Bygone eras of the Silk Road.
Once confirming that I didn’t say Pakistan, Afghanistan, or other more commonly known ‘Stan’, my listeners looked at me with a glazed expression then asked, “Why are you going there?”
I have a Marco Polo inkling to explore exotic destinations; they stimulate the senses and provide an escape from everyday life. Uzbekistan, which gained independence in 1991 from the former USSR is one such lesser known country, yet its cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are synonymous with the famous Silk Road. To rediscover jewels of ancient empires that still remain little known to mainstream tourism, Uzbekistan makes a fascination destination.
Uzbekistan sits at the confluence of the ancient Silk Road routes that brought silk, paper, porcelain and tea to the West, and horses, Mediterranean coloured glass, gold and wine to the East. Aside from commercial trade, it was also the meeting point of thinkers, artisans and ideas. Due to the lucrative location, this region was constantly fought over by neighbouring empires including the Mongols, Romans, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Chinese and most recently, Russians. Each empire left behind remnants of its culture that remain today.
Fortunately for Uzbekistan, its borders were drawn around Central Asia’s most spectacular cultural sites. Samarkand, once a major meeting point of Silk Road caravans is best known as the capital of Amir Timur’s vast reign, where he spent all his plundered riches. Immaculately restored structures including the Registan medressas, Shah-I-Zinda mausoleum and Bibi-Khonim mosque are evidence of Samarkand’s glory days. Bukhara retains its ancient walls, the Lyabi-Haus bath and structures so beautiful even Genghis Khan spared them from ransacking. Khiva has its own charms for those who dislike Vegas-esque restoration and is a good point to visit if you are further exploring the western region. In the capital city of Tashkent you’ll see modern Uzbekistan’s eight-lane wide streets, grand subway stations, ballet and opera theatres, and wonder – if civil engineers make USD 350 a month, better than most professions, who can afford the Mercedes and USD 300 an item fashion boutiques?
An Uzbek welcome is one of the warmest and most sincere. Efforts to assist visitors are heartfelt and elders will often return a smile of an entire row of gold capped teeth. For travelers, it helps to know a little Russian; however, many Uzbeks, in addition to speaking languages of their ethnic background, will also have learned English or French. When the former USSR drew the borders to the five Central Asian nations, it deliberately included different ethnic concentrations within each. Therefore, citizens of Uzbekistan may be ethnically Uzbek, Tajik, Russian or Korean, and interestingly, a lot look like the ever increasing numbers of half-Asian half-Caucasian kids in my city.
Soviet infrastructure, such as subway stations, highway checkpoints and official looking buildings, are still guarded by Militsia and are a reminder that Uzbekistan is somewhat a police state. For travelers, Uzbekistan is fairly safe, and as long as one acts with common sense and remains respectful, one will not encounter any trouble. Although guidebooks warned of Militsia who approached tourists for bribes, it seemed most couldn’t be bothered with that hassle; a couple even cracked a smile and helped us with directions.
Food in Uzbekistan is its own adventure which, including this article is not for sensitive stomachs. At the Sunday bazaar in Urgut, near Samarkand, a proud procurer was keen to wave around a freshly severed goat’s head by the ear, black fur intact, and, may as well be bleating, before shoving it into a small, thin plastic bag. Over to the baked goods section, what I thought was a beekeeper’s booth was actually for sweets and cake, if the otherwise tasty morsels could be seen under the bees feasting on them in the open air. I was relieved to find fresh baked ‘non’, the beloved round flat bread, stacked at every turn from the ground to the knees, until I saw the seller diligently dusting off each bread with what looked like a mechanic’s cloth.
Perhaps the best way to stave off hunger pains is to appreciate that because food preparation hadn’t changed over the past couple of centuries, most meals were home cooked traditional fare with a near absence of processed foods. Each meal may span several eras and ethnicities. Popular dishes include ‘lagman’ – pulled noodles, ‘manty’ – a steamed dumpling, both still bearing the same name in China, and ‘shashlyk’ – grilled meat on a stick of Turkic origin. Though such foods have since adapted to modern tastes in their originating countries and other countries, in Uzbekistan, they remain as they had been, dripping of sheep fat and with enough salt to preserve them through the winter.
Uzbekistan may not have the world’s most famous landmarks, but it offers a rare opportunity to experience a juxtaposition of bygone eras. There exist few places where a traveler can retrace Marco Polo’s footsteps while being treated to old world hospitality, against the backdrop of Soviet infrastructure. However, it is hard to say how Uzbekistan will evolve. Only a few years ago, one would be hard pressed to find tourist accommodations, and today, a collection of bed & breakfasts have sprouted along the routes of tour operators. Despite recent changes, the cuisine has, for now, remained the same.