A fascinating melting pot of numerous cultures, Central Asia’s location has led to quite a few invasions over the centuries – including the Persians, Turks, Greeks, Mongols, and Russians. This in turn infused the region with a distinct character amalgamating all these influences. Srikant Vatturi, a director of risk at the Jackson Life Insurance Company of Michigan, U.S., recalls the time he was fortune enough to visit two of the five ‘stans’ that make up the region.
Tajikistan can be described as mountainous, harsh terrain, which offers a rather spartan choice of food and places to stay. However, the continuous sight of mountains, rivers and lakes definitely made up for the roughness. The highlight of my stay here was driving through the snow-capped Fann Mountains along the pristine Zeravshan River. While touring this rugged country I also came across the Haft-Kul, a set of seven lakes in the western part of the Fann Mountains connected to each other through a series of underground rivers.
The colour of every lake was different, varying between shades of blue and green based on the position of the sun. Iskanderkul, on the western side, was a stunning lake nestled amidst the mountains at a height of more than 7,000 feet. A rather interesting bit of history connected to this lake is that it was the place where Alexander married a local princess,
Roxanna, during his Asian conquest.
With centuries worth of history, Uzbekistan had enough exquisite examples to saturate one’s mind with the letter ‘M’: mosques, madrasahs, Majorca tiles, minarets, mosaics, and mausoleums! Samarkand, the crown jewel, had the most astonishingly intricate monuments dating from the time of Timur or Tamerlane, the Mongol King who descended from Genghis Khan, and whose descendants founded the Mughal Empire in India. The Registan in Samarkand is arguably one of the most iconic sights in the world with the Tilla-Kari mosque, Ulugh Bek Madrasah (religious schools with living quarters for students), and Sher-Dor Madrasah on three sides of a square.
Interestingly, the Sher-Dor Madrasah, with its images of lions on the arch, was a rare Islamic structure that depicted life. What made it stand out was that Islamic laws usually forbid any depiction of life, as that would contradict the notion that Allah is the only creator. Bukhara is another historic city and is considered by many to be the holiest site in Central Asia, with functioning Madrasahs and soothing turquoise domes dotting its skyline.
Bukhara is also a great place to get a crash course in Sufiism, as the very prominent Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari lived there in the 14th century. Khiva, in the desert, is also worth visiting as it contains a well preserved medieval city with blue mosaics adorning its walls. Tashkent, the capital city, hosts the iconic Romanov palace of the Tsarist era. Despite the contrasts between the two countries, there are many common threads including the manic love for Bollywood – watching Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan speak in dubbed Russian on a TV screen was quite bizarre! But what left a permanent mark on me was the sheer hospitality of the locals. The Tajik villagers I was staying with did everything possible to keep me warm and well fed, despite the harsh climate and limited means.
A particular memory that comes to mind is when an Uzbek lady didn’t give up until she helped me track down a couple of Jewish synagogues in the dizzying maze of Bukhara’s old city streets. Speaking of cultural experiences, the vodka shots that I was ‘politely nudged’ into gulping down by random strangers who invited me to dine with them is one that will always stay with me.
I am also grateful for my driver, Farid, and extraordinary guide, Velentina, who were my constant companions throughout my sojourn, and never left me in want of anything. This trip to Central Asia – which in some ways is quite like the Middle East – exemplified the magnitude of difference between the reality of human decency on display in Islamic countries, and the ignorance-driven perception that brackets all into a single club of violence and repression. – Srikant Vatturi