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, my goal was Africa, a continent I’d hardly set foot in. 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 rainforests of Central Africa, still had a stronger draw. It was the countries of Central Asia which finally drew my attentions east instead of south. In my mind were conjured romantic images of heart-stopping turquoise-domed shrines, two-humped Bactrian camels and the smooth, snow-clad peaks of the Pamirs.

On this first visit then to Central Asia 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 then all the better, but they were both countries I had previously visited. Central Asia was terra incognita for me. This first visit to the region would be a fascinating experience; a journey through the beautiful heart of the Eurasian continent, meeting locals and fellow travellers and witnessing the assertion of the nascent national identities of these newly-formed countries. In my months in Central Asia I would develop my confidence and experience as the Odyssey evolved from something like open-ended tourism into a lifestyle of perpetual travel. Whilst in many ways Central Asia was the focus of my journey; the summer of 2007 was merely an introduction to an Odyssey which, unknown to me at the time, would stretch more than four years into the future.

On this first leg of my travels in Central Asia through southern Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan, I would attempt to chase my rather idealised, romantic expectations of what the ‘real’ Central Asia should look like, though would leave slightly disappointed and frustrated by the modern, post-Soviet reality. It would be two years until, in Afghanistan, I would convince myself that I was seeing the region almost as Marco Polo had seen it more than seven centuries earlier. Nevertheless, these were my first, memorable steps along Central Asia’s Silk Road.

Almaty, Kazakhstan

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 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 Kiev, 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, with a centre laid out on shady, tree-lined avenues. Having been founded by the Russians in the mid-nineteenth century, Almaty is memorable more for its 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 the three of us, we manage to get one of the truck’s broken rear leaf springs replaced; Amanda has a friend flying in without luggage from London who brings a new spring and Inanç introduces me to two welders from Uzbekistan who cut off the old, broken spring after I spend two days under the car, fuel tank removed, attempting to break a spring free from its mounting on the chassis. It’s a great moment when, at the dusty construction site at which Inanç works, we finally get the new spring on, giving me far more confidence on Kazakhstan’s terrible roads.

Zenkov Cathedral, Almaty, Kazakhstan

Aside from working on the truck, I spend a very enjoyable time with Amanda and Inanç, not least because they are the first people with whom I can speak English since Novosibirsk, two weeks earlier. Evenings spent with Inanç eating Turkish döner and sitting in Panfilov Park with a cold beer, or watching the city’s gorgeous young women from pedestrianised Zhibek Zholy (Silk Road) Avenue are particularly memorable. However, as comfortable and welcoming as my stay is, this isn’t quite the Central Asian experience I’d been dreaming of. So, after a very pleasant week, I reluctantly leave from 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 pervading the more Russified north of the country.

Aisha Bibi Mausoleum, Aisha Bibi, Zhambyl Region, Kazakhstan

On the second day of my westward drive, involving a detour from the main road which cuts through a corner of Kyrgyzstan, I make my first stop in 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 to 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 instead of using the exuberant colour of faïence. This well proportioned mausoleum is, rather touchingly, a monument to love and faithfulness and appears to be a popular object of veneration for local women. 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 degrees and at one point I record 47°C inside the truck, with both windows fully open. Wind-chased tumble-weed and dust-devils pound the side of the truck from the parched, empty plains, causing me to drive momentarily with eyes closed against a blast of grit. In this heat, the mind is idle, the ceaseless urge of the body to consume fluids eclipsing any thought.

Khoja Ahmad Yassawi Mausoleum, Turkistan, South Kazakhstan Region, Kazakhstan

I make a detour however to see the greatest piece of historic architecture in the country: the mausoleum of Khoja (a pious honorific) Ahmad Yassawi in the pilgrim-town of Turkistan. Yassawi (named for Yassi, the ancient name of the city) was a Turkic Sufi mystic and the 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 particularly observant in visiting mosques 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 different side to Kazakhs. Islam for them seems, perhaps after decades of public repression, to be more spiritual; rather than being obsessed with petty ritual and public posturing, there seems something a little deeper. I sit ruefully and watch pilgrims come and quietly pray to themselves whilst pressing a hand against the wall of the mausoleum, or 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 through this physical edifice of his tomb. I watch one lone woman, dressed casually but for a white headscarf, lean her head back against a wall of one monumental portal, gazing up at the magnificent faïence tilework, praying and gently weeping in contemplation. This silent, private Islam impresses me, but I suspect it’s a mere glimpse into the secretive and spiritual Islam one occasionally encounters in the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Khoja Ahmad Yassawi Mausoleum, Turkistan, South Kazakhstan Region, Kazakhstan

For myself, Turkistan is a dazzling and delightful introduction to Timurid (named after Timur, or Tamerlane) architecture; the iconic post-Mongol style of turquoise-domed shrines and madrasas (seminaries) of Central Asia. Yassawi’s mausoleum is characteristic in its great size, with a vast single arch framing a 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 stunningly intricate, ribbed turquoise dome with flutes like the segments of a peeled mandarin, which glow magnificently in the late afternoon sun. On my way back to my airless hotel room, feeling quite parched, I spot, mirage-like, a young lady pouring draught beer into frosted half-litre glasses and gulp one down, barely pausing for air, followed near my hotel by a second beer and a plate of shashlik (kebabs). After dark I return to the mausoleum, sitting on the warm stones of the courtyard admiring the floodlit building; the end of a wonderful day.

I leave Kazakhstan the following day, doubling back from Turkistan via the far less impressive mausoleum of Arystan Baba, Yassawi’s murshid (spiritual guide), bypassing the city of Shymkent to reach the border crossing which is rather charmingly named Zhibek Zholy, or ‘Silk Road’. Kazakhstan has been my favourite country of the trip so far; its huge, empty, wild, pristine open spaces are the perfect antidote to the confined life I have just left in Western Europe. Based on what is in my guidebook, I imagine, quite wrongly, that the rest of the country is flat, dull and almost devoid of anything of interest.

Leaving Kazakhstan is fairly straightforward, but in the no man’s land before the Uzbekistani border gate, there is of course absolutely nothing in the way of information to assist a novice in crossing the border. Leaving the truck, I go forward on foot and, after finding an official, am told that I can’t enter Uzbekistan with a right-hand drive vehicle. 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, I am quite sure that any problem might ultimately be solved with a little financial inducement. I of course elect to use persistence rather than bribery to get myself through and after a phone call by a customs agent, I’m given the all-clear. By this time however it’s after 18:00 and an unruly scrum of cars are bumper-to-bumper against the gate. I 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. I’m offered the chance to skip the queue for a bribe, but instead chose to spend a peaceful night in no man’s land. It’s an early encounter with the way things are done in Central Asia.

Siyab Bazaar, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

The following morning I manage to get into Uzbekistan and I’m immediately impressed with how different it looks. Gone is Kazakhstan’s atmosphere of impending prosperity and economic reform, replaced by a the inertia of timeless Asia. The roadsides are lined with piles of melons, chaikhanas (tea houses) where old men laze on elevated, carpeted takhts (platforms) sipping tea from wide bowls and playing cards or 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 did.

From the border compound I soon find myself on the Tashkent ring-road, though I decide to skip the city for the moment and head south-west, thrilled to be on the fabled road to Samarkand. Tashkent’s chaotic suburbs, which seem to be one giant market, fade into satellite towns, then into the dull countryside; hot, dusty monocultured cotton fields interspersed by bland, flyblown villages.

Once again, I must detour from the highway which now cuts a corner of Kazakhstan onto a provincial road along the Tajikistani border with frequent roadblocks manned by dim-witted but friendly conscripts. As the afternoon heat peaks, I peel off the highway and into Samarkand. Bland farmland turns into bland suburbs until, cresting a low hill, I get my first glimpse of the city proper; dotted with turquoise domes, soaring portals and minarets in the shimmering haze, a stirring, iconic skyline finer perhaps than that of any city I have seen, bar Istanbul. The very name Samarkand, more than any other in the region seems to carry its own romance; the celebrated, unreachable Silk Road city out in the barbaric steppes beyond the Oxus river. I take a circuitous route through a warren of lumpy back-streets, arriving at the guesthouse of the Bahodir family where for the first time on the trip I am surrounded by fellow travellers.

Registan, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

Samarkand is a truly ancient city whose origins are lost somewhere most likely in the first millennium BCE when it became a centre of the Sogdian civilisation. Strategically located on what would become the Silk Road, Samarkand passed variously through Iranian, Hellenic and Turkic empires, until its destruction by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. It was Timur who would bring Samarkand back to prominence, making it the capital of his Timurid Empire in 1370 and bequeathing the city a host of magnificent buildings, something of a high-water mark in Central Asian art and culture. Despite being weary from my protracted cross-border journey, I can’t resist heading out in the evening for a glimpse of the city’s dazzling architectural legacy. Samarkand’s centrepiece is the Registan (marketplace) which consists of three madrasas lining three sides of a central square. The architecture alone is stunning; a megalomaniac’s showpiece of minarets, sensuously curving domes, vast ornate portals and delicate arched galleries running in two tiers above the central court. This Timurid elegance is accentuated and made yet more exotic in being finished with a complete cloak of mosaic tiles of deep turquoise, lapis and gold, contrasting with the muted background of neutral buff; the intrinsic colour of the surrounding plains. Though in places the tilework is rather coarsely restored, the ensemble of the Registan is nevertheless in my mind the most impressive piece of Islamic architecture in the world for its sheer, exotic beauty.

Tillia Kari Madrasa, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

Walking the next day northwards away from the Registan down Tashkent Street, which looks once to have been a major commercial thoroughfare, one reaches the deceptively large Bibi Khanym Mosque. Commissioned by Timur in the very last year of the fourteenth century, the remains of the mosque reveal its outlandish size, for whilst of normal proportions, the soaring, thirty-five metre tall iwan (portal) dwarfs the human figure. Herein however lies the structure’s downfall, for it simply exceeded the limitations of construction methods of the time and soon fell into ruin. Nearby are several other examples of Timur’s classical monumentalism and amidst these, the modern-day Siyab Bazaar with bustling, tree-lined market streets made colourful as much by the groups of ladies swathed in colourful dresses as by the piles of fruit, vegetables and spices which are heaped on neatly ordered rows of tables in small commercial units. Here however, Samarkand’s magic falters, for the atmosphere of the bazaar, and by extension the city itself, is rather restrained and insipid. There is no air of the Iranian or Levantine bazaar, where old, vaulted passageways bustle with trade and wind their way around very much still alive mosques and madrasas in a homogeneous complex of urban architecture which links the lives of the cleric, trader and common man.

Bibi Khanym Mosque, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

Indeed, while the city’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 little in common any longer with the magnificent buildings. Comprehensive Soviet modernisation over three or four generations has detached people’s lives from the mosques, shrines and seminaries which surround them and the locals 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. 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 sterilise the atmosphere of ‘Old’ Samarkand and keep the locals and their activities well away from the places foreign tourists want to see.

The city’s intangible cultural fabric also seems to be under threat; having spent so long under the influence of Iranian and Persian-speaking empires, Samarkand’s population is majority Tajik-speaking (and presumably ethnically Tajik), but is being comprehensively ‘Uzbekised’ by the current government. Samarkand today certainly seems a far cry from the outpost of high culture and art it once so clearly was. It’s tragic, but in a country where opponents of the regime may find themselves boiled in oil, nobody is opposing anything.

Shah-i Zinda Necropolis, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

One place in Samarkand does however stir me, which is the Shah-i Zinda Necropolis, out to the north of the bazaar area, on the southern edge of the barren archaeological site of Afrasiyab, thought to have been the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (from which the name Samarkand is derived). I approach the site through a modern cemetery punctuated by elegant marble headstones, each adorned with a fine, skilful engraving of the deceased, climbing a shapeless mound of desiccated earth, once the city walls, then dropping into an avenue of mausoleums; pretty miniatures of the huge buildings found elsewhere in the city.

Inside the main mausoleum, thought to be that of Kusam ibn Abbas, a seventh century cousin of the prophet Mohammed, I feel an air of sanctity I’ve not felt anywhere else in the city and I watch locals silently make their way to the shrine, morose and thoughtful. From outside, a mullah sings beautiful Quranic verses in a soft but piercing voice which seems to hang timelessly in the cool, still air of the mausoleum. For this short moment I feel profuse Islamic piety, redolent with the power and mysticism of the Islamic world. Just as I experienced in Turkistan, Islam here seems to be intimate and personal to the individual rather than a part of mundane, public life. Many of the other mausoleums in the necropolis belong to members of Timur’s family and are, architecturally speaking, far finer than that of ibn Abbas. Indeed, here I find the most impressive faïence in Samarkand, with beautiful, raised white Kufic verse running vertically over intricate turquoise latticework and honeycomb tiles. It’s certainly my favourite spot in the city.

Tilework, Shah-i Zinda Necropolis, Samarkand, Samarkand Region, Uzbekistan

Evenings in Samarkand are very pleasant, spent in the large, shady courtyard of the guesthouse, swapping stories from the road with other travellers in the warm evening. I meet my first fellow drivers, Tania and Stephanie, a Swiss couple who have driven their Mercedes camper here via the Caucasus, a ferry across the Caspian and the featureless steppe western Kazakhstan. They tell me that travelling as two females has distinct advantages, saved by Central Asian male chivalry from flat tyres and breakdowns.

After three nights in Samarkand, I move on up-country to Bukhara, another ancient, Tajik-speaking irrigated Silk Road city, capital of the Iranian Samanid Empire and later the Emirate of Bukhara. Bukhara is notable as once having been the holiest city in Central Asia, a major intellectual centre of the Islamic world which was known to the Arabs as Bukhara-i Sharif (the noble). It was a native of Bukhara, Imam al-Bukhari who, after travelling in the ninth century Islamic world, returned to author the most highly regarded collection of hadiths (records of the life of the Prophet Mohammed). Bukhara was the birthplace of early Islamic polymaths such as Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) and was the home of Sufi mystics such as Jalaluddin Surkh-Posh Bukhari, who was instrumental in spreading Islam into the Indian Subcontinent, and Bahauddin Naqshband Bukhari, founder of the most popular, Naqshbandi, Sufi tariqah.

Mir-i Arab Madrasa, Bukhara, Bukhara Region, Uzbekistan

My first impression of Bukhara, upon arriving in the mid-afternoon, is of its warren of narrow, ancient back-streets in which I spend considerable time locating my chosen guesthouse. Bukhara is quite different from Samarkand with a more complete, medieval old city of madrasas, mosques, hauz (pools) and remnant stretches of a covered market, almost completely detached from the bland order of modern Bukhara. At the centre of the old city is the magnificent Po-i Kalon (grand foundation), a wide courtyard with the stout, plain brick Kalon Minaret, the only remainder of a Karakhanid-era mosque destroyed by Chinggis Khan. Facing each other across this square are two fine examples of Shaybanid (a rival, and then successor empire to the Timurids) architecture. To the west is the huge, sixteenth century Kalon Mosque, an enclosed courtyard mosque built in the early Iranian style, while on the east lies what in my opinion is the city’s finest building, the sixteenth century Mir-i Arab Madrasa with a soaring iwan of magnificently intricate tilework; finer, if more restrained, than that of Samarkand’s Registan and flanked by two gleaming turquoise domes.

A little further west is Bukhara’s Ark (citadel), dating from the time of the Emirate of Bukhara, which was only overthrown by the Red Army in 1920 and which encompasses the city’s oldest settlement mound. The Ark overlooks the beautiful, open-plan, eighteenth century Bolo-Hauz Mosque and a very pleasant modern park, where old chinar (plane) trees shade an open-air restaurant. Here I spend several evenings with Michel, a French teacher who has moved between postings in New Caledonia, French Guiana, Uruguay and France, eating shashlik and drinking good, cold draught beer.

Skyline, Bukhara, Bukhara Region, Uzbekistan

On first sight, I think this undeniably attractive old city might be where I find my ‘real’ Central Asia but, whilst more homogeneous than the old parts of Samarkand, the buildings are again monuments, detached from contemporary culture, with the old city feeling like something of a tourist trap awash with aged French and Japanese tour groups. However, away from the main sights of the old city, one can catch glimpses of Central Asian life through open doors, in 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 (pilaf) whilst men sit in shady corners smoking and playing cards or nard. From these twisting mud-walled lanes with their stinking open sewers, one sometimes catches the city’s skyline, a maze of buff rooftops, facades and minarets, crowned by several large turquoise domes. One interesting cultural attraction I seek out in Bukhara’s back-streets is a synagogue belonging to the city’s dwindling, Persian-speaking community of Bukharan Jews. Michel and I are welcomed here to watch a Torah recital one evening, where a small congregation with an astonishing diversity of faces worship together, some the descendants perhaps of ancient Persian exiles and Silk Road traders.

Bukhara Synagogue, Bukhara, Bukhara Region, Uzbekistan

So backward is Uzbekistan’s telecommunications infrastructure that it is a task of several hours to make a phone call to Tashkent and arrange for my second replacement spring to be received from an air freighter. I speak to the British embassy and after initial frustration speaking to an idiot at the front desk, get through to the very helpful deputy ambassador who puts me in contact with a shipping agent. Despite being so close to having the truck’s suspension fully repaired, I decide to leave the truck in Bukhara for a few days and join Michel, Tania and Stephanie (whom we meet one evening in the park) in sharing a taxi out into the desert, north-west to Khiva in the Khwarezm oasis. The journey is long, hot and cramped and with the driver blaring out repulsive Turkish pop music, spending more time shouting into his phone or fiddling with his collection of odious compact discs than watching the road, makes me swear never again to abandon the truck.

Bazaar, Khiva, Xorazm Region, Uzbekistan

Once out of Bukhara the land becomes sterile, rarely attractive desert, though we eventually catch a distant glimpse of the rather pallid looking Amu Darya (Oxus), here marking the border with Turkmenistan. The Khwarezm Oasis is a pocket of fertile farmland amidst the braids of this once-great river, which today is split between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. An ancient centre of initially Iranian civilisation, Khwarezm enters history as a distant part of the Achaemenid Empire, becoming more prominent as the base of the Turkic-speaking Khwarezmian Empire in the twelfth century, whose capital was Urgench, now Konye (old) Urgench in Turkmenistan. Later, after a change in the river’s course and the attentions of the Mongols, the city of Khiva became the focus of Khwarezm with the establishment of the Khanate of Khiva. Famed for its isolation, fierce hostility towards outsiders and salve trading, Khiva was only subdued by the Russian Empire in 1873.

Ichon Kala, Khiva, Xorazm Region, Uzbekistan

In this quite romantically remote location, Khiva’s compact Ichon Kala, or old city, is surrounded by tapering, seventeenth century mud-brick walls, containing a museum-like preserve of minarets, mausoleums and madrasas, some quite exuberant and unusual in form and colour, but lacking quite the grace of the finest buildings of Samarkand or Bukhara. Whilst not as filled with tour groups as Bukhara, after walking around Khiva’s manicured old streets and alleyways in 40°C heat for a few hours I am again struck by a lack of atmosphere and I realise that I won’t find the ‘real’ Central Asia of my imagination in modern Uzbekistan. Of course what I am seeing is the real Central Asia; the unreality lies solely in my mind’s expectations.

Having had more than my fill of slightly charmless cities and hastily restored faïence, I wish to see something very different. On the far side of the Amu Darya from Khiva, still part of the historical region of Khwarezm, lies the Karakalpakstan Republic, an autonomous republic of the Karakalpak people who are ethnically more closely related to Kazakhs than to Uzbeks. Here the Amu Darya historically reached its end-point in the Aral Sea, a large, endorheic, saline lake. However, beginning in the late 1950s, the Soviet Union diverted huge quantities of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate the barren desert and boost cotton production. The Aral Sea, whose water levels were sustained by these two rivers, soon started to shrink in the beginnings of an environmental catastrophe caused by trademark Soviet negligence and totalitarian incompetence. Today the Aral Sea, has all but disappeared from Uzbekistan.

Moynaq, Karakalpakstan Republic, Uzbekistan

Michel and I take a taxi to the bleak and oven-like city of Nukus, the republic’s capital, and find a room in an old Soviet behemoth of a hotel with a dank bathroom missing a sink, two sagging old beds and a decrepit Soviet air conditioner which wheezes out the odd puff of warm air whilst making enough noise to rattle the window panes. The only saving grace of this pile is a dimly-lit and rather seedy bar, where a pretty waitress serves good cold beer and Russian fare, a welcome break after the monotonous Uzbek cuisine of greasy mutton in various forms. After a stuffy, mosquito-plagued night we board a bus to Moynaq, which takes us quickly beyond the reach of the waters of the Amu Darya (which now dissipate in this desert, far short of the Aral Sea), into a land of utter desolation. This once fertile land is now blighted by a lack of water, suffers hotter summers and colder winters without the Aral Sea’s climatic buffering, and its inhabitants are additionally afflicted with respiratory complaints due to wind-borne dust and aerosols of toxic pesticide run-off coming from the former sea-bed.

Former Aral Sea, Moynaq, Karakalpakstan Republic, Uzbekistan

The desperate, almost deserted town of Moynaq sits out upon an endless, blazing expanse of hard-baked clay. Photographs and paintings of Moynaq from before the 1980s show a quaint, happy seaside town set upon a wide, curving bay of the Aral Sea, which looked just like the ocean. It was a community based on fishing and on tourism. For citizens of Soviet Central Asia, the Aral Sea was the closest destination for a warm seaside holiday, despite being deep in the centre of the Eurasian landmass. Today Moynaq lies 120 kilometres 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.

Fishing Boat, Moynaq, Karakalpakstan Republic, Uzbekistan

After finding a hotel amongst Moynaq’s collapsing buildings, Michel and I cross a field of sand dunes which thirty years ago might have been a pleasant beach dotted with Soviet families, and find ourselves walking on what used to be the bed of the Aral Sea. It’s profound enough to walk on a former seabed, still littered with shells, but truly iconic are the fleet of rusting hulks of old fishing boats wedged surreally into the desert. These beached sentinels are perhaps one of the most powerful images of mankind’s destruction of our natural habitat.

A380 Highway, Bukhara Region, Uzbekistan

Having reached almost the utter end of Uzbekistan, I re-trace my steps back down the length of the country, through Khiva to Bukhara where I’m glad to be reunited with the truck, then through Samarkand back to Tashkent. The capital of Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s largest city and was the fourth largest in the Soviet Union, causing me to approach it with the expectation of choked streets of manic traffic and chaotic, winding roads. To my surprise, I find a city set out on a huge scale with wide avenues of light traffic separating enormous, widely-spaced buildings. The city is in fact so spacious, that I drive almost completely across it, thinking I am in never-ending suburbs when I’ve gone right through the centre of it. After doubling back, I park with ease in the very centre of the Tashkent, next to a small park of old chinars on Amir Timur Square, and meet my contact Nail.

Independence Avenue, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

I’ve arranged to stay in the apartment of the Grachev Family, whom I stayed with in Novosibirsk last month. The Grachevs had lived in Tashkent until 1997 when, like many Russians, they decided that social and economic conditions in independent Uzbekistan were not favourable and moved to Russia. Nail, the son of the Grachevs’ former neighbours, currently lives in the apartment, and here I also meet Igor from Novosibirsk, a colleague of Yuri Grachev who is visiting on business. The next day, Nail helps me deal with customs at Tashkent Airport, haggling down the import duty for my new spring to an unofficial cash payment, and it’s a great relief to finally have the second new spring back at the apartment.

In the evening, as Nail and I are heading out to dinner, we run into Igor who invites us to join him, telling us he has a dinner invitation from a ‘Big Boss’. The man’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, though I pass on the vodka as I am still recovering from a bout of diarrhoea a few days ago. Kamil turns out to be quite a mover in Tashkent; he is the director of a construction firm and, conveniently, is also a police chief of some sort as well as 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 to be fitted to the truck, and giving me the personal telephone number of some chief of Uzbekistan’s road police, stating that should I get into any trouble, I need only mention his name to get any irksome traffic officers off my back. Perfect.

Dancing Girl, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Live music begins and an array of dancing-girls, scantily clad in what are supposedly Russian, Ukrainian, Gypsy, Indian or Turkish dress, make their way round the tables. Kamil becomes very animated and hands out wads of notes to the girls and I narrowly sidestep his insistence that he pay for me to take one of them back to the apartment. As the evening winds to a close Kamil’s son Rauff joins us, bringing a 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 drunk. He reverses the car out violently, very nearly mowing down the valet, and storms down Tashkent’s unlit boulevards. Seriously concerned, I suggest that I drive, which Kamil seems to find a novel idea, 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 flout any rules of the road). 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 so drunk that he 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 my tank with diesel, absolutely refusing to accept any of my money, citing ‘eastern hospitality’ as the reason each time, with a smile. I’m left marvelling at how meeting the right people and making connections through connections is the way to get things done in the region. I spend a few more days relaxing in Tashkent, finding it oddly quiet, strongly policed and still seemingly Russian-dominated, in stark contrast to any other part of the country which I have seen. I imagine this atmosphere to be rather unchanged from the days of the Soviet Union, an opinion I share with a surprised Igor, who had come to the same opinion.

Shayhon Cemetery, Kokand, Fergana Region, Uzbekistan

After five days, I gather the energy to move on, heading east towards the Fergana Valley. Not long after leaving Tashkent’s urban refinement, I’m back in Uzbekistan’s familiar countryside, passing nondescript farming villages and towns, soon climbing into the western outliers of the Tien Shan. I pass the turquoise Akhangaran reservoir, then cross Kamchik pass and find myself descending into the Fergana Valley. More a broad, fertile plain than a true valley, Fergana has been occupied since pre-history and remains an intensively cultivated region, densely populated by Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz farming communities, who occasionally erupt into inter-ethnic violence. But whilst the valley is historically notable; it is most likely the site of the first contact between China and the West, and the birthplace of Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire, it lacks (somewhat to my relief) any preserved old cities in the style of Samarkand or Bukhara. I stop briefly for an afternoon in Kokand, once the capital of the Khanate of Kokand, but find the Khan’s old palace to be rather gaudy and uninteresting. More atmospheric is Kokand’s large Shayhon cemetery, a quite fascinating collection of tombs and mausoleums, testifying to the city’s considerable age. What I most notice in the Fergana Valley however are the people, who seem be both more religiously observant, with women almost all covering their hair and men sometimes wearing topis (Muslim skullcaps), and rather less subdued, with pedestrians often waving spontaneously at me as I drive past and conversation coming more easily.

Bazaar, Andijan, Andijan Region, Uzbekistan

The next day is my last in Uzbekistan (on this visit) and I stop in the morning in the city of Andijan. Whilst having a lively bazaar, my interest here is a touch voyeuristic. In the newly independent republics of Central Asia, Islamic fundamentalism is seen as a serious threat, perhaps not surprising given the proximity to war-torn Afghanistan and to Tajikistan, which witnessed the region’s first post-Soviet civil war. This threat is also a convenient cover for general repression of civil rights, and Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s barbaric president, rather over-extended this cover two years ago in Andijan when the military opened fire on what was reportedly a popular protest against poor living conditions and corruption, massacring an unknown number of unarmed civilians (perhaps several hundred to over a thousand). The incident has not been openly investigated and saw a shift in Uzbekistan’s relations away from the West, and a banning of foreign journalists from the country.

There is of course nothing of this civil unrest to be seen today in Andijan, which seems to be one giant bazaar, teeming on a Sunday with people drawn in from surrounding towns and villages. I park the truck and walk off to find an internet connection, as usual in Uzbekistan, a futile exercise, and return to see three plain-clothed police carefully inspecting it. They question me for a while, look through my luggage, then leave. A little later on, I enter one of the bazaars which is frenetic and colourful, though filled mostly with Chinese crap, and take some pictures. Immediately, plain clothed police officers appear and lead me out forcefully to the street. They make some calls on their radios but after a few minutes I am sent off. This is clearly not tour-group territory. There might not be anything to see in Andijan, but the organs of the state lurk in camouflage at every corner. Its a slightly sad realisation that while the people here seem livelier and perhaps more worldly than in the rest of the country, they are just as powerless. I take my cue and leave, through the final cotton fields to the border town of Uchkurgan where I am the only vehicle using the crossing.

I leave Uzbekistan feeling slightly disappointed by the country; its rich culture and legacy seems to have been reduced to rather two-dimensional tourist attractions and its people blunted and repressed by successive governments, left utterly powerless and terribly naïve. There had been highlights; glimpses of age-old shrine worship and good times in the vibrant, cosmopolitan island of Tashkent, but my expectations of a vibrant, sophisticated Asian country were unfulfilled and I was leaving slightly disillusioned at what remains of the romantic Silk Road, glad to be heading for the beautiful mountains scenery and fresh air of Kyrgyzstan’s mountains.

 

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