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Uzbekistan - The authors’ take
James Elroy Flecker’s characters describe in vivid detail moonlit cities, the heat of the winds, shadows cast on the sands, and the silent air of the desert...
In his 1913 poem The Golden Road to Samarkand, each of James Elroy Flecker’s characters describes in vivid detail moonlit cities, the heat of the winds, shadows cast on the sands, and the silent air of the desert. The reader is swept along in their timeless caravan, sharing in the atmospheric journey, and, like the merchants, gives scarcely a thought for the women left behind, ignored completely, as everyone’s attention is utterly transfixed by the destination of which they dream.
Uzbekistan captures the imagination like almost nowhere else. The country is virtually synonymous with the Silk Road, and three of the greatest Silk Road cities – Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – all fall on Uzbek soil. The people, ideas and goods that travelled east to west, and, indeed, west to east, have left indelible marks on Uzbekistan’s landscape, its culture and the genetic make-up of its people, creating a diverse destination with layer upon layer of competing (but entwined) identities.
It is a country with a rich, fascinating past, and its long settled history has left numerous physical remains, making it far more tangible than in neighbouring Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan where nomadism was the norm. The country has been continually inhabited since Neanderthal man first walked across the steppe and took refuge in the Gissar Mountains south of Samarkand. His Stone Age descendants carved their marks in caves, and by the first millennium BC Iranian nomads had settled the grassy plains, planted crops and built rudimentary irrigation channels. In their wake came wave after wave of invaders: Scythians, Achaemenids, Greeks, Arabs and Mongols. Each group built palaces, fortresses, and places of worship and of trade, attempting to eclipse both physically and in public memory whatever had been there before.
Exterior of the tiled Tillya Kari Madrassa in Samarkand © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
The constant cycle of construction and destruction has had a significant impact on what we see in Uzbekistan today. The buildings that survive, and that make the striking skylines of each and every city, are not necessarily the most modern or the mostly strongly constructed: they are the ones which, by dint of good fortune, have avoided both the attentions of marauding hordes and equally destructive natural disasters. Well into the 20th century the Soviets were levelling ancient buildings to make way for architecture that was, in its aesthetics and its function, better in keeping with their ideology. To a far lesser extent, the same is also true of the post-independence period. Restoration projects, some more sympathetic than others, have raised medieval buildings like phoenixes from the ashes, though how much of their appearance is original and how much should be attributed to artistic licence, a modern architect or a politician’s idealised vision of the past, is always open to debate.
Man’s impact, past and present, on the natural environment as well as the urban landscape is clear in Uzbekistan too. The taming of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, the construction of canals, dams and other irrigation methods, has made it possible to farm huge swathes of land that naturally could not support crops. The country’s lucrative cotton crop especially depends on man’s manipulation of nature. Interfering in this manner is not without its dangers, however, and in the race to cultivate more and more land, to produce ever greater quantities of cotton, the ecosystem has become disturbingly unbalanced: the Aral Sea has already retreated beyond the level from which it is thought to be recoverable; stretches of once fertile land are turning to desert; and even greater areas are increasingly saline and/or toxic, heavily polluted with industrial waste and chemical pesticides.
In many ways, Uzbekistan is at a crossroads. This applies, as it has always done, in a physical sense, as the country lies in the heart of Eurasia: Europe and Iran are to the west; Russia is to the north; China is to the east; and Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent spread out southwards. But it is also true culturally, economically and politically. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is no longer a bedfellow of Moscow, but neither has it been able to properly integrate with markets and potential allies in the West. Fear of becoming embroiled in the political and religious turmoil of Afghanistan and Tajikistan has prevented Uzbekistan building relationships there, and though the Chinese are making in-roads in the country, particularly as investors and trading partners, they’re still viewed by the Uzbeks with suspicion. Uzbekistan is not, and has never been, insular, but its future path seems currently unclear.
History has shown us that Uzbekistan is at its greatest when it has a symbiotic relationship with its neighbours, when people, ideas and goods flow back and forth, enriching every aspect of society. In this transitional period, when Uzbekistan is cautious of how to promote itself outside its borders, the world must come to Uzbekistan, visitors bringing with them the finest aspects of their own societies, and a willingness to share and learn.
Normally when we tell a story that starts with getting the runs whilst travelling, it finishes either up to our ankles in a squat toilet (a particularly poignant scene from the film Slumdog Millionaire comes to mind) or lying face down on the marble floor of a toilet off the foyer of the nearest four-star hotel. Only once (so far) has it taken us to a wedding. Uzbekistan is nothing if not full of surprises. It was a beautiful, bright day in November, cold but with an azure sky, and we were photographing every last inch of Bukhara. Standing in the Poi Kalyon, staring up at the Kalyon Minar, I was overcome by the architectural splendour, and Max was overcome with an attack of the runs. As he dropped his bags and started sprinting across the square towards hotels and their much-needed facilities, I called out directions to the nearest public loo. Clearly my directions were not up to scratch, as he ended up instead in Bukhara Silk Carpets, throwing himself on the mercy of Sabina and her staff. Thank God, they were very accommodating. Half an hour later, Max re-materialised looking rather more relaxed than before, and indeed quite proud of himself, as the urgent bathroom visit had unexpectedly yielded no fewer than three invitations to Sabina’s cousin’s wedding. Neither Sabina nor the bride had ever met Max before, and he was hardly in the most sociably acceptable of states, but Uzbek hospitality is such that the hand of friendship was straightaway extended, and at 19.00 we were on our way to the party. Uzbek weddings are riotous affairs, with hundreds of guests and a bottle of vodka on every table. Vodka and Fanta is a surprisingly good combination, and we danced until midnight, fuelled no doubt by the toasts and E numbers. We danced with the girls, and we danced with the boys, and we tucked in to mountains of cake. The family gave speeches, and the band played on, and the Imodium did exactly what it was intended to do.