Notes from the golden road

Getting in on the blue dome action in Samarkand.

I am writing this at the uncivilised hour of 6.30 am, sulking slightly about the fact that once again my alarm clock has been pre-empted by Tashkent’s unique version of a wakeup call. This is provided by a group of ladies who come into town every morning, bringing fresh dairy products from the countryside which they sell from old coke bottles by the side of the road on which my block of flats is located. I would ordinarily not object to this entirely harmless activity, but these ladies have failed to endear themselves to me by their habit of standing under my window and advertising their wares. Being woken daily at 6 am by bellows of “QATTIQ! QAIMOQ!” (Uzbek for “yoghurt” and “cream”. Say the sound “k”. Now say it again, except imagine you’re being sick halfway though. Congratulations, you’ve just pronounced the Uzbek letter “q”.) does nothing for my mental state, and I have not yet been able to overcome my ire (nor mild hygiene-related concerns) to the extent necessary to actually sample their produce, although I am assured that a) it is delicious and b) I am coddling my digestive system. I am roundly mocked here for my Western tendency to buy most things (and all my meat and dairy) in the supermarket rather than the bazaar, but old habits die hard and I just can’t bring myself to be enthusiastic about a piece of sheep that has been lying about in this heat for any length of time.

A better mode of transport in the heat.

It is indeed fearsomely hot (sorry, UKers). Just as I had found myself beginning to think of the 35 C heat “Hey, maybe I could get used to this!” and to be certain that the apologies I was receiving about it being “cold for the time of year” were windups, the thermometer has started hitting 40 on a regular basis, and I have begun to research jobs with the British Antarctic Survey. The only way out of town at the weekends is to recruit a group of friends and hop on the excruciatingly slow, sweltering and uncomfortable train full of formidable Uzbek matrons piqued because you are sitting in their preferred seat, to the mountains out of town. The scenery is undoubtedly attractive, but I would still be there like a shot even if they resembled Slough because crucially the temperatures are 10 degrees lower. The border situation in the area is tortuous enough that a wrong turn at the top of a mountain is liable to send one into an entirely different country, lending an element of interest to proceedings, especially when said proceedings are mapless. Consequently, our expeditions are somewhat hit or miss – sometimes we find ourselves climbing through air thick with black and red butterflies up a hill spread with purple and yellow wildflowers, past Kazakh herders in their summer yurts and gushing waterfalls and it is heavenly. At other times, we accidentally end up in barren, steep-sided valleys with no obvious paths other than scree slopes, leading to ascents that fill your boots with gravel and descents of the kind where you are happy to throw yourself gratefully into a thorn-bush as otherwise you are liable to slide off a 60 foot precipice, and it is slightly less heavenly but undeniably invigorating. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life

A trip to Homebase is in order.

A couple of weeks ago I took the (sadly no longer golden, more tarmac really) road to Samarkand, the capital of Timur’s continent-spanning empire. During the late fourteenth century it was the centre of the world with the architecture to prove it. Its fortunes waxed and waned over the subsequent centuries, but the name has never lost its allure, and certainly it is today billed as Uzbekistan’s greatest tourist attraction. Samarkand is a place that has loomed so large in my imagination for so long that I was almost afraid to visit since it seemed inevitable that reality would not quite live up to my elaborate, camel-filled imaginings, and so it proved. While Bukhara looks like a silk road town that just happens to contain a TV mast and a football stadium, Samarkand looks more like a Soviet town that just happens to contain a Timurid Experience theme park. That’s perhaps a little harsh, but I felt a bit let down by Samarkand’s star attraction, the Registan (and if you don’t know what this looks like, do a Google Image search for “Samarkand Registan” – it really is undeniably impressive, an ensemble of three beautiful medrassehs surrounding a large square that used to be the commercial centre of the city). It looks exactly like it does on the postcards, and is glittery and shiny and beautiful and appears to only have been constructed the previous day. Which it more or less has, and therein lies the problem. The buildings have been restored so enthusiastically that you can no longer feel the weight of years, the accumulated history that gives these places their power to move. The impression that one is standing in the middle of an elaborate, yet somewhat rickety (most of the minaret towers are leaning in a manner that makes the Tower of Pisa appear a masterpiece of precision engineering) film set for a multi-million dollar epic starring Russell Crowe as Timur and Angelina Jolie as his feisty, ass-kicking concubine (whatever, you know he had one) is reinforced upon peering inside the medrassehs and at the reverse of the facades – freshly whitewashed rooms and plain brick walls that aren’t really meant to be looked at. It’s hard to believe that students ever studied here. A sense of place is restored somewhat among the tombs and mausoleums of Shah-i-Zinda, but even there the brand-new tilework left me only with a vaguely sacrilegious urge to retile the bathroom. A small museum nearby has a display of photos from a century ago which I found myself looking at rather wistfully. Then the structures were derelict, domes half-collapsed, with weeds growing in the courtyards and donkeys tied under the teetering porticos; undeniably more picturesque and romantic than the current reality, but in truth the monuments have been restored and rebuilt numerous times over the past six hundred years so there’s nothing particularly unauthentic about the current efforts. On balance I think it is probably rather better that attention is lavished on these places than not (especially if the alternative is to leave them to rot entirely), but the Hollywood effect is an unfortunate consequence. Although that said, I’m prepared to admit that my disappointment may owe as much to the lack of camels as to anything more profound. Note to tourism officials: CAMELS MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER..

Sprinklerpalooza. I feel bad for the Aral Sea just looking at this.

Right, off to work now, avoiding localised flooding (Tashkent is kept lush and green by a battalion of sprinklers, in which the water pressure is so high that the tops often pop off, resulting in geyser-like eruptions which render any journey by foot slightly hazardous), in the hope that there will at least be working air conditioning there. I can manage, I think, another couple of weeks of this before I make a break for Kyrgyzstan, which has the enormous advantage of consisting almost entirely of mountain and (whisper it) I even heard a rumour that it’s sometimes necessary to put a coat on in the evenings. I can hardly wait.


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