Honestly, I was disappointed by Uzbekistan’s historic silk-road cities, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Visiting them was kind of like watching the film after reading the book.
For me the book had mostly been the great The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. This beautifully described the cities with their barbaric leaders, teeming streets and fabulous Islamic buildings. Places where British agents had been executed and Russian invaders had been turned back. Untamed cities that formed the core of the silk road. No wonder I was keen to visit.
Of course I knew things would be very different now – after all the Russians had finally taken control – but recent photos of dazzling blue domes and stories of extensive restoration had me hoping that there was plenty intact. Lonely Planet warned that Khiva had been so done-up that it could feel like a city-museum but naively I read that as a sign that it was all there, preserved.
In a sense it is, but a city is more than its buildings. Restoration and “beautification” efforts have wrenched the souls from Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara. Don’t expect horse-carts to be thundering down the streets but also don’t expect lively tourist restaurants or cheesy street performers. Often, particularly in the evenings, the streets just feel dead. Barren.
President Karimov doesn’t like chaos and I think he must see street-life as chaotic. There’s a pedestrianised area in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, known as Broadway. Some years ago it used to be a lively spot with restaurants and bars spilling onto a street filled with souvenir-stalls and musicians. Then in September 2006 Karimov visited. Two days later police came in, evicted all the vendors and cleared the area. Lonely Planet now describes it as the “world’s most boring pedestrian avenue.”
Travel to Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara is dominated by (mostly French) tour-groups. As they shuttle between their hotels and overpriced restaurants they add little to the atmosphere. Worse, because things are so focussed around them, it can be difficult to find anywhere to eat except the tour-group restaurants. Woe betide you arrive after their official dinner time; your chances of being served the mediocre food drop considerably.
Right, moaning over. Karimov may have provided a textbook example of how not to preserve ancient cities but they are still ancient cities and interesting or atmospheric remnants remain. Also some of the overly restored Islamic architecture may look like it was built yesterday but a Medressa can be elegant or impressive no matter how old. So here are the good bits, city by city.
From Fergana I went up to Tashkent, stayed a night there and then took the very comfortable morning train to Samarkand where I checked in to the fantatic Bahodir B&B. Just $7 (£4.43) for a dorm room with breakfast in an atmospheric old home a couple hundred metres from the historic centre. The shared bathroom was a highlight. Descending a few steps into a cave-like room, a blast of heat hit you. Flickering flames from the gas boiler were amplified a hundred times as they shone off the damp stone walls. There would be a scuttling sound as cockroaches scurried away from the few rays of sunlight you had allowed to enter their den. It felt like walking through the gates of hell.
The sights in Samarkand are very distinct; little islands of history poking into the smart Russified city. Most impressive is the Registan, medieval Samarkand’s historic centre. Around a large plaza are three vast medressas, apparently some of world’s oldest. They have been extensively restored but no matter because the architecture is impressive, not just the history. They could be built today in central London and the would draw a crowd.
The Registan with Ulugbek Medressa (left) and Tilla-Kari Medressa (right).
Tilla-Kari Medressa's blue-tiled dome. The Soviets controversially added it during the "restoration" process but I think it looks quite good.
Inside Tilla-Kari's very golden mosque.
Sher Dor Medressa.
Restoration work underway at Sher Dor Medressa.
Flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals, the entrance to Sher Dor Medressa is decorated with what are supposed to be lions (despite looking like tigers).
Inside Sher Dor Medressa.
Other notable sights include the huge, but mostly earthquake destroyed, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the Shah-I-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums. This contains the grave of a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed and some fantastic remnants of unrestored interior tilework.
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, viewed from the outside.
Inside the earthquake damaged Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
Bibi-Khanym Mosque against an increasingly dark sky. A thunderstorm started a few minutes later.
Inside the Shah-I-Zinda's most impressive sight - Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum with its unrestored tile work.
It's not all mosques, mausoleums and medrassas. Here a woman sells cattle hooves at the market.
To the Afghan Border
To break up my tour of the old cities I headed south from Samarkand to Termez, on the Afghan border. On the way I stopped for a night in Shakhrisabz.
Finding a hotel in Shakhrisabz was a nightmare. There were two reasonable options recommended in Lonely Planet but one was clsoed and the other didn’t seem to exist. If I asked anyone for help they would put me in a marshrutka to a $45/night option despite me insisting I was looking for somewhere cheap. One marshrutka driver finally understood what I was after but, despite driving round town for an hour, he couldn’t find any affordable option. I thanked him for trying and made to get out but he wasn’t having any of it.
“We are friends” he said. “I help you.”
Fine by me but there really didn’t seem to be any cheap hotels so he decided to invite me to stay in his home. We dropped my bags with his bemused mother and carried on marshrutka driving for an hour or so, I think less to make money and more so he could show off his new friend. Then a chicken dinner in a roadside restaurant followed by a race around town in his van. “Michael Schumacher!” he kept shouting as we careered round blind corners and dodged potholes in what was now thundering rain. Thankfully we survived and the next bit of high-speed driving was decidedly safer; we met some of his friends at a gaming stall where I handily won an Xbox race around the streets of San Francisco. They were all so wowed by my lucky success that we had to celebrate with some beers in a local shop. Finally at around midnight we returned to his house and bemused mother and hit the hay. An odd night.
In the morning I saw a couple of Shakhrisabz’s sights. Shakhrisabz was actually Timur’s hometown so as well as a monument to him there were some impressive ruins. Most notable the crumbling remains of his summer palace.
Timur's statue looks over town.
The remains of Timur's summer palace.
Later that day I carried on down to Termez. It was a long and bumpy, although often scenic, drive. Interestingly most of the trucks down here were run by Willi Betz – a German company with a NATO contract to supply soldiers in Afghanistan. This actually links nicely to current news. As we all know the NATO attack on Pakistani forces late last year prompted Pakistan to close America’s Afghan supply lines running via Karachi. For some time the US had been trying to reduce dependance on Pakistan by developing the more complicated Northern Distribution Network (see The Northern Distribution Network and the Modern Silk Road (PDF) for an interesting discussion of this) – routes run into Central Asia either from the Riga (Latvia) or Poti (Georgia) and Termez is the main crossing point into Afghanistan. With the Pakistani closure the switch to these routes became more urgent and Termez has taken on huge strategic importance, a throwback to the eighties when the Soviet’s used it as the major base for their Afghan war. Funnily enough the Northern Distribution Network uses the railways built to supply that war.
In Termez I hit very lucky with my hotel, getting a large air-conditioned room with private bathroom for 8000 UZS (£1.75) per night. The air-conditioning was much appreciated given Termez is the hottest point in a generally warm Uzbekistan – temperatures were consistently in the high thirties.
Lonely Planet had described Termez as a bit of a wild-west town with its paranoid police and Luftwaffe base. In fact it was quite a pleasant place although everyone did assume I was German. Unfortunately I was there on a Sunday so the apparently fantastic archeology museum was closed. Instead I took a stroll to the Afghan border, managing to catch a faint glimpse of the other side under the watchful eye of some soldiers. As I had dinner outside in the evening I could hear various rumbles and bangs in the distance. Hopefully this was a mixture of thunder and fireworks rather than something more lethal.
Through the central gate and over the river is a barely visible Afghanistan. I was able to get a little closer in person but the soldiers weren't keen on me taking photos.
"McDonalds" in Termiz. Perhaps to make the NATO soldiers feel at home.
Long queues at the CNG station. My shared taxi north from Termiz had to wait an hour to refuel. I'm guessing that CNG is very cheap because huge numbers of cars have converted to it, often in a dangerously shoddy way. The refuelling station seemed so concerned about safety that passengers had to leave cars and stand some distance away whilst they were topped up.
You may wonder what a train is doing on a hilltop north of Termez. So did I. Fortunately I managed to find the answer - apparently it marks the highest point on Uzbekistan's railway network.
The road north from Termiz with a fuel tanker, probably headed for Afghanistan, coming the other way.
Having had my fun it was time to continue to Bukhara. First over the mountains to Karshi. We were delayed at a road block by policeman who insisted there was a problem with our driver’s papers so by the time we arrived in Karshi it was getting dark and I was doubtful of my chances of reaching Bukhara that day. However I think my driver must have phoned ahead because we were met by a car heading that way. The two hours to Bukhara were spectacular. The desert sunset was broken up only by the sight of the odd roaming camel or the glow from a flaming gas tower.
Bukhara is full of the same sort of sights as Samarkand, but it feels a little more like a continuous old town. There’s a nice ancient pool in the centre with music and fountains although the mediocre restaurant here seemed to be the only eating option. One rarity is that there is still a working medressa. You can’t go in but there’s a metal grating where you can join crowds of tourists peering through at the students going about their lives. It makes a change from seeing student cells filled with souvenir stalls.
Maghoki-Attar, Central Asia's oldest mosque. There's a mixture of 9th century facade and 16th century reconstruction. Apparently it's built on top of even older Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples and was once used by Jews in the evenings.
The unrestored tilework of the Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa.
The Kalon Minaret - apparently so tall that a mystified Genghis Khan ordered it to be spared. It was probably once Central Asia's tallest building.
The Kalon Mosque, big enough for 10,000 people.
Students in the working Mir-i-Arab Medressa.
Entrance to the Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar at night.
Looking out from Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar.
My final historic city was Khiva, a very comfortable night train ride from Bukhara. Khiva probably has the least wow factor but the most atmosphere. The medressas are a bit less massive and the minarets aren’t so tall but almost the whole of the old walled inner-city – including the mud walls – is intact. Not only that but if you walk to the north side you can actually find real local residents living in old, slightly collapsing houses. Of course most of the rest of the town is occupied by souvenir stalls but at night everything gets packed away and the place takes on an eery starlit feel. It feels a bit like walking around a deserted museum but that’s not such a bad thing.
Kids play football in front of the Ark. Local life is far more visible in the historic parts of Khiva than in Samarkand or Bukhara.
A residential street in the north of the old city.
Women collect mulberries. They kindly gave me a few.
The problem with building in mud.
Silhouetted city walls at dusk.
The open-air summer mosque in Kuhna Ark.
Stairs to Oq Shihbobo Bastion for views over the city.
Panoramic view of Khiva from Oq Shihbobo Bastion.
The main architectural sights from up high.
The music "museum". Most of the museum's were laughably bad, mainly consisting of unlabelled models or photos.
The Juma Mosque supported by 218 wooden columns, a few of which are 10th century originals.
A street between medressas in the inner-walled city.
Alloquli Khan Medressa.
Kalta Minor Minaret. This unfinished minaret was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who according to legend wanted to build a minaret so tall it could be seen from Bukhara (about 400 kilometres away). He dropped dead before engineering got in the way of his vision and it was left unfinished and rather squat.
A tower in the south-west of the city on a starry night.
So to summarise Samarkand has the most impressive sights but is fundamentally a typical Russian city, Khiva has the most atmosphere but fewer spectacular buildings and Bukhara is a bit of a jack of all trades. My favourite was Khiva.