On the Silk Road

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan The immigration officer glanced at me, then the passport. Then me, then the passport. It is 4 a.m.

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan

The immigration officer glanced at me, then the passport. Then me, then the passport.

It is 4 a.m. and I am jetlagged and sleep deprived after the flight from Ukraine, via Moscow.

For 45 minutes Darlene and I have been fighting, unsuccessfully, to keep our place in the line.

We have no idea where our luggage and bikes are. Whatever is wrong now is the last straw.

I am just about to explode, but his timing is perfect; he shows me the passport — it’s Darlene’s — and laughs.

I can only manage a half grin, whoever heard of an immigration officer with a sense of humour, and at 4 a.m.?

“Welcome to Uzbekistan” he said.

Uzbekistan is one of the five “stans” of Central Asia and I think to most people they are  quite anonymous — how many others can you name?

Yet, they have been central to many critically important times and events in human history.

For 1,500 years the collective theme of these countries was the Silk Road, which, as far back as 100 BC, stretched from the Roman Mediterranean to Eastern China.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Silk Road. A big claim, but consider this quote from the Washington State University Wiki pages.

“The Silk Road is the greatest network of road ever to exist in the world. Extending 5,000 miles over land and sea, the Silk Road provided the greatest spread of ideas and trade throughout the world. Traditions, religions, foods, ideas, and much more travelled throughout the routes daily changing the life’s of everyone who came in contact with it.”

All that impact without a mention of silk or the other trade goods carried along it.

I never knew that the Romans and Chinese whenever came into contact, let alone that when they fought, the Chinese won because they had crossbows; or that, when they traded, silk clothes were regarded as immoral by conservative Romans because they were so revealing of the female form.

The more I learned the more exciting and fascinating the Silk Road became.

Uzbekistan, independent since the breakup of the Russian empire, has several of what were major staging posts on the Silk Road, oasis cities with exotic names: Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent.

And we are here, cycling from the airport along the wide, tree-lined boulevards of modern Tashkent to our B & B in the old city.

Later, exploring the city, we discovered a sharp divide between modern Tashkent, largely rebuilt by the Russians after a massive earthquake 40 years ago, and what’s left of the old city, which has a recorded history of more than 2,000 years.

The Russians rebuilt this capital city on a grand scale, with boulevards leading past monolithic public buildings and fountains at every turn.

The fountains are a great touch in these desert plains where the temperature is now approaching 40 C.

We pass by the monument to soldiers killed in the Second World War.

There is no statue to fallen heroes, instead there is a statue of a grieving mother, hooded and dark staring into the eternal flame.

Nearby a shaded walkway has the dead soldier’s names inscribed into brass pages, turnable like a book’s.

It is the most moving and sensitive war memorial I’ve seen.

Almost every historical invader you can think of, from Alexander the Great to Tamur the Lame, came this way and left their mark, and so did Islam, brought along the Silk Road in the eighth century.

Decades of Russian atheism has made little difference, Islam and its culture dominates life, most obviously in the bazaar and the mosques.

The dirt lanes and mud brick houses at the heart of the Old City surround Chorsu Bazaar and the Juma Mosque.

The stalls of the bazaar, tightly packed in aimless twisting rows, sell everything an Uzbek might need from handmade iron ploughshares to Chinese radios in pink plastic.

The Juma Mosque is 600 years old and has a varied history, being at different times, a place where unfaithful wives were executed and a tinsmith factory.

In front of the mosque there are the food stalls, and like most cultures, food plays a key part.

The smoke and smells of lamb kebabs or chicken pieces, grilling over charcoal, drift by.

Donner kebabs are carved from towers of fatty lamb, ladies stand on corners with trays of samosa pastries.

Bread stalls are piled with flatbread, pizza sized and decorated with pinpricked patterns and seeds.

Nearby, the vegetable market is stacked with thousands of watermelons.

Strolling through the noise and bustle of this medieval scene it is difficult to imagine that Tashkent is a sister city to Seattle.

Leaving the bikes behind we take a shared taxi westward, to Samarkand.

Irrigated fields of cotton in a flat landscape blur past at 150 km/h, though the driver does slow to 120 km/h in deference to the 50-km/h sections through villages.

Samarkand’s biggest, and a truly impressive site, is the traditional Islamic grandeur of the three medressas (religious schools) around the Registan square.

Their high walls, domes and leaning minarets are faced with blue and turquoise tiles. Inside, what were the tiny cells of students are now hole in the wall shops where aggressive salesmen try to haggle a carpet to every passing tourist.

Another site worth braving the heat for is the Shahr-I-Zindar mausoleum.

It is a street of tombs.

The outside of each is covered in blue-glazed tiles, glaring in the sun; inside the coolness of the rooms behind the thick mud brick walls, promotes quiet and respect.

Continuing west to Bukhara we share a taxi with two newly met long-distance cyclists.

They also plan to ride across Tibet.

Unlike the sun-baked Registan, the centre of Bukhara has a pool shaded by mulberry trees and surrounded by open-air restaurants.

This is a favourite place to enjoy the cool of the evening and the intimacy of watching Uzbek families, sitting crosslegged at low tables chatting and eating.

We need more cash, but the Uzbek National Bank has none. They send us to the best hotel in town, which only has enough to change $100 today and if we are lucky, maybe the same tomorrow.

Nonetheless at 1,200 som to a dollar-bill creates whopping wad of bills, uncomfortably obvious in our shorts pockets.

By minibus, further into the desert, this time at safer speeds because of the sand drifted across the highway, to the archetypal oasis town of Khiva.

Khiva is old, rumoured to have been founded by a son of Noah, but a dead end since the decline of the Silk Road about 600 years ago.

Now it survives only on tourism.

Behind the uncertain protection of its mud walls, the town is compact, less than half a kilometre wide by a kilometre long. It has been totally restored, so much so that it has an air of artificiality.

All its mosques, medressas and caravanserai are museums. It is difficult to imagine the streets, loud, smelly and dirty, filled with crowds, slaves, beggars, camels, dogs and donkeys.

An overnight train takes us safely back to Tashkent where we ready ourselves and the bikes to continue east along the Silk Road.

Author’s note: The other Central Asian “stans” are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Afghanistan and Pakistan are generally regarded as South Asian.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.