The road to Samarqand
- Categorized in: July 2011
As I left Tashkent, I found myself part of a team, having for so long pedalled my way across Asia all alone. The two brothers with whom I’d fallen in – a pair of Americans who hailed from Detroit, Michigan – seemed to be to be a stroke of luck. Both of them bright and enthusiastic, they were also physically fit, a faculty that was to prove pretty important for the following part of the journey.
THRB, Kellen and Cory setting out from Gulnara's, Tashkent
Kellen, the older of the two brothers, had set out from Hong Kong back in April, and was on his way to Portugal and the Atlantic Coast. His brother Cory had flown out to Tashkent to ride with his brother as far as Istanbul, before flying back to the US in time for the new academic year.
For different reasons, both they and I were keen to complete the section of the journey from Tashkent across Uzbekistan to the Caspian port of Aktau in western Kazakhstan as fast as possible. They wanted to spend as much of the time available to Cory in the Caucasus and Turkey, and I was trying to make a rendez-vous with my older brother and his family in Georgia by early August. By this coincidence of interests, we settled on a simple policy.
“Go Go Go!”
This meant we were going to allow ourselves only three days’ rest in a leg of 2,100km – to be taken in the historical cities of Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva. Given the heat and the terrain, it was pretty clear that this would be an intense experience. And at the time of writing this, I can tell you – it has been!
Big distances to go - 2,179km till a rest
But all this lay before us as we set out from Tashkent. Leaving late in the day, we didn’t get far from the city. Only 40km or so, but far enough for the city limits to turn into the prevalent agriculture of the region – cotton, wheat and barley. June had turned into July, and for the first time we passed the satisfying sight of combines cutting golden crops of barley – a sight familiar to me from my home in Norfolk that made me think of the preparations my father and brother were themselves going through to make ready for getting in the harvest (and the eternal battle with the English summer weather).
Dawn over a stubble field just south of Tashkent
That first night, we slept out in the open, not far from the road beside a stubble field, and under an abandoned structure. It was the first of many wonderful nights spent crossing the land of Uzbekistan, falling asleep under warm night skies and an infinite canopy of stars.
Despite our vagrant stop-over, we were remarkably slow getting away in the morning, but eventually got underway and into the stride of our newly-formed peloton. With three – assuming a reasonable road surface – you can travel considerably more efficiently than alone. Taking turns at the front of the little group provides a wind-break (and therefore some rest) for the two following behind, which usually means a higher overall speed. We certainly managed to cover the ground pretty fast, reaching almost 100km by the early afternoon.
But the heat was also intense. At that stage, we weren’t yet accustomed to it, so we decided to take some hours off the road during the hottest part of the day. So we found the first of many chaikhanas (essentially just roadside cafés) for a stop, where we ate and then bedded down for a couple of hours’ afternoon snooze before continuing on.
Despite the break, the heat was still oppressive when we resumed, only really cooling off towards 7pm each day. By this time we were heading due south, following a line of trees and an elevated irrigation channel beside the road. After the sun had set, we found a turn off to the west, and took a little track beside a bigger irrigation channel.
Dusk over Uzbek farmland
Within a couple of hundred metres, we drew up to a small group of farm workers, standing a little way off from a farmyard. We asked them whether they minded us camping somewhere nearby, to which the leader (who turned out to be the owner of the 100 or so hectares roundabouts) said that we were of course welcome, and could use his old tapchan to sleep on.
A tapchan is a very characteristic feature of Uzbek life. It is essentially a metal or wooden frame of four legs on which is mounted a platform – usually about 2m x 2m in size – on which may be placed a short-legged table for eating, or simply mattresses for sleeping (or afternoon naps). They are everywhere – in and around homes, guesthouses and restaurants – and Uzbeks themselves use them to sleep outside during the hot summer months, it being far too hot to sleep well indoors without air conditioning.
Irrigation channel that served as a bath
Anyway, we set up here, dived into the irrigation channel and had a quick wash, and were just thinking about food, when the farmer came over and invited us to have dinner with him at a local restaurant. So bundling us into a car, he drove us a few short kilometres down the road, with his son and brother-in-law in tow, where we were soon settling into a pretty full meal of fish, bread, fresh salad, beers and the odd vodka chaser. Meanwhile the farmer asked us about our lives (with me translating) and told us a bit of his life, the cereal and cotton harvests, the local economy and how wives are chosen for young men in Uzbekistan.
Our happy little crowd - farmers and cyclists
Unlike in many parts of China, and in contrast with the ancient animal husbandry of Kyrgyzstan, agriculture in Uzbekistan is far more mechanised. Under the Soviet regime, Uzbekistan was used as a specialised region for the production of cotton, with the majority of cultivated land being given over to this crop. The lack of diversification brought its own problems, but could also be used as a means of exerting centralised control over the Uzbek SSR since it was by necessity a net importer of food. Who controls food supply, controls the people, which no doubt suited Moscow well.
Since the Soviet days, Uzbek farming has diversified into cereal crops, and many different types of fruit and vegetables, in particular watermelons and other types of melons, which far outweigh other products for sheer presence in food markets throughout Uzbekistan. But cotton remains an important crop, and Uzbekistan still exports much of this around the other CIS countries.
We were surprised that both the farmer and his brother-in-law were so enthusiastic about Karimov, their president. Very simply, they said life was better under him than it had been under the Communists. There was more opportunity to make money, personally they felt freer; they had greater access to the culture of the outside world and they had greater self-respect as Uzbeks. The fact that they had no choice when it came to election time didn’t bother them, they said.
Only a little later, we were back at the farm, falling asleep under the stars once more on our tapchan, ready for another hot day to push on to Samarqand the next morning.
We did manage to get away in better time on this day, already on the road before 7am. But the sun was well up and the heat was already starting to build. Beyond the first town, the agriculture died away as the landscape rose up into a series of undulating hills – barren and dry and increasingly hot.
Setting out for Samarqand
As noon approaches, you are very exposed under the sun, which beats down on your shoulders and head. Both the road and wind slewed around a bit, but eventually settled down into a straight and strong tailwind for the last 40km or so into Samarqand. Despite this, we still needed quite extended breaks wherever there was a chaikhana and Cory the younger brother, in particular, was suffering badly as we reached the last 10km into this city. I didn’t appreciate quite how badly he was suffering until the final 1km to our hostel, as we tried to decipher our map, when he was unable to do more than walk his bike very slowly a couple of hundred yards at a time without having a rest.
Having reached this point of heat exhaustion before myself, I could appreciate how unpleasant he must have been feeling, but the hostel we stayed at, Bahodir B&B, softened the blow. We were ushered through the entrance hallway into a cool and leafy courtyard, directed to collapse onto a tapchan standing empty on one side, and fed delicious chunks of melon and given an ice cold bottle of water, while the owner took away our passports for registration.
Made it - to Samarqand at least - Cory and me not in a good way here!
The magnificent blue-tiled kupals and monumental facades so characteristic of Samarqand that we’d passed on the way into the city were a tantalising glimpse of the pomp and grandeur of this city. But that would have to wait for the next day. For now, all we could do was collapse, and try to get what sleep we could manage in our sweltering room.
Samarqand & its Amir
Samarqand was and remains the city of Amir Timur “the Magnificent”. Known in European history as Tamerlane – derived from “Timur the Lame” on account of a pronounced limp caused by a wound to his foot suffered in one of his early battles – the Amir Timur is one of the great conquerors of history.
Amir Timur - statue in central Tashkent
Unlike other conquerors like Alexander the Great or Ghenghis Khan, Timur began his ascent to domination from more or less nothing. He had no people when he began his conquests, but by the time of his death, his dominion stretched from the borders of the Chinese empire in the east, to the Caucasus and beyond Baghdad in the West, from the Russian borderland in the north to the plains of India in the south. And the name of the people he had created, the Tartars, spread terror into the hearts of all who stood against them.
He was born in a city not far south of Samarqand and began his conquests in the latter half of the 14th century. As he gained more and more power, he eventually settled on Samarqand as his capital and seat of imperial power. As such, he was determined to endow his city with a splendour never before seen in the world. Contemporary accounts attest that there was no doubt that he succeeded, and he can certainly be seen as a great patron of the arts at the time.
He built palaces, mosques and madrassas, gardens and mausoleums, fortifications and great monumental gates. And any architects that fell behind in his ambitiously rapid building plans were summarily for the chop.
As he himself said, “If you have doubts in our might and power – look at our monuments.”
Despite being all-conquering during his lifetime, the empire he created broke up just as quickly as it had been forged. He died leading his army off towards China, where he intended to bring the Dragon Emperor to his knees, as he had so many other powerful rulers before. But the Dragon was spared once Timur had breathed his last, and his lieutenants descended into the squabbles and factionalism that would so quickly fracture all he had managed to build.
Nevertheless, his legacy was significant. In the west, in Europe, Christendom was severely under threat from invasion and submission to the Turkish Sultanate, advancing through the Balkans against a weakened army of Christian knights. But this threat was wiped out in an instant, once Timur turned his attention to the Turks, and delivered them a humiliating and crushing defeat in 1402, which left the Sultan a broken old man who died soon afterwards in captivity. For this service, the western courts of France and Spain sent missions to Samarqand to honour “Tamerlane” and to congratulate him on his victories as an ally.
In the east, some of his final conquests (and more outrageous massacres) stretched far down into the Indian sub-continent. After the break-up of his empire, these dominions became a smaller power base in their own right out of which emerged the Mughal Empire which continued on into the 19th century and consolidated the Islamic faith in that part of the world - an effect obviously still felt there with the existence of Pakistan today, and its difficult relationship with modern India. The characteristic kupals of the Taj Mahal are in fact architectural devices transposed from the favourite designs of the Tartar Empire, and which can be seen silhouetting the Samarqand skyline as the sun falls. They in their turn had come from Damascus, built by Syrian architects carried off after a victorious campaign.
Any biography of Tamerlane leaves a pretty clear impression of who he was. Physically large and strong, an outstanding warrior and military genius, a man of ill-humour who seldom laughed, and a person of supreme megalomaniac tendencies. Although in every way conceivable (in my view) an apparently unpleasant man, he had the virtue of being a winner, and he fostered a fanatical loyalty in his generals and men. He was cruel – he used to have towering flaming beacons made of the heads of the vanquished of any city that dared to resist his rule – impossibly proud, wilful and yet, it seems, wise enough to hold dominion over a vast swathe of earth without serious dissent or rebellion. Yet he was a man who could not rest at peace and enjoy the empire he had carved out or the art that he encouraged. The mere existence of other powerful rulers seemed to be an affront to his own power and he could never sit long at Samarqand without devising another ambitious and immediate campaign to add yet more land to his dominion and glory to his own name. And this continued right up to his death.
His life is quite a story of what is possible for an ambitious, determined and talented individual to achieve in life. While he lived there was almost no limit to his success. And yet his life is just as great a witness to how transient this achievement may be. The only assailant he could not defeat was death. And it was his death which destroyed more or less everything he had managed to create in a very short time.
So much for the transience of worldly glory. Few people remember Timur outside of Uzbekistan these days, where he is celebrated as a native hero. Yet few historical figures loom larger than he did during his lifetime. His power literally sent shockwaves to the end of the known world in his day.
Yet I couldn’t help but reflect on the topsyturvydom of Christ in response to looking quite closely at the life of Timur. For one there was no limit to his success during his life, for the other his life ended in apparent utter failure and abandonment. For one, his death was the end of all he created, for the other it was the crowning purpose of what he was doing, and only the beginning of his dominion. For one, the draw of loyalty on his subjects could not outlast the extinction of his life, for the other, two thousand years after his death the number of his subjects continues to grow daily.
You might say what about Buddha or Mohammed? But it is only their ideas that people may follow. Not the men themselves. People seek enlightenment to reach nirvana, or submit to the idea of Allah that Mohammed preached, but they do not bow down to them in the sense of the reverence given to the Christ of history. They do not consider themselves a subject as of a dominion or a kingdom.
Whatever else you may think of Christ, he is a wild aberration of history. Timur, Ghenghis Khan, Alexander, Napoleon, Caesar. All the greatness and glory of the world, yet now they are nothing. Why and how does the man called Jesus turned this lesson of history upside down?
It is as if the eagles of the French Emperor still glittered in the sun, or the pointed steel helmets of Timur’s warriors were still on the march, and new subjects in the 21st century continued to flock to their standards.
Very curious. Any simple answer as to why and how this is the case, it seems to me, fails to appreciate the historical uniqueness of this bizarre anomaly. They do not honour the memory of a man long dead, but claim to follow the banner of a man still living. If it is a mistake, it has to be the oddest mistake ever made by man or woman.
Anyway, with thoughts like these in mind, I wandered around the impressive sights of Samarqand for a day with my two companions. These monuments and buildings are in amazingly good condition because many of them have been carefully restored under an ambitious programme of restoration backed by Karimov since 2001. Only 15 years ago, buildings like the Registan or the Shah-i-Zinda avenue of mausoleums were tumbledown wrecks, ravaged and neglected by time and nature, and particularly badly damaged by frequent earthquakes in the region. But today many of them stand in something close to their former glory – with fully restored blue glazed tiling adorning their roofs and facades, and brickwork reinforced or replaced where necessary to prevent further decay.
The Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarqand
There are so many sights to see, one has to be a little selective. We managed to take in the Shah-i-Zinda – the avenue of mausoleums – one of the best efforts of restoration and most beautiful examples of Islamic tilework to be found anywhere in the Muslim world.
Shah-i-Zenda Avenue of Mausoleums, Samarqand
We also wandered past the Gur-e-Amir – the surprisingly unostentatious mausoleum of Amir Timur himself – and then spent a good amount of time investigating the various courtyards and interiors of the Registan, the most impressive of Samarqand’s sights today, which was actually built after Timur’s reign and consists of three enormous madrassas built facing one another around the traditional central meeting place of this old capital.
One of the madrassas at the Registan, Samarqand
Perhaps the best treat was to be able to climb up one of the minarets in the biggest of the three madrassas to watch the dawn. This is done courtesy of the crooked policemen who act as security guards for the Registan sight. Their job – I assume – is to protect these buildings from unwelcome intruders. Instead, they turn a tidy profit by allowing curious tourists access to the very places they are supposed to prevent them from seeing. Ironic that these green-clad officials were the only people in Uzbekistan who overtly offered us - shall we say – any illegal goods and services that we might desire.
Still, I am not complaining. Watching the dawn rise over Samarqand from this ancient lookout has to be one of the great spectacles of Central Asia.
Dawnlight rises over the Registan
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