We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
(James Elroy Flecker )
What was I doing in Uzbekistan? It was primarily to see the Silk Road – the Golden Road to Samarkand – a name which had resonated in my imagination from earliest childhood. It was the road taken by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Tamburlaine; the road of travellers and traders, of caravans and caravan serailles. Greeks, Persians, Huns and Mongols – all had blazed their way along this road.
I had met the American writer, Meghan Nuttall Sayres in Iran a couple of years ago, when we were both invited to attend a Children’s Book Festival in Kerman. I had come to the end of a book about Alexander the Great, and she was in the middle of a book set in Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Both of us longed to visit Samarkand, and longed to touch the legendary Silk Route. Immediately, we began to plan an expedition – and finally snatched ten days at the end of this October.
Should we be going? This is the ethical question when considering entering any country with a repressive dictatorship and a bad human rights record. There were endless dark stories of cold-blooded atrocity, and people joked about the possibility of us disappearing into oblivion if not being boiled in oil. But there was nothing new about this part of the world suffering from atrocity. It seemed that no one had passed along that so-called golden road, without perpetrating horrific atrocities and genocide. Shouldn’t it be known as the Bloody Road to Samarkand? Although I was going with my mind laced with romanticism, it was not with naiveté. I knew about the previous British Ambassador, Craig Murray, whose concerns about Uzbekistan had finally led to his being withdrawn, but I had not yet read his book. I decided to wait till my return.
I was surprised at how well-ordered Tashkent was. Whatever damage the Soviets did – and they did a lot - of not just outright bad building, but malicious and disrespectful, the earthquake of 1966 flattened so much, that it gave the Perestroika Soviets a chance to rebuild; to create a “Soviet paradise in the middle of Central Asia.” The image given to the visitor, is of wide boulevards, lined with plane trees, and huge open squares of trees and fountains – designed to protect citizens from the fierce heat of the summer. They’ve been independent since 1991, and have been busily trying to reconstruct some sense of Uzbek identity. Hence the great period of Timur (Tamburlaine) has been the focus of much reconstruction and restoration of the fabulous mosques of that period – C13/14. There are also brand new shining buildings: hotels, banks, official buildings and office blocks, to give the impression of being modern and economically viable. There was nothing in down town Tashkent to indicate that this was a country of dire poverty, or that we were in the midst of one of the most repressive regimes with an appalling human rights record. Our young 26 year old guide – hugely intelligent and knowledgeable, was pro President Karimov, (no surprise) and gave no hint that he was aware of Uzbekistan’s reputation abroad. He was in turns serious, intelligent, passionately nationalistic, with a mischievous humour. We had good conversations and debates throughout our 10 days.
From Tashkent, we took the train to Samarkand – the “Silk Road” shadowing us along side like a familiar. Samarkand was my holy grail. I went braced for disappointment – but perhaps my own imagination compensated for the modern city which had been built around the old. Also with wide boulevards, the wonderful mosques and madrassas had been terrifically reconstructed and restored. It was easy to evoke the days of the caravan serailles – the inns and watering places of travellers – with their markets of food and spices; of glorious silks, carpets and jewellery. But most exciting was when Kamol, our guide took us away from the centre and up to higher ground overlooking the city. Here were the old city walls. It was one of my great experiences to clamber over the vast, ancient, crumbling and, as yet, neglected city walls made of mud, dating back to before Alexander the Great who came, breached and conquered them. Kamol, our guide, pointed out arrow slits which he said had been made by Alexander when he refortified the walls. From here, one had the finest view of Samarkand; perhaps the view which had made Alexander describe Samarkand as a “pearl,” – though he still sacked it. I suppose that’s how all armies got paid in those times. The vantage point was derelict waste ground where, for sure, none of the official parties of tourists would be taken, and where new broad highways were further breaching these ancient walls as if no one valued them.
We stayed in a perfect little guest house called Antica, with its inner courtyard of fruit trees -pomegranates, peaches, grapes and apples. Steps led up and down to rooms and small balconies, and we had to go into a little warren of streets to get breakfast the next morning. In such a gentle, sunny atmosphere, I could have stayed on, rested, and worked for at least a month. Perhaps I’ll do that one day.
We left Samarkand and moved on to Bukhara by train.
But – somehow things didn’t feel entirely right. Where was everyone? Apart from the market traders plying wares for the tourists, where did the locals go? Where WERE the locals? You began to get a sense of the frightful genocide this area has suffered over the millennia – from the |Persian conquests, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur, the Turks, the Czarist Russians and finally the Soviets – and the dreaded Stalin. When you remember that Stalin eliminated 20 million of his own people in the Soviet Union, and that Uzbekistan has its own highly repressive laws, then this strange stillness, silence, unsmiling restraint, starts to make sense. From the train – one saw miles and miles of nothing – and it wasn’t that everything was desert. There were the vast areas of cotton fields (their main product) – but hardly a soul to be seen working there. Out of season? Would we have seen child labour, if not workers in near slave conditions when in season? It was difficult to ask.
The few cars we saw drove in singles with miles between one and the next; minutes would pass before any sign of life and, with land as flat as this, where was the bicycle? It was as though it hadn’t been invented. When I did see it – it was in ones or twos – but a rare rather than a common form of transport; and as for the horse! Remembering that the Uzbeks of the past had been incredible horse-back warriors, where were the horses? Even donkeys weren’t a common sight from the train. No sight – was a common sight – except for the vast emptiness of the landscape.
As we neared the Bukhara region there were now herds of cattle to be glimpsed in the distance, and yes – grazing horses. There were the low, mud or brick villages, but even so, people walked in twos, children played in small groups, the lanes and yards seemed empty. It was all so unlike the bustle of other eastern countries – whether Turkey or India – I found it eerie. There seemed to be no movement – as though no one was going anywhere – and the Uzbeks had been a nomadic people. Now that they could no longer be nomadic, it was as though they had no where to go; didn’t know how to move around a town or a village!
Meghan, who I travelled with, was in her seventh heaven when we reached Bhukara. She is writing a children’s novel set there. It’s true, the heart of old Bukhara is in one piece, which Samarkand is not. It is a glorious combination of mosques, madrassas, the caravan seraille and the citadel – with its amazing sweep of mud brick walls. The colours knock you out. Where the Taj Mahal in India is overwhelmingly white, the colour of Persia and Central Asia is blue; every shade of blue through to green – and the dusty soft pink brown of their brick work – actually as magnificent as any of the tiles. It is far more daring (Islamically speaking) than the more pure (purer) art of Moghul India, or Arabia. There are sometimes figures and animals – over one gateway – two leaping tigers with what must surely be Durga (or Kali) on his back! So here in Uzbekistan – you get the amazing confluence of Turkey, Persia, India and China – and somewhere underneath it all, Uzbek culture itself.
We enjoyed everything; the food, (the famous rice dish called “plov;”) the kindness, the interest in us, and the pride of their arts and crafts, filling the market places for the tourists. Without our guide, Kamol, how would we have learned that this is the cradle of Sufism, or that when a boy is born, the family plants poplars which, by the time he is of marriageable age, will have grown to a sufficient height to be the timbers of the roof of his marriage home, or that bread is so sacred, it must never be thrown out or dropped. I remembered that when Alexander married Roxanne in 233BC (check) they cut a loaf of bread. Was this the origin of cutting the wedding cake?
I would have gone on and on had it been possible. The road is hypnotic; kindling the feet, pulling you ever onwards. But we returned to Tashkent, having contributed somewhat to the Uzbek economy, finding it hard to resist the fabulous carpets, hangings, weavings, embroideries, woodcraft, and jewellery; me trying not to turn my already small cluttered cottage in the Cotswolds into a caravan seraille!
The next two days were spent giving talks and workshops in the Tashkent International School, and I also gave a talk at the British Council to very enthusiastic audiences, greedy for contact with English writers. I found out in Tashkent that the word “kent” means “garden.” I wondered excitedly, whether the name of our English county, Kent came from the same origin – especially as it is known as “the Garden of England.”
My first act on returning home was to buy Craig Murray’s book called “Murder in Tashkent.” Now, I’m ready to take on board his experiences, and see how they help me to make sense of mine.
Somehow they fit in with the history of this silk road country; a road of stories of traders, pilgrims, armies, poets, wanderers, genocidal killers, mystics and saints.