Uzbekistan

My phone tells me I’min now in Uzbekistan – I have a signal again, but we’re still sitting in the train on the border with Turkmenistan. Our sightseeing in Khiva is due to start at 11a.m. but as it’s now 10.55 and we’re not yet in Urgench, our first stop in Uzbekistan, so I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Uzbekistan is immediately distinguished by mud walls, thatched outhouses, donkey carts and a girl in a miniskirt. As I noted before, and as has been the case all through Central Asia, the women generally wear long floral skirts and headscarves. The men sport jeans, tee shorts and windcheaters. Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR and Uzbekistan the cotton basket. Fields of fluffy bushes are already visible.

Khiva, Uzbekistan

I’ve been to Uzbekistan before, but not to Khiva, so this will be the most interesting part of my journey here. Finally, we make it to the most westerly of the great Uzbek Silk Road cities.  The 5 Ms of mosques, minarets, madrassas, mausoleums and museums remain the highlights. There's a fortress Ark here, which contains all the sights.

The contrast with Turkmenistan is stark. The people are incredibly friendly, queuing up to have their photos taken in long strings across the main square. TC Ted, like a baby in his harness, (fashioned out of my listening device lanyard), attracts constant attention and greetings. He attends a wedding too. There are streams of brides incongruously wearing white European wedding dresses entering one mausoleum in various elaborate processions. I have a lively conversation about cameras with the wedding photographers, who abandon their task to try out my telephoto lens.

We eat afternoon tea of overly sweet pastries, Arab style, on a raised carpeted platform with a low table. Then Tino from the train insists that we climb a 100 step narrow tower, despite the fact that the guide has told us it is really difficult, as there is a dark and steep spiral staircase going up and it's even worse coming down. There is an alternative 40 step wider tower too. The guide was right., but here are great views.

Bukhara the Sequel, Uzbekistan

Today, a return to Bukhara. Fortunately, we begin with two sites I didn't see last time. First, the emir's summer palace, somewhat ironically, styled after the winter palace in St Petersburg. Here, he indicated which lucky lady he had chosen for the night by throwing her an apple.

Next, the hole in the ground prison at Zindon where Stoddart (and Connelly who foolishly went to look for him) were imprisoned when trying to undermine Russian influence in Bukhara. The emir was not impressed and eventually executed them both in Samarkand. It's all fascinatingly explained in Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game.

More 5 Ms revisited: The fortress Ark, crenellations framed beautifully against a blue sky, the sultan's (Ismael Soltany) ancient mausoleum in the park with the swan boats, the Chor Minor - a madrassa with four minarets that features on the cover of the Lonely Planet Guide, the carved mosque pillars, the oldest minaret (this time we’re told it's all original), the fanciest bazaar and the elegant cafes in the squares and round the ornamental lakes. And another house, the Mickey House, so that's the sixth M.

Ginger and cinnamon tea in a traditional tea house and a productive and lucky day. I have bought a Christmas tree decoration to match the dozen, now eleven, I bought in Samarkand (and some spares) last time. I have lost an earring, my laptop, my passport and a bracelet, and had them all returned (I found my passport under my bed).  Dinner is a barbeque on the platform at the station, surrounded by freight trains. It’s a little bizarre.

Samarkand Revisited

Now the 5 Ms of Samarkand again. A return to Tamerlane’s Tomb and a wave to the Hotel Asia, across the park (its' now got a name), and the balcony with the view I had before. It’s all still very gorgeous, very restored and very upmarket. The Islamic architecture is in stark contrast to the art nouveau and realist architecture of the apartments and shops in the adjacent ‘new’ town constructed by the soviets. Another visit to the unmissable and unique Registan, the growing avenues of souvenir and tea shops, before an unexpected adventure.

The Road to Tajikistan

The train is going onto Tashkent, and I've been there before. Passenger Shane and I noticed that Tajikistan was tantalisingly close, so we have planned a last minute side trip, with fellow passenger, Farida, over the border. This involves a four hour taxi ride through the cotton harvest. There are cotton bales by the sides of the highway (as well as the usual flocks of goats and meandering along it) and minivans stacked to the gunwales with cotton pickers and/or heaps of the fleecy white stuff itself, while wisps of cotton float all across the road. As dusk approaches the darkness is enhanced by the pall of smoke from the burning of the cotton bushes.

I’m riding in front of the van to try and ward off motion sickness. As always, being front seat passenger is a little stressful. The drivers here have no sense of lane awareness at all. We are continually within millimetres of other vehicles. At one point, when it is now dark, our driver careers down a bank, as he realises he has taken the wrong turning and then overtakes on a road that is rough stone on one side, as it is being repaired. We veer hurriedly back to the carriageway as a mammoth unlit farm truck appears out of the gloom in front of us. But it’s six o’clock and we’ve made the Tajik border.

The Tajik Border

There is one customs man. He scans my form, groans and instructs me to re-do it and lie. I have written that I am taking out more U.S. dollars than I brought in. That’s because I paid my train bill in euros but got my change in dollars. Uzbek bureaucracy can’t cope with that. ‘Have a good journey’, he says.

A Diversion From The Goldan Road, Uzbekistan

My tour group has been through Tashkent and The Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, heading east on the Silk Road. Now we're back in Uzbekistan picking up the Silk Road in the other direction, where it's become The Golden Road to Samarkand., or so I thought. But apparently, there's a lake diversion first. And t, I also have to conclude that I have picked up a bug. I trot off to the chemist, down a lethal looking cocktail and return to bed. I contemplate passing on our unexpected diversion to the reservoir, at Charvik, but decide it would cause more aggravation than I could cope with, both explaining and signing off the trip.

It's baking hot and hazy. We are skirting the edge of the desert so the hills are arid, baked brown, whilst the rivers trickling alongside the roads are a dazzling turquoise. Yet another example of nature painting the perfect palette. The stalls pointing the way are festooned with plastic swimming rings; clearly there is a seaside in Uzbekistan too.

Except that we don't get to experience it. The glacier blue reservoir is revealed in tantalising glimpses as we climb the mountain roads above the huge dam, but our hotel has been changed at the last moment. We are in the mountains still, now five kilometres from the lake. The guest house is pleasant (especially when benchmarked against recent experiences), except for the shared bathrooms, but I don't understand the logic of driving out from Tashkent - surely there are hotels there with swimming pools? I'm still very lethargic, but it's impossible to sleep with the incessant stream of English muzak that is belted out. Ironic, when no one here speaks the language.

Charvak, Uzbekistan

We detour to Charvak itself, by group request on the way back to Tashkent. I'm happily feeling better, but opt for a sleep on a shady bench rather than joining the masses doing their thing on the uncomfortable looking concrete and rock perches by the water. There is every type of water sport imaginable on offer and more music churns out over the funfair.

Others in the group are looking a bit green around the gills too. No one is anticipating our trip on the train to Bukhara tonight with any great enthusiasm, except Australian Margaret. She is one of these larger than life women whose opinion is the only one that counts. However, she is very positive and everything (it seems to me) is graded on a four point scale (good, lovely, beautiful or sensational).

Train to Bukhara

The wooden four berth compartment is stifling and there are some evil smells wafting around. Drifting through the window or emanating from suffering fellow passengers? I'm unsure and I'm not going to ask. Both the window and the door have to remain open or the heat is unbearable.

I was wrong about having got rid of my bug. Either it metamorphosed or I picked up another one. I am sleeping reasonably well, but I just about fall out of my top bunk at 3 a.m. in the rush to get to the toilet before disaster strikes. I monopolise that part of the train for the next two hours. Enough detail on that I think, except to say that I am once again tired and spaced out. we seem to be in the habit of grading things lately so I need also to mention that the heat here is at incinerator level.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Other than that things are looking up. I'm now at the western most point of my Silk Road journey. The hotel is clean and prettily arranged round a courtyard in traditional style. Bukhara, a city that's over two thousand years old, is definitely worth seeing. My Lonely Planet Bible describes it as enchanting and I'm not going to argue with that. It's certainly like being on a different planet.

Little alleys tip you out onto squares with cool cafés arranged around little green lakes with fountains. Atmospheric caravanserai pop up round every corner stuffed with trinkets. Suddenly every bazaar caters for tourists, beautiful embroidery flutters everywhere, tastefully bright bags abound, silver earrings beckon invitingly and hats of every description proliferate; a different style for every day of the year, let alone enough to supply a party. I'm drawn to the jaunty silk numbers with tassels. Every oriental cliche from Aladdin to Ali Baba, to Sherezade to Omar Kayam is utilised. We've also gone considerably up market. Nothing is cheap and everything is priced in dollars.

Bukhara Old City, Uzbekistan

Today it's only sizzling  again, which is helpful as we have a tour of the five Moslem Ms: minarets, mosques, mausoleums, madrassas (courtyard schools) and museums. Bukhara is, in the main, beautifully kept, if over restored. (The Bolshevik army had a field day here demolishing buildings.) The Ms are arranged in a variety of appealing combinations. The more complex arrangements are known as ensembles, the ubiquitous blue tiles and soaring gates, surmounted by turquoise domes. There's also a minaret that towers over the city in such an incredible fashion that Ghengis decided to spare it when he came conquering. It's a shame the same can't be said for the Russians, but at least it's been rebuilt. The amazing tower also causes problems for my Margaret Scale. When she sees it she says 'Aw it's awesome', so now I will have to expedite a revision.

A cultural show in the evening, which means folk dancing and a poor dinner. Then there is a power cut. It's not easy finding your way back to the hotel in pitch black alleys. I try not go think about who or what might be lurking in the shadows.

The Golden Road, Uzbekistan

AAAARGH the lurgy has returned yet again. Today I've been throwing up. Well at least there is variety in the way these bugs make themselves known. And we're on our way to Samarkand. Flecker's Golden Road to Samarkand is a misnomer. It's dirty brown semi desert with tufts of grass that are yellow or green. Though to be fair it does get more yellow as Samarkand approaches and the land becomes even drier. These are much poorer areas with the usual flocks of goats and sheep, mud brick farmhouses and little wells.

The hay that can be scratched from the scraps of pasture stands in little green stooks and patient donkeys (when not tugging huge carts) find ingenious ways, stretching leashes and standing on three legs, to reach the most succulent remaining leaves and blades of grass. Any gaps with fertile soil are plugged with cotton fields; the Soviets turned the country into the world's fourth biggest producer. Rocky mountain ranges create a backdrop to the tableau.

Shahrisabz

We don't go straight to Samarkand, but make a diversion to the great Emir Timur (Tamerlane)'s home town of Shahrisabz. Here, the fifteenth century palaces and mausoleums are still in ruins. LPB says they give an authentic flavour of what Samarkand was like before the restoration mob moved in. Unfortunately, the mob are already in town and vast swathes of shops and houses have been bulldozed in readiness for the tourist hordes. They haven't yet got round to restoring most of the monuments and at one point I am advised to move to avoid tiles falling on my head.

Life in Uzbekistan

Although Uzbekistan is virtually a totalitarian state the people on the whole seem content with Islam Karimov's rule. Or so they say. It's a Moslem country, but not a Moslem state, so whilst the people tend to dress conservatively there are very few burkas or face coverings in evidence. The fashion is for more colourful garb and tied scarf headdresses. In the evening and for formal occasions both men and women opt for the golden edged pork pie hats. They look very elegant in these matched with flowing gowns. In Shahrisabz the everyday dresses are matched with long pantaloons. Equality between the sexes, as we know it, is embryonic. Women are expected to be obedient to their husbands and most wives take on the role of cook- housekeeper within the extended family. The vast majority of marriages are still arranged.

Our current Russian driver isn't doing very well today. We have been stopped by policemen angling for a premium on their salary. Later, everyone complains to guide Surat about the quality of the driving itself. The driver has been specialising in white knuckle rides. The roads in the south of the country aren't great anyway and there are huge ruts. Coupled with this the minivan of the moment doesn't seem to have much in the way of suspension, so it's like being on a bucking bronco. Surat passes the comments on to the driver, whilst we are sightseeing, but possibly not in the most tactful way. We spend the next two hours driving at exactly 45 kph, so doubling the time of our journey.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Our hotel for the last part of our trip appears incredibly ostentatious. It's a vast package tourist establishment that we assume has been included to try and persuade us to forget previous tribulations. As always first impressions are deceiving. It's The Hotel in the Land That Time Forgot. There's no food on offer, no one knows when the swimming pool will open or how to get to it, (ask the swimming pool manager), there's no hot water until 6pm and the lights operate according to their own whim. More mysteriously, it does not appear to have a name. There are no information documents available and no embroidered tags on linen. So I go outside to try and solve the puzzle. The sign on top says simply 'Hotel'.

I've decided to drown my bugs with vodka. Only time will tell if this is a good idea.

All the food here gets served at room temperature, whether it's ostensibly a hot dish or a cold one. If you're not here when the breakfast buffet is set out out then you get your eggs  at room temperature. Few of the shops, especially in the villages and small towns, have fridges, and drinks too are served at room temperature, which is pretty high as the day wears on.

Samarkand - a Beautiful Lady with Make Up

Samarkand is the advertised jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan, ,Timur's capital. The locals say if Bukhara is a beautiful woman then Samarkand is a beautiful lady with make up. Samarkand's certainly much bigger, with the sights more spread out than in Bukhara. Modern Samarkand is divided into two parts: the old city, and the new city, which was developed during the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.. I can see all this from from my sixth floor balcony, where there is a great view of the fabled Registan ensemble of three madrassas. This hotel does have its redeeming features. No terrace seats provided, but I drag the desk chair outside to stand on and take photos.

Off to visit the 5 Ms of Samarkand. They have indeed had a great deal of make up plastered on, but are undoubtedly impressive. The same style as seen previously, but grander and more opulent; the turquoise domes are now patterned rather than plain, for example. Much of the city has been rebuilt. Some of the new bazaars resemble Bond Street, rather than having an oriental flavour and souvenirs are expensive. There are ceramics with gorgeous intricate arts and crafts patterns.

The Registan

The Registan is the main draw in Samarkand. It. was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, - and a place of public executions. It is framed by three beautifully wrought madrassas... I'm worried that if the Registan lives up to its billing close up I may well have to revise my Margaret Scale once more. However, she declares that she is lost for words, so all is well.

Afrosiob, - Ancient Samarkand

Samarkand ladies seem to be keen on striped ankle socks with bear motifs. They are especially common on the older women.

Today, the really ancient Samarkand, known as Afrosiob (or Marikanda depending on which guide you believe). There are earthworks and reconstructed frescoes. In this area are also the fifteenth century observatory of Ulugbek (picture up top) with some long astronomical tunnels, and the tomb of Daniel (he of lion fame). Daniel also has tombs in other parts of the world, most notably Iran. One story says that his body keeps growing so they have to keep enlarging the already very large sarcophagus. Another, that only his arm is buried here. No-one can check as Islam forbids the opening of tombs. The finale is the sublime Avenue of Mausoleums, a whole stepped street of (heavily renovated) richly tiled tombs of assorted designs from the Tamerlane era.

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