By John S. Hamalian
From out of the ashes of a crumbled empire, Uzbekistan has arisen to face a brave new world. Relegated to a Soviet republic in the former USSR, the territory had lost some of its traditions and perhaps a bit of pride. The reawakened nation is now attempting to catch up with the modern world but at the same time embrace its long and rich history. Though often grouped together as a generic ‘stan’ country, Uzbekistan has created its own unique customs and culture, forming a truly warm and wonderful land. For here, perhaps more than anywhere else, do the timeless trails of the ancient Silk Road yet permeate through the soul and the spirit of a nation.
A Splendid Cocktail of Cultures
The capital, Tashkent, was a surprisingly modern, yet decidedly low-rise, city. We were welcomed upon arrival by our driver, Vladimir, a hearty Russian who remained in Uzbekistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite the fact that Russians still dwell here and their language remains essential, there seems to be an unmistakable attempt to ‘re-Uzbekize’ the country and reduce Russian influence. Though Tashkent has its share of cultural sites and decorative mosques, what struck me the most walking around the city’s bustling streets was the cultural diversity. During the darker years of the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered many non-Russians out of Russia proper and into the remote extremities of the empire. As such, many Koreans and other ethnicities settled into Uzbekistan and the strong bond to their home countries is still felt today. Because of this, and also its position along major east-west trading routes, this region truly is an ethnic bridge between Russia, the Middle East and the Far East. As evidence, one of the more interesting people I met was a Tajikistan-born, Russian speaking, half-Japanese, half-Korean Uzbekistan citizen. Her name: Natasha Kim. What a fascinating mix!
Lingering Path to the Past
Steeped in myth and mired in legend even among the deepest recesses of modern memory, the remarkable dream of seeing the Silk Road became a permeating reality to me as I arrived in Bukhara, one of the main cities along that famous trading route between Europe, the Middle East and China. More of a perpetual journey to discover our own humanity than a single path to economic gain, the Silk Road yet winds through collective consciousness and weaves into indelible imagination. Throughout the centuries it has persisted as a cultural bridge between many different worlds. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Bhukara, for more than two thousand years a surviving bastion of ethnic migration and a welcoming oasis for brave caravans, where echoes of the weary footsteps of Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Uzbeks and others can still be felt today.
The Uzbeks, whose earliest clans were a nomadic Turko-Mongolian people, are said to be descendants of Uzbek Khan, the grandson of the great conqueror Genghis Khan. Although Islam had been present in Central Asia prior to the Mongol invasions in the 12th and 13th centuries, it really flourished here after descendants of Khan converted and ushered in a golden era of Islamic architecture fused with Indian, Arabian and Persian styles, so wonderfully apparent in the brilliant palaces, mosques and madrassahs (religious schools) that still dot the city even today.
One of the highlights in Bukhara is the Kalyan Mosque and its spectacular Minaret, a 48 meter (157 feet) high tower of exquisite stone dating back to 1127, intricately carved with complex designs and flowing Arabic script. In a symbol of the struggle with Tsarist Russia and, later, the Bolsheviks and Soviet Union, Vladimir showed me an old photo of the ancient minaret severely damaged from armed assaults, with huge chunks of it blown away. During Soviet times, such photos were forbidden and only fairly recently has the truth been revealed.
A Warm Reputation
During our stay in Bhukara, I experienced firsthand the full effect of the legendary Uzbek hospitality. The people take great pride on their reputation for strong family ties and kindness towards guests. A warm and affectionate lot, the people here just want to hug you and kiss you and kiss you and hug you (did I mention the hugs?). One holdover from Russian influence that seems to be well-rooted here is an amazing fascination with vodka. This, coupled with the common practice of inundating guests with far more cuisine than they can possibly digest, proved to be quite a challenging combination. The sheer amount of food and alcohol stretched my imagination as well as my stomach lining. And just when you thought it might be over…behold! Another plate of kebabs and another bottle of vodka magically appears! When it comes to foreigners being hosted by locals, I would come to find out that there does not seem to be a direct translation of the word ‘No’ in Uzbek. Yet I was extremely grateful for their exceptional warmth and generosity, and the food was, indeed, superb.
A Cold Shadow Lifted
As we drove from Bhukara to Samarkand through the barren wastelands of the vast desert that lay between, I had a chance to speak more deeply with Vladimir, who proved to be quite an intriguing character. This man has really been around, having been to nearly all of the fifteen former Soviet republics as well as much of the Middle East, including a stint in Oman as a chemical engineer. When the USSR broke up, he somehow missed the time window for ethnic Russians to convert their Soviet passports into a Russian one and, thus, accepted Uzbek citizenship. Meanwhile, his wife and children live in Moscow. Talk about a long-distance relationship.
I asked Vladimir what he thought about the demise of the Soviet Union and he seemed to reflect on it with a hint of nostalgia, but mostly with practicality. He said although the dismantlement created some opportunities, he regretted the change because it led to too many barriers on travel and exchange between the former Soviet states.
Later in our journey we saw a soaring communist-era red and white radio tower that Vladimir explained was used to jam transmissions from Voice of America during the height of the cold war. As we passed it a slight shiver from the past ran up my spine and I silently gave thanks that this chapter of our world’s history has been closed.
The Golden Road to Samarkand
Our final destination was to the spectacular Silk Road city of Samarkand, a place so magical it motivated the writer James Elroy Flecker to write, “For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the Golden Road to Samarkand”. An ancient city around 2,500 years old, Samarkand was once the capital of one Asia’s mightiest empires from the 14th to 16th centuries. Its most famous ruler, Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane), was a much-feared conqueror and, for a few short but highly influential years, commanded an immense territory from India to Russia to Turkey. Timur and his successors built magnificent mosques, splendid madrassahs, and elegant palaces – fusing different ethnic styles so thoroughly that it had created a distinct Islamic architectural style that has influenced Muslim society around the world. Without a doubt, the premier attraction in Samarkand is Registan Square, a breathtaking complex of three massive madrassahs that form a singular visual experience difficult to comprehend in one gaze. With its brilliant turquoise domes magnificently reflecting the glittering afternoon sun, Registan must be one of the world’s most impressive sights.
While wandering around its streets and exploring the elegant buildings of modern-day Samarkand, through it all ghosts of the past remain. On the very soil I am planted on, some of the world’s great figures did traverse: Alexander the Great, wielding sword and shield, Genghis Khan, brandishing club and torch, Marco Polo, clutching quill and scroll. To stroll along the remnants of the ancient Silk Road is to travel back into the depths of time itself. Staring into the mirror of the trials and tribulations of humanity, it is there that we realize that we have come face to face with a reflection of ourselves.
Enduring Road to the Future
Uzbekistan has once again come full circle in the continuum of its own history. It has shed the old skin of a former empire and now grows comfortable in its independent clothes. This is a state in transition. Striving to remember its past, attempting to grasp its present, determined to define its future. Through it all, the Silk Road yet meanders its way through the heart of the land and the soul of its people. Less a road than a map, from what was to what will be, a path that crosses cultures, a bridge that joins people. Nations may come and empires may go, but the Silk Road will always endure.
How to Get There
Flights from Singapore Changi to Tashkent can be booked with a layover in either Dubai, Istanbul or Seoul.