Uzbekistan: Golden Smiles

MANY YEARS have passed since I was last in Bukhara and the change is marked. Around the central Lyab-i Hauz pond, the ancient mud-brick buildings have been heavily restored, losing much of their character. The traditional cafés shaded by the pool’s trees from the bright Central-Asian sun cater to camera-snapping coachloads of tourists, rather than chattering groups of local men resting on topchan table beds. And the markets that once sold spices and sausages, antique jewelry and authentic karakul hats now offer cheap souvenirs and gaudy plastics. Has Bukhara changed, or has my memory over-romanticized it?

But then the sun starts to drop in the sky, the tourists head for their hotels and culture shows, and Bukhara stirs into life. As I wander away from the Lyab-i Hauz into the old town, patting the bronze ass of local philosophic hero Nasreddin Afandi for luck, I meet strolling families, children playing, mothers pushing baby carriages. They smile, greet me and a group of kids start showing off their diving moves in a neighborhood pond, one of the many this desert city once relied on for water. Bukhara’s wealth was built on its position on the caravan routes of Central Asia – the near-mythical Silk Road – and the Uzbek’s people’s warm welcome to travelers is undiminished.

“In the 11th century, ‘Bukhara the Holy’ was one of the most famous centers of learning in the Muslim world,” says Uzbek historian Jamshid Akhmedova, a teacher who speaks fluent Russian and English. “It was leveled by Chingis Khan in 1226 but later became the capital of one of the richest emirates in the Islamic world because of its importance on the Silk Road. It was an independent state late in to the 18th century, then became part of Tsarist Russia and merged into Soviet Uzbekistan only in 1929.” The country won independence from Russia in 1990, but the legacy can still be seen in the battered Lada cars, medal-bedecked veterans and bureaucracy when checking into and out of a hotel. I need an official form from every hotel I stay in to show at the border control when I leave, an ever-growing pile of assorted paperwork that is easy to lose.

Bukhara’s symbol is the 46meter-high Kalyan Minaret, whose beautiful tapering form belies the fact it was used until the 1920s – according to British soldier and traveler Sir Fitzroy Maclean – to execute criminals by throwing them off the top. Jamshid tells me only one person was ever executed this way, but it is a good story. As its base are two wonderful madrasas, which look their best in the golden light of dusk, or dawn.

Looking equally radiant in the sun is the 1,500-year-old Ark, a towering, deliberately intimidating, mud-brick citadel infamous as the place in earlier times where another two British soldiers met their fate. In 1842, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were beheaded in the square here, which may have been a welcome release. In 1938, Stoddart had been thrown into the Ark’s “Bug Pit” – where the guards emptied a fresh bucket of scorpions, other insects and filth every day – after insulting Emir Nasrullah Khan. Conolly had come to rescue him three years later. “The Emir was a cruel tyrant but he was also not going to allow his country to be drawn into what Conolly had called ‘The Great Game’ – the battle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia,” says Jamshid.

Their well-publicized story helped give Bukhara some of the exotic aura that still attracts western visitors today. For Muslims, however, the city has long been one of the most sacred sites of Islam, a status supported by its 48 mosques, 24 madrasas and 14 caravanserais, many now sympathetically repurposed as workshops or craft shops. Perhaps it is symbolic that the wall of the Ark is sagging under its own weight, the victim of shoddy reconstruction with Soviet concrete and steel in place of the original mud brick. “The traditional mortar is made with gypsum, lime, crushed alabaster and ash,” says Jamshid. “It is much better than modern cement. To waterproof it, they added crushed bark.”

In complete contrast to the towering Ark Citadel, the tenth-century Samanid Mausoleum is a tiny domed building (see mini feature) whose dull but exquisitely patterned mud bricks are in stark contrast to the bright green of the garden in which it stands. It is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, a gem of early Islamic architecture. I also find it hard to tear myself away from evenings spent admiring the 18th-century Bolo Hauz mosque, whose facade is supported by 20 elmwood columns – the tall trees a rare treasure in this desert country. Taking green choy in a nearby teahouse, I am greeted warmly by the men at the next table, all leather-jacketed and fingering mobile phones in one hand, who bend careful ears to one who has spent five years living in London as he translates my compliments about their country. But Aziz’s most animated conversation is about my iPhone and I am somehow left guilty for not wanting to sell it to him – the trading genes of old live on. “Name your price,” he says, leaving me with his name and cell number on a scrap of paper in case I change my mind.

The caravans that once crossed Uzbekistan in the Silk Road carried precious cargoes that then consisted of gems from Afghanistan, spices from India and teas and silks from the Orient. Today, the best way to travel this vast country is by the modern and fairly punctual Uzbek Railway system. Every stop is a chance for hawkers to wander down the carriages selling Uzbek “non” – shiny round flatbread stamped all over with a decorative chiqish made from pins hammered into a wooden handle. The locals are paying a lot less than me for a loaf but I barely miss a few extra notes, overburdened as I am with Som, the Uzbek currency. The only practical size is Som1,000 and $1 buys me two of those – even more if I risk the black market – so my pockets are stuffed with cash. And while I do not begrudge the bread sellers any pittance they can make from what must be a hard day’s work, I am several times offered free non by other passengers, wreathed in smiles and happy to break bread with a foreign visitor.

From the windows I see endless flat plains where Uzbekistan’s cotton industry dominates, making it the world’s second largest exporter. Perhaps lulled by the hypnotic beat of the rails passing beneath us, a young teacher keen to practise her English opens up about the hardship involved in picking the Government-owned crop. “Every year, we have to pick cotton,” says Oygul, making sure no one else can hear. “You can come to school in your best clothes and then be told to go to the fields, with no time to go home and change. You spend all day in the sun, doing hard work, for almost no pay. They say it is voluntary but there is no promotion if you do not do it.” In the two weeks I spend in Uzbekistan, it is the only criticism I hear of the government, apart from a taxi driver lamenting the bribes he has to pay the police to stay in business. The country’s Soviet past still casts a long shadow.

Such thoughts seem far away in the pretty village of Sentyab, center of a small eco-tourism project. Geography teacher Shodiboi Boboev owns a guesthouse, run by his wife Mutabar, and they welcome me warmly into their home. In the garden, shaded by walnut trees, we eat meals of local produce, drink tea and vodka, and try to converse in a mix of English, Russian and hand gestures. I help gather mulberries off a tree, holding one end of a bedsheet while berries cascade around my head, then watch bread being made in a searing hot tandyr oven. The village boys trot by on their donkeys, girls peep shyly around doorways and an old woman in a small field tells me at length about her worries.

“My son is working in Moscow. I have not seen him for two years,” she says. “I do not know when he will be back. He sends me money when he can but Moscow is expensive. There is no work here for young people.” As she talks, she picks insects off her crops and puts them into a glass jar, swirling them in tobacco juice to kill them. Working beside her, his pretty young wife cries discreetly when she hears her husband’s name mentioned. “They have no children yet,” says the mother.

In Samarkand, the Registan square has been hailed as the greatest sight in Central Asia. On three of its sides sit huge madrasas, their turquoise tiling a wonder to behold. At sunset, visitors are ushered out but a “donation” gains me supposedly forbidden access to a minaret on the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. The building dates back to 1420 but the rusty ironwork fame propping up the inside of the tower seems less ancient, if more precarious. In the golden light of dusk, I look down on the rich tiling showing leaping tigers that decorates the 17th-century Sher-Dor Madrasa, while the Tilya-Kori (‘Gilded’) Madrasa of 1660 completes the view. I try not to think about the fact that the whole obviously owes more to rebuilding than restoration, despite their Unesco status.

These madrasas were a center of learning, producing philosophers, doctors, lawyers, scientists and clergymen, not to mention poets. Omar Khayyam, he of the Rubaiyat, moved here in 1070 after a time spent in Bukhara. “He came from a family of tent-makers,” says Jamshid. “Khayyami’ is the Persian word for ‘tent maker’. In Samarkand, he wrote important works laying out the principles of algebra and geometry before moving to Ishfahan to set up an observatory.” Near the Registan is the Observatory of Ulugh Beg, staffed by up to 70 astronomers in the mid-1400s. They calculated the stellar year to an accuracy that modern electronic calculations place at only about 60secs out. Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, also introduced papermaking to the west from China.

My walk through Samarkand takes me down to the Siyob Bazaar, where stalls sell non, dried fruits and vegetables, and the smoke of cooking fires drifts over from the chachlik (grilled kebab) stands. Pretty young women and solid-looking matrons dressed in neon-bright clothes are happy to offer me samples. Their smiles reveal rows of gold teeth, a mobile bank that owes much to the country’s nomadic roots, while unibrows are the height of local beauty.

Beyond is the climb up to the Shah-i-Zinda (“The Living King”), a group of tombs decorated in the turquoise blue tiles of Persia, with the oldest dating to the 14th century. I stand to admire the various styles of the geometric girih patterns and honeycomb muqarnas decorating the doorways. Many of Timur’s family are buried here but also a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, attracting some low-key pilgrims. “Imams are taught by the Government and have to be licensed by them,” says Jamshid. “Almost all Uzbeks at Muslims but most do not go to mosque. Afghanistan is our neighbor, but we do not want its problems.” The shared border is one of the world’s most heavily guarded.

Samarkand owes much of its original splendor to the 14th-century military conquests of Timur the Great, better known as Tamerlane in the west. “Amir Timur was the grandfather of Ulugh Beg,” says Jamshid. “He was injured in the hip by an arrow when a young warrior and ‘Tamerlane’ means ‘Timur the Lame’. That is not a name we use in Uzbekistan.” Timur spared the lives of any artists and artisans he found, bringing communities of Armenians, Syrians, Turks and especially Persians to join the Chinese and many other peoples in the city.

As we stand in his mausoleum, the Gur-e Amir (Tomb of the King”), Jamshid whispers the story of how, when Timur’s body was exhumed by the Soviets in 1941, it unleashed an ancient curse about disturbing his bones. A few days later, Nazi Germany invaded Russia and it was not until Timur was reburied again that the Soviets had their first major victory at Stalingrad. Horsehair pendants over his tomb recall the nomadic warrior roots of his vast empire, whose armies ranged through Asia, Africa, and Europe. Taking Chingis Khan as his role model, he sacked Baghdad, Damascus and Delhi among many other great cities of the region. However, any negative opinions shared by its neighbors has not stopped Uzbekistan choosing Timur as a new icon to replace those of the Soviet Union. His cruel reputation may suit a government with a reputation for cracking down hard on dissent.

Timur’s statue now stands where once Marx or Stalin dominated and the largest I see is in Tashkent’s Amir Temur square, which also has a vast museum dedicated to the conquering hero. The Uzbek capital has boomed since my last visit, flowering with modern buildings, revamped museums and upmarket new restaurants in marked contrast to the previous post-Soviet gloom. It has the only metro system in Central Asia – a sleek, modern one, easy to navigate round and resplendent with rich marble and ornate chandeliers – but I cannot resist a return visit to the Railway Museum and its picturesque Soviet steam locomotives. Its Navoi Opera House is one of the best in Asia, with great acoustics and a romantic faded grandeur, while the world’s oldest Qur’an, dating to 655 and written on gazelle skins, is to be found in the Telyashayakh Mosque in the north of the city.

I wander though the Tezykovka flea market, sprawling over a vast area and find a lovely old book-stand carved from a single piece of wood. The market has everything from rusty tools and battered Soviet electronics – dangerous-looking hairdryers and pastel-plastic clocks – to secondhand clothes and broken toys. It is a welcome taste of real life and perhaps the closest I get – outside the tousit bazaars – to the romance of the ancient Silk Road, with peoples of many ages and nations selling, buying and haggling, trying to turn a profit on very little.

Another highlight of Tashkent is its bread, which is lighter and fluffier than the stomach filling versions of Bukhara and Samarkand. On the road, Uzbek cuisine is dominated by fat-rich mutton and cottonseed oil, neither of which is a taste that leaves me coming back for more. Tashkent offers some better options, including plov with some rare vegetables and Uygur lagman, its noodles showing the Chinese influence of the Silk Road, all eaten with fresh non. Plov is cooked in a large wok, with carefully separated layers of mutton, vegetables and rice, then served in reverse order with the mutton glistening on top.

Confusingly, I learn that the meat is left to last. “Plov is a communal dish,” says Jamshid. “You do not eat the best until you are sure everyone else has had their fill.” Such is Uzbek hospitality.