It is after 7 a.m. in Tashkent where I had arrived with others only four hours before in the middle of the night. I go into the hotel’s currency exchange office and lay a hundred-dollar bill on the counter. The woman in charge goes to a cabinet in the rear of the room and returns with a brick-size bundle of local currency. There are eight packets of one thousand Uzbek som notes, one hundred notes to a packet. With eight thousand som to the dollar, I now have eight hundred thousand som, which, other than for a few major purchases, will see me through the next eight days. “Salem Alaykom.” Welcome to Uzbekistan!
By that time, I had already gotten my first impressions of the country on arrival at Tashkent’s airport. We are traveling on a group visa, and although we each have a copy of it, listing all our names, it is only the original that will let us through passport control. But where is our group leader with the original document?
We finally pass through, only to be confronted by a scrum of fellow passengers from our large, wide-bodied Airbus. They are gathered four deep around the terminal’s single luggage carousel. There is no way for us to get even a glimpse of the passing luggage until the crowd thins out.
Many of those travelers are locals returning from Istanbul, laden with large bundles of Turkish products to either sell or trade. Later in the week I would learn more about the Uzbeks’ average monthly incomes and the ways they find to supplement them.
The happiest moment during that long night was meeting Batır Shamakhsoduv, the man who would brilliantly guide us through the fabled cities of the Silk Road: Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, Shakhrisabz, and Samarkand.
Before this voyage, I had often wondered about the “-stans,” those central Asian countries that had been part of the Soviet Union until its collapse and since then are independent. The suffix “stan,” by the way, means “land of;” thus, Uzbekistan means “land of the Uzbeks.” I say, I had wondered but hadn’t learned much about them. Now, thanks to Batır’s expositions, I’m pleased to know a lot more.
My week in Uzbekistan, like the ones I have spent in other countries, was anything but a holiday. It was more of an intense study trip. To accomplish the above-mentioned itinerary, I traveled thousands of kilometers by bus and took one internal flight. I unpacked and repacked my suitcase in four different hotel rooms, shopped for authentic crafts, and walked hours with eyes and ears wide open through the historic centers of our destinations.
I have nothing but praise for my companions, seasoned travelers all. Of the twelve of us, I knew all but three, having traveled with the others on previous FARIT trips. It means a lot to be so close together with people who are not put off by primitive toilets and dodgy hotel rooms.
Uzbekistan, in spite of its thousands of years of civilization, is a developing country, modern in some ways but not in others. Its society is traditional; family bonds are strong and family honor, cherished.
Observing modern Uzbek life was as interesting to me as were the earlier civilizations we had come to learn about.
As we traveled through his country, Batır told us not only about the monuments we were seeing, but also about agriculture, trade, politics, history, the Soviet influence, education, marriage customs, security, and the widespread persistence of corruption.
Some facts were surprising: Uzbekistan is the only country on the planet other than Lichtenstein that is doubly landlocked. Goods must pass through two adjacent countries to arrive at a seaport. The closest ports are Bandarabas in Iran and Karachi in Pakistan. Naturally, import-export trade suffers from this.
The government of Uzbekistan is very afraid of radical Islam and is always looking to arrest anyone preaching or practicing jihad. Highway checkpoints all have a panel, containing thumbnail photos of men and women wanted for these offenses.
Uzbekistan is multi-ethnic. In addition to Sunni Muslim Uzbeks, it contains Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Turkmen, and Tatars. In Bukhara, our group visited a synagogue and learned that after independence, many of the country’s Jews left for Israel and the U.S. There is a Christian minority, as well. We had a few minutes to explore a pretty Russian Orthodox church in Samarkand.
Uzbekistan’s multi-ethnicity has various causes, among which was the Mongol invasion in the 13th century.
Even today, many Uzbek faces have Mongol lineaments. Much more recent events occurred during Stalin’s reign when many troublesome ethnic groups in Russia were resettled away from their homelands.
Today, most Uzbeks are trilingual, speaking Turkic Uzbek; Tajik, a Persian language; and Russian. The government is proud of the fact that these different ethnic groups live in harmony.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Uzbeks lost their life savings. To this day, many or most won’t trust banks. Batır has no bank account. Each month he takes cash to a bank and spends a couple of hours paying bills in person. In Uzbekistan, cash is king. The only places we found to use credit cards were in the lobbies of top-of-the-line hotels. Much of the working population uses a kind of cash or debit card. Wages are paid electronically into these cards, and people can draw on them as needed. Savings often take the form of buying gold. We saw some people with a mouth full of gold teeth, giving new meaning to the saying to put your money where your mouth is.
Alongside Batır’s revelations, there were our own observations: Uzbekistan is a remarkably clean country. In the morning, women sweep dust from streets and sidewalks with brooms made of bundles of sticks. Otherwise, we saw no litter such as the plastic bags and bottles that are everywhere in Istanbul and elsewhere. The countryside, too, is remarkably litter free. One reason given is that this kind of public cleanliness is a hold over from the Soviet era.
There is a lot of motorized traffic on the streets of the cities. Buses run on propane; passenger cars on petrol. In the cities, we passed stations with long lines of motorists waiting to fill up. We learned that the government allots a certain amount of fuel to these stations and mandates that it be sold at a certain price point. However, some station owners hold back some of their supply and sell it later to those willing to pay double the government rate. It seems everyone finds some way to supplement his meager monthly income that averages $350.
It seems that nearly every new car on the road sports the Chevrolet bow tie, and to paraphrase a saying attributed to Henry Ford, “You can have any color you want as long as it is white.” These Chevys are made locally in a former Daewoo plant, in which General Motors holds a forty-nine-percent stake.
Each day of our tour was organized around the existing monuments and other points of interest that are situated mostly in the old centers of the cities we visited. Many of the monuments are Islamic madrassas, mosques, and mausoleums, but there are a few others as well.
The Arabs established themselves in central Asia in the 7th and 8th centuries, bringing Islam, which slowly supplanted earlier religions, especially Zoroastrianism from Persia. Ghengis Khan and the Mongols arrived early in the 13th century. This historical fact led Batır to divide the monuments we visited roughly into pre-and-post Mongolian. There are far more of the latter since the method of the Mongols under Ghengis Khan was to destroy everything. Those people they did not kill, they enslaved, and they razed the cities they conquered to the ground.
Prior to the Mongols and the Arabs even, the land of today’s Uzbekistan had already been invaded several times. When Cyrus the Great of Persia died in battle near the Aral Sea in 530 BC, his followers created three states, the most important of which was Sogdiana.
As the Silk Road trade between China and the West began and grew, the Sogdians with their capital in today’s Samarkand grew wealthy with it.
The thing about destroyers is that, although they create little or nothing of positive value, they do change things. It’s impossible for me to think of Ghengis Kahn today with thinking, at the same time, of Donald Trump. When they came to power, both men had the urge to destroy what they couldn’t value or understand. If the results of their shared impulse differ, they differ not in kind but in degree. After the Mongol’s invasion, it took a long time for some of what they destroyed to rebuild.
After a day in Tashkent, our group boarded an early morning Uzbekistan Airways flight to Urgench in the northwest district of Khorezm, for a forty-minute drive to the city of Khiva. There, we toured the Ichon Qala or Old City that lies behind adobe walls that mostly date from the 17th century.
Near the Ata or “Father” Gate we passed a statue of mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al Khwarizmi (783-850). He is credited with introducing Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to the Western World. He also invented algebra and his name is somehow connected to the word “algorithm.”
The Ichon Qala is full of mosques and madrassas, none of which is used today for its intended purpose. It is a UNESCO site and an open-air museum. Although Khiva is an ancient city with a long history in the story of the Silk Road, there is not much to see there that existed before the 18th and 19th centuries.
Inside the Ata Gate there is a wall map, tracing the Silk Road from China to Western Europe. Somewhere in Uzbekistan the road bifurcated into northern and southern branches.
The first madrassa we entered was that of Muhammad Aminxon, built between 1851 and 1853. Since the late 1970s it has contained the Orient Star Hotel. It has carved wooden doors with a
motif. In this region of Khorezn the pomegranate symbolizes knowledge. The courtyard of this former madrassa is the largest I’d ever seen. In its heyday in the 19th century, Khiva had one hundred mosques and many madrassas. It was center of religious teaching.
Muhammad Aminxon’s madrassa has an impressive tower made of turquoise firebricks. It is large, round, and has a flat top. It was meant to be a very tall minaret but was left unfinished when the emir died. Its truncated appearance makes it uniquely iconic.
We walked around, looking at various madrassas with their carved wooden columns and their geometric tile patterns. After a while I became aware of how much the same everything looked. The beige color of the walls, and the blue and turquoise of the decorations began to be too repetitive. As a photographer, I realized that so much of what I was shooting lacked contrast. The sky was mostly overcast and the light was flat.
Since we had a poor breakfast, we went for an early lunch in a place called Yasovul Boshi Restaurant. It was a large, high-ceilinged room with many tables. Ours was ready for us, and the service began shortly.
We began with various marinated vegetables and baked peppers.
The bread, made across the courtyard in a clay tandour, was fresh and decorated with a pattern made by a special instrument. Next came a bowl of pureed pumpkin soup, and a plate with two crepes rolled and stuffed with ground beef. The name of this dish was kiyma zerafshan. For dessert, we were given sweet pastries baked with cheese.
In the afternoon we visited the Tosh Harlu Palace. In the courtyard we saw the iwan (a walled space open on one side) for the Khan or king and iwans for each of his four wives. On the opposite side were the accommodations for his concubines. We were told that there was a secret door that would allow a concubine to enter the Khan’s bedchamber secretly. This was a precaution to avoid rousing jealousies among the other concubines.
The last thing we did as a group was to climb flights of steep steps to a roof where we could get a panorama of the Old Town. I went up and took a few photos under a disappointing sky.
Note: Don’t worry. I’m not going to detail each day of the trip to this extent. Now, that I’ve established the pattern, I’ll confine myself to writing about only a few of the most spectacular sites.
We spent only a half day and an evening in Khiva. The following day, we drove more than 400 kilometers across the Kyzylkum (Red Sand) Desert in a small bus. That drive took us nearly eight hours over a rough road surface, half of which was cracked and pockmarked asphalt. Even on the concrete half the ride was not smooth enough to read.
We made three toilet stops at facilities that were pretty nasty. For the last stop there were only bushes to urinate behind, women on one side of the road, men on the other.
The desert was cold. The second stop included a meal of sorts served at a long table in an unheated, low-ceilinged room whose open doors created a chilly draft. We were served bowls of what I would later realize is a national dish: vegetable soup with large pieces of carrots, potatoes, and a chunk of beef in a clear broth. Following the soup, we were each given two skewers of sashlik, each containing three or four pieces of salty beef and a piece of fat. If it were not for this unlikely restaurant, we would not have eaten at all since there were no other services along the highway.
During the drive, I asked Batır about relations between Uzbekistan and the other central Asian countries. He explained that former president-for-life Kamirov, who died in 2016, was highly suspicious and kept Uzbekistan isolated. The new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev, is more open-minded and has begun to improve relations with his neighbors.
One Central-Asian issue is resource sharing. Uzbekistan has natural gas but little oil. which has to be imported. Neighboring Tajikistan has a great deal of water but few other natural resources.
We reached Bukhara’s New Moon Hotel (not recommended) in the late afternoon. Our group dinner was the most pleasant meal I’d eaten so far. I drank a couple of shots of vodka and glass of red wine with my beef medallions and mashed potatoes. We sat a long time at table. As Batır explained, service is not quick in Uzbek restaurants unless a set meal is ordered in advance, as it had been for our lunch in Khiva and would continue to be for our mid-day meals.
Next day’s visit was a long walking tour. At 9 a.m. the bus took us to a distant monument, and we walked back seeing some wonderful sights and learning more about the history of this city and the country.
The striking Mausoleum of Ismoil Samoniy is pre-Mongolian and unique. It is one of my favorite discoveries of the trip. The park surrounding the mausoleum once was a cemetery, and respect or fear of the dead was probably the reason Genghis Khan didn’t destroy it.
It is a cube made of firebricks set in a way that give the four sides a woven appearance.
Up close, I could see how complex the patterns are. It is the oldest monument in Bukhara and was mostly buried for centuries, which helped preserve it. It was the Soviets that excavated the mausoleum, relocated the surrounding graves, and created the park.
Ismoil Samoniy was the founder of the Samanid dynasty. The symbolism of his mausoleum is mostly Zoroastrian. The cube below the dome represents the earth and the dome, heaven. There are ten arched openings just below the dome that let in light. On the entrance façade there is a triangle, a principal symbol of Zoroastrianism. This holy site has strong spiritual significance for believers who visit it.
Sellers of merchandise were everywhere in the Old City. We shopped; I bought a silk scarf from the man who wove it and a pair of silver and coral earrings for Kay.
We toured for two days in Bukhara. On the second day we saw the summer palace of the emirs named Sitorai Makhi Khosa, the House of Moon and Stars. It is a large complex and is somewhat modeled on Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace outside of St Petersburg. Now that I’ve seen both I mark the resemblance. The emir who commissioned it hired Russian engineers and architects to do the work. It is rather threadbare and needs restoration, yet it was a comforting secular sight after so many religious monuments.
It was on the grounds of the palace, in front of the needlework museum, that I bought two glorious Uzbekistan embroideries known as suzanis. The word “suzani” means needlework.
Lunch that day was at the Hane Dan restaurant, on a back street near our hotel and where we had the lovely dining room to ourselves. We arrived to find a long table already set and filled with salads, bread baskets, samas (like samosas), and filled pastries like Turkish poğaça.
Along with water, we were offered wine and brandy (for a price, of course). Following the mezes came a thick soup of lentils and vegetables. The main course, Uzbek Plov came on three large platters. Besides rice, they contained shredded beef, carrots, garlic, and quail eggs. Absolutely delicious!
Samarkand was the final city on our tour before returning to Tashkent and our flight home. Samarkand was the capital of Amir Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane. Of all central Asia’s conquerors, he fascinates the most. He lived between1336 and 1405 and during a period of thirty-five years, created an enormous empire encompassing all of central Asia, and much of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India as far as Delhi. He made further gains in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. On the one hand, Timur was brutal and ruthless, a monster really who is said to have killed millions. While on the other hand, he was highly cultured, craved knowledge, and was a patron of the arts. From the territories he conquered, he brought back architects and skilled artisans to build his capital, the center of which is the Registan. It is a spot where, in ancient times, six caravan roads converged.
Today, the Registan is surrounded on three sides by large, extraordinary madrassas that are beautifully restored and maintained. We spent the better part of an afternoon visiting them.
One in particular, the Sher Dor has a uniquely interesting façade. High up and repeated symmetrically on both halves, an animal looking a bit like a tiger is chasing a white deer. Behind the tiger the rising sun is depicted with a human face. I’m sure there is nothing like it anywhere else in Islam since Islam prohibits the depiction of living things.
I can’t complete this account without mentioning Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), Timur’s grandson. He was not a warrior but instead had a passion for astronomy. He built an observatory on a hill outside Samarkand and mapped all the stars he could distinguish. He was assassinated, and after his death, the clergy destroyed his observatory except for the curved base of a huge sextant that remains protected from the elements by a cover.
A small museum at the site contains a lot about Ulugh Beg and his legacy. His star catalog was smuggled out of the country to Constantinople for safekeeping. He became known in the West and was celebrated there among a constellation of early astronomers, including Galileo and Copernicus.
I’ve only touched on a few highlights of our short trip. I wish there were time enough and space to write more because this was a voyage of discovery that needs more room to do it justice. If any of you, my dear readers, want a travel adventure off the common tourist map, do try Uzbekistan and get Batır Shamakhsoduv to guide you. You won’t be sorry.