Uzbekistan: travelling along the magical Silk Road
Paul Little visits Uzbekistan and travels along the ancient Silk Road, where monuments from the past echo the glory of this once bustling trading route.
These are the sort of places that children, their imaginations fired by tales of The Arabian Nights, dream of: Tashkent and Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. The names summon up visions of spices and slavery, traders and tyrants, mosques and minarets. The carpets made in these places may no longer fly, but there’s plenty of magic still to be discovered here.
Uzbekistan, a country that was once part of the USSR but has been independent since 1991, is the location for those and many other sites of what was known as the Silk Road, the route along which trade flourished from Asia to Europe and back again for centuries.
The country could hardly be more different from New Zealand. It’s twice landlocked, with at least two countries between it and the ocean on all sides. On my visit, I had the services of a 38-year-old guide who had set eyes on the sea for the first time just three years earlier. Uzbekistan has also been the home to humans since time immemorial, whereas our country has been inhabited for just 700 years. And it has been invaded repeatedly by waves of marauders and warriors throughout its history, whereas we have only been invaded by gorse and a few other pests.
If you start a visit, as many do, in the capital city, Tashkent, you will certainly notice the differences, such as some conspicuously Soviet-style public buildings and monuments, but you will also find much that is familiar. Millennials for instance. I found the Tashkent equivalent of the notoriously apathetic generation at the Shisha restaurant, located underneath a food court at a mall. At lunchtime, it was unoccupied apart from a group of young men smoking a hookah in front of a giant TV screen playing music videos. I tried to ask for food, a request that usually transcends language barriers in restaurants. I was met with complete befuddlement. Eventually the message got through. I wanted food. Why didn’t I say? I was handed a menu with pictures, picked and pointed and was eventually fed.
The next day, on an early morning walk, I noticed groups of women standing by the side of the road. Occasionally cars pulled up, a conversation took place, and the women either got in or the car drove on. Surely they’re not…? At this hour…? Subsequent enquiries revealed
LEFT: The impressive Ark Citadel in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
that hitchhiking is the default commuter option for many. You stand by the side of the road, a driver wanting to make a little money will stop, and if you’re both going in the same direction he will be your impromptu cab.
The money is all part of the fun. The local currency is the som, the highest denomination of which is 5000, equal to about $NZ2.30. That means it takes a lot of som to buy just about anything. At my hotel there was a stack of money about the volume of a small suitcase piled up on the reception desk. There was no need for security as it didn’t add up to enough to be worth stealing.
So far, so quirky, and yet not that different from what one is used to. But leave the capital for the smaller, more historic towns and the wonders never cease. There in the middle of all the heat, dust and chaos, you’ll suddenly find yourself confronted with something magical, something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before or could see anywhere but in this fascinating place.
“How long does it take to drive to Samarkand?” I asked the hotel receptionist in Tashkent as we were about to set off.
“That depends how fast the driver goes,” he told me, with commendable common sense. And so we set off on, if not the original route, at least in the same general direction as the original Silk Road.
Whole lives were lived on this thoroughfare. Alliances were formed, marriages took place, children were born and people died and were buried. It’s unlikely anyone ever travelled the full length of the road. They might leave from China with a consignment of silk and meet someone at Samarkand heading in the opposite direction with fine metalware. A trade would take place and both parties would return to their point of origin to restock and start out again.
The figure from history who looms largest over Uzbekistan’s Silk Road is the conqueror Tamerlane, alias Timur
The Ark’s sloping walls seem to dare invaders to try their luck.