In September 2017, a crew of explorers embarked on an expedition to trace the history of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. Asian Geographic’s Spencer Nah shares his experience of the expedition – the second in a series of three.
Photos Michael Lee
It was near the break of dawn when I checked in, bleary-eyed, at the airport in Singapore. The early rise was a bit of a mood-killer. But by the time I arrived in Kuala Lumpur for my transfer to Tashkent – meeting three of my fellow explorers there – I had traded in my daybreak disposition for buzzing anticipation.
Seven hours later, we descended into Tashkent International Airport, greeted by cool, dry winds which welcomed me with reprieve after sticky Singapore. The first thing I noticed about my host country was the presence of the militsiya around the airport, who served as a not-so-casual reminder of Uzbekistan’s status as a police state.
This severe first impression was quickly dismantled by Farruh, our tall and lanky guide, whose chatty personality stood in stark contrast to the stony-faced officers. We zipped through the bustling city, assaulted by a cacophony of blaring horns, screaming to a halt in front of a colossal building in the heart of Tashkent – our home for the night.
We were up early again for our flight to Urgench, piling into a minibus and making our way through the old Soviet city and into the countryside, travelling alongside a seemingly endless patchwork of cotton fields before reaching the ancient city of Khiva. Legend has it that some 2,500 years ago, a son of Noah stumbled upon a well while in the middle of the desert here. Upon tasting the water, he exclaimed “khi-wa”! (meaning “sweet water”), giving the area its name.
We stood dwarfed by the great statue of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, the father of algebra, before entering the walls of the fortress Itchan Kala – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – which houses close to 51 ancient monuments, such as the Minaret Kalta Minor, the Madrasa Muhammad Amin Khan, and the Djuma Mosque, built in the 18th century with 212 intricately-carved wooden columns.
The next morning, we embarked on the eight-hour journey to Bukhara, stopping to stretch our legs in the red sands of the Kyzylkum Desert, interrupted only by the snaking Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.
In Bukhara, we began our day at the Samani Mausoleum, once buried in the mud after the destruction wrought by the Mongols. In contrast to the quiet of the mausoleum is the hustle and bustle of Kolkhozny Bazaar, a local market teeming with vendors peddling their goods.
We escaped the verbal onslaughts of enthusiastic touts for the sanctity and serenity of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque before heading to the Ark Citadel, a gargantuan 5th-century fortress in the middle of Bukhara. Standing against the faded fortress wall and looking out at the new city, it felt as though I’d been transported back in time.
Four hours’ drive from Bukhara is Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia. We braced ourselves for Siab Bazaar, a dekhkan (agriculture market) packed with locals and tourists. The smell of freshly baked Uzbek bread lingered with us as we made our way to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, the regal blue domes glinting in the sunlight. The mosque was built in homage to the favourite wife of warlord Amir Timur.
After visiting the Mausoleum of St Daniel and the Shah-I-Zinda Necropolis, we headed to Timur’s tomb, the Gur-e Amir Mausoleum. It was here that a soviet anthropologist sent by Stalin opened the crypts on June 19, 1941 and found an inscription inside which read: “Whoever opens my tomb shall be defeated by an invader more fearsome than I.”
The body was subsequently removed. Three days later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Coincidence? Or divine prophecy? If you want persuasion in favour of the former, consider that when the body of Timur was returned to his tomb on December 20, 1942, the German forces surrendered.
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Back in Tashkent, we explored Khast-Imam Square to see the Qur’an of Caliph Uthman, an 8th or 9th century manuscript. Blood stains are still visible on some pages, and it’s believed that Uthman was killed while reading it. After some final shopping at the Chorsu Bazaar, and a tour of the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan, we bade our farewells.
Uzbekistan’s complex history intersects with its distinctly post-Soviet culture in a convergence of old and new, of ancient memory and invention. Despite the creep of modernity, it retains its old-world charm, and its relative isolation, leaving its many historic gems just waiting to be discovered.
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 126, 2017