On the Silk Road

After breakfast in Samarkand I paid my bill and changed some more money. Fifty dollars bought me three bricks of Uzbek money. I put the money in my backpack and walked to the main street where I took bus to the railway station. Traffic was chaotic and it took us around ten minutes to circumnavigate a small traffic circle where it was a free for all. No apparent rules, just cars filling every inch and slowly nudging forward. It caused unnecessary congestion and I observed the spectacle with the utmost curiosity.
The railway station was sealed off and I was directed towards the ‘kacca’ where I had to buy a ticket. That was very straightforward and with my ticket in hand I was allowed to enter the railway station which was spacious and nearly empty. I bought a snack and something that was optimistically called coffee, a deplorable drink that resembled coffee in the same way yak butter tea does.
The train arrived on time and I entered my carriage which was utilitarian. I found my seat which was in front of a blaring television and children were running up and down the aisle. It was lively and messy, but less than romantic. As soon as we were moving out of the station, I changed my seat for one furthest from the television set and by then the rattling of the train had drowned the tv noise and I was happily reading my book. Later still the children left the train and someone had switched off the tv. All was well.

In Bukhara I took a taxi to the city, which was inconveniently far from the station. The station looked very much like the one in Samarkand and later I found out that indeed they all look very much the same. The architect had done a fine job and  and they were constructed with their respective names in huge lettering.

Bukhara has more of an old city than Samarkand. It’s not very lively though. The narrow alleys are empty and most of the commerce is relocated to newer parts of the city.  Some old men sat playing backgammon under a tree in front of an old mosque. In the late afternoon I sat in front of one of the big madrassas. Children were playing and their voices echoed against the huge diwans. Next to the madrassa stood the famous minaret, named Kalyon. The minaret was built using mortar mixed with bulls’ blood, camel milk and eggs.


Raw sketch of Bukhara. It was too cold to sketch….

A legend tells of a princess who was loved by the people but (for whatever reason) was forced to jump off the tower. She had asked her father for a last wish and after been granted this, the princess dressed in all her clothes and accordingly landed safely at the foot of the tower. Standing next to the tower I grew skeptical of the story because it was tapering off and it seemed to me the princess had to be quite athletic to pull off this long jump without risking at the least severe spinal injury.
The minaret is also known as the Tower of Death because criminals were hurled off it in a sack, after being sentenced to death. This had happened at least three times in the three years before George Curzon, who became later the viceroy of India, visited the city in 1888. He wrote:

“The execution is fixed for a bazaar day, when the adjoining streets and the square at the base of the tower are crowded with people. The public crier proclaims aloud the guilt of the condemned man and the avenging justice of the sovereign. The culprit is then hurled from the summit, and, spinning through the air, is dashed to pieces at the hard ground at the base. This mode of punishment, whose publicity and horror are well calculated to act as a deterrent among the Oriental population” is proof that “the nineteenth century can scarcely be considered as yet to have got firm hold upon Bokhara.”

The last sentence is a scarcely concealed rebuke of the Russians considering the Emirate was a Russian protectorate at the time.

The Bazaar was not in the old city and maybe for that reason it had a very authentic feel. Near the bazaar I found a little eatery where I could havae lunch in the afternoon sun. It was very pleasant: two skewers of kebab, a salad with green radish, some fresh goat cheese, bread and a pot of tea for 9800 som. (6800 som in a dollar). A pomegrenate juice for 2000 som…

One day I set out to the park to try a watercolour of the Samanid mausoleum. The weather was warm and I found a bench with an unobstructed view of the little structure. It is the most ancient monument of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and the only one that survives from the Samanid Dynatsty (one of the last native Persian dynasties), because a flood had covered it in mud just before the Mongols razed the city.


Sketch of Samanid Mausoleum, Bukhara

This happenend in 1220 when Genghis Khan sacked Bukhara. One witness who escaped wrote: “They came, they raped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.”  One of the reasons for this harsh behaviour was that the Mongols were unduely aggrieved by the fact that the ruler of Khwarezm had killed their envoys, something regarded as a heinous crime among the Mongols. It was in this context that Genghis Khan declared himself the Wrath of God.

Only a few decades later Bukhara hosted the Polo Brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, the father and uncle of Marco Polo, on their first trip to China. They stayed in the city for three years because some Mongols were waging war amongst themselves and so that it blocked their way back to Europe. Eventually they joined an envoy to the Khans court in Karakorum and there they had to wait several years before they were let go. Finally, they were asked to return to Europe and ask the Pope to submit to the Khan, and could they please bring some oil from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, now we are at it, bring this letter, wait, I’ll sign it, so, off you go.. So they went all the way back to Venice (route?), but two years later they started on their second journey, this time with Marco Polo, who was seventeen years old, two friars and the holy oil. The friars got second thoughts, but the Polos went on. Must have been a bit of a chore, carrying that oil all the way to Karakorum….

Still later, Ibn Battuta came through the city in 1333, but he wrote “its mosques, colleges and bazaars are in ruins” and further that “there is not one person in it today who possesses any religious learning or who shows any concern for acquiring it”. Always moaning, this Battuta.

On my last day in Bukhara I visited the Ark, a formidable fortress with tapering walls. Later, much later, Bukhara played an interesting role in the Great Game, the historic tug of war between Russia and England and it was here, in front of the Ark, that two Brits came to an unfortunate end. Bukhara was an Emirate at the time and the Russians were successfully vying for influence at the Emirs court and it was this that prompted the English to send a diplomatic mission to try to win influence in the region. Unfortunately, it was decided to send Colonel Stoddart who had a distinguished carreer with the British East India Company, but the diplomatic skills of a humpback whale.
The Emir of Bukhara at the time, Nasrullah Khan, had a narcissistic personality disorder paired with unadulterated sadism and dictatorial power. To become the Emir of Bukhara he had 31 relatives murdered including three of his brothers. He reputedly cut his chief advisor in half with an axe, though I would like to see medical confirmation of this being even possible from a physical point of view. To not allow any misunderstanding on his position he bestowed himself with the title Shadow of God Upon Earth, but behind his back the citizens of Bukhara referred to him as The Butcher, which was probably easier to remember…
Stoddart and the Emir didn’t got along very well and after a few diplomatic faux pas, the Colonel was thrown in the Bug Pit. This was a 21 feet deep hole in the ground, covered with an iron grill and accessible only by rope. The pit was infested with vermin varying according to different sources, but likely rats, sheep ticks  For three years, Stoddart was in and out of the pit, depending on the fortunes of the British Empire. At some point, in an attempt to save his life, Stoddart converted to Islam. After this time a second Brit visited the Emir, Captain Arthur Conolly, who had bravely come to the resque. Conolly, who had actually coined the phrase Great Game (a phrase that was later popularised by Ruduyard Kipling), was very religious and had heard of the conversion to Islam by Stoddart. The attempt was ill fated and both men were thrown in the pit. The situation grew much worse after the British lost a battle in the Afghan War and the Emir had no longer any British retribution to fear. In a last message from Connolly he writes: This is the hundred and seventh day of our confinement without change of clothes, but the weather having become warmer, we can do without the garments that most harboured the vermin we found so distressing. Eventually, both men were marched outside and after digging their own graves were beheaded in front of the Ark.

The story didn’t end there. Years later, the eccentric Bavarian clergyman, Joseph Wolff visited the Emir. He brought three dozen copies of Robinson Crusoe, translated in Arabic, with him. He ostentatiously prostrated himself in full canonical attire for the Emir and in this way miraculously escaped the Emir’s wrath. He brought back the sad news of the two British officers.

Notwithstanding Nasrullah’s wickedness, the Emirate saw a revival of its glorious past and was at some point home to 150 madrassas and nearly 300 mosques. People struggled to find proper homes…

In the evening I took a taxi to the train station. The driving style of my driver was erratic, but examplary of (for) Uzbekistan. Apparently, it was good practice to flick your headlights in order to warn other drivers that you can’t drive. I was told that it is a common practice to buy your drivers license and that at most one is required to show the ability to operate the car, that is, drive it around in a circle and successfully bring it to a standstill. Once on the road, the preferred style is then to try to drive as fast as possible without hitting anything. An interesting approach, I thought.

My train to Navoi was an hour late and my connecting train to Urgench must have had left already. Together with some other passengers I jumped from the train and I walked in the dark along the looming carriages with sleeping people, in a desperate attempt to find my train to Urgench, but it was hopelessly confusing. Some people with flashlights gave me directions but I ended up crossing the tracks to the station where I had to leave the station and find the ‘kacca’ to see what solutions could be found. Here I explained my situation and I was asked to wait. It was nearly midnight and I studied the timetables which were in Cyrillic and saw that there was another train to Urgench that would leave at 2.30 in the morning. It was cold, but there was nothing I could do. After an hour a man in a uniform showed up and told me that I would be travelling on the 2.30 train. I asked him about the ticket, but he laughed and pointed at himself explaining: ‘billeti, I’.
‘You are my ticket’, I said.
He beamed, ‘Yes, I am ticket’. He was evidently pleased with this little joke.
When the train arrived, the uniformed man came and together with a colleague escorted me to the train. They talked to the provodnik of one of the carriages and he brought me to a compartment in kupe class where I got a berth. He brought me some sheets and blankets and soon I was asleep.

In the morning I woke up to find my fellow travellers at breakfast: a woman who happened to be an English teacher, her son of ten years and her mother. They invited me to share their breakfast to which I did not object and and after that I played two games of chess with the boy which I both lost. Later, after we had arrived in Urgench, they helped me find a shared taxi to Khiva.




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