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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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