Uzbekistan: Ancient road to riches

By Trevor Richards

Uzbekistan is a double land-locked former Soviet Republic in the heart of Central Asia, far away from the popular tourist spots frequented by most New Zealanders.

Hollyhocks and roses grow there in profusion. Many of its 25 million inhabitants have solid gold teeth. The fatty tail of its oddly proportioned local sheep is a national delicacy.

In themselves these are scarcely reasons to make the trip. But once, long before humans arrived in New Zealand, Uzbekistan lay at the centre of the Silk Road, one of the greatest trade routes the world has known.

Aged 10 or 11, I had little idea what the Silk Road was but I knew romantic when I heard it, and I knew that I wanted to go there.

Close on 50 years later, Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities and towns exceeded childhood expectations. Dazzling, astonishing and spectacular are just some of the words to describe their history, architecture and culture.

The term Silk Road is something of a misnomer. It was not a single road, rather a series of caravan tracks whose routes over the course of its history were shaped by economics and geography.

Stretching from China in the east to Turkey in the west, it passed through modern-day Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Syria.

Its origins can be traced back to 138BC, when Zhang Qain was dispatched by the Chinese Emperor with 100 men, camels and silk to search for military allies.

He found no allies but managed, inadvertently, to set the stage for the establishment of a trade route that was to last for 2000 years.

Although the route did not exist solely for the purpose of buying and selling silk - gold, ivory and exotic animals and plants were among other commodities traded - it was silk that created and largely sustained it.

For the Silk Road's first few hundred years, no one outside China knew how silk was made. The Romans thought silk cocoons were produced by trees.

Some were scandalised by this new, popular fabric. Its transparency shocked Pliny the Elder (AD23-79) who complained that it allowed Roman women to be "dressed and yet nude".

Although the trade generated by the Silk Road was unparalleled, its most important impact was its ability to assist the exchange of ideas, technologies and religions.

Some modern day adventurers travel its length. Most, however - myself included - have opted for one or another version of its various highlights.

For anyone looking for a 10 to 14-day Silk Road trip, it is hard to go past Uzbekistan.

The arrival point for those flying into Uzbekistan will probably be the capital, 2000-year-old Tashkent, (population 2 million-plus, the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union).

Some regard Tashkent as an ugly city full of Soviet concrete. This is a harsh judgment.

Although it was not a part of the old Silk Road, it is a pleasant enough place in which to spend a couple of days, if only to catch your breath.

Its amazingly wide city roads (Invercargill streets are narrow by comparison) and modern buildings are a consequence of a devastating 1966 earthquake.

I started retracing the Silk Road in Khiva (population 3000), an hour's flight from Tashkent. (Fly to Urgench - the old Soviet Tupolevs are quite an experience - and bus the last 30km).

Khiva is 2500 years old. Its 2.5km-long mud walls, 8m-high, 6m-thick and studded with 40 bastions, assure an unforgettable arrival.

During the day, Khiva is a busy, bustling bazaar, filled with tourists, many of whom come from other parts of Uzbekistan. But the town is best viewed in the evening, when most of the tourists have gone.

As night falls, silhouettes and shafts of moonlight take centre stage. Narrow alleyways and ancient squares that during the day have been crowded with stalls selling bottled water, icecream, hats, puppets, carpets, suzannis (embroideries) and jewellery are magically transported back two millennia.

Bukhara and Samarkand followed on my journey. These cities marked the Silk Road's half-way point. They prospered, offering vital services such as brokers, banking houses and markets and providing native animals - horses and two-humped camels - to keep the goods flowing in both directions.

Bukhara (population 270,000), has 997 historical monuments, 140 of them protected buildings. Dominating the skyline is the Kalyan Minaret.

Built in 1127, it stands 47m above ground on top of 10m foundations. Such was the skill of the engineers and builders responsible for this structure that in 850 years it has never needed anything other than cosmetic repairs.

Genghis Khan was so amazed by it that he ordered it to be spared: impressive, given that when he took Bukhara in 1220, he killed 30,000 of its inhabitants and pretty much destroyed the rest of the city.

Samarkand (population 500,000) was founded around the 5th century BC. It was already a cosmopolitan city when it was taken by Alexander the Great in 329BC.

Sitting on the crossroads leading to China, India and Persia, it became an important Silk Road city.

In 1370, Mongolian warlord Timur made Samarkand his capital. Sixteen years later, in a spectacular nine-year rampage (1386-95), he captured modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey (which he took in a week), the Caucasus and northern India.

In less than four decades, he fashioned Samarkand into a magical city.

Here domes and minarets create a larger-than-life technicolour spectacular. The Registan, three majestic, tilting madrassah built between 1420 and 1660 around a vast, imposing square, is widely regarded as the most spectacular single site in Central Asia. Personally, I would not be so geographically specific.

Meanwhile, back in Tashkent, there is the 7th century Osman Koran, said to be the world's oldest, on display at the Khast Imom Mosque.

Across the religious divide, the Russian Orthodox Church services are striking for their singing, iconography and blaze of colour; priests here are young and do not wear black.

The city boasts Central Asia's only underground system. All of its large, cool, spotlessly clean marble halls are uniquely decorated.

Check out Kosmonavtlar Station, with its amazing images of Yuri Gagarin (the first man to fly in space) and Ulughbek, the 15th-century astronomer-prince whose quest for knowledge led to his overthrow by religious extremists. (Yes, very little is new.)

The remains of Ulughbek's gigantic sextant, which enabled him to calculate the length of a year to within 10 seconds, can be seen in Samarkand.

As well as being at the central core of the Silk Road, Uzbekistan also offers a tantalising taste of Central Asia.

This is a region which defies comparisons with elsewhere. Invasion and migration stretching back more than 2000 years have created a diverse ethnic mix.

Today, the region is home to Chinese, Turks, Slavs and Russians as well as those from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It is distinctly Asian, but very clearly not Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong.

In Central Asia, the 19th century clash between the British Empire and Imperial Russia (referred to as "The Great Game" by London and "The Tournament of Shadows" by Moscow), was pretty much won by the Russians. Not surprisingly, Russian influences are everywhere.

Culturally, this place shouts out Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It does not shout out Uncle Sam.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: There is no easy or direct route to Tashkent from New Zealand. The cheapest route is with Korean Airlines via Seoul. If you would like to go with a tour group, EXPLORE! in the UK can be recommended. Their New Zealand agent is Adventure World.

Internal flights with Uzbekistan Airways are inexpensive. Furthermore, Uzbeks don't know how not to be friendly - there has not yet been enough tourism to make them cynical of visitors - so even taxi drivers are positively charming.

Accommodation: Accommodation and meals are inexpensive. Decent hotel rooms with ensuites and satellite television start at around $50, and you can get something quite classy for around $110. A slap-up meal for two with drinks should set you back no more than $25.

Shopping: Retail therapy opportunities (jewellery, carpets, embroideries) abound in Tashkent. The Abdulgosim Shoshiy Madrassah (Drujhba Narodov St) has good quality merchandise. The work of lacquer miniature artist Asatoullo Yuldachev (Room Seven) is exquisite.

If applied arts are something you would rather look at than buy, head for the Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan (Movarounnakhr 16). After a visit here, you will want to go out and buy. But it might be sensible to wait until you get to Bukhara or Samarkand, where prices are often lower.

For carpets, check out the carpet shop in the Shirdor Madrassah in the Registan in Samarkand. They can also arrange a visit for you to their carpet workshop a few kilometres away.

When to go: The best time is May-June and September-November, when it is neither too hot nor too cold. But go soon, before too many tourists discover the place.

- NZ Herald

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