Taking the Silk Route

The heart of the ancient Silk Route – the centre of learning, art, and culture for many centuries, with caravans from the Mediterranean Sea to China passing through it – Uzbekistan was hidden away in my imagination since I was a girl fascinated by history. The great cities of Uzbekistan and their untold wealth conjured up stories of a fabled land coveted by rulers and warriors through the ages – from Alexander the Great, Chengiz Khan, Timur, and Babur, to the 18thcentury, when sea routes became more practical and the old Silk Route faded away.

I travelled to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in April, at the start of spring, so I could avoid the cold weather. The drive from the airport was full of leafy trees, beds of tulips and pansies, gardens, and squares. Our tour group of five women met at the hotel and immediately set out for an evening excursion accompanied by Azamat, our witty and knowledgeable guide. He walked us through the governmental and diplomatic areas near our hotel and gave us some historical context. A huge statue of Timur seated on a horse was surrounded by imposing buildings and National Conference Centres, as well as the blue-domed Timurid Museum. This museum, along with the Museum of Applied Arts are treasure troves, showcasing a rich historical heritage. One building that stood out as an iconic remnant of the Soviet times was Hotel Uzbekistan, a huge, concrete example of brutalist architecture, once the only place where foreign visitors were allowed to stay. In those distrustful days, it was apparently liberally sprinkled with listening devices. Now rather faded but still standing tall, it looks somewhat out of place amongst the other grand buildings on the square. Nonetheless, it is still a hotel used mostly by Russian tour groups.

Although the country became independent from the USSR in 1991, there is still a strong Russian influence here – both Soviet and Czarist. The most commonly-spoken languages here are Russian and Uzbek, along with many regional dialects. It was interesting to see that the people do not harbour a grudge over the days of the Communist rule. In 1991, their first President, Islam Karimov, helped transition the country and its national identity from being part of the Soviet Union to an independent secular state. Economically, Uzbekistan is growing, and building its tourism business, in addition to silk, cotton production, and rich rare mineral deposits including uranium.

There are five areas in the country which have been named UNESCO heritage sights: the cities of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarqand, the Tien Shan Mountains, and Shakhrisabz, which is the birthplace of Timur. When the country became independent, it adopted Amir Timur as its hero, to help build a new cultural identity for the people after the fall of the Soviet Union. Timur’s rich legacy of art and architecture, as well as the fact that he was born here, made him a natural choice for Post-Soviet leaders who were trying to rebuild a secular state in a region that was susceptible to extremist influences from the neighbouring countries.

The old city of Tashkent was almost wiped out by a massive earthquake in 1966, so it has been restored to retain some of its old character. The Chorsu Bozori, a huge space under a colourfully-painted dome, is in the bustling heart of the city. Here you’ll find meat, dairy, and vegetable markets, desserts, nuts, spices, and a mouth-watering section of huge tandoor-style ovens offering different types of freshly baked naan. At some of the busiest counters, women cut yellow and orange carrots into fine wedges for their famous plov, the Uzbek national dish, which seemed like a version of our biryani. That afternoon, we went to the Tashkent Plov Centre for lunch, where plov was being cooked in huge cauldrons called kazan on a wood fire. The adjoining food-hall style restaurant was packed with people seated at long tables, devouring the delicacy that was served with fresh tomato, cucumber,onion salad, and pots of hot green tea.

Uzbek food consists of a lot of meat, whether it’s chicken, lamb, beef, or even horse meat. The rich valleys produce a wonderful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, too. It’s mildly spiced for Indian tastes, but definitely delicious. Tradition dictates that the table must always be full, so the food is served in large platters with any gaps taken up by fresh naan, small plates of dried fruit, nuts, and salads. Food is eaten traditionally by hand and from the shared platter as in many Middle Eastern cultures. The cuisine has developed and evolved over the years by myriad influences as a result of the area’s crucial geographical location on the Silk Route.

Most familiar were the Shashlyk Kebab – lamb or beef delicately flavoured with cumin and cooked on coals. There were alsoLula Kebabs,which were like delicate lamb koftas in a rich tomato broth; Samsa, the savoury meat or pumpkin pastries either baked or fried and eaten as a starter or as a roadside snack in every choixana(chaikhana); and of course the famous plov – cooked with yellow carrots, onions, raisins, and chunks of lamb. Each province has its own version, with inevitable regional rivalries on which is the best.

The Manti dumplings were an unusual delicacy. These paper thin hand-rolled sheets of dough, stuffed with spinach, pumpkin or meat and then steamed, were delicious with the rich sourcream-like yoghurt. There is also a great tradition of soups like the mastava, a rich broth with ground meat, rice, and vegetables and eaten with the naan of the region, to complete the meal. The savoury shurpa is another rich soup with long, hand-twisted noodles, while the delicate mashurda is made with moong dal and dried apricots. There is something for every taste!

Over the next two weeks, we travelled our carefully-planned route by minivan, train, and air across this fascinating country, guided by knowledgeable and friendly hosts and guides everywhere we went. We experienced, ate, and enjoyed all that Uzbekistan had to offer!  

Leaving Tashkent, we took a local flight to the area of Urgench and drove to the desert city of Khiva. Itchan Kala, the old city fortress here, is home to mosques, madrasas, and minarets, and the sandy landscape throws up the exquisite mosaic covered minarets and green-domed mosques in bright relief. With a history of over 2,000 years, Khiva, a lively oasis within a mud-brick fortress of high walls, was the last stop for caravans on their way south to Iran. Outside the west gate, a statue of the Persian scholar Abu Abdullah Al Khorezm, is a reminder of the scientific importance of this city. It was the mathematical works of Al Khorezm that popularised the use of the decimal point, and his mathematical treatise of “al Jabr w’al-Muqabala” that led to modern algebra. Inside the colourful streets of the Itchan Kalathere are trees and courtyard houses, bustling street markets, and terraced restaurantsand shops, with the occasional camel resting in the shade, taking a break from giving rides to tourists.

The unusual Djuma Mosque sits squarely in the heart of the old city. The structure has no dome, but rather is a large hall supported by over 200 ornately-carved pillars. The rectangular holes in the ceiling bring in shafts of sunlight, creating a deeply peaceful and meditative place for prayer. Like the Djuma Mosque, none of the mosques in Itchan Kala still function as mosques today, but have been painstakingly restored and converted into museums, small boutique hotels, or as monuments for visitors to marvel at as they walk through.  As the heat of the day cooled down, we enjoyed a magnificent dinner of kebabs and naan on the terrace, and watched the sunset over the fort and the desert.

We continued our journey from Khiva on the old Silk Route by car, a journey of 6-7 hours through the Kyzylkum desert. The monuments here have dazzling turquoise and lapis blue tiles. The awe-inspiring minarets, such as the Kalyan Minaret, that stands highest in Bukhara, are so beautiful that even Chengiz Khan on his mission of conquest did not allow them to be destroyed. The Silk Route was such a vibrant and active part of the Old World, that gifted craftsmen from Uzbekistan came to India to work on monuments even as far south as Hyderabad. It was strange to see a building called Chor Minor in Bukhara, and to hear that some dignitaries who had gone to the Deccan were impressed by Charminar and tried to replicate it in Bukhara in the 16thcentury!

Next came Bukhara, home to a great Islamic scholar and Savant of the 9thcentury, who compiled the Hadith of the Prophet of Islam. It is considered the ultimate point of reference by the Sunni sect, and there is a beautiful mosque here dedicated to him. There was also the ancient 11th century mosque beautifully decorated with just bricks, dedicated to Ismail Samanid, a holy man with healing powers. It was built before the technique of tiles, but nonetheless features breath-taking artistry in the detail of the brickwork.

In the centre of town is Lyabi Hauz, a happening place, and one of the largest of the many original oases that made Bukhara such a crucial stop on the Silk Route. It’s a large square of lush gardens around a small pond. The square is surrounded by Caravanserai, now converted to craft workshops, while the focal point of interest is a statue of Hodja Nasruddin on his donkey. A couple of hundred yards away is a busy street leading to the trade domes where the alleys of bazaars overflow with Sozni; ikkat in silk and cotton, by yard or as beautiful jackets, kaftans, and dresses; metalwork samovars and jugs; handwoven carpets; camel wool scarves; paintings; spices; jewellery; leatherwork; and even money changers.

Chaikhanas everywhere sell green and black tea, along with delicious nuts, raisins, dried fruits, and halwa.The courtyard of the Lyabi Hauz Caravanserai holds cultural programmes and fashion shows to highlight Uzbek culture. The building was established as a mosque with rooms for students and a large courtyard. However, the governor at the time took over the building and converted it to a Caravanserai where trade and crafts flourished. In the cool of the early evening, we sat in the courtyard of the Caravanserai and enjoyed tea, while stylish clothes made by local designers were displayed during the fashion show, and traditional folk dancers moved to the rhythms of a small group of local musicians.

The noisy, colourful, hustle and bustle of the Hauz is a stark contrast to the Sufi meditation centre of the Naqshbandi Group, just about 40 miles outside of Bukhara.The homes within the winding alleys of the old city, where high outer walls hide the colourful interiors of peoples’ homes, add to the more sober vibe. We visited a preserved heritage home that belonged to Fayzulla Khodjaev, a rich merchant in the early 20th century. The visit showed us how people of means during that era lived, cooked, dressed, and raised their families. This man was also a patron of the arts, and wanted to see more equality and democracy in the region. While he supported the ideals of the Soviets and participated in the regional administration, he was executed under Stalin’s brutal repressions in the 1930s. He is survived by only one daughter, but his memory is honoured here.

After Bukhara came Samarqand — an eclectic mix of historic monuments and modern buildings, with a deep Tsarist Russian influence. In spite of the rain, we decided to explore the city. Timur’s tomb is in an exquisite gilded mosque, with his marble grave at the feet of his mentor, Barak Khan. A short distance away from this was the famed Bibi Khanym mosque, where Timur’s favourite wife is buried, and theimposing Registan Square, housing three central facing madrasas and mosques built between the 14th and 17thcenturies.In Samarqand, we observed the more contemporary and European/Russian influenced side of the Uzbek culture, including a private classical music performance in the Museum of Judaism. The music wasenchanting and quite a contrast to the Uzbek music and folk dancers we had enjoyed at the caravanserai in Bukhara. The thousand-year-old Shah-i-Zinda necropolis was initially a single grave,but over the years, various temples and mausoleums have been added up until the late 19th century. The narrow winding lane up a steep hill showcases the delightful mix of styles and periods of burial architecture, including a small room that now houses a museum of photographs illustrating what life was like from the late 19th century onwards.

On the outskirts of the city is an observatory built by Ulugbek, Timur’s grandson. He was a gifted scientist, astronomer, and mathematician, but ruled for only 10 years. During his reign, he built the largest and finest observatory of his time, and foundations of an effectively-run state, with well-developed infrastructure. From Samarqand, we took the bullet train Afrosiyab back to Tashkent, with only one more lap to go.

This time, it was to the garden city of Ferghana, in the east. The scenery on our way was very pretty with greenery and banks of red poppies for miles. We headed to the town of Margilan to see silk weaving and ikkat. We saw handmade silk paper techniques using mulberry twigs, developing a strong paper that lasts for centuries. After polishing and finishing, this paper is used for miniature painting and handwritten Qurans. We spent two days visiting multi-generational pottery artisans, silk weavers, and doing our fair share of shopping! It was a welcome wind-down after the overwhelming journey!                                   

- Selma Bilgrami