And do you have a horse?
This is not first time we have been to Tashkent. We were there is 1973, in the middle of the night, on a flying visit – quite literally, for our stopover was courtesy of SAS, just for a few hours. We remember walking across the tarmac from the plane to the airport buildings, soldiers with guns at the ready, the old green wooden structures from the 1930s, the false laughter of the Soviet female officials planted in the corridors, the colourful Russian dolls in the airport shop that wouldn’t open for a plane load of would-be buyers, eager to go shopping. Fleeting and negative impressions.
Even spending 2 or 3 days in a city provides one with a superficial and sanitized view which doesn’t include looking much beneath the surface. Nevertheless central Tashkent today is a modern city with wide boulevards, large treed parks, fine fountains and statues, the latest hotels, and interesting historical features, though not on the grandeur of Samarqand. In 2009 it celebrated its 2200 year anniversary, indicating its age and place as one of the major Silk Road caravan crossroads. It has had its ups and downs, destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century and prospering in the 14th century under Timur or Tamerlane, now elevated to national hero status. Today there is a legacy of ugly Soviet style apartments and industrial buildings in parts of the city, but the centre is very attractive.
Central Asia as a whole is part of the Silk Road, from where traders and travellers went to India, China, Turkey, Afghanistan and Persia with their goods. There are places here where you can capture some of the silk story, not in a museum but in a living working traditional factory. We visited one such place the day we drove from Fergana to Tashkent, in the town of Margilon. It is quite a business finding such places recommended in the guide books, when you can’t speak the language, few locals can communicate in English and signage is almost non-existent. However perseverance pays off – a cigarette offered to an elderly man who comes in the car to show the way (he leads us to the museum and not to the factory, but never mind), and then verbal thanks to a young lady from the museum who walks us several blocks there. It was worth the trouble.
I purchased a handmade silk scarf which seemed to entitle us to the free tour – soaking of the silk worm cocoons, unravelling the silk thread from the cocoons, tying up the strands, dyeing and weaving – in fact everything except seeing the live worms, which don’t arrive for another month. It was all done in the traditional manner with no electric power, very similar to the process of fifteen hundred years ago.
On the ancient Silk Road fuel for the camels was a comparatively simple matter – any green fodder would do. For Bilbo and Heehaw, it is not quite so easy. They are diesel fuelled vehicles of which there are very few here. Consequently it is difficult to find diesel to purchase – such an easy matter in China. Twice we have had to resort to buying diesel by unusual means - poured into the fuel tanks from plastic containers from the boot of an old Lada or syphoned from the tanks of a truck – by the truck owner who took pity on these poor foreigners who couldn’t find diesel to buy.
The truckie stumped Martin by asking him several times if he had a ‘horse’. No, Martin didn’t have a horse at home and he certainly wasn’t travelling by horse. But the truckie persisted: did he have a ‘horse’? Eventually when the truckie produced a piece of pipe, Martin realised he was being asked, not a horse, but for a hose. Such are the language hitches on the Silk Road.
I mentioned the grandeur of Samarqand earlier, probably the architectural highlight of the Silk Road and made famous in the poetry of James Elroy Flecker: ‘We travel not for trafficking alone . . . we take the Golden Road to Samarkand.’ Blue domes sparkle in the brilliant sunlight, capping mosques and mausoleums, huge madrassas stand on large open squares decked with dazzling tiles and beautiful blue ornamentation, and more modern statues of Timur and his grandson Ulugbek embellish the city. We took a walking tour with a guide for about four or five hours – well worth the $35US for the four of us, for it meant we were conducted around with no hassles to the major sites and were given as much history as we could possibly retain. Back home we had all researched some of the background but it’s not like reading parts of English or even European history – unfamiliar events, places and people all need to be repeated a number of times before they become familiar. The temperature rose to about 38 degrees by early afternoon, so walking in the shade of tree lined streets was always the option where possible. Very hot, but certainly easier to endure in this dry heat compared with our humid Tauranga summer weather.
Before I close this blog, I must comment on our lodging. In China, in the main, we had lovely hotels of 3 or 4 star rating, at the insistence of China Travel Services. It was great to arrive at clean pleasant accommodation after a long day driving. Here in Central Asia, the hotels are more varied, with more personality and individuality. I described the Sary Tash Guesthouse in the last blog. Since then we have been housed in a city hotel as well as in several small pensions, family run and with at least one member speaking reasonable English. In Bukhara we are in an old madrassa that has been restored and made into a small hotel – I think our attic like bedroom was once a student’s accommodation. It all adds colour and interest to our Silk Road journey.