In the 1st century BC, present-day Uzbekistan stood on the important overland trade route that linked China with the Mediterranean. Alexander the Great conquered it; Islam was introduced by Arab invaders who were followed by the Persians, Turkic hordes, the warlord Genghis Khan, and the sheep-rustler turned brutal despot, Tamerlane. Then Russia seized it, finally granting independence in 1991. Alcohol and pork are consumed, women wear Western- style clothes (grannies sport head scarves like our Queen), friendly locals flash smiles revealing titanium- gold teeth, there’s not a wisp of litter and one’s hard pressed to spot a dog or cat.
During September, the weather’s dry with day temperatures reaching the upper 80sF; hotels (and yurts) offer all standards of accommodation.
Almost levelled in the 1966 earthquake, Tashkent was swiftly reconstructed. In the city centre rises a deeply moving bronze memorial to the victims and the indomitable spirit of the people, the clock-face alongside it a sombre reminder of the time disaster struck. Interesting modern ensembles nudge wide boulevards, attractively edged with colourful planting. The metro stations are decoratively unique and one can buy almost anything in Chorsu Bazaar.
Khiva is a spellbinding UNESCO listed treasure trove of the four Ms — madrassas, (many having morphed into craft shops or hotels), mosques, minarets and mausoleums. In this mediaeval, adobe mud walled brick citadel, camels, coffee and slaves were once traded. Amble through a warren of alleys, high-arched mosaic entrances and dusty courtyards and wonder at the profusion of blue and white majolica, turquoise domes, elm tree columns and carved doorways. And make time to visit the ochre desert forts (some dating from the 5th century AD) of Khorzem — apart from the fortifications themselves the journey through the countryside is fascinating.
A smooth highway bordered by cotton fields, the country’s ‘white gold,’ the irrigation of which inflicted environmental damage on the Aral Sea region, leads to the dynamic city of Bukhara that beguiled Montrose-born army captain, Sir Alexander ‘Bukhara’ Burnes, associated with The Great Game. His book Travels into Bokhara became a bestseller but he came to a sticky end when his constant womanizing led to his murder by cuckold husbands.
Enter Bukhara’s iconic Ark (citadel) through the western gate via what used to be a public execution square. Much of the area is still being renovated but one can see a grand mosque, an audience hall, a throne room and orchestra pit plus a grisly jail where incarcerated prisoners were chained by the neck.
I stand on the banks of the blue-green Oxus River, fed by the glaciers of the Pamir Mountains, and my thoughts turn to some lines by Matthew Arnold:
But the majestic river floated on…
Brimming, and bright, and large; then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams…
In Flashman At The Charge by George MacDonald Fraser, the author places the eponymous hero at the Oxus River and Aral Sea and, in 1937, two women friends were inspired to write The Far- Distant Oxus, a hugely popular, charmingly illustrated children’s book.
James Elroy Flecker wrote: For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the golden road to Samarkand. Considered the crossroads of world culture with a history dating back 2,750 years, this city mesmerises with its breathtaking Registan— floodlit at night— a complex of exquisite mosques, madrassas and caravanserais. Scan the night sky from the ancient observatory of the astronomer Ulun-Beg and browse its bustling bazaars.
It’s a two-hour drive from Samarkand to Tamerlane’s birthplace Shakhrisabz, (near the Afghanistan border) through a landscape rendered dramatic by the Gissar-Alai mountains. A modern bronze statue of him is a favourite photographic backdrop for newly married couples in wedding gear. Wander the remains of Tamerlane’s palace and pop inside his family necropolis. He wanted to buried here, but died in winter elsewhere. However, the terrain was snow-bound so he was interred in a green jade coffin in a mausoleum in Samarkand.
When the flesh is weak, relax on a comfortable table-bed piled high with squashy cushions, knock back shots of vodka and tuck into kebabs or plov, the country’s signature dish (typically made with rice, chunks of meat, grated carrots and onions), accompanied by some freshly- made salads. Tear off some warm, home- made patterned round flat bread, tuck into sweet, juicy, red watermelon and sip kuk-choy — green tea — as the locals do from a small handle-less bowl.
Mementoes of this magical country include hand-embroidered silk Suzani (needlework), hand-painted ceramic tiles, intricately carved book stands, spectacular Bukhara rugs, gift wrapping paper made from the mulberry tree, vibrant cotton tote bags, paintings and elegant calligraphy by talented artists, chewy nougat and, if you’ve no objection to wearing animal fur, a fetching hat.