Sitting at the Bolo Hauz Chaikhana in Bukhara, sipping green tea, eating plov and looking up at the ancient palace called the Ark, I felt sorry for poor old Stoddart and Conolly.
Stoddart and Conolly, young and fervent British Army officers, had been caught up in the intrigues of “The Great Game” and were summarily executed in 1841 by the vicious Khan of Bukhara, Nasbullah. Conolly and Stoddart were lucky…they got to dig their own graves and were executed in front of the Ark, just a few feet away from where I was sitting. Mere thieves were taken to the top of the Kalon Minaret, bundled into a sack and thrown to their deaths!
Uzbekistan forms the backdrop to “The Great Game” played out in the 19th century when Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia fought each other for control of the Central Asian Khanates. Britain, paranoid that Russia would invade India, the “jewel in the crown”, sent out intrepid army officers to politic with the Khans who ruled the rich oases on the Silk Routes between China and Persia. The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk is essential reading for anyone thinking of travelling to “The Stans” of Central Asia and Uzbekistan in particular.
A Warm Welcome
Don’t be put off by the turbulent history…I’m pleased to report that Uzbek people are very welcoming. We were able to put Uzbek hospitality to the test as during the 2 weeks I enjoyed with a group of KE travellers, we spent several nights in mountain village homestays where I’m pleased to report we were welcomed with gracious hospitality, delicious food and copious amounts of green tea.
Silk Road Oases
Our journey along the Silk Road started in Tashkent, the Soviet-style capital. A city of wide boulevards and imposing statues. From here we flew to Khiva, a former Silk Road staging post and another khanate at the centre of the Great Game. Famous for it’s slave markets, Khiva was finally taken over by the Russians in 1873 in their quest to dominate the Central Asian states. The old city remains incredibly well preserved and is an atmospheric warren of tiny streets, mosques and madrassas and is most magical at the end of the day when the golden rays of the setting sun illuminate the city in warm light.
Bukhara was our next stop. This ancient city really is a marvel and a highlight of the trip for me. Stoddart and Conolly’s story, the ancient caravanserai where silk road traders would break their journeys, the bazaars, the buildings…it’s like stepping back in time to an exotic past. Taking some time out in the afternoon, I visited one of Bukhara’s famous hammomi (bath houses). The Hammom Kunjak is a woman’s bathhouse behind the famous Kalon Minaret and dates back to the 16th Century. A small fee gains you entrance to this subterranean steamy cavern, where friendly ladies guide you across slippery floors, shout at you in Uzbek, scrub you with soap and pummel you in a form of massage before coating you with a herb infusion…then they leave you to sweat! Stepping back out into the late afternoon light, I marveled that my skin has never felt so soft!
Deserts, yurts and camels
Heading out into the desert, we drove across the wide open steppe to Nurata, a desert oasis at the foot of the Nurata Mountains. The remains of one of Alexander the Great’s forts overlooks the town, and climbing to the top of the ruins you can see why he chose this place as it affords a birds’eye view. Alexander was only one of several great invaders who came this way…Genghis Khan and his hordes came later to be followed by the Uzbek home-grown hero, Tamerlane. Stopping overnight at a yurt camp, we were to enjoy a camel ride aboard a Bactrian camel and sunset in the desert. Yurts make cosy sleeping places…and we were to enjoy a second yurt stay the next stay in the lovely mountain village of Urazmat where Bobo, aged 96, welcomed us to his home.
Take a Hike
The Nurata and Zarafshan Mountains are offshoots of the Pamirs and rise to 2000m in eastern Uzbekistan and we were able to explore both ranges. KE’s Samarkand and the Silk Road trip is one of the few to include some exploration on foot and my hardy fellow-travellers all agreed that it was the opportunity to walk in the mountains that had attracted them to KE’s itinerary. We were not disappointed – the scenery is rocky and magnificent and the traverse of the Zarafshan Mountains (with a high point of 1842m) will be added to the itinerary as an option for all future KE groups. We were lucky that Isrofil, our local agent, had suggested that we try it out for the future and came along with us to show us the way!
The Golden Road to Samarkand
No visit to Uzbekistan is complete with a trip to Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s most famous city. Just the name conjures up exotic and romantic images of the Silk Road, glorious empires past and visions of blue domes and bustling bazaars. Samarkand was Tamurlane’s capital and a visit to his grand mausoleum, Gur Emir, is a must. Tamurlane is buried beneath a huge single slab of green jade, the Emperor at the heart of his domain. The Registan lives up to Lord Curzon’s description as the “noblest public square in the world” and is a iconic sight. The three grand buildings are amongst the world’s oldest madrassas and have been dutifully restored to full glory. These and many other ancient buildings sit like ancient beacons amidst the boulevards and buildings of the Soviet city that sprang up much later.
Time to Reflect
Uzbekistan confounded my expectations…the richness of the history, the hospitality of the people, the beautiful mosques and madrassas, the sunshine, the warm light, the dramatic mountains, the delicious fresh food. One day after returning home I finished The Great Game – it had been a perfect travelling companion. Now I just need to get through the rest of the reading list…
Eastern Approaches – Fitzroy McLean
The Lost Heart of Asia – Colin Thubron
Shadow of the Silk Road – Colin Thubron
A Carpet Ride to Khiva – Christopher Aslan Alexander
Setting the East Ablaze – Peter Hopkirk
The Golden Road to Samarkand – Calum Macleod and Bradley Mayhew
Fiona Marshall works at the KE office, and has done so now for the last 15 years. KE travels have taken her across the globe, but this was her first visit to Uzbekistan.
Read More about the Samarkand and the Silk Road tour.