Updated: Mar 31, 2019
The Final Challenge
Uzbekistan was the final country on my journey through the “stans”. The Pamir and Fan mountains, so stunning yet so problematic for travel, were replaced as we drove West in a taxi out of Dushanbe by a flat and featureless plain, dusty, dry and pretty devoid of life, although it was liberally adorned with billboards of the president in various poses. A last reminder of the dictator before encountering another, I thought – perhaps a not-so-subtle method of political one-upmanship. His country and Uzbekistan are barely on speaking terms at present. Emomalii Rahmon’s presence had been felt as I travelled through Tajikistan, and I had cursed him on more than one occasion in this troubled, and troubling country. The road to the border was still in poor condition, but I knew that Uzbekistan’s roads would be much better. Its infrastructure is some way ahead of Tajikistan; this was going to be the first time in the region that I would be able to sample the relative luxury of railway travel. All things are relative though; Uzbekistan stands around 75th in the world GDP list, just above Lithuania, whose population of around three million is nine times smaller than Uzbekistan. The country is comprised mostly of desert, and it is only in the easternmost part around the Fergana Valley and the capital Tashkent where it is greener.
My aim was to head first to the southern city of Termiz before heading north and west through the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara, before taking a train back east and flying out of Tashkent. The Silk Road, a term coined as recently as 1977, actually refers not to one road but to several ancient routes, linking eastern China to Asia Minor, specifically Turkey. For hundreds of years, traders in silk, spices, highly-prized gems, fragrant teas and other exotic goods travelled in slow-moving caravans across Central Asia, bringing back not only western goods but new ideas, technology and culture, thus changing the relationship between East and West forever. The desert country of Uzbekistan is today most vividly associated with it, containing as it does three UNESCO-listed medieval towns, so strongly linked to these times – towns which were all resting points on this route.
Logistically, this was by far the most difficult of the three countries to enter. I had secured a visa in Bishkek, but only after a great deal of aggravating waiting around after paying for a letter of invitation which arrived at the last moment. On the visa application I had been asked to specify exactly where I would be and when, how I was to enter the country and where I would be leaving, and in what accommodation I would stay. I also needed to provide proof of employment. Independent travel is not encouraged in Uzbekistan, and the government of Islam Karimov has made no moves to either abolish the visa or make it easier to obtain, as in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan respectively. As is common in the region, the leader is an old-school ex-communist, and has been in power since before independence – 1989, to be exact. His regime brutally stifles the opposition, is opposed to Islam, and is considered to be amongst the worst countries in the world for human rights abuses. It has effectively silenced imams from making any anti-government statements by jailing and even torturing outspoken critics, and muezzin calls for prayer are banned. However, western governments during the 1990s and especially after 9/11 were tolerant of the regime as Uzbekistan was seen as key ally in the War Against Terror and an area of strategic importance. Since the Andijon massacre in 2005, in which independent observers claim that up to 500 peaceful protestors were executed by state police in a pre-meditated ambush, relations with the West, have deteriorated dramatically and many embassies and NGOs in the country have closed down.
Thus, I felt some degree of trepidation on entering the country, which I did on foot at the Sariosiyo border. Aside from the annoying level of bureaucracy and lengthy walk in the searing heat – it was September and still around 35 degrees – the process was pretty smooth. The first thing to do on entering a country is to obtain some local currency, and in Uzbekistan this is rarely a problem, despite cash machines not recognising western bank cards. There is a thriving black market for currency, preferably dollars, and the rate is around 25-30 per cent better than the official rate – a consequence of regular devaluation of the currency.
Money comes in 1000 som note denominations (0.30 dollars) or lower, which has the irritating consequence of obliging one to carry around large bags of notes, and to constantly have to carefully count through large wads for everyday transactions. Wallets are not necessary in this country, for cash at least. Predictably, I was given a less-than generous exchange rate at the border but my 50-dollar note bought me enough som notes to fill half my rucksack.
Termiz: Deathly cotton
Quickly negotiating a taxi-ride to Termiz – disappointingly there was still no public transport available, here at least – I was able to take in the unfolding Uzbek scenery: fields and fields of white, with heads bobbing up and down in them. Uzbekistan’s main crop is cotton, and this was pahta – harvest time. Cotton accounts for around 20 per cent of Uzbek exports, and it has been extensively cropped in the country since communist times. Introducing a strain of cotton from the United States, the Soviet regime aimed to emulate US production, and went to great lengths to achieve this through extensive fertilization and irrigation.
Unfortunately, the thirsty crop proved unsuited to its dry surrounds and this had major consequences on the environment, most notably on the Aral Sea, which has shrunk in area by 90 per cent since the diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in the 1960s. The Aral Sea is perhaps the world’s worst ecological disaster, its once bustling ports now lying in the desert, hours from the shrinking shoreline. Local incidences of respiratory illness and skin disease are common due to chemicals from fertilisers that have remained in the soil after the sea evaporated. The sad image of ships stranded in the sand epitomise the disappearance of the Aral, once one of the world’s great lakes. Additionally, the government stands accused of enforcing child labour in the production of cotton, and of forced, badly-paid labour in general at harvest time: one million people are thought to be involved in its collection at this time of year, bringing the countryside to a virtual standstill. Uzbekistan has paid a very high price for its cotton. Termiz is a fairly uneventful town which, bordering Afghanistan, has a slightly edgy feel to it, and is not used to tourists visiting. The highlight of my stay was exchanging black market money with a local policeman. Officials are clearly not going to enforce the law when it comes to money changing – the country’s economy would collapse without the black market – and are often not averse to supplementing their meagre income by this means. A couple of days relaxing in a surprisingly good state hotel which was dirt-cheap partly due to the favourable dollar exchange rate was an additional plus in Termiz, as I battled another food poisoning incident and eye infection.
Pushed for time, I missed the opportunity to explore its environs which contain ruins dating back to Ghenghis Khan’s time, including ancient Buddhist temples and Sufi mausoleums. I whizzed past a few of these deserted sites on the road to Samarkand. The road was pretty smooth but our taxi crawled along at an average of 60km/h for most of the 350km journey. Perplexed as to why this was, I asked the driver in bad Russian and he replied grimly: militsja. There is a 60km/h speed limit in the country, even on open desert roads, and the police zealously enforce it, with frequent speed checks. Drivers even have anti-radar radars in their cars but ours was stopped at one point for exceeding the paltry limit, and had to pay the inevitable bribe.
Samarkand: a shot in the arm
Samarkand has for centuries held a special place in the imagination of western writers, artists and travellers. In 1913 James Elroy Flecker wrote the poem “The Golden Journey To Samarkand” containing the lines: “We travel not for trafficking alone / By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned / For lust of knowing what should not be known / We take the golden road to Samarkand”
Evocative of Silk Road romance, Samarkand’s turquoise-domed, intricately-tiled mausoleums, medrassas and towering minarets were the subject of endless discussion amongst 19th century explorers even though few ever made it this far, it being considered somewhat beyond the pale due to unruly and fickle khans who weren’t averse to the occasional torture or beheading of anyone looking vaguely like a spy. Samarkand faded from public consciousness during Soviet times, and has only recently been rediscovered. But to their credit, the Soviets did a fine job of restoring the crumbling, earthquake-damaged city they found on the periphery of their empire, and today it is in pristine condition. Some would say they went too far perhaps.
The old town and Jewish area is practically impossible to find, hidden away behind newly-built walls north-east of the centre. The parks and main drags have a new-town feel and the city’s domes practically dazzle with fresh paint and scrubbed surfaces. But these are merely quibbles because Samarkand was for me the first truly great city I had entered in Central Asia, and a shot in the arm after four weeks of exhausting mountain travel: here, and for the rest of the trip, I was to be a tourist.
This was the first country in Central Asia where I had seen even a modicum of mass tourism, and even though it is slight for a country with such enviable architectural riches, it was a bit of a shock after Tajikistan. If Samarkand were in Europe, it would be inundated constantly. As it is, the summer season brings over some intrepid groups of Europeans but it’s hardly a deluge and often you still have sights to yourself if you visit at the right time. One place you won’t be alone is the Registan, one of the single greatest sights in Central Asia, which was, well, regal. Its massive minarets, intricately-tiled brickwork and perfect geometrical lines leading up to splendid round turquoise domes literally inspire awe, and one wonders how these medrassas and mosques could even have been conceived, as they were, in the 15th century. Samarkand is the home town of the Timur the Great (Tamerlane) one of history’s most revered, and reviled, leaders, and it was he who built it all up from scratch to rival any city in the world for opulence and majesty. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns across Central Asia accounted for the deaths of around 16 million people, or five per cent of the world’s population. His city was, as far as he was concerned, literally the centre of the world. The Bibi-Khanym mosque, just to the north, was one of the most impressive religious buildings I had ever seen - perhaps only equalled in terms of beauty by the Taj Mahal. Once the Islamic world’s biggest mosque (the cupola of the main mosque is 41m high and the pishtak 38m). When built, it must have quite simply pushed construction techniques to their limit. You can spend an hour easily, just marvelling at the majesty of the building technique, incredible mosaics and religious artwork. I'm not a religious person, but I do believe that one thing religon has bequeathed in the world is some exquisite architecture. This may just be one of the noblest cities in the world thanks to that.
Bukhara: Low-key appeal
Uzbekistan offered me something I hadn’t experienced so far on this trip: comfort. Hotels, restaurants (or a few decent eateries worthy of the name) and most of all travel were all far and away superior to what I had seen on the trip thus far. The fact it has a train system which is fully-functioning was also a major boost, and to be able to sit in a cool carriage with leg-room watching a soap opera for the three-hour trip to Bukhara was approaching luxury.
Unlike Samarkand, it lacks a single “wow” factor, but its lower-key appeal is a perfect counterpoint to the glitz and glamour of the country’s main draw card, and is no worse for it. Government restoration efforts have been less indiscriminate and more subtle than in Samarkand and I personally prefer that rough-around-the-edges feel. It is more compact and can be seen in two or three days; its warren of streets and back alleys are hugely appealing, almost as much as its splendid sights – mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums and minarets – which the city is literally strewn with. All of which is not to say that Bukhara does not boast some stunning buildings. The four-towered Chor Minor Madrassa, for example (actually a relatively recent 19th Century addition) impresses with it's distinctive ultra-marine tiled domes, and the Mir-i-Arab Madrasah (1535-36) is almost like a mini-Registan, with a stunning tiled arched entrance and a pair of dazzling blue-green cupola domes. Government restoration efforts have been less indiscriminate and more subtle than in Samarkand and I personally prefer that rough-around-the-edges feel. It is more compact and can be seen in two or three days; its warren of streets and back alleys are hugely appealing, almost as much as its splendid sights – mosques, madrassahs, mausoleums and minarets – which the city is literally strewn with.The nearby Kalyan minaret towers above it, ornate in pale yellow sandstone.
The arresting Ark – a walled city within a city, which resembles an ark from the outside - is an interesting place to visit for anyone interested in the Great Game, played out in the 19th century as Britain and Russia struggled over their interest of the area. Two hapless British officers, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly, on a diplomatic mission to assure the Emir Nasrullah Khan about Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan, were imprisoned here, accused of treason, cruelly tortured, and eventually made to dig their own graves before being publicly beheaded. That was in 1841, under Queen Victoria’s rule. She, unsurprisingly, was not amused. Britain never did get a handle on central Asia.
The city is also famous for its Jews, who have been in Bukhara since around the 12th century. The community evolved its own culture and language – Bukhori – and spread around the Central Asian region, making up around 10 per cent of the population. Today, only a few remain. Many were driven out by successive anti-semitic regimes. The city's synagogue on
Sarrafon is all that remains of this once-thriving community. Again, it is a place which, though touristy, is very easy to have to yourself. On my last evening there I dined in style, gazing over a plaza that was an artist’s dream, containing the beautiful 12th-century Kalon mosque and minaret, dimly lit by a full moon. The only other soul around was a stray cat. It was probably the most memorable spot I had ever dined at. It is a pity the same can’t be said of the food.
Khiva: Like no other place on earth
My last port of call on the Silk Road was Khiva, another 400km west, close to the border with Turkmenistan. The temperatures were still in the mid-30s and it was into the second half of September. The scenery had changed from barren and arid to absolutely parched: this was the Kyzylkum Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. What remains of the Aral Sea lies several hundred kilometres to the north-west, beyond that the Caspian. To the south, Turkmenistan’s desert wastelands. To the north, Kazkstan’s steppe – thousands of miles of nothing in every direction. This was literally the end of the road. Feeling a bit like an ant following a trail of other ants around the country, I kept bumping into tourists I had seen in Bukhara and Samarkand, most of whom were being led around in big groups. There was a trickle of backpackers too, and I wondered how many there would be if visa regulations were lifted. Uzbekistan seems to attract and repel tourists in equal numbers, but if the government truly opened itself up to tourism it could make a serious amount of money from this sector; it contains more ancient sights than any other country in Asia, and I can think of none which have been so extensively and meticulously renovated.
Khiva, smaller than Bukhara and much more intimate in feel than Samarkand, provides the traveller another contrast on Uzbekistan’s Silk Road. Although its walled centre is about 600 by 400m, it is so literally crammed with sights and things to do that you need three days to comfortably see everything. I visited several mosques, museums and medrassahs every day for my three days, exhausting myself, and still left wondering if I’d seen it all. Some have criticized Bukhara for it being too much like a museum city – and in a way it is, almost every building is for tourists and you need to buy a pass just to enter the city walls – but that only detracts slightly from the experience. That experience is of wandering around a city which is little changed since medieval times – people trading, chatting, playing, eating, drinking, socialising – basically living their entire lives – within an incredibly confined space, surrounded by mud walls 6 metres thick and 30 feet high. I scaled these walls and walked around them to get a better feel for the place and looked at the fat but oddly beautiful, tiled Kalta Minor Minaret and the shining turquoise domes that are so symbolic of these ancient Central Asian towns. Khiva is like no other place on earth. I had travelled over 4000km through the heart of Asia and had seen, until recently, almost nothing older than a couple of generations.
The modern-day capitals of Central Asia are uniformly disappointing, providing very little of historical or cultural interest. It is a sad truth that in over 600 years of civilisation, the buildings that we create are inferior to our ancestors, despite all our technology. In a square kilometre in Khiva there were more riches than not only Tashkent but most modern cities in the world. In Tashkent, I was to see literally no building of any interest – in a city of two million.
All worth it
Uzbekistan’s ancient cities had really re-invigorated my inspiration and my desire to travel, and reminded me why I had come to Central Asia. Its people, like almost all I’d met in Central Asia, were faultlessly charming and polite. Unlike, say, Morocco, India or Egypt, where “friendliness” usually has a subtext, this is a major reason to travel here. People here do not beg, hassle or pressurise you as a tourist and there is no hard-sell.
The tourist sector is nascent, and for now at least, independent travel is challenging but very rewarding. Police shake-downs and bribes, which I had been warned about, did not happen to me personally, and it seems tourists are less targeted these days. As so often in this part of the world, the government is not representative of its populace, the repressive regime disguising a nation that welcomes foreigners warmly. This, in a nutshell, is what is good, and bad, about travel in Central Asia, and what I will take away from it. It’s probably a matter of time before Karimov either dies or is (less likely) removed, and what will happen then in this volatile nation is anyone’s guess. As for me, I was happy; finally, despite all the hardship, bureaucracy, bad food and shocking roads I had experienced in the last six weeks – I was going home. It was worth it.
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This blog is the final part of a series. See the previous part here: