Stage 17 – Uzbekistan, Afghanistan & Turkmenistan: Turkestan [1/2]
Ahead of me lay a stretch of territory which up until the 1990s had been off limits to outsiders since the Middle Ages. I was entering the heart of Turkestan, the searing plains along the near-mythical Amu Darya (or Oxus) River which lies at the very heart of Central Asia. I’m entering the world of Robert Byron’s ‘The Road to Oxiana’, perhaps my favourite travel book; an account of a car journey made in 1933-34 into deepest Turkestan in search of the Oxus, which Byron would eventually be barred from even setting eyes upon. For me too, this would represent perhaps the most memorable stage of the entire journey (despite its rather debauched beginnings), and it would be where I finally glimpsed the Central Asia I had been dreaming of since long before I set off – that of turquoise domes, camel caravans and authentic Silk Road bazaars.
On the 9th November 2009 I drive with considerable excitement over the ‘Friendship Bridge’, a simple 9-piece boxcar bridge across the Amu Darya constructed by the Soviets for the friendly purpose of supplying an army. Off limits until 2006, I imagine I am one of only a handful of foreigners who have driven over it. The Uzbekistani customs procedures are extremely thorough, with everything removed from the truck and searched individually. I know the process could be expedited with a payment of twenty dollars, but I’ve nothing to hide and allow the officers to take their time. It’s after dark by the time I finally leave the border compound, and drive through the huge, empty streets of Termez to the Osiyo Hotel.
The Hotel is wonderful and I’m surprised upon walking in to find a woman at the desk. After so long in conservative and gender-segregated Asia, I almost feel uncomfortable speaking to her. She’s very pleasant however; a rotund and motherly Ossetian who shows me to a room which is very reasonable, and gives me instructions on how to flush the lavatory, lock the door, and tells me to hang my clothes in the wardrobe along with other instructions which I don’t understand.
Crossing the Amu Darya from Afghanistan to the Uzbekistani town of Termez represents a staggering change in culture and atmosphere, and I spend the following days with a sense of profound culture shock; the shock of re-encountering a culture which is really quite similar to my own when compared with those I have lived in for the last two years. I am suddenly in a country where I don’t have to worry about my appearance, or what time I’m in what place, or whether a given place is safe at all… it’s all safe. There are no bandits, no Taliban, and no landmines. The other half of the human race (and in fact it seems like more than half in Termez) are out in public; beautiful young Uzbek and Tajik women with dark eyes and slender figures, and these women run shops, and must even be spoken to during the course of normal transactions. Couples go out hand-in-hand; lovers. It’s all so strange… yet so normal and natural.
The city itself is planned, beautified and well-maintained. Things have been built for everyday enjoyment; benches, parks, playgrounds and sports centres. There are signs, road rules, law and order. I see an old man stoop down and meticulously move a few leaves off the road, just to keep things looking neat. These Soviet citizens certainly aren’t keen on living among piles of their own refuse and excrement, something which until my first encounter with South Asia I had considered an intrinsic human preference, rather than a learned cultural trait.
It all puts Afghanistan and South Asia in contrast, highlighting just how backward they sadly are. In comparison, people here in Uzbekistan seem to enjoy life more, unworried by war or religion, despite their crumbling economy and repressive government. It also has that very endearing post-Soviet feeling of being somehow isolated from the vice and excess of the outside world; it can sometimes feel like a parallel universe, a more innocent and secluded one where people are happily free from both religion and class. Now I really start to appreciate Marx’s vision; this certainly isn’t a country where one sect may choose to kill another, or where beggars clamour to extract a few pennies from the driver of a $100,000 car waiting at the traffic lights. Ironically, the very core social principles of Islam are not far off those of Marx; of social equality, anti-sectarianism and distribution of wealth, yet the concepts seem never to have caught-on in any Islamic country I have yet visited.
I mention these reflections to my contact Abdugafur, a young man who works in the city in a construction company. “How can people say that the Soviet colonisation was a bad thing? If it wasn’t for them, we would be like Afghanistan. After all, we are the same people, who have the same culture and traditions, the same beliefs… or rather we were” Things are far from perfect in Uzbekistan however; inflation is a real problem and there is a genuine shortage of cash in the country, not surprising given that the largest banknote is worth just US$0.50. This is hardly conducive to a thriving market economy; which is precisely what the president wishes to avoid.
Autumn is here in Termez, with fat, ripe persimmons hanging on trees and parks beautifully coloured in yellows, oranges and browns and with crunchy leaves underfoot, swiftly being swept into piles by broom-wielding women. The city’s wide streets, characteristically Soviet are quiet; it’s a low-density place with no real centre, which instead radiates out in huge blocks. Termez has a range of Russian architecture; from the old, single-storey frontier houses, joined in long rows with thick walls and iron roofs, an old Russian Orthodox church which must pre-date the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, then vintages of Soviet apartment blocks all the way to independence. Modern buildings are rather sanitary looking, but clean and neat, though often sporting nasty blue-tinted glass windows and doors.
Sitting in a street café in this tranquil backwater, with a 1.25 litre bottle of good beer and a hot-dog, I feel I’m in heaven. Nevertheless, I must move up-country to Tashkent where I will meet my friend Duncan, with whom I shall travel for the next few weeks, all the way to Tehran. I decide to leave the car with Abdugafur in his business premises, and take the newly-opened railway line which runs overnight through Samarkand to Tashkent.
As much as I hate public transport, I do have a soft-spot for overnight train journeys in the Former USSR, and I find myself sharing a sleeper compartment with three women. As the train rolls north, we pass through fields full of brightly-dressed women and children gathering in cotton, small single-storey farmsteads with golden gardens of persimmon and walnut trees, old Soviet tractors, trucks and buses parked in the fields. The kolkhozes (collective farms) are still alive here, and I think back to the night I spent with a family near here in just such a setting, just over two years ago. At the stations, crowds of people wait; old white-bearded Uzbeks, fair-skinned Tajiks, beautiful Turkic faces of all forms, touches of Russian-Soviet fashions, colourful headscarves and dresses, long flowing velvet kaftans. It’s rather like an old poster of Soviet cosmopolitanism. The women share their food with me and before long, a large Uzbek gentleman returns from the concertina between the carriages reeking of booze and with a twinkle in his eye. The sun sets outside against the stunning backdrop of the Kugitang and Hisor Mountains, and I bed down for the night. What a joy the train journey is.
I arrive early the next morning in Tashkent, and take the Metro from the station to the end of the line at Chkalov. Memories flood back from my visit two years ago as I make my way to the Grachev’s flat and meet Nail, who soon has to leave for work. I too leave before long to meet Duncan back at the Metro station, where we sit on a bench catching up over a morning beer. Back in September, in Islamabad I had acquired an Uzbek visa in order firstly to have an escape route out of Afghanistan should it have proven to be too insecure, and secondly to get a Turkmenistan visa in Tashkent. Both these considerations turned out to be unnecessary now, and so apart from getting a new visa to re-enter Afghanistan, I have no real business to attend to.
Duncan and I dedicate these three weeks to debauchery; all day drinking between wandering the city streets and bazaars, hopping onto trams until we spot the next drinking den, and falling in to further fortify ourselves with marvellously cheap beer, vino (a rather industrial port made locally, specifically for alcoholics) and vodka. Tashkent has a sordid Soviet underbelly of alcoholism, and a selection of ultra-basic bars to cater for them; places I find infinitely more convivial than the tawdry theme bars and ‘Irish Pubs’ which one usually finds abroad. The clientèle of such establishments are usually punch-drunk and cheery, but occasionally are desperate, comatose, yellow-skinned life-long drinkers. Returning ourselves somewhat giddily one night, we see one such soul silhouetted in the sodium-yellow of a street light, teetering back home on auto-pilot but making little forward progress, until he loses balance and falls flat into a deep, muddy ditch. It’s a slightly depressing window into the negative side of Soviet colonisation, but one that I find seedily fascinating. Often a small drinking den exists within the confines of a shop, allowing one the convenience of purchasing alcohol at retail prices and consuming it on-site. Occasionally we get marvellously lost in the city suburbs, and navigate back through a mixture of luck and perseverance, always finding ourselves eventually in the warmth of the Grachev’s flat to sleep for a few hours before repeating the formula.
I love Tashkent for its monumentalist Soviet architecture and air of being trapped somewhere in the 1980s, a comfortable island of a European city adrift in the ocean of Central Asia. Possibly my favourite part of the city is its Metro system, which is designed along the lines of a 1970s science fiction film set, with deep tunnels doubling as nuclear bomb shelters, dimly lit by elegant Soviet chandaliers, eerily devoid of conversation, heavily policed and with a pervading odour of floor-polish. Some of the stations are real masterpieces of design, such as Bodomzor with its modernist uplighters, and Kosmonavtlar with its ethereal portraits of Soviet cosmonauts, as well as the Timurid mathematician and astronomer Ulugh Beg, grandson of Tamerlane himself.
Every so often in the afternoon Nail’s mother Gulya who lives in the flat next to us, brings her English students to meet us, ignoring or not realising our tipsy state. The students are genuinely pleased, though a little nervous to have the unique experience of speaking to two scruffy, boozy Englishmen, and we are glad to talk to some locals in English. We manage a trip to the Afghan Embassy to acquire new visas, plus a couple of out-of-town drinking trips, but the three weeks fly past and before long we’re heading back south on the train. In Samarkand we moderate slightly, and take in the magnificent architecture, though spend the cool nights drinking at the Bahodir Guesthouse where I receive a warm welcome from the family more than two years after my last visit.
We have an arduous bus journey back down to Termez in an asthmatic old Hungarian Ikarus which is reduced to walking pace when faced with any hill and has two tire blowouts en-route. We check back into the Osiyo Hotel, and make a trip by local train – which costs just US$0.20 – to the small farming town of Jarkurghon, where amongst the walled farmsteads and cotton fields lies a stunning Seljuk minaret. The tomb-tower is a beautifully preserved masterpiece of fluted brickwork, with beautiful bands of Kufic verse. A friendly local girl fetches the gatekeeper and we squeeze up the spiral stairs for a foggy view across the nearby kolkhozes. Uzbekistan seems so gentle and innocent, a place where time has stood still for the last thirty years whilst neighbouring Afghanistan has been thoroughly destroyed. It’s rather hard to look forward to returning.
I feel quite melancholic on the morning that we leave Uzbekistan. Duncan is understandably slightly nervous before entering Afghanistan for the first time, whereas I am rather reluctant to leave the refinements of Uzbekistan; order, cleanliness, the public presence of women, draught beer, people who mean what they say and know what they are talking about, and the wonderfully benign and friendly atmosphere. To be leaving such civilised comforts doesn’t presently give me the thrill which it usually does. The morning is cold, grey and dull, and perfectly reflects my mood. A cold persistent drizzle begins as we head for the border, disposing of our last few shards of Uzbekistan’s farcical currency in a shop en-route. The Uzbek authorities are thankfully rather less thorough upon leaving, and as we leave the border and head for the Friendship Bridge I’m asked for a lift by Mr Rajabi, an Afghan emigrant from London who is visiting Afghanistan with his wife and baby.
On the Afghan side of the border the trouble starts, once again for my not having a Road Permit. After a few minutes of wrangling with the customs officer I am passed to the chief; a large ugly man with a puffy mongrel face who is drunk and angry. Mr Rajabi, who has been my translator and has been frantically arguing my case is deeply offended by the Swine behind the glass of the customs post: “Look at our country, at our people! He is absolutely drunk! How will our country ever progress with people like this? No education and totally corrupt; these are the problems we face”. Behind Mr Rajabi a Turkish lorry driver with a large mole on his brow smiles a warm Turkish smile and rubs his thumb and index finger “No problem!”, gesturing to the Swine. I know I could bribe my way through, but I stick to my principles of patience and perseverance.
Finally, the Swine makes a call to his superior regarding the British tourist with a car and no Road Permit, and by his sudden increase in fury has obviously been told to let us in. He orders a full search of the car, and a swarm of officers come out. It’s clear that they are highly embarrassed and offended by the Swine, but have nevertheless to follow his orders. He stands in the rain, screaming at his subordinates before ordering one to bring a pick-up, from which he resumes his screaming from the passenger seat with the heater runing. Eventually, the Swine’s gaze settles upon two large books which he indicates are illegal; a large paperback history tome by Jawaharlal Nehru (admittedly a Marxist, but I doubt he knows this), and a totally inoffensive hardback travel guide to Afghanistan, endorsed on the first page by the president himself. It’s hard to imagine that these books can be in any way illegal, or indeed that the Swine is literate, but he obviously intends to keep them for it takes 1.5 hours to rescue them from the censors, none of whom can read English. What excites the censrs most is a picture in the guidebook of a pair of Uzbek womans boots, which elicits great bouts of sordid schoolboy laughter. How I hate being in a country where a picture of boots is an illicit and titillating sight.
It’s raining hard when we leave, but the road is brand new and we soon dry out. My spirits are buoyed by having come out on top from the ordeal, though I feel Duncan has had a slightly rough entry into the country. In Mazar-e Sharif (Mazar) I collect my Turkmenistan visa from the fawning consul, who is a picture of politeness and helpfulness compared to the surly staff in the Tashkent Embassy. The streets of the city centre are flooded in up to half a metre of muddy water; cars sit stranded, headlight-deep in the middle of the road and filling with water, but we emerge warm and dry onto the driveway of our hosts. A hellish border crossing completed, and a new visa in hand, we are set to cross Afghan Turkestan.
Our hosts run a small logistics company in the city, and we stay with them for just under two weeks. They are Elias, Aimal and Ramesh, and are often joined by their friend Ashraf. They are wonderfully generous hosts, putting on dinners of local fish from the Amu Darya, giving us endless information on the surrounding area and great company each evening. I soon forget the spoils of Uzbekistan and flip back into the Asian lifestyle.
Mazar is the country’s fourth largest city, and effectively the capital of northern Afghanistan. The city is named after the shrine of Emam (Hazrat) Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, who is generally regarded as being buried in Najaf in Iraq. Nevertheless, a twelfth century local Mullah saw the location of Ali’s grave in a dream, and a shrine was erected by the Seljuk sultan Ahmed Sanjar. Mazar lived in the shadow of nearby Balkh for centuries, but the tables were turned in the late nineteenth century and Mazar has been the more prosperous and important city ever since. The Shrine of Hazrat Ali marks the very centre of the city, attracting pilgrims from across the country and beyond. In the large park around the shrine, families stroll and feed the flocks of white doves for which the park is famed, giving it a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. The shrine itself, a fifteenth century reconstruction of the original which was razed by the Mongols, is strikingly tiled though does not quite have the same grace and exotic flair as the Timurid masterpieces of Samarkand. Around the shrine, the city centre radiates out in blocks of street markets and narrow bazaars which are frantic with activity. Whilst not particularly traditional, Mazar is certainly more down-to-Earth than the economic bubble of Kabul.
One Friday morning we all head out to the stadium at the edge of the city to watch a match of the peculiarly Central Asian game of buzkashi. It’s a game played on horseback by a seemingly unlimited number of men, who must each attempt to pick up the headless carcass of a goat or calf, and carry it across a marked boundary without any other player gaining the carcass. It’s clearly a game which came off the nomadic steppes of Central Asia, but the Afghans play it with such vigour and brutality that one can see the spirit of the Mongol hordes which swept down upon this region in the thirteenth century.
Duncan and I make a day-trip to the south-east, back down the main road towards Kabul, through the stunning gorge beyond Kholm and into the mountains to the town of Aybak. The main street through the town is lined with old pine trees and single storey shops, and feels far less modern than Mazar. Bearded Afghan men in shawls and turbans mill through the bazaar, often riding horses pulling traps. What lies just behind the town however, is one of Afghanistan’s oldest surviving ancient monuments. On top of a protruding dome of limestone, out in the fields which spread across the broad valley between the outliers of the Hindukush, is a huge carved Buddhist stupa dating from the fourth to fifth century CE. The stupa is carved wholly out of the native rock, a smooth inverted bowl topped by a cubic reliquary. Carved out of a lower nearby hill is a small cave monastery complex reminiscent of those in Bamiyan, though from the Theravada, rather than Mahayana school of Buddhism.
On another day, we head west from Mazar to the quiet country town of Balkh. Today something of a agricultural backwater, it is hard to overestimate just how important the city has been in the context of Asian history. Located on a wide floodplain just north of the point at which the seasonal Balkh River spills its water from the northern fringes of the mountains onto the barren Oxus Plains, Balkh has been inhabited for at least 4,500 years. Balkh may have been one of the first cities of the Aryans as they moved south and east from their homeland on the Pontic Steppe. Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have been born in Balkh in roughly the eleventh to tenth century BCE, and to have also died here. When Alexander and the Greeks arrived they called it Baktra, and from this came the name Bactria for the historical area as a whole. Following a period of Buddhist influence under the Kushans, the Arabs arrived, and sensing the antiquity of the place named Balkh the ‘Mother of Cities’. Balkh figures heavily in Persian mythology and literature, and is considered to be the home of of Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, one of Asia’s greatest poets. Today however Balkh is little more than a collection of villages – albeit with some intriguing remains – and perhaps best captures the ruin of Central Asia. Balkh was levelled by the Mongols in 1221, and again by Tamerlane in the fourteenth century, yet it was an outbreak of malaria following widespread flooding in the mid nineteenth century that finally sealed its fate.
Balkh today is centred around a circular park, in which sits the elegant Timurid shrine of Hoja Abu Nasr Parsa. A slightly jaded but charming victim of both neglect and war, the shrine has lost its minarets though retains some beautiful Kufic faïence in the main portal and a delicate, fluted turquoise dome. The shrine looks very much the same as it did when Byron sketched it in 1934, but in its heyday must have been every bit as impressive as the buildings of Samarkand and Bukhara. On the far side of the park, which is filled with straggling mature plane trees, is a single ruined arch from an old medressa, still bearing patches of striking tile-work.
The most atmospheric of Balkh’s ruins however is immediately to the north of the town centre. The Bala Hisar, the town’s old defensive fortress, is a huge circular citadel roughly a kilometre in diameter whose heavily eroded perimeter walls are dotted with the stumps of long-collapsed defensive towers. Locals scour the area for glass beads and occasional coins in the sticky mud, and one feels that the whole area might still echo with the sounds of ancient battles, or just the hum of millennia of habitation, such is the palpable sense of history about the place. At the western edge of the citadel are some modern shrines, one of which is currently used by the followers of another historical figure. Baba Kuh-e Mastan is attributed with the first cultivation and use of hashish, the resin of the cannabis plant harvested by running the palms of one’s hands up and down a budding plant. Originally on the main road into town, the police have moved the followers to this discreet corner of the citadel, where they are left to smoke in glorious worship.
We walk into a dingy, smoke-filled room where half a dozen frazzled-looking men sit on mud benches around the walls, centred around an enormous hookah pipe containing at least five grams of hashish. Turns are taken and I take three lungfuls of choking, burning smoke which leave me with a raw throat, hacking cough and a deep and rather pleasant sense of detachment from reality for several hours.
To the east of the citadel, one may walk down a breach in the old walls into the villages which dot the surrounding farmland. Graves here are marked with poles bearing the Shi’ite symbol of a hand and are tied with colourful pennants in a manner which reminds me of the Sufi shrines of Sindh. It was indeed from this region of Central Asia that Sufism penetrated the Sub-continent. Though having declined greatly in popularity in recent decades, Balkh has strong Sufi connotations, for it was for some time at least, the home of Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi. Perhaps the most famous of the Sufi philosopher-poets or polymaths, Rumi was one of Asia’s great thinkers and remains a household name to Muslims across the region. His most famous work, Masnavi, is an epic poem of 50,000 lines and is one of the greatest works of the Persian language.
We ask after the great man’s home as we walk through villages populated by friendly Uzbek farmers. In the village of Hoja Gholaq, amidst a scene of muddy farmland and mud-brick houses which can hardly have changed since the thirteenth century, we are directed to the ruined khanaqah (meeting place of a Sufi brotherhood) where Rumi’s father taught, and where the young boy is said to have grown up. A few arches and part of the dome still stand, but there is otherwise no sign as to the alleged historical importance of the ruins we are looking at. Locals tell us that the great man was born here, but like Hazrat Ali, and many historical other figures, his birthplace is somewhat speculative. Evidence suggests that Rumi was in fact born in Vakhsh in present-day Tajikistan, before his family moved back to Balkh, only to escape a few years later to Konye in modern-day Turkey, shortly before the oncoming slaughter of the Mongol invasion. Whatever the truth, the ruins are an intriguing find, and it’s a touching remnant of the import of Balkh that these farmers bring him into their folklore and customs, 802 years after his birth.
Mazar is an easy city in which to while away time, especially given the comforts and good company provided by our hosts. After thirteen days however, the time comes to make some progress across the country. Ahead lies a string of old Silk Road caravan cities; the untouched heart of Central Asia.