The Silk Road, China

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Uzbekistan - where the old is new and the new is old

If one country exemplifies the Silk Road it is Uzbekistan. Located between Persia and China the independent Khanates of Khiva, Bokhara and Samarkand thrived on the trade that passed through the barren deserts of Central Asia. These settlements stood alone in what was otherwise an area populated primarily by nomadic people.

Even after maritime commerce undermined the importance of the Silk Road the three cities made the headlines as recently as the 19th Century, as Britain and Russia eyed each other's empires suspiciously across expanse of Central Asia in what has been called 'The Great Game.' Russia sought aggrandisement and the primitive armies of the the Khanates proved no match for her modern armies. Britain, on the other hand, primarily sought defence of her interests in India, although some argued that a 'forward policy' in Central Asia was the best means to achieve this. Both sides sent ambitious young officers (all under 30!) into the region, often undercover on reconnaissance missions.

By the end of the Great Game both had broadly achieved their objectives: in ten years the Tsar had added an area half the size of the United States in Central Asia to his empire and Britain had successfully maintained a neutral buffer zone in Afghanistan and Tibet.

As I sat on the Transcaspian railway between Bokhara and Samarkand I read Curzon's account of its strategic importance as he travelled along it around 150 years before. He predicted that the railway would transform Central Asia from a curious wasteland into a fully mobilised frontier of the Russian empire. He was right: as we cruised along at a comfortable 110km it was hard to imagine the camel trains toiling through the desert, fighting off attacks from nomads so that they could sell their wares in the bazaars ahead.

But Soviet Russia tried hard to bring the old Silk Road cities to life. The old towns - in the case of Bokhara, shelled by the Red Army - have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. The old is brand new.

The results are spectacular. The Registan of Samarkand was for me undoubtedly the highlight, but the imposing walls of the desert town of Khiva and the mosques of Bokhara are also impressive.

Timur's Registan in Samarkand

The Ark in Bokhara

The walls of Khiva

But somehow the atmosphere is not there. Such is the extent of the Soviet restoration programme that, as a visitor, you feel you are rattling around in a vast infrastructure that rather dwarfs the fairly small number of tourists. It also lacks character. In part, this is because the line between museum and museum shop is non existent: local women are given free rein to set up shop inside the historic buildings, while they nominally check your ticket (for the twentieth time). The magnificent Coronation Rome in the Ark of Bokhara, for example, was almost completely masked with wall hangings for sale which were draped around it!

The other thing that was noticeable is that the sights are empty. This is of course inevitable, but is in sharp contrast to the spectacular - but living and breathing - mosques and shrines of the Middle East. Doubtless there are more tourists in high season, but we felt rather outnumbered by the caretakers / saleswomen, while the 'museum city' of Khiva was like a ghost town after the last day trippers had left.

I am sure that is overly simplistic to say that restoration 'ruins' these places - a charge that is often levelled at these cities: we saw photographs showing just how little would have remained with no restoration effort. Nevertheless, for me the feel of these places was no match for Palmyra in Syria, whose heyday was many centuries before these cities. Both Bokhara and Khiva felt a little too removed from the new towns; for this reason Samarkand was my favourite, with its stunning medressas (religious schools set around impressive quadrangles) and mausoleums of Timur and his relatives found scattered in the midst of the bustle of the bazaar of the new town.

Pilgrims pay their respects iShahr-i-Zindah (The Tomb of the Living King), Samarkand

In a museum we did find some fascinating old photographs of the fierce looking Khans in their massive wool hats, sitting in the very rooms we had just visited. These did the most to bring the Silk Road to life and so we bought a few copies to take away with us.

The extraordinary stories in Peter Hopkirk's book, The Great Game, also fired our imaginations to bring the cruelty of these once filthy slave towns to life. Most are too incredible to be fiction. In Bokhara, for example, we visited the 'bug pit,' a 25 foot hole into which prisoners were lowered and left to rot with all the wildlife that the desert could throw at them. One Great Game British officer, spent three years in it before being lead out to dig his own grave in the plaza outside the Ark, at which point he was beheaded. The reason? A volatile Emir (leader) of the city who was irritated by the Briton ignorance of Central Asian social etiquette at a time when he believed that Britain's disastrous foray into Afghanistan meant that it was not a power to be feared.

So the old is strangely new in Uzbekistan. In addition, the 'new' Uzbekistan sometimes felt more than a little tarnished; very little seems to have sprung up in recent times to replace the Soviet legacy. One small example that sticks in my mind is our hair-raising crossing of the creaking 'temporary' military bridge over the river Oxus, in our a tiny shared taxi crammed with four passengers and all their luggage. [It was the Russian equivalent of a Smart Car, which boasts a fuel efficiency every bit as amazing as its lack of comfort. As the man next to me turned Doctor Alban up to full blast on the stereo on his lap, the man in the front turned around proudly showed us a small bag with powder in it. "Narcotics, yes?" he grinned.]

Nukus, Karakalpakstan (North West Uzbekistan) - functional

We saw many other examples of the decaying Soviet legacy, but perhaps the most haunting image was our visit to the once thriving fishing port of Moynaq. Once on the Aral Sea, it is now a forlorn desert town more than 150km from the water, with rusty fishing boats decaying in the sand.

Formerly the Aral Sea shore, Moynaq

The reason for this is simple: the Soviet drive for cotton production led to a massive irrigation programme on the barren steppes on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Oxus (Amu Darya) and the Syr Darya rivers have been bled of water, resulting in a fall in the level of Aral Sea by 16m in 30 years. The water has become saltier and the climate drier - both are impacting the people as well as the wildlife of Uzbekistan.

Sadly, the solution is far from simple to execute. Although the situation could be reversed within 3 years if irrigation were to cease, there are now far too many mouths to feed that rely on the agricultural economy created in the last 50 years.

So Uzbekistan is a strange place to visit and not an easy place to love. The two Uzbeks we spoke to at some length were both bright, young people whose ambitions were set firmly outside of their country, perhaps in order to overcome the problems inside it.

Kuat, a teacher and a 'revolutionary' (i.e. a member of a young persons' democratic society) lamented the lack of civil liberties and what he believed was the government's deliberate policy to keep the autonomous northern region of Karakalpakstan (including the Aral Sea) in abject poverty, thus ensuring its reliance on subsidies from Tashkent. This in turn ensures that it it will not exercise its constitutional right to independence from the rest of Uzbekistan. He planned to leave the country and his family (again) in order to earn a meaningful wage - away from the endemic corruption of Uzbek officialdom.

Sabina, an incredibly erudite girl of 16 is already a successful businesswoman in Bokhara, selling handicrafts to tourists. She, along with her sister, provides for her widowed mother, despite the arrival of of a new stepfather on the scene. Clearly highly successful, she seemed upbeat about her future, but once again planned to leave her country and come to London to study in the near future.

For us, no Silk Road trip would have been complete without a visit to Uzbekistan. But while the brand new looking old cities were impressive, they were perhaps a little less evocative of the past than I had hoped. Meanwhile, for me, the newer Soviet legacy that survives in contemporary Uzbekistan feels rather tired and a little depressing.


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