A trail through Uzbekistan along the Silk Road: the trading route that linked East and West for millennia. An encounter with images from the past and sounds, crafts and flavors that seem eternal.
Not long ago—in the historic center of the 2500-year-old city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan—I found myself dancing in a cobblestone plaza under the shade of a broad-armed mulberry tree. At the edge of the crowd, three musicians played rousing, cheerful songs on a ubiquitous handheld drum called a doira, and two traditional string instruments, all made of mulberry wood (the tree is beloved here). A fellow dancer showed me that if I tapped the first two fingers of my right hand three times on my inner left arm—going from shoulder to wrist—and then flung my hand in a gesture skyward, it meant, “This is the way to my heart.”
The midday heat didn’t slow the group down, even with the fires of an open-air cooking contest nearby: Chefs from around the country tended to large cast-iron pots preparing their regional versions of the centerpiece of Uzbek cuisine, a rice and meat dish called plov (beef, lamb, cumin, saffron, carrots, onions, golden raisins, and so on). “All you need is plov,” my guide Aziz Rakhmatov liked to sing with a mischievous grin.
Away from the music, in the courtyard of a madrassa-turned-modern-art gallery, two young, graceful dancers named Nargiza and Zarnigor wore matching outfits—dark green velvet tunics with gold brocade over bright yellow billowing skirts with matching velvet hats. They told me somewhat bashfully that they had been dancing since they were six and had come from a nearby town to compete as part of the yearly Silk and Spices Festival. By its English name, the event sounded like it might be fabricated for outsiders, but in fact was mostly attended by Uzbeks who had descended by the thousands from every corner of the country to celebrate crafts, music, dance, food, and martial arts in a way that wasn’t allowed under the 67-year Soviet rule that ended in 1991.
Before I went to Uzbekistan, the phrase Silk Road conjured an image of long-ago caravans of camels laden with a bounty of fabric, jewels, and spices, crossing a rugged terrain of sand and sky. What did that have to do with the modern era, I wondered?
As a traveler my bias has been toward the unknown, and when I had a chance to travel to Uzbekistan, I leapt, quickly doing my homework to know that I was headed to the most populous of the Central Asian countries at 32 million, one that is landlocked, in name a democracy, and 80% Muslim in a somewhat secularized form. Most intriguing was its history that went back thousands of years and included Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and an extensive empire of its own in the 14th century. I followed a trail through the three most historically significant cities, all onetime capitals of individual kingdoms—Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva.
Bukhara’s winding streets of the old town (topped with four 16th century domes to shade them) are lined with stalls and interspersed with artisans’ workshops. A miniaturist painter who worked with the tiniest of brushes with a collection of students alongside him, told me he’d had to hide his work until independence. The blacksmith, Salimjo Ikramov, with his forge in the back of his shop, explained the differences between titanium and Damascus steel and said me he was happy his seven-year-old grandson had begun his apprenticeship after school “before he is too old to learn.” Abdullo Narzullaev, surrounded by his intricately painted ceramics and whose workshop was visited by Hillary Clinton, described the ash, quartz, and plants that make his glazes. He also spoke with a smile of his four-year-old granddaughter determined to have her turn at the wheel even though women traditionally only paint the ceramics. Sabeena, a young mother of three, commanded her family’s large-scale rug business with daunting efficiency, ordering workers to unfold and refold rugs for customers before she turned away to greet a Turkish delegation.
A three-hour train ride on the speedy, new Afrosoyib train brought me to Samarkand, another almost 3,000-year-old city where the story of Aladdin was set. This fact made the clean, wide avenues a surprise. It is not until I was standing before the magisterial Registan—a plaza surrounded by three towering, elaborately tiled madrassas (Islamic colleges) built in the 15th and 17th centuries—that I felt the glittering web of history wrap itself around me once again.
A short walk from the Registan, I arrived at the mosque of Bibi Khanoum, the site of a love story so compelling that Aziz told me, “We are still gossiping about it”—600 years after it happened. Emir Timur, a ruler who is the most cherished of all of Uzbekistan’s heroes, loved his wife Bibi Khanoum best of all his eighteen wives. A Chinese princess who could not have children, she oversaw the construction of a grand mosque built in her name while her husband was away on a military campaign.
The outsized personage of Timur (also known as Timurlane, or “Iron-Lame,” referring to a childhood accident that crippled him) quickly became a lens through which to know the city-kingdom. His 14th century empire stretched from Delhi to Constantinople where he fought and defeated the Sultan in hand-to-hand combat. Timur also belonged to a stunning lineage: A direct descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother’s side, he was also the grandfather of Ulug Bek, who charted 1,080 stars from his Samarkand observatory. One of Timur’s descendants founded India’s Mughal empire and another built the Taj Mahal. As recently as World War II, his remains were unearthed and flown over Moscow three times to assure the 100,000 soldiers of Central Asia that Timurlane “had their backs.”
I was coming to understand that “the land between two rivers” (the Syr Darya to the north and the Amu Darya to the south), as the area was once referred to, was indeed “the crossroads of the world” a pulsing nexus of cultures, connecting East and West long before “globalization” was a word. Those caravans carried not only such innovations as paper, glass, gunpowder, honey, cinnamon, and hunting dogs, but ideas and religions that once peacefully coexisted here—as evidenced in mosques’ motifs showing crosses and five-pointed stars.
The road to Khiva took me across the open steppes, sprawling and grassy, to a jewel box of a town, just 400 by 600 meters. As Aziz explained, “On your own, you can cross it in twenty minutes. With a guide it will take you day.”
You have not been to Uzbekistan until you have eaten on a tapchan, and Khiva’s restaurants are full of tapchans. Raised wooden platforms about a meter off the ground, they have low railings on three sides on which carpets and a little table are placed. “We can spend all the day and night on the tapchan,” Aziz told me. “We can eat and discuss any problem over tea. When we’re hungry we ask for food. When we’re tired we remove the table and lie down.”
Khiva’s history is a bloody one of slavery and treachery, but within its walls is also the magically serene Juma Mosque. with its 218 carved wooden pillars, some a thousand years old, lit wby skylight windows. Just outside the city walls stands a statue of the local 9th-century mathematician Al-Khorezm, who invented algebra and another well-used theory named after him, that in Europe became known as “algorithmi.”
At dusk, I passed through the giant courtyards of the tiled palace—one for the harem, one for the wives, and two with bases for yurts so that the cozy abode of the steppes might be recreated within the ceramic-lined walls, and climbed to a parapet. Standing at the edge of the fortified city, I noticed a Soviet-era Ferris wheel hovering in the distance and below me on the street a dented white van playing Uzbeki rock out its open doors. In the most regular of ways, I was positioned at the intersection of ancient history, recent history, and the very palpable now, and like a bell in my head, the simple phrase rang, “I am here.”
A Timeline of the Silk Road
China begins developing the roads for the transportation of silk. Goods, spices, furs and gunpowder also found a commercial route into the Western Hemisphere.
First trading route between East and West is established.
Romans discover the existence of silk.
Silk worm farms are created in Central Asia.
The Road reaches its commercial peak, helping Chang’an, China’s capital, become the richest city in the world.
With the decline of the Tang Dinasty, China starts to reject foreign influences.