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  Culture Journals - Silk Road Journeys
  Issue No. 3 : Fabled City Dwelling

A recent trip to Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan completed my major Silk Road experience. I had long wanted to visit these ancient centres between East and West, but the political situation, the September 11 attacks and instability in neighbouring Afghanistan postponed my journey until this October, when a meeting of the World Tourism Organization (WTO) was held there.

On my first night in Bukhara I headed for the old town. Bukhara dates back 2,500 years and many of its famous mosques and madrassas (religious colleges) were built 500-600 years ago during the Tamerlane dynasty. I inspected four houses that have stood for centuries – three of them now operate as guesthouses. Most residences have a small reception area leading to an open courtyard; beyond this is the accommodation compound, usually set over two storeys.
In ancient times, the city was home to the world's best artisans and craftsman. Even new conqueror would bring the most skilled workers in from afar and the exchange of cultures could be witnessed in their work of arts. The architecture of Bukhara is unique and refined, with motifs from Persia, Islam and the Christian world worked in mud, brick and wood. Inside ordinary homes, which also display this distinctive Uzbek craftsmanship, there is a high level of comfort and many modern amenities. The courtyards of Bukhara reminded me of the quadrangles of Beijing – I envisaged friends sitting out at night, under a star-filled sky, chatting and sipping tea; a pleasurable nightly ritual enjoyed by locals for 25 centuries. Most Bukharians in the old town wear traditional dress, contributing to the atmosphere – it is like stepping back into medieval times. 
I was up at 6:30 the next day and returned to the old town with Sergey Danilov, one of Uzbekistan's leading journalists. In the early morning light, the profound and architectural motifs are clearer and more brilliant, especially at the major heritage sites; the Ark (the old city fortress) and the Samanid Mausoleum. The latter, the oldest mausoleum in Bukhara, is renowned for its brick craftsmanship – it's amazing what they created with simple baked bricks. From the earliest times, the Ark was the fortified residence of the city's rulers. Some of its walls were the foothills of small mountains and within an area of three square kilometers stood palaces, mosques, madrassas, barracks, workshops, stables and warehouses. Many birds fly around the Ark and Sergey suggests they are the spirits of some of the thousands of soldiers slain in bloody battles to defend the Ark over thousands of years.
Not far from the Ark is one of the city's oldest and most famous Registan Square, home to the Kalian Minaret. Local shopkeepers were just opening up, laying out their wares. Stalls sold fruit and freshly baked naan bread. It may not be the Sunday bazaar, but the square soon fills with early-morning shoppers. I climbed the kalian Minaret, which at 155 feet was the highest structure in Central Asia at the time of Genghis Khan. I looked down over the city, much like Genghis Khan did 700 years ago. After being amazed by its grandeur, he ordered its citizens to be slaughtered; in his campaign in Central Asia, he killed more than five million people.
Although history perceives Khan as a barbaric conqueror, he was quite patient in his dealings with the rulers of Bukhara. Before his Central Asia conquest, he sent 500 merchants to the city in the spirit of trade and friendship. The local ruler responded by killing them all and confiscating their goods. Khan then dispatched a diplomatic delegation, only to have one of his men slain and the other two sent packing minus their beards. That was the last straw – official records show that Khan and his four sons led an avenging force of 200,000 into Central Asia (the history books have his army 600,000 – strong). The worst massacres took place in Bukhara and Samarkand. All males, including children taller than the top of the wheel, were put to the sword. Despite this, I found that many locals proudly claim to be descended from the so-called Golden Hordes. 
I was deeply impressed by the grandeur of the Islamic architecture in the registan. Besides the Kalian Minaret, the mosques and madrassas underwent refurbishing in the 1990s after Uzbekistan independence. The buildings display Uzbek craftsmanship in all its beauty and refinement. UNESCO established a cultural centre here to promote the traditional arts and crafts, but its present director indicated that funding has dwindled. I hope the centre can continue its work; it would be a tragedy if these skills were lost.
So far, the local government has preserved the old town well. Many buildings have been put to good use in the modern age as carpet, jewellery and pottery bazaars. Due to the regional instability, there may be few tourists in Uzbekistan at the moment, but I envisage its tremendous appeal. One of the many ornate madrassas could easily be upgraded into a culture hotel!
At the end of the WTO conference, we were treated to a banquet and fashion show in the courtyard of one such madrassa. The costumes and fashions on display outshone any I had seen paraded in Hong Kong or Paris. The grace of the Bukhara people – an ethnic melting pot of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazaks, Russians, Mongols and many others – was also evident. The East-meets-West nature of the races is clearly shown in their faces.
For 30 kilometres of the four-hour car journey from Bukhara to Samarkhand we crossed into Kazakhstan. There were checkpoints every 50 kilometres along the road and each time I had to show my passport and permit. My driver Unis was a Tajik who spoke Russian. This region was once the most fertile in Central Asia, which was why the rulers made it their capital and why invading armies fought to claim it. As we passed endless cotton fields, I imagined the fearsome sight of Mongolian horseman pounding down the road 800 years ago.
Samarkand has some modern buildings including a four-star hotel, but I sought out a small guesthouse for a breath of local ambience. Unis and I had dinner in a popular local restaurant. Good quality meat and vegetables were used in the common dishes of shashliks and salads; a local band played, and first the children, then the women and lastly the men interrupted their meal to dance beside their tables. The people were very hospitable – when I approached a table to take a photograph, I was offered a glass of water (which turned out to be voka!) and subsequently invited to join their party.
In ancient times, Samarkand was a prosperous agrarian city and its people were rich and content. Today, with the onslaught of television, fridges and other modern icons, I'm sure the traditional lifestyle will soon disappear. Samarkand Registan, home to some magnificent Islamic buildings, is colossal and richly ornamental. I find it one of the most impressive architectural achievements in the world – comparable to the Taj Mahal in its beauty – and I wonder why it was not listed as one of the world's great wonders.
There is no time to do justice to Samarkand's many monuments, though I did visit Tamerlane's tomb and the Shahi Zinda burial enclave on Mount Afrosiab. In a museum here is an ancient mural that was painted when a Chinese delegation came to pay tribute to the city's ruler. It is proof of early cultural exchanges between the Orient and Central Asia.
Another four-hour drive found me in the modern city of Tashkent. I have read that Yunus Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, is buried here, but my friend, a tourism professional, is unaware of it. We tracked down the mausoleum behind a college, well shielded from the road, well kept by the local government, but not listed as a site of interest. It would certainly attract Chinese tourists.
Before I returned home, I had visited a former madrassa where local artists and craftsmen now display their works. I bought a few pieces from a leading artist, but because of bureaucracy in Tashkent customs, I had to leave these treasures behind.
Many years ago I traveled the Persian stretch of the Silk Road and the Turkish lands. Most recently, I've covered the route from Xian to Xinjiang, building culture hotels, Central Asia was the missing link for me, but now I can rest, satisfied that at last I've seen the fabled monuments of Bukhara and Samarkand.
By Peter M.K. Wong


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