Uzbekistan

Learning Uzbek Magic

Kalyan Mosque, BukharaSome years ago, another lifetime in fact, my Dad lent me a book, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. It’s about that little bit of history when the Russian and British empires found themselves staring at each other across the vast and unknown steppe that separated their two frontiers. To 19th century minds what lay between - a vast, complicated tapestry of khanates, giant sandstone fortresses and intractable deserts - may as well have been the surface of another planet. The history of the Empire isn’t really what this is about; however, it’s important to stress the vividness of the images the book planted in my mind. There’s a tangible romance in the unknown and for some time my mind was full of pictures of strange and mysterious fortresses, endless deserts and ancient minarets towering out of the limitless expanse of the Central Asian Steppe. Given this, you can imagine my state of mind as, some years later, I lay on my bunk as the midnight train pulled its slow way out of Almaty and into the vast Kazakh wilderness. Managing expectations in such a climate can be tough.

Restaurant cars on the giant trains that still make their slow and formidable way across the former Soviet Union give firm precedence to the practical over any vague notion of luxury. Tables sit in uniform rows of Formica, bolted to the floor and flanked on either side by wooden kitchen chairs. 

With a cheap bottle of cognac and the porter for company, I watched as the dim outline of the steppe rumbled past outside. I remember trying to take stock of the situation, to step outside of my circumstances and somehow apply a context to it all. However, it soon became clear that the best course of action was simply to sit back, relax and watch as the steppe floated by and the sun started to climb above it. 

The next day was hot. In the early summer’s heat, life slowed to the sedentary as passengers occupied themselves with simply lying around, playing cards or just sleeping. Occasionally, the train would pull to a halt at one of the various small and fairly anonymous stations that line its route, allowing a colourful parade of old women and children to make their way from carriage to carriage selling water, fruit or simple plastic toys with which to hold the younger passengers’ attentions at bay for a few hours more.

Trains haven’t changed much in Central Asia since Commissars stalked their corridors. In fact, for the most part, they’re the same trains as serviced the Soviet railroads of old. Often, these will have their own style and decorations and the train we now found ourselves on was little different. A short walk down its kilometres of corridor was enough to confirm that this was a collection of different carriages, rather than a single unit. Some, such as the one we were in, were simply functional places in which to sleep and eat. Others, in what must have seemed to some distant designer as the very definition of opulent design, were now, with their faded nylon silks and worn acrylic carpets, more reminiscent of a back street Yekaterinburg brothel than any vision of the great socialist future. In any event, it was a nice enough place to sit, relax and watch the steppe drift past.

Eventually, night and the Uzbek capital of Tashkent came into view and with it the prospect of the short morning flight to Urgench and from there to Khiva.

Khiva had once been a pretty powerful khanate. However, time and its famous neighbours, Samarkand and Bukhara, have relegated Khiva to semi-obscurity. It’s also not the easiest place to get to, requiring either the hire of a private car and driver, or the joining of the packed coach-bound throngs that make their costly way along the Silk Road. In any event, the cost of sharing a private car - around $50 a day - isn’t exactly the harshest of financial burdens and gives you a freedom of movement that anything else is going to struggle to match.

It was in the back of one such car that I was soon counting every minute untill we reached Khiva. All of a sudden, the imposing sandstone walls of Khiva’s fortress came into view, taking their place amidst the traffic like a giant sandstone island.

It’s hard to say what it was like to wander amidst those old sandstone walls, other than to describe it as utterly alien. Nothing is familiar. The streets are narrow and on each side are dwarfed by the ancient walls that tower above you. Old women seem to appear at random intervals, brushing away the desert’s dust with old wooden brooms, as the sun reflects their gold teeth, lighting flashes of bronze across the olive skin of their lined and sun-weathered faces.

However, to really grasp Khiva, you need altitude. For this, you can either make use of a watchtower or one of the two minarets open to the public. You need to remember that you’re a long way off the tourist track, and a lack of certain conveniences proves it. There are no lights inside these minarets apart from a couple of narrow slits, so the bulk of any ascent must be made in near perfect darkness. It’s not a journey for everyone, but the rewards outweigh the investment because it’s only when viewed from above can you grasp just how magical Khiva really is; stretching away from you on all sides is the architecture of pure imagination. It’s only from on high that you can grasp the scale of the medieval fortification which, along with its desert surroundings, kept the entire Russian army at bay untill 1873. Similarly, it’s only from the vantage point of the city walls that you grasp the extent of the poverty in which most of Khiva’s current inhabitants live.

Khiva’s old town represents something of an enigma to me that I’ve never been able to completely understand. In the area where our hotel was located, we would be inundated with grinning children sprinting up to us, screaming "Hello!", the one word of English they knew, before shrieking off laughing as if a great feat had been accomplished. I can’t pretend that being at the centre of such curiosity wasn’t fun;, it was.

For me, the attraction of Khiva lay in its lack of shine. Of course, some accommodation had been made for tourists, but only in a small part of the city. Elsewhere, people simply lived their lives working within what I can only call a living history; there’s something amazing in that. History is made more tangible when it’s allowed to age, instead of being constantly prettified, polished and sold as a commodity. To my mind, Khiva is the living embodiment of that notion. I don’t think any of us have forgotten our time there and my guess would be that we never really will.

From Khiva, the road leads east to the once holy city of Bukhara. In fact, the road itself is worth mentioning. Stretching through the desert, the drive from Khiva to Bukhara is not short of incident. At times, the road seems to fade to rubble and, as you’re bounced around the rattling car, it’s a wonder how the driver can distinguish desert from road. Four long hours in and you come across the only rest stop, a small low rise building to the right of the road. Here, giant carp swim in a shallow pool waiting on the arrival of the hungry traveller while two giant upturned pipes rise sharply out of the desert, marked for the separate use of men and women.

Some four hours later and we entered Bukhara in darkness. In the gloom, fantastic silhouettes drifted past, their true shapes and purposes disguised by the dark and left open to imagination. The next day dawned and we were able to get our first glimpse of Bukhara. The contrast with the unvarnished reality of Khiva couldn’t have been more marked. Don’t get me wrong; Bukhara will take anyone’s breath away. It’s majestic and it’s beautiful, but it’s also quite clean and quite developed. Maybe this is being too harsh. Bukhara has stood for millennia, and for centuries has been the epicentre of the Central Asian Muslim world. Its streets are soaked in the history of the steppe and its people. In fact, such was the religious significance of Bukhara that, rather than tackling it head on, the early Soviet Government preferred to simply leave it to fall away to history and dust. It was a cruel punishment to befall such a magnificent city and soon these Bolshevik proto-sanctions took their toll. The Scottish adventurer Fitzroy Maclean, visiting Bukhara in secret during the 1930’s, largely describes the place in terms of an archaeological ruin. Today, it’s the restoration work accomplished since that period that gives Bukhara its freshly polished hue, so it’s probably fair to say I’m judging it a little harshly.

There are real wonders here; the great Kalyan Minaret, or ‘Tower of Death’, which rises out of the Mosque of the same name really is something to be seen. It was here that the guilty miscreants of history would find themselves tossed into the ninety metres of air that separated them from the ground. It’s in Bukhara too that you can find the Emir’s Ark, or Bukhara Fortress. To be fair, I could write whatever I liked here, as nothing is really going to prepare you for your first sight of this. It’s hard to conceive of something so ancient being so massive. It stands, almost intact from initial Bolshevik shelling and latter neglect, an amazing and imposing testament to the sheer historical power that Bukhara once exuded over this region and its people.

Emir's Ark (Bukhara Fortress)However, no visit to Bukhara is complete without a trip to its justifiably famous baths. There have been baths in Bukahara for eight centuries and over this period a unique system of washing, massaging and sweating visitors has evolved. It was here, underground, alone and naked that I came face to face with a significantly larger man intent on bending my body into positions that had hitherto seemed unimaginable. It was also in this room where the critical difference between the Russian, ‘strong’, siilno and ‘medium’, stretsvo became overwhelmingly apparent. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again. However, I can’t really claim this to be a negative experience. Even as I was rolled onto my belly and ribs with my arms and legs pinned high behind my back and a nose full of soap, the feeling of relaxation and cleanliness that followed, one which seemed to engulf my whole body, was one which I have never experienced before or since.

However, a fresh day and a new car saw us leave Bukhara behind and make our way to Samarkand. For many, and I include myself in this, even the name Samarkand is enough to cause the breath to quicken. Throughout the history of the East, Samarkand has been a place of wonder and mystery. I’m not exaggerating when I say that long before the advent of the modern age, Samarkand was spoken of only in terms of the mythical. It was here that Tamarlane built his capital and drew the finest craftsman of the known world to him to complete his work. And it still doesn’t disappoint.

Up until around halfway through the 20th century, only a handful of Europeans had even got so far as stepping foot in Samarkand and today, even when that foot is stepping out of a Daewoo, the city still retains a firm sense of The Other. Samarkand’s blue tiled minarets tower out of the desert as history’s landlocked lighthouses, guiding travellers and caravans alike to its markets and its mosques. Within, everything is opulence and - even when viewed through 21st century eyes - it’s hard not to be carried away with the scale and beauty of the city. What effect it must have had on the wild Turcoman horsemen and traders who strayed this way in antiquity can only be imagined.

There’s a tick list school of tourism that I’ve never really understood, where it’s everything to seek out a sight, stare a moment, before having your picture taken in front of it and moving on. I can see how Samarkand could be viewed that way. However, I think it’s enough to allow yourself to simply drift. Everything you could imagine is here and you’ll find it eventually. Allow yourself the time and the wonder to do so, because wonder is what lies at the very base of Samarkand’s foundations. This is a city designed to inspire and it does so to this day. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built by Timur (Tamarlane) from the most precious stones of all India, or the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, final home to his wives and his Court or Registan Square, whose towering minarets and giant mosques will simply leave the viewer breathless. It doesn’t matter. Your imagination and ability to grasp the near limitless vision underlying Samarkand’s creation will run out a long time before Samarkand’s marvels do.

In truth, there is a real magic that lives in Central Asia and one whose breath courses throughout its cities and citadels to this day. It gets inside you and propels you forward and it’s one you never really leave behind. Once its mystery and beauty get you, it’s not one you can readily forget. Maybe that’s because, to European eyes, there’s no experience by which it can be compared and, in doing so, quantified. All I can tell you for sure is that it’s haunted me. The slightest mention of the area is enough to catch my ear and excite my interest. It’s like I left but I never really left, and that’s pretty magical in itself.

About the Author

Simon Speakman Cordall used to have a real job, but he doesn't anymore. Instead he lives in Moscow, where he teaches English for a living. When not working, Simon likes to travel around a bit and share his adventures in writing. Check out more of Simon on his blog at http://life2thesequel.wordpress.com. 

Related Articles:


Add comment


Security code
Refresh

profileback2

 Full name: Republic of Uzbekistan

 Population: 28.39 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Tashkent

 Largest city: Tashkent

 Area: 447,400 sq.km. (172,742 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Uzbek, Russian, Tajik,  Other

 Major religions: Islam, Eastern Orthodox,  Other

 Monetary unit: Souml

 GDP per capita: US $3,300

 Internet domain: .uz

 International dialling code: +998

 Source: CIA World Factbook