A Ride to Khiva and Beyond
Oh yes! Now it’s easy! Get on a train in Orenburg and you can be in Khiva in two-three days; take an aeroplane and you will be there in a matter of hours. But it wasn’t like that then…
To the sound of trumpets and the beating of drums, wishes of successful campaign and blessing from the Tsar, General Perovski marched out of Orenburg with the glittering Khiva in mind. He knew the steppes; he knew the desert and the bleak terrain he would have to cross; he knew of the total lack of water way out there; he knew well the Russian winter, after all, he was Russian himself, yet he chose to march in winter; the snow would provide fresh water. He was ready to challenge Nature to a game of survival. Challenge Nature! 5825 men had set out from Orenburg with 22 guns, 4 rocket stands, plus several thousand camels, horses and freight wagons…
But Nature had some Aces up its sleeve. And in the winter of 1839 it slammed the Ace of Spades in Perovski’s way – the coldest winter in man’s memory. In deep snow, Siberian blizzards and temperatures down to -50oC camels perished, horses perished and men froze to death or died from sickness. The forward elements of the task force that had left earlier managed to reach Emba but the main force got only as far as Ak-Bulak before they turned back… still a long way before they would have had to face the harshest reception on the Ust-Urt plateau. And how many turned back? 1856! Fewer still finally struggled back to Orenburg!
History doesn’t dwell on those left behind, but for them, Nature had most probably played the Queen of Hearts; it would welcome them - be they man, horse or camel; the steppe would love them, take them, absorb them… for they are its fertilizer.
Yes… Man is clever! Man has laid a road of rails the length of Ust-Urt. Horses of steel now run on them carrying people and goods. Yes, Man is determined!
But Ust-Urt has time - It will wait. Like an amoeba in the sea of sand, It will let You penetrate Its boundaries; It will place no obstacles there; It will let You go forward; go to It’s heart; reach the point of no return… and as You do so, the sands will gently, quietly, close in behind You; envelop You. And if, at times, Ust-Urt does get impatient - that’s understandable, that’s only nature - then It will challenge You: It will deep-freeze You at -50oC in winter, or sizzle You at +50oC in summer, or bury You in sand dunes, and offer You only dry, salt-encrusted water-holes. Yes, Ust-Urt has time… It will wait till You de-freeze; till Your desiccated flesh comes off Your bones; It will take You from within the dunes… It will wait for You to come - for You are its fertilizer.
Oh yes! This strategy has worked well. Remember those years of plenty - the 1800’s…? Those were the years! Remember those bands of Turkomen sweeping north from the Oxus through Ust-Urt into the eastern borderlands of Russia taking hostages from among the Kirghiz and Russian and German settlers to sell in the slave markets in Khiva or Bukhara? Remember the inter-tribal fighting and pillaging as the Kirghiz nomads moved their herds north from the Oxus to Ust-Urt in the spring? Remember 1839-40 and General Perovski’s expedition to Khiva?
But, now, Man is more careful, more clever; he can traverse the entire length of Ust-Urt on steel horses in a day what once took him weeks. The pickings are slim now, but Ust-Urt will wait; it will survive the years of famine for it has Time on its side… And as You look down upon this inhospitable plateau, your soul may wonder: that clump of shrubs – a little greener than others, and those flowers of somewhat brighter hue than others… were You perhaps that fertilizer?
I also am more careful now. I am not taking any chances on my way to Khiva; I am taking the road of rails that crosses the Ust-Urt plateau from Beynew in Kazakhstan and runs southeast, straight as an arrow, for 450 kilometres to Kungrad in Uzbekistan.
Some will say it’s boring, there’s nothing there but sand, withered grass, salt pans and blazing sun, but just relax, watch, look… Don’t you feel the hypnotic pull of the desert, of that boundless horizon, of silence, solitude, its challenge - just you and Ust-Urt? Momentarily I am weighing up my chances – one third of the Russian task force survived in the failed expedition to Khiva - couldn’t I do it 2010? GPS, mobile phones and other hi-tech aids on hand… couldn’t I walk, or cycle, the 450 kilometres across it? But just then a solitary tomb in the desert catches my eye! A solitary tomb… out there, in this boundless, empty desert… How? Why? So I am not the first to be tempted, but who was he; someone must have buried him… was he perhaps my age; is that why he succumbed to Ust-Urt…?
I have seen other desolate, arid and barren areas in this part of the world but there had always been some sign of life: cattle at best, or horses, sheep, or goats, or, at worst, three wild dogs eyeing me hungrily in the most desolate mining area of Kazakhstan. But here, there is nothing… nothing except death. There, in the distance, almost on the horizon is another burial mound or tomb… a sure sign that life was here and burned out here. Who, when, how? No one can tell for there are never any dates, inscriptions or other identifying marks on such graves. And later, a little closer, I am amazed to see a large cemetery. A close-up view shows the graves to be in good condition but of design I had never seen before: large rectangular enclosures of mud brick with large V notch and a rectangular window below it at one end, and a similar V notch at the other end – the mysteries of Ust-Urt none of my companions could uncover. Yes… Ust-Urt has time; it will yet have its years of plenty.
My companions in the compartment correct me: this is not Uzbekistan; we are in Karakalpakstan, a self-governed republic within the Uzbek Federation! Their capital city is Nukus, not Tashkent! And they are proud of it, they see themselves different, “nicer” people. My companions are obviously of Russian stock, so why Karakalpaks (black-hats), who were they, where are they now, how did they look…? No one can tell me.
But it’s true. The Karakalpaks of today are “nice” people – even their customs and border control. I had to fill out the mandatory customs declaration form – camera, currency – and I couldn’t avoid my two companions watching. The officer came, looked at my passport, visa, sat down to practice a few words of English and left. But that wasn’t good enough for my companions; they called him back and made him look again at my declaration – USD 1,200… £220… Now here’s a rich and worthy man travelling with us! The customs officer now looked at me with due respect - despite my travelling attire and unshaven look - saluted, shook my hand… told them to take very good care of me and no one else was to be allowed to take the remaining seat in the compartment! And so it was.
And the train runs on. But in this awesome desert even diesel engines get tired, and so we pulled in at Jasliq - a small railway stop along this empty route. The welcoming party obviously knew we were due; they were already there, their goods spread out for sale – what a cacophony of colours and feverish activity! We stretched our legs, our engine caught its second wind and we were on our way again. Now, a cavalcade of hawkers paraded through our carriage: mante, karashi, tengie, samsa, shurak nan, pater nan, majak, sutr, walok..!!! And so it went on over and over again. And even if no one had bought the bread, tea, ravioli, fish, eggs, soup, or changed money, or bought salted fish or had their photo taken with a live monkey on their shoulder, this cavalcade of women injected some excitement, colour, dress and a variety of faces, and enlivened the journey.
We were approaching Kungrad and the end of the line. Way over to my right, hard to say just how far it was, runs an endless ridge high above the level of the rail tracks – put a spirit level to it and it would show flat and horizontal. I was, in fact, looking at the Ust-Urt plateau – elevation of around 135 metres – from which the train had just descended into this vast area covered with shrubbery and grass. It was already evening when the train stopped and a rather different welcome awaited us at the station. As before, stalls were spread out for the hungry passengers, but people were milling around us, dark faces, watchful eyes and slouching men made us feel very uneasy – be they Karakalpaks or not. The station-master put us up for the night in the overnight-rooms with no water and the WC some 100 yards outside. My compartment companion, a big man, advised against venturing out individually and we agreed to go out in two’s, even in the middle of the night if the need arose.
At the time of the Russian push for Khiva (1830’s – 1880’s), Kungrad was an important Karakalpakstan town located just west of where Amu Daria splits into its two main channels of the delta. The bordering area to the west and south of Kungrad was a huge shallow brackish lake – Abughir - some 20 miles wide and 80 miles long fed by the Laudan branch of Amu Daria. It was cut by numerous irrigation canals that presented a major impediment to the Russian forces crossing it from west to east. And now? Rail tracks run on what was once the bottom of this lake while Amu Daria - what remains of its waters - is some ten kilometres to the east of town.
Aral Sea – Maynak
And where’s the Aral Sea? At that time it was some sixty kilometres to the north of Kungrad – and now? And Maynak – what is it now? The maps of 1880’s show Maynak as an island in the southern tip of the Aral Sea but, today, it is accessible by asphalted road.
It’s early May, the beginning of spring here, and the entire huge delta of the Amu Daria is covered with green shrubbery and residual pools of water from molten snow. The road to Maynak is dry, well maintained and the very first red poppies are appearing along its verges – later in the spring, perhaps in a week or two, the area around here will be covered with poppies and desert tulips.
But what of the Aral Sea? Ask Shuhart – listen to his story…
He will tell you about his dream. When still a boy, he dreamt his destiny… He will sail the Aral Sea for fish; there will be years of plenty, years of some, and then will come they years of naught. And even when all will have left or gone, he will stay to live out his destiny… He will tell you the story of the three “eyes” of the Aral Sea. Maynak, where we are standing at the moment, was the pupil of one of them; it sparkled with life, with activity and happiness. The ships moored around it were like the iris of an eye set in the pale blue of the Aral. But then came Man… Man cut the optical cord - the Amu Daria - and siphoned off its life-giving waters; and the eye shrivelled and died; and the Aral Sea was no more – only sand and salt pans. He will tell you the story of a ship that died of a broken back. It came up to the eye, grounded on a ridge, and buckled – the fore and aft are now drooping; other boats came to the rescue and they too were grounded. And now, they all lie in the sea of sand, corroded, scavenged - a veritable mortuary of the once proud fishing fleet; and his ship - the Swan - rests amongst them. Look at them… don’t you feel the pain they must have suffered; just look at how human vultures have eaten out the flesh and lungs of that one – only its ribs remain; look at those eyes full of reproach set in a face of deathly pallor. Even Nature is kinder than Man as it gradually corrodes them away to bury their carcass in the sand.
The sun is already strong in early May and as it reflects off the soft, white sand, you will see hundreds of foot prints cross the dunes leading to the mortuary and back. And you may wonder – why people come here, what attracts them, what do they contribute; and I realize with a shock that my own footprints are heading there too, and back much too soon… for Time is pressing. Time? Time for what…?
As I part with Shuhart, he happily accepts a few notes of Sum - thank you… for cigarettes… but when I give him a packet of gingerbreads his face lights up with delight. Cigarettes - that’s a necessity in his life, but gingerbreads! he would never buy - that’s absolute luxury! And as he puts them away deep under his cloak, I am shocked to see that he is like the ships – his cloak, his body, his face are the colour of rust; he is rust! His dream… his captain has abandoned ship; his mates have abandoned ship, only he has stayed on deck, and he will live out his destiny…
Look around Maynak: men stand idly here and there; its fish processing plant – abandoned; its hotel - dilapidated and without water; its only café - closed; the little shop - closed… Life is closed in this forgotten and drained “eye” of the Aral Sea! What is left but to run away? But I can’t leave, not just yet. I need to talk to Shuhart some more; I need to hear his full story, his dream, his life, the highs and lows on the sea of Aral, the glory days of the Swan; to understand destiny. As I raise my hand to hail him and look down upon the mortuary, fresh footprints show up in the sand; excited people are running, posing, climbing onto the skeletons and clicking, clicking, clicking… and Shuhart is slowly walking towards them, for he is the Guardian of the mortuary. Let him be; that’s his life; that’s his destiny. I will be back; I will find him again – next year or the following year… but will he wait, or will he have lived out his destiny by then? Will Man let him and his ships find peace in the gentle dunes of the white, soft Aral sand, or will Man turn Shuhart’s destiny into a tourist attraction…?
Or you could have asked Witek – he was here in October 1941. Clothed in rags, hungry and exhausted he was one of the tens of thousands of Polish soldiers released from Stalin’s GULAGs when Hitler attacked Russia. Like all the others, he wanted to fight the Germans, wherever they might be; like many others he had just spent three months travelling in freight wagons from north of the Arctic Circle to Uzbekistan where the Polish Army under General Anders was being raised. He was shuttled from place to place and eventually arrived in Farah on the Amu Daria. From there he was taken on a barge downstream past Nukus and disembarked at a place called Taldyk where Amu Daria branched into several channels of its delta. By then he was starving and he went on-shore to search for work and food at a kolkhoz named “Stalin” a few kilometres distant. He was so destitute and wretched-looking that Karakalpak women on the way would take pity on him, break off bits of their own bread and offer it to him… Taldyk was not much more than just a few mud huts, but it was on the river bank; it had a jetty and served a number of kolkhozes further inland. And today? The waters of Amu Daria have been depleted to the extent that Taldyk has been left – literally – high and dry. The main channel is now ten kilometres away (!). Of what use is a jetty now? Taldyk still shows up on the Google Map but practically nobody lives in what’s left of it now. And the kolkhoz? Like Stailn – dead - not on Google; perhaps in hell.
But there was no work for Witek in Taldyk, and no food, so he went on a barge further downstream to Maynak - a settlement on the Maynak island in the Aral Sea! There were three enterprises there at the time; he worked two days in each and his luck, again, run out. A motor boat took him along the coast of the Aral to Urga, a settlement by the deep blue waters of the south west coast of the Aral Sea. It had a port and a fish processing plant dating from the time of WW1 while the nearby kolkhoz “Komintern” supplied all their needs. Karakalpaks liked the Poles; they sympathized with their plight, for it was only ten years since the Red Army had brutally put down Karakalpak’s resistance to forced collectivization; they found him work. But the deep blue waters of the Aral are long gone and Urga is left like an eagle’s nest sitting on a plateau high above the dry bottom of the sea. Who would want to live there now – no water, no fish, only dry steppe; only the skeletons of buildings remain. And who would want to live in the “Komintern” now – not a trace of it remains…
It’s time to continue on the road to Khiva. Three men are sharing the car with me – all are of Russian stock but all are Karakalpaks – and proud of it! It’s in their nature to be hospitable to strangers and especially those that like their country. As we talk about my life and theirs, the youngest of the three invites me to spend the night at his house and to allay any fears on my part, he shows me his cap – he is a policeman; how could I refuse? The others insist on giving me their addresses and extract from me a promise to visit them next time I am in Nukus.
“My policeman” lives in Dzhamamma, a small place near Khojayli on the way to Nukus. The house is substantial and clean but the WC is a shed outside with a hole in the floor and the only washing facility is a small bowl by the entrance door; a mirror hangs above it and a single tap gives a very meagre flow of water. The best you can do is wet your fingers and eyes – brushing teeth is already a problem. Indeed, the supply of clean water is a problem in this town and he has to rely on an electric pump and water storage tank. He’s a young man, younger than he looks at 26 but already married and has three little daughters.
I am put up in the family room - a long room with one long table and twelve chairs, couches covered with richly-embroidered cloth along one wall, a cabinet with non-descript items behind the glass door and a large TV screen. A welcoming snack is soon placed at one end of the table: a pot of green tea and sweets of the “petits fours” kind. I am surprised by the size of the table and the number of chairs so he explains that the entire family shares the house: his father is away on a job, his mother works in Russia, two younger sisters, and the older sister with her husband – they all live together under one roof - that’s the only way they can make ends meet. He works as an interviewer in a prison in a village close to Kungrad, much too far for daily commuting so he comes home for weekends. Well, they can make ends meet, just but he calls me over to the garage housing a white Russian Lada – old, true, but it still runs quite well.
We are off to Nukus and the Amu Daria - I particularly wanted to see the river and the canals siphoning off its waters for irrigation. On the way to Nukus we cross the river by an old pontoon bridge swaying, wobbling, clattering, yet somehow accommodating two-way traffic – all adding up to a hair-raising experience. And not so long ago, all crossings were on a roll-on, roll-off steel ferry pulled there and back by rope – this antique is now the main part of the pontoon. But this is Nukus – the capital city of Karakalpakstan - and now, at long last, a new steel bridge is being erected alongside. Indeed, as we do a quick tour of this spacious and pleasant city we cross several irrigation canals running through its centre. A side road and unpaved track leads to Amu Daria and here, with surprise and some disbelief, I see a scenery reminiscent of Maynak and of what the “eye” of the Aral See must have looked like in the early stages of its death: several boats, here and there, lie trapped and abandoned in parts of the river delta that had silted up. The boats still look good and healthy but marooned and immobile and destined for death…
Early next morning, as a token of my appreciation for his hospitality, I leave ten dollars on the table, and I can see a look of great relief and pleasure come over his face. As we shake hands, I recall some comments that in Uzbekistan one will never have a problem with accommodation, for both the rich and poor will always offer hospitality, for they know and expect that their guest will repay them generously – that’s the tradition here.
Never heard of it – says my driver who claims to have driven tourists all over this region. Petro-Aleksandrovsk? Don’t know - say the locals we ask in Turtkul. But I know; it should be just south of Turtkul – somewhere between Turtkul and Amu Daria; and I have found it on Google! It was the site of the first Russian fort and settlement on Amu Daria at the time of their advance into Turkestan – the first capital city of Karakalpakstan. But one man - an old man, in his nineties, dressed in his Sunday best and leaning heavily on his stick, probably out to take one last look at life on this earth – knew. Yes, there was once Petro-Aleksandrovsk, over there… but it has been wiped out by Amu Daria, and all people have moved out a long time ago. Isn’t it remarkable? The Tsar of Russia – an almighty Emperor – could subjugate all the peoples of Turkestan, yet when he challenged Nature, he lost to Amu Daria!
Petro-Aleksandrovsk was built in 1870’s. When Frederic Burnaby was riding to Khiva in 1875, it was the key Russian fort on the way to Khiva, but Amu Daria had other plans: it tore at its banks and swung remorselessly north-east threatening the very existence of this Russian outpost. In 1888 the river was three miles from the city, but by 1932 this distance shrunk to three-quarters of a mile; people gave up trying to control Nature and gave up the city. In 1920 the capital of Karakalpakstan moved further out to Turtkul, but Amu Daria still pursued them relentlessly, and in1930, the capital was transferred to Nukus. Now, Petro Aleksandrovsk lives only in the memory of a few; Amu Daria has engulfed it completely, and if Google is right, the history of Petro-Aleksandrovsk is now on the far side of the river!
Follow the old man’s directions and, within a few miles, you come face-to-face with the river; it doesn’t look threatening; you no longer hear that ripping and cracking noise when it was tearing away at its banks, but its width is immense. Has it done its vicious job now? Is it happy now? Will it rest…? Towards the end of the road stands an outpost, a “czajhana” a café – they make bread, fry fish, one can eat there. And just a few hundred yards further stands a solitary police outpost – the last outpost before the river - and you may wonder… when it is taken by the river, will the town of Turtkul start evacuating?
Petro Aleksandrovsk may have lost its battle, but other places have reached stale-mate lasting centuries in their struggle with Nature. If you are being driven around this area in a taxi, or private car, its driver will, inevitably, try to entice you to visit the “kreposti” – the ruins of fortifications from 3-6 century. I am glad I let myself be persuaded for, having seen them I am hungry to return. From the very first sight of Ayaz-Qala I knew they are friendly walls; I sensed their deep longing for human touch, longing to see life again within their ancient walls; I felt their mild reproach that I, like so many others over the centuries, have come but just to look… Will You come? Will You walk the few hundred yards of sand into their embrace; will You tenderly run Your hand across their ancient walls; seek shelter from the blistering sun in the shade of the walls; hug them for warmth in the coolness of night? Will You listen to their history whispered softly by the cool breeze – listen to stories of sweat and blood, stories of ambition, power, love, lust, murder and sacrifice, of new life and death, of the pain of unrequited love… And when You wake at night will You not notice that stars twinkle and shine just a little brighter… just for You? And when You wake with the sunrise and look at the serene world at Your feet… then You will know what You have achieved.
Or will You come with a bus-load of others to the yurt camp just across the road? You can have bread or shashlyk and other native dishes prepared - just for You; You can sleep in a yurt, ride camels, go hunting with hawks, and pretend the life of a native… but as You wake in the morning, You will then know what You have achieved. And when You leave the camp, and take one last look at the ancient walls, Your soul may twinge for it will sense the quite reproach in the whisper of the breeze… when will You come? When? So will You come… with me, or alone, or with others. Will You come…?
Straight, open motorway leads from Urgench to Khiva. Spring is visible all around; fruit trees and shrubbery are already covered in delicate green foliage; people work at irrigation canals, others are lighting clay stoves along the road for baking shuruk nan -their traditional un-leavened bread. Suddenly it’s there – Khiva! But I don’t need to breach its massive walls, nor ram the city gate open – they are open wide; I am welcome and so are hundreds of others! What a different sight it would have been back in 1840’s… your life in Khan’s of Khiva hands, at his whim! Now – it’s in the hands of bus, taxi and car drivers milling around in tens, in hundreds.
Hello… can you see me? Of course not - for I am standing 57 metres above ground at the top of Islam-Huja, the tallest minaret in Khiva! Hello… can you hear me? Of course not - for my voice is gone; the muezzin has gone too; no one calls the faithful to prayer in Khiva now. The only sound up here is the breathless hubbub of the young around me. It seems the challenge of today is no longer to live the life of true Moslem, but to climb the steep and slippery spiral steps inside the minaret - in total darkness - without cracking one’s head or bruising knees. Imagine that in Saudi – tourists and unbelievers in a minaret! Imagine the reaction of the religious police there! Or in Iran! Or in Khiva only a hundred years ago! Isn’t it strange - religion binds and controls the lives of people in one country, but it is perceived as threatening to peace and purpose in another?
What would a muezzin have felt at this height; would he have been any closer to the Creator; at peace with the world…? I don’t have a chance to contemplate such questions for it’s crowded to the point of danger where muezzins used to stand. There, beyond the city walls and as far as the horizon, lies the modern city of Khiva immersed in warm sunlight and the fresh greenery of early May. A long way below me, out towards the walls, lies an off-white canopy of flat roofs cut into segments by straight, narrow streets. Here and there the canopy is punctured by a turquoise copula or minaret, but the muezzin would have needed a megaphone to be heard by believers – today there are few to be seen in the streets of old Khiva.
No, the muezzin would have had to come down to the ground to see… and his wrath and ire would have risen to fever pitch for, whichever mosque, medressa or mausoleum he entered he would be crowded out by tourists and traders, and in the street, by artisans, hawkers, moneychangers all dressed for tourists and kept in order by the ubiquitous police. Would he not have felt rather like Jesus on entering the synagogue in Jerusalem to preach? Would he also not turn over tables, open all birdcages; throw out the moneychangers, artisans, hawkers and the populace…?.
Look at the cavalcade of tourists - see the amazement and awe on their faces? But my feeling is one of regret, for gone is the spirit of Khiva! Its history repeated thousand-fold by tourist guides flows past our ears – meaninglessly; its monuments - photographed ten thousands of times you can see in their full brilliance on Google; so what do we take back with us - only photographs and souvenirs - no pain, no blood, no hunger, no danger; no part of Khiva as it was of old leaves with us…
And I wonder - what is it with us? Don’t we know, or do we prefer to forget that in this very place where we stand in awe of ancient walls and edifices, when
one hand offered gold to glorify the Creator and his Prophet
– the other bribed with same gold
one hand invited to feast
– the other drew a dagger from sleeve
one hand built temples
– the other destroyed with sward and fire
one hand blessed
– the other sowed misery and death in His name
one hand explored sensual pleasures of women
– the other relegated them to the rank of pack-animals
At the time of Russian advance on Khiva in 1875 - only 125 years ago - it was such a different world here. The Khans ruled; they were “God”, their whim was command, their reputation for cruelty spread way beyond their borders, their reputation for banditry cast fear into the minds of settlers on the Russian borderlands, the slave trade provided income and workforce, caravans of 1000 and more camels passed through their lands. The inner city I am looking at now was full of life and bee-hive activity, adulation, suspicion, wealth and misery, fear… If you were to enter through the main city gate, you would be welcomed by the view of towering gallows; a little further you would know it’s the prison dungeon for its stench and cries for pity from the living-dead shackled with chains. Can you imagine: condemned slaves lying on the ground, lined up for the executioner… and he, with his knife gouges out their eyes - one by one – wipes the bade on his cloak… for cleanliness, or hygiene perhaps? Or the other condemned – like those driven onto stakes taking time to die; or those with their throat slit from ear to ear, slaughtered like sheep; or those with mouths slit from ear to ear smiling at you perpetually, or their noses slit, ears cut of; imagine… What a perfect pretext for the Russian Tsar to take Khiva; to put an end to slavery and barbarism! And to think that it was only in 1860 that serfdom was formally abolished in Russia itself!
Khiva’s first line of defence, at that time, was an outer wall some six miles in length; the next line of defence was the city wall with a ditch in front of it; the final point of defence was the citadel above the western gate. The space between the two walls, roughly a quarter of a mile became, with time, the bazaar. The inner walls were in poor condition, tumbling into the ditch in many places which itself became covered with graves. Today, the outer walls are gone, the ditch is gone, the graves are gone and their space is taken up by new Khiva; the caravans have left never to return, and the beasts of burden are no longer camels, horses, donkeys, or women – all have been replaced by trucks, buses, cars.
But get away from tourists and their guides, and you will find that people do live inside the walls of Khiva. Walk the peripheral streets; go out to the walls; there you will find real people: the poor and the less poor, those in obvious need but with a smile on their faces. Look at the street urchins – they smile; put out their hands for a bon-bon please; want to be photographed… Or that group of urchins playing back-alley football - photograph please - see the sparkle in their eyes and smiles on their faces? See the better- off school kids dressed in school uniforms throwing words of English at me; see that group of young men adoringly restoring a red pre-1960’s Russian Volga; see that man sitting on his haunches outside his door – what has he to look forward to at the age of 45…? And that old woman who has lived in this back street essentially all her life – she’s thinks she’s well of! And that big woman smiling away her gold teeth – she too asks to be photographed for she’s the proud owner of a sparkling-clean new car…
And there are the obviously rich. They don’t live within the city walls, of course, but they can be seen within them. Look at the wedding entourage - the bride in magnificent white, the groom no less dressed for the occasion. Look at the crowd surrounding them… they walk pompously amongst the history as if they owned it. What contradiction – a Moslem bride and groom dressed as if for a Christian wedding! Or look at that party taking farewells at the city gate; focus in on their dress, posture, women… now, there’s class and money!
So what is Khiva then? An oyster - the pearl gone, the shell lacquered and preserved for tourists and posterity?
Perhaps. Yet, at the end of the day, as the clouds clear and the sun sets in red and orange hues, I too can’t walk away without taking photographs. Suddenly, the blue and green of the mosaic adorning the minarets and copulas sparkle into life. The city walls, not to be undone, reflect the gentle warmth of the pinkish-beige mud they are made of and now look more an undulating and decorative fringe than the impregnable deterrent and obstacle they were in their time. And the tourists also bring out the colours. Just look at the attire of the local vendors; look at the rich variety of colours of their traditional garments, the embroidery and necklaces; look at the fascinating artwork of some of the miniatures on offer; look… Confound the crammed parking lot, the buses, the cars and taxis… but they did bring me here.
Bukhara - the Noble
A long and tiring drive by car from Urgench to Bukhara – 430 kilometres at speed along a straight road through open desert. Early spring is the perfect time to be travelling on this road: it’s not too hot and the desert is covered with a patchwork of clumps of grass and stunted shrubs; fresh greyish-green colours contrast memorably with the yellow of the sand. Along the edge of the road runs a bright pale-green border which turns into a mass of yellowish flowers as we drive further south. Nearer Bukhara, on higher terrain the wind has been playing at sweeping sand dunes across the road to form an undulating bank of soft yellow sand sparkling in the bright light – even my young Uzbek driver exclaims - one has to admit the desert can be beautiful! We would have covered the distance in no time at all but for frequent police road checks, but our young driver knows what to do - a few notes discretely passing from one hand to another smoothes our way.
At last, we stopped. It was already dark. In front of me was a piazza vibrant with light, music, fountains, and people; I could hear the chink of cutlery on plates and see people at dining tables… was it not English I heard spoken? Where was I dropped off - in some Mediterranean resort, France perhaps? Bukhara - really?
Indeed, it was Bukhara - I was at Lyabi-Hauz, the focus for tourists and the locals at night, right in the centre of old Bukhara. On each of the three other sides of Lyabi-Hauz, I could see the now familiar and impressive medressa – the high rectangular archway covered in turquoise mosaic but now looking rather dull in the electric lights.
It was already late in the evening but the entrance to the enigmatic medressa was still open; I had to look inside - no mufti, no students of the Koran, nothing to even hint at its history. Now it’s a Temple taken over by commerce; its interior fitted out for trade rather than study and prayer - embroidered table cloths, pillow cases, pictures on display. The only silk here is that woven into the embroidery; cotton - Uzbekistan’s “white gold” - is prevalent. Yet, somehow, the throb of night life in Lyabi-Hauz and the imposing Kukeldash Medressa, Nadir Divanbegi Medressa and the Khanaka around it didn’t clash. I looked and listened with surprise just how easily it all blended: quietly, softly, unobtrusively, with a touch of sophistication. It wasn’t so very different back in 1880’s; there were no dining tables then but the same eight rows of steps led to the pool of water at the bottom. Here, men would dip their fingers before eating or prayer; others would even drink this foul water. The surrounding space was thronged with people seeking amusement, while meats, confectionery and tea were dispensed from rows of stalls under mulberry trees.
But Bukhara is not for nightlife; it’s not the Mediterranean, or London or Cannes; it’s in the morning, it’s the early hours that bring out the best in its character. Step into Kukeldash Medressa the moment its huge doors open; there will be nobody there; the blue collapsible tables of souvenir kiosks will still be collapsed; you will be alone; look around the courtyard… And you might say, with a touch of derision: why, it’s nothing more than a dilapidated pigeon coupe turned inside out! But look a little more closely, look at the alcoves around the courtyard; look at what is still left of the intricacy of man’s handiwork; open your mind; free your imagination… and you will then realize that these walls have no need to bare themselves for you; they have no need to please or impress you with their majesty and gravity for they have seen and lived through what you can only guess or read about. Indeed, you are nothing but a tourist looking at history; and when a tour guide or hand book gives you names, dates and “juicy” morsels of history… these are only words.
Isn’t it strange that, on the one hand, Man builds monuments such as these around you while on the other he destroys life and achievements of others? Can you imagine life as it was at the time of Russian advance in 1860’s.The city was enclosed by eight miles of massive walls with eleven gates; the citadel was impregnable – that’s where the Emir and the aristocracy resided; that’s where the vermin-infested black hole was. Can you imagine the agony of Stoddart and Conelly who spent two years in it, dying slowly at the mercy of Emir Nasrullah only then to be beheaded in the public square? Walk over to Kalon Mosque, look at the 200 foot high Kalon Minaret – the Great Minaret. Can you imagine it as a tool of execution – condemned men hurled from its top hurtling down to be smashed on the hard ground below… and the populace watching with delight… and with fear of Allah and of Emir. Or the tradition of “an eye for an eye” whereby a convicted murderer is given to the injured party for “disposal” as they will; you can’t even imagine the torture and atrocity inflicted on the man before he is eventually let die…
Imagine the fascinating world of trade. The Righistan, or market place, in front of the Citadel - from dawn to dusk milling with thousands of people from all over the East, buying-selling fat rumps of sheep, fruit, rock salt, all kinds of provisions and goods… And in the vast area between the Citadel and Lyabi-Hauz, unfolds the Tsharsu or the Great Bazaar, one of the largest and most important in the East. Its caravansaries are choked with camels, horses, bales of cotton, people of the Silk Road; the indoor vaulted bazaars house specific trades: the metal bashers still using string bows to power their lathes, the armourers, saddle makers, cotton traders, traditional garments, carpets, silk… The narrow streets and alleyways shaded by mats are choked with camels, people on horses and donkeys, and the huge arbas rolling through the alleyways barely able to squeeze in between the walls…
And then, at the end of a hectic day, as the sun is setting, the cool, crisp air erupts with reverberating sound from the tops of hundred minarets of muezzins calling people to the evening prayer; and after a few moments, silence descends and the shadows spread… all is forgotten… the city gates are closed for the night till sunrise and no one will leave or enter; only the beat of a drum will be heard as the night watchman paces the deserted alleys… No, not quite all is forgotten. Can you not still see in your dreams that trader… that building in the bazaar with children, men and women in the shadows of the alcoves? You know that in the 1860’s slave trade was officially banned, but you also now know that you could have bought that young Persian boy for a slave; you could have bought that woman, that man...
All this has gone with time, with the Bolsheviks, with Communism and Stalin, with modernism. The sun still sets but muezzins are forbidden to call people to prayer; where the Great Bazaar once stood now stands the “Great Tourist Hotel”, the new Lyabi-Hauz, wide streets, open spaces, cars, taxis… But mercifully, much of city’s heritage is being restored and preserved… after all, that’s what brings us here.
If only it was a sunny day! I remember well how Khiva suddenly sparkled when clouds parted and the sun came out, but when the sky is overcast and grey, so is the world around us - how much more impressive Bukhara would have looked. What a different world here! The medressa, the mosques, the minarets are monumental, imposing - the colour of the desert from which they arose - sombre, almost austere; how different from our churches and cathedrals, our palaces; how different from the intricacy of the Alkazar in Spain, or the modernistic mosques in Saudi. And this austere atmosphere prevails inside - no statues and no paintings of saints, no gold or silver, no candles or chandeliers, no coloured-glass windows, no benches, flags or other memorabilia… only the Koran – the word of Mohammed. It’s hard to associate the history, religion, culture and tradition of the people of Bukhara with anything joyful or with love – only command, obligation and fear.
But step out into the maze of narrow streets of the old town early in the morning and you will be surprised to see that life is quite normal here; not all is done, or said, or printed with tourists in mind. You will feel safe and at ease; children walk to school, as they do back home - they laugh, they smile, they will say good morning to you… Young people and adults rush to work – somewhere; others hose down streets to keep the dust down before sweeping them. Walk anywhere in the old town and you will find some of its history still in ruins, some abandoned; others being restored. You will stumble onto a local market place full of colour and life; vendors happy for you to take photographs but want you to focus on their produce: the fruit of mulberry trees - the colour and shape of large maggots - mutton cut in halves and quarters strung up in open kiosks, lepioshki sold from pushcarts, fruit and fresh vegetables. But above all it’s the variety of striking colours, dress, bee-hive activity, and goodwill that you will notice; and through it all men with a briefcase will be briskly walking to work; children going to school…
And then you will discover that the Righistan market has not disappeared with time; it has only moved from the foot of the Citadel to a new location further north, under a new roof, and just as it was one, two, three hundred years ago, it still is a world of dizzying commotion, colour, diversity, surprise, amazement… look!
And you won’t get lost in the maze of narrow streets. Two men are sipping breakfast tea on their doorstep: come on, sit down, let’s have some tea… You know, in Uzbekistan we had the Russians here, we had to produce cotton and they supplied all our other needs. And now that they are gone, and we are on our own, we have cotton but nothing else, “we are left with just our nose” as we say in Uzbekistan. Oh, you want Lyabi-Hauz? Just follow this street. But first come over here, look, I have two goats and this baby goat is only a month old! The man that hailed me to tea is fifty, retired, and lives a relaxed life with his goats - dare I say he is happy, content with life? I am sure he has seen much better times, but the invitation to tea was genuine; neither he, nor his companion, was angling for money!
And you will suddenly realize with some surprise that you are walking safely and at ease in a city that was once the heart of Moslem world in Central Asia - strict, demanding, brutal. It was still in my grandfather’s time that had you ventured onto the streets of Bukhara, you might have had a different reception. Frederic Burnaby felt safe; he could sit in the open and have his hair cut and beard shaven… and the crowds watching the spectacle didn’t scream to have his throat cut at the same time for the city knew he was a guest of the Khan. N. Curzon MP walked and rode through the streets, but he too was a guest of the Khan and had a retinue with him. But Sven Hedin, the Swedish traveller and explorer, had a somewhat different reception; when he was out in the streets, his Russian servant used the whip to keep the street urchins away, but when he ventured out alone, the same urchins rushed him pelting him with rotten apples and hard earth till he withdrew to safety. Today, Bukharin street urchins are now boys and girls walking peacefully to school, saying good morning to you…
One final surprise awaited me before departure. To the north of the city, the oldest cemetery was opening its gate to the living – I must have been the first that morning, for other than the gatekeeper, there were no living souls around. Back in 1880’s, when standing on the head of the hill, one could see the minarets and blue domes of the city, but the city has grown, and trees now obscure the view. But what was at that time a Muslim cemetery, today contains Muslim and Christian graves side by side; the earliest Christian grave I found was dated 1950 and bore the Russian Orthodox cross; Catholic crosses and Red Stars were there too. And just think… Emir Nasrullah would have had your brains taken out if the thought of burying an infidel next to a Muslim had even crossed your mind!
As I depart from Bukhara, an extract from “Russia in Central Asia” by George N. Curzon MP comes to mind –
“ on leaving the city I could not help rejoicing on having seen it in what may be described as its twilight epoch of its glory. Were I to go in later years, it might be to find electric lights in the highways… to see window panes in the houses… meet trousered figures in the street… eat in Russian restaurants and sleep in Russian hotels… Already the mist of ages is beginning to rise and to dissolve. The lineaments are already losing their beautiful, vague mystery of outline….”
“It is something… to have seen Bukhara, while it may still be called the Noble, and before it has ceased to be the most interesting city in the world”
That was written in 1885 - how right he was!
Bukhara - Kagan - August 1888.
Russia is consolidating its hold on Turkestan. The construction of the Transkaspian railway is progressing well; it has reached Bukhara. At that time, the Emir of Bukhara felt it was not compatible with the morals and tradition of his people to have this Christian invention in his ancient city, so the new masters of Bukhara – the Russians - were quite happy to locate the railway station in Kagan, ten miles from the old city, and build a new settlement around it.
The road to the city was lined with mulberry trees and numerous villages set amongst orchards, fields of melons, but it was smothered in clouds of dust raised by traffic rolling along it. For who would want to walk the ten miles to Bukhara – it was beneath any Uzbek to walk! Two or even three men would sit astride a diminutive donkey dangling their legs close to the ground, or an old bearded man with his knees raised up to his chin would sit atop a pile of baggage loaded onto a donkey and his wife or daughter smothered in clothing beyond recognition sat behind him. Huge arbas – carts on two wheels some eight feet high pulled by a camel - loaded to the sky with bales of cotton, and Uzbeks sitting on top, rolled along to, and from, Bukhara.
Kagan - August 1942
It’s hot – very hot. A mass of people in rags swirls around Kagan railway station; at every turn Polish is spoken. A mother and her two sons, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, sit in the sand outside the station. They would have made a complete family if only their father was there too… Chin on chest; eyes staring blankly at the sand, their thoughts were slowly revolving around one, single question - where are you dad… husband..? The last time they saw him was on 28 August 1939 – the day he was mobilized; just three days later Hitler attacked Poland, then Stalin… Three long and terrible years ago. Where is he now… dead? alive? felling trees in the lagiers of Archangelsk, or in the gold or uranium mines of Kolyma? Or perhaps, at this very time, he is making his way to the Polish Army being formed by General Anders here, in Tashkent… Or - oh God no! Perhaps dead from sickness or exhaustion, like thousands of other men, women and children, now in cemeteries in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia. Or perhaps buried in Kermine, or Guzar just a few kilometres away, or in one of the other many Polish cemeteries now “sprouting” in this region?
But, just for a moment, they forget the thirst and hunger as an extraordinary scene unveils in front of them – first the jingling of a bell and the clanging of brass bells attracts their attention, then a caravan, like those from the 1000 & 1 Nights looms out of the dust into full view. First comes a minuscule donkey carrying a heavily turbaned man, his feet almost sweeping the ground; next, at some distance behind, steps a camel, slowly, majestically, his head held high and proud, his rider entirely wrapped in clothing sways in-step with the camel; further still come other camels following in each others steps, each linked by rope from nose of one to other’s tail; the huge packs on their backs sway ominously, but somehow stay in place; turbaned men walk alongside the camels… A mirage or hallucination brought on by heat and exhaustion? No it’s real. Indeed, they are sitting at the intersection of the ancient Silk Roads, but all its mysticism disappears as swirling dust and sand bites into their eyes; reality returns; they have no food, no shelter… only that wall of mud behind them.
They are not alone. The station is crowded with people just like them: Polish men, women, children, soldiers - all feeling lost - were dumped here from the train and no one knew what next. Will the NKVD provide food; will they be looked after by Polish organizations; where is this Polish Army – the gateway to life, to freedom… to Poland? But one thing everybody knew; they had learnt the “first commandment” in Stalin’s “Garden of Eden” the hard way: “you don’t work, you don’t eat”. And it is equally applicable to all - babies, men, women, the aged or infirm. But what could they do – only sit and wait.
A day later, another extraordinary scene – a cavalcade of Uzbeks appears in the evening with strange carts they call arba, and they all settle down for the night at the station. In the morning the railway station becomes a beehive of activity reminiscent of the slave trade in Bukhara. The Uzbeks look the people over, target the strongest and take them to work in kolkhozes. What choice was there; one had to eat and needed shelter – and so the family of three, and twenty other people, loaded what belongings they had with them onto an arba and set out into the steppe on yet another trek to… to where? Akaltyn… Akaltyn… says the Uzbek – some forty kilometres in the direction of Kermine.
And in May 2010, it’s also hot - already very hot. “VOKZAL” titles the grey marble façade of the building – you wouldn’t know where you are except that it’s a railway station. Perhaps somewhere on the other side, facing the rails, you will find its name – KAGAN. It’s the old railway station serving Bukhara. Today it looks almost brand new – grey marble floors and columns inside the station provide welcome coolness from the heat and bustle of the day outside. Come with me says the uniformed station guard; expecting a demand for a tip or worse, I am not sure I want to go with him, but he takes me to the ticket window for information. But here too, no one can tell me when the station was built, how it looked in the 1880’s or in 1942, or when was it modernized; but they can confirm that this is the same old station – KAGAN.
In front of the station perfectly laid out gardens promise rich greenery and flowers later in the spring, and just a little further out, a large open area vibrates with people and cars, vans, trucks; no arbas drawn by oxen, no camels or men astride donkeys in sight today… The road from the station to Bukhara, a few miles away, is asphalted and built up almost continuously with single and two-storied houses, shops, workshops and other buildings – only a few mulberry trees, no fields of melons, no orchards here today.
Akaltyn – Alkatyn
That was 1942, but where is Akaltyn – in 2010? It’s not shown on any maps; perhaps it has been renamed, or ploughed over to accommodate larger cotton growing fields. But here’s one - named Alkatyn – not very different from Akaltyn in name and, more than likely, not very different in the history and the life of its people back in 1942 and today.
I reached Alkatyn around noon; it was mid May, and already hot. My welcoming party was a cart on rubber wheels harnessed to a donkey; the two boys sitting in it gave me a stare. One asphalted road run through the kolkhoz and straight, narrow streets separated rows of dwellings; no trees, no people… as if no life existed here. The dwellings were enclosed behind crumbling walls of mud high enough to prevent anyone looking into the courtyard, flat roofs made of clay and covered with straw and mud, few windows if any were visible from the street. Trees in full leaf were poking above the courtyard walls but not a single tree lined any of the clay streets. Here and there a few more solidly built, two-storey houses raised their roofs above the enclosures. An ancient tractor in the yard looked on through darkened headlight. The surface of the streets was of hardened mud that, surely, would turn into quagmire in the rainy period. It’s hard to imagine how any dwellings of such miserable construction could have survived the seventy years since 1942 - year in, year out they would have had to be patched up after the rains and the frost of the winter months, or replaced by new dwellings.
But, slowly, life stirred. A man with two little boys came out from the yard; another man was attending to a tractor that surely must remember the early post-war years; another man on a rickety bicycle pulled up to a “hole in the wall” of a mud-house - a window with no panes – was it a shop perhaps? An old, bearded man dressed in a green traditional long Uzbek khalat and cap on his head came out, from somewhere, to greet me – he too is over seventy and had moved to Alkatyn from further out in the country; he feels comfortable here. Oh yes… it was a kolkhoz in the old days but now they have to survive on their own… and it’s hard. They grow wheat here, not cotton; the surrounding fields are green. I wonder how much, if at all, life has changed here since 1942… the abodes made of mud are crumbling, many of the enclosures are crumbling, no shops or stores - except perhaps that “hole in the wall”. The only visible signs of progress are the electric cables strung from street to street, a newish tractor hitched to a wagon, and the sound of a car somewhere in the distance…
There is no one else to talk to around here - time to leave. Two small boys with a satchel on their back going to, or from, school stare at me and reluctantly wave good by; further out, a young boy mounted on a beautiful horse stops and smiles – proud of his steed…
In the summer of 1942 it was hot - very hot; whatever water there was, it was foul, disease spreading. Several thousand Polish men, women and children came here in the hope of deliverance from the hands of the NKVD and the GULG in Stalin’s Russia. Able-bodied men and women hoped to join the Polish Army under General Anders in Tashkent; civilians hoped to escape from the Soviets alongside the army, but in the meantime, they needed food and a roof over their heads. They found themselves dispersed in numerous transit camps – waiting, hoping, dying in their thousands from exhaustion and disease. There were many transit camps in Tashkent region but Ghuzar has the “distinction” of the greatest number of deaths – 675 men, women and children perished here within a period of two-three months! Townsfolk call the cemetery “Polachki” or “that Polish place”… A dust-covered and depressing small town today.
As I stand at the gate to “Polachki”, disappointment, sadness and anger well in my mind. What is this!? A number of long “horticultural test beds” of orange-coloured sandy soil, still un-seeded and fenced in to keep trespassers away? 675 Christians lie buried here, and not a single cross!? A black marble tablet extends close to the ground with names of the dead cut into it, a few trees alongside provide some shade, a pillar of grey sandstone with barely visible Polish emblem and writing… and that’s all!? Is that the biggest concession the Polish Government could get out of the Uzbeks?
The guard - ohrona - of “Polachki” tells me that this place was chosen for burial because, here, soil is softer so it was easier to dig graves in winter. The consecration of the cemetery was a big affair – ohrona tells me – a man in flowing white robes came, many delegates from Poland and Uzbek officials came; the entire place was sealed off by police; none of the locals were allowed to participate, not even the one local woman of Polish descent who wanted to help in some way. If only this place had been left as it was! Just as it was - mounds of earth overgrown with grass, or even just a heap of soil… and just one cross – one cross! That would have made a much bigger impact; it would stir memories; it would stir one’s heart. Why “beautify” it; why sanitize it beyond any meaning or spiritual impact?
It’s still only early afternoon but I am no longer in the mood to travel any further today; ohrona will put me up in his house just across the road from the entrance to the cemetery.
If only I had come two weeks later, ohrona would have treated me to a spectacle I would remember – he is marrying off his son. He and his wife thought the daughter of his wife’s sister would make a goof wife but it was not a foregone decision. So they arranged a discrete mutual viewing for the young somewhere in the bazaar – Well son… what do you think of that girl? Well mother… you know… you always know best. If you think so… yes, I will marry her… But even within the circle of quite close relatives, tradition must be upheld and dues paid – ohrona has already put down a hefty deposit for the girl reflecting the value of the bride-to-be: four sheep + sixty kilos of rice + two kilos of butter + huge number of lepioshkas + other items. Next, a party will be held at the bride’s home for her and her family’s friends only. And then the wedding proper at ohrona’s house for all guests – open air barbecue of another sheep or two, masses of lepioshkis, sweets, drinks… Oh, by the way, says ohrona looking at me with some apprehension, we don’t drink alcohol here… so if you want some , you will have to buy it for yourself… and then continues - Of course, all things have been sorted with the Mullah and the girl has been to the doctor… you know… we have to check…
The newly weds will share the house with ohrona and the rest of the family until a separate dwelling will be ready for them, so for the time being, there’s plenty of room for a guest like me; he is happy to sleep in the porch where the air is cooler in the night. I could have been put up in the living-reception room of which they are very proud – especially of that large mural under which they want to be photographed, but ohrona lets me sleep on his mattress on the floor in his room,. There is practically no furniture in the house, other than sleeping mattresses on floors and one small table barely off the floor on which food is served. The entire wealth of the household seems to be rolled up in carpets and colourful rugs on chests and stacked up high against the wall. They create a warm, colourful and exciting decoration to the room where it’s easy to forget my anger on seeing Polachki. The house is quietly shaded with mulberry trees and their maggot-like fruits are collected on a canvas under the tree – nothing goes to waste. But water is scarce – a meagre well supplies all their needs, and a ewer stands by its side to pour a few drops of water for washing hands and general ablutions. In the field beyond the gate, several black sheep roam freely – perhaps that’s his real wealth.
I can hardly get my legs under the “dining” table but we sit down to supper – ohrona, his eldest son and I; his wife serves a simple meal of thick soup with chunks of meat and vegetables that is very much to my taste. His son had, in fact gone to Russia, supposedly to work, but the recruiters swindled him out of any earnings so he returned home after three months – yes, life is not easy, so they all have to pool their resources. Later, while relaxing in the cool evening air, and his son gone, our conversation reverted to marriage, and… girls! You know, there are lots of girls here in town… of course, it’s forbidden for Moslems, but they need to earn some money to pay for education… They will do anything you want… in your room or in the hotel… and they are young and beautiful - some are only just fifteen… Do you want one? asks ohrona.
Do I want one! No alcohol but I can have girls instead! I slept well that night on ohrona’s mattress in a room full of striking carpets stacked up to the ceiling. What spoilt the moment was the view from the window – early morning sunshine was streaming in directly from the cemetery, across the “horticultural test beds”.
I walked over to the cemetery once more, alone… Of course, there is a cross on each of the communal graves but the crosses are cut in blocks of sandstone laid almost horizontally and, hence, lost in the overall scene… I couldn’t have missed them, so why was I so angry, so upset, so negative yesterday? Perhaps it’s because of the mental picture I still carry with me of another cemetery – the one in Mlawka, in Poland… There, German soldiers killed on Polish soil in the 1914 and 1939 Wars lie interred; the same Germans who launched the two holocausts, killed and murdered thousands… and for them - well over 14,000 of them - a magnificent cemetery on the same Polish soil! Hundreds of crosses, names, pillars in marble… all in a sombre environment, in peace, in quiet, off the main road, never to be forgotten… as if they made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom! And here – “that Polish Place”! That “Polachki”! Where you can have a girl!
Something was waking me up, gently caressing my mind; I wanted to prolong that moment – forever… A song, a melody, a supplication was floating into my room through an open window and I was instantly in resonance with it. Like the ripples in a pond my mind, thoughts and feelings were buoyed by that gentle male voice; I lay in bed captivated, taken out of this world into the beyond. I didn’t need to understand the words, I knew them, felt them: at once poignant, thankful for what we might have had and lost, grateful for what we have, supplicating for peace, for love… I looked at my watch – 04.30; the sun was rising. It was not the shrill voice of a muezzin calling, commanding the fateful to prayer – this was prayer, this was peace. And if only the sun rose at the same time around the world, this voice, this prayer would bring peace to all.
I stepped out into the street and was instantly spellbound. I have been spellbound by miracles of Nature, but here, I was spellbound by the work of Man. I was looking at Registan… and I was almost ready to forgive Tamerlane for all that he slaughtered and destroyed with one hand for what he created with the other – Samarkand!
I will forgive myself, too, for taking photographs for I know I will forget, but I so want to remember; and when I look at them now, the same fascination returns! How can I describe this fascination? You look… and you will understand. Look at medressa, the mosques, the mausoleums, the fluted copulas, the minarets... Whichever way you turn your head, from whichever angle you look, you will be revealed new arrangements, fresh beauty… constantly transposing from one into another, yet you are looking at one. Come out with sunrise, or at sunset, and you will be rewarded with amazing richness and sharpness of the turquoise, the blue, the green colours of the mosaics; the lions in faded orange mosaic at the top of the entrance to medressa will suddenly roar to life - you will then see the Registan in its full glory.
Walk along the “Bond Street” of Samarkand; walk towards the main bazaar and you will quicken your pace just to see what’s there, just ahead… the remarkable Bibi-Khanym Mosque. You will stop and look in amazement; walk around it and wonder whether you are still looking at the same, or yet another fascination.
Enter the Afrosiab from the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque end; go alone, meander amongst the graves to Shahr-i-Zindah, the tomb of the Living King; and you will want to linger, to stay… forever?
I can tell you about the main bazaar - that’s easier - but first, look up from its floor at Bibi-Khanym… Ah, yes, the bazaar… you can spend forever there; you will forget to eat and drink, or will eat whatever’s on hand: greasy, or dry, or nothing… Your head will swim. Just stand and look – the kaleidoscope of colours, of structures, of sound will turn by itself. The young and old, the vendors, the buyers will happily pose for the camera; they will ask to be photographed, for this is perhaps that one moment in their life when they can be made “permanent”. You will be mesmerised by colour, by variety, by sound, by volume… You may be repulsed by the bloody meat counters; amazed by cartloads of fresh, golden nan bread, by huge volumes of yoghurts and cream on boards or in buckets on the ground, by fruit, nuts, spices… You will run to snap that unique scene of an ass pulling a cart loaded with goods and its owners sitting on top of the pile, only to realise there are so many others around; you will feel pity for the miniscule asses; you may want to pat them on the head, but they won’t understand your kind gesture. You may want a chip off a block of sugar, or honey or sweets, but first you will have to wait your turn after the bees and wasps… You may want to see more … and more and more is still there, waiting to be seen, waiting for you to discover…
And you may wonder, as I do, why talk of the “silk road”, why do travel tour operators entice you with the mysticism of something you will never see or feel; something that has long ago faded into history? Step into any caravanserai – you will not smell the sweat, the stench of men and animals; you will not see the filth, the tumult, the haggling… you will not be jostled, you will not see knives drawn… you will not even see a camel. It’s all arranged - just for you; you will enter and leave clean; carpets, tables covers, other goods will be on display… you will not see much silk…
But, even so, here in Samarkand it’s so easy to imagine life as it was before – hundred two hundred years ago, at the time of Russian advance… The overpowering beauty and majesty of the monuments makes it so easy to forget the barbarism, the cruelty, the misery of people of those times and to focus on colour, on tumult, on dizzying activity…
As a small boy in India I made kaleidoscopes – a sheet of paper magically folded into a “pocket”, another piece rolled into a tube and pushed into the pocket; add a handful of small coloured beads and, there, you have a kaleidoscope. Now turn it and look through the tube against the sunlight… and the beads arrange themselves into the most beautiful worlds, figments of your imagination… And it’s like that in Samarkand; except that you don’t need to turn the world – just turn your head and you will see a veritable kaleidoscope of life that still looks as a day taken out of 1000&1 Nights with Scheherazade.
What can I say about Samarkand that hasn’t been said or written in 1000&1 books or brochures; what photos can I take that haven’t been taken a 1000&1 times, or can’t be found on Google? So why not just say: Samarkand - must be, must see!
I am not the only one to think so; this is what Georg N. Curzon MP wrote in his book “Russia in Central Asia” in 1888:
“I have hazarded the statement that the Righistan of Samarkand was originally, and still is even in its ruin the noblest public square in the world. I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur; and nothing in Europe save perhaps on a humbler scale – the Piazza di San Marco at Venice – which can even aspire to enter the competition.”
Inexplicably, a few lines of a song from the film “Irma la Douce” I saw as an adolescent come to mind
No words will do, no words will say
The tender meaning they convey
I love you is unspoken
In our language of love…
Samarkand - have I fallen in love with you?
Samarkand - I will be back!
Uzbekistan – the Wonderful! Khiva, Bukhara, Shahrizabs, Yangi Yul, even Tashkent – all I have seen is fascinating, so different, so memorable; the kindness and the forthcoming of all the people I met; and yet…? How could Craig Murrey be possibly right; is he writing about a different Uzbekistan in his book “Murder in Samarkand”, a different set of people; or had he been looking at Uzbekistan with open eyes? Am I a complete tourist; have I not even skimmed the surface of life here?
- 0 -
The little Red Bridge – Sarkrama
Back in 1962 I was sleeping out in the open by Mostar - the ancient bridge dating from Roman times over river Neretva in what was then Yugoslavia. The bridge stood there for centuries; it was essentially intact at that time, and so were the mosques in the vicinity – closed and dilapidated but, essentially intact. The strange, almost ghostly, whiteness of the bridge and the mosques remains as fresh in my memory now as it was then. What a pity the Yugoslav wars of 1992-5 destroyed much of this history.
And only twenty years earlier, in 1942, the Janda family was approaching a small red bridge across the Bogen in Jekpynde, in Kazakhstan. They would not have survived in Akaltyn, for the “first commandment” under Stalin’s rule still applied – you don’t work, you don’t eat – and there was no work for them in that kolkhoz now that winter was approaching. And so, from Aris on Syr Daria, they trudged two hundred kilometres across open steppe to yet another kolkhoz in Stalin’s “land of milk and honey” - Sarkrama. If only one could get used to, and shrug off hunger, utter exhaustion, sickness…
But they made it to Jekpynde, they crossed the little red bridge over the Bogen; they could rest for a day, get some food and then make the last twenty kilometres to Sarkrama.
I too made it to Jekpynde - but in 2010; now it’s called Krasny Most - Red Bridge. I have been spellbound before, as by the magnificence of the Registan in Samarkand but, here, I stood by an abandoned little red bridge and shook my head in disbelief! So much has changed over the past seventy years - my life, Janda’s life, Stalin’s legacy demolished… the whole world has changed but this little red bridge still spans the Bogen. True, the Stalinist blood-red colour has mellowed, and its steel girders sag a little. True, I can not cross it as its planks are loose or missing, but it still stands there like a marker in the painful history of one family, one life so vividly described in Witold Janda’s memoirs. But to-day, in the warm, mid-afternoon sun, the bridge seems to stand in an idyllic world: the mellowed red contrasts gently with perfectly blue skies, the deep blue of the river and the pale green of its banks, and on the far side of the bridge, a track in hard and well trodden clay stretches into infinity – from whence they came; no arba wobbles in its deep ruts today, no cattle, no pain, no misery… just infinity.
Perhaps in 1942 Krasny Most had more importance for it stood at the intersection of two major tracts - otherwise who would have built a modern steel-girded bridge at that time - but today, it’s a bus stop on a road from, and to, somewhere. A row of few trading stalls and eating places, a petrol station, a parking lot off the road, one public well for drinking water… taxi and their drivers crowding the intersection, several dwellings in the background and swirls of dust as vehicles go past. No hotel or any kind of lodgings; and it’s not like in Uzbekistan where people welcome you into their houses - not quite the place for an old man with rucksack on his back.
The café-owner looks at me with less curiosity than suspicion – a traveller from England, really? Not the unshaven vagabond I look - truly? O.K. rest and spend the night on the veranda outside… but as curious individuals come up to this stranger and talk, my host upgrades me – sit in the coolness of the café inside and have some tea. As we talk, at first perfunctorily, I buy two bears and wow, I am upgraded again – I can lie down and rest in the reception room. And as the day turns to evening and more people show an interest in the stranger, and talk… I merit another upgrade – I can sleep in the state room; I sigh with relief! But just as I start spreading out my belongings, his wife rushes in – come out, come out… an order for a big reception has just come in, we need the room! Of course! It’s the 9th May 2010 - the 65th Anniversary of Russian Victory in the war for the Motherland – now it’s called the Independence Day.
What a relief for the owners of the café; they thought orders would never come this year, but now guests roll in – one in an invalid’s chair – and their faces are beaming. Suddenly, a large group of youths descends on the café – a party, dancing, blaring music… none of the traditional Kazakh strings and songs… young, lithe bodies swing to modern Western tunes. I take photographs of the milling crowd; the dancers pose delighted and the owners are delighted too! When this is all over and quiet returns, I am invited to take supper with them at the kitchen table – the ultimate upgrade! The whole family sits down: grandmother, brother and the young couple – the owners – only their two small children are not present. All happy, smiling and delighted with the day, we share the plentiful food on the table; why use forks or spoons when we can equally well eat with fingers from two communal plates… Talk, talk and talk, and I can see the wistful look in the young wife’s eyes – she has been to Almaty and Astana but, oh how she would like to travel, to see the world… No, it’s not easy for them. They are leasing this café - two years now - and that costs 9000 Tenge per month; and even here they feel the recession; and winter months are particularly difficult. Finally it’s time to retire – I and the owner to the stateroom where two mats and rugs have been spread for us on the floor; the others retire to their house nearby.
Mid morning, I am off to Sarkrama. I have in mind a picture of a waterfall on the fast-flowing Bogen, huts of mud on the high bank of the river, and fields of swaying wheat – an idyllic setting, if only the kolkhoz had not been turned into Stalin’s “Garden of Eden”. There was no “flowing milk and honey” here in 1942; the corrupt bosses lived quite well, others went hungry and destitute, yet others died from extreme exhaustion or disease… and nobody cared.
Indeed, Sarkrama is twenty kilometres from Krasny Most, the Bogen flows today as it did then but the waterfall is gone! How could a waterfall just – go? But it did! For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, it was blown up, and as the mud abodes disintegrated with time, the village moved further west. A Hajji, in flowing white robes, offers to take me and my host to the spot where the waterfall once was - only seven kilometres from the kolkhoz along a track across open fields, but it took us more than half hour by car! And that was long enough for the Hajji to try to make a Moslem of me. The advantages were obvious – he has two wives, they work to keep him… why, he sleeps with one one night, sleeps with the other the next night, so they can’t complain! He is fifty, and happy; that little urchin - two or three years in the yard - why, that’s his youngest! Being a good Moslem, he went on the Hajj to Mecca last year by coach – that cost him $1500 which he had to save over several years - but that’s the obligation of every Moslem, and now, he can call himself Hajji, wear flowing white robes, and expect respect from all. Notwithstanding the enticement of two wives, I had to cut short his proselytizing for, at the moment, I was only interested in history – in 1942.
Heavy spring rains had stopped and the sun shone all the previous week so the ground had time to dry and we were now on a tract of rock-hard mud full of deep pot-holes and deep ruts gauged out by vehicle tyres. As our car moved at snail’s pace and was often on the point of tipping over onto its side while the bottom of the petrol tank levelled the ground, the logic behind the huge - six to eight feet high - wooden wheels on the strange arbas of those days became quite obvious. In my mind’s eye I could see, and almost feel, the ordeal of those twenty-thirty people trudging two hundred kilometres in open steppe on tracts like this - drenched to the skin with rain, knee-deep in mud, hungry, exhausted, yet still having to help the oxen pull the arba out of mud up to its axel. And on a day like today, when the sun beat mercilessly down upon them, they were drenched to the skin, but now with sweat, thirsty and starving while the arbas jostled the women, children, the sick and the baggage… pray they do not overturn…
Yes… the mud huts on the high escarpment are gone, the water fall is gone, but river Bogen is as enchanting today as it must have been then – cool, perfectly clean, inviting, shimmering in the bright sunshine as it ripples in a broad arc set in pastel green of the meadows on its left bank; its meandering is constrained by the high bank on the other side set in the creamy colours of the loess profusely covered with bushes with heads of pale violet. And to the south-east, several hundred kilometres away, loom the majestic, magnificent peaks of Tien-Shan shrouded in purple haze… a beautiful, serene spot on earth. But much closer, only a hundred yards or so, on that high ridge by the river, rests a cemetery – a painful reminder. And there amongst its graves rests Witold’s mother… and memories of those years: 1941, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6…
Like Mostar, like the enticing green hills of Lugovoy, or the sombre beauty of the burial grounds of the Kinghir lagier, or the rusted girders of the bridge resting in the river Disna, I know that this spot by the Bogen will stay in my memory forever. And although I shudder at the thought of being here when the rains come, I know I could rest here forever… But, again, it’s time to go. Back in Krasny Most, my host treats me to lunch of delicious fish taken from the Bogen, and when we part, he gives me his address – come again…
Dotrwac do Switu - Witold Janda - ISBN 83-7174-362-9 - Publisher Adam Marszalek
Travels in Central Asia -- Arminius Vambery - ISBN 1904303072 Cambridge Scholard Press
Turkistan - Eugene Schuyler - Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1966
Russia in Central Asia in 1889 - Hon. George N. Curzon MP - Longmans Green & Co.
A Ride To Khiva - Frederick Burnaby – ISBN 0192803670 - Oxford University Press 2005