One of the “Stans”
of Central Asia
preceded my Wild West Mongolia tour. Uzbekistan wasn’t exactly on the way to
Mongolia; nor particularly relevant to it. Except that it lies on the Great Eurasian
Steppe, as does Mongolia; and experienced the fury of the Mongol hordes. Oh,
and its people originated from the Turkic people that occupied the steppes of
today’s Mongolia long before the Mongols. So, I guess there’s a deal of
as such, is a more recent political invention created by Stalin – along with other “Stans” that
were in the former Soviet Union – in a way that divided clan allegiances and
trampled on their “glory days.”
As you can
see from the map below, Uzbekistan is part of Central Asia and is surrounded by
its former fellow Soviet Republics, now all independent nations: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, with a southern border joining Afghanistan.
attraction today is its history: the role of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva as destinations
and staging points on the ancient Silk Road; the glorious past of the Khorezm Kingdom;
and the conquests and structures of the Timurid Empire of Tamerlane.Tashkent
and finish point was Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
It has an
old quarter dating from the Arab invasions of the 7th century (part
of the initial spread of Islam) and a Russian quarter dating from the Tsarist
invasions of the 19th century, which has become modern Tashkent. In
the old Arab quarter, centred on Hast-Imam Square, the highlights were a former
madrassah turned into an artisans’ market, an elaborately decorated mausoleum of
early Arab imams and scholars and the local bazaar with an array of fine foods.
Amongst the treasures of the complex is the “Ottoman Koran” an original of the
7th century inscribed on deer skin.
part of town has the obligatory city square, where, following independence from
the toppled Soviet Union, the Turkic (Uzbek for current purposes) conqueror,
Tamerlane, has replaced Lenin. Neither would seem to represent any unifying or
even generally accepted national identity. The War Memorial was impressive
(Uzbekistan having lost several hundred thousand in the WW II). The inscription
reads (literal translation): “You will forever be in our hearts, beloved
patriot”. I guess it’s our version of Lest
around Tashkent is not a problem with its fast, efficient and spectacular
metro. Must see places in modern Tashkent were the national history museum and
a new museum in its specially constructed home dedicated to the
post-independence appointed national hero Timur/Temur/Tamerlane. He’s usually
known as Tamerlane in the West but his local name is Timur or Temur. He’s
considered one of the world’s great conquerors and empire creators but not
without some controversy about the extent of his, at times, wanton slaughter
and destruction. A couple of school excursions at the museum while we were
there provided opportunity for the kids to practise their English which they
were obviously learning at school. So lots and lots of “my name is ------.
What’s your name?”
There was a
time (dating from about the time of the Egyptian pyramids) when the ancient Kingdom
of Korezm ruled over a vast area of Central Asia, including today’s Uzbekistan.
The territory which would have been at the heart of the kingdom is known still as
Karakalpakstan. The vestiges of the empire today are several ruins of
fortresses that were once centres of military power, agriculture and ordinary
town living. There’s not a lot left of them but their ruins give more than a
hint of their one-time grandeur.
location on the desert stretching east from the Oxus River (so named by
Alexander the Great) – now called the Amur Darya – pretty much takes them off
the popular tourist paths. Finding some of them was a problem even for our
visiting as many as we could was the day’s goal. This day started with an early
morning flight from Tashkent to Urgench in the north of Uzbekistan. Mostly
tourists take the short drive from Urgench to Khiva for the start of their
tours. Out initial program provided for this, allowing a half day in Khiva
before setting out for Bukhara. We opted to spend the whole day exploring and
being amazed by the lost fortresses of Khorezm.
reputed to be over fifty of them spread across the edges of the Kyzylkum Desert,
but we had time to visit only four, three of which were truly spectacular.
Khiva late in the day gave us two nights and a full day sightseeing there. Khiva
is in north Uzbekistan. We’re still in Karakalpakstan or the Khorezm of past days.
can trace its existence back some millennia, its main historical notoriety has
been its demise and revival following the ravages of the Arab invasions, its
complete destruction by Genghis Khan’s invasion, its subjugation by Tamerlane
and its colonisation by the Russian tsars. Given its being razed to the ground
by the Mongols and substantially ransacked by the Timurids (Tamerlane) and the
Russians, it’s a wonder there is so much to be amazed by.
Not surprisingly, most of its
attractions date from the 18th and 19th centuries. The
city has been spectacularly reconstructed throughout both the Soviet and
independent years. Some 20 madrassahs (what we might call seminaries) have been
reborn as hotels, restaurants, galleries and artisans’ workshops and outlets.
It has the nation’s tallest minaret, which we climbed!
From Khiva to
Today was a
car trip to cover 450km from Khiva to Bukhara. Our journey would take us
through the Kyzylkum Desert stretching across a large slab of Uzbekistan. Lots
of sand – inevitably; and lots of low bushes – probably an equivalent of our
Salt Bush which is prevalent along the Stuart Hwy through Outback South
Australia. Some 90km or so was high standard dual carriageway, some built by
Korea and some built by Germany. The rest was single lane with plentiful
blemishes – not so much potholes as serious surface corruption; obliging
traffic in both directions to wander all over the road in often futile attempts
to find a smooth path. A bit disconcerting at times watching an over-laden
truck coming along our side convinced that the grass was greener there. At times
the Amur Darya River – named by Alex the Great as the Oxus, a name used for
centuries and which became a long-term geographic and political boundary of
kingdoms to follow – was not far off to our right (i.e. to the west). We were travelling in the land once known as
Transoxiana – a land coveted over centuries by warring kingdoms. A land also
traversed by the camel caravans of the Silk Road. It didn’t seem a land that
was particularly hospitable to either.
day’s drive through the Kyzylkum Desert, within sight at times of the Amu Darya
(Alexander the Great’s Oxus) River bordering Turkmenistan, we entered the gates
of one of the Silk Road’s fabled cities: Bukhara. We would have three nights/2
walking tour (next day!) took us to and through the mostly-restored mosques,
madrassahs (religious schools), mausoleums and markets. As in Khiva, the madrassahs
no longer have their original function (except for one in Bukhara); and have
become outlets for artisans and sellers of all sorts of handicrafts. They make
excellent venues for such, combining function with tourist attraction in
themselves. Only a couple of the mosques were “operational”. Those that are not freely display their past
and present grandeur. A lot of the market stalls were housed in an old domed structure
originally designed for trading. The lay-out of Bukhara meant that the attractions
in the Old City were within walking distance and located in ways that invited
you back many times to take in their atmosphere and explore their magnetism. Being
only two of us, we were able go inside the Great Emir’s Friday Mosque and enjoy
its peaceful atmosphere – something most other tourists would not experience.
towns and cities in this part of the world, waves of invasions destroyed lots.
Bukhara was destroyed and its population slaughtered by Genghis Khan’s invasion
(that was after experiencing the Arab invasions a few centuries earlier). It
was treated kindly by Tamerlane but damaged substantially by the Bolsheviks in
1920. So the early Soviet landlords bombed and ravaged; and the later Soviet
landlords spent time and $$$ restoring their own damage.
second day, apart from a visit to the small four-minareted madrassah of Chor-Minar,
the tour was “out of town”. The sights would have been well out of town in
their day, but are now within greater Bukhara. The first stop was at a complex
built round the tomb of Bakhoutdin Naqshbandi, a renowned Muslim Sufi
(equivalent to a saint in Christian concepts) that is regarded as so holy a
site that three pilgrimages to it replaced the obligation to make a pilgrimage
to Mecca.(There are a few such places round the world.)
Then to the
summer palace of the last emir (king) of Bukhara whose reign ended when the
Bolshevik revolution reached Bukhara in 1922 (the Emirate of Bukhara along with
other parts of Central Asia had been a Russian colony for several decades
following the Tsarist invasions of the 19th century). The attraction
of the palace was its Russian style architecture combined with traditional
Central Asian designs.
was the huge Chor-Bakr Necropolis. The site is dominated by a huge mosque and
cloister for Sufis surrounded by the tombs of a family who traced their
ancestry to Mohammed himself. The vast array of tombs, most still in desperate
need of restoration, belong to widely extended family members.
For a late
lunch we dropped into a small local café. The lady in charged first ushered us
into the kitchen to see what was on offer and choose from the various pots
bubbling on the stove. Novel menu! Wandering along the streets afterwards we
were initially stopped from entering an obvious restoration site until a man
came and invited us in to a marvellous spectacle of a much advanced restoration
of an old bathhouse. This was all before our $3.50 dinner accompanied by a
local red wine called “Bear’s Blood”!
Not so long
a drive today. A car trip from Bukhara to Samarkand. But still six hours with a
couple of stops along the way. First was the small town of Vabkent that hosts a
minaret comparable to its sibling one in Bukhara. Several kilometres further
was an interesting combination of iconic or archetypical structures from this
part of the world: the caravanserai and the sardoba. The former was the often
extensive structures that housed and provided protection to the caravans (camel
and donkey trains) plying the old Silk Road. The latter was a dome shaped
cistern that held and preserved fresh cool water to supply the caravanserai.
Sardobas were more plentiful than caravanserais as they were built in many
places to support villages and other settlements.
the jewel in the crown of the Silk Road cities: Samarkand.
It has a
history going back a couple of thousand years BC. But that was centred on the
ancient city of Marakanda the capital of Sogdiana (it all sounds like Game of
Thrones), which welcomed Alexander the Great but was later conquered by him for
its back-stabbing. Marakanda’s excavations are not far from the centre of
later Genghis Khan completely destroyed Samarkand. In the words of our guide,
Samarkand was rebuilt by Tamerlane from the ashes of Genghis Khan’s
destruction. Tamerlane (aka Timur or Timur the Lame) passed himself off
(knowingly deceptively) as a descendent of GK and set up the extensive Timurid
Empire with Samarkand as its capital.
city square called Registan is the centrepiece consisting of three spectacular
edifices on three sides of the square – two madrassahs and the Friday Mosque in
the middle, which, in fact, mostly gets billed as a madrassah. The interior of
the mosque out-goldens St Mark’s in Venice!
mausoleum is a key shrine for pilgrims who pray at his cenotaph. His wife had
her own highly regarded reputation leading to a mosque in her name – the Bibi-Khanum
Mosque. Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulugh Beg, acquired a world-wide reputation for
his advanced astronomy. Remains of his observatory were lost for centuries but later
excavated. He also built one of the madrassahs in the Registan as a secular
university – the first of its kind in Central Asia.
Our second day
started with a visit out of the centre of town to a local carpet making
factory. Done that before but didn’t buy any today. Back into town the first
stop was to a holy shine – the Shahi Zinda Complex. It seems another of the
type we struck in Bukhara that three pilgrimages can equate to a Haj (i.e. a
pilgrimage to Mecca).
housed the shrine to a close relative of Muhammad. Hence its sacred status. It included several impressive mausoleums of significant personalities
associated with Tamerlane. Adjacent to the complex was a large cemetery noted
for its Soviet era design of tombstones.
dropped by a complex off the beaten track that is in its early stages of
restoration – the Khodja Ahrori complex of a madrassah and mosque built by a
Sufi mystic; and hence attracted an adjacent cemetery. After a relaxed lunch in
the courtyard of a caravanserai (I suspect it might have been a modern
replica), I was anxious to revisit the Bibi-Khanum Mosque to get my head round
its layout. It’s a large complex with an outer gate leading to a courtyard with
an inner gate opening to the (unrestored) mosque. On opposite sides of the
courtyard are domed structures which might be small prayer rooms.
We ended up
with a further day 4 in Samarkand brought about by an unexpected cancellation
of our scheduled flight for Seoul. In retrospect, it would have been more
profitable to have spent the extra day in Bukhara rather than Samarkand (while
Samarkand might come out on top in terms of spectacular monuments, Bukhara has
a layout and atmosphere that makes it, for me at least, a more appealing city).
None the less, we spent another enjoyable day in Samarkand.
district museum in the old Jewish Quarter centred on a former synagogue was
dedicated to the acknowledged contribution the Jewish community has made to
Samarkand over many centuries. This was another insight into the Islam of
Central Asia – certainly Uzbekistan. It’s a Muslim country that proudly boasts several
holy sites and some of the most revered exponents of Islam, but, in its view,
remains faithful to its Muslim inheritance by the values it espouses without
the need to succumb to the superficial trappings or latter day inventions that
seem to characterise Islam in some other countries. I don’t think I’ve
experienced a country where the friendliness, courtesy and hospitality have
been so marked and so consistent.
A visit to
the local history museum and a drive out of town to the Al Bukhariy mausoleum –
a newly constructed complex of tomb, madrassah, hotel for pilgrims and mosque –
rounded off the day. Al Bukhariy was a renowned and prolific exponent of
Islamic doctrine and teachings. His tomb is a popular pilgrimage site.
A treat to
end the day was the two hour train ride to Tashkent on the “Afrosiab” –
Uzbekistan’s Very Fast Train (it’s the Spanish version of the VFT). The display
screen in the carriage hit 230kph a few times.
Here is a
slide show of my photos of the Uzbekistan trip: