still feels more like a museum than a living entity.
The route from Khiva to Bukhara follows the valley of the Amu-Darya River, known for centuries as the River Oxus. Sadly what should be a romance-laden trip in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and the like proves to be anything but. The roads vary between passable and execrable, while the train trundles slowly down the Trans-Caspian railway, built in the 1880s and apparently little improved since. Apart from the occasional sightings of the vast muddy river, the scenery consists of red sand desert, flat, scrubby, stony, and inhospitable.
However you travel, you will eventually make it to Bukhara, a city that makes every pothole worth the ride. Made rich by its position on a strategic river crossing, despite being governed by a famously cantankerous set of Emirs, the city is full of secular and religious sites. Of the former, the most notable is the Ark, a huge citadel, again sporting those dung-brown walls, from which the Emirs dominated the region until the Russians arrived. Although much damaged, plenty remains to be seen although this is one of the rare tourist choke-points in Uzbekistan, so patience may be required.
Of the many religious sites, most within walking distance of each other, the Kalyon Minar minaret and the neighboring Kalyon mosque and madrasa possess a wonderful combination of architectural shape plus fantastic decorative detail, as does the Ulug Beg madrasa, built by the grandson of Timur, a renowned scientist. Nearby the Lyabi Hauz square, which sits around a reservoir built around 1620, is a focal point for visitors, with many Uzbek families and newlyweds posing around statues or in front of the graceful mosque gateway. Many restaurants in the area offer the national dish of Plov (think pilaf, so rice with fixings according to taste) while illicit card games are played in the shadows. Bukhara, like Khiva and Samarkand, rewards evening wandering. It seems relatively easy to enter many of the mosques and madrasas after dark, often with modest lighting and completely silent and still, and just enjoy these 15-16th century monuments in peace.
Moving onward to Samarkand, one has the choice of bad roads or a train taking around two hours. Although going via road offers opportunities to head into the nearby hills to visit isolated local villages and see wildlife, these are probably best left to enthusiasts or those who have not yet visited mountain folk anywhere from Eastern Europe to the Himalayas, whose tough lives seem remarkably similar.
It is debatable which of Bukhara and Samarkand has the more remarkable sites to visit, but Samarkand holds the ace, the Registan, which, like the Taj Mahal, is still thrilling even if you have seen a thousand photos. Dating from the 15th to 17th centuries, the madrasas around three sides of the wide square are decorated with tiles, minarets and turquoise domes, gold ceilings, and carved archways. It is a fine place to sit quietly and absorb the view, though as an evident visitor, you may be asked for selfies by visiting student groups on a regular basis. As in Bukhara, if you can get into the buildings after dark before the vendors and guardians have completed their locking-up, you may have these magical places to yourself.
Elsewhere in Samarkand, the Shah-i-Zinda is compelling. Here a row of large mausoleums, dating back to the 14th century, include members of Timur’s family - wives, nieces, his sister, and, surprisingly, his wet-nurse. Each has a distinct character but is richly decorated, again with turquoise and blue roofs and painted plaster and tiles. And then one must visit the tomb of Timur himself, the Gur-i Amir, which is also the resting place of his son and grandson. The ceiling is coated in dazzling gold leaf although the tomb itself is suitably dour, a great slab of dark jade. As was their wont, in 1941 Soviet scientists decided it would be a good idea to open the tomb and discovered that he was tall, powerful, and indeed, lame, as in legend. The timing was deemed inauspicious as the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa on the same day, and the superstitious Georgian, Stalin, ordered the tomb to be restored – the reburial taking place on the day of the Stalingrad counter-attack, a very satisfying development for the credulous.
Samarkand has plenty of other distractions for even the most jaded visitor. For the scientifically minded, the observatory of Ulug Beg contains the remnants of a huge sextant, forty meters in diameter. Although there is not much to see nowadays, the astronomy conducted here was ground-breaking. Ulug Beg’s calculations of the duration of the year more than five hundred years ago were more accurate than those of Copernicus and were only a minute out from present-day calculations. Sadly his son was less than impressed by these achievements and beheaded his father, who was heading to Mecca at the time.
Slightly more prosaically, one can eat well and drink copiously in Samarkand. For a Muslim country, Uzbekistan is relatively relaxed in its observance, partly down to its Soviet recent past. Certainly, vodka remains popular, and wine is made locally. However, a tasting at a local winery set up by Russian exiles over a hundred years did not reveal hidden riches – the wide temperature ranges and harsh climate across the country would provide challenges to the most skilled winemakers, and some of these palate-strippers would suit only the most determined drinker. Fortified wines and by-products like brandy may be better options.
And so, well-lubricated, back to Tashkent by high-speed train. Be warned that ticketing is now highly regulated after local ‘entrepreneurs’ cornered the market and started charging extortionate rates for a seat a few years ago. Once aboard, the service would shame many European operators. You emerge into Tashkent’s Soviet-era station two hours later, having now come full circle, ready to plunge back into the glory of the Tashkent Metro.