While the Chinese stretch of the Silk Road is world famous, the central Asian section is far less travelled but has no less to see. Kiki Deere describes travelling the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, from post-Soviet Tashkent, through the beautiful blue-tiled city of Samarkand, to unspoilt Bukhara.
I peered out of the window of our small wobbly plane – a large, desert-like expanse of sandy terrain spread out below. I began to make out the northern fringes of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a country whose exotic-sounding name resonated in a closed drawer at the back of my mind from distant school history lessons, when I'd sit in class daydreaming about Gengis Khan and his Mongol hordes galloping across the vast plains of Central Asia. And now, here I was, in one of the countries home to the ancient Silk Road route, ready to traverse the roads once threatened by waves of invaders and conquerors.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was one of the major trading centres along the Silk Road, and to this day remains one of the largest exporters of cotton, silk and textiles to Eastern Europe. Due to the 1966 earthquake and consequent Soviet rebuilding, little remains of the old city. I was not planning on staying here too long, for I was here to embark on a train journey south to explore the wonderfully preserved Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
An olive green train sat at the station platform, its little windows graced by embroidered curtains that were gingerly clipped to the sides, revealing a comfortable compartment within. I sat by the window, eager to take in the dramatic scenery of these far flung lands. A stout lady stumbled in, with her little son in tow. They were to be my travelling companions for my first Uzbek train journey.
Our train chugged off, headed to the historic town of Samarkand, one of the planet's longest inhabited cities. Positioned at the crossroads of the world's greatest trade routes, Samarkand has a multi-millennial history. The city was founded in the seventh century BC, and eventually became part of Alexander the Great's empire. It later gained further importance as a centre of the silk trade, where merchants and traders would ply its streets dealing in all manner of goods. Centuries later, the town was conquered by Turkish invaders, giving rise to the prevalence of Islamic art and culture.
"Ah, the Registan and the three madrasahs!" my fellow traveller exclaimed in perfect English, quite to my surprise. "Everyone travels here to see it. And Bukhara? You will go to Bukhara also, yes?" she asked, offering me an exotic-looking piece of fruit that her son was much enjoying. I nodded in excitement, prompting her to tell me more. "It was this route that merchants and traders travelled with plenty of goods: spices, ivory, silk, wine and even gold were transported between west and east. But, you know it wasn't only goods that were transported here, but also religions and philosophies. There is so much history here. You will see!"
As our train pulled into Samarkand station, we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I was eager to visit the Registan, a large public square fanned by three madrasas, Islamic schools. This was the heart of the ancient city, where people once gathered to socialise at bazaars and take part in festivities; it is also where public executions took place. The first madrasah was built here in the fifteenth century by the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, who transformed Samarkand into a centre of culture and learning. Ulugh Beg himself is said to have taught mathematics in the lecture halls.
I stood and gazed in awe at the complex of tiled emerald-coloured buildings that lay ahead of me, and soon got lost in a series of airy courtyards flanked by students' former dormitory rooms turned souvenir shops. Vendors eagerly tried to attract custom, trying to entice the few tourists who strolled around in wonderment. Neat piles of turquoise and crimson scarves were carefully laid out on small wooden tables, while others were flung over a coarse piece of string, fluttering in the breeze in a rainbow of colours. Craftsmen here still practice ancient jewellery making techniques, and a selection of beautiful earrings gently chimed in the wind.
I poked my head into a dark room, its door wide open. A row of shoes lay outside, and I removed my footwear before entering, as is the custom here. A soft delicate hand wrapped itself around my wrist, leading me inside. Five middle aged, rotund women sat around a little table, feasting on large bowls of pilau, or plov, Uzbekistan's national rice dish. The smell of steaming plov wafted through the air, and a bowl soon found its way in front of me, along with a piping hot piola, a small ceramic cup, of freshly brewed tea. "How many children do you have?" "Where is your husband?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" "How much money do you earn?" My warm and welcoming hosts were eager to learn more about their guest, and I was soon confronted with all manner of questions that I tried to respond in clumsy Russian, in between mouthfuls of succulent plov and freshly baked roundels of bread. Hospitality has been at the heart of Uzbek culture for thousands of years, since early travellers along the Silk Road harboured hope that they could seek shelter and be fed in the next village.
I wondered what treasures awaited in Bukhara, an economic and cultural centre dating back 25 centuries and undoubtedly the most unspoilt example of a medieval Central Asian town, which I would visit a couple of days later. It was once one of the largest cities of Central Asia, thanks to its position on a rich oasis at the crossroads of the Silk Road.
I wandered the dusty winding streets of Bukhara's citadel, where dozens of azure onion domes dotted the skyline. Bukhara was the largest centre for Muslim theology, particularly Sufism, between the ninth and sixteenth centuries, and was home to over one hundred madrasahs and two hundred mosques. One of the city’s most impressive sights of all is the mausoleum erected as a family crypt for Ismail Samanid, founder of the Samanid dynasty who ruled Bukhara in the ninth and tenth centuries. It is the best surviving example of tenth century architecture in the whole Muslim world. I could have explored this labyrinthine town for days on end; at every corner there was a new sight to discover. But before I knew it, my short stay in these wondrous lands was up, and my train back to Tashkent awaited. I left content, knowing that I’d travel part of the Silk Road again, the route that has long harboured Asia’s undiscovered treasures.
Top image: Chor-Minor Madrassah, Bukhara, Uzbekistan © Evgeniy Agarkov/Shutterstock