but a week or two ago I was in Uzbekistan, travelling with a group of friends and led by art historian Susan Scollay.
This is the text of a broadcast that was heard on TravelWritersRadio – the link will follow.
Samarkand, Tashkent are names from the Silk Road, lost in medieval history. Or not quite. Tashkent is a big modern city, with a population of well over 2 million. It’s the capital of Uzbekistan, which is slap bang in the middle of Central Asia.
That’s always been Uzbekistan’s strength, its geographical position, and that’s why it was so important for so many centuries. You can see it in all the old buildings, in the carpets, in the embroideries that are so characteristic. This is the area that linked China and India and later Russia, where everything came together, century after century, dynasty after dynasty, conqueror after conqueror. The Soviet Union was the last to rule the area, for most of the 20th century.
You need a visa to get to Uzbekistan – more of that later. And you need a guide. This is not a country where you can wander about on your own. It’s not just that foreigners do not scoot about wherever they wish, as if they were travelling in Australia. This is still a country where everything is done with bureaucratic precision. Hotels must leave a little chit in your passport, for example, so your movements are noted. But it’s more than that. Unless you’ve got a great grasp of Central Asian history or art history, it won’t make much sense. I’m travelling in a small group led by an art historian and with an experienced and knowledgeable guide.
They tell me about Alexander the Great, the Zoroastrians, about the Arabs who conquered the area, and they tell me about Timur the Lame, whom we know as Tamberlaine, if we know about him at all. In his day, which was the 14th century, he ruled over the biggest empire the world had known, taking in about 27 countries, including India.
And did he build! Mosques and mausoleums, many of which have been restored, and most of which seem to have been built so well that they did not need full reconstructions. Domes everywhere, lovely blue domes, and tiles covering everything. The tiles are amazing in their patterns, and their colours. Mostly blue. So many shades of blue here that you start to think there must be a god of the colour blue. And all that blue has a remarkable effect. In a country that’s so strange to me, it settles me down, makes me feel at home. “Blue is the colour of the soul,” a friend tells me.
In Samarkand we hear about Ulug Bek, who was Timor’s grandson. He built an observatory (long gone) from which he and his team of scientific observers identified, in the first part of the 15th century, more than 1000 stars, which they put into the constellations we still use, and worked out to the second how long it took the earth to revolve around the sun. Sometime in the 1960s, a scientific group said he was out by a minute and a few seconds – but then others did more work and said, no, Ulug Bek had it right.
The Russians did a great deal of archeology here in the 20th century, most valuably, exposing what was left of the observatory.
All the history, all the awareness of past knowledge, it turns your head inside out. And your vision – all these amazing patterned tiles. This is Islamic art, so the human form is never represented.
One of the interesting things here is the amount of work being put into reviving traditional arts and crafts. Some of them never disappeared, like the suzani. They are embroideries. Girls used to embroider cloths before their weddings, and those embroideries covered the walls, or the bed, or anything else. They are still made – although lots more commercially. The shape of the pomegranate recurs – the pomegranate is one of the symbols of life here.
There’s knife work, and wood carving, and silk paper making. Centuries and centuries ago, I was sold, a group of skilled Chinese was captured. Share the knowledge of paper making, or be killed, they were told. They shared their knowledge. Silk paper is still used here for official documents, because it’s resistant to insects and rodents.
There’s carpet making – although I like the old ones better than the new ones. There are textiles, embroidered or woven. My advice to everyone: take a nearly empty suitcase. In my group, most of us bought at least one coat.
Also traditional, or at least common are gold teeth. Gold is one of Uzbekistan’s many resources. I was told that one or two gold teeth are considered a sign of beauty. More than that, they’re an indication of bad teeth.
Everyone’s friendly here. We went to one restaurant where there was a loud and noisy party for a child’s birthday. The kids were dressed in t-shirts and jeans, the women were traditional dressed in lavish cloths and colours with big scarves. We were invited to join in the dancing – the women, that is. Women and men tend to be separated, but it’s very gentle here.
I’ve seen cities I didn’t know, like Khiva, which was the capital of Xorasma, which is still a recognised geographic region. It’s now a kind of museum town, with a modern town surrounding it.
Languages? Ah, they have a few. English is not usually one of them, unless you are in the big cities. It’s Uzbek or Russian, mostly. It’s pretty strange travelling somewhere and having no idea of what the words mean – although I got some way in deciphering the Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. I can now read the word salad in a number of languages.
The food? Every meal begins with a succession of little dishes and salads, and mostly there is a beetroot salad. Often little filled pastries. Although this is a largely Moslem country, there is beer and wine is made. We were to a wine and brandy tasting in a winery, with a big group of Russians who didn’t leave a drop in any of their 10 generous tasting glasses. The wines with slightly higher alcohol and higher sugar taste like distant cousins of Rutherglen fortifieds.
Getting here – ah, that’s the thing. You can fly directly to Tashkent with Korean Airlines or Turkish Airlines. We came via Istanbul. And then we nearly didn’t get to Uzbekistan. Since last year, procedures have changed. My partner’s was not on the visa list that was scrutinised as we were boarding. Last year, it wouldn’t have made any difference. We had a group visa to enter the country, anyway. But his name wasn’t on a list, so he wasn’t allowed to board.
In Tashkent, over the following hours, the tour company turned themselves inside out to get new visas issued for us. Thank heavens that was a Friday – so all the offices were open. That was fine – except it took about an hour to get through the visa queue. This is all very strict: three Spanish diplomats ahead of us were given very thorough scrutiny. The man from the World Bank whose visa had expired the previous day probably wasn’t going to be allowed in at all. Even we, with our brand new visas, had some trouble. We paid our entry cost. And then, just before our passports were stamped, along came a new requirement: Let me see your boarding pass, said the official.
The real catch in all of this was the additional cost. Because we were not on the flight we had booked for, Turkish Airlines claimed there were costs due to taxes and currency change. It cost more 2500 Euros to rebook. You see, if you miss the first leg of a multi-stop journey, all the subsequent flights are rendered invalid. I’ve written to Turkish airlines asking them for full details. And I’m waiting to see whether insurance covers any or all of it.
But – as the officials said when our passports were finally stamped – welcome to Uzbekistan.