Bazaars and Bumpy Boulevards
Tashkent, Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva – the main Uzbekistan centres of the ancient Silk Road. The senses are bombarded with so many new experiences, images, sounds and impressions that one has to struggle to keep the cities separate in the mind. Tashkent – where the 7th century Quran resides in the Khast Imom and Tamerlane’s grand statue reminds one that he is now ‘the new good guy’ of Central Asian history. Samarqand – city of blue domes above madrassas, mausoleums and mosques, built up by the conqueror Tamerlane and his philosopher grandson, Ulughbeg.
Bukhara – the restored old city, with its lovely madrassas, caravanserai and domed bazaars is easy for tourists like us to walk around in a day’s site seeing with a guide, but we think it is just a bit too pristine and immaculate in its rebuilding. However it is still very interesting to hear the history of Bukhara’s heyday in both the 9-10th centuries and the 16th century, interrupted by the widespread destruction of Genghis Khan who nevertheless was so impressed by the Kalon Minaret that he ordered it to be spared the sacking of the city. It is indeed an incredible piece of workmanship at 47 metres in height, surviving wars and earthquakes for nearly 900 years.
Genghis Khan did benefit the Silk Road trade in that subsequent to his campaigns, there was a period of nearly 200 years when the Mongol Pax reigned and people like Marco Polo were able to explore beyond Europe.
Our accommodation in the old city was a restored small madrassa, dating back to 1861, very conveniently situated for visiting the sights. One night the lady of the house cooked us plov in the central courtyard on a wood fired belly stove. It is a traditional Central Asian rice dish with added vegetables, spices and meat, and varies according to the district. You need to order it well in advance, for it takes about two hours to cook. We enjoyed the plov in the company of a young Finnish couple and their baby, also staying in the madrassa. They live and work in Moscow and have the added advantage of speaking Russian well (also English) as it is widely spoken in Uzbekistan. I am glad to say we enjoyed the plov, for we agreed somewhat hesitantly to share in the meal - we had eaten the Kyrgyzstan version some days before and had found it rather fatty and not too our liking. ‘Amulet’ (our hotel) plov was delicious.
Old Khiva, the 4th major Silk Road city in Uzbekistan, is completely ringed around by mud walls mainly from the 17th century, and within are palaces, mosques and caravanserai. Its 19th century history centres on the rather barbaric local khans and Russian and English spies and speculators who played ‘the Great Game’ (google for more info) if they were lucky enough to survive the khan’s executioner for long enough.
We haven’t bought much on our travels in the way of mementos as we have little extra room in the vehicle. However the other deterrent in the bazaars is the way shopping is done. If you don’t want to buy anything, you have to look straight ahead, avoid the seller’s eyes, run the gauntlet and march doggedly past. Glance at the post cards, or handle a scarf or show any sort of interest in the needle work, and the seller is eagerly at your side, inviting - no, pressing, imploring you to go into her little shop, and expecting a sale. Once you have decided to make a purchase, there is the task of arriving a price via the bartering process. So you have to consider how low you think the seller will go, how much you really want the article, what you are prepared to pay and also the inquisition to which your husband will put you concerning the sale price, once the deal is made. Not really worth it, except you do want something to place on the dresser at home to remind you of your Silk Road adventure.
I am reminded of T.S. Eliott’s (spelling?) poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ which begins something like: ‘A hard coming we had of it’ and speaks of ‘camels recalcitrant’ and other difficulties of the trip taken by the wise men to the stable in Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child. I wish I had a copy of the poem here to read, for I am sure much of it would be applicable to the problems of the camel caravans on the Silk Road. But modern day travellers also have their difficulties.
The roads in Uzbekistan have to be experienced to be believed. Usually the city centres are fine, but beyond that they can vary from reasonable to atrocious. Probably the worst section has been from Bukhara to Khiva, a distance of 450 odd kilometres, taking about 9½ hours. We bumped and bounced, rattled and shook all day on the uneven road, avoiding potholes, dodging broken tar seal, and skirting furrows parallel in the road and corrugations across the road. A new road was under construction alongside the old route for many, many miles, adding to the problems. It was a long day!
Crossing the Amu Daria River (of Aral Sea fame – more on that later) near Khiva was an interesting experience. Again, a new bridge was under construction alongside the old river crossing, which consisted of a track through piles of sand, followed by a series of connecting old barges over which the motorist gingerly made his way. NZ’s OSH would not have been impressed.