Into the Heart of the Silk Route
I’ve wanted to traverse the Silk Route from Xi’An in China to Istanbul in Turkey, ever since i was a kid. I still want to make that trip in one fell swoop someday, but for now, bits and pieces will have to do. This is a brief travelogue and photo essay of my roadtrip with three other girls, across Uzbekistan – from Khiva to Tashkent. I have not dwelt on the history or the architecture. I have steered clear of political comment… there was a watermark to experiences which i have deliberately not drawn attention to. This is more of a personal account of how it felt to traverse a landscape that has been touched by so many waves of history – some unkind and some more gentle.
All the images in this post are licensed under CC-NC-BY-SA. Please do contact me for any other commercial or non-SA uses.
Little kids in Tashkent fly kites with Barak Khan madrasah as a backdrop. This square houses the Khast Imam mosque which holds one of the oldest extant Qur’ans in the world, the Uthman Qur’an, said to have been stained with the blood of the murdered caliph Uthman. Timur had seized this Qur’an and taken it to Samarqand from where the Soviets carried it away to St. Petersburg. It was returned to Uzbekistan in 1924. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and has since been headed by Islam Karimov’s secular government. Stepping in to Tashkent was like going back in time into what the old Soviet Union must have been like. Humungous, grandiose buildings, tree lined streets (the trees were threadbare in the early spring), large monotonous apartment blocks and hardly anyone about. It is the most cosmopolitan of Uzbekistan’s cities and also probably its most modern. We set off from Tashkent in search of the old silk route which passed through this city to the haloed ancient towns of Bukhara (Buxoro), Samarqand, and our first stop, Khiva (Xiva).
Going across the country from the Kyrgyz border where Tashkent is, to Khiva on the Turkmenistan border meant crossing the breadth of Uzbekistan. And right in the middle of the country flows one of the most famous rivers of the world: the Amu Darya. Dammed and heavily tapped for irrigation by the Soviets when they governed Uzbekistan, it is severely depleted now and does not even flow into the Aral Sea. A huge ecological nightmare and a disaster, the Aral is drying up and, by some accounts, may have no water by 2050. This is cause for serious worry across Uzbekistan and especially for the desert areas around Khiva which depend on groundwater for subsistence.
Ichan-Kala is a walled citadel, a living city, and a wonderfully preserved open-air museum which is a UNESCO heritage site. We’d reached on a clammy, cold day and just as we entered the citadel, it began to drizzle. We climbed up to the watchtower to get a view of the fortressed city. Built on foundations that are supposedly 2500 years old, most of the structures date back now to the seventeenth – nineteenth centuries. The walls were made of brick and the fortress was rammed earth and straw – adobe style. The ramparts had wonderful crenellations which would have looked awesome at sun down. Making a mental note to come back, i walked back down to the center of the city. “The sun will come out in the afternoon,” our guide Ali averred. I hoped so.
Back in the center of the walled city, Khiva was going about business as usual. One big attraction of this citadel is the famous “Kalta Minor” or short minaret. Seen behind this lady, it was supposed to have become the tallest minaret in all Central Asia. Its massive base certainly gives pause for such an idea. Myths abound about why it remained unfinished. But the most plausible seems to be that Muhammad Amin Khan, the then king, was killed in battle and the work on the minaret was stopped. Legend has it that if it were constructed as planned, one could see Bukhara from the top. But one suspects that Bukhara lies so far away that the curvature of the earth would bust that myth!
It was desperately cold by now and sensing our discomfiture, Ali beckoned us towards the warm-wear stalls. Pelts of various creatures were on display. “Uzbek fox,” the vendor said fingering the ears, “very warm. Or maybe mink?” No, no, thanks, i edged away. Ali put on a sheep hair cap and showed us how it protects against the salt and the sand when the desert winds blow. That was more like it. I tried it on. Warm, yes! But mighty irritating to photograph through, i thought, irrelevantly. The bottom right photo has pelts which are the skin of foetal lambs. I had no idea what it is used for. “Very soft, touch it.” I did. It was soft, yes, but a little pointless … nothing to write home about, i thought.
And in Uzbekistan, whether you are feeling cold or hot, you drink tea – lots of it. The host pours the tea from the pot into a cup and back into the pot three times and only then serves … serves himself first, drinks it, and if deemed ok, pours for the guests. Sugared peanuts, almonds and shelled peanuts were often served with the tea. Tea is drunk with lunch, dinner, everything, in the countryside. The desi in me longed for black tea with sugar and milk (yeah, judge me!) and it was going to be a while on this trip before my longing was satiated!
Just as the sun sank in the west, I remembered the watchtower and my wish to photograph the ramparts in that light. But as luck would have it, the doors to the watchtower had closed early that day. I ran with Ali, across the walled city – one km – and then up the wall and onto the ramparts – another km all the way to the terrace. I was hoping there would be some spot i could still see that vista i had imagined. But no. There was no way to stand high above the ramparts and look down – unless i was on the watchtower. My heart sank, but i stood on the ramparts and watched the city within for a while, and then walked back.
It was late by now and almost dark. By pure luck, we got ourselves invited to a traditional Uzbek wedding. And how could we pass up such a wonderful opportunity? Turned out, it was a double wedding – two brothers marrying on the same day. The men dressed in their woolen coats sat on the left while the women sat on the right. Tables were set with plates and plates of food – salads, meats, baklavas, drinks (no alcohol, since the man of the moment was a Haji), sweets, non, you-name-its. And then came the dancer – sashaying this way and that … like a mujra. It was all quite sober and yet quite back-slapping comfortable. We sat at a table in the back and watched for a while and then gracefully made our exit after meeting the brides and grooms and taking the customary photos with them! Can you imagine, years from today – they’ll probably wonder who those Indian girls were. Marriages in Uzbek culture take place when the bride and groom are very young. Most girls are married by 16. We were told that if a girl was 25 and unmarried, “no one will even smell her!” Sabina, our carpet seller had two kids and she was 22. Her mother was a grandmother at 42!
Young girls in Tashkent, however, have a completely different connotation. While these girls were just dancers in a club, their beauty was arresting. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, prostitution has been on the rise in Uzbekistan. In fact all of our guides told us in not-so-veiled terms that most Indians coming to Uz are men. Stags. Traders looking for women for the nights. And we could believe it, for we saw a whole lot of Indian traders coming to Uz on our flight. about a group of 130! But … that was another matter. Back to our trip. I was in Khiva, right?
I walked around in Khiva looking for an area where there were silk weavers who still wove silk carpets on a handloom. I spotted an old loom standing in one doorway, and skeins hung dyed and drying in the courtyard. I knew I had reached the right place. Khiva was not directly on the silk route, but was an important trading post. Lying north-west of Bukhara, it formed the gateway to Turkmenistan and traders often came to this prosperous city to hawk their wares.
I could hear voices and I wandered in, peeking into the rooms one by one. Sitting in one of the rooms behind a brick arch were three women, weaving carpets at a loom. “Come in, come in,” they gestured. This was the fabulous part of Uzbekistan for us. People just seemed so glad to see us. To share their life, their tea, their bread with us. I stood around watching them for a while fascinated at the speed at which they seemed to make disparate skeins come together to make a lovely thing. Little seemed to have changed in all these years. A tungsten lamp, i guess – instead of a lantern. But everything else in that room could have been from any bygone era.
Silk was not the only commodity traded on the silk route. Lacquer ware, spices, perfumes, hemp, other raw materials were all fair game. Moreover, it was not one continuous route – that is, one trader rarely traveled the route end to end. it was like a relay via a whole lot of traders who came from and to various points hawking their wares. This spice market in Bukhara was a treat for our olfactory senses. Of course, in the olden days, spice came to the silk route from India. Today, most of these spices are grown and harvested locally.
While so many wares passed in and out of Uzbekistan, its most famous export was the carpet. An original Bukhara carpet was called a Turkmen and was made by various tribes, each having its own particular motif. Highly prized and richly traded, they are popular even today. This Bukhoro was about 200 years old and cost a few 10s of thousands of USD.
Even today, the carpets of Bukhara are special. Sabina works 24×7 at the Flying Carpet, one of the most famous outlets in Bukhara and easily the one with the choicest selection. She unfurls a Soumak – a special double weave carpet that is woven once over a kilim. More expensive and exclusive, it is in high demand and comes in breathtaking designs. The “season” in Bukhara refers to when tourists frequent and her job gets hectic then. “I lose over 8 kilos working,” she says with a ready smile. Speaking perfect English, she was schooled in the UK before returning to her hometown to continue in the tourism business. “I have been showing tourists around since I was 6,” she laughs. “It is what i do.” And she does it very, very well. The owner of the shop is the Imam’s son. Speaking no English, he was the silent deal-maker behind the scenes. Clear blue eyes and the traditional cap on his head, he carries on a family tradition in the arts. The Imam himself is a master calligrapher.
Bukhara was at the heart of the silk route and even today is a center of art. Everywhere there are artists sitting and hawking their works or creating more. Davron Toshev recreates miniature paintings. Shown in exhibitions around the world, he does not sell his best art from Bukhara anymore, preferring to sell it in Paris. Hand painted chess sets, backgammon sets, other paintings, his students’ work all hung around his gallery. His best miniatures sell for hundreds of USDs. But guess what, he was not the only famous artist in Bukhara.
Shavqat Boltaev is a photographer who has been widely exhibited around the world and has done some great work on the historical populations in Bukhara of Jews, Gypsies and Iranians. “Bukhara is a microcosm of Uzbekistan,” he said. Indeed, Bukhara was home to 100,000 Jews who had settled here during the Roman times. Most moved out by 2000 to Israel and the US. “There are only about 80 Jews left now,” Shavqat says, pointing to his collection of photos. “These are records of the years gone by.”
Agriculture is about a quarter of Uzbek GDP and employs about a third of the population. Cotton is the major crop, with Uzbekistan being targeted as a cotton growing region during the Soviet Era. Even today, during harvest, almost everyone (men, women, kids) is pressed into harvest duty! Apparently due to the presence of child labor, a few Western companies have boycotted Uzbek cotton. We were driving through the steppes when we stopped at one such stretch. I got off and walked for a few kms. The few farms had hands tilling, ploughing, taking a break – sipping tea. Unhurried, it slowed me down too and I walked alone. And then I came upon large swathes of rolling steppes – with few people, a few sheep and a whole lot of sky!
I stopped frequently to take in lungsful of air and eyesful of view. There were no clues in the landscape to tell me which era i was in. And i walked on alone.
Two little kids ran by me shouting “hello, hello,” and went up the hillock. They stood there shyly watching me. Intrigued as i shot this and that, lay on the road, squatted in a ditch, peered here and there. This was pure joy for me. And it allowed me to imagine what it must be like to be a trader, coming in from the North, the West and coming upon these lush landscapes where, finally, water was not scarce.
Canals from the Amu Darya ran alongside small hamlets and I suddenly spotted something I had been looking for all through the trip. A Water Wheel! And it was working. Yelling for the driver to stop and almost startling him out of his skin, I ran across the road and to the wheel and gaped. The old farmer who was a few yards away dropped his hoe and walked towards me. He had a kind face and he asked me something. I guessed and answered “Hindostani.” His face broke into a broad smile and he asked me something else. By now the driver and my friends had caught up with me and after a bit of chit-chat, we realized that we were bring invited into his house. His wife and four daughters had all come out to join us and were eagerly taking pictures of us with their phone (more on that phenomenon in the next caption.) We walked into their house, curious to see how a walnut-farmer lived.
His wife insisted that we sit down, they brewed some tea (it seems always handy!) and brought out some homemade bread – non. Using our driver as a translator, we enjoyed the conversation with an obviously intelligent couple. Suddenly the man looked at me and laughed – “how many photos will you take?” he quipped. Seeing that i felt sheepish, he quickly added – “you can take as many as you like, only if you send me the whole stack! What’s your name? Indira Gandhi?” Heck, i fell over laughing, relieved that he was not upset. So how long have they been married? That is when the lady bent down, patting the old man and asked, “So how long has it been?” Apparently 50 years. Wow. She wove carpets and spun cotton. They grew white walnuts and brought out a bunch for us to eat. Amused at our astonishment when they broke the walnut with bare hands, they proceeded to unshell all and lay them out for us to eat. Oh they tasted absolutely yummy. The girls were all eager to show us around the house and they took us to the shed where they cook. Again, i felt like there was no clue there to tell me which era i was in. They lived close to the earth and ate from it.
As we drove on, we stopped frequently for this and that. I noticed that men on donkeys were a common sight. But no one as dapper as this gentleman! As i approached, i heard them whisper to each other and one of them asked me something. I guessed what it was and answered, “Hindostani.” again. “Aaaaah! ” That look of recognition, which by now, was familiar to me. I expected the next few queries. “Raj Kapoor? Amitabh Bachchan? Shahrukh…” you get the idea. Bollywood was big, even in the rural areas. And four Indian girls were a big draw. People ran to get photographed with us (no kidding!). Which led one in our group to comment, “Yaar, apne desh mein koi hamen ghaas bhi nahi deta!” But there, in Central Asia, we were “it.” Yes, even to men on donkeys
Uzbekistan is a land of many rulers. Many layers of history and many domes. There is so much to see and learn and relate here, that it could take forever. But one dome sticks in my mind. The dome of the Mausoleum of Ismail Samani. You had to be there, and see this – and have it explained to you like it was to us, to believe this beauty. As we stood there, there was a hush among us — I turned round and round looking at the detailing — all in brick. In so many designs of brick. And guess what – do you see the approximation of the square to the circle? 4 -8-16 … do you see it? I knelt, i knelt there. It was pure magic. This was a land that has seen so much blood and demolition, it was nothing short of a miracle that this structure survived it all. I will write more about only this one, later. it deserves a post for itself. This Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara.
Going from Khiva to Bukhara and then on to Samarqand via Shahrisabz is the best way to see South-Central Uzbekistan. Our own history is quite closely intertwined with Central Asian history. Timur the Lame (Taimur Lane) ruled from Shahrisabz and Samarqand. He expanded his empire all the way to Delhi just before he died. What remains of the “White Palace” is not much today, but standing there gave you a sense of the man’s greatness (if you can call it that). We were now entering a part of Uzbekistan — in the south — which was rich with history of the great rulers of Central Asia. Samarqand lay ahead. And i was unabashedly eager to get there. It had been a childhood dream of mine to step into Registan. And it was palpable now.
When we were flying in to Tashkent we had crossed the Hindu-Kush, the Indus, and the Pamirs — it was like a geography lesson in real time. For some reason, clouds decided to absent themselves and the plane decided to fly over everything i have always wanted to see. Nose stuck to the window like a child, i clicked furtively away, hiding my camera from the termagant-like stewardesses who periodically came by and waggled a finger in my face. “No photography. No, no photos.” But how could i resist. And all the time i was wondering … this is the terrain that Timur crossed with his camels and horses. How did he do it? How long did it take? What did it cost, in human terms and in capital?
If the flight in to Uzbekistan was breath-taking, the drive in to Samarqand was no less. Lofty snow-capped mountains rose to our right as the sun dipped low over the horizon. If I understood right, those mountains are sacred to blacksmiths and people who work with machines/ iron.
It was dark by the time we drove in to Samarqand. I tried not to look at Registan as we passed it. There was a sound and light show going on. But I ignored it completely. The next morning, we entered that square. Nothing, none of the other monuments in all of Uzbekistan prepares you for it. We thought it will all be the same, all the madrassahs look the same after a while, but no. Not this one. Not Registan. Oh my goodness was it beautiful. The one on the left by Ulugh Bek (the astronomer/ mathematician grandson of Taimur) was the minaret I am standing on, and the one on the right had the tigers on the portal. Islam does not allow for animals as motifs, but this was a tribute to Uzbekistan’s Zoroastrian roots. Oh was it breathtaking. And we climbed this impossible minaret and I half hung out of the top to photograph this. It was a moment when my head spun. Nothing made sense. I was not all there. How could something man made be so exquisite, i was thinking. It was made with a lot of love, i thought. Things of beauty have love woven into them. Yes, i believe that. And these structures were testimony. Can you imagine weary traders and travelers coming upon these structures at the end of long, hot days? I had not seen anything so well proportioned — other than the Taj Mahal, of course.
Taimur is supposed to have said, “If you want to know my greatness, don’t look to my feats, look at the monuments i have created.” And indeed, Gur Emir – where he is buried, is a magnificent structure. A cupola that has 63 ribs (the age of the Prophet when he died), and amazing symmetry, it left me gaping. Legends again abound where the inscription on Taimur’s tomb says “Anyone who violates my stillness in this life or in the next one, will be subjected to inevitable punishment and misery” — and each time his remains have been moved, a war has ensued. Nevertheless the great warrior lies there now.
I felt like the best tales were left for the last – Samarqand. I have not delved deep into those tales or the myths and history behind so many things in Uzbekistan, for brevity. But i know i will write it longform soon, for it enthralls me – and i hope it will enthrall you too. As we drove out of Samarqand and back to Tashkent over the Syr Darya, I looked out over the steppes. Again, the sun was setting — a lone shepherd was out, probably heading home. Home to tea and bread and a whole lot of salad and meat (oh, the food is going to be another post in itself!). I closed my eyes briefly and smiled at the stories that were inside me – told and untold. And one more place that i had made up my mind to revisit. At leisure.