OK, I need to throw a Central Asian spanner in the works right now. This next bit is totally out of synch. You see, while I was in Russia, (cast your mind back) I traveled around Central Asia for a bit. I then wrote a piece about this for the very cool website Way Beyond Borders. You should give it a look.
The piece on the website is fine. I’m perfectly happy with it. However, I still want to get the initial draft out there. In the main, because it’s got some quite cool little bits in it. The thing was that, at the time of submitting the piece, I couldn’t really square those cool little bits with a piece intended for general travel. However, as this is my blog and has never been anything approaching a travel guide, I feel I can rightly insert them here.
And if you don’t agree, bad luck.
For the absolute completist, you can also find something from me on Georgia on there.
Some years ago, another lifetime in fact, my Dad lent me a book, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. I’m not going to go into all the details, that’s not really what this is about, but if you haven’t read it, you probably should. It concerns that little bit of history when the Russian and British empires found themselves staring at each other across the vast and unknown steppe that separated their two frontiers. To 19th Century minds what lay between; a vast, complicated tapestry of khanates, giant sandstone fortresses and intractable deserts may as well have been the surface of another planet.
Like I said, the history of Empire isn’t really what this is about. However, it’s important to stress the vividness of the images the book planted in my mind. There’s a real romance in the unknown and for some time my mind was full of pictures of strange and mysterious fortresses, endless deserts and ancient tiled minarets towering out of and above the limitless expanse of the Central Asian Steppe.
Given this, you can imagine my state of mind as, some years later, I lay on my bunk as the midnight train pulled its slow way out of Almaty and into the vast Kazakh wilderness of the steppe. Managing expectations in such a climate can be tough. However, as is often the case at the beginning of any long trip, future omens are best discerned at the bottom of a glass.
Restaurant cars on the giant trains that still make their slow and formidable way across the former Soviet Union give firm precedence to the practical over any vague notion of luxury. Tables sit in uniform rows of Formica, bolted to the floor and flanked on either side by wooden kitchen chairs. It was in this dimly lit arena that my girlfriend and I first made contact with Oleg. I was never too clear what Oleg’s actual function was. There was a younger and perpetually harassed looking Uzbek woman who seemed to do the cooking and the serving, whilst Oleg appeared to oversee matters as some kind of benevolent, if perpetually pissed, dictator.
In any event, the night and a cheap bottle of cognac wore on, with Oleg raising chipped tea cup after tea cup in any number and variety of toasts as the dim outline of the steppe rumbled past outside. I remember trying to take stock of the situation, to step outside of my circumstances and somehow apply a context to it all. However, Oleg’s endless toasts and his firm pronouncements on the clear connection between a man’s alcohol intake and his ability to satisfy a woman – nods were made in the direction of the harassed Uzbek woman here – proved too great a distraction, and it was soon enough to sit back, relax and listen to Oleg’s cheerful boasts as the sun slowly climbed up over the steppe.
Trains haven’t changed much in Central Asia since Commissars stalked their broad, veneer lined corridors. In fact, for the most part, they’re the same trains and carriages as serviced the Soviet railroads of old. Often, these will have their own style and decorations and the train we now found ourselves on was, in part, little different. A short walk down part of the train was enough to confirm that this was a collection of different carriages, rather than a single unit. Some, such as the one we were in, were simply functional places in which to sleep and eat. Others, in what must have seemed to some distant designer as the very definition of opulence, now, with their faded nylon silks and deep burgundy acrylic carpets, seemed more reminiscent of a back street Yekaterinburg brothel than any vision of the great socialist future. In any event, it was a nice enough place to sit, relax and watch the steppe drift past.
Eventually, night and Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent came into view and with it the prospect of the short morning flight to Urgench and from there to Khiva.
Khiva had once been a pretty powerful khanate in its own right. However, time and its famous neighbours, Samarkand and Bukhara, had both worked to relegate Khiva to semi-obscurity. It’s also not the easiest place to get to, requiring either the hire of a private car and driver, or joining the packed coach bound throngs that make their infrequent and costly way along the silk road. In any event, the cost of sharing a private car, (around $50 a day) isn’t exactly the harshest of financial burdens and gives you a freedom of movement that anything else is going to struggle to match.
Despite my reading, despite the endless hours on Google, nothing had really prepared me for my first sight of Khiva’s old city walls. In one minute, our car was making its slow, staccato way through the crowded streets of what might be any Asian town and then, above it all, the imposing sandstone walls of Khiva came into view, taking their place amidst the town and the traffic like a giant sandstone traffic island. In fact, Khiva’s old town represents something of an enigma to me that I’ve never been able to explain or understand. In the area where our hotel was located, we would be inundated with grinning children sprinting up to us, screaming the one word of English they knew, “Hello!” before shrieking off laughing as if a great feat had been accomplished.
It’s hard to say what it’s like to wander through the sandstone lined walls of Khiva, other than to describe it as utterly alien. I mean, I want to give you an idea, better still, to help you feel like you were taking that walk yourself, but there’s just no simile available. No mechanism to help me do that. Nothing is familiar. The streets are narrow and on each side are dwarfed by the ancient fortress walls that tower above you. The old women you come across at random intervals, who brush away the desert sand with old wooden brooms, stand in traditional garb, the sun reflected in their gold teeth and lighting the olive skin on their lined and weathered faces.
However, the scale, and just how breathtaking Khiva really is, can only be half guessed from the ground. To really grasp Khiva, you need to climb either a watchtower, or scale one of the two minarets that are open to the public. Again, you need to remember that you’re a long way off the tourist track here. There are no lights inside these minarets, apart from a couple of narrow slits, so the bulk of any ascent must be made in near perfect darkness. It’s not a journey for everyone, but the rewards far outweigh the investment. It’s only when viewed from above can you grasp just how magical Khiva really is, stretching away from you on all sides is the architecture of what previously could only be imagined, wrought and rendered real from the desert’s hard stone. It’s only from on high that you can grasp the scale of the medieval fortification which, along with their desert surroundings, kept the entire Russian army at bay ‘till 1873. Similarly, it’s only from the vantage point of the city walls that you grasp the extent of the poverty in which most of Khiva’s current inhabitants now live.
For me, and this is purely personal, the attraction of Khiva lay in its lack of shine. Some accommodation had been made for tourists. However, this was only in a small part of the city. Elsewhere, people simply lived their lives, working tooth and jowel within what I can only call a living history. For me, there’s something amazing in that. History is made real when it is worked. More tangible when it is allowed to age, instead of being constantly prettified, polished and sold as a commodity. To my mind, Khiva is the living embodiment of that notion. I don’t think any of us have forgotten our time there and my guess would be that we never really will.
From Khiva, the road leads East to the once holy city of Bukhara. In fact, the road itself is worth mentioning. Stretching through the desert, the drive from Khiva to Bukhara is not short of incident. At times, the road seems to fade to rubble and, as you’re bounced around the rattling car, it’s a wonder how the driver can distinguish desert from road. Four long hours in and you come across the only rest stop, a small low rise building to the right of the road. Here, giant carp swim in a shallow pool waiting on the arrival of the hungry traveller while two giant upturned pipes rise sharply out of the desert, marked for the separate use of men and women.
I’ve always associated night driving with a sense of security. I don’t know why, but somehow the warm and quiet interior of the car when contrasted with the dark and the cold outside provides a sense of warmth and security. This was pretty much the case as the car, now on a firmer footing, made its way along the final leg of its seven hour journey to Bukhara. It was safe and it was peaceful. I’ve been in more accidents that I want to think about and they never happen how you imagine. There is no slow rise in tension. No music kicks in to tip the viewer the wink to impending events. There’s just peace and quiet, followed by a crash, confusion, noise, a feeling of the air being sucked from the room, then silence and muffled and dazed conversation. This was how it was when we hit the industrial petrol tank a truck had left in the road to warn oncoming drivers of its presence, and this was the feeling as the force of the collision forced us into the opposite lane and into the way of a freakishly rare truck. This was the sound as we ground our way between the two and down the side of the parked truck. And then there was silence. Nothing moved. It was just us, the steppe and the darkness.
Look, before I get too carried away, let’s be clear. This wasn’t the worst crash in the world and no one was even hurt. But it had a way of making that car feel very, very small and the surrounding desert very, very big. Walking around the battered car afterwards, with no light and no traffic, it’s hard to describe how vulnerable we felt. How the security offered by the advances of science and technology was shown up to be nothing more than a mirage and there we were, alone and naked in the wilderness. It was a strange feeling.
In any event, the next day dawned as they inevitably do and we were able to get our first glimpse of Bukhara. The contrast with the raw and unvarnished reality of Khiva couldn’t have been more marked. Don’t get me wrong, Bukhara will take anyone’s breath away. It’s majestic and it’s beautiful, but it’s also quite clean and quite developed, which in hindsight, just seemed to add greater mystery to our time in Khiva. Though maybe this is to be too harsh on Bukhara. Bukhara has stood for millennia and for centuries has been the epicentre of the Central Asian Muslim world. Its streets are soaked in the history of the steppe and its people. In fact, such was the religious significance of Bukhara that, rather than tackling it head on, the Soviet Government preferred to simply ignore it and leave it to fall away to dust. It was a cruel punishment to befall such a magnificent city and soon these Bolshevik proto-sanctions were to take their toll. The Scottish adventurer and writer, Fitzroy Maclean, visiting Bukhara in secret during the 1930’s largely describes the place in terms of an archaeological ruin. Today, it’s the restoration work accomplished since that period which gives Bukhara its freshly polished hue, so it’s probably fair to say that I’m judging it a little harshly.
There are real wonders here, the great Kalyan Minaret, or ‘Tower of Death’ which rises out of the Mosque of the same name really is something to be seen. It was here that those found guilty of any number of crimes would find themselves tossed into the ninety metres of air that separated them from the ground. It’s in Bukhara too that you can find the Emir’s Ark, or Citadel. To be fair, I could write whatever I like here, as nothing is really going to prepare you for the first time you see the Ark. It’s hard to conceive of something so ancient being so massive. It stands, almost intact from initial Bolshevik shelling and latterly Bolshevik neglect; an amazing and imposing testament to the sheer historical power that Bukhara once exuded over this region and its people.
There have been baths in Bukahara for eight centuries and over this period a unique system of washing and massaging visitors has evolved. It was here, underground, alone, naked and feeling very vulnerable that I came face to face with a much larger man intent on bending my body into previously unimaginable positions. It was also in this room where the critical difference between the Russian words for strong, ‘Siilno’ and medium ‘Stretsvo’ became overwhelmingly apparent. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again. The pain notwithstanding, I can’t claim this to be a negative experience. Even as I was rolled on my belly and ribs with my arms and legs pinned high behind my back and a nose full of soap, the feeling of relaxation and cleanliness that followed, one which seemed to engulf my whole body, was one I have never experienced before or since.
However, a fresh day and a new car saw us leave Bukhara behind and make our way to Samarkand. For many, and I include myself in this, even the name Samarkand is enough to cause the breath to quicken. Throughout the history of the East, Samarkand has been a place of wonder and mystery. I’m not exaggerating when I say that long before the advent of the modern age, the wonders of Samarkand were spoken of as only the mythical can be. It was here that Tamarlane built his capital and drew the finest craftsman and architects of the known world to him to complete his work. And it still doesn’t disappoint.
Up until around halfway through the 20th Century, only a handful of Europeans had even got so far as stepping foot in Samarkand and today, even when that foot is stepping out of a Daewoo, the city still retains a firm sense of The Other, (capitals intended). Samarkand’s blue tiled minarets tower out of the desert as history’s landlocked lighthouses, guiding travellers and caravans alike to its markets and its mosques. Within, everything is opulence and, even coming from the 21st Century, it’s hard not to be carried away with the scale and the magnificence of the city. What effect it must have had on the wild Turcoman horsemen and traders of antiquity who strayed this way can only be imagined.
There’s a tick list school of tourism that I’ve never really understood or subscribed to where it’s everything to seek out a sight, stare a while, then have your picture taken in front of it before moving on. I can see how Samarkand could be viewed that way. However, I think it’s enough to just allow yourself to simply drift. Everything you could imagine is here and you’ll find it eventually, so allow yourself the time and, critically, the wonder, to do so. Wonder is what Samarkand’s about. This is a city designed to inspire and it does so to this day. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built by Timur, (Tamarlane) from the most precious stones of all India, or the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, final home to the wives of Timur and his Court, plus the Cousin of Mohammed, (after whom the Necropolis is named) who first brought Islam to Central Asia. It doesn’t matter if it’s Registan Square, whose towering minarets and giant Mosques will simply leave the viewer breathless. It doesn’t matter. Your imagination and ability to grasp the near limitless vision underlying Samarkand’s creation that will run out a long time before Samarkand’s marvels do.
There is real magic in Central Asia. Magic that lives and whose breath courses throughout its cities and citadels. It gets inside you and propels you forward and it’s one you never really leave behind. Again, as I said earlier, it’s one I struggle to explain, but once its mystery and its beauty gets you, it’s not one you can readily forget. Maybe that’s because, to European eyes, there’s no experience by which it can be compared and, in doing so, quantified. Again, I don’t really know. All I can tell you for sure is that it’s haunted me. The slightest mention of the area is enough to catch my ear and excite my interest. It’s like I left, but I never really left, and that’s pretty magical in itself.