SAMARKAND, UZBEKISTAN — Take a map of the world, and put one finger on Portugal, and one finger on Japan. Draw them together, and they will meet in Uzbekistan, former Soviet republic and approximate center of the earth.
In today's shrinking world, Europe and the Far East are accessible destinations, but the countries in between still lie off the beaten track, even to adventurous travelers.
This was not always the case. A thousand years ago, Uzbekistan's cities were buzzing centers of commercial and intellectual activity at the heart of the myriad trading routes known as the Silk Road. The history of these ancient city-states is the stuff of legend: conquered by the Arabs, then the marauding Mongols, they came into their own under various khans and emirs, before being swallowed up by the Russian Empire.
My husband, John, and I wanted to see this region where East meets West. We realized that conditions would be more basic than we are used to, and we anticipated some bureaucratic hurdles. But we hoped that the Silk Road of our imaginations, where cultures and religions collided in a burst of colors, languages, and exotic wares, might still be visible.
Planning a sightseeing route in Uzbekistan is simple. In addition to the capital, Tashkent, there are three main hubs - legendary Samarkand, the seat of the Uzbek hero-king Timur and his descendants; quiet and convivial Bukhara; and the walled citadel of Khiva that rises out of the desert. A week to 10 days is sufficient for exploring at leisure.
Coming up with a travel plan is one thing. Actually navigating through the country is quite another. Accommodations, transport networks, and infrastructure do exist, but they are largely Soviet relics and decidedly user-unfriendly. Nongroup travelers are dependent for information on the good will of officials and hosts - who don't always feel like obliging.
We had expected things to be easiest in Tashkent, which is Central Asia's commercial center. But between immigration, trying to change traveler's checks, having our hotel reservation changed twice, and registering our departure from the city with the police, we soon discovered the opposite was true.
While Tashkent is obviously an ex-Soviet city, pockets of indigenous culture do remain and the Uzbeks we met were extremely friendly. But it was outside the capital that the pictures we had in our imaginations came to life.
Golden Road to Samarkand
From Tashkent we took the famed "Golden Road to Samarkand." We traveled not by camel train but by sweaty, crowded bus, and stayed not at an exotic guesthouse but a depressing Soviet-era hotel. But beyond the boulevards and concrete public buildings, the blue tiles of the Registan, the stunning madrasa complex that is said to have been wall-to-wall bazaars in Silk Road days, peeped enticingly over the treetops. (A madrasa is an Islamic religious school where scholars would teach young men the Koran and other general wisdom.)
We explored as the morning light cast odd shadows from the leaning towers and brilliant azure walls. As we marveled at the intricate mosaics showing flowers, animals, and Islamic scriptures, I could easily imagine the sensory chaos of courtyards filled with turbaned Arabs and their camels, Chinese merchants, and Europeans on horseback.
Samarkand's present-day bazaar spills out on three sides of the Bibi-Khanym mosque, just as it must have done in the middle ages. Headscarved women with gold teeth offered us cherries and raisins to try, and weighed out nuts and fresh dill on ancient rusty scales. We ate shashlik kabobs outdoors, as our neighbors at the next tables smiled and toasted us.
The city has a spiritual resonance despite the ruined condition of some of the ancient sites. In the poignant Street of Tombs, local people prayed in front of the blue-domed tomb of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. In the half-light of evening we sat by the mausoleum where Timur is buried, watching old men drive donkeys and goats home for the night.
On to Bukhara
The next morning we set off for Bukhara, another legendary city whose history stretches back over a thousand years. Thanks to Sasha and Lena's Bed & Breakfast, our stay seemed authentically Oriental (though travelers on the Silk Road would not have had CNN and air-conditioning). Our room in this restored 16th-century courtyard house had divans with colored rugs, floor cushions, and beautiful plasterwork and frescoes.
It was also only a minute from the social center of Bukhara, called the Labi Hauz. In the past, there were a number of hauz, or pools, where people would meet to wash, cook, and socialize. Today only the Labi Hauz remains. We sat on cushions and watched grandfather types play chess and local boys dive into the pool from an ancient mulberry tree.
Bukhara's brown buildings are subdued in comparison to Samarkand's vivid blues. But the city is laid-back and picturesque, and the center is beautifully restored. We cooled off in the cave-like network of indoor markets. Outside, it was too hot for us to climb the incredible 180 foot minaret, which supposedly so impressed Genghis Khan that he spared it from destruction.
Khan might have felt at home in our final destination, Khiva, a former notoriously cruel slave-trading region. To get there we opted, as most travelers do, to hire a private driver rather than risk the local bus, famous for breaking down in the desert.
A shiny red Daewoo shortened the journey time from 12 hours to five, but still could not protect us from the enormous potholes and lumps in the road.
Approaching Khiva, the huge mud wall of the old city, or Ichon-Qala, appears to grow directly out of the earth. This area is maintained as an architectural preserve, where visitors are charged an entry fee, and almost everything inside is free.
Khiva's architecture added turquoise and red to the vivid spectrum of Uzbek color. Few people live in the historic area, but we caught glimpses of real life: children playing in the dusty alleys, old women carrying huge food parcels back to secret courtyard homes. A little girl showed us around a museum, not caring that we understood none of her chatter.
The farther from Tashkent we were, the closer we felt to indigenous Uzbek culture and history. But we also became more aware that these ancient sites are relics of an old world that has little to do with everyday life.
In Bukhara and Khiva, few people live in the preserved city centers, and even in Samarkand the proximity of Russian and Islamic culture seems incongruous. Next to the Street of Tombs with its holy Islamic relics is a Russian graveyard, where the Caucasian faces of the dead are engraved on marble headstones. Everywhere we went, Uzbeks were enjoying glasses of vodka, beating their Russian comrades at their own game, and umbrellas advertising the local soft drink of choice - Coca-Cola - were a splash of color at the feet of walls hundreds of years old.
For centuries Uzbekistan has been at a geographic and cultural crossroads, where some influences were absorbed and others rebuffed. Despite the logistical challenges, the proximity of ancient and modern, colors and cultures, and the bright sun and flashing gold teeth, will make an impression that will stay as vivid as your photographs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society