SAP­PHIRE AND GOLD

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy JOHN LAU­RIE

Jen­nifer Byrne takes the Silk Road and dis­cov­ers the vivid his­tory of Uzbek­istan and Turk­menistan.

On a magic-car­pet ride along the Silk Road, JEN­NIFER BYRNE finds the shin­ing blue tow­ers and vivid his­tory of Uzbek­istan and Turk­menistan even more strik­ing than the po­ets’ prom­ises.

It’s the jour­ney, not the des­ti­na­tion, I know. Some­times, though, a place comes along that blows the rules out of the wa­ter, and that’s how it was for me when I first saw a pho­to­graph of the un­fin­ished minaret of Khiva, at the far west­ern end of Uzbek­istan’s stretch of the an­cient Silk Road.

There are other World Her­itage sites en route, cities with taller tow­ers, grander palaces, deeper his­to­ries. But this sin­gle im­age of a beau­ti­ful, bar­rel-shaped tower, built when Khiva was the cen­tre of an em­pire, fired my imag­i­na­tion. I yearned to see it for my­self.

Ex­actly 14 months later I stand at the foot of the Kalta Mi­nor minaret – as glo­ri­ous as any dream. Hor­i­zon­tal bands of turquoise, aqua and sap­phire tiles, each more ge­o­met­ri­cally in­tri­cate than the last, rise into a bright blue sky. A golden light bounces off the high mud-brick walls nearby, stand­ing on foun­da­tions dat­ing back to the 10th cen­tury. But the city is older still; the mathematician and as­tronomer Muham­mad ibn Musa al-Kh­warizmi in­vented al­ge­bra in his birth­place many cen­turies ear­lier (the ti­tle of his mas­sive trea­tise in­cludes the word al-jabr).

The shin­ing minaret was com­mis­sioned not quite 200 years ago by Khiva’s king to be the world’s tallest Is­lamic tower, partly for his own glory, but also to keep a sharp eye on move­ments in the desert be­yond the walls. But it’s less than half its in­tended height of 70 me­tres, a dwarf by the stan­dard of Uzbek tow­ers, its flat top an in­di­ca­tion of the day the khan dropped dead and his work­ers downed tools. His suc­ces­sor scam­pered back to the old palace, which of­fered greater se­cu­rity and more rooms for con­cu­bines.

A poem in­scribed in mo­saics runs around the top of Kalta Mi­nor:

There’s a bit of an his­tor­i­cal fudge on “fin­ished”, but the verse is true in essence.

Per­sonal ob­ses­sions aside, trav­el­ling Uzbek­istan’s long stretch of the Silk Road is a bit like be­ing in a long blue dream, such a dazzle of tiles and arches, and dec­o­rated domes and cupo­las, it risks bring­ing on a Cen­tral Asian case of Stend­hal syn­drome. Uzbek guides joke about the four Ms: mosques, minarets, madrasahs and mau­soleums. Mu­se­ums makes five. It can be ex­haust­ing, but ex­hil­a­rat­ing, too, be­cause the his­tory is only part of the story.

This old coun­try is also very young, re­born in 1991 from the ashes of the Soviet Union. The col­lapse was a pro­foundly trau­matic event – and not the uni­ver­sally wel­come one many in the West imag­ine. I meet older Uzbeks who still mourn for the days when they were part of the Rus­sian em­pire, be­fore the des­per­ate decade of the ’90s when they lost their in­dus­try, their cur­rency, their ca­pac­ity to feed them­selves. “You can’t eat cot­ton and oil,” one old-timer says. “We starved.” They had to re­build their coun­try from the ground up.

So this two-week jour­ney is about more than the past. We visit the cir­cus, and what a frolic that is. We bluff our way into the na­tional sports train­ing cen­tre and meet the trainer who made Uzbek­istan the sen­sa­tion of the Rio Olympics, lift­ing the coun­try out of nowhere to blitz the box­ing medals; the place is full of boys train­ing to be­come the next cham­pi­ons. We dance with grannies wear­ing Lurex and we’re am­bushed by schoolkids de­ter­mined to prac­tise their English. We eat the na­tional dish of plov, join a wed­ding party, and sit among a weep­ing crowd be­side the rose-cov­ered body of the coun­try’s first pres­i­dent, and dic­ta­tor, Is­lam Ka­ri­mov, be­fore he’s dis­patched to his mau­soleum.

We also cross the bor­der from Uzbek­istan into Turk­menistan – a Le Carré-style op­er­a­tion – and see just how much mar­ble you can af­ford if you’re sit­ting on the world’s fourth-largest gas re­serve. And I ride on one of the de­scen­dants of the “heav­enly horses”, so ad­mired by the Chi­nese that they packed up their silk and started a leg­endary trade route to ac­quire them.

Ge­o­graph­i­cally, Uzbek­istan is what they call a dou­ble-land­locked coun­try – land­locked by ’stans that are them­selves land­locked. It rubs along well enough with its gi­ant north­ern neigh­bour, Kaza­khstan (though Uzbeks do love a Bo­rat joke), but its short south­ern bor­der with Afghanistan is one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous. It’s fiercely guarded, against drugs mainly, but also Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, which so alarms Uzbek au­thor­i­ties that even in this over­whelm­ingly Mus­lim

coun­try the burka is banned and there are no work breaks on Fri­days for prayers.

But cul­tur­ally it is ex­tremely rich, lur­ing trav­ellers with its ex­otic, cen­turies-old sto­ries of car­a­vanserais filled with pre­cious goods, and camel trains cross­ing the deserts, the traders build­ing camps all along the route, which be­came trad­ing posts, grow­ing into for­ti­fied cities.

Bukhara, Sa­markand and Khiva are bril­liant ex­am­ples of th­ese; the cap­i­tal, Tashkent, not so much. De­stroyed by an earth­quake in the 1960s and re­built as a show­case for the best (and worst) of Soviet ar­chi­tec­ture, Tashkent has its charms: grand gar­dens, wide boule­vards and, in the old­est part of the city, a mod­est but much-loved mau­soleum built in the 16th cen­tury to hon­our the Mus­lim scholar and wise-man Kaf­fal-Shashi.

Across a vast square is a madrasah hous­ing one of the coun­try’s great trea­sures: the world’s old­est Ko­ran, one of six com­mis­sioned by a 7th-cen­tury caliph to col­late all ver­sions of Muhammed’s words shortly af­ter he died. This is the last sur­viv­ing copy, writ­ten in ink mixed from coal, wal­nut shells and pis­ta­chio blos­soms. It’s a beau­ti­ful, awe-in­spir­ing thing. “Mu­sic for the eyes”, as cal­lig­ra­phy mas­ter Ba­hodir Saliev de­scribes it to us. He’s a sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion cal­lig­ra­pher, flu­ent in five lan­guages, and he sends me away with a small trea­sure: a swirl of dots and lines read­ing “Jen­nifer” in Ara­bic.

Tashkent is also mu­seum cen­tral and, as the first stop for most vis­i­tors, a use­ful primer to the re­gion’s his­tory. This is fas­ci­nat­ing but also fiendishly com­plex since pretty much ev­ery­one has stuck their oar in Cen­tral Asia, from Alexan­der the Great to Stalin. The stand­out mon­ster of the ’stans seems to be Genghis Khan, who swept through with his in­fa­mous Mon­gol hordes in the 13th cen­tury, de­stroy­ing every­thing they en­coun­tered. Mys­te­ri­ously, his equally blood­thirsty suc­ces­sor, Tamer­lane, is ac­corded the sta­tus of na­tional hero.

This his­tor­i­cal anom­aly dates from the cru­cial year of 1991, when the Sovi­ets with­drew from Uzbek­istan but their hard­man, the au­to­cratic Is­lam Ka­ri­mov, de­ter­minedly re­mained in of­fice. He or­dered the old busts of Marx and Lenin be re­placed by out­sized stat­ues, one fea­tur­ing the war­lord king Tamer­lane on horse­back, bear­ing a sword, with his right leg (wounded dur­ing bat­tle, hence his name: Timur-the­lame) still mag­nif­i­cently in ac­tion.

So what do Uzbeks learn at school about Tamer­lane? Do they know he killed 17 mil­lion peo­ple and built tow­ers from the skulls of his en­e­mies?

Oh, yes, our guide – whose name is Timur – says cheer­fully, we know about his bru­tal meth­ods and the tow­ers, but he united dis­parate lands and dis­parate peo­ple. This counts in Uzbek­istan, with its mix of

100 or so eth­nic­i­ties, among them Rus­sians (Rus­sian is the lin­gua franca) and Ta­jiks and Kore­ans and Ira­ni­ans and Arabs and Tar­tars, many of them with the wide cheeks and square faces in­her­ited from the orig­i­nal Mon­gol in­va­sion. This is one of the most per­pet­u­ally oc­cu­pied parts of the world, where half a dozen re­li­gions have taken root over the cen­turies.

Trav­el­ling the length of the Silk Road you can see how the his­tory un­folded, how the cities rose and fell. We leave Tashkent by high-speed train, zoom­ing past rocky dunes and dusty fields rimed by salt to reach the near-myth­i­cal city of Sa­markand; at its me­dieval heart is the Regis­tan, which viceroy of In­dia Ge­orge Cur­zon de­scribed as “the no­blest pub­lic square in the world”. The most spec­tac­u­lar sight in Cen­tral Asia, some say, and who would ar­gue?

The Regis­tan is a vast open-air plaza framed by three madrasahs, cov­ered to within an inch of their tow­er­ing, tilt­ing heights with mo­saic tiles and ma­jolica – sheets of blue and gold, earth to sky. I spend hours here, be­witched, un­til a guard “pssts” at me and points to a rick­ety set of wooden stairs lead­ing to the top of what’s known (be­cause of the tilt) as “the drunken minaret”. I climb, cau­tiously, and I’m re­warded with a panoramic view of the old city and the desert be­yond.

Sa­markand was the cen­tre of Tamer­lane’s em­pire, built on his own gi­ant scale. Some two kilo­me­tres from the Regis­tan is the Gur-e Amir mau­soleum, where his body lies be­neath a solid block of green jade sur­rounded by stat­ues and arches that light up spec­trally at night. Guides here whis­per about the curse of Tamer­lane. Leg­end has it that when Stalin or­dered the grave to be opened, in 1941, ar­chae­ol­o­gists found an in­scrip­tion in­side: “Whoso­ever dis­turbs my tomb will un­leash an in­vader more ter­ri­ble than I”. Three days later, Hitler or­dered the in­va­sion of the Soviet Union. Stalin or­dered the body to be rein­terred with full Is­lamic rit­ual the fol­low­ing year.

Then there’s the ob­ser­va­tory built by Tamer­lane’s grand­son Ulugh Beg, a bad ruler but bril­liant geek, who con­structed a mas­sive sex­tant with which he lo­cated more than a thou­sand stars; his globe of the heav­ens was so pre­cise it as­tounded Ox­ford schol­ars of his day. Though for sheer love­li­ness, noth­ing beats the colour and in­tri­cate mo­saics of the peace­ful necrop­o­lis Shah-i-Zinda, built on a high green hill look­ing over the city, filled with tombs for Tamer­lane’s wives and rel­a­tives. A place so holy that a visit here is re­garded by some as equiv­a­lent to a pilgrimage to Mecca.

At lunch we join Uzbek men at the tra­di­tional Sa­markand tea­houses called chaikhana for sim­ple meals of kebabs and salad served on bright plas­tic cloths. At din­ner we join par­ties at barn-like restau­rants where three gen­er­a­tions gather to feast on chicken, mut­ton and noo­dles, and dance. It’s in Sa­markand, too, that we try plov, the tra­di­tional dish of Uzbek­istan: a one-pot rice stew stud­ded with veg­eta­bles and fatty lamb, served with sweet lo­cal toma­toes and freshly baked bread.

Di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion isn’t easy but the wel­come is un­mis­take­ably warm at th­ese gath­er­ings, with big golden smiles from older Uzbeks who dur­ing the hard years in­vested their gold in teeth. The women wear head­scarves and bright vel­vet tu­nics, the men, skull­caps and boots. Life is hard – one can see that – and the wind­ing road from Sa­markand to Tamer­lane’s birth­place of Shahris­abz, two hours’ drive south, takes us past a road­side mar­ket sell­ing lit­tle more than her­bal teas, dried fruit and sour-milk balls.

On the way to Bukhara we pass the in­dus­trial zone of Karshi, a gas and oil pro­duc­tion cen­tre ex­pand­ing across the desert at crack­ing speed, her­alded by the smell of gas and the sight of blue pipes snaking to­wards an enor­mous power sta­tion in the dis­tance. The desert is fringed, in­con­gru­ously, by green fields of cot­ton,

Uzbek­istan’s chief cash crop – in fact, the cot­ton boll is a na­tional sym­bol. But lines of salt show the cost of such a thirsty choice. Wheat is the favoured crop th­ese days – some­thing you can eat.

If Sa­markand is the glam­our girl of the old trade route, Bukhara, some 280 kilo­me­tres to the west, is its gen­tle, mod­est sis­ter. A maze of a city-mu­seum, it was founded in the 6th cen­tury, though its his­tory as a cen­tre of schol­ar­ship, cul­ture and trade stretches back cen­turies be­fore that. It’s the best place to buy em­broi­dered jack­ets, shawls, heavy falls of old Rus­sian silk and won­der­ful hats from traders who’ve set up shops un­der the arches of an­cient car­a­vanserai, where the camels slept.

Those were the days when a sol­dier or priest would climb the 45-me­tre spi­ral stair­case (that’s 105 steps – I counted) to the top of the glow­ing Kalyan minaret to light a sig­nal fire every night to guide trav­ellers. They would en­ter through iron gates guard­ing the mas­sive 4th-cen­tury Ark Fortress; just be­yond is the khan’s vast open-air arena, look­ing like some­thing straight from Game of Thrones, and the cells where pris­on­ers spent their last, mis­er­able night be­fore be­ing ex­e­cuted in pub­lic.

Bukhara has its fair share of mag­nif­i­cent blue mon­u­ments to visit, but it’s the kind of dreamy, jewel-like place that re­wards the aim­less wan­derer. I make nod­ding ac­quain­tance with the men play­ing backgam­mon just out­side our ho­tel, their board set up in the shade of plane and beech trees, and I chat with work­ers restor­ing a 16th-cen­tury mosque – an end­less job, they com­plain ami­ably. I buy a pretty neck­lace from the women who run the bustling gold mar­ket and one of the city’s fa­mous hand-em­broi­dered jack­ets. From our guide, I learn a few of the se­crets and tra­di­tions of old Bukhara, such as the code of the doors: a woman caller knocks gen­tly on the wood; a man rat­tles the chain.

And it’s in Bukhara we dis­cover the cir­cus, a trav­el­ling show man­aged by Shirin – mean­ing sweet in Uzbek – who tells me she’s just lost her hus­band and per­for­mance part­ner of 43 years, a ma­gi­cian named Farkat. Their act had been the retelling of a 15th-cen­tury Per­sian love story re­named – what else? – Farkat and ➤

Shirin. She speaks lov­ingly of her hus­band, but looks to the fu­ture; many young peo­ple want to join the cir­cus, she says.

We sit in the bleach­ers watch­ing chil­dren stream in, past bark­ers spin­ning sticks of old-fash­ioned fairy floss in metal pots. The au­di­ence is puls­ing with en­ergy and an­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s both a priv­i­lege and a vis­ceral plea­sure to be here, un­der the faded yel­low and blue can­vas top, at a cir­cus that re­minds me so of what it was like to go as a young, wide-eyed girl.

The third of the beau­ti­ful sis­ters is Khiva, a seven-hour drive west. It’s the small­est of Uzbek­istan’s Silk Road cities, cir­cled en­tirely by the desert that de­fines its char­ac­ter: sand-coloured, sun-baked, im­mensely hospitable.

Home not just to that un­fin­ished minaret I’d so longed to see, but to the mighty fortress of Itchan Kala, with thick mud-brick walls curv­ing like pro­tec­tive waves.

Though first recorded by Mus­lim trav­ellers dur­ing the 10th cen­tury, Khiva’s glory days were in the 16th, as cap­i­tal of its own khanate stretch­ing to the Caspian Sea. Now it’s a liv­ing open-air mu­seum, packed with richly painted madrasahs and palaces. Its nar­row lanes are full of mu­sic, mar­kets and noisy wed­dings; trav­ellers are en­cour­aged to join in the danc­ing and try on furry hats made of as­trakhan wool.

I could spent weeks in Khiva, loung­ing in its tea rooms and bars, but this is our last stop, where the old Silk Road turns south into the neigh­bour­ing na­tion of Turk­menistan. We’re dropped by taxi at a dusty, tightly fenced bor­der cross­ing where we’re greeted by guards, dogs, lots of stamp­ing of doc­u­ments and much search­ing of lug­gage.

The next few days are a blur of an­cient sites – un­like Uzbek­istan, which en­hances mon­u­ments shame­lessly, Turk­men au­thor­i­ties be­lieve they should gen­er­ally be left in their un­re­stored state. The depth of the his­tory in this huge na­tion of just five mil­lion peo­ple, many of them tribal no­mads, is stag­ger­ing – though harder to read. And it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be dis­tracted by Ash­ga­bat, the blaz­ing white-mar­ble cap­i­tal city of tow­ers ris­ing from the desert.

This is a coun­try rich from gas and, like Uzbek­istan, it was ruled for many years by one of the old Com­mu­nist Party di­nosaurs turned na­tion­al­ist pres­i­dent. From 1985 un­til his un­la­mented death in 2006, Sa­parmu­rat Niya­zov’s rule was as re­pres­sive as it was ec­cen­tric. The cap­i­tal was lit­tered with golden stat­ues of Turk­men­bashi, as he called him­self, and he re­named some of the months in hon­our of his fam­ily.

Be­yond Turk­men­bashi’s mon­u­ments, though, the land­scape is an­cient and pow­er­ful – high on a hill above the cap­i­tal’s thrust­ing white apart­ment blocks and eight-lane high­ways are the bones and bricks of an an­cient city. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists dig­ging at Old Nisa, some 20 kilo­me­tres from Ash­ga­bat, have dis­cov­ered fire tem­ples sur­rounded by niches dec­o­rated with sym­bols of Zoroas­tri­an­ism, the old faith here but hon­oured by Is­lam, the dom­i­nant re­li­gion that fol­lowed. A tour of Turk­menistan’s ma­jor her­itage sights – Mary, Kun­yaUr­gench and the an­cient city of Merv – in­volves trav­el­ling to three of the coun­try’s five prov­inces; all have gran­dish cap­i­tals, but noth­ing to beat Ash­ga­bat, which is clearly where the money is, and the power.

The Silk Road is a glo­ri­ous mis­nomer. A se­ries of routes snaking across Asia and Europe, shape-shift­ing with his­tory, it’s so vast it’s hard to imag­ine what any stretch of it might look like. Now I see it in shades of blue, from the sap­phire tiles of the Regis­tan to the cloud­less azure sky over the west­ern desert. And that shin­ing bar­rel-shaped minaret in Khiva, as beau­ti­ful as I’d hoped, and the old poem promised.

This minaret was fin­ished,

It reached the sky, it was so beau­ti­ful. Even the trees in the heav­ens,

Were just a shadow of this minaret.

PRE­VI­OUS PAGES Left: the minaret of Is­lam-Khodja in Khiva. Right: flat­bread in Khiva. OP­PO­SITE Clock­wise from top: Kukel­dash Madrasah in Tashkent; Siab Bazaar in Sa­markand; the ceil­ing in­side the dome of Tilla-Kari Madrasah in the Regis­tan, Sa­markand; Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent.

Head­ing west from Sa­markand to

Bukhara; road­side sell­ers at the en­trance to Sa­markand. Op­po­site: Uzbek­istan’s na­tional dish, plov, served tra­di­tion­ally with freshly baked bread and toma­toes.

Above, from left: Bukhara’s Ark Fortress; Po-iKalyan mosque com­plex, which in­cludes the Kalyan minaret; and a lo­cal at Bolo Hauz – the Emir’s Mosque.

Above: carp with toma­toes, flat­breads, smoked cheese, tea and vodka. Op­po­site from top: a mar­ket in Khiva; a sec­tion of Kalta Mi­nor minaret in Khiva.

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