Dear fellow travelers, pilgrims, missionaries, and merchants,
I’m going to take you along on my journey through the heart of the Silk Road, a way many of you will have traveled in centuries past. You don’t need your caravan of camels on this occasion: I’m going by plane and high speed train!
Uzbekistan has always drawn visitors from the West, and equally beguiled those from the East. The names of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva are almost legendary, their bejeweled monuments decorating the pages of National Geographic and inspiring countless writers, artists, and poets.
I’ve flown here direct with Uzbekistan Airways, making most of the new e-visa regime. The capital, Tashkent, is a curious mix of old and new, with ancient monuments fighting for your attention with the glittering Soviet era metro and the brand new buildings and statues erected since independence in 1991.
It’s the UNESCO Silk Road cities which I want to share with you, however, as that’s where I feel I’ve been transported back in time. Stood in the illuminated Registan Square in Samarkand, I think of the thousands of architects, engineers, and artisans who made these mosaic clad madrassas, and of the centuries of students and pilgrims who have studied and prayed inside.
It’s a short walk from here along a pedestrianised street to my favourite site in the city, the Shah-i Zinda, which translates as “the living king”. It’s a row of thousand year old tombs, each one belonging to a member of the royal household. The bodies have long turned to dust, but their exquisite mausoleums entrance me with their turquoise and lapis lazuli tiles, their calligraphy, and, in places, the gilt. I sit quietly and reflect on life and death, whilst all around me pilgrims pray.
The train ride across the desert to Bukhara is effortless, and I admire the landscapes from the AC cooled interior. Once, this journey would have been an arduous one. Now it takes scarcely two hours.
I arrive in Bukhara dazzled by the colour and intricacy of the architecture. It’s not just the beauty of the mosaics, it’s the decorative brickwork, the painted stucco, the ceramics, and the panels of coloured glass. I feel as though I have stepped into a fairytale — a less gruesome version of Arabian Nights — and half expect to see an Emir and his entourage come sweeping around the corner in the long, flowing robes.
There’s time for tea, and I sit drinking from a small porcelain bowl in a cafe in Lyabi Hauz. This reservoir was the Old Town’s main source of drinking water in medieval times, and the facades of the surrounding buildings are reflected in the ripples on the surface of the water. To get here I have wandered through the historic trading domes, past the workshops of silk weavers, carpet knotters, and paper makers. Going home, my souvenirs will surely outweigh my clothes!
The last stop on my whistle-stop tour of Uzbekistan is Khiva, a UNESCO-listed museum city in the desert. I’ve checked in at Hotel Orient Star, a monument in its own right which sits at the bottom of the Kalta Minor, Khiva’s most striking minaret.
The Orient Star was built as a madrassa, a place for religious study. It is set in the traditional style around a large, open courtyard, overlooked by tiled porticos. Each guest room was once a student’s cell, and it retains a simple feel, albeit decidedly more comfortable than it would have been in former times.
What appeals to me most, however, is that I can walk out from the Orient Star straight into the heart of Khiva, and explore its labyrinthine streets once the tour buses of visitors have gone. There are few hotels within the ancient city walls, and in the early evening in particular, I can wander with scarcely another soul around. This makes the city even more magical: it’s me and the ghosts of long dead merchants, the emirs and their dancing girls.
Before I leave I pay a final visit to Tash Khauli, which was the harem in the emir’s palace. Hidden from prying eyes, the walls of this courtyard are willow pattern blue. Many of the carved and painted ceilings have survived, along with some of the soft furnishings. It’s tempting to think I’d want to live here, but then I remember it was but a gilded cage.
Traveler, take “The Golden Road to Samarkand”. If I am fortunate enough to return, I might well see you there.