Posted by: acooksca | 04/02/2009

Silk Route Crossing – Part two, Uzbekistan

In a brief and innocent time, post Soviet Central Asia and pre-Sept. 11,  you could once again travel The Silk silk-route-instrument-maker-2Route. This is the second of a two part recollection of such a crossing from Kashgar in the East to Samarkand in the West.

If Kashgar and Kirgizstan had been forgotten by the modern world Uzbekistan clearly had not.  Locked away at the inaccessible heart of Central Asia, Kashgar may be loosely governed by China but its population remains 90% Uyghur, the ancient nomadic peoples of The Silk Route. Kyrgyzstan, lacking sufficient resources, was never developed by the Soviets much beyond its traditional herding lifestyle. Uzbekistan, rich in oil and gold, fertile plains for beef and cotton, with a large work force and easy access from Moscow had been well absorbed into Russia.

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Uzbekistan struggled to rise phoenix-like from the ashes and define itself as a modern democracy. Despite the fact that ex-communists were still in power in when we were there in1999, Uzbekistan was rapidly dismantling vestiges of the Soviet era and attracting foreign investment.

Tashkent, the former capital of Soviet Central Asia, was a shock of Mercedes, mini skirts and hope. Tea houses lining the central river were active with cell phones under colorful awnings in the warmth of Spring. Garish movie posters beckoned in various languages.

One evening we watched the National Ballet perform The Nutcracker Suite in an elaborately decorated theater that a Muscovite would love. Following the performance we dined in the theatre’s “International buffet” with offerings from pizza to octopus. The Shadlick Palace Hotel, owned by a German group, had the trappings of four star luxury (expensive bar, European food, ability to accept credit cards) with Soviet hospitality (“no you can not have butter with your roll… we don’t serve butter to groups).

Tashkent is the thriving modern administrative center of Uzbekistan but what survives of the ancient capitals of the Khanates? Ornamented cities were built from plunder, fell to conquest then were rebuilt more extravagantly by the next empire. A general flowering of spectacular Islamic architecture began in the twelfth century.

Mosques with fluted domes, minarets embellished with calligraphy, mosaic studded madrassahs and golden leaf-covered tombs were the treasures we sought. I had read that the USSR discouraged Islamic practice and feared that upkeep of these gems was low priority. To my delight we found many had withstood the 70 years of Russian occupation and are again the center of life in fabled Silk Route cities.

“In all other parts of the world, light descends upon the earth; but from holy Bukhara, it ascends”. I might agree. This is an ancient city of learning and spiritual essence. Quiet streets still open to squares where white-bearded elders play dominoes by a pool under mulberry trees planted in 1477.

silk-route-bukara-22Kalan Minaret, built in 1127

The business of studying ancient ways occupies many locals in repairing buildings or making crafts such as rugs and musical instruments. The modern world is outside this rare old town. We roamed streets seeking insight into this Central Asian oasis which produced some of the great Islamic minds of The Silk Route.  In the evening we dined in a peaceful square beneath the crescent moon and stars, securing romantic memories of magnificent Bukhara.

Kalan Minaret, built in 1127

From somewhere a plush-seated air conditioned bus was acquired for our crossing of the Oxus River and the Kyzyl Kum dessert, legendary barriers between Khiva and Bukhara. Khiva, founded in the fifth century, was an outpost fort known for its slave trade and incredibly cruel rulers. The Russians battled the Khan in this City-state during The Great Game years and eventually blew Khiva apart . Then they restored it to death, all new and shiny.

The people who used to live there have been chased away leaving a sterile architectural museum on ancient foundations. Fortunately, there were few other visitors which allowed us solitude in which to imagine what the forced harems, slave markets and the tower from which many were thrown to their death might have looked like before Russian occupation.

Whether one thinks Tamerlane was a hero (the Uzbeks) or the devil (everyone else), his imperial capital of Samarkand is still a magnificent and thriving city.  Samarkand has a city square as spectacular as any I have ever seen. The Registan, a grandiose ensemble of magnificent madrassahs (15th – 17th C) centered on an immense square, is the post card view of Samarkand. Towering walls glitter with mosaics depicting lions, the sun, a face or two…all taboo subjects for adorning Islamic sites until Tamerlane ordered them.

Clearly a city comfortable with itself, the bazaar of modern day goods winds between azur tiled mosques and silk-route-samarkant-21minarets covered in calligraphy. One afternoon some of our group trouped through the active streets to the mosque of the traveler to give our thanks for the privilege of being here and to accept any fortunate blessing in this, the most fabled ancient city of the Silk Route.

For me, at least as special as the treasured architecture of the past, are the memories of everyday life. The market areas along The Silk Route have a rhythm of life that flows and is far older then the buildings or political systems. It is in the bazaars that daily life is lived, where we uninhibitedly exchanged smiles and bits of languages. The Islamic custom of treating any traveler with hospitality was shockingly consistent. Seven years after crossing Central Asia on the ancient Silk Route, I wonder if that welcome might now be suppressed. I don’t know. I have faith, though, that it survives.


Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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