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The Yurt Camp


Our itinerary promised us a 280km trip into the desert for an evening in a local yurt camp with an optional camel ride or to enjoy an evening Kazakh singing show - visiting the Nurata Shrine the Chashma Complex and Holy Spring and remains of a fortress, built by Alexander the Great, on the way.

Although, despite his fine education at the feet of Aristotle, his precocious horse riding prowess and skill with a sword I’m not sure how patient Alexander may have been at making so many mud bricks so I suppose the historians mean that he ordered a fort to be built there.

The holy spring is adjacent to the fort site and is said to have been 'created' by Alexander or a falling star – perhaps ordered by Alexander. Obviously a natural spring is an asset to a fort and a useful watering place in a desert, especially along a trade route. So a fort could be an asset to a spring. Chicken and egg.  But in this case we can guess which came first.


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The remains of a fortress built in 327 BCE by Alexander the Great to defend the city of Nur (Nurata)
Wendy on the top looking down on the Chashma Complex, also known as the Nurata Shrine, and the Holy Spring
The 16m in diameter dome over the mosque is one of the the largest in Central Asia 


It's very likely that prior to Alexander this was a settlement around the spring and the location of Zoroastrian shrine.  A hundred years earlier the Persians had introduced Zoroastrianism to this region.  Herodotus (Greek historian c. 484 – c. 425 BCE) tells us that in his time the Zoroastrians worshipped to the open sky, building mounds, if natural ones were not available, to light ritual fires and to expose the dead to carrion birds; and here is the perfect site.  As a priesthood developed, Zoroastrians began constructing chartaqi or dar-e mehr (Fire Temples). So it's probable that later there was a Fire Temple here. These are still seen in Persia and India where fire and clean water are necessary for ritual cleansing in order to approach the divine, the one and only Zoroastrian God, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord).

Although the Ancient Greeks were polytheistic, the monotheistic teachings of the prophet/philosopher Zoroaster were known to scholars and philosophers like Herodotus and Aristotle (Alexander's teacher) who they knew as Zaraθuštra - Zarathustra.  Zoroaster was already an ancient to them and is now thought to have lived and written between 1500 and 1000 BCE, during the early Bronze Age.  His teachings are mostly in the form of poems or hymns, a scriptural style borrowed by both the Hebrew bible and the Qur'an. His teachings were later adopted as the official religion of the Persian Empire and spread by Cyrus the Great. Scholars believe that in this way Zoroaster profoundly influenced the development of several later religions and philosophies including: Second Temple Judaism; Gnosticism; Christianity; and Islam.  For example, Zoroastrianism is believed to be the first religion to introduce the concepts of: judgment after death; heaven and hell; free will; and angels. It's also a messianic religion with an end of days: a final renovation of the universe, when evil will be destroyed, and everything else will be then in perfect unity with God. Although mainly in India and Iran it's still practiced by small groups in many countries, including Australia, long after the end of days was predicted. It's not alone in that.

Nomadic tribes like: Australian Aborigines; ancient Europeans; and Arabs before Islam; practiced various forms of animism.   Animism is belief in spirits that inhabit and thus 'animate': places; plants and animals.  It often incorporates a belief in the ongoing existence of the dead ancestors as spirits and in magic. This was the belief system of Genghis Khan for example.  It was once, in various incarnations, the religion shared by all mankind, with its roots at least hundred thousand years ago in Africa. Tibetan Buddhism, that blends Hindu beliefs and gods with the Buddha's (5th or 6th century BCE) transcendental (and atheistic) philosophy, was also widespread all along the Silk Road, where large statues of the Buddha were once to be seen.

God's Second Commandment to the Hebrews: 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image', is interpreted in Islam and Judaism and by some protestant Christians as forbidding the building of idols or the representation of humans or animals in religious practice.  So animism and Buddhism would become an issue in the 8th century when religious diversity was somewhat curtailed in Central Asia by the Arab invasion. The 'Mohammedans' applied their religious correctness by knocking down idols; demolishing temples; insisting that there is only one god, the Jewish/Christian/Muslim 'God of Abraham' but with the proviso that Mohamed is His Prophet; and periodically putting recalcitrant infidels, those who persisted in their jahiliyyah (before the Prophet) beliefs, to the sword. 

Alexander Burnes, nominally a Protestant, when questioned in Bukhara about his beliefs was able to honestly assure his inquisitors that he had no argument with Islam on this point and to show them that he was not wearing a crucifix.  Thus he was not condemned an idolater like the hundreds of Russians they had committed to perpetual slavery:

The Russian prisoners, while sinking under hard labour, and suffering privations of every description, were carefully guarded, and for a first attempt to escape they were deprived of their nose and ears, a second attempt being punished by sticking the offender on a pole; very few, therefore, ventured to fly...

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832


As it had to earlier religions this spring soon became an important Muslim shrine. These waters were once channelled, by Alexander's builders, to neighbouring areas to replenish a series of cisterns in and around the ancient city of Nur, but now they also flow into ponds containing fish, where people still collect the holy waters for later consumption or as a cure, incongruously in plastic bottles. Nothing like drinking from a fish tank to cure cancer, I say.  But even drinking from a fish tank is a lot more healthy than drinking from some other water sources in the region.

Later that day we stopped for a swim in the Aydar Lake, the largest of several brackish lakes that were unintentionally created by run-off from the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan. These lakes now catch water that once flowed to the Aral Sea so in a way they are the offspring of that woebegone parent.

Lake Aydar has no outlet and is steadily becoming more saline and polluted with agricultural insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers. A flock of sheep were doing their bit too, covering the waterside nearby with foul smelling dung and sheep urine. Several hardy swimmers went in and reported it salty, so I decided to taste it with just a drop on my finger.  I immediately spat-out and rinsed my mouth with clean water from a bottle.  But a lingering aftertaste confirmed my decision not to join them. One who had, was later showing us his dry swimming trunks that had turned stiff as a board and someone said he may have discovered a new building material.


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Swimming in Lake Aydar - unintentionally created by run-off from the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan
Local sheep on the foreshore and our bus in the desert


It was here that I gained my subsequent respect for our bus. We’d left the made road and set out on a barely discernible sandy goat track across the desert. At one point on a difficult slope in deep sand it got bogged. But after a bit of ‘back and forth’ and a great cheer from us, out it sprang. Four large rear tyres, high ground clearance and a very good drivetrain did the trick. After that the ‘four wheel drive only’ track into the yurt camp seemed a pushover. Although our big bus parked alongside the SUV’s in that remote location did seem a bit out of place.

The Yurt camp reminded me of School Army Cadets - bivouacked at Singleton Army Camp.  Although these tents were bigger and a lot more colourful and we didn’t have to run around the fields firing blanks then clean our rifles afterwards. 

Like Cadet Camp there was a toilet block and a shower block and a mess hall. We didn’t get a palliasse, to sleep on the duckboard floor, but the basic bunks did their best to be even harder.

Actually it was a very pleasant break. That evening we both elected to walk in the desert, rather than being led around riding on a camel on a leash.


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The Yurt Camp in the desert - reminiscent (to me) of School Army Cadets
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Wandering around the desert at dusk was extraordinarily beautiful. And we didn’t even have to bring our own alcohol - although we had.  They had wine for sale and the vodka was complimentary. Sitting around the fire listening to some local, incomprehensible yet tuneful songs was pleasant too. Goodness knows what they were singing?  !950's Army Cadet songs?  'Mademoiselle from Armentieres' in Uzbek perhaps? 

After breakfast it was off again on the trusty bus this time to travel the 200 km south east to legendary Bukhara, The city of Merchants (and slaves).

We would be back on track following the path of the Silk Road that ran this way from Khujand, skirting the high mountains off to our left.

When thinking about the 7,000 mile long Great Silk Road I realised that it was seldom traversed by anyone. Rather it was a supply chain, with each main centre seeing the next as the source of the goods. So that an adventurous Venetian might travel as far as Bukhara to buy Chinese silks or a Chinese merchant might travel all the way to Samarkand to buy Venetian Glass. And, like the naive who think the things they see in tourist shops were actually made by the craftsmen or weavers employed to demonstrate their manufacture, the intermediate towns gained a reputation as the actual source.




# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.

A very interesting part of the world.

Richard Walker
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