ND Tashkent airport, giant hoardings proclaimed in English: “Uzbekistan Airways Wish You Good Luck”. It might have been more unsettling to read that message driving into Heathrow before our departure. In fact, we’d had an incident-free flight on Uzbekistan Airways to Uzbekistan’s capital. Tashkent sounds endlessly exotic but isn’t really. Much was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1966 when the country was part of the USSR and the Russians re-built it in typical Soviet style with slab-like concrete buildings. Yet wandering the spacious parks or sampling plov – a concoction of buttered rice, onions, carrots and mutton – and looking at the rich mix of people from pale Russians who stayed on after independence to oval-faced, almond-eyed individuals in brightly-coloured striped robes, you begin to get a sense of where you really are – in the heart of one of the great thoroughfares of history – Central Asia.
Next day, we flew to the walled city of Khiva, near the Oxus and the border with Turkmenistan. With its girdle of thick mud walls and delicately-tiled domed palaces, tombs and mosques, Khiva looks straight out of a fairy-tale but according to our guide, life under its khans was nasty, brutish and short. Tax evaders were impaled, runaway slaves nailed to the city gates and other miscreants buried alive upside down or simply flung from a convenient minaret.
Yet there’s also great beauty. Wandering the narrow alleys and courtyards, their sun-bleached brick walls richly golden in the sunlight, Khiva is magical. Tiles – green, blue and golden – shimmer on domes and towers. Doors are inlaid with ivory and coral. The royal harem where wives and concubines lived in silk-hung, richly-carpeted chambers guarded by eunuchs evokes the romance and glamour of the Arabian Nights. Well-placed along the Silk Road, Khiva grew rich on trade – slaves, silks, jewels and spices all passed through. Today, goods for sale on the stalls, apart from some wonderful shaggy black sheepskin busbies which a guardsman might envy, are more likely to include enormous corsets made in China, giant stuffed tigers – soft toys I hasten to add – and dog-eared copies of BBC English courses.
From Khiva we followed the course of the broad, sandy-banked Oxus along roads lined with mulberry trees – silk is among the country’s major exports – through a landscape of cotton, maize and wheat fields to Bokhara. If the khans of Khiva had an evil reputation, some of the Emirs of Bokhara were even worse. In the nineteenth century the Emir Nasrullah imprisoned two British officers, early participants in “the Great Game”, for months in a twenty-foot deep “bug pit”, leaving them to be tormented by flesh-eating insects before having them beheaded. The pit is still there – empty and sanitized – and so is the Emir’s Ark Fortress with its dungeons, torture chambers and pillared reception halls from which he gazed out over his city.
Bokhara is a dusty, hectic place rich in ancient madrassahs and mosques tiled and carved with true artistry, like the 155-foot high Kalon Minaret that so impressed Ghenghis Khan he let it stand while pulverising the rest of the city. But one of the city’s greatest charms are the domed, arcaded markets where merchants brought their carpets, silks and jewels to trade and today’s shopkeepers bargain hard over persimmons and Playstations.
The Silk Road knit cities along its route like Khiva and Bokhara together and the merchants following it needed places to stay. Driving towards Samarkand, most important of all the route’s entrepots, every few miles we passed the crumbling skeletons of caravanserais – graceful, impressive, arcaded structures built around great courtyards – which were once a refuge for caravans of as many as 10,000 pack animals. In the winter, the innkeepers collected snow and ice and stored it in pits in the courtyard to be used in the summer as drinking water.
We reached Samarkand as the sun was sinking over the almond and apricot orchards that surround it. In the Registan Square, bounded by three soaring blue-tiled madrassahs, we watched as dusk softened the outlines of these monumental facades. Samarkand has a long and violent history. Reputedly founded by Alexander the Great over 2,300 years ago, in the seventh century it fell to Arab invaders who – inspired by their recently adopted Muslim religion – destroyed the temples of its fire-reverencing Zoroastrian population. Six centuries later it was again wrecked – this time by Genghis Khan whose hordes slaughtered 250,000 people.
The Samarkand of today owes some of its beauty and grace to another mediaeval thug – Tamburlaine – who in 1370 made it his capital. Though described by the sixteenth century playwright Christopher Marlowe as “the Scourge of God” and feared by others simply as “the Great Destroyer”, he had a profound aesthetic sense and imported thousands of Indian craftsmen, captured during his sacking of Delhi, to beautify his city. The result was a place fabled even in his time for its exquisite domed palaces, mosques and places of learning protected by high walls, a section of which remains.
The Registan was the centre of Tamburlaine’s grand design, with hostels for dervishes, a large hammam and markets. Though the buildings you see today came later, Tamburlaine remains the dominant presence. A statue depicts him stern, grave, bearded and positively Arthurian. Nearby is his tomb – the Gur Emir – with its great blue double dome with sixty-four ribs, Mohammed’s age when he died. The starry blue and gilt interior with its jade and onyx inlay has a stunning delicacy. As we entered, men in black and white skullcaps were praying, hands held out and palms upward, their murmurs rising in the void beneath the dome.
Tamburlaine himself lies in the crypt below. Edging down the narrow sloping passage to it gives you goose bumps. Before his death, Tamburlaine is said to have cursed anyone who interfered with his grave. A Russian anthropologist, keen to establish whether Tamburlaine had indeed been lame – his name in Europe comes from a corruption of his nickname “Timur the Lame” – opened the sarcophagus in 1941. On that day Nazi Germany attacked Russia. The expert discovered that Tamburlaine did indeed have one leg shorter than the other. Since then the warrior has been left undisturbed in his coffin, the lid of which is carved with a delicate tracery of flowers. That perhaps seems strange but he loved gardens and laid many around Samarkand. During the hot summer months, he lived among them in silken pavilions according to the amazed testimony of the Spanish ambassador, one of the first Europeans to visit the region.
Locals claim that the fig and apple plantations around Samarkand date back to Tamburlaine’s time. We drove through them up to Kohat Hill to see the remains of the six-hundred-year-old observatory built by Tamburlaine’s grandson, the astronomer, poet and scientist, Ulughbeg. In the distance we could just make out the misty, shadow outlines of the Pamir mountains. The ruins of Ulughbeg’s giant marble sextant lie on the hillside and a flight of steps descends to its base. It was so accurate he could calculate the length of the year to within ten seconds. However, he met the fate that in times past often overtook advanced thinkers. He was murdered. The same anthropologist who disturbed Tamburlaine also opened Ulughbeg’s tomb in 1941 and found his head had been severed from his body.
Samarkand and its mighty past assault all the senses. The magnificence of its architecture, the weight of its history, the smell of ripe musk melons and grapes piled up for sale, the earthy taste of the red wine from the surrounding vineyards sipped as you loll like a bygone potentate on a divan beneath a flower-covered trellis, the sun setting behind a towering gateway embellished with fierce tigers and soft-eyed gazelles – all are unforgettable. And so they must have been to all those thousands of weary travelers whose journey along the Silk Road brought them here over the last two millennia and beyond.
Adventure travel specialist Explore (0844 499 0901, www.explore.co.uk) offers a 12-day “Golden Road to Samarkand” tour of Uzbekistan, taking in Tashkent, Khiva, Bokhara, Samarkand and a desert yurt camp, from £1,468 pp. including flights (Heathrow), transport and accommodation and guide. Regular departures between April and October.