An Ancient Place Slowly Wakes

Bukhara, Uzbekistan, a city of mosques and teahouses, is a window on ex-Soviet system

`DON'T walk in the Old Town at night," the policeman said. "They're bound to think you're a Russian. They'll try to get you."

His warning went unheeded. I stayed long after dark, lured by the stunning architecture of old Bukhara, enraptured by the combination of minaret and setting sun. Tajik youths with leather faces and squinting eyes approached me occasionally, but I saw no need for alarm.

The night turned chilly, and I turned to go but realized with a shock that I was lost. I stumbled through the darkened, narrow alleys, unseen men shouting curses from the dark.

The distant presence of a policeman saved me. Shadowy outlines lurched threateningly up to me, only to catch sight of the policeman's gold braid glinting in the starlight and head off into the dark.

Anti-Russian feeling in the southern republics of the former Soviet Union has intensified since independence, and many Russians have already fled central Asia. The narrow streets of the old towns, densely populated by ethnic groups long subjugated by the Russian-led communists, are the most dangerous.

The ethnic mix in Bukhara and other towns in Uzbekistan is a confusing vestige of centuries of empire. Native Uzbeks mingle with Tajiks, Turks, and Tatars, jumbled even more by Stalin, who forcibly shipped thousands of minority groups all over the Soviet Union to prevent ethnically homogeneous regions from rebelling against Moscow.

Despite the turbulent times, Bukhara is still an enchanting mix of mosque and teahouse. Old men play chess under ancient willows, sipping tea from battered copper pots. Small children play around ponds, leaping from trees into the water. The sound of their splashing mingles with a new voice, the song of the muezzin, whose strident words "Allahu Akbar!" now call the faithful to prayer.

Bukhara sits baking on the edge of the Turkmenian salt desert, a vast expanse of bleached earth that supports little vegetation and few inhabitants. Venture further south through Turkmenistan, the southernmost republic of the former Soviet Union, and one could get as far as Iran without seeing another person.

I was staying with Shahzod, an Uzbek cotton worker whom I had met late one night. He had invited me to stay in his concrete, Soviet-style apartment with his family.

He took me to see his factory one day. Mountains of dirty cotton lay outside a huge shed. Inside, a wall of noise battered the ears, as hundreds of women in brightly printed dresses stood at the machines, threading spindles, loading machines, and boxing the finished product. It was a truly Soviet factory and the clearest signal that little has changed here since independence. Uncontrolled cotton production in the republic has caused severe ecological problems in the north, as irrigation for 2 million hec tares (about 5 million acres) of new cotton fields sucked rivers dry.

Shahzod, although highly qualified and experienced, had a state salary of only 2,000 rubles ($17) a month. His wife Munira, an English teacher at a good school, brought in another 3,000 rubles ($25.50), but with the post-Soviet government intent on axing price subsidies, inflation was acute.

In June, a jar of coffee cost a week's wages. A new shirt, one month's. The gas for Shahzod's daily 20-mile drive to work should have cost more than the day's wages. Like most ex-Soviets, however, his network of contacts provided him with cheap gas.

For Munira, life was even harder. Teaching full-time, she also ran the household. Every evening she ironed, washed clothes by hand, cleaned. Every meal she cooked from scratch. She made her own bread, encouraged by the squawks of the family's canary, Cheezhik.

At the back of her mind was the cost of her son's education. The state is supposed to fund all education, of course, but so many bright youngsters apply for places at the best schools, she said, that administrators charge thousands of rubles as a bribe to enroll a child.

A week with Bukhara's Uzbeks is a sobering experience.

Only one place is older than Bukhara in central Asia: Samarkand. Founded in the 4th century, Samarkand was captured in turn by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, Turks, Arabs, and Genghis Khan's Mongol tribes. The 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane made it his capital, showering his plunder on the city. He is still there, entombed beneath the gilt and turquoise of the Gor Emir mausoleum.

Situated on the Silk Road trade route to India and China, Samarkand was an important trading post. When the Russians occupied it in 1868, they preserved a city of ancient edifices, of crumbling stone and intricate blue tile, of mosques and madressas (religious schools) that stand testament to Samarkand's importance and to Tamerlane's power.

But under 70 years of communism, it became isolated from the outside world. Its people knew only what Moscow told them. I found few who could speak English; Western newspapers and even Coca-Cola are luxuries unknown in the shops.

So why visit? In a stunningly short time, a society long closed to outsiders has revealed itself. Central Asia's volatile mix of ethnic groups will doubtless bring change, but until that time, every element of old Soviet culture is laid out for the visitor.

Soviet railways provide just about the slowest service over the 170 miles back to Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, and the outside world. The nine-hour slog in Spartan carriages challenges even the Indian train service's record of sluggishness.

It had taken several hours to buy a ticket amid an incredible press of swarthy Uzbek workers, but I thrust my rubles with determination toward the ticket window. The employee, true to the Soviet way, was deeply involved on the telephone with a friend. At last hanging up, she decided it was time for tea. "Interval," she said, pulling down a curtain. There is a deadpan finality about Soviet officialdom that quashes any thought of argument.

Once safely ensconced on board, however, Uzbek hospitality took over. Despite their poverty, my fellow passengers offered me their seats, their sour bread, their tea. With a samovar bubbling away in every carriage, we had enough sustenance to last the rest of the ride.

As the cars rattled east, our surroundings began to change. Grass broke through the rock-hard earth, and potato plants bravely waved their heads. Cotton and fruit trees appeared and, as we neared Tashkent and modern life, we sucked in the fresh cool air of a breeze blown in from the distant mountains.

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