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.
I’ve been to Uzbekistan before (read about that here), but not to Khiva. So, this will be the most interesting part of this journey in Uzbekistan. Finally, we make it to the most westerly of the great Uzbek Silk Road cities. Khiva is split into two parts. The outer town, called Dichan Kala, was formerly protected by a wall with 11 gates. The inner town, or Itchan Kala, is encircled by brick walls, an ark fortress. The foundations are believed to have been laid in the 10th century, but the present-day crenellated walls date back to the late 17th century. They're 10 metres tall, with blue tiled panels and gates guarded by tall towers.
The 5 Ms of mosques, minarets, madrassas, mausoleums and museums remain the highlights. The Itchan Kala is home to more than 50 historic monuments (mostly restored or rebuilt) and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries.
There are several madrassahs; the Sherghazi Khan madrassah, was built in the 18th century by slaves and is one of the oldest buildings in Ichan-Kala. The Tach Khaouli Palace is covered in blue tiles and has lavishly decorated rooms. The Djuma Mosque, is has a hypostyle hall with 112 columns borowed from other old structures.
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 stye wedding dresses, entering the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum in various elaborate processions. Pahlavan Mahmud was an Iranian poet and wrestler who lived from 1247-1326. His tomb was a place of pilgrimage that grew so popular they eventually decided to enhance and beautify it. It's even being painted today. 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, the Islam Khodja Minaret. This, 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. The guide was right, but there are great views.
There is an alternative 40 step wider turquoise tower, that we can see from the top, but that's closed. That tower is an unfinished minaret, stopped at 26 metres when the builder Amin Khan died on a Persian battlefield mid 19th century. It has generated several legends. One master builder who refused to comply with instructions and work without pay, is supposedly walled up inside it. Or the master was executed before he could finish as the Emir of Bukhara had been promised a similar one. Or the builder was passionately in love with the emir's wife and he built the tower, so he could see her. But he was discovered, before it could be completed.
Next, a return to Beautiful Bukhara (read much more about Bukhara here). Fortunately, we begin with two sites I didn't see last time. First, the emir's summer palace, The Sitorai-Mokhi-Khosa Palace, reflected nicely in the lake. It's, somewhat ironically, styled after the winter palace in St Petersburg. Here, the emir indicated which lucky lady he had chosen for the night, by throwing her an apple.
Next, the Bug Pit, 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 madrassah 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 (and some spares) to match the dozen, now sadly eleven, I bought in Samarkand last time. I have lost an earring, my laptop, my passport and a bracelet, and had them all returned. (My passport was under my bed.) Dinner is a barbeque on the platform at the station, surrounded by freight trains. It’s a little bizarre.
Now, the 5 Ms of Samarkand again (See here for more on Samarkand). A return to Afrosiob, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Tamerlane’s Tomb and a wave to the Hotel Asia, across the park (it's 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. Snacks and window shopping in the growing avenues of souvenir and tea shops, before an unexpected adventure.
The train is going onto Tashkent, and I've also been there before. Passenger Shane and I noticed that Tajikistan was tantalisingly close, so we have planned a last minute side trip, with fellow traveller, Farida, over the border, instead. 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. 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. Then, he 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.
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. Over the border to Tajikistan.
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, 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 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.
We detour to Charvak proper, 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 churning 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).
The wooden four berth compartment on our train 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 a 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.
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 like being on a different planet.
Tiny 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 cliché 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.
Today it's only sizzling again, which is helpful as we have a tour of the five Moslem Ms: minarets, mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs (courtyard schools and no-one is quite sure how to spell the word in English) and museums. Bukhara contains literally hundreds of them. dating largely from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries. As well as bazaars and caravanserais, if we want to add ABC. People have inhabited the region around Bukhara for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for half that time. 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. Probably the most visited is the Po-i-Kalyan Complex. Here there's also a minaret which 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 legend attached to this tower (46 metres high) says that convicted criminals were executed by being thrown from the top. So, it's also known as The Tower of Death. 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. The Kalân Mosque (around 1540) can hold twelve thousand people. The Mir-i Arab Madrassah (1535–1536) here was built by more than three thousand Persian captives.
The Lab-i Hauz (By the Pool) Complex, unsurprisingly stands by a tiled pond surrounding one of the few remaining hauz, or pond, in the city of Bukhara. The sixteenth-century Kukeldash Madrasah here, is the largest in the city. Then, there's the Bahoutdin Architectural Complex, which is a necropolis. There's so much to see, I'm already giddy.
The surprisingly quiet Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah, has glittering muqarnas and small tiled cells for the students to study. Opposite, the earlier and therefore differently styled, more subdued, Ulugh beg Madrassah. I need to stress I'm only picking out a few of the many notable buildings here....
The key mausoleums are in and around the park, which has a lake and boats decorated like swans. The most esteemed is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. The intricately carved and domed cuboid is the burial place of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid dynasty. It's ninth century, so one of the oldest monuments in the area. It was here when Genghis Khan' invaded and spared from destruction, as it had been buried in mud, after flooding.
The other important mausoleum, close by, is Chashma-Ayub, or Job's Spring. This is where the biblical prophet Job (Ayub in the Koran) is said to have produced a spring, by striking the ground with his staff. The current edifice dates to the reign of Timur, and features an uncommon (in the region) conical dome. Curiously, I can't find any information telling me who is actually buried here.
Of course, Bukhara has many mosques. My favourite, the Chor Minor, with four towers, is not easy to locate. It's a distance away from the town centre. in a residential area. I tracked it down, after I saw it on the cover of my Lonely Planet Bible (LPB).
On the esplanade to the right from Char-Minar is a pool, likely of the same age as the rest of the building complex. Char Minar is now surrounded mainly by small houses and shops along its perimeter.
The other mosque I'm going to mention is the main Friday mosque, the Bolo Haouz, built in 1712. Plenty more intricately carved vaulting, many pillars and a curved green pool.
The Bolo Haouz Mosque faces the Bukhara Citadel, known as The Ark. This massive earthen fortress was initially built in the fifth century. It defended Bukhara, until it fell to Russia in 1920. In the interim it was home to many citizens, as well as the Royal Family. Today, it's an important part of the tourist circuit. It houses the throne room, the reception and coronation court, the court mosque and two museums: archaeological and historical.
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.
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. The road is 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. 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.
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 rebuilding most of the monuments. At one point, I am advised to move, to avoid tiles falling on my head.
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 this region, the everyday dresses are usually 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 ride 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 motoring at exactly 45 kph, so doubling the time of our journey.
Our hotel for the last part of our trip, in Samarkand, 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 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 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.
The next must see in Samarkand, to the south of the Registan, is the Gur-e Amir (Tomb of the King) complex. This gorgeously tiled turquoise dome covers the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. There's even space for Timur's teacher Sayyid Baraka.
There's yet another amazing blue domed complex, north of the Registan, at Tamerlane's Mosque, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
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 has tombs in other parts of the world too, 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.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.