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Where the past meets the present: The people, places and stories of Central Asia

I discovered first hand the rich repository of history, culture and the role of politics in the shaping of Central Asia.
Published 29 Sep, 2017 04:28pm

In the first part of my blog, my journey into Central Asia took me to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where I had the fortune of beholding great mountain ranges, picturesque valleys and magnificently constructed architecture.

I had last left off at the Krgyzstan border where my fellow explorers and I were looking to cross over into Uzbekistan and here my tale continues.

Once we crossed over from Osh, Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan, after the long and arduous border crossing, our aim was to drive to Tashkent.

The 450-kilometre drive took us through the Ferghana valley, the birthplace of the Mughal emperor Babur and many other great historical personalities, as well as the springboard of many invasions in all directions, particularly the south, into Afghanistan and India (through what is now Pakistan).

It is a very fertile valley hemmed in by mountains, providing both good sustenance to its inhabitants and a barrier to external invaders. It is also the passage for the famous Silk Road. And quite literally so, for there are mulberry trees on either side of the road and beyond.

Crossing from one into another of Uzbekistan’s eight provinces by road, one passes through police checkpoints where identity documents are liable to be checked.

At one such post in the Ferghana valley, we had to get out of our vehicle and produce our passports for checking, as did our driver and guide.

Registan area view, Samarkand. -All photos by author
Registan area view, Samarkand. -All photos by author

Not so long ago the Ferghana Valley was rife with an Islamist movement, posing a serious challenge to Uzbekistan’s authoritarian but secular government.

An incipient rebellion in the town of Andijon was crushed with the massacre of several hundred people in 2005. To this day, the name Andijon is only mentioned in hushed tones in Uzbekistan.

The road passes through the historic city of Kokand, with its many museums, madrasahs, mausoleums and mosques, including Khudayr Khan’s Palace, which originally spread over four acres, with seven courtyards and 119 rooms. A much diminished but well maintained structure survives as a museum.

The Khanate of Kokand lasted from 1709 (having seceded from the Khanate of Bukhara), until its defeat and conquest by Russian General Kauffman in 1868.

The last Khan, Nasir Uddin Abdul Karim Khan fled to Peshawar, where he died in 1893. His descendants are still said to live in that Pakistani city.

Kamchil Pass, Uzbekistan.
Kamchil Pass, Uzbekistan.

One crosses the scenic Kamchil Pass (2,267 metres) to enter the plains that lead to Tashkent, just a couple of hours’ drive away. Tajkistan is not too far from here, a mere 10 kilometres or so to the left. The Kazakh border in the opposite direction is only about 20 kilometres from Tashkent itself.

This region is a cluster of enclaves, ethnic, geographical, as well as territorial. This narrow corridor of Uzbekistan is surrounded by Kyrgyz territory to the north and east and by Tajikistan on the south.

Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the USSR, promoted by Moscow as the capital of Soviet Central Asia and its gateway to south and southwest Asia.

Pakistanis know Tashkent as the city where, after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, President Ayub Khan and Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed the Tashkent Declaration in January 1966, under the auspices of the Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin.

Minaret at Kokand Jami Mosque, Uzbekistan.
Minaret at Kokand Jami Mosque, Uzbekistan.

The city itself was nearly destroyed in an earthquake only a few months later. What exists today was mostly built after that.

This includes wide boulevards, a fine underground metro, and a great open air museum of railway locomotives, mostly Soviet with a few American ones thrown in.

The latter would have been American contribution to the Soviet war effort against the Germans during the Second World War.

The source of immense pride for Uzbeks, however, is not Tashkent, but three famous medieval cities to the west, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

The latter two cities are just to the north of Turkmenistan.

Here, again, the border is rather arbitrary, for both countries have a shared history, a common language and ethnicity.

Kokand Jami mosque interior, Uzbekistan.
Kokand Jami mosque interior, Uzbekistan.

Historic Khorezm straddled the border encompassing the towns of Khiva and Urgench on the Uzbek side and Konye-Urgench (meaning 'Old Urgench') in Turkmenistan. A sizeable Uzbek minority lives here, in the northern part of Turkmenistan.

This is not the place to describe the splendour of the three cities of Uzbekistan. Timurlane is buried in Samarkand, which was his capital. The Gur-e-Amir, where he is buried; the Registan, which is a complex of madrasahs; and Shah-i-Zinda are just some of the world’s most splendid medieval historical monuments.

Bukhara’s historic bazaar and the walled inhabited town of Khiva enchant the visitor and transport him many centuries back in time.

Khiva is perhaps the best preserved medieval town in the world, with 2,000 people still living within its centuries-old walls.

For good effect, there is a watchtower, providing a fascinating view at sunset, as well as the remnants of a slave market.

Both cities are connected with Tashkent by a superfast train as well as a road. I should mention here that if you drive on a really good road in Central Asia, the chances are that it was recently built by China, mainly to facilitate trade but also to create goodwill.

Registan area view, Samarkand.
Registan area view, Samarkand.

Uzbekistan has the distinction of being the world’s only double-landlocked country, which means that its access to any seaport in any direction is blocked not by one, but by two countries!

While strolling in the walled city in Khiva on my first afternoon there, I spotted an Indian couple. They being the only ones from my part of the world I had seen in many days, I introduced myself to them.

It turned out that he was a high government official in India with a passion for travelling. The couple have been to all parts where their money and passport will allow them. Incidentally, like me, they too had been denied a Turkmenistan visa.

By their own account, they travel heavy, carrying with them a substantial supply of strictly vegetarian Indian food.

The lady borrows the kitchen of whichever motel or hotel they are staying in to cook her own food.

This burden does not, however, deter them from frequently travelling for pleasure.

Registan, Samarkand.
Registan, Samarkand.
Registan, Samarkand.
Registan, Samarkand.

Vegetarians, beware that of all the many Stans I have listed in the first part of the blog, and I mean all, the only one where vegetarian food is readily available in hotels and restaurants is Hindustan. Here, on the contrary, you might struggle to find good non-vegetarian food.

And be warned that if you go looking for beefsteak or some such in today’s Hindustan, cow-worshipping, animal-loving vigilantes might make mincemeat of you!

Our hotel in Tashkent was a Soviet-era behemoth, a massive structure that has recently been refurbished.

And this being Uzbekistan, most of the staff at the reception is pre-occupied with the taking, registering, storing and (at checkout) returning the passports of patrons.

For the duration of their stay, visitors are given small registration cards to keep in lieu of their passports.

Eating Uzbek style.
Eating Uzbek style.
Pulao - an Uzbek icon.
Pulao - an Uzbek icon.

When I returned to my hotel one evening, I was informed by a friendly staff at the entrance that 120 Pakistanis had checked into the hotel earlier that day.

Imagine the hassle of registering the passports of such a large contingent, and issuing each of them registration slips.

Factor in the fact that Pakistanis tend to be a rather noisy, undisciplined lot.

When I ran into a group of them in the lobby later that evening, I learned that all 120 of them were salesmen (yes, no women, of course) of Chinese Huawei mobile phones from all parts of Pakistan.

This included some very small regional towns, as far apart in cultural and educational levels as Karachi and Lahore, on the one hand, and Dera Ismail Khan and Sukkur on the other hand.

I met a few more of them in the lobby the next morning. Clearly, many of them had never set foot in a modern hotel before, let alone travelled overseas. It must have been an overwhelming experience for the hotel to entertain so many of them at the same time.

Inside Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand.
Inside Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand.
Inside Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand.
Inside Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand.

One morning I called up the hotel laundry service and was told that one of their staff will come to take my dirty laundry personally from me.

Soon, a Russian lady arrived, took my dirty clothes, counted them, made a mental calculation and told me that it will cost US $110.

It seemed excessive by any count and, when I told her so, she re-calculated and came back with the same figure. I made my calculation, which came to US $45. She promptly agreed, but without even a faint hint of an apology. And off she went with my dirty laundry.

Within a few minutes, there was a knock on my door. Now there was another Russian woman, who spoke English as well, and who wanted to discuss my laundry. Was my dirty laundry too dirty to be washed or was it my one pair of shalwar kameez that was causing concern, I wondered.

But, no, something else was on her mind. Yes, she said, it would cost US $45, as had already been agreed upon. But if I were to pay directly to her in cash, rather than to the hotel reception desk at the time of checkout (which is the practice), she would give me a discount. How much was I needed to pay, I asked. “$30, if you please.”

I could probably have negotiated a greater discount, but settled for the offer. Payment in US dollar bills was demanded and made promptly, the notes were carefully checked for counterfeit, and the matter was to remain confidential.

My clothes, well-washed and very neatly arranged, were hand-delivered by the same woman to my room the next day as promised.

Uzbek homestead.
Uzbek homestead.

Uzbekistan is a quasi-police state with strict controls everywhere, but US dollar bills (and presumably Euros) can be exchanged at a much higher rate than the official rate virtually anywhere, by driver, guide, bellboy, janitor, you name it.

Our driver in Kyrgyzstan was twice stopped by the police in Bishkek for some alleged infringement.

On both occasions, he was told that his violation of the traffic laws warranted hefty fines. But both times small amounts of cash changed hands and the matter was amicably settled on the spot to the mutual satisfaction of both errant driver and the enforcer of the law.

There is something to the name Stan! And something quite Russian and Soviet about it too.

Uzbek pottery display.
Uzbek pottery display.
Uzbek pottery display.
Uzbek pottery display.

Our trip to Tajikistan was very short, just one night in Khojand, about three hours’ drive south of Tashkent.

Khojand is a very historic city, in the Sughd province, encircled by Uzbekistan to the north and west and by Kyrgyzstan to the east, and connected to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor.

Part of the Ferghana Valley, historical Sogdia or Sogdiana also included Samarkand and Bukhara in modern Uzbekistan.

Little wonder that the people of Khojand have a sense of pride and identity that separates them from the rest of mountainous Tajikistan to the south.

An outdoor restaurant in Tajikistan.
An outdoor restaurant in Tajikistan.

We made a day trip to Istaravshan, the second largest city of the country, at the southern end of this narrow corridor. Dushanbe is a further four hours’ drive south, the road passing through two tunnels, one built by China and the other a gift from Iran, with which Tajikistan shares the same language.

All five Stans, which previously used the Arabic script, had to adopt the Russian Cyrillic script under Soviet rule. Since gaining independence, however, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have adopted the Roman script, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have retained the Cyrillic script.

While it may be sensible for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to retain Cyrillic, given their proximity to Russia, it would be very logical for Tajikistan to adopt the Persian script instead.

Physically and culturally distant from Russia, Tajikistan shares a common language with Iran as well as with Afghanistan, while also sharing a common border with the latter.

Besides, most of the literary heritage of Tajikistan is in the Persian script. My Tajik guide, as also my guide in Iran, were both admirers of Iqbal Lahori, as Allama Iqbal is known in both countries.

A couplet from Saadi reminds of a life well lived - Tajikistan.
A couplet from Saadi reminds of a life well lived - Tajikistan.

I got the impression that the secular government of Tajikistan, where the people are Sunni Muslims, fears that the Persian script might become a vehicle for the influx of Shia influence from Iran.

In other words, the Cyrillic script is seen as a barrier to Iranian religious and political influence in Tajikistan.

Be that as it may, one long-term, perhaps permanent linguistic distortion inflicted on all Central Asian people by the Cyrillic script is the rendering of 'h' to 'kh' because Cyrillic lacks 'h'.

Thus, for example, even those who have now adopted the Roman script, unfortunately write (and pronounce) the name Shahrikhan (Shahr-i-Khan) as Shakhrikhan and Hassan as Khassan.

The more common Mohammad is written and pronounced as either Mukhamed or Magomed. The 'h' sound, so common in Persian, Arabic and, therefore, in the Turkic dialects of Central Asia, has simply vanished from the five Stans.

I should mention here that, across the border in the Xinjiang province of China ('Eastern Turkestan'), the Uighurs have reverted to the Arabic script after using the Roman script for many decades.

We thus have a situation that the Turkic languages are written in three different scripts, namely, Roman, Cyrillic and Arabic!

Istaravshan-Kuk Gumbaz Mosque, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan-Kuk Gumbaz Mosque, Tajikistan.

Southeast of Dushanbe lies the Great Pamir range. The Pamir Highway, built by Soviet military engineers in the 1930s to shore up the USSR’s defence against British India, is one of the great mountain roads of the world.

The main and the most sensational part of this highway lies in Tajikistan, from Khorog (about 500 kilometres southeast of Dushanbe) to Murghab (400 kilometres south of Osh in Kyrgyzstan) – over 300 kilometres of tough mountain road that can only be done on four-wheel drives.

In the south, the Pamir Highway passes very close to the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. Just south of this narrow corridor is Mastuj in the Chitral district of Pakistan. And to the east lies Tashkorgan in southern Xinjiang (China).

Tajikistan - covered by mountains.
Tajikistan - covered by mountains.

The highest peak of the former Soviet Union, Ismoil Samani Peak (7,495 metres) is in Tajikistan. The Soviets called it Pik Kommunism.

For many years, until Stalin was denounced, even Dushanbe (meaning Monday in Persian, after the town’s traditional Monday bazaar) was called Stalinabad.

And Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the Soviets called Mikhail Frunze, after the Russian general who secured the city for them.

But it is in Kyrgyzstan that the memory of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, survives more than anywhere else.

Here, his statues still adorn many city squares and not a few streets are still named after him. Strange, considering that Lenin statues have been removed even from Russian cities.

The best-known Russian town named after the Soviet leader, Leningrad, has been renamed St Petersburg!

Strange, too, that the Central Asian country that honours Lenin is also the least authoritarian of the five, or six, if you include Azerbaijan.

Here, governments have come and gone, multi-party elections have been held, and election results honoured, more or less, that is.

Istaravshan historic area, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan historic area, Tajikistan.

There is one more thing to be mentioned about Kyrgyzstan: the custom known locally as ala kachuu, which translates as 'grab and run'. It basically involves abducting a girl in order to marry her.

Though it is illegal, unfortunately this practice is growing and at least a third of Kyrgyzstan’s brides are reportedly taken against their will.

Though this ancient practice is not restricted to this mountainous country, nor just to Central Asia, it is more common in Kyrgyzstan than anywhere else.

That aside, in the quarter century since the Stans gained independence, they have made substantial progress in establishing political and economic independence from Moscow.

Given how intertwined their economies and transport had been until 1991, their achievements are noteworthy.

Particularly impressive are the efforts of the Stans at the preservation, restoration and promotion of their rich cultural heritage.

Splendid monuments, fine museums, good hotels and competent tourist guides in many languages are everywhere.

These countries are, by and large, quite secular and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately, they are also strongly authoritarian, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan.

Istaravshan historic fort, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan historic fort, Tajikistan.

Kazakhstan continues to be ruled by the same man, President Nursultan Nazarbayev for over a quarter century.

Islam Karimov was the president of Uzbekistan from independence until his death in 2016. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, continues the authoritarian rule.

Emomali Rahmon has been president of Tajikistan for all but the first three years after independence.

In contrast, Kyrgyzstan has had too many unscheduled leadership changes, some quite violent.

Two former presidents are now living in exile in distant Minsk, Belarus and Moscow, Russia.

Kyrgyzstan also suffers from a very high level of corruption, even by regional standards.

Istaravshan open air market, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan open air market, Tajikistan.

Turkmenistan stands apart. Rich in history, being located at the crossroads of civilisation in medieval times, and blessed with vast amounts of natural gas, it has been ruled by a very idiosyncratic, repressive regime since independence.

Until 2006, it was led by 'President for Life' Saparmurat Niyazov, who not only built huge monuments to himself, but also renamed the months of the year to suit his vanity.

January became 'Turkbenbashi' ('Leader of Turkmen', the honorific Niyazov adopted for himself), April was 'Gurbansoltan Eje' (the name of his mother) and September was named 'Ruhnama' (the title of his book).

Although the death of the dictator put an end to some of the most extreme eccentricities associated with the 'Turkbenbashi', the regime continues to be one of the most repressive in the world under his successor.

A US Embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks described President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow as 'vain and vindictive'. He is now busy building a new personality cult. The president has begun to use, for himself, the honorific title of 'Gurbadag', meaning Protector.

Whereas substantial positive changes are evident in the other four Stans, in Turkmenistan, as they say in French, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same)!


Samarkand market scene.
Samarkand market scene.
Samarkand market scene.
Samarkand market scene.
Uzbek naans.
Uzbek naans.
Uzbek girls before a museum.
Uzbek girls before a museum.
A view of Istaravshan central market, Tajikistan.
A view of Istaravshan central market, Tajikistan.
Inside the Istaravshan market, Tajikistan.
Inside the Istaravshan market, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan outdoor market, Tajikistan.
Istaravshan outdoor market, Tajikistan.
Tajikistan - vegetable vendors.
Tajikistan - vegetable vendors.
Tajik naans.
Tajik naans.
Tajikistan - old Istaravshan alley.
Tajikistan - old Istaravshan alley.


This is the second installment of a two-part travel blog.


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