Details: Parent Category: Travel Category: Central Asia | Published: 10 August 2018 | Hits: 75029





Travels in Central Asia


In June 2018 we travelled to China before joining an organised tour in Central Asia that, except for a sojourn in the mountains of Tajikistan, followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo along the Great Silk Road. 




The Silk Road

The term ‘silk road’ was first coined by a 19th century German historian and has stuck ever since to a series of somewhat flexible overland routes across Eurasia extending 11,000 km (7,000 m), a third of the way around the world, from Xi'an in China to the Mediterranean Sea.  It linked on en route to the other great trade route that went to India, through modern Pakistan from Afghanistan, via one of five 'invasion routes' that included the Khyber pass and up the Kabul River valley, that rises very close to the upper reaches of the Indus near Rawalpindi (and modern Islamabad).  Today this whole network is called the Great Silk Road. 

The ancient silk road is by far the longest and oldest overland trade route in the world. Chinese silk has been found in the hair of Egyptian mummies that were embalmed around three thousand years ago, arriving there by some arcane series of trades.  But by Roman times, trade along the Silk Road was more organised, as the Roman historian Pliny wrote: 'so Roman women may expose their charms through transparent cloth'.  At that time (c 78 CE) the very long lived Han Dynasty ruled China and China's military and trade influence extended as far as Transoxiana, the region between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers that run into the Aral Sea, now mostly in Uzbekistan, while the Roman Empire extended to a port on the Caspian sea, just a thousand kilometres away, less than the distance from Melbourne to Brisbane or New York to Charleston or John o' Groats to Land's End.

Under the Tang Dynasty Transoxiana would briefly become Chinese territory but in 751 CE it would fall to the Arabs with the assistance of the Mongol Empire, ending Chinese expansion west for the next 1,200 years.

Trade with the west grew in the 13th century after Genghis Khan followed by his son, Ögedei Khan, conquered Central Asia (including Tibet) and China in addition to: Eastern Turkey, Belarus and most of Russia, part of Romania, all of Iran and  Eastern Iraq (Persia). Thus creating the largest contiguous land Empire the world has ever seen.  Yet, hidden behind the veil of that great and feared Mongol Empire the existence of China was almost forgotten by medieval Europe, so that many believed that silk originated in India. 

But hidden knowledge was bread and butter to Venetian traders, like the family of Marco Polo. Between 1271 and 1295 this young man, travelling with his father and uncle, followed the silk trade all the way to China. After his return he was taken as a prisoner of war by Genoa, where he related his experiences to Rustichello da Pisa who was amazed and wrote them down, publishing them as the Travels of Marco Polo, around 1300. They found an equally amazed and incredulous European audience particularly at/by the young man's experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, who as we will see later, was one of Great Khan’s grandsons, now at the head of the Yuan Dynasty.

It was Kublai Khan who had commanded the systematic mapping of towns along the Silk Road to facilitate trade, connecting the far flung reaches of the Mongol empire with commerce and information along which the traders travelled.

But it was the Travels of Marco Polo that are credited by some historians with kicking off the European Renaissance and the collapse of monasticism, leading to the Scientific Revolution and the modern world.

The Travels also inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by opium, to write a famous poem by which the name Kublai Khan is perhaps best remembered:

Kubla Khan

Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...

...It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772 - 1834


The opium poppy (papaver somniferum) would in time play its part in both the devastation and the development of China and latterly of Central Asia, particularly Afghanistan.  In the 19th century the Chinese would attempt to stop the British East India Company trading in Indian grown opium for Chinese manufactured domestic goods and silver, draining the Imperial Treasury, and a century and a half later the US and her allies would attempt to stop cultivation in Afghanistan.

Oddly, in the 21st century the largest supplier of legal, medical, opium in the world with 85% of the market is Tasmania, Australia.

Today China's President Xi Jinping is keen to revive the Great Silk Road with a special eye to oil and gas reserves in Central Asia.  In 2013, he unveiled his 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) initiative, also known as the 'New Silk Road', to invest in transport infrastructure all the way to Europe.

Pakistan has already been promised an initial $50 billion to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has declined to participate but 65 other countries have expressed interest and the European Union has set up the 'EU-China Connectivity Platform' to coordinate the European response.  As we learned on this trip, like Pakistan, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, along with several other 'Stans', are already in receipt of substantial Chinese infrastructure assistance.


The New Silk Road
The New Silk Road - following the old - as envisioned in Uzbekistan
Xi Jinping has a grander scheme in mind - projecting China's influence across Eurasia to the EU


As have our travels elsewhere, this trip would again challenge a number of the simplistic assumptions with which I grew up.  As this website suggests, despite my inevitable prejudices and unfounded assumptions I try to apply a sceptical filter, taking nothing for granted, and to:  ...weigh everything.











Part of the Ürümqi cityscape
A partial view of the Ürümqi cityscape - see the album for more images


Ürümqi is in the far north west of China and in the first millennium of the Current Era became an important trading post on the Silk Road, particularly under the Tang Dynasty, around 700 CE so we spent several hours in the Xinjiang Regional Museum, a large integrated museum and centre 'for the collection and study of cultural relics discovered in the region' that has an extensive exhibit dedicated to the Silk Road.  Like other Chinese museums it's free and the curation is excellent, with many labels and explanations in English in addition to Chinese and Uyghur, and with close attention to recent scholarship. Among the most interesting objects in its collection are a number the of mummified bodies serendipitously preserved in hot sand, one dated to 1800 BCE but others more recent.  The condition of the mummies, that are complete with clothes and in one case red hair, compares favourably with those we saw in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in both preservation and antiquity.


Xinjiang Regional Museum
Xinjiang Regional Museum Xinjiang Regional Museum

Xinjiang Regional Museum - there are more images in the album


Today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of which Ürümqi is the principal city, is troubled by social unrest. Despite very rapid economic development and modernisation, or because of it, the Uyghur traditional peoples have felt disenfranchised, claiming judicial discrimination. At one time the (Muslim) Uyghur made up about half the population but now 75% are Han Chinese as a result of: economic development around oil and gas; and deliberate Government policy to secure control of the rebellious region.

Interestingly, religious and racial tensions are not new to Ürümqi. During the Tang Dynasty it was the Buddhists who became the victims of suppression. Later the Mongols invaded, restoring Tibetan Buddhism and supporting Confucianism in the court of Kublai Khan - more of that later.

In May 1989 Uyghur activists perpetrated a series of bombings against Han businesses and in 2009 Uyghur riots resulted in the murder of Han Chinese. In retaliation Han vigilantes took to the streets and in total around two hundred people were killed.

Thus in every underpass police, usually a man and a woman wield hand held metal detectors and may check bags. And every retail store, even a coffee shop we patronised, has a security barrier, most with metal detectors and an X-ray machine. In the evening teams of patrolling police were seen carrying 4 foot long balks of ‘3 by 3’ timber (lumber) shaped to an handle at one end. They always very polite to us, relatively rare, European tourists. The number of men and women employed as security officers must make up a substantial part of total employment.


Ürümqi retail
Ürümqi retail Ürümqi retail

Ürümqi retail - security clearance required.  Note the wines - many were from Australia
Despite the widespread use of English words and signage very few people speak English
Here many signs and labels are in three scripts: Chinese, Latin and Arabic - it facilitates pointing to what you want.


The coffee shop was very good as are most in modern China, in competition with the usual US fast food franchises like Starbucks; KFC; Maca's; and Pizza Hut; that now flourish despite the high quality of the traditional cuisine, attracting a young, well dressed clientele, China's privileged youth, a product of the one child policy.

Yet on paper the average mainland Chinese person is still relatively poor, close to the world average and only a third as wealthy as those in Hong Kong, where GDP per capita exceeds that in the US, although GDP per capita is not everything.  When walking in the street it's hard to believe that the average person in Hong Kong enjoys a higher standard of living than, say, an average person in Wells in England or in San Francisco in the States, yet that's what the numbers say.

Critics of China say that mainland people could be better off because the Government deliberately sacrifices the personal wealth of the average worker, for example by manipulating a lower than natural foreign exchange rate, to cover up inefficiency; poor resource allocation; and corruption. Not to mention curtailing his or her freedom of expression and discent in a dictatorial pseudo-democracy where they are confined to voting for officials within the single Communist Party. They point to growing inequality in a so-called socialist state, made very evident by the number of luxury sports cars in the streets, driven by privileged young people, and all those Chinese tourists flaunting their new-found wealth overseas. They say that hidden away in the countryside are exceptionally poor peasants who are effectively enslaved.

Uyghur activists apparently agree with them.  Although their objections also have a religious element, not assuaged by the building of new mosques.  

More sympathetic observers point out that religions that seek to impose their beliefs and practices on others can be socially destabilising in this huge and ethnically diverse country and even the poorest are much better off than they were a decade ago.  So few, if any, are as badly off as the poor in democratic India across the border.

India is a valid comparison.  Observers note that India would long ago have held title of: 'The most populous country in the World', were it not for Partition in 1947, separating off a third of a billion Muslims now in living in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, after Partition things went quite well for India and by 1965, when I was at University, five hundred million people in India had an economy roughly equal to China's seven hundred million.  So the average Indian was much better off than a Chinese. Western commentators, like the Hudson Institute (I still have their report) confidently predicted that India would continue to surge ahead and continue to dominate their larger neighbour economically, because Indians were more European (so obviously smarter), many speaking English to boot, and India was a democracy. 

They were wrong. Fifty years later the population of India had grown over two and a half times. Yet the economy was less than one fifth the size of China's where, thanks to the 'one child policy', the population barely doubled.  Today, although India's economy is now growing marginally faster than China's, it's off a much lower base and the difference is mainly due to population growth, as the Indian population continues to surge ahead. Starting from 47% behind in 1947, India's population is now projected to overtake China's by 2024.

The average personal wealth gap, already over fivefold in China's favour, grows inexorably greater.  As we have seen first-hand, the vast majority of India's 'extra' people are literally dirt-poor.  As a result, educational resources have been stretched beyond the limit, so that despite great improvement 37.2% of Indians remain illiterate.  But I'll add a caveat:  as we've also seen firsthand, illiteracy is by no means uniform across India.  It's only 6% in Kerala and not bad (16%) in Himachal Pradesh (Shimla district).  So with the right social policies it is possible to overcome it - region by region.  Read More...

In contrast, China has among the highest literacy and numeracy rates in the world. 3.6% of the total population remains illiterate.  But among the 'one child population' this has dropped to 0.6%, as even the poorest families enjoy free education for their 'one child' all the way to tertiary level.

Time is an issue in Ürümqi. By decree of Chairman Mao, China has only one time zone. Yet to avoid spending a good deal of the day in the dark the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a working time zone two hours behind the official time. Thus locals set their watches to local time and breakfast in the hotel; business opening and closing times and so on use local time whereas the airlines use so called ‘Peking Time’. This can cause serious confusion when using ground transport or catching a plane.

Otherwise Ürümqi is like any other modern Chinese city with: wide roads; very well-cared-for parks and public spaces; high-rise office blocks and hotels; and new apartments; but challenged by poor air quality. In part this is due to advent of the motorcar in place of the once ubiquitous pushbike, many of these well-known German and Japanese brands, mostly locally manufactured. 

China is now the largest car maker in the world and has more automobiles in total than the United States. This number is on track to double in the near future as they achieve the goal of one car per family, like children.

A negative aspect of the 'one child policy' has been that, due to abortion and infanticide, particularly in rural families, there are many more boys than girls.  Now young women can take their pick and many of those young men will never be chosen as life partners. So they have no prospect of a family and later no one to accompany them or support them in old age.  Some have even resorted to kidnapping a wife.  In response the policy was softened to allow a second child if the first is a girl.  Even if abandoned completely the policy is bound to have ongoing impacts, not the least on genetics, long into the future.  The younger generation is already noticeably taller than their grandparents.


Private cars in Ürümqi
It's commonplace for cars to be parked on building forecourts - or almost anywhere
There are more images in the Northern China Album - click on the picture above


China's economy is now the second largest in the world, behind the United States and over twice the size of the next largest economy, Japan.  China has 120 companies on the Fortune 500 list, most State owned;  compared to 126 US companies, most if not all all, publicly listed.  Comparing China with Russia I find it hard to understand the American Neoconservative's preoccupation with attacking Russia, which is, partly as a result of American sponsored sanctions, very likely to become an economic vassal to China during this century. See the 'New Silk Road' above.

The Chinese economy has in part been fuelled by a construction boom that is the greatest the world has ever witnessed, with numerous high-rise office blocks, some architecturally very innovative and spectacular, in every new city. Apartment construction has also been rampant, sometimes without an actual demand, and the Chinese already enjoy more domestic living space per capita than people in the UK (now one of the lowest in the developed world). Suppliers of modern bathrooms and kitchens abound.

Thanks to a massive engineering effort China now has the world’s largest metros (underground rail) and by far the longest high speed rail network, featuring the world’s fastest trains. China also has the highest and longest modern bridges. Having exceeded a million bridges they are also the newest and most numerous, a great market for Australian iron ore and metallurgical coal.

Pity about the air quality!  But it's better here than in Beijing or Guangzhou.







From Urumqi we flew into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to join our tour group. The flight was quite spectacular. We skimmed huge snow-capped mountains, among the tallest in the world before landing in the basin-like valley in which the present day capital rests. From the air the valley seems a natural place for a settlement and indeed there is evidence of village life dating back to the fifth century BCE. The name Dushanbe means Monday as this was the sight of the local Monday markets.  Yet surrounded by mountains it was far from the busy trade routes to the north or those over the Himalayas to the south. So Dushanbe didn't grow into a city until the 20th century. As a result it seems modern, much of the suburbs being reminiscent of 1950’s Sydney, complemented more recently by modern offices and recently built tall apartment blocks in the centre.


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Dushanbe - street scenes - there are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


Until September 1991 Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the USSR it gained its independence and presidential elections were held. The result, that simply reinstalled the ‘old guard’, was disputed by ‘democratic reformers’, no doubt with a little from their 'friends' outside, and lawlessness broke out. This descended into civil war as Islamists saw an opportunity to introduce sharia law. Ethnic tensions boiled over with many people fleeing the country. Islamist forces gained support from the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan and thus from elements in Pakistan that are funded from Saudi Arabia. Uzbekistan to the north closed its borders against the unrest. Minority groups in Dushanbe were forced to flee to the mountains and as many as 100,000 were murdered in ‘ethnic cleansing’ or killed in the fighting.

Eventually, in 1997, Tajikistan’s third president Emomali Rahmon; Islamist leader Sayid Abdulloh Nuri; and a Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, Gerd Merrem, signed a 'General Agreement on the Establishment of Peace and National Accord in Tajikistan', in Moscow, ending the war.

Since then Emomali Rahmon has consolidated his personal power: rebuilding much of Dushanbe that'd been destroyed during five years of civil war; and undertaking large infrastructure projects like additional hydro-electricity, as Dushanbe is presently short of power and blackouts are common.

While he is credited with restoring the economy and law and order, Uzbekistan, nominally a democracy, is effectively a one party state controlled by President Rahmon as party leader.  He's already installed two of his children into senior government positions, possibly heralding a dynasty, and rumours of nepotism and corruption abound.

Like 90% of the population President Rahmon is a Muslim but he has strenuously opposed Islamist extremism saying that Islam is a religion of peace and love and holding that traditional Tajik culture does not support Arabic styles of dress for women or beards for men. There are now laws prohibiting these as well as the unauthorised importation of Islamic books or the Islamic education of youths overseas. While officially embracing the Sunni faith, imported Islam is suppressed in many other ways, for example the use of Arab sounding names has been made illegal.

Thus by excluding foreign influence (particularly Saudi), religious extremism, at its peak during the civil war, has gradually subsided.  So last year neighbouring Uzbekistan, that has both Sunni and Shi’a adherents, and thanks to the Russians is far more secular, reopened the border for free passage of locals back and forth.


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Mevlana Yakub Charki Mosque


International confidence has also been restored and financial support for many of the infrastructure projects comes from China. A new goldmining project, due to be opened soon after our visit, was to be launched by Vladimir Putin (Russian President). Russian oligarchs also control the local oil supply with petrol (called petrol not gasoline) a fraction of its price in Australia.

The Australian Government Smart Traveller travel advisory was at amber (exercise a high degree of caution - keep a low profile) due to an apparently deliberate attack on eight western cyclists two weeks before we arrived and to past terrorism. Read More...

Yet the people in the street were friendly and appeared to be well dressed, well fed and busy. While social unrest is ongoing in some places, particularly in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast that forms the western half, where the Taliban are active, crime levels must now be quite low in Dushanbe as few buildings or homes have window grills or obvious physical security and there is not an unusually high police presence. When asked, people tried to be helpful, although a very small number have English. Russian is the principal second language. Tajik, the official language is a dialect of Persian Urdu.

Public health and education standards remain very high, thanks to the persistence of the Soviet systems of free universal education and health. So although the country has been reduced to relative poverty by social unrest, 99.5% of the local population is able to read and write competently. This exceeds the literacy rate in Australia (or the US or UK) and obviously includes women who, again thanks to the Soviets, and unlike some Muslim countries (such as Pakistan; Afghanistan and Morocco) appear to be equally well educated and equally engaged in the economy.

For example, when we visited the Museum of National Antiquities, as in other museums and places of interest in Tajikistan there were both male and female guides. It was also notable that, as elsewhere in once Soviet Central Asia, museum exhibits reflect: the true age of the universe; the long pre-history of humanity; and the existence of successful competing religions. This is in contrast to the ‘creationist’ Biblical version generally preferred by hard-line Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

The collection here included a rock with petroglyphs of camels from the Silk Road, like those we would see more of later in the trip; a big reclining Buddha, damaged by the Arabs, also from the Silk Road region and perhaps most interesting: a woman, buried with beads and other jewellery from the early Bronze Age archaeological site at Sarazm, in the Zeravshan River valley, that dates from 5,000 years ago (before the Biblical Adam).

On the woman's skeleton and around it, were found several thousand beads of different materials: burned steatite (soap stone); lapis lazuli; cornelian; turquoise and silver; which may have been decoration on her clothes or simply scattered over her dead body. Her hair was decorated with 49 massive gold beads. On her wrists are bracelets made from the seashell turbinella pyrum, the divine conch, sacred to the Hindu religion. These molluscs are found exclusively in the tropical waters between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Bengal, over 1500 km away.

Archaeologists have determined that this ancient town manufactured goods for trade: turned pottery vessels; tools; ornaments; and weapons like: bronze arrow and spear tips. These were made using: copper; lead; tin; soapstone; wools; woods and semiprecious stones like: turquoise; agate and lapis lazuli; drawn from sources in a radius of up to 500 kms.  These discoveries provide new insights into the antiquity and reach of organised trade in Central Asia.  It may also be a technological 'stepping stone' that goes some way to explaining the mystery of how Bronze Age and later Iron Age technology appeared more or less simultaneously in the two great civilisations, apparently isolated from each other on opposite sides of Eurasia.  There is also the mystery of the centre linked horse bit, also used in both civilisations, although that might be a trivial invention like the wheel: 'obvious to one skilled in the art', as the Patent Attorneys say. 


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Dushanbe - Museum of National Antiquities
There are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


On the flight from China we sat next to an impressive young man returning home from post-graduate studies in the United states. He is but one of many well educated Tajiks.

Thus the greatest national asset is the people who represent a potential low cost, high quality workforce. Tajikistan is minerals rich with great potential for more hydroelectric power but exports have been hampered by location and past social unrest so that foreign earnings have mostly been from remittances from people working in Russia. Together with the poor condition of the Russian economy this has depressed the value of the currency (the Somoni), that has halved in value relative to the Australian dollar over the past five years.

As a result of all this Tajikistan is a low cost, relatively high quality, tourist destination. Good modern hotels are excellent value for money and dining (on chicken; beef; lamb; even horse; or vegetarian; but no pork) is generally excellent and very inexpensive. On the other hand if you want to buy European luxury goods forget it.

We were most impressed by Dushanbe and agreed that if we had learnt the language it would be a nice place to live, although I did note that it's prone to flooding due to snow melt; and to earthquakes.


The home-stay


From Dushanbe we piled into four four-wheel drive min-vans and headed on narrow winding dirt roads, with hair-pin bends and vast drops, into the mountains for a ‘home-stay’.


mountains of Tajikistan mountains of Tajikistan
mountains of Tajikistan mountains of Tajikistan

The mountains of Tajikistan


It wasn’t actually a home - more like a ski lodge. Several tour groups had converged on the building that was a work in progress. To an original relatively well-built structure additional bathrooms and toilets had been added in a 'jerry-built' way. This was only ‘home’ thing about it - 'home-handyman' the word ‘craftsman’ did not come to mind.

Food was brought in by a local family and it became our base for perhaps the highlight of the entire tour, when we walked for several hours up the valley to a stone village where an extended family herd cows and sheep in traditional style.


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On the walk there: past the waterfall; over the bridge; to the stone village


At the stone village there was no grid electricity, nor were there solar panels, so the more or less ubiquitous satellite dishes were absent – one of the few places where the World Cup (soccer competition current at the time) was not being followed. Although the farmers could walk into the village, where there were plenty of dishes, if they were really interested.

Here they do almost everything by hand, from dyeing and weaving wool to processing the milk from their cows into yoghurt, buttermilk and butter. Several women in our group had a try at the churn – ‘women’s work’.

Later we went to the local more conventional Sarytag village to participate in bread making; to watch women and trainee girls bringing water up from the river on their heads; and women hand tilling a potato field. As their home had electric lighting, and there were cars and even satellite dishes in the village, I wondered why they didn’t use a cheap electric pump to provide running water at the house. But someone in our group joked: “what would the women do then?”


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Sarytag village 
The bread-making house had electric lighting and note the satellite dish - behind the children


From this bucolic settlement we set out for Istaravshan, passing the picturesque shores of Lake Iskandarkŭl on the way, where we stopped at a holy spring and some collected the water. Here we discovered that almost every spring is regarded as miraculous and thus has some super-natural explanation. After all, water comes inexplicably from the ground. This one has multiple outlets so it must be multiply significant.


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Lake Iskandarkŭl


In this highly mineralised ‘young’ mountain range with regular igneous intrusions, and where the fissile material for the first Russian nuclear weapons was mined, I decided not to drink water that’s long been underground without benefit of a chemical assay. Drinkers may well be getting more than H2O in their plastic bottle – perhaps some salts of As, Pb, U or even P?

On our way into the village and then leaving, with intermittent rain making the dirt tracks more interesting, I'd admired the car handling skills of our driver and wondered how they do this in really bad weather. But the sealed public roads were only marginally better, with very steep climbs and descents requiring, the by now familiar, hairpin zig-zag narrow carriage ways with minimal passing room.  For some reason I failed to take pictures.

During the recent Civil War this road was closed where it passed into Uzbekistan. But since then the 5km long Anzob Tunnel has been built to avoid that section and to shorten the journey between Tajikistan's two largest cities: Dushanbe and Khujand.

Approaching the tunnel the road is frequently overarched by lesser concrete ‘tunnels’. These are for protection from avalanches of snow in winter and for landslides during the thaw – it’s a very crumbly place with a lot of active erosion thanks to the geologically new landforms.

The tunnel itself is dimly lit and as dark as a coal mine. And it's not straight, so headlights point towards the walls.  The road surface is slick with water so that the lights of oncoming traffic reflect about. This increases the eerie feeling.  And as everywhere on these narrow roads, the fast vehicles overtake the slow. So others appear from around the bend on the wrong side coming towards you or we do the same to them, in nail-biting near misses. We noticed that alongside is another smaller tunnel now used for ventilation but despite this, heavy coal trucks and buses belch fumes so the fresh mountain air quickly passes into memory. I checked it out on line, after we'd got out alive, and discovered that it is indeed known as the ‘tunnel of death’. Our drivers seemed as relieved as we were when we reassembled at the other end  – one two three four – yes we'd all made it!


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Anzob Tunnel (of death)
The image inside was snapped during a brief moment of relative clarity
There are more images in the Tajikistan Album - Click Here...


Yes coal trucks. This is a coal mining area. Most of the rocks here are sedimentary, with quite a bit of shale, limestone and sandstone in addition to the coal, this having been a lake or sea during the Carboniferous (about 300 million years ago).  About 50 million years ago the sea floor began to be crushed and thrust upwards, by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates, to form the highest mountains in the world.  And it's still going on. Thus fossil shells have been found in rocks from the top of Mt Everest.

The erosion of the ‘young’ cliffsides is spectacular and the whole 'mountain experience' was awe inspiring as we made our way through them like ants in a furrowed field.  It was a reminder that we humans too are but recently evolved and transitory creatures, suddenly sufficiently aware and knowledgeable to appreciate of our relative insignificance in time compared to the past and future life of our planet; and in turn our planet's insignificance in the age and scope of the almost infinite universe.





Perhaps to give the conventionally religious among us an opportunity to give thanks for getting here alive, our first stop in Istaravshan was the Sar-i Mazor Mosque complex. It had some local historical significance as a place that fell under cloud in Soviet times when the Madrasah (Islamic School) here was shut down.  But it's now somewhat restored with a new larger Mosque complementing the old one and recently built minaret (from 2002). There are also a couple of mausoleums, one of which was said to be haunted.


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Sar-i Mazor Mosque complex
The women in our party quite liked wearing a scarf - it kept the sun off and could be wet against the heat.


The Soviet period apartments in front were interestingly decorated with a mural celebrating the socialist ideal but like a lot of the city the homes, at least externally, are now in need of some TLC. Yet with kitchens and bathrooms they stand in stark contrast to older mud brick hovels, we would see in places like Khiva, that had been home to the common folk under the earlier tyrants, right into the 20th century.


Unknown unknowns

When I studied history at school in the 50's we learned that civilisation began in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the head of the Persian Gulf, 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, and spread out from there to Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Romans carried it to Britain and northern Europe. The British Empire brought it to Australia.  India and China barely got a mention and Central Asia was a blank page.  Later world events introduced us to South-east Asia but yet again Central Asia was seldom mentioned in our media - except for Afghanistan.

A Persian poet once said, there are four states of awareness:

One who knows and knows that he knows

One who knows, but doesn't know that he knows

One who doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know

One who doesn't know and doesn't know that he doesn't know

13th century Persian poet: Ibn Yamin


Of course Ibn Yamin was alluding to Islam and his god, yet we might say this of any knowledge. The most difficult to overcome are the fourth kind, the unknown unknowns. They are only revealed when we stumble over them. 

Before this trip I was totally ignorant of Tajikistan. Thus at over 2,500 years old, Istaravshan (Ura-Tube), one of the oldest continuous settlements in Central Asia, might have been on the Moon.

I now discovered that together with nearby Khujand, it is the probable site of Cyropolis (The City of Cyrus) established Cyrus the Great in 554 BCE, at the dawn of civilisation here, to mark the furthest north-eastern border of his Achaemenid (Persian) empire. It may be even older. There is evidence of an earlier Neolithic settlement here but it first appeared to historians in ancient texts in the time of Cyrus.

To the northeast of the modern city is a hill called Mug Teppe that has been sculpted with a flat top and steep abutments on three sides, possibly dating all the way back to the Palaeolithic. This was the site of a mud brick Sogdian fortress that was stormed by Alexander the Great.

In 329 BCE Alexander the Great, of whom I was aware, emulated Cyrus (whom he admired) by founding Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria The Furthest) here. It was also known as Alexandria Ultima and remained an oasis of Greek culture until 30 BCE.  It's interesting to note that while Alexander conquered the Persians in bloody wars, when some of his troops desecrated Cyrus' grave Alexander was furious and put them to death with extreme prejudice. 

The Persian city it defended had resisted Alexander and it is recorded that Alexander’s ‘commandos’ infiltrated it by stealth to open its gates to his main force.

In reprisal for their resistance all the males were executed and the women and children taken as slaves. In due course it recovered under the Neo-Persian Sasanian Empire, that attributed its authority to rule to the ancient Zoroastrian religion.  In the first century CE conflicts with the Byzantine Empire, that attributed its authority to rule to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, had weakened both.  Onto this scene came Islam, that attributed its authority to rule to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the one God (of Abraham and thus of the Jews and Christians too).  Muhammad had united the warring Arab tribes under his 'new spin' on the old religions - mostly after his death in 632 CE.

So in 651 CE the weakened Sasanian Empire fell to the Arabs who imposed Islam then set about consolidating their power.  As a result, a fortress on this hill was stormed yet again, this time by jihadist Arabs in 772 CE. To say things then went smoothly for nearly 500 years would be to brush over continuous banditry, often relating to slave trading, and many petty struggles between kingdoms. But then came the Mongol Hordes.

In 1220 CE Genghis Khan - more of him later - took similar reprisals to Alexander 1,550 years earlier, when locals resisted.  His authority to rule came from his own dead ancestors.  Fast forward a century or so and a fort this site was said to have been repaired by Tamerlane the Great, The Sword of Islam - more of him later too.

Most of what remained was finally polished off by Russian artillery in 1866, with authority from the Trinity, leaving a few small ruins. 

So in 2002 an imaginative blue-domed gateway was built on the site to celebrate Istaravshan’s 2,500th anniversary.

In the Google Earth image taken in 2014 one can see both a small cluster of remaining ruins and the new gate in its isolated glory.  To our initial delight the walls around the top of the hill have just been completed with landscapers still on site.  So now the whole fortress stands, apparently complete, as an imposing replica, covering the hill yet again.


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Mug Teppe in Google Earth - 2014 and 2018


Yet up close it’s disappointing. It’s something of a Disney reimagining, complete with replica Sarasin soldiers along the approach road.

We were told that it's an historically accurate replica but in that case I was concerned that the main entrance (the previous road onto the site) is too wide and has no elephant trap or gate as do actual ancient forts in Asia. After sounding sceptical of its authenticity on this point I was told very severely by our guide that Elephants were not used in Central Asia.

Yet in India we'd actually stayed in a fort with protection against elephants and seen several others. Elephants were the tanks of the ancient world.  I remembered from school that Hannibal had used Elephants against Rome during the Punic wars.  Maybe, despite making it over the Alps to attack Rome in 218 BCE, elephants can't get through the Khyber Pass?  This seemed unlikely.  Later Wikipedia told me: "...the Mongols defeated the war elephants outside Samarkand by using catapults and mangonels... and... Genghis and Kublai both retained captured elephants as part of their entourage."  Samarkand, also on our itinerary, is just down the road.  No elephants indeed!


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The fake-fort at Mug Teppe
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Inside the fake-fort its modern purpose becomes obvious – it’s an entertainment venue. In its centre is a Greco-Roman style amphitheatre, similar in style to one in Dushanbe, with a poster proclaiming that it seats 5,100. True, the 2014 Google Earth image suggests a circular foundation, so there may have been a circular building here at some time in the past two millennia, but it was a lot smaller and now lost under the modern building.

Anyway I suppose that it will satisfy future tourists, particularly if the museum on the site provides a comprehensive history. The site itself is certainly old and important enough.

After Istaravshan we re-joined our cars for the 80k drive northeast to Khujand.





In 1929, during Soviet times, the Sughd Region, of which Khujand is the principal town and Istaravshan the second, was more or less shoehorned into the modern state of Tajikistan to make the small republic more economically viable. Although it produced about two thirds of the country's GDP it’s physically separated from the rest of Tajikistan by the Gissar Range and the ‘tunnel of death’.  It's near the start of the steppes and visually the geography the landforms and agriculture have more in common with the planes of Uzbekistan than with the mountains.  But recent movements of Tajik people (and Uzbeks) particularly during the Civil War, together with rapid population growth, have resulted in Uzbek people becoming a minority.

Today it’s a modern city, like Dushanbe, with high-rise buildings and dual carriageways and a population of around 700,000.  It could be somewhere in Europe, except for the climate.  Yet like Istaravshan its history goes all the way back to Alexander the Great and beyond.

In 1999, part of the eastern wall of Khujand citadel, dating from the 15th century, was reconstructed to house the Museum of Local History, Archaeology and Fortification. This museum has a collection of household items, pottery and implements found in the archaeological digs. A glass floor allows visitors to see part of the actual foundations. It also describes the extent of the Mongol and Timurid Empires  – I think – as unfortunately there was no English translation.


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Museum of Local History, Archaeology and Fortification


Khujand's historians are very proud of the city's association with Alexander the Great. So the Historical Museum of Sughd Region has a brief summary of prehistory with dioramas and some Palaeolithic artefacts, including the skull of a mastodon (prehistoric elephant), but gives a great deal, of otherwise empty space, to a series of mosaics around the walls depicting scenes from the life of Alexander the Great.

Like many children my age I first learned of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian/Greek conqueror, as a hero. He was famed for having been taught by Aristotle and having tamed his otherwise untameable horse Bucephalus when twelve years old. He was also famed for never losing a battle - even against overwhelming odds. He conquered the Persian empire of Cyrus and then Egypt: founding the city of Alexandria; and establishing the first Greek Pharaonic (Ptolemaic) Dynasty, of which Cleopatra was the last. In his final campaign he pushed down into India as far as the Ganges River, where twice wounded and faced with crossing the wide river to meet an opposing army headed by a reputed six thousand war elephants, he made a strategic retreat (perhaps this was a defeat). He admired the Persian culture and returned to Babylon to head his Empire that in his absence had fallen into disrepair. Two years later, in 323 BCE, he fell ill and died at the age of 32, probably by poison.

We were encouraged, particularly when learning Latin, to regard the Ancient Greeks as the inventors of democracy and as the precursors of the Romans and thus, together with King John and the Magna Carta, our legal system.  So Alexander was a progenitor of our culture; exceptional institutions; and enviable way of life.


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Historical Museum of Sughd Region


In Khujand he is remembered fondly because he bore a son by a local girl, one of several wives, only for them both to be murdered by Greeks when he died, thus denying his heir the potential succession. Yet elsewhere we've learned that Alexander put entire cities to the sword and is not so warmly regarded everywhere we've travelled.

As one Empire replaced another in Europe and trade with China grew, the Neo-Persian (Sasanian) Principality of Bukhara, including Khujand and Istaravshan, became known for its own skills such as carpets and bronze work, where local crafts-people added value to less processed goods traded along the Silk Road.

In 710 CE the Principality of Bukhara fell to the Arabs. It then changed hands several more times in conflicts between different warlords, each from the Muslim world, eventually becoming part of the Khwarezm Empire, comprising present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran before falling to a new force.

Around the turn of the 13th century, a young brigand, Temüjin Borjigin, successfully united the waring nomadic tribes of Mongolia. As a result Temüjin gained the title ‘Universal Ruler’ – Genghis Khan. His mounted warriors moved swiftly on horseback and waged war in lightening attacks often against the enemies’ lines of supply. He preferred to starve out well defended cities by laying waste to their hinterland rather than spend resources against their defences. Thus he was renowned for tactical brilliance, against which traditional armies were ill-equipped. His first conquests beyond Mongolia were in China but soon the ‘Mongol Horde’ would sweep east to the Black Sea, north to the Baltic and South into Persia to establish the largest contiguous land empire in history.

Early-on Genghis Khan had negotiated a trade agreement with the Khwarazm Emperor but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The Sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. So Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm Empire. To put this in historical context, it was around the same time King John was signing the Magna Carta, constraining the excesses of absolute monarchy, at Runnymede in England.

Genghis Khan the most absolute of absolute monarchs arrived at Khujand in 1219.  The ancient city was protected by a mud-brick city wall dating from the fourth or fifth century BCE.

Medieval cities in this region were usually composed of three parts: the citadel, the fortress or keep, the administrative centre of the city; Shahristan, home to affluent residents; and Rabad, inhabited by the poorer mass of the population. The remnants of the citadel are downtown where archaeologists have also traced the path of the ancient walls. The fortifications took advantage of a loop in the river, reinforced by an embankment of natural clay and complemented by a moat on the inland side.

A local guide book asserts that Genghis Khan’s army besieged Khujand from 1219 to 1220 with 25,000,000 invaders, excluding 50,000 captives intended for work, so that local hero Timurmalik, who led the defence of the fortress, could no longer resist and the city surrendered.  This vast exaggeration of Genghis Khan’s army is indicative of the success of his tactics and the fear he engendered.

The fortress was completely destroyed and the population put to the sword but the siege of Khujand became legend, one of the most remembered events in the long history of Tajikistan.

Once he had ‘pacified’ a region Genghis Khan was something of an improvement on previous tyrants: establishing a meritocracy; introducing a common writing system; conducting regular censuses; prohibiting the kidnapping, enslavement or selling of women (but not men); supporting freedom of religion; and providing diplomatic immunity to foreign ambassadors.

Genghis Khan died in 1227 and was succeeded by his son Ogodei Khan who further expanded the Empire so that it reached its greatest extent in 1279. But the establishment of the Yuan dynasty in 1271 by Kublai Khan soon led to the fragmentation of the Empire into four khanates: Yuan dynasty in China; the Golden Horde (Kipchak Khanate) in Eastern Europe; the Ilkhanate, to the south - in present-day Iran, Azerbaijan and the central and eastern parts of Turkey; and the Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia.


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The Mongol Empire and the four khanates:
Yuan dynasty (purple); The Golden Horde / Kipchak Khanate (gold);
Ilkhanate (light green); and the Chagatai Khanate (dark green) - source: Wikipedia


Khujand together with modern Uzbekistan fell within the Chagatai Khanate that retained strong Persian cultural sensibilities and language influences and progressively adopted Islam as the dominant religion, while the huge Yuan dynasty, to the east, allowed Confucianism, and virtually every other religion, while endorsing Tibetan Buddhism as the official religion.

Thus Buddhism continued to flourish and is widely found in archaeological sites along the Silk Road.

In the 15th century the Chagatai Khanate fell to Tamerlane (more of that later) and new defences were constructed, mainly against banditry and to define the ruler's powerbase, confirming that Khujand remained an important trading hub on the Silk Road.

The main trade route skirted the high mountains of Tajikistan and both Istaravshan and Khujand are in the northern foothills, blending into the great wind-swept steppes to the north.

All this dwelling on the past might give the impression that Khujand retains many of its ancient attributes.  Instead, there is very little of the old, pre-Soviet, city remaining. For example the green domed mosque in the pictures below is quite new.


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Around the Main Square in  Khujand
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We spent the night in the pleasant, well-appointed Hotel Firuz in Lenin Street and after breakfast took in the Sheikh Muslihiddin mausoleum across the main square from the Panjshanbe (Thursday’s) Market, one of the largest covered markets in Central Asia, where snacks for lunch and hats were purchased. Yes, hats – for bread – you know - for holding chopped-up baguettes when entertaining.  

After the markets we took a last drive in the trusty vans to the border, where after a long walk across no-man’s-land and several waits for passport stamps and visa checks we finally made it to the coach (large tour bus) that was to carry us across Uzbekistan.






Our first stop would be Tashkent 100 km from the border. So we had a couple of hours to see firsthand the irrigated fields that have bled the once great Aral Sea dry. Water, water everywhere here. It’s mostly cotton but there’s plenty of wheat and even rice. Trees along the road were laden with fruit. Indeed what was once semi-desert is now a land of milk and honey.

But it’s not all wonderful. The raised water table had brought salt from below, in land that was once under the salty ocean. Downriver, salty and chemical laden runoff has polluted the now almost dry but once vast Aral Sea, where once trading steamboats cruised from side to side and fishermen made their livelihood. Now large ships are famously stranded on dry land tens of kilometres from the remaining water and toxic dust storms sweep the area.

Yet seeing these irrigated fields, now approaching 5 million hectares (18,000 square miles) in Uzbekistan alone, and the ongoing economic growth they have produced, might it be a fair trade:  a few fisher-folk and sailors sacrificed to become the world's largest producer of cotton and to have added an extra 30 million people since 1950?  Or is this a prime example of misjudged agricultural development leading to the uncontrolled human population growth that's destroying our one and only planet?


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Water, Water Everywhere


The Aral Sea is actually a terminal lake with no outfall. It exists due to water flowing down from the catchments in high glaciated mountains of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, to the south-east. From there a number of tributaries feed either the Amu Darya, known to the Greeks as the Oxus or the Syr Darya, known by the Greeks as the Jaxartes (Pearl River) that runs almost parallel to the Amu Darya 500 km to the north-east.

The region between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya has been known as Transoxiana since the time of Alexander the Great. Yet the existence of the Aral Sea itself was unknown to Europeans until the 17th century, probably due to the desert that surrounds it and ferocious reputation of the local tribes. Early Russian explorations discovered that it was already shrinking even then.

Our first acquaintance with the Syr Darya had been in Khujand and we would meet a major tributary, the Chirchiq, in Tashkent. 

After crossing the border into Uzbekistan almost the first thing you notice is that many signs are in Latin script rather than in Cyrillic (Russian) or Arabic (the original for a millennia). The Latinization of Uzbek script goes back to 1924 when an effort was made to unify all Turkic languages but it was changed to Cyrillic in 1940 under Stalin. In 1992, after independence, the previous policy was reinstated and Latin script is now used in schools and official communications, although the two other scripts are still in wide use.

Being able to read some signs, like metro stations, certainly makes life easier for Western tourists, even when the language itself remains a mystery. But, as in Russia, it helps to know the Latin equivalence of the few characters that differ in Cyrillic, as some signs and labels still have no Latin script.

As I said at the outset, my expectations of these countries had been shaped by India and what I'd seen of Afghanistan on TV.  I'd imagined that the legendary cities of Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand would be similar to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer perhaps consisting of a large fortress surrounded by narrow streets; hemmed in by many cramped mud-brick buildings; the side streets populated by playing children and dogs near the open door to their house; but there'd be no cows; instead turbaned and bearded men would gather regularly as the call to prayer echoed from the central mosque; and the markets or the souk would bustle with veiled women, buying ingredients for a family meal and lollies (candy) from the vendors' stalls; the air redolent with the smells of spices and fresh vegetables and raw meat and food cooking. 

I was already beginning to realise that in these countries that ancient world had largely passed with the 20th century but nothing had prepared me for Tashkent. 





Tashkent was completely unexpected. Where Dushanbe had been a surprise in terms of its modern buildings and infrastructure Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan is on another level. It’s a cross between Washington DC and, given the heat, New Delhi. But it's too flat to be Canberra.


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Around Tashkent


As some of our party would leave and others join, we had a free day to explore. So first stop was the metro and then on to the Chorsu markets at the centre of the old city.

The metro is impressive. Initially built by the Russians, dating back to the early 1970’s, it’s reminiscent of St Petersburg or Moscow but nowhere as deep as St Petersburg. Each station has its own decoration by a different artist in the Soviet style. But most are decorative works of art, rather than rich in the Communist symbolism, as one sees in Moscow and even at one station in Berlin. Nevertheless the stations are cathedral like; the escalators solid and convincing and the air-conditioned rolling stock chunky and practical – straight out of Russia - running on a wide five foot gauge. It’s apparently built to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale. Compared to China, the trains, with a third live rail (825 V DC) are relatively slow (50km/h).  But they run every few minutes. There are currently three lines, with around 30 stations, and a fourth line under construction.


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The Tashkent Metro - until recently it was illegal to photograph in here and I still got some admonishing looks


All this modernism or perhaps post-modernism is due to the a devastating earthquake that in April 1966 effectively demolished the old capital destroying schools hospitals and other public buildings in addition to mud brick and poorly constructed dwellings leaving tens of thousands homeless.


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Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

Old Tashkent - built around the Chorsu markets -  whatever remained turned to rubble in 1966     


The city had just been in the International news, hosting a meeting to attempt to resolve differences between Pakistan and India. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev had been named General Secretary of the Communist Party (and thus Soviet Premier) in 1964 (after Khrushchev) but he lacked Khrushchev's power, a situation he was determined to correct. Brezhnev visited the devastation and made a motivational speech in ‘Kennedy style’, promising a new city, akin to Kennedy going to the Moon - not because it's easy. The reconstruction of Tashkent became a cause célèbre throughout the Soviet Union. To support the massive project experts and workers, including Komsomol youth, were rushed in from all four corners of the USSR.  

Within a decade much of the city we see today had risen from the rubble - and tunnelled beneath it.

As I've mentioned the main incentive for exploring the Metro on our first day was to go out to the Chorsu markets, located at the centre of the old, historic, city.  Chorsu means 'crossroads' or 'four streams' in ancient Persian. As we later discovered the Kukeldash Madrasah, built around 1570, and the recently built Khoja Akhrar Mosque are located nearby.  After the destruction in 1966 a huge new dome, with a diameter of 90 metres, was constructed, that for a time symbolised the new city's rise from the rubble.  Today the big dome is surrounded by much larger areas of flat roofed stalls and even some baby domes, dedicated to the sale of all manner of food, clothing and other goods, while the big dome itself is dedicated mainly to meat and dairy.


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Tashkent Markets today


On our tour we had come to expect relatively modest but comfortable hotels on the outskirts. But here we found ourselves in a grand high-rise building near the centre, with a suite of rooms, offering good views out over the city and a couple of TVs. It had once been accommodation for senior party members and international guests. But it’s seen better days. We would return here at the end of our tour so we experienced three such suites of different sizes. In the first, the power on the whole floor went out with a loud bang when our porter switched on the lights. The next had a similar problem when I turned on the electric kettle to make coffee. Various extension leads snaked around the room, under the carpet on one run, as most of the power outlets on the walls had failed. After a second attempt to restore power failed we were moved to a huge suite of around 100 m2, where the side panel of the bath clashed down onto the floor unexpectedly; the shower fixture was so high that it squirted over the curtain and a second air-conditioning unit stood disconnected. A non-working grandfather clock stood in the corner of the huge bedroom and there was a full size refrigerator in the spacious entrance foyer. On TV the English language channels were limited to Bloomberg and movies. On the plus side it was nice to have all that space and mirrors; the beds were good and the linen fresh; there was even a bar on the next floor with cocktails and good espresso coffee.


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Our Hotel and views from our windows


As I mentioned above rebuilding Tashkent was an initiative of Leonid Brezhnev.

In 1979 Brezhnev would mimic Kennedy again.  This time it did not turn out so well. Against Kremlin advice he mirrored Kennedy's disastrous decision to send troops to Vietnam by sending the Red Army into Afghanistan (that's on Uzbekistan's southern border) with equally disastrous results: over the next nine years 15 thousand Russian boys would sent home in coffins; Russia suffered international obloquy, even among previous allies; the eventual ignominious withdrawal destroyed confidence at home; and the economic consequences led to effective bankruptcy and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The primitive Afghan Mujahideen (meaning those who engage in jihad) would probably have suffered the same fate as they had against the British in the second Afghan war had it not been for Operation Cyclone. This was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken.  It was developed with support from Pakistan; Saudi Arabia, Britain and even China. Operation Cyclone replaced single shot, sometimes flintlock, rifles with modern assault weapons; stinger anti-aircraft missiles and tens of thousands of mines. Just as important was covert training of the fighters in weapons use and guerrilla tactics. To provide much needed yet deniable additional support, a decision was taken to fund, train and arm the Saudi supported fundamentalist Taliban, formed with the assistance of the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI); on the grounds that they were the most committed to expelling the Russian 'atheists'. 

By the time the Russians withdrew in 1989 the US alone had spent over $20 billion with Saudi Arabia matching some of this dollar for dollar.  Yet the highly trained, armed and committed Taliban fundamentalists, including Usama Bin Laden who'd recruited fighters from around the world, were not about to stop after the defeat of Russia. In the closing days Bin Laden would create Al Qaeda (the base) to launch terrorist attacks in support of global jihad. His 9/11 attacks in New York lead directly to the present Afghanistan War and to worldwide terrorist attacks against the infidel, past and present.   Thus the Australian Government Smart Traveller travel advisory was again at amber (exercise a high degree of caution - particularly in respect of terrorism). Read More...

Our party had lost some members but grown to 14 when we piled on board the coach for the long trip to Samarkand. We’ve travelled on Chinese coaches elsewhere so the bus was not a surprise. But it was interesting that it was not locally built. Uzbekistan has the sort of trade policies that Donald Trump espouses. With the exception of a very small number of luxury (mainly German) imports, all cars are locally manufactured under the protection of massive import duties and General Motors has a virtual monopoly. Almost all are badged Chevrolet but sometimes one sees virtually the same car with a different GM badge.

Presumably because labour is cheap and the capacity to afford a car limited, the cars are relatively inexpensive and many Uzbeks seem to be able to afford one. As in Tajikistan there is an informal ‘hitchhiking’ business, in competition with the regular metered cabs, where some car owners will stop if you hold out your thumb.  Before you get in you must negotiate a price to take you where you want to go. Then, like UBER elsewhere, they use the GPS on their phone to find the route. It takes a bit of practice, particularly as they don’t speak English so you need to use your fingers for the price and to have the destination written down (same for the cabs).  But in a remote place it can be quicker than waiting for a random empty cab. You can’t call a cab except from a hotel, unless you have the local phone connection and speak Uzbek or Russian.

The basic cars, that you might get when ‘hitchhiking’, are manual (stick-shift) and generally lack sophisticated features found in Chevs (or Holdens or Opels) of the same vintage elsewhere. Petrol – again called petrol not gas – is less than half the price we pay. Given the pollution the traffic generates it’s possible many vehicles don’t have catalytic converters.  Driving is competitive and the road rules somewhat flexible.


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Leaving Tashkent for Samarkand:  typical apartments; ubiquitous irrigation; and wheat silos
Notice the service station:  'PETROL' in English and fuel prices at about half ours
Almost all the vehicles are by GM
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Tashkent to Samarkand is over 300 km a journey of around 5 hours. On the way we saw the outer suburbs of Tashkent, that looked relatively prosperous, before many miles of irrigated cotton, wheat and other crops and occasional field workers. Doing what? Our guide had told us about the Soviet plan that made Uzbekistan the largest cotton producer in the world, with unfortunate outcomes for the people of the Aral basin, for which we can blame the Russians.





As if to confirm Green warnings about the consequences of fiddling with the ‘natural environment’, as we approached Samarkand we ran into a dust storm that had enveloped the entire city.


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Approaching Samarkand the dust storm enveloped us


We were concerned that choking dust and poor visibility it might ruin our visit but within an hour or two it abated. Soon people were out with hoses, no doubt at the expense of the Aral residents downstream, washing down the pavements with water drawn from the Zeravshan (Sughd) River that reluctantly provides water to Bukhara then peters out in the desert before it reaches the the Amu Darya, of which it was formerly a tributary.

Samarkand is a particularly famous stop on the Silk Road.  Like Khujand, Samarkand is near the foothills of the mountains, about 200 km along the Silk Road to the north east. As with most other cities on this trip, Samarkand is predominantly a 21st century city, dotted here and there with remnants from the past and, as in London or Paris, many of these ancient buildings have undergone substantial renovation so that they represent the past rather than typifying it.

Samarkand is the burial place of Amir Timur or Tamerlane the Turco-Mongol conqueror.  There is a big somewhat imaginative statue of him in the main boulevard.  And our first visit, after the dust cleared, was to his mausoleum that has recently been renovated, resplendent in gold tiles.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

The Gur-e-Amir
The mausoleum of the conqueror Amir Timur as it appeared 2018 and in 1890


Second on the agenda was the imposing Registan Square with grand madrasahs (Islamic colleges) on three sides. As we will see later, in the early 19th century Samarkand was in decline so these madrasahs were the principal support for the economy. Students paid to occupy the dormitory cells surrounding the central courtyards.  According to Sir Alexander Burnes in the 1830's these were called 'hoojrus' - I can't find any other reference to confirm this.   The first and most famous of these schools is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah, built by Ulugh Beg in 1420, during the time of Timur.  Abdul-Rahman Jami, the Persian poet, scholar, mystic, scientist and philosopher studied and taught here.  One of its minarets has a slight inward lean, due to overzealous correction of an earlier outward lean that threatened its collapse.

Two hundred years later Sher-Dor Madrasah was built opposite, mirroring the external features of its famous companion. The ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur famously flouted the Islamic law against depiction of living beings on religious buildings. He demanded or approved the two tiger mosaics with a rising sun on their back that are all the worse for being ancient Persian religious motifs. Interestingly by the 19th century all these mosaics were in ruins and have since been restored.  So the desire for historical accuracy, presumably Russian, has outweighed religious sensitivity in this case.

The third, Tilya-Kori Madrasah was built ten years later as both a residential college for students and as a new grand mosque. They are all quite secular these days with the dormitory cells taken over by craft and tourist shops.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

Ulugh Beg Madrasah; Sher-Dor Madrasah
Tilya-Kori Madrasah (external and internal)
Tilya-Kori Madrasah & Grand Mosque 1890


In due course Samarkand came under Russian control.  See the history that follows. And although it was not on our tour schedule for a change of religious perspective we dropped in on the Russian Orthodox church near to our hotel.   It is rather beautiful in a different way to the Islamic monoliths of the town.  One can immediately see why Muslims, incorrectly, believe Christianity to be idolatrous.  There's a very subtle difference between praying to a painted or embossed image, or worse a statue, and praying with it, as an aid to reaching the ineffable.  I'm not sure that even some educated Catholics I've met understand this subtlety.  How many angels can one fit on the head of a pin? 


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Cathedral of St. Alexis of Moscow to Samarkand


In addition to Timur's Mausoleum Samarkand is blessed as the last resting place of an army of Muslim notables. Like Westminster Abbey and the Mount of Olives there will be flocks of souls ascending from here when the final judgement or end of days finally arrives.

Shakhi Zinda is a complex of 11 mausoleums on either side of a narrow street, in addition to many other graves and sarcophagi. Shakhi Zinda means 'The Living King' in Persian, because the mausoleum, at the far end is said to be the grave of Prophet Muhammad's cousin, Kusam ibn Abbas who came to preach in Samarkand and was beheaded by Zoroastrians during his prayer.


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Shakhi Zinda Necropolis reached by 40 steps
The inscription on the main entrance reads:
'This magnificent building was created by Abdulazizhanom-son Ulugbek-Guragana,
son of Shah Rukh, son of Amir Timur-Guragana in 838 year' ( c.1434 CE)
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This remains a place of Muslim pilgrimage in Central Asia, second only to Mecca.  I was in the tomb of Kusam ibn Abbas taking photos when a group of men started to assemble and shortly a Sufi (I presume) started to chant and they responded. I was trapped on the far side and decided to make a quick exit through the middle of the small congregation. I was like a Jew suddenly finding himself at the centre of a high mass.

For believers waters taken here possess undeniable healing powers, as do waters at many other such places sacred to other religions.

For my part I was more intrigued by the sin revealing stairs.  If one's count going down is the same as that coming up one is free from sin.  The reason it's difficult is that coming up one marches, one step per stair.  But going down its almost impossible not to go forward on the same foot occasionally - an extra step per stair.  So one does have to concentrate not to over-count - the main flight has 36 steps, not 39 Mr Hannay!

The number is significant. In total, including the four steps in the covered entrance, there are 40, which represent the path to repentance and prayer.  At one time pilgrims would pray for 40 days before ascending, pausing on each step to recite a verse from the Qur'an and to contemplate God. 

At an early service, held by a Sufi spiritual leader, Kusam ibn Abbas himself appeared riding a white horse - as dead saints are wont to do - most familiar to Roman Catholics in the form of the Marian apparitions (at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe etc).  He spoke to the Sufi and this was witnessed by the congregation, before he rode off and mysteriously evaporated.  Hence Shakhi Zinda - The Living King.

On a more secular theme, on his visit here in 1832 Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the first Europeans to visit and successfully return from here, was told that this is where paper was invented. While that's not exactly true, a fragment of a paper map has been found in China dated from 189 BCE, Samarkand was the Islamic centre for paper making in the 8th century.  So it was from Samarkand that paper making spread to the west.

In Europe papyrus, the Egyptian writing material from which the name 'paper' comes had been available since ancient times.  But when all books were hand copied a book was a huge investment in time and money. Papyrus is fragile, can't be bound with any lasting success and the scrolls must be stored carefully. Bookmakers needed instead vellum (veal skin) or parchment, the skin of various animals - split and prepared for writing.  Paper has many advantages over parchment. The raw materials are plentiful and because its a mixture of various fibres and gums it can be given a variety of properties like insect resistance or translucency.  It can be made in various thicknesses and strengths and sheets can be made uniform without unwanted blemishes. It can also be manufactured in a range of grades from very inexpensive to very fine and long lasting. Books made of paper are both lighter and less bulky than those of parchment and above all paper can be printed.  Once it was mass produced paper became a tiny fraction of the cost of vellum which was soon used only as a binding material. In China cheap paper had long been used as a wrapping and in the toilet.

In Samarkand, as in China, the bark of the mulberry tree was blended with other fibres like hemp, linen and/or fabric scraps (sometimes silk) to make the pulp. According to Wikipedia, the use of water-powered hammer mills, for pounding the bark, was perfected here.  Today, to reflect thirteen hundred years of paper making, a range of locally made mulberry paper products is still sold to tourists. 

The mulberry tree is also very useful for drawing water from the water table helping to stem its rise and the consequent rising salinity that is a serious problem here.





So who was Timur (and other questions)?

Two generations after Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire it split into separate Khanates. Samarkand fell under the Chagatai Khanate. But in the 14th century local forces began to overthrow the Khanates. For example: in China Kublai Khan's Yuan Dynasty fell to a local uprising by the Han in 1368, establishing the Ming Dynasty. In the west with the help of the ‘Black Death’ in Anatolia (the western part of modern Turkey south of the black sea) previous vassals of the Ilkhanate were also shaking themselves free. Among these was the small kingdom of Osman, the first Ottoman Sultan, who would consolidate Anatolia and give birth to the great Ottoman Empire.

Another of these upstart warlords was Amir Timur also known as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame). He was a local lad, born in city of Kesh 80 kilometres south of Samarkand, into a Mongolian tribe that had been Turkified. As a child or young adult he was shot with arrows in both his right hand and right leg and acquired the description ‘lame’. Nevertheless he was successful as a mercenary soldier, gathering warriors around him until by 1370 he was at the head of a thousand horsemen. Although minor nobility, his family was not descended from Genghis Khan so he was not in the royal line of succession. Initially he and his brother captured territory together but fell out and Timur prevailed through popular support. In order to rule the Chagatai Khanate he installed a puppet Khan on the throne.

In 1370 he married a descendent of Genghis Khan giving him credibility as the new ruler and the right to call himself Temur Gurgan, or 'son-in-law of the Great Khan' and began the reconquest of the old Mongol Empire. He was said to be highly intelligent and an excellent strategist and he spoke three languages but not Arabic – favouring the Persians. He was fond of ideas and surrounded himself with scholars, poets and Islamic teachers.  At that time Islam was not the universal religion of the region and was still developing its intellectual underpinnings. 

In other ways, especially his propensity to slaughter, he surpassed Alexander and Genghis before him.  Both too had retreated when confronted by war elephants.  So when Timur confronted the Sultan of Delhi, in India in 1398, the Sultan's army was spearheaded by war elephants,  protected with chainmail and armed with poisoned tusks.  But by then elephants were nothing new in Central Asia and Timur both expected elephants and had studied their weaknesses.   In a painting dated 1595–1600: Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi, Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, in the winter of 1397–1398 the most prominent graphic elements are three war elephants. His troops built trenches to constrain their progress and sent 'fire camels' against them that caused the elephants to panic, turning against their own army.


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Timur defeats the Sultan of Delhi,
Nasir Al-Din Mahmud Tughluq, in the winter of 1397–1398


Timur slaughtered 100,000 captives before laying waste to the city. Attempts by the local population in Delhi to resist led to such slaughter that the city ran with blood and took a century to recover. 

In due course the Timurid Dynasty would establish the Mughal Empire in India, that ruled, latterly under British patronage, until the sepoy rebellion (Indian Mutiny) in 1857. It's most popularly remembered today because of the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal at Agra. See our visits to India and Myanmar (Burma), where the last Mughal Emperor lies buried.  


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Bahadur Shah Zafar's mausoleum in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar)

Timur re-captured and re-united much of the old Mongol Empire from Persia in the south to the Golden Horde on the Volga and the Black Sea all the way east to Mongolia and parts of modern China.  At this time Samarkand flourished and 'Tamerlane' is remembered here with a deal of respect and pride.


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Timur (the admired) in both Samarkand and Tashkent


In 1402 Timur's forces came up against those of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (Bajazet) at the Battle of Ankara.  Tamerlane, as Timur was known in Europe, was victorious and this led to a period of crisis for the Ottoman Empire when elements deserted it and joined with the Timurids.  Interestingly, in the light of the discussion about forts (above), at this time Timur's army included over 100,000 horse archers (cavalry) and 32 war elephants (note: Elephants). But yet again he also used superior tactics, luring the enemy to advance from their superior positions and taking the better ground for his own troops before the battle.  He also diverted the enemy's water supply so they were soon weakened by thirst.  As a result in the West Tamerlane was admired as an almost invincible strategist and was lauded for a time as the saviour of Constantinople.  But it was just a temporary reprieve for the Byzantine Empire.  The Ottomans soon recovered to take Constantinople in 1453.  And from there on the Ottoman Empire grew into a great power, on which the sun did not set for over two centuries, successfully confronting the Holy Roman Empire in Europe, until its demise. But partial defeat by the Russians in 1878 heralded the final dénouement, that came as a result of the First World War. And on we go today. Trouble and strife all the way from Turkey to Algeria.

Christopher (Kip) Marlow’s 1588 play Tamburlaine the Great revived him in the European consciousness. It’s regarded as the first of the revolutionary Elizabethan historical plays - leading from Marlow to Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. In turn Marlow's play inspired numerous Baroque period masterpieces like Vivaldi's Bajazet,  Handle's Tamerlane and ten contemporary operas. Timur also appears in Puccini's often performed Turandot.

But the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.  Tamerlane also had a reputation, reflected in Marlow's play, for slaughter because in 1403, he’d gone straight on from Ankara to defeat the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian bastion at Smyrna (now in modern Turkey) putting everyone to the sword. But this was the tip of the iceberg, in total he is thought to have slaughtered upwards of 17 million people in various campaigns, most of them fellow Muslims.

Today Tamburlaine the Great is a difficult play to present without enraging Muslim fundamentalists. Marlow has his anti-hero taking fellow Muslim Bajazet into slavery in Samarkand to be used as a footstool.  He frequently appeals to Mars, the Roman God of war, as he slaughters his way across Egypt to Morocco. In his final hubris, he proclaims himself immortal after burning a copy of the Qur'an on stage and ordering the burning of: ‘all the heaps of superstitious books found in the temples of that Mahomet’.

Timur died in 1405 of an illness contracted during a winter campaign against China, attempting to restore the Khanate that had been lost to the Han Chinese and their Ming Dynasty.

Of course by 1588 insulting a Muslim hero and committing a sacrilegious act that offends Muslims concerned Englishmen not one iota.

In Russia, Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of All Rus', spurred on by Russian Orthodox Christian zeal, had already defeated the first of Khanates in 1552. Thereafter it was all downhill for the Timurid Empire. In addition, the relevance of Central Asia and even the Levant had diminished and England was entering its own ‘Golden Age’. The discovery of the Americas and the Portuguese pioneering a sea route to India; China; the Spice Islands; and Japan had rendered the Silk Road redundant and the most visible of the Khanates: the Golden Horde, that had once taken much of Russia and Eastern Europe, was in retreat.

By 1792 Catherine the Great (of Russia) had defeated the great Turkish Navy and ‘liberated’ most of the remaining Khanates north of the Black Sea. But the peasants were anything but free. They were no longer owned as slaves by a Mongol overlord but now owned by a Russian aristocrats as serfs, no change there. Yet from now on they would be encouraged to see their one true God as a Trinity, represented by angels in orthodox icons as the Holy Spirit can't be imaged, who'd anointed their rulers to rule in His name. 


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Catherine the Great (Catherine II) in St Petersburg


Meanwhile the Ottomans were the new power in the Muslim world and by the 19th century much of Central Asia had become part of the Ottoman Empire.

Three and a half decades later, as a result of the Russo-Persian War, Alexander II of Russia ‘liberated’ the territories between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea the from the Ottoman yoke' but in doing so would alarm the British East India Company.

Was enormously rich India, the Jewel of the British Empire, his next target?

During the reign of Queen Victoria  'Travels into Bokhara' (being the account of a journey from India to Cabool, Tartary, and Persia; also, Narrative of a voyage on the Indus, from the sea to Lahore, with presents from the king of Great Britain; performed under the orders of the supreme government of India, in the years 1831, 1832, and 1833) by Sir Alexander Burnes became a bestseller.  Burnes was one of the first Europeans to voluntarily venture into Central Asia and return to tell the tale.  He was famous as a British spy in the 'Great Game' the rivalry between the British and the Russians for the control of India.  The term 'Great Game' was coined by another Victorian bestselling author: Rudyard Kipling in his novel 'Kim'.

In the 1830's it was believed in Calcutta and London that the expansion of Russia across Central Asia could lead to an attempted invasion of India. To forestall this Burnes was sent to scout the places of strategic interest and to learn what he could of local politics.  His report led to the first British incursion into Afghanistan, where he was later killed in the jihad of 1841.  He'd lived in and was a acclimatised to India. A considerable intellect, he spoke several languages fluently including Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Urdu and Latin.  He understood Islam and its rules of behaviour and could go undercover as a native.

While in Bukhara he made a side trip to Samarkand and describes the city in the 1830's and Timur's mausoleum (see the images above):

Samarcand (sic)... is only 120 miles from Bokhara... that ancient city (Samarkand), the existence of which may be traced to the time of Alexander. It was the capital of Timour, and the princes of his house passed their winters at it. "In the whole habitable world," says Baber, " there are few cities so pleasantly situated as Samarcand."
The city has now declined from its grandeur to a provincial town of 8000, or at most 10,000, inhabitants, and gardens and fields occupy the place of its streets and mosques; but it is still regarded with high veneration by the people.
Till a king of Bokhara has annexed it to his rule, he is not viewed as a legitimate sovereign. Its possession becomes the first object on the demise of one ruler and the accession of another. Some of its buildings remain, to proclaim its former glory.
Three of its colleges are perfect, and one of these, which formed the observatory of the celebrated Ulug Beg, is most handsome. It is ornamented with bronze, and its bricks are enamelled or painted... There is another college, called Sheredar, of beautiful architecture.
The tomb of Timour and his family still remains; and the ashes of the emperor rest beneath a lofty dome, the walls of which are beautifully ornamented with agate (yusbm).
The situation of Samarcand has been deservedly praised by Asiatics; since it stands near low hills, in a country which is every where else plain and level.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832


As tensions with Russia grew the British decided to put a garrison in Kabul and for good measure replaced the Emir with his deposed predecessor. But British troops were aliens in the city and failed to respect local customs, particularly the women. The deposed Emir in exile called for a jihad and the garrison was besieged.

The British East India Company lost an entire army of 4,500 troops, along with about 12,000 civilians leaving in Kabul in 1842.  They'd made the mistake of surrendering to the jihadists after being offered safe passage for men women and children up the Kabul River valley to the next at British garrison at Jalalabad.  This was mid-winter and the valley was filled with snow.  As a result many froze to death and some resorted to cannibalism. The outraged British sent another army and destroyed the central markets in Kabul in reprisal.  The British then withdrew back to India.

For their part the Russians avoided direct conflict with Britain yet steadily advanced into Central Asia.  When the trouble began in Kabul the Russian border had been on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan; but with the British gone the Tsar's outposts moved steadily up the Amu Darya.  At that time the river still flowed strongly, down from the mountains of Tajikistan, into the very large Aryl sea.

In 1853 Russian territorial expansion finally came head-to-head with the British when a shooting war broke out in the Crimea.  For the first time troops from the fast developing Australian colonies would embark to lend a hand to the motherland:

Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…

Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1854


And so in Sydney Harbour fortifications appeared to discourage a Russian naval attack on the British Pacific Fleet. Only one of these remains more or less intact: Fort Denison (actually begun earlier against the Americans and their ‘Manifold Destiny’ to rule the world). Disappeared forts include Fort Macquarie that now boasts an opera house and Dawes Point Battery that now hosts one end of a Bridge and is only remembered in a group of Victorian bronze cannon and in a name: Fort Street.


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Fort Denison  - the small island  top-left in the harbour - still fires the one-o'clock gun
Fort Macquarie is replaced with the Opera House - where occasionally the 1812 Overture can be heard
But in case the Russians think again, several of Sydney's harbour-side parks still host cannon - watch out Ruskies!


When the fighting ceased, and a treaty reached, Russia had a free hand. A decade later Tashkent was formally annexed, followed by Samarkand three years later. 

A particular concern of the Russians was the kidnapping and sale into slavery in the kingdoms of Bukhara and Khiva of Russian nationals. So in 1820 M Negri led a Russian mission to Bukhara with the goal of freeing Russians sold into slavery. He had no luck in repatriating the Russians and while the Emir in Bukhara showed some caution in continuing the practice, the Kahn in Khiva redoubled the trade in Russian slaves, in addition to supporting banditry against Russian caravans, 'cocking a snoot' at Moscow.

Burnes had remarked on slavery and even visited the slave market in Bukhara and talked to some of the slaves.  But while he condemned slavery he also listened to the defenders of the practice:

The Mahommedans are not sensible of any offence in enslaving the Russians, since they state that Russia herself exhibits the example of a whole country of slaves, particularly in the despotic government of her soldiery. " If we purchase Russians," say they, " the Russian: buy the Kuzzaks on our frontier, who are Mahommedans, and they tamper with these people by threats, bribery, and hopes, to make them forsake their creed, and become idolaters.
Look, on the other hand, at the Russians in Bokhara, at their life, liberty, and comfort, and compare it with the black bread and unrelenting tyranny which they experience in their native country.
Last, not least, they referred to their cruel banishment to Siberia (as they called it Sibere), which they spoke of with shuddering horror, and stated that it had on some occasions driven Russians voluntarily to betake themselves to Bokhara.
We shall not attempt to decide between the parties; but it is a melancholy reflection on the liberties of Russia, that they admit of a comparison with the institutions of a Tartar kingdom, whose pity, it is proverbially said, is only upon a par with the tyranny of the Afghan.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832


It should be remembered that in Russia serfs were bought and sold, as were slaves in the United States.  A good serf was valuable asset, like a good horse, particularly if 'it' had special skills. In Russia some were trained from children to be ballerinas, craftsmen or opera singers. An owner who'd paid a lot of money for a slave or raised a serf from childhood regarded 'its' kidnapping as property theft.  As in the US, a landowner's serfs could easily exceed the value of the land they worked. In the US in Charleston's Old Slave Market we learned that prior to 1865 a good working age male slave would fetch upwards of $1,500 - equivalent to about $35,000 in 1970 dollars - the price of a luxury car in 1970. So it was freeing the slaves without compensation, as much as the physical devastation of the Civil War, that ruined the economy of the South.  In Russia compensation was paid but the landholders remained unhappy.

Travels into Bokhara became a bestseller and the British too were appalled at the thought of Christians enslaved to Muslims.  So in 1838 Colonel Charles Stoddart was sent on a mission to persuade Emir Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara to free the Russian slaves and sign a treaty of friendship with Britain.  He had none of Burnes' diplomatic skills or local sympathies and was arrested and held in the dungeons of the Arc in appalling circumstances. Three years later Captain Arthur Conolly arrived in an attempt to secure Stoddart's release and was promptly thrown in with him. Both men were executed, on 24 June 1842, charged with spying for the British Empire.


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The Arc of Bukhara - Photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890
48 years after the execution of the British 'spies': Colonel Charles Stoddart & Captain Arthur Conolly


In 1855 Nicholas I of Russia, who had overseen the disastrous Crimean War, died and Alexander II ascended the throne.

One of his first acts was to emancipate the serfs, allowing them the full right of free citizens, able to change employers; to move freely without being arrested; and for the first time to own land or a business and to marry whom they liked, without the permission of their master. As the 'Mahommedans' had told Burnes, they had indeed been slaves in their own land.

Alexander had inherited a huge and increasingly unmanageable territory, extending all the way to Alaska and resolved to restore order.  His next big plan was to stop the British taking thinly populated Alaska and threatening his Eastern borders.  That was simple: sell it to the United States for US$7.2 m.

Soon the Russian army advanced up the rivers from the Aral Sea, leading to the establishment of General Governorate of Turkestan, initially on the Syr Darya river. In 1868 this series of battles resulted in a Russian victory when Emir Alim Khan, the ruler of Bukhara, was forced to accept vassal status, extending Russian control to the northern bank of the Amu Darya river (the Oxus).  In 1873 the same fate befell the obdurate Khan of Khiva who fell to the Russian military onslaught. So by the 1870's most of central Asia had become part of the Russian Empire (within the General Governorate of Turkestan) and new borders appeared on the map.

As a result of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) Russia wrested most of the Balkans from the Ottomans.  Alexander II immediately followed this success by placing an uninvited diplomatic mission in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The British perceived this desire to consolidate Russian power in Central Asia as a direct threat to India and responded with a new incursion into Afghanistan (the Second Afghan War 1878-1880) expelling the Russian presence there. A treaty was signed under which local tribes would be allowed to continue to live according to their custom but under British oversight, creating a buffer between Russia and British India.  This treaty together with their military experiences in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, led them to a strategic analysis that Russia no longer posed a military threat to India. Henceforth the British would take their bat and ball and go home, leaving the central Asian pitch to the Russians. 

To facilitate control and pacification of the region and to establish the infant cotton industry the building the Trans-Caspian railway began in 1879 under military management, again alarming the British.  Alexander would not live to see his railway reach Samarkand (via Bukhara) in 1888 or then on to Tashkent and Kokand.  Despite his reforming zeal in freeing slaves and the serfs and the pacification of Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan) Alexander was assassinated in 1881. He'd become unpopular with both German and Jewish families his father had mistreated, so that they plotted revolution, and with the aristocracy who's human assets he'd devalued. 


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The Church of Spilled Blood in St Petersburg marks the place where Alexander II was assassinated
There's more detail about the Tsars in my report on our visit to Russia  Read More...


In addition to the introduction of railways and some industrial machinery, the first automobiles appeared.  But while this brought Russian officials and occasional royalty, Central Asia remained exotic, mysterious to most Europeans.

So in 1890 French photographer Paul Nadar with a modern camera and a good supply of 3.5-inch film, drove to the "Orient Express" in Istanbul taking him to Transcaucasia, then to Central Asia where he travelled along the new Trans-Caspian railway, visiting the ancient cities and capturing them on film before returning to Paris to present them in an exhibition.


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Tashkent Railway Station soon after services began - Photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890


They can now be seen on line Click Here...

Fast forward to 1914 when some in Khujand refused to be conscripted to fight the Germans against whom they had no argument. This led to riots and a number of deaths.

Similar opposition to the unpopular 'Bloody' Tsar was mounting across Russia, as tens of thousands were slaughtered by the Germans at the front. In February 1917 Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and a Republic was proclaimed, yet the Russians fought on.

To put an end to this the Germans had a secret weapon: Vladimir Lenin. They smuggled Lenin and his wife together with 30 revolutionary comrades in a 'sealed' train carriage through Germany to neutral Finland, where they could catch a train to Moscow. The second, Bolshevik, revolution of October 1917 was thus put in train (pun intended).

The Soviet Union (USSR) was proclaimed and for Russia that fight was over. But many more sons of Khujand mothers would die in the lingering civil war that lasted here into the 1920's as Muslims saw an opportunity for independence. Finally 1924, with Bolshevik victory secure, the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. Henceforth the Russians would take steps to constrain the excesses of the Muslim religion including, it is rumoured, permitting one madrasah to operate because it facilitated placing Soviet agents among the Muslim clerics.  This is quite probable as it was around the same time that the 'Cambridge Five' spies were recruited for Russia while still at university in England, successfully moving into highly sensitive positions, in which they remained until discovered in the 1960's.

In 1939 World War II began when Germany and Russia together invaded Poland. Believing that they were allies, Stalin (the Soviet leader who'd come to power after Lenin's death) was taken by surprise when Germany suddenly attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin quickly sought help from Germany’s enemies: first Churchill, leading the British Empire, including Australia; then the Americans; and the Free French (in exile); and we all became allies.

Despite this newfound comradery, fears of continued Russian appetite for territorial expansion, now under a Communist banner, soon led to the lingering 'Cold War’.

But we need not have feared. Despite its enormous natural, agricultural and intellectual resources, the huge Soviet Union failed to live up to its potential.  As if demonstrating Marx’s ‘historical inevitably’ reversed, the Soviet Union collapsed 1991 when multiple adverse factors converged.  But it had been slowly failing due to excessive central planning and faulty Marxist economic doctrines for decades. So in the old Soviets, as in China, Vietnam, Laos and even Cuba (see our travels on this website) capitalism and market economics have ‘inevitably’ reasserted themselves.

Thus in 1991, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, indeed all the Soviet ‘Stans’, ceased to be part of the Soviet Union and in turn, more or less, cast off Russian hegemony after a century and a quarter. They revelled in their new found freedoms. Names changed. Leninabad reverted to its original name of Khujand. Yet somehow social unrest grew as for many people things got a lot worse.

It’s popular to attribute personal repression and a great number of other sins to the Soviet Union. Yet in both Tajikistan and in Uzbekistan civilisation progressed from primitive mud brick towns, ruled by medieval tyrants, where as many as two thirds of inhabitants were slaves, surrounded by lawless countryside in which life was cheap (as described by Alexander Burnes and photographed by Paul Nadar), into a sophisticated and very European modernity that often surprised us. Paul Nadar's photos show us just how much things changed for the better when the old Imperial vassals ceased to be ruled by medieval Khans and became Republics of the Soviet Union after 1917. 


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Around modern Samarkand 


One of the first initiatives was the liberation and education of women.  These countries with universal education; independent women; and cities that, save for the signage, could be in a modern western country or China are in sharp contrast to still tribal Afghanistan, across the border, and even to most of India.


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Uzbek women in 2018 (gathering for wedding photos below the first President)
And as they were once obliged to dress - photographed by Paul Nadar in 1890
There are more images in the Uzbekistan Album - Click Here...


I was frequently reminded of the Monty Python skit in the Life of Brian:


What have the Romans ever done for us?

They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers… And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers...

Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!

At which point various ‘commandos’ make suggestions - each of which is conceded:
The aqueduct.
And the sanitation.
And the roads.
And the wine… that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Public baths.
And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this.

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Brought peace.
Peace? Oh. Shut up!





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.





We would stop for lunch in Navoi (Kermine) but before that, about 45km out, we paused at a high rock outcrop to look at some ancient rock art (petroglyphs).

These are typical of some 140 sites in Uzbekistan thought to have been created by the Neolithic (Stone Age) hunters and fishers of Keltaminar culture who populated this region as the Northern Ice sheet retreated, perhaps 6,000 years ago. We can only guess that the artists' motivation was to support of early animist religious practices; as a means of passing on knowledge to children; or simply as a way of leaving one’s mark. Back then this country was much more lush and better watered and due to climate change and human predation, some of the animals they are depicted hunting have long been extinct here.

One picture suggests another and successive generations of humans have been making images here ever since.   Later petroglyphs depict bronze age and then iron age fauna and technology such as bulls and wheeled carriages. Hence they include some painted graphiti that probably goes all the way back to last month.  The later appearance of wheeled vehicles is yet another testament to the history of this great trade route, reaching back into pre-history.


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The petroglyphs depicting native hunting and extinct fauna - added to over millennia 
including paint and crayon graphiti that probably goes all the way back to last month




Today Navoi is an industrial town with chemical plants and power stations drawing on local gas reserves. It’s on the Zeravshan River, that we previously saw in Samarkand, with a very extensive irrigation area north east and west. So it’s also a big agricultural centre and transport hub. This was an interesting departure from a seemingly endless diet of similar looking blue tiled Islamic madrasah, mosques and mausoleums. Here was modern secular Uzbekistan with cooling, reflux towers and silos rising above the warehouses and we might have been in the American mid-west.


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After lunch near the river we again joined the Silk Road. If we’d wanted proof that we were still on the ancient route, about 20 km out of town, adjacent to the airport for contrast, we reached caravanserai Rabati Malik.


Rabati Malik Caravanserai at Navoi

A caravanserai, as I first learned in a comprehension test in High School (the Intermediate or the Leaving Certificate exam?), is a sort of ancient motel, usually fortified against bandits. This one was built about the time William the Conqueror was invading England, across the ancient road from what was probably an even more ancient cistern or well. The recently restored portal is a first stage in the restoration of this World Heritage site that was damaged in various wars then finally flattened in an earthquake in 1968. The UNESCO site tells us (idiosyncratically auto-translated from the French):

Rabati Malik Caravanserai is constructed according to the order of Karakhanid Shams-al-Mulk Nasr, son of Tamgachkhan Ibragim ruled in Samarkand from 1068 until 1080…

The arch is concluded in the П-shaped frame executed from the carved terracotta in the form of eight-final stars connected with each other, limited by intertwining tapes. Ring is decorated by the Arabian inscription. On overhanging walls, under the layers of repair plaster the rests of ancient ganched plasters with figure of vegetative character are traced.

The portal, as well as (like) all caravanserais has been laid out from adobe brick with the subsequent facing backed bricks in size of 25х25х4 cm …

The caravanserai occupies – 8,277 sq m.


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Caravanserai Rabati Malik



Elsewhere we learn (from The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia):

The Karakhanids were a Muslim Turkic dynasty of the Karakhanid state in Middle Asia from 927 to 1212.

Named after the first Khan, Abdulkarim Satuk Karakhan (died 955 or 956), the family descended from the Lagma tribe and bore the title of Bogra-khan. At the head of the Karakhanids stood the Tamgachkhan, or Khan of Khans. The most powerful representatives of the Karakhanids were Nasr (late tenth century), Ibrahim (1046–1068), and Arslan (1102–30).


To facilitate trade along the Silk Road several such Caravanserai were constructed by the Karakhanids during the 11th century CE. They continued to function until the Silk Road’s relative decline in importance in the 15th century.

Fortunately we have photographs taken before the earthquake. These show that this building once had decorations and architectural features in the Persian style that were extraordinary in a building in Central Asia and attest to the cosmopolitan cultural influences along this route.

Today it's largely rubble. So the most interesting features are the layout of the different spaces; the footings of the fallen columns and the ancient terracotta bricks in the facing walls that are similar to those seen throughout the much more ancient Roman Empire - from York in England to Constantinople (Istanbul). What have the Romans ever done for us?

The nearby cistern is covered by a domed ceiling, also reminiscent of Constantinople.  But its water is no longer potable. The irrigation of land around the Zarafshan River has raised the water-table, bringing up salt from ancient seabeds below.



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The somewhat restored ancient cistern
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A bedraggled donkey harnessed to disreputable wagon nearby seemed to say it all.

An hour and a half later we reached Bukhara.





Bukhara's said to have around 140 architectural monuments, largely dating from the 9th to the 17th centuries. But many of Bukhara's mosques, madrasahs and bazaars look quite new, thanks to the local passion for restoration and renewal, and many are now repurposed as ‘workshops’ and craft shops.

Shopping is the order of the day here. But the vaunted Turkmen carpets were disappointing (I’m happy to expand on the subject of carpets if anyone is interested) and the pretty pottery Wendy bought turned out to be fragile.

The city centre is now reminiscent of those designer warehouse shopping towns one sees in the US and now in increasingly in Europe. All the facades facing the: “Lyabi-Hauz, a delightful pool of water surrounded by ancient mulberry trees, where you can sit at café tables and let the evening drift by” have been renovated with new brick and glass so it’s not quite Geneva Modernist but neither is it very ancient.


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Bukhara today


In medieval times this was a great centre of Islamic theology.  Burnes reported that: "The priests of the present day assert that, in all other parts of the globe, light descends upon earth; but, on the other hand, that it ascends from the holy Bokhara!" and:

There are about 366 colleges at Bokhara, great and small, a third of which are large buildings that contain upwards of seventy or eighty students. Many have but twenty, some only ten. The colleges are built in the style of caravansarais, a square building is surrounded by a number of small cells, called "hoojrus," which are sold, and bear a value of sixteen tillas, though in some it is so high as thirty...

...In the colleges people may be found from all the neighbouring countries except Persia; and the students are both young and aged.
After seven or eight years' study, they return to their country with an addition to their knowledge and reputation; but some continue for life in Bokhara.
The possession of a cell gives the student a claim to a certain yearly maintenance from the foundation, as well as the revenues of the country.
The colleges are shut for half the year by order of the King, to enable their inmates to work in the fields, and gain something additional to their livelihood.
What would the fellows of Oxford and Cambridge think of mowing down wheat with the sickle?... 

...The students may marry, but cannot bring their wives to the college.
In the season of study, the classes are open from sunrise to sunset; the professor attends constantly; and the scholars dispute in his presence on points of theology, while he guides their debates. One person says, "Prove there is a God!" and about five hundred set arguments are adduced: so is it with other matters.
The students are entirely occupied with theology, which has superseded all other points: they are quite ignorant even of the historical annals of their country.
A more perfect set of drones were never assembled together; and they are a body of men regardless of their religion in most respects, beyond the performance of its prayers; but they have great pretensions, and greater show.

Travels into Bokhara Sir Alexander Burnes 1832


Although there remain some old mud brick buildings reported by Sir Alexander Burnes, it has become something of a modern tourist Mecca, a city-museum.


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Madrasahs - there were once over 300 in Bukhara in the mid-19th century - it was a University Town
But forget physics; astronomy; medicine; history or geography (all once areas of Islamic leadership)
Just 'prove there's a God' and pray to Him five times a day - just like a 14th century Christian monastery


Among the iconic structures of the city is the marvellous 48m high Kalyan Minaret, built in the 13th century.


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B&W Photographs: Paul Nadar 1890

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The Kalyan Minaret and Mosque entrance, seen from the other direction, as is the street to the markets - 1890 and 2018
- the Uzbekistan Album has several more 'then and now' comparisons


The Kalyan Minaret had seen better days by Soviet times so in the 1920’s restoration began. Yet by the 1960’s it was still at risk of falling down.  To forestall this its foundations were renewed and reinforced. After Independence in 1997, to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of Bukhara, the minaret was thoroughly reconstructed and restored and is now often used in travel brochures to represent the city.

Adjoining the Minaret is the huge rectangular Kalyan Mosque completed in 1514 but also subject to ongoing restoration. An open central courtyard is surrounded by pillar-domed galleries (288 domes). Like all such domes each has echoing acoustics, as hand clap demonstrates.  It’s said to have accommodated up to 10,000 worshipers.


The greatest of the public buildings is a mosque, which occupies a square of 300 feet, and has a dome that rises to about a third of that height. It is covered with enamelled tiles of an azure blue colour, and has a costly appearance. It is a place of some antiquity, since its cupola, which once was shaken by an earthquake, was repaired by the renowned Timour.
Attached to this mosque is a lofty minaret, raised in the 542d year of the Hejira {= 1164 CE}.
It is built of bricks, which have been distributed in most ingenious patterns. Criminals are thrown from this tower; and no one but the chief priest may ever ascend it, ..(and that, only on Friday, to summon the people to prayers,) lest he might overlook the women's apartments of the houses in the city.

Sir Alexander Burnes Travels into Bokhara (1832)


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The Kalyan Mosque


An earlier mosque on this site was destroyed by Genghis Khan who was not Muslim but had an ancient Mongol animist religion based on ancestor worship. So, unlike the Spanish for example, he'd no interest in converting the conquered and generally tolerated the religions of his ’slaves’ (conquered peoples) provided that they did not question his overlordship. Yet like the Spanish he systematically put resisting dynastic and religious leaders to the sword, for the same totally practical reason: to eliminate potential leaders of resistance. Thus he destroyed the mosque and murdered its mullahs but spared the beautiful nearby Minaret. 

The ancient city’s citadel 'The Ark of Bukhara' is another ancient pile.  The royal palace was once on top and we were shown the cells below where the British 'spies' Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were held before being put to death in 1842.

The narrow, steeply sloping entrance and gatehouse may well have afforded protection against Elephants, but not against 20th century weapons. This was put to the test after the Russian Revolution when revolutionary 'Young Bukharans' – modelled after the 'Young Turks' - protested against Emir Alim Khan.   In Tsarist times the Emir had been a Russian vassal, allied against Britain, and had been allowed to continue ruling Bukhara with little interference. So he'd remained a medieval ruler, used to absolute monarchy.

Advised by a conservative Sunni Islamic clergy he responded to those questioning his divine authority by calling for jihad against the ‘Bolshevik Infidels’. Many thousands were put to death by his followers, including many Russian émigrés.

In response, on 28 August 1920, the modern Russian Army arrived to unseat him. They attacked the ancient Ark, very promptly destroying its defences and causing massive damage, although given its condition in the 1890 photograph (see above) the damage may have been hard to discern. Anyway, like everything else in town it's been rebuilt since. The Emir fled, initially to Dushanbe and then to Kabul in Afghanistan, and four years later, after remnants of the Emir’s supporters had been defeated in a local war, the Bukharan People's Soviet Republic was proclaimed. Western critics condemned Russia and commiserated with yet another deposed monarch.

The Arc now houses several interesting museums. But disappointingly there are no ancient guns protecting the ramparts. Presumably the Russians had made short work of those.


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The Ark of Bukhara; one of the museums inside; views from the battlements


A short walk away is the Bolo Hauz (Bolo Lake) Mosque, built in 1712 as a royal chapel for the Emir. It’s also known as the ‘Forty Pillars Mosque’ because if one stands in the right place its 20 tall carved wooden columns can be seen reflected in the rather algal octagonal pool in front of it. Bukhara has always had problems with insufficient water. Burnes reported that the drinking water was foul public bathes were expensive.  So only the wealthy could use them regularly. Today the water comes in a canal from the dwindling Zarafshan River (mentioned earlier) and is only plentiful during the spring melt in Tajikistan.


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Bolo Hauz (Bolo Lake) Mosque - the Royal Chapel


Even older than the Kalyan Minaret is the very fine Samanid mausoleum built between 892 and 943 CE and still in excellent condition. Its design reflects a period of Persian revival in that it is made to resemble a Persian Chartaqi, or Zoroastrian fire temple, and combines ancient Zoroastrian motifs with newer Islamic motifs, introduced from Persia and Arabia.


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Samanid Mausoleum


It was once the centrepiece of a large royal graveyard that is now a Russian (or Chinese) style people's park, complete with a funfair. The mausoleum owes its unique survival, among the now lost sarcophagi of that once morbid place, to its construction using kiln fired terra-cotta (bricks and tiles) and to having been buried in silt for over a thousand years due to flooding of the graveyard. Not, as our guide told us, due to being buried in sand by the faithful as Genghis Khan approached, although local Muslims did attempt to bury a mosque.  Given his preservation of the Kalyan Minaret, the mosque would certainly have been more at risk than this beautiful building. Nevertheless few ancients ever got to admire it as the mausoleum remained buried in mud until rediscovered in 1934 Russian archaeologist V.A. Shishkin. Excavating undamaged it took a team of archaeologists over two years. Meanwhile the surrounding park was landscaped to show it off to best affect. As it’s a royal burial chamber it’s again a holy place to Muslims.

Those of you who have read our Indian travels might be interested to know that the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a key player, with Ghandi and Lord Mountbatten (or at least his wife) in the Partition of India and Pakistan, and Pakistan’s first Governor General in 1947, is modelled after this building.

On balance, Bukhara was very enjoyable. We had several pleasant meals in nice restaurants including plov (oily rice with meat and carrots) a local favourite, trying different venues around town before venturing into a back street where a place upstairs offered a wonderful sunset looking over the rooftops, as well as a glimpse of what the city once looked like before all the renovations.


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Behind the scenes: from the restaurant and the courtyard our hotel room opened onto
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It was here, in our quite new hotel near the Lyabi-Hauz, that we abandoned a couple of bottles of wine thinking that they may be useful to one of the local crafts-persons as wood stain.

Throughout the trip there had been limited places with a licence to sell alcohol and while these typically had a dozen different brands of vodka and beer there was often a very limited choice of wine. As we like to have wine with meals this was problematic – like buying a pig in a poke – sometimes it turned out to be quite pleasant; sometimes desperation won; but this time…

We would have to resort to fruit juice spiked with vodka. Great idea, until I forgot which water bottle had the vodka.

The next leg of the journey would be a 450km drive through the desert, following the Silk Road to Ancient Khiva.





No sooner were we beyond the suburbs of Bukhara than the road turned into a patchwork of broken surface; dirt and potholes. Soon everyone was shaken to the bone and dreading six to seven hours of this. We pounded on into the desert.


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Leaving Bukhara the road soon turned into a patchwork of broken surface; dirt and potholes


After an hour or so and just as despair was setting in, relief.  Out in the desert we encountered a brand-new concrete dual carriageway – the New Silk Road - built by the Germans we were told, using International finance.


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The New Silk Road - what a relief!


The desert became ubiquitous. Then on the left a river and on the other side we glimpsed a dangerous, forbidden territory: Turkmenistan.  We'd noticed that road has security checkpoints, now mostly unmanned, against infiltration. So it was like looking over the DMZ into North Korea except that when I looked up the Australian Government Travel Advisory I discovered that here (as in Korea) we were in the North looking South. Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are far more dangerous for potential attacks on, and robbery of, tourists than Turkmenistan.  The red danger is the border area between all these countries, that are indeed a series of DMZ's, enforced with mine fields.  The river is the once mighty Amu Darya that briefly becomes the border here and runs past Khiva before dwindling to a trickle as it approaches the once vast Aral Sea.


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The Uzbekistan - Turkmenistan DMZ - beware! land mines!


Today Khiva shows us what Bukhara and for that matter Tashkent, might once have looked like before all the renovations. The whole city is preserved as an historic World Heritage Site, where the principal remaining industry and activity is tourism.


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Khiva City Wall and one of four Gatehouses


Like Bukhara, Khiva was a city on the important Amu Darya Silk Road route to the Aryl Sea and across to the Caspian Sea and the Volga to Russia or overland, across Georgia, to the Black Sea and on to Constanople and Southern Europe. 

Despite its 17th century importance on the route between Russia and China, Khiva is quite a recent city by Bukhara's standards, founded by the Persians at the beginning of the first century CE.  Then Turks came here before the Muslim Arabs arrived.  During the Mongol and Timurid periods it was the capital of the Khiva Khanate.

From the 17th century onwards Khiva became renowned for trading in slaves (see Alexander Burnes' impressions of the slave trade above). 

Russian slaves were highly prised for their skills.  By 1830 there were more than 2,000 Russians in bondage principally at Khiva. In 'A Narrative Of The Russian Military Expedition To Khiva: Under General Perofski, In 1839' we learn that: "The price given for a strong middle-aged Russian was 900 Rubles, while slaves of other countries could be purchased for half that sum; women were valued at half the price of a man."

Long before Burnes reported it in Travels into Bokhara, the Russians had been struggling to curtail this trade in their citizens. A century earlier Peter the Great had unsuccessfully attempted to stop it.  Three decades later, in an attempt to demonstrate goodwill, Catherine the Great had sent her oculist (optometrist), Blankenagel, to see what he could do to help the elderly uncle of the Khan see better.  But the man's eyes were diseased and incurable.  After persistent refusal to use his 'magic' to cure the uncle, Blankenagel was advised that if he attempted to return to Russia he would be killed as a spy. In a tale of derring-do he narrowly escaped, with the help of Russian slaves. But Catherine was not amused and took less polite steps:

In.. Ukaz {an edict from Tsar Catherine II} of the 28th January 1767, hostages were ordered to be seized, for the purpose of compelling the Asiatics to exchange them for Russian prisoners.
This measure was quite justifiable, seeing that Khivans and Bukharians traded and lived in safety along the Orenburg and Siberian lines and at Astrakhan, while Russian merchants dared not venture themselves within Central Asiatic territory without standing a risk of falling into life-long bondage. The distance and inaccessibility of the Khanates of Central Asia proved, and still prove, a serious obstacle in adopting more effectual measures for the liberation or prisoners... 1833, the audacity of the Khivans reached such a height that the Chief Collector of Customs at Khiva was sent to Orenburg to inform the Russian and Bukhara merchants privately that their caravans would inevitably be plundered if they did not pass through Khiva; this, it was evident, was merely a ruse to screen themselves from all responsibility in the event of future robberies. 
At the same time the subjects of the Khan of Khiva carried on an uninterrupted trade with Russia, and their caravans crossed to Orenburg Line to and fro every year. It was plain then that force of arms could alone bring the matter to a definite conclusion...

...In addition to crippling Russian trade in the East by the constant plunder of caravans and inciting the Kirghizes to commit these depredations, the Government of Khiva had since many years encouraged the pirates of the Caspian, who kidnapped Russian fishermen on that sea in great numbers every year, and sold them in all the markets of the East, and particularly in Khiva.
These unfortunate prisoners were doomed to pass their lives in hard toil, suffering every privation, and they usually ended their insupportable lives under the blows of their taskmasters, whose Mahomedan creed freed them from all considerations of humanity with respect to Kafirs or unbelievers, while the civil law gave them irresponsible power over the lives of their slaves.

A Narrative Of The Russian Military Expedition To Khiva - circa 1835


In 1839 Russian patience finally came to an end and despite the 'distance and inaccessibility', a military force crushed the local defences then appeared outside these walls and forced the Khan to surrender. Yet as in Bukhara five years earlier the Russians knew not to make their military presence too obvious, as the British had in Afghanistan, and the Khanate was allowed to continue as a vassal kingdom or quasi-autonomous protectorate.  Thus life could go on as more or less before - sans Russian slaves.

The local museum had some interesting historical photographs taken early in the 19th century, during Tsarist/Khanate times, before the Soviets took control.


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Royal wives posing bare faced for the camera
As in Turkey, India, and China, among others, there was a royal harem with principal wives, mistresses and servants
Below right - the opening of a new hospital in 1912 


The harem in the Tash-Khauli Palace was one of the stops on our guided tour of the city. The Tash-Khauli Palace is newer than some buildings in Sydney. Building commenced in 1830 by order of Allakuli-Khan and it took 8 years to build.  The Khan had required it in two years and though he had made it plain that money was no object he was unhappy with the progress and the final result.  In a response that would make the present NSW Government envious, on several occasions the contractors lost their heads. 

Like other palaces we have seen with harems, internal corridors connect the official reception hall and court to the khan’s chambers that are within his harem - his private household.  No other males, except his prepubescent sons, were admitted to the harem - lest he discover a 'cuckoo in the nest' and we were told that he did not employ eunuchs - I suppose by 1830, even here, cutting the wedding tackle off young men was frowned on.  Cutting their heads off was still OK.

By comparison to the Biblical Solomon the Khan's connubial requirements were modest. According to the Qur'an, a man is limited to just four wives. But a loophole means he's allowed unlimited concubines; and mistresses among the servants. So the men in town were well advised to keep their wives' charms hidden, as the Khan might well help himself to any woman who took his fancy.

The harem section of the Palace consists of a long rectangular courtyard with rooms on two stories for female relatives and concubines, also connected by corridors to the Khan's chamber. The four wives each had their own room that only opens to a forecourt on the long courtyard, so that their daily and potential nocturnal movements could be monitored.


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Tash-Khauli Palace - Khan of Khiva 's Harem
and a principal wife's apartment


As a result of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, in 1924 Khiva became part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.  The Khan was no longer; quel dommage!  Civil reforms were imposed by the Communists, sometimes against the local will: freeing women from the veil; suppressing religious extremism; introducing universal education; and implementing public health. Yet in Khiva the Soviets didn't set about the demolition of everything and rebuilding in modern form, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia.

One reason Khiva has been left relatively untouched is that it’s strategic importance declined.  Urgench (new Urgench), a larger conurbation, had already been developed during Tsarist times, 35 km away nearer the Amu Darya River, where there is now a substantial area under irrigation. The modern city of Urgench has become the new capital of the Khorezm Region, as well as the transport hub; railway terminus; and location of the airport.


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The modern city of Urgench 35 km away


So the old city of Khiva could continue to exist as a medieval curiosity and nowadays a source of tourist income.  Just as it used to be...

Except now the people here are completely changed.  Women wear wherever they like and probably outnumber men in the street. Everyone seems to have a mobile phone and most locals are engaged in commerce.

Yet the fabric of the place is largely as it was in the 19th century and older.  The city wall remains intact and vehicles are restricted to limited commercial access. The mosques, madrasahs and mausoleums have had some work in the interests of safety and ease of access but are in more or less original condition. Unlike Bukhara, the renovators have not replaced every old mud brick that offended their eye. One can even buy a traditional fuzzy hat like those in the old photos. But no locals except the camel man, get a 'selfie' with a camel, wore anything like traditional garb and it was much too hot for me to be tempted. 


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The Madrasah of Allah Kuli Khan
The Friday Mosque - built over a Zoroastrian Fire Temple


It's hard to imagine how they housed a hundred thousand local people and hundreds of travellers in the city's several caravanserai. The living conditions for the ordinary people must have been horrendous, let alone the lives of a couple of thousand slaves.

These days very few families live in the city and we were told by a guide the up to two thirds of the old dwellings are uninhabitable.


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The city within it's walls


Indeed few, if any, of the buildings still function as they were intended.  Many of the more substantial have been given over to commercial enterprise like: shops; restaurants; so called workshops; or hotels. But this leaves tourists to wander the old streets and go in and out of buildings without concern for religious sensibilities, provided of course, they have given Mammon his due and paid the appropriate fee.

Among the activities available, for a small extra fee, was the 45m climb to the top of the tallest minaret. It’s quite new, completed in 1910, when this was still a medieval Khanate, so I’d expected it to be well built inside, perhaps like the somewhat older (1857) lighthouse we’d climbed in Uruguay or perhaps a tower much more ancient like the spiral stairs to the top of the very much older Durham Cathedral tower (built in 1133) that's also much higher (66m).  Yet inside this was extremely dark and cramped particularly at the bottom where the central core was very thick, with steps of irregular height, requiring us to virtually crawl upward for part of the way. And the top platform, where a misstep while gazing out would result in a nasty fall back down the stairs was an OH&S nightmare.  Safety was probably not an issue in the days of the Khanate.  No doubt the minaret functioned like the one in Bukhara and was used to summon the people to prayers (but only the chief priest and then only on Friday, lest he overlook the women's apartments of the houses in the city); and for the occasional disposal of criminals.

The skills required to design and supervise the building of such things were possessed by very few craftsmen as formal education was exclusively in religion and worldly things were regarded as less worthy and as we have already seen the Khan was very likely to put those with the actual skills to death if their work failed to live up to his often unreasonable demands. Little wonder that so much of it was faulty.


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The city's two and a bit minarets


In addition to the city's two completed minarets here's a partially built twin, that was said to be left unfinished as a memorial to the Khan's son who died during its construction or perhaps it was the supervising engineer?

But our reward for climbing up to the top was wonderful views over the city and beyond the walls, across the irrigated fields and modern buildings, all the way to the river flats 40km away and out into the desert beyond.


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An OH&S nightmare and the view out into the desert beyond



The train at Urgench

Our next adventure was the return to Tashkent by overnight train.

When our friends travelled to Moscow from Beijing by train we decided to skip that bit and flew straight to Moscow but we were later envious that they had traversed the ‘Stans’ and stayed in a Yurt. Comparing notes we’ve since discovered that the train in Uzbekistan compared favourably with theirs. We had the luxury of a four person cabin for just us two.  But even with our bags on a top bunk it was very cosy.  After a while having the bunk down over our heads seemed claustrophobic so we hooked the bunk up and got the bags down again ‘til it was time for bed. The air-conditioning was welcome but just a bit too cold so we put on warm clothes that had not been used since the high mountains. Suddenly our similar train trips in India were recalled and I wasn’t envious of our friends at all.


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Catching a train
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Tashkent - reprised


Our organised tour would conclude with a bus trip to the Harzat Imam Complex.

Many of you may have noticed that earthquakes and other natural disasters don’t spare the holy places. See our visit to Lisbon, Portugal on this website, where a series of natural disasters caused many to lose faith in the Catholic Church, if not religion altogether, after the earthquake fire and tsunami on All Saints Day 1755, killed an estimated 100,000 people, many of whom were in church.  Since our return, the relatives of people killed in Lombok when the mosque collapsed in the earthquake on Sunday 5 Aug 2018 must be having similar doubts.

In the 1966 in Tashkent the devastation obviously included the Mosques. Since independence the Harzat Imam Complex in Tashkent has been reconstructed around the now restored 16th century Barak Khan Madrasah and the tomb of the poet Kaffal Shashi. The adjacent 19th century Tila Shaikh Mosque has been joined by the 2007 Hazrat Imam mosque. It’s all very new looking.


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The Harzat Imam Complex - Tashkent - with the19th century Tila Shaikh Mosque and the 2007 Hazrat Imam Mosque


More interesting is the Muyi Moborak library where one of five original first transcriptions of the Qur'an (Koran) is on public display. As you may know, in 607 CE in a mountain cave named Hira, The Prophet, Muhammad, received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. The revelations received in the cave would be recited poetically in a series of inspiring sermons to his followers, like the Gospels of Jesus.

And like the Gospels of Jesus the only records of The Prophet’s sermons are the transcribed recollections those who heard him speak. It would be about twenty years before these were first collected into a single text known as the Qur'an (the recitation).

This collection was ordered by the Third Caliph, Uthman in 650 CE. It is said that he was concerned that the few who’d heard the Prophet speak, before he died in 632 CE, would soon themselves be dead. So he ordered that five true copies be made and that differing records and the working drafts be destroyed. Fragments of several of these originals still exist, confirmed by carbon dating.

Of course it doesn’t really matter what was actually said. The written word becomes the Word. In this respect the Qur'an is probably a much more reliable record, of what was actually said, than the Gospels. The most original of the Gospels, from which the others are drawn, is attributed to the Disciple, Mark. This is unlikely to be Mark’s firsthand account as he was probably illiterate and the author makes reference to the Jewish-Roman war in Juda in 68 CE. Thus scholars believe that it dates to between 68 and 70 CE (Anno Domini). The two other Synoptic Gospels, Mathew and Luke, are thought to be at least ten years more recent, as both make reference to the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues, in 85 CE, and Luke reprises and corrects elements thought to originate in Mathew, for example Mathew Chapter 1 where the genealogy of Jesus has insufficient generations to match the historical time frame, in a more scholarly way; and in Greek.

Uthman himself was said to have been violently cut down while reading his copy, that thus bears his blood. In the years that followed many of copies of these originals were made and a number are systematically stained with blood, perhaps as a tradition.

The copy on display here is either the original Uthman Qur'an, with Uthman’s actual blood, or a copy of similar age with blood systematically applied. This copy has a well-known provenance since the time of Tamerlane (Timur). It was held in Timur’s library before finding its way to the mosque of Khodja Ahrar in Samarkand, Timur’s home town.

When Samarkand fell to the Russians in 1868 a scholar purchased it and removed it to the collection of the Russian Imperial Public Library in Saint Petersburg where it and its provenance came under considerable scholarly analysis. They noted that it’s written in the eastern Arabian dialect of Classical Arabic. Yet Muhammad, originating from Mecca, is known to have spoken the western dialect of Classical Arabic, so there was already an element of translation inherent in the first Qur'an. They also noted that Uthman’s blood had marked several facing pages, as it they had been turned while the blood was still wet, suggesting a deliberate act.

After the October Revolution in 1917 a request was made to Lenin to return ‘the holy relic’ to Muslims and in 1924, the year of Lenin’s death, this was finally granted. It was first transferred to Tashkent; later to the Khodja Ahrar mosque in Samarkand then, after independence in 1991, to this purpose built museum in Tashkent. Needless to say it’s very holy and can’t be photographed. And doubting its authenticity is heresy. But the museum holds many other Qur'ans in numerous languages and some replica pages of the original that we were free to snap.


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One of five original Qur'ans is on display here - no photographs of the actual book


As we were spending a couple of extra days in Tashkent after the tour ended we took advantage of the favourable exchange rate and booked into a five star hotel near the Opera House. Here everything worked, the facilities and breakfasts were on a different level and the staff to guest ratio tripled, including a complementary upmarket limo to the airport. We could even get BBC World and other Western channels on the TV. But we did miss the space.



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A change of hotel


Serendipitously the Opera House was in the park across the road. We’d already bought tickets to both the ballet (Swan Lake) and the opera (Tosca). They were in the third row in the centre of the auditorium in this very traditional Opera House, all gold filigree and chandeliers. But they were so cheap, around $50 for two sets of two tickets, that we were expecting an amateur performance by a handful of travelling ‘artistes’, like the Australian club circuit, or perhaps students.

To our surprise several of the performers, particularly the lead tenor in Tosca, and the prima ballerinas and boys in Swan Lake might have graced any grand Opera stage in the world. Stage management, often clumsy in non-professional performances, was seamless with sets both effective and changed without apparent effort. Costumes were similarly professional and the orchestra faultless. We were flabbergasted. We’d enjoyed two world class performances from seats that might have cost 20 times more elsewhere.



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The Opera House - Tashkent - and a performance of Swan Lake


We also enjoyed two fine art galleries, that had been closed on the Monday of our first visit. In addition to the Art Gallery of Uzbekistan we walked around to the Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan that surprisingly holds two Kandinskys in addition to some fine European works. Although as the chief curator is presently serving nine years for selling artworks on black market and replacing them with copies, maybe the Kandinskys are not. 


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Art Gallery of Uzbekistan
with a lot of Impressionist works



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Museum of Arts of Uzbekistan
A surprisingly catholic collection in an officially Muslim country - there were several other nudes


The State Museum of History of Uzbekistan, not far from our second hotel, has a great deal of medieval period and Silk Road arts and crafts. As I remarked in Tajikistan the pre-history of human settlement is dated in line with current scholarship and does not accord with the Biblical version.  There are quite a few explanations in sometimes quaint English but a lot is not translated.  Nevertheless it was informative and interesting.


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The State Museum of History of Uzbekistan


The top floor is dedicated to the current government's political structure and economic achievements. It's behind on who the current world leaders are: 'The Donald' is not there but Hillary is. Yet it remains current on local and Russian leadership as nothing much changes in that regard around here.


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The State Museum of History of Uzbekistan - Government Achievements
Wouldn't Malcolm love to use our museums for propaganda!
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After independence Uzbekistan became a presidential constitutional republic, with a bicameral parliament.  Yet although the constitution provides for two five year terms, the previous President, Islam Karimov, served for 25 years. 

As in the US, the Constitution gives the President the power of executive government while the Parliament is the legislature.  But laws must be signed into effect by the President, creating a near dictatorship. Late in 2016 elections were held and in this firmly controlled society the previous Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev simply stepped up to succeed Karimov as President with little effective opposition.  This should stand as a warning to Australians when considering Constitutional reform.

So far Mirziyoyev has proven to be a little less dictatorial and in addition to relaxing visa restrictions to Tajiks he has lifted the 22:00 curfew allowing Uzbeks to enjoy the streets at night, a privilege they have taken up with gusto. Time will tell.



China again





We returned to OZ via Beijing where we stayed with an expatriate Australian friend and got to see yet another side of that interesting city and revisit the iconic places like Tiananmen Square, where new security has now made access difficult, particularly if arriving by cab. So we resorted to the Metro that seemingly grows by the month yet still requires long walks in this huge city, which might keep one fit if it was not for the air pollution.


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Around Tiananmen Square - see also China in 1986 on this website Read More...


I even managed to buy a Guinness at the Irish pub near the Australian Embassy.


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Around the Australian Embassy - Beijing


We also spent over half a day in the massive National Museum of China on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square yet failed to see every exhibit.


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National Museum of China
Bottom left is a model of an early waterwheel driven blast furnace for making iron - a method invented in China
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By this time we were ready for home.




We had a seven hour stopover in Guangzhou and having experienced the old terminal there decided to book a nearby hotel. This was a new adventure. If you're like me, when you're tired and in a strange place sometimes the world seems to become more surreal and dreamlike, as one bizarre; unfamiliar and frustrating thing follows the next. This was just such a night.

First, the dreadful old terminal that we'd wished to avoid is gone and in its place are two massive new sterile post-modernist structures. We’ve been told, via email, that getting to the hotel is very straight forward: on no account catch a cab; the hotel shuttle will be sent to meet us at an alpha numeric number; after someone at that location calls them.

We decide it must be a gate or an entrance but there’s no such place in this terminal. No one speaks English. Finally, using sign language, we realise it must be in the other terminal.

There’s a shuttle bus to the other terminal. We’ll have to wait. It's late and we're tired. We decide we’ll ignore the instructions and get a cab straight to the hotel. We have the address but the cab driver clearly has no idea where it is, slowing to squint at our printout, yet again, as we drive off. Clearly he has no idea. Stop! I shout. We get out and walk back, much to his alarm and protestation. But we have no bags in his cab, so he has no recourse.  At last the shuttle bus appears. We get to the other terminal. But we're not out of the woods (or in this case the paddy-field) yet.

There was no one waiting at the appropriately numbered door.  Maybe they'd given us up?  By now it's early morning. We go to a counter and a helpful person calls the number of the hotel and tells us a shuttle is on the way. Twenty minutes. So we wait and wait.  Another hour passes. Finally a van appears, people already in it. After picking up more passengers and setting off down the freeway we unexpectedly bounce across the grassy margin onto an unmarked path between the trees. No wonder a cab wouldn't find it!  From there it gets really surreal - like something out of Apocalypse Now. Nothing but paddy-fields!

After some time, bouncing along, and several more turns; in the pitch black; in the middle of nowhere; and getting more and more concerned; we turn across a final paddy-field. Incongruously looming beyond the bamboo on the other side, is a twelve storey concrete and glass hotel, somehow mislaid in farmland. 

Alighting from the van I notice the forecourt is scattered with promotional cards, picturing girls and a contact number, like those one sees scattered around the streets in Las Vegas (dial 69 6969). But by this time maybe I'm hallucinating?

Yet the room is large and clean, verging on sterile, with a basic but functional bathroom. And the linen is fresh. 

The next morning the odd location became apparent. The hotel is on the fringe of a nearby city and our route to it last night was by an illicit shortcut, across-country, from the airport motorway.

After all that waiting and confusion we only got about an hour’s sleep before our multiple alarms sounded. We'd set them early, concerned about similar delays returning. We needn't have feared. The return van delivered us, back along the shortcut through the paddy-fields, directly to the International Terminal. It was a bit too soon but at least we'd had an adventure, instead of sitting around for seven hours on end. 

No napalm in the morning nor scantily clad hookers had been encountered; and we were in plenty of time for our flight home to OZ.