I have had an image of the ancient trading city of Samarkand in my mind dating from my fascination with geography as a child when I would pour over pictures of the world in encyclopedias [the internet of the 50’s]. This was reinforced about 20years ago when I attended a lecture in Manchester from a bloke who had spent 6 months travelling the Silk Road in the steps of Marco Polo. He hailed from Macclesfield and eventually arrived at the silk worm farm in China which supplied the local Cheshire silk weaving mill with the raw material. The lecture was a fascinating insight into his own adventures along the way as well as a portrait of the Silk Road and all its famous cities. So when some friends were organising a trip earlier last year I jumped at the chance of visiting this largely unknown country and the cities of Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. I’ve just realised I never published the post and have been prompted by a new series on BBC4. So in no particular order ………..
1. The People.
Have to start here, everybody we met was friendly and were happy to be photographed, in fact they sort us out to be photographed with. Local Uzbeks and Russians who had stayed on. 90% of the population are Muslims but the ladies weren’t shy and the blokes liked sharing a vodka with you. Gold teeth were a specialty.
2. Ancient civilisations.
The history of the region is long and convoluted but all is based on the importance of the trading routes. In BC Persian and Buddist religions travelled along the Silk Roads, Alexander the Great arrived, the Arabs established Islam in the 7th century and Genghis Khan was responsible for destroying most of the previous civilisations when he invaded in the 12/13th Century. On the edge of the western desert, Khorezm, are the remains of several large 4 – 6th century fortresses built from mud and sand.This was an important oasis and the city became one of the most important in the region. Genghis destroyed it and the river changed course leaving a barren landscape which gives a dramatic backdrop to the ruins visible today.
3. Domes and Minarets.
Islamic architecture was everywhere and these two features were most photogenic.
4. Mosques, Mausoleums and Madrassas.
Each city had superb examples of mosques and madrassas usually with amazing blue tiles, columns, mosaics, calligraphy and vaulted ceilings. Earthquakes and invasions have devastated many buildings but there has been extensive skilled restoration to bring back to life the glory of the past. The Registan in Samarkand is one of the worlds greatest example of Medieval Islamic Architecture.
The less said about the roads the better, the infrastructure has been neglected and potholes abound making progress slow. In the vast desert we came across one stretch of ‘motorway’ being constructed with German and Chinese money. There was always a variety of humans and animals sharing the carriageways.
6. Food and drink.
I find local cuisines are a large part of travel but was not expecting a lot from here. Limited menus with fatty mutton predominating. We ate in hotels, restaurants, private houses and on the street. Service was often slow. All meals started with fresh salads often including aubergines and beetroot, these were often the best part of the meal although I was disappointed with the round breads which are supposedly a national treasure. Soups were common vegetable broths and better without the fatty meat. The same can be said for the Plov – the national dish of rice, carrots and mutton. There was not much variety though one never went hungry. The ubiquitous tea, served in pretty porcelain cups, was always welcome. Avoid the local wines but the beer and vodka were excellent.
There were local markets selling everything and then there were the tourist stalls full of ‘silk’ scarves, hats and all the usual, probably Chinese, tat. Carpet dealers seemed expensive, traditional woodworking was fascinating and we visited some authentic pottery workshops.
Representations of the national hero from the 14th century Amir Timur [Tamerlane] being prominent everywhere. There were more artistic efforts commemorating the Soviet occupation and recent earthquakes.
Out of the cities most housing seems to be part accommodation and part farm, self sufficient small holdings. They look fairly primitive but I didn’t get a chance to look inside.
Town houses are rather ramshackle affairs some still using mud bricks. They have clean courtyards with beds in the shade for relaxing on. There is an abundance of natural gas and this piped through the lanes to the houses with what looks a dangerous antiquated DIY network. Soviet style concrete edifices are still occupied.