Stage 2 – Kazakhstan & Uzbekistan: The Silk Road
From the time that this journey was first being planned in the summer of 2004, until late 2006 (when another planned departure date slipped past), the goal was Africa, a continent I’d hardly set foot in. Earlier, in the summer of 2003 I’d made an overland trip from Istanbul to Beijing (using public transport) and was deeply impressed by Asia, especially its ever-changing beauty, and the warmth of the people. Yet Africa, especially the Sahara and wild tracts of Central African rainforest, still had a stronger draw. It was the countries of Central Asia (that is Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan) which finally drew my attentions east instead of south. In my mind were conjured the classical images of the region; heart-stopping turquoise-domed shrines, two-humped Bactrian camels, and the smooth, snow-clad peaks of the Pamirs. At the time I first visited Central Asia then, in the summer of 2007, it was in my mind the main destination of the trip. If I made it further to Pakistan and India, that would be great, but I’d already visited both those countries. Central Asia was terra incognita for me. Looking back now, having made two subsequent visits to Central Asia in 2009 and 2011, the area was at the heart of the trip, though 2007 provided more of a regional overview than an in-depth exploration.
It’s the 8th July 2007, and I roll into Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. If my transition to this southern region of Kazakhstan marks my entry into the ‘real’ Central Asia, then Almaty is something of a false start. It lies deep inside the Eurasian continent, is one of the most remote cities in the world from the ocean yet on first impression it seems to be strongly European; far more like the cities of Siberia than what one would imagine a ‘real’ Central Asian city might look like. There are no turquoise domes, no mud-brick buildings, and certainly no camels. Even the population seems to be as much European as Asian. The atmosphere is of rapid economic development, and like Kyiv, I see once again a huge inequality between the city and the unchanging countryside. The city’s air is even rather ostentatious; the Central Asian nouveau-riche are seemingly even more crass than those of Eastern Europe.
However questionable Almaty’s credentials as a ‘real’ Central Asian city are, it’s superficially a beautiful, well-ordered and clean city, though interesting more for its gorgeous setting at the foot of the striking Ile Alatau Mountains, deep emerald-green on their lower slopes immediately behind the city and snow-capped in their higher reaches, than for any historical or cultural attractions. I’m hosted firstly by Amanda, a young American journalist, and then Inanç, a Turkish construction engineer. Between them, they help me to get one of my car springs fixed; Amanda has a friend flying without luggage from London to Almaty, who brings the spring and Inanç introduces me to two Uzbek welders who cut off the old spring and fit the new one. To have the car at least half-fixed is a great relief, especially given the terrible state of Kazakhstan’s roads. I spend a very enjoyable time with Amanda and Inanç; they are the first foreigners I have seen and the first people with whom I can speak English since Novosibirsk two weeks earlier. Evenings spent eating Turkish döner and sitting in Panfilov Park with a cold beer with Inanç are particularly fond memories. However, as comfortable and welcoming as my stay is, this isn’t quite the Central Asian experience I’d been dreaming of.
After a pleasant week, I reluctantly leave the congenial, green surroundings of Almaty and drive west towards the Uzbekistani border, into an area which is the most traditional and most ethnically Kazakh in the country. Here the nomadic Kazakh culture meets that of the settled Uzbeks, creating a wholly different atmosphere to that which pervades the north of the country.
On the second day of my westward drive, my first stop is a village just west of the city of Taraz, named after the mausoleum of Aisha Bibi, the beautiful daughter of a Sufi Mystic who died as a fiancée of a local notable. The twelfth century Karakhanid-era mausoleum is an elegant cube with a sharp conical dome, all in the buff colour of native clay. On closer inspection however, the structure is covered in finely carved terracotta tiles, whose relief creates sensual and changing textures from natural sunlight, rather than using the exuberant colour of faience. This well proportioned mausoleum is, rather touchingly, a monument to love and faithfulness, and local women visit the mausoleum for just these reasons. From an architectural point of view this style represents the earliest one commonly encounters in Central Asia, a rare surviving piece of pre-Mongol architecture.
The mid-July heat is terrific as I press further west towards the Syr Darya River (the Jaxartes of the Ancients), beyond which lies the fearsome Kyzyl Kum Desert. Whilst in the north and centre of the country the temperature was in the low- to mid-thirties, the temperature here tops forty, and at one point I record 47°C inside the truck, with both windows fully open. Dust-devils pound the side of the truck from the parched, empty plains, and tumbleweed rolls across the highway. In this heat, the mind is idle, the ceaseless urge of the body to consume fluids eclipses any thought.
I make a detour however to see what is almost certainly the greatest piece of historical architecture in the country: the mausoleum of Khoja Akhmet Yassawi in Turkistan. Yassawi (named for Yassi, the classical name of the city) was a Turkic Sufi Mystic and a founder of the first tariqah (order) of mysticism in the Turkic world. Such shrines are common right across the Islamic world but in Kazakhstan, the pilgrim city of Turkistan is a centre of Islam and of religious piety. Kazakhs are not by nature particularly religious people; a nomadic lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to the trappings of settled religion, and in general are not big on going to the mosque, or reading the Qur’an. Drinking vodka seems almost universal in men, and women as often as not dress according to the Russian rather than Islamic school. From the outside, Kazakh society seems largely secular.
However, in places such as Turkistan, one sees a new side to Kazakhs. Islam for them seems, perhaps after decades of public repression, to be more spiritual; rather than being obsessed petty ritual and public posturing, there seems something a little deeper. Pilgrims come and quietly pray to themselves whilst pressing a hand against the wall of the mausoleum. They circumambulate the shrine, always keeping a hand on its wall, which runs a path smoothed and darkened over the years. Touch seems an important part of the connection with the buried mystic. I watch one lone woman – dressed casually but for a white headscarf – lean her back against a wall of one monumental portal, gazing up at the magnificent faience tilework, praying and gently weeping in contemplation. This silent, private Islam impresses me, but it’s just a mere glimpse into the highly secretive and spiritual Islam one occasionally encounters in the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
For myself, Turkistan is a wonderful introduction to Timurid architecture (named after Timur, or Tamerlane); the iconic post-Mongol style of turquoise-domed shrines and medressas (seminaries) of Central Asia. The people who constructed the mausoleum were actually Shaybanid (ancestors to modern Uzbeks) rather than Kazakh, but this southern region of the modern country has long been the meeting point between nomad and townsman. Yassawi’s mausoleum is characteristic in its great size, with a vast single arch framing the small entrance. The building’s exterior remains largely plain mud-brick, unfinished due to the death of Timur during construction, though the rear wall and portal are exquisitely tiled in mesmerising geometric patterns of turquoise and lapis. The mausoleum is literally crowned by a stunning, ribbed turquoise dome, like the segments of a peeled orange with black lozenges on each flank, and seems to glow in the late afternoon sun.
I leave Kazakhstan the following day, doubling back slightly and bypassing the town of Shymkent, down to the border post just outside Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, which is rather charmingly called Zhibek Zholi, or ‘Silk Road’. Kazakhstan has been my favourite country of the trip so far; it’s huge, empty, wild, pristine open spaces are the perfect antidote to the confined life of Western Europe. I mistakenly imagine that the rest of the country is flat, dull and devoid of anything interesting. I would return in 2011 to prove myself wrong.
I manage to leave Kazakhstan, but I don’t get any further. The border crossing is on the main road from Almaty to Tashkent and is bedlam; with an unruly scrum of old cars jostling to get into the gates before the border closes at sunset. I soon notice that there is at work an unwritten and unspoken order; money is changing hands, and some people are advancing, while others are resigned to their places. It’s an early encounter with the way things are done in Central Asia.
Eventually, as I near the front of the queue, Uzbekistani customs tell me I can’t enter Uzbekistan with a right-hand drive vehicle (nothing was ever mentioned on my four subsequent visits with the truck). I take this news with a touch of dismay, for I have no means to re-enter Kazakhstan, but also amusement. Given the amount of money changing hands here, any problem might ultimately be solved with a little financial inducement. As always, I choose patience over bribery as my approach, and end up sleeping in no-man’s land for the night.
The following morning I manage to get into the country, and I’m immediately impressed with how different it looks. Gone is Kazakhstan’s atmosphere of impending prosperity and economic reform, replaced by the inertia of timeless Asia. The roadsides are lined with piles of melons, chaikhanas (tea shops) where old men laze on elevated, carpeted platforms sipping tea from wide bowls and playing nard (backgammon), and old women selling sunflower seeds and single cigarettes from battered old suitcases perched on rusty prams. To look at, the Uzbeks seem far more heterogeneous than the population of Kazakhstan, as one would perhaps expect from a settled people in the centre of Eurasia. On the streets I see virtually no Russian faces, and Uzbekistan straight away feels far more its own country than Kazakhstan does.
During Soviet times Uzbekistan was without a doubt the powerhouse of Central Asia, with the largest population and most developed industry and infrastructure. The discovery of hydrocarbons in neighbouring Kazakhstan, coupled with the tyrannic and repressive rule of the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, has seen Uzbekistan demoted to a distant second. They do at least have a more obviously preserved culture than the Kazakhs however, and I very much felt that I had taken a step closer to the Asia which I knew.
From the border compound I soon find myself on the Tashkent Orbital, though I opt to skip the city for the moment and head south-west. The chaotic suburbs, which seem to be one giant market, fade into satellite towns, then into the dull countryside; hot, dusty cotton fields interspersed by bland, flyblown villages. Cotton, which is grown almost as a monoculture in Uzbekistan, is the country’s biggest export, its ‘white gold’ and (perhaps after the President), its greatest curse. The crop needs heavy inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and most critically in this vast Central Asian desert, water. Each year land is degraded, salinated, and turned into to desert, water supplies are polluted by agricultural chemicals, and water levels in the main rivers continue to drop. Despite an international pledge against child-labour, school-children are marched out of the country’s schools to help bring in the cotton crop each October.
In the afternoon I reach Samarkand. The very name, more than any other in the region seems to carry its own romance; the fabled and unreachable Silk Road city out in the barbaric steppes beyond the Oxus River. I’m not disappointed with my first glimpse of the city; once through the outer sprawl the glorious Timurid monuments come into view, with turquoise domes dotting the skyline. I stop off at the guesthouse of the Bahodir family, which would end up being something of a regular haunt on this trip, with further trips in 2007, 2009 and 2011, each time warmly welcomed by the family, and each time meeting other travellers, many of whom I am still in contact with. It’s one of those rare and wonderful nodes in Central Asia where one’s path crosses with that of many others travelling in the region.
Samarkand’s centrepiece is the Registan (marketplace), which in reality consists of three medressas lining three sides of a central square. The architecture alone is stunning; a megalomaniac’s showpiece of minarets, towers, domes, vast ornate portals and delicate arched galleries running in two tiers above the central court. This Timurid elegance is cloaked in acres of dazzling mosaic tiles of deep turquoise, lapis and gold, made all the more striking by their muted background of native buff; the intrinsic colour of the surrounding plains. I still consider the Registan the most impressive piece of Islamic architecture in the world for its sheer, exotic beauty. Timur’s classical monumentalism continues throughout the city; in the gargantuan Bibi Khanoum Mosque he built for his Chinese wife (which was so large it crumbled under its own weight) and in the Gur-e Emir, the large family mausoleum in which he is interred, under the largest piece of black jade in the world.
My personal favourite however, is the Shah-i Zindah Necropolis, centred upon a collection of mausolea, pretty miniatures of the monsters elsewhere in the city, many of which house members of Timur’s family. According a common Islamic tradition, locals bury their dead around the shrines to the big man’s relatives, and the over the surrounding hills is an ever-growing necrepolis. Pilgrims come in an air similar to that of Turkistan; silent and intimate. A mullah sings prayers and Qur’anic verses in a soft yet piercing voice, and it’s the only point in the city where I feel I’m in an Islamic country.
One thing that struck me fairly soon in Samarkand however, and that would strike me elsewhere in the country, and on subsequent visits, is that although the country’s monuments are strikingly beautiful, and recently restored (often rather hastily), they are exactly that: monuments; still, lifeless relics of a bygone age. Somehow the subdued local culture has nothing in common any longer with the magnificent buildings. Comprehensive ‘Sovietisation’ over three or four generations has detached people’s lives from the mosques, shrines and seminaries which surround them; there is no air of the Persian bazaar, where old, vaulted markets bustle with activity and wind their way around very-much-still-alive mosques and religious schools in a piece of social architecture which links the lives of the cleric, the trader and the common man. Here the bazaars are bland, sterile and full of low-quality Chinese crap. The local Uzbeks approach the buildings in much the same way I do, as a curious visitor, rather than a component of the cultural landscape of the city. So while the places are beautiful, great for visitors and for photographs, they lack atmosphere acutely. To compound this, the government, in looking to safeguard and increase the tourist industry is doing everything it can afford to do in order to further sterlise the atmosphere of ‘Old’ Samarkand, and keep the locals and their activities well away from the places foreign tourists want to see. It’s tragic, but in a country where opponents of the regime may find themselves boiled in oil, nobody is opposing anything.
Bukhara, once the holiest city of Central Asia, known to the Arabs as Bukhara-i Sharif, or ‘Bukhara the noble’, is something slightly different; a more complete, medieval old city of medressas, mosques, hauz (pools), and remnant stretches of covered market, almost completely detached from the modern half of the city. The Old city is centred on the Po-i Kalan (Grand Foundation), which is not far short of Samarkand’s Registan for sheer, dazzling grandeur. On first sight, I think this undeniably attractive old city might be where I find my ‘real’ Central Asia, but whilst more homogenous than the old parts of Samarkand, it’s somewhat given-over to serving tourists and also therefore slightly lacking in atmosphere.
However, away from the main sights of the old city, one can catch glimpses of traditional Central Asia through the open doors and into the shady, vine-covered courtyards of traditional family compounds. Here children play while women wash clothes and clean enormous steel cooking dishes used for making plov, whilst men sit in shady corners smoking and playing cards or nard (backgammon). From these twisting mud-walled lanes with their stinking open sewers, one sometimes catches the city’s skyline, a maze of buff rooftops, façades and minarets, crowned by several large turquoise domes. Before the Russian occupation, Bukhara must have been a marvellously exotic place, though any European venturing here then was likely to meet a grizzly end at the hands of the barbaric and sycophantic Emir. Today, it feels rather like a working museum of a once-great city. Away from the Old City, on the edge of the bland modern side of Bukhara lies a small, ancient mausoleum of the same vintage as that of Aisha Bibi, an elegant, terracotta tiled cube, this time topped with a simple dome and surrounded by a modern park. This is said to be the tenth century burial site of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid Empire, one of several Persian dynasties to rule what is now referred to as Central Asia, and a reminder that for the most part, the history of Central Asia is linked inextricably with Persia rather than Russia.
The third major city of architectural appeal in Uzbekistan is Khiva, lying out in the oasis region of Khorezm, which sits on the Amu Darya (Oxus) river between the bleak wastes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert to the north, and the bleak wastes of the Kara Kum Desert to the south. Its compact, walled Old-City, the Ichon Kala, is another over-restored museum surviving from tourist income, again strikingly beautiful and photogenic, though additionally lacking any buildings with the grace of those in Samarkand or Bukhara. After a few hours looking around Khiva in 40°C heat, I realise I won’t find the ‘real’ Central Asia in modern Uzbekistan. Of course, the ‘real’ Central Asia I was looking for at the time was fictional (though I would ultimately find it in Afghanistan two years later). What I saw was the real, modern Uzbekistan, the heart of Central Asia. If it didn’t conform to the stereotype I was looking for – the Central Asia from the pages of Curzon’s travels – that was my problem for being so naive. In subsequent visits to the country, I began to see past the glittering monuments and discover the warm, kind and gentle Uzbeks and Tajiks of Uzbekistan who are extremely ‘real’, and are the true face of this troubled country. But in summer 2007 I was a touch disappointed by these fabled cities.
It was time therefore, for something a little different; something more tragic and morbid. The Karakalpaks are a Turkic group very close to Kazakhs (some question the authenticity of any differentiation at all), and were ‘given’ their own autonomous region within Uzbekistan during Soviet times. The Karakalpakstan Republic is located in the north-west of the modern country, and is a land of utter desolation, with the exception of a fertile ribbon along the banks of the Amu Darya. The southern remnants of the Aral Sea lie within the republic’s territory, and the region has suffered acutely from the Aral Sea Disaster. In the 1960s, the Soviets began to greatly increase cotton production in Central Asia, largely in Uzbekistan. Huge amounts of water for irrigation were siphoned off the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, with the predictable (i.e. pre-meditated) effect of a devastating drop in water levels of the Aral Sea, a large, endorheic, saline lake fed exclusively by the two aforementioned rivers. Today the Aral Sea has disappeared almost entirely from the territory of Uzbekistan, and the local Karakalpaks are blighted by hotter summers and colder winters as a result of the loss of the Aral Sea’s climatic buffering, and from numerous respiratory complaints due to wind-borne salt aerosols coming from the former sea-bed.
The desperate, almost deserted town of Moynaq sits out upon an endless, blazing expanse of the most desolate country imaginable, and is a stinging reminder of the Soviets’ callous environmental negligence. Photographs and paintings of Moynaq from the 1960s and ’70s show a quaint, happy seaside town set upon a wide, curving bay of the Aral Sea which looks just like the ocean. It was a community based on fishing, and on tourism. Citizens from the depths of Soviet Central Asia would flock to Moynaq for a warm seaside holiday, deep in the centre of the Eurasian landmass. Today Moynaq swelters 120 km from the nearest remnant scrap of the Aral Sea, a lifeless, hyper-saline body of water now far more like the Dead Sea than the ocean.
Yet a trickle of tourists still come, not holidaymakers, but voyeurs (such as myself) of the tragedy which has befallen the environment and the local people here. Most poignant are the boats of Moynaq’s former fishing fleet, marooned out in the desert, slowly rusting to nothing or being stripped by salvagers. I don’t feel particularly easy coming to gape and photograph the misfortune of the town’s remaining inhabitants, but in fact visitors such as myself are probably all that keeps the place alive. Whilst the northern sector of the Aral Sea, which lies within the territory of Kazakhstan and is now a wholly separate body of water, is now experiencing quite a rapid rejuvenation, the southern sector is doomed. To reverse the damage would require the dismantling of vast swathes of irrigation agriculture further upstream, something a country already struggling to maintain its cotton yields cannot afford to even contemplate. There is no hope for Moynaq.
I re-trace my steps back down the length of the country, through Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, all the way to Tashkent. The capital of Uzbekistan is the only true metropolis in Central Asia. It was the fourth largest city in the USSR (after Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev). I have come to love Tashkent over the years, and it’s a place I’ll describe in more detail whilst covering further stages of the journey. On this first visit, as on subsequent visits, I stay in the apartment of the Grachev Family, whom I stayed with in Novosibirsk. They had lived in Tashkent until 1997 when, like many Russians, they decided that economic and social conditions were not favourable and moved to Russia. In the apartment was also Nail, the son of the Grachevs’ former neighbours, and Igor, a colleague of Yuri Grachev who was visiting on business. We go out one evening with someone who Igor describes as a ‘Big Boss’ I was about to have a highly memorable run-in with post-Soviet Central Asian hospitality.
The big boss’s name is Kamil, an Uzbek from Jalalabad, just over the border in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. We enter a flashy-looking restaurant packed with Tashkent’s upper social echelons, and soon the food and vodka start flowing. I pass on the vodka. Kamil turns out to be quite a mover in Tashkent. He is the director of a construction firm and, naturally, is also a police chief of some sort, and a childhood friend of the brother of the president of Kyrgyzstan. He also turns out to be extremely helpful, offering firstly for his son to arrange for the second new spring, which has been flown into Tashkent, to be fitted to my car and giving me the personal telephone number of the chief of Uzbekistan’s road police, stating that should I get into any trouble, I need only mention his name to get the police off my back. Perfect.
Live music begins, and an array of scantily-clad dancing-girls make their way round the tables; Russian, Ukrainian, Gypsy, Indian and Turkish. Kamil hands out wads of notes to the girls, and I narrowly sidestep his insistence that he pay for me to take one of these girls home. As the evening winds to a close Kamil’s son Rauff joins us, bringing the car to take us home. As we make our way to the car it becomes clear that Kamil himself intends to drive us home despite being very drunk. He reverses the car out violently, very nearly mowing down the valet, and storms down Tashkent’s unlit boulevards. Convinced that I am going to die, I suggest that I drive, and we switch seats, much to the delight of Kamil who orders me to go faster and ignore red lights (as a police chief he, and therefore I, have carte blanche to drive however we wish). I cannot say how fast we’re going as someone has taken the speedometer out of the car, but I spend considerable time trying to engage fifth gear in a four-speed car, much the amusement of my passengers. Nail, who had no objection to being driven by someone who could not walk straight, has suddenly become quiet and looks rather pale.
Next day Rauff, good to Kamil’s word, meets me, takes me to a workshop, gets the spring replaced and even fills the tank with diesel and absolutely refuses to accept any of my money for it, citing ‘Eastern Hospitality’ as the reason each time, with a smile. I’m left marvelling at how meeting the right people, making connections through connections, is the way to operate in the region.
Islamic fundamentalism is the big bogeyman in newly independent Central Asia. The thought of an Iranian-style Revolution, or a Taliban-type State sprouting in one of these vulnerable newborn countries where people are still searching to find their national identities in the post-Soviet world, has regional (and Western) leaders waking up in cold sweats at night. Karimov, perhaps the most brutal and repressive of the region’s leaders, capitalises on this fear in order to put down any hint of dissent in the country, by simply branding anyone who opposes him as being a fundamentalist, in order to escape criticism from the international community. There certainly are Islamic Fundamentalists in Uzbekistan – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is listed by the US Government as a terrorist organisation – but Karimov rather over-extended his trump-card in the case of Andijan, where in May 2005 the military opened fired on a popular protest over poor living conditions and government corruption, and killed over a thousand people (the figure has never been independently confirmed).
Heading east out of Tashkent on my way towards Kyrgyzstan, I pass through the Fergana Valley, a fertile, low-lying basin between mountain ranges, ethnically predominantly Uzbek, and the most densely populated area of Central Asia. It’s something of a hotbed of religious and ethnic tensions, and every so often erupts into brutal inter-ethnic violence. The broad, flat valley is not particularly scenic, but I stop off in Andijan for a touch more voyeurism; what did the place look like two years after the ‘Andijan Massacre’? Of course, there was nothing to see. The city seemed to be one giant bazaar, teeming with people and activity. I park the car and walk off to find an internet connection (a futile exercise), only to return to three plain-clothed police looking the car over. They question me for a while, look through the car, then leave. A little later on, I enter one of the bazaars, and take a couple of pictures. Immediately plain clothed police officers appear, and lead me out forcefully to the street. They make some calls on their radios, I wait five minutes, then am sent off. There might not be anything to see in Andijan, but the organs of the state lurk in camouflage at every corner. I take my cue and leave, across the final cotton fields and into Kyrgyzstan.