A glimpse of Afghanistan
For the month I spent in Afghanistan in the summer of 2014, I lived in a hermetically sealed little world, protected, isolated from the Afghan society around us, beyond the walls and the bullet proof windows of our armoured vehicles. Physically I was in Kabul. But I was cut off from it. Living in a fortified compound, eating international food in a canteen managed by a Macedonian chef, where men could stroll around in shorts, and women could bare their arms and shoulders, it had nothing to do with the Afghanistan beyond the walls.

Making the short journey to work each day, along the Jalalabad Road to the Central Election Commission, I caught glimpses of Kabul. Dusty street life; tumble-down shacks serving as shops; bearded men in turbans watching the world go by; cars and motorcycles in a chaotic melee; occasionally a couple of women in burqas; boys and girls on their way to school; well-armed police and soldiers at the intersections. We sped by, looking intently out of the windows, trying to take it in, snatching at fleeting impressions of the country we were in but which we were hardly able to experience at all. But in truth we might have learned more about Kabul on a couch at home, in front of a television.

Afghanistan 2014 38
Street in Kabul

The only brief moments spent outside of this bubble were when I arrived and when I left. Arriving at the airport, we passed through passport and customs control together with all the other passengers. Stepping out of the terminal, looking for the car park at which we knew our escort of security men would be waiting, there was a bus. An Afghan passenger advised us to get in. It was quicker, no sense to walk outside in the August midday heat. So we got in. One of our companions decided to walk. Had we done the right thing? I had no idea. Entering the weird world of the westerner in Afghanistan, I was a complete novice.

When I arrived back at the airport a month later, I had to get out of the armoured vehicle and walk a few metres before entering the multi-layered security cordon. Just for a moment I was outside the security protection that had surrounded me like a force field the whole of the past month. I had heard how, not long before, and not far from the airport, a foreigner had got out of his vehicle while the convoy he was travelling in was stuck in a jam. An opportunist cyclist passing by had stabbed him in the neck, killing him. This was the reality of being a westerner in Kabul. There were good reasons why we were so cut off from the city around us. There were people there who would jump at any opportunity to kill us. Nothing personal. But we were foreigners in their land, unwanted occupiers. It was trivial, but just for a moment I had stepped into a Kabul street, without any barriers. Just for a moment I was really in Afghanistan. And then I walked up to the first security checkpoint into the airport.

My home for that month was in the Green Village, a highly fortified little oasis of western life on the outskirts of Kabul. Simple but adequate rooms in pre-fabricated meccano-set blocks, with reliable electricity and hot water, English-language TV and rather slow internet access. The canteen served quite decent food. My first evening, there was lobster on the menu. I even ate porridge (or oatmeal for the Americans among us) for the first time since childhood. A café served acceptable cappuccinos and muffins, and rather good ice cream. And at the centre of it all was a garden, where we would sit and while away the warm evenings.

It was a strange little world. Often in the evenings we would have a stroll around the village, which took about ten minutes. So we would do it again. The perimeter walls were guarded by ex-gurkhas, while on the inside the guards were mostly from former-Yugoslavia. There were bunkers to which we were supposed to head in case of emergency. In this contained little world it all felt quite safe. The security was tight. Afghans were kept at bay. The local ladies who cleaned our rooms did so under the watchful gaze of an armed Gurkha.

The security was not for nothing. Old Kabul hands told how in years gone by it had been possible to live relatively normal lives in Kabul, to walk the streets and visit restaurants. But normal life for foreigners in the city had become more and more hazardous during 2014, as Taliban attacks increasingly targeted them. Perhaps it was the drawdown of NATO forces elsewhere in the country that drew the Taliban to seek out victims in soft Kabul. A spokesman of the group hinted as much during an interview. At the beginning of the year, an attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant had left 21 dead, among them 13 foreigners. A couple of months later, nine had died in an attack on the Serena Hotel, including four foreigners. I knew several people who had been present in the hotel at the time, and who had been lucky to escape with their lives. They were election observers, like me. The risk was real and ever present. A few weeks after I left, the Green village itself was attacked, not for the first time. Four Taliban attackers were killed in the attempt, but they did not manage to penetrate the perimeter. None of the residents were harmed.

Afghanistan 2014 63
Street in Kabul

The one place where we had contact with Afghans was at work, at the Central Election Commission. To reach it, we had to go through multiple layers of security. Again, the risk facing us, while not uppermost in our minds, drew our attention every time we drove past the nearby blasted, pockmarked building from the roof of which the Taliban had attacked the Election Commission a few weeks earlier. We worked in a row of enormous hangers, with desks ranged along the walls at which pairs of election workers examined the ballot boxes from the recent presidential election, looking to see if all was in order, watched closely by representatives of the two candidates.

Reopening all of the ballot boxes was an enormous task, and it was a fraught undertaking. Box after box, ballot papers lined up on the tables, carefully scrutinised for any signs that the same hand may have been marking multiple ballot papers. It was tedious. The air in the hangers was foul, with fat ventilation tubes lying on the floor, blasting in cool air and blowing up the putrid dust into our lungs. Much of the time, I covered my face with a mask. Day after day for several hours.

The whole process was a farce. It often seemed quite random as to whether ballots or whole boxes were rejected, excluded from the election results. The cheats and swindlers made a mockery of the honest citizens who went to cast their votes, in many places at great personal risk to themselves. The Taliban forbade people to vote, sometimes cutting off the fingers of people who had the tell-tale ink mark showing they had done so. Sometimes stacks of fraudulent ballots were allowed to count, while the votes of genuine voters were excluded, all depending on the vigilance or determination of the party representatives and the international officials who oversaw the process. Just a game among the powerful elites in which the honest Afghan citizens counted for little.

And yet it was important. For behind all this charade was the threat of greater violence if the two candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, and their powerful backers could not reach an accommodation over the election outcome. Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun, the largest and traditionally dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, from whom the Taliban are also drawn. Abdullah Abdullah, who is of mixed parentage, is considered to be a Tajik. The stakes were high. In the end, the outcome of the exercise was not what counted. Rather it was all about buying time for the negotiators for the two sides to reach an accommodation. That Ashraf Ghani would be declared the winner seemed hardly to be in doubt. The question was could a role be found for Abdullah that sufficiently met his expectations?

Afghanistan 2014 31
Scene of a Taliban attack

One of my interpreters, a Pashtun, told me that for him there was no doubt that Ashraf Ghani had won. He saw that the process was a farce. He laughed about it. It made me feel sad. That the Afghan people were humiliated in this way. Most of the election workers were educated people. Many of them spoke English well. My interpreter friend was fluent in French too, in addition to Dari (Persian) and his native Pashtu. They were clever, educated, capable people, who had been asked to do a job which most of them knew was all a big circus. And so they did it. I was glad to have the opportunity, while the job was being done, to chat to them. With rare exceptions, they were unfailingly courteous, a crucial point in Afghanistan, where a perceived slight can lead to serious consequences.

I was especially struck by the communications among men and women. Most of the female workers wore scarves covering their heads, although some wore them a little back, revealing some hair. Few covered their faces completely. These were educated, middle-class, Kabul women. Their male colleagues naturally treated them with respect. But they were also familiar among themselves, chatting freely, often laughing. It was all quite normal. I remember one day working close to an elderly man who was forever making jokes, poking fun at the girls working nearby. One joke concerned a wife who had the last laugh when she caught out her errant husband. Everybody laughed heartily. It was the kind of harmless banter one hears in offices in Europe all the time. I realised that stereotypes about Afghanistan surely do not tell the full story. On the other hand, when our interpreters, drivers and security guards showed us pictures of their families, it was striking that they only showed themselves, their children, their brothers, but never their wives. Many of the foreign observers took photos inside the hangars. One day we were warned to be careful, as some of the men had taken offence that Afghan women were included in the shots.

In my brief stay in Kabul, I hardly glimpsed even the surface of Afghan society. I wanted so much to see more. Would it could it be possible. My interpreter friend said he would have liked to invite me home to his village, but he realised it would not be possible, that our security people would never allow it. He related to me his own fear. Living in a village on the edge of Kabul, he was terrified of the Taliban returning. Everyone knew he had worked as an interpreter for the foreigners. He had previously worked for NATO. There were two men in his village who were former Taliban. He was afraid they might not really be so ‘former’. He spoke calmly about it, smiling as he did so. But getting out was very much on his mind. He had been disappointed that his former French military employers had not allowed him to move to France after five years working with them. He spoke about trying to make the long journey as an illegal migrant, collecting the large sum necessary for the journey, for the pay-offs to the traffickers along the way, from his extended family, in the hope that he would then be able to send money home to everyone. We came from different worlds, he and I, which barely touched each other. The life he led, the problems he faced, were beyond my imagining. Yet he took it all calmly and with dignity, and with a gentle smile on his lips.

Heritage and identity in Azerbaijan
While the large majority (over 90 per cent) of Azerbaijan’s population are Azeris, the country’s heritage is diverse and complex. Like so much of the Eurasian continent, the modern population of the country has been formed by waves of migration, layer upon layer each making its contribution and leaving its mark, often assimilating those that were already there, and in turn being assimilated themselves by the next wave. The Azerbaijani language is part of the Turkic family, and is close to Turkish; the two languages are mutually intelligible. Turkic speakers first migrated into the region during the 11th century. Before then, the territory that now comprises Azerbaijan had been inhabited by people speaking a variety of Caucasian and Indo-European languages, some of whose traces can still be found today. Religious and cultural influences included Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam; Persia and Byzantium.

Main street, Lahic

Travelling north-westwards from Baku, I left the main road at Ismailli, and boarded a rickety old marshrutka for the journey up to the mountain village of Lahic (or Lahij). This picturesque little village, nestling among the mountains, has become famous for its handicrafts, notably metalwork and leather, and also for its language, Lahiji, a dialect of Persian. Persian influence in the region goes back millennia. This little outpost of less than one thousand inhabitants in Lahic, plus a few hundred more in surrounding hamlets, has held on for centuries in the remote mountain fastness. But what chance do they have of surviving in the modern world of mass education, television and the internet? My genial host was optimistic. They all speak Azerbaijani (he also spoke Russian and English), and he seemed confident they would continue to speak their own language among themselves. Yet while I stayed there, his wife’s relatives were visiting. The children did not speak Lahiji, and conversation was in Azerbaijani. As people travel and marry outside the community, the already vanishingly small pool of people who speak their native tongue will surely shrink. As to their identity? My host was clear; they were Azeri. They just spoke a different language. I wandered along the stone-paved streets, looking into the workshops, with their pots and pans and leather goods. The houses are built with thin layers of wood in the stone walls, as a protection against earthquakes. The village has become a popular destination for Azeri weekend trippers, who have their photos taken in traditional mountain costumes. Lahic’s isolation is over, and the distinctiveness of its people and language seems unlikely to survive much longer.

Back in Ismailli, I continued my journey north-westwards. There was no bus from there to my next destination, Oguz. My host in Lahic had told me I might be able to flag down a bus coming from Baku, but that I could not count on it. But I was in luck. I asked a man for directions, and he told me that in ten minutes he would be driving to Gabala, a town on the way to Oguz, and he would give me a lift. From Gabala I could pick up a marshrutka for Oguz. So a short journey, trying to communicate in my broken Russian with the cheerful driver. Oguz was perhaps a strange place to choose to stop. There were two or three hotels there, the best of which was fully booked. My main reason for choosing to stay in Oguz was the presence of a well-preserved church, now a museum, which is described in guidebooks as having been Caucasian Albanian.

Among the peoples that make up Azerbaijan’s heritage, the Caucasian Albanians, no relation to the Albanians in the Balkans, are a cause of particular controversy even today. For centuries, prior to the arrival of Islam, they ruled an area encompassing much of present-day Azerbaijan and part of Dagestan, to the north (in the present-day Russian Federation). Gabala was their capital. In a region beset by national conflicts, the heritage of the Caucasian Albanians has been a matter of fierce dispute.


While staying in Oguz, I made the short trip to the village of Nic (Nij), halfway back along the road to Gabala. Nic is home to the Udi minority, whose language is believed to be a direct descendent of the principal language of the Caucasian Albanians. Just a few thousand strong now, they have retained their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, as well as their adherence to the Christian religion. I visited a tumbledown church in the centre of the village, with trees sprouting out of the roof. The cavernous interior, with its dirt floor, was evidently little used, but there were some votive candles on the altar, indicating that some continued to pray there. Over the entrance was a plaque, giving the date of the church as 1890. The plaque was in Armenian, indicating the church’s adherence to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Most Caucasian Albanians who had remained Christian after the arrival of Islam gradually assimilated as Armenians. The Udi clung on to their language and heritage, but as the church in Nic bore witness, their religious needs had been met in the Armenian church. Perhaps there had not been an Armenian priest there for many years.

The absence of Armenians in today’s Azerbaijan, where they had until the break-up of the Soviet Union and the terrible war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, been a substantial minority, has left a raw wound, as had the expulsion of Azeris from Karabakh and surrounding areas of Azrbaijan occupied by Armenian forces. Signs of the historical presence of Armenians jar with the official version of Azerbaijan’s history promoted by the regime. Yet, as Thomas de Waal pointed out in his excellent book on The Caucasus, Baku had a stronger Armenian heritage than Yerevan before the population upheavals of Russian and Soviet rule. I had visited an Armenian church in central Baku, ringed by a stout fence, its entrance blocked off. There are almost no more Armenians left to use it anyway. Oguz was called Vartashen until 1991, when its name was changed in a bid to eradicate the heritage of the departed Armenian population. The museum church, now labelled as Caucasian Albanian, had surely served the town’s erstwhile Armenians. Oguz does, however, have a handsome, well maintained synagogue.


From Oguz, I continued north-westwards to Sheki. Close-by Sheki is the mountain village of Kish, which is known especially for its church, which is thought to date from around the 12th century. A beautiful little chapel, it was restored in 2000-03 by a Norwegian-funded project. Azerbaijan has particular links with Norway, notably owing to the rather eccentric claims by the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon-Tiki fame, that the roots of the Norwegian people were in Azerbaijan, and that Norwegians and Azeris shared a common ancestry. He based his claims on the similarities between cave paintings in the two countries, as well as Norwegian mythology, which he believed pointed to a Caucasian origin. The church is now a museum, and among the displayed texts about the history of the church, and the links between Kish and Norway, is one expounding Heyerdahl’s theory.

This church also could not escape the controversies about the Caucasian Albanian heritage. I chatted with a lady who runs a café opposite the church and doubles as a tour guide for English speaking visitors. While Armenians had worshipped there in more recent times, she vehemently denied the Armenian heritage of the place. The Armenians had taken it over only in the 19th century, she said, and had trashed the documents demonstrating the Caucasian Albanian origins of this and other churches. This is part of ‘our heritage’ she hotly asserted, meaning Azerbaijan’s, her indignation at the perceived Armenian usurpation of her country’s past boiling over. Some have asserted that there were Udi speakers in Kish when the region was taken over by imperial Russia at the start of the 19th century. Perhaps they were subsequently assimilated as Armenians; perhaps there had been Armenians there already; perhaps other Armenians had migrated there from elsewhere. I did not have enough information to resolve these conundrums. Complicating matters further is the claim that the church had originally been Georgian. Surely the clearest conclusion to all this is that in the shifting sands of Caucasian history, no one people can lay an exclusive claim to the heritage of the Caucasian Albanians or the remains of their once great civilisation.

Sheki palace

Sheki itself also has a notable heritage, and it is in the process of being spruced up, its monuments renovated for the increasing numbers of visitors. Sheki’s origins go back to antiquity, and it had been one of the most important towns of Caucasian Albania. But it was moved to its present position only in the 1770s, following a devastating flood at the nearby earlier site. The town was the capital of the Sheki Khanate, in its day one of the most important of the Caucasian Khanates. Its glory is the Khan’s palace. Built as a summer palace, it was restored in the 1950s and 60s, and again in 2002-04. In size, it is relatively modest, and not particularly palatial. But its splendour is in its décor, placing it among the finest and most beautiful buildings I have visited. Stained-glass windows known as shebake are formed of a delicate lattice work made out of wood, put together without nails or glue, and fitted with coloured glass in geometric patterns. The craftsmanship is superb, and like nothing else I had seen before. The interior walls are decorated with intricate paintings of flowers, birds, hunting scenes and battles. In the palace it is an enchanted world of harmony and beauty, so appealing in the art and architecture of the Islamic world, whose vision of paradise, unlike the pomp and bombast of so much western architecture, is of quiet harmony and simplicity.

Tradition and Modernity in Baku
I arrived in Baku in the morning, tired and dirty after a long day at Kyiv airport and a night-time flight. Flying up from Odessa early the previous day, my onward flight to Baku was cancelled, and I was re-scheduled on a later flight. But then came the news of the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine that afternoon, and all flights heading eastwards were delayed. I sat in the airport departures area, struggling to communicate with the other three Baku-bound transit passengers, and texting my friend in Odessa about the horrifying news. But eventually we got under way. Do you like the airport, my young Azeri travelling companion asked me when we arrived at the shiny modern terminal building? Very nice, I replied. The city too, he added.

Baku July 2014 3
The Maiden's Tower, Baku

Baku is indeed a fine looking city, at least in the city centre. Further out, it resembles a vast building site, with clouds of dust whipped up by the strong winds for which the city is notorious. For Baku has been thoroughly revamped and reinvented in recent years, oil money poured into the transformation of the former Soviet town. Swathes of Soviet-era apartment buildings have been cut down. The old city centre has in part survived the changes of the 20th century. Wandering in the old walled city, narrow, shady streets overhung with balconies retain their charm. But it is quite different from so many other old Muslim towns, such as one sees in Central Asia, with the dusty streets of windowless walls hiding the secret lives of the families behind them. In Baku’s old town the houses are open to the world, with windows and balconies. It is an eclectic mixture, reflecting Azerbaijan’s complex history, influenced by east and west. Previously part of Persia, modern-day Azerbaijan was conquered by Imperial Russia in the early 19th century. The city centre also boasts impressive mansions built with the oil wealth of the early 20th century.

The tension between Baku’s eastern roots and western influences was poignantly portrayed in Kurban Said’s marvellous novel ‘Ali and Nino’. Coming from a wealthy Baku Jewish family, the author moved to Germany at the time of the Bolshevik revolution, and converted to Islam. The hero of the novel, Ali, is a sophisticated product of Russian education, speaking French and English, and with a modern, educated bride, Nino. But Ali is also the scion of a notable Persian Azeri family, and is drawn to his eastern heritage.

Baku July 2014 7
Old town and flame towers, Baku

Baku also boasts interesting modern architecture. Beyond the old city, the wavy, pointy tips of the flame towers shimmer and flick at the sky. But the iconic building of Baku is the mysterious, bewildering Maiden’s tower. No one knows for sure for what purpose it was built? Only that its shape, with the long projection jutting out from its cylindrical core, is unique and unfathomable. It appears to have been built in the 12th century, although its foundations may date back several centuries earlier. Popular legend attributes its name to the story of a King’s daughter who threw herself to her death from the tower rather than marry an unloved suitor. Another explanation links the name ‘virgin’ to its never having been taken by force. Some experts think it may have been designed as an astronomical observatory, although it also for a time formed part of the city’s defences.

Baku’s story for the past 150 years has been dominated by oil. Vast fortunes were made here, for the Nobel brothers and the Rothschilds among others. The young Stalin cut his revolutionary teeth as an agitator among the oil workers. Hitler’s drive against Stalingrad was aimed towards the oil wells of Baku, which he considered critical to the German war effort. In the middle of the 20th century almost half the world’s oil production came from Baku. While the city’s wells contribute far less proportionately nowadays, oil has again been central to the country’s efforts to rebuild itself since independence and the disastrous war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s.

Baku July 2014 51
Absheron Peninsula

Much of today’s production is offshore, from rigs in the Caspian. But the land around Baku, on the Absheron peninsula, is cluttered with wells, the derricks like some kind of giant, demented birds bobbing their heads up and down, stretching for miles across the flat, dust-blown landscape, pecking away at the oil-soaked earth. It is a forlorn and hideous scene.

For thousands of years oil has oozed, and gas has seeped out of the ground on the Absheron peninsula. In places, once ignited, the ground literally burns. At Yanar Dag (Burning Mountain), a short bus ride out of Baku, flames lick the blackened sandstone of a ten-metre long strip of hillside. It is said it was accidentally ignited by the dropped cigarette of a careless shepherd in the 1950s. Not far away, at the Baku suburb of Surakhani, is the temple of fire, or ‘Ateshgah’. Thought to have been built in the 17th century, it consists of a courtyard, with an altar in the middle, and cells around the perimeter where holy men once lived. On the altar, a fire burns. The shrine was once a Hindu place of worship, and has also been a place of pilgrimage for Zoroastrians, followers of the pre-Islamic religion of Persia. Some have speculated that the site may have been a Zoroastrian place of worship much earlier. The fires at the shrine used to be fuelled by natural gas vents of the type that proliferated around the Absheron peninsula. But the commercial exploitation of the gas wells caused the flames to go out. They are now fuelled by the Baku mains supply.

Baku July 2014 36
Ateshgah temple

As in the time of Ali and Nino, modern Baku still has a face to the west and a face to the east. The city centre, outside the old-town walls, has a modern brash feel. On the central square, a statue of a sassy young woman in jeans and a skimpy top holds an umbrella in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. In cafes and bars around the square perimeter evening revellers sip cold beer and tuck into kebabs and pizza. Yet it was Ramadan when I visited, and at restaurants away from the city centre tables were prepared well in advance for the diners who would sit in front of their plates waiting for the signal that it was time to break the day’s fast. Conservatism and modernity exist side by side.

Zaporizhian Cossacks
I travelled down from Dnipropetrovsk to Zaporizhia by bus, the route roughly following the course of the Dnieper River. It was wartime in Eastern Ukraine. A couple of hundred kilometres east of here, battle was raging in the city of Donetsk. I had spent two months in Dnipropetrovsk eight years earlier, in the winter of 2006. This was a Russian-speaking region, but everything I had learned about Dnipro during that earlier stay told me that most of its people would stand with Ukraine. And it proved to be so. Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flew from buildings. They adorned cars. An electronic billboard in the city centre displayed a fluttering flag, while the national anthem blared across the square. Most striking of all, a whole tower block on the Dnieper riverbank had been faced with a vast yellow on blue trident symbol of Ukraine.

Dnipro July 2014 6

The regional governor, Igor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine’s wealthy oligarchs, had taken on the defence of the city, recruiting his own militia, the Dnipro Battalion. My bus passed through one of its checkpoints as we drove into the city. It had also seen action further east. Kolomoisky is Jewish, surely giving the lie to Russian slurs that the authorities in Ukraine are fascist. Dnipro boasts the biggest Jewish community in the country. Kolomoisky had built the huge Menorah Jewish community centre in the city (I stayed in a hotel in the building).

During my earlier stay in Dnipropetrovsk, people had more than once spoken of their pride in the Cossack heritage of the region. The centre of that heritage was in Zaporizhia, a little way south down the Dnieper, and I had long wanted to go there. Zaporizhia itself is a non-descript Soviet-era city. It has no real centre of any note, just an avenue, many kilometres long, with other avenues leading off it. Its most noteworthy construction is the vast Dnieper dam, built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and once the pride, the showcase of Stalin’s first five year plan. Before the construction of the dam, and the flooding it caused, this section of the river was known for its rapids, from which Zaporizhia, ‘beyond the rapids’, takes its name.

Zaporizhya July 2014 1
Dnieper Dam, Zaporizhia

Looking across from the dam, in the middle of the broad Dnieper, is the long island of Khortytsia, famous as a centre of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. From the 16th through to the 18th centuries, the Cossacks held sway over a large territory known as the Zaporizhian Sich, or sometimes as the Cossack Republic. The word ‘sich’ was derived from the Ukrainian word for ‘to chop’, referring to the clearance of forest to make room for an encampment, and the use of the wood to build a fortification. It was this fortified camp that formed the heart of the Zaporizhian Cossack world. The term was used to refer to the fortification itself, and also to the wider territory it controlled. The Sich enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy, at times coming under the formal sovereignty of both the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and of Muscovy. Some believe its origin was as a defence against the raids of Crimean Tartar slavers, the so-called ‘harvesting of the Steppe’, which carried off hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and others into bondage. The Sich was destroyed several times, by the Tartars among others, only to be rebuilt at a different spot. It was finally abolished by Catherine the Great in 1775. For today’s Ukrainians, the Zaporizhian Sich was one of the antecedents of the modern Ukrainian state.

Like Cossacks elsewhere, the Zaporizhian host was made up of men who had sought freedom from the strictures of organised states and from the serfdom prevalent in Poland and Russia. The value they placed on freedom was reflected in their model of government, which included elements of democracy. Authority was exercised by an assembly, the ‘Sich Rada’, and the ‘Hetman’, or leader. The island of Khortytsia, the centre of the Zaporizhian Cossacks’ realm, was strictly male only. The Cossacks had a code of behaviour and a judicial system to enforce it.

Zaporizhya July 2014 5
Replica Sych, Khortytsia island

There is nothing left of the original Sich on Khortytsia, all trace having been erased on the order of Catherine. But there is a museum, including exhibits from the period of the Sich, as well as pictures depicting the Cossacks’ rebellion against Poland-Lithuania, the Khmelnytsky Uprising, in 1648. The Cossacks look splendid and terrifying in their extravagant costumes and outsized moustaches. Other pictures of assemblies in the Sich show them raucous and wild, as they would be expected to be. Close-by the museum is a reconstruction of the Sich, including walls made of wooden stakes, as well as houses and, at the centre, a tall, wooden Orthodox Church. But it is difficult to conjure up the atmosphere of former times, especially with the dam nearby, as well as massive electricity pylons a short distance away.

There is something ineffably glamorous about the Cossacks. But their image is also tainted by a reputation for violence. In later periods, in the service of the Russian Tsars, they were often seen as the sharp edge of Tsarist oppression against subject peoples. They have tended to be regarded as a part of the Russian heritage, and indeed, until recently, much of the world barely distinguished Ukraine from Russia. In the present conflict, there have been reports of Cossacks fighting on the side of the Russian invaders, and abducting international monitors. But many Ukrainians also draw inspiration from their Cossack past. In the sprawling camps in central Kyiv in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution, several of the men hanging around in military fatigues, practicing martial arts and swilling hard liquor, had adopted the styles of the Cossacks, with the profuse moustaches and shaven heads, with just a small wisp of hair swept forward from the top of their sculls, over their foreheads. But these were not the ones fighting in the east to recover Ukraine’s occupied territory.

Melons and Massacres in the Fergana Valley
From Khiva I made the journey back eastwards to Tashkent by train from Urgench. It was a slow, trundling overnight journey of almost twenty hours, but my sleeper compartment was relatively comfortable. Much of the journey took us across the bleak landscape of the Kyzylkum Desert. I had planned to have supper in the restaurant wagon. My host in Khiva had told me that, as this was a domestic, Uzbekistan train, there should be no trouble getting a meal. By contrast, he said, on the international trains from Russia all the food had gone long before the train reached Urgench. But my companion in the compartment had other ideas. To my surprise, when he entered the compartment he automatically started speaking to me in Uzbek. Was it not clear from my appearance that I was a foreigner? I felt quite pleased with myself. Once he understood, he seemed delighted, repeatedly shaking my hand and clapping me on the back. I was slightly dismayed when he produced a pair of two-litre bottles of beer which he insisted on sharing with me. The idea of a long booze-filled journey was not especially appealing. It could have been worse; he didn’t have vodka. He then produced a nan loaf of bread (the typical Central Asian loaf, known to Russians as a lepyoshka) and a pot of beef stew. Eating was with the hands. I was a little disconcerted by his habit, as host, of taking pieces of meat between his fingers and offering them to me. But it was tasty, and I was grateful.

Back in Tashkent for just a single night, early the next morning I made my way to the place where shared taxis set off for the Fergana Valley. There are trains from Tashkent to Fergana, but they pass through Tajikistan, and I did not have the necessary double-entry visas. The road over the mountains, through the narrow strip of territory that links the Fergana Valley with the rest of Uzbekistan, is a good, fast road. But for some reason buses are not allowed along it. On this occasion I waited several hours before the taxi had enough passengers to depart. Driving through the pass into the Valley, there is a big checkpoint, looking very much like a border post, at which IDs are checked, and at which all foreigners entering or exiting the Valley have to be registered. It was a formality, but, handing over my passport, it felt like I was entering a different country.

Fergana does feel different, distinct. The Valley, in fact a large plain surrounded by mountains, is divided up among three former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, their borders twisting around each other crazily, breaking up the natural unity of the Valley and cutting off its different parts from each other. Fed by tributaries of the Syr-Darya River, it is the most fertile region of Central Asia, quite different from the mountains, desert and steppe that predominate elsewhere. It is the most densely populated part of Central Asia too, and accounts for a large share of its agriculture. Through millennia of shifting boundaries, Fergana’s unity had been maintained until the Soviet period, when Stalin, as commissar for nationalities, sought to impose a national division on to Central Asia that had never been known before. But the different nations were jumbled up, and could not be neatly parcelled out among the newly created republics. It mattered less during the Soviet period, when they were all united within the one overarching union. But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has brought no end of tension, especially between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Despite the overlaying of national identities on the former Khanates of Central Asia, strong regional identities remain important, and have been the key to understanding political divisions in all the Soviet successor states of the region. In Uzbekistan, the Fergana Valley is regarded with suspicion by the Tashkent elite, which has resulted in violent confrontations. Among the distinctive traits of the Valley is its conservatism, and greater piety. It has also been a breeding ground for Islamist militants. The founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was active in Tajikistan during its civil war in the 1990s, and alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, came from the Fergana Valley. The movement was largely destroyed along with the Taliban during the US-led invasion in Afghanistan in 2001, its remnants scattered, some of them taking refuge in Pakistan. While there has in recent years been little evidence of any Islamist threat in Fergana, it has nevertheless suited the Karimov regime to brand any manifestation of opposition in the Valley as extremist.

Kokand Aug 2013 1
The Khan's Palace, Kokand

My first destination in the Valley was Kokand, the former capital of the Kokand Khanate, which in the 18th and 19th centuries had ruled over eastern Uzbekistan, including Tashkent, as well as bits of southern Kazakhstan and much of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kokand does not match its one-time rival, Bukhara, for fine architecture and historical monuments. This is partly because of the extensive destruction that accompanied the Bolshevik crackdown in 1918 on the so-called ‘Kokand Autonomy’, a rival to Bolshevik rule, during which many thousands of the city’s inhabitants were slaughtered during a three-day orgy of rape and destruction by the Red Army. Among old photos from the early 20th century in the museum in the former Khan’s palace, there is one that shows the destruction of the medressas in Kokand at that time.

It rained during most of my short stay in Kokand, but still I trudged around the old city, seeking out the remaining historical buildings. The Khan’s palace sits in a park on the other side of the main thoroughfare that bisects the city centre from the maze of streets that form the old town. It was built in the early 1870s, just as Kokand was succumbing to Russian rule. Following the Russian seizure of Tashkent in 1865, Khudayar Khan was forced, in 1868, to accept vassal status vis-à-vis the Tsar. But in 1875 just a couple of years after the completion of the palace, a rebellion drove him into exile. His replacement by his anti-Russian son prompted the Russians, the following year, to abolish the khanate and bring it under direct Russian rule, as part of Russian Turkestan. The palace has been partly restored, and now houses a museum. Interiors are richly decorated with elaborate geometric and floral patterns. The harem was demolished by the Russians in 1919.

Kokand Aug 2013 21
The Narbuta-Bey Medressa, Kokand

Among the few remaining medressas (there were once 35 in Kokand, and hundreds of mosques), the Narbuta-Bey Medressa, having been closed by the Bolsheviks, was reopened after independence, only to be closed again in 2008. It has an imposing façade, reminiscent of medressas in Bukhara. Built at the end of the 18th century, craftsmen from Bukhara who had been taken captive in warfare between the two neighbouring khanates were brought to work on its construction. An elderly man appeared at the entrance, and showed me around. Having visited many disused medressas in the region, it was interesting here to peer into one of the cells leading off the courtyard, which had been restored. Sparsely decorated, there was a platform at the back of the room where students would have slept, on the floor a carpet. The cells on the outside of the building, flanking the entrance, were occupied.

Behind the medressa is an old graveyard, including a couple of rather grand mausoleums where members of the Kokand royal family were laid to rest. Among them is Nodira, the wife of Umar Khan. When her husband died in 1822, leaving an heir who was still a child, Nodira took over as ruler, evidence that, in the Islamic world too, it was not doubted that women were no less capable of ruling than men, even if it was never publicly acknowledged. Nodira was most notable as a poet, considered one of Uzbekistan’s greatest. She wrote in both Uzbek and Tajik. Under her, Kokand became a centre of the arts. She remains a hugely popular figure in Uzbekistan, and Nodira is a popular girl’s name. She appeared on a postage stamp issued after Uzbekistan’s independence. Her son, Madali Khan, extended Kokand’s borders to their furthest extent, but his expansionism brought down the wrath of Nasrullah Khan of Bukhara, who had executed the two British emissaries, Stoddart and Conolly, that same year. In 1842, Nasrullah captured Kokand, and had Madali, his brother and Nodira all put to death.

Kokand Aug 2013 27
The old town, Kokand

From Kokand, I continued eastwards to Andijan, not far from Osh, across the border in Kyrgyzstan, which I had visited the previous year. This time I decided to go by bus. Kokand’s bus station is right by the Dekhon Bazzar, with its busy little workshops, men hammering out pieces of metal into the desired shapes, rows of stalls selling nan bread, towers off water melons, and piles of grapes, oranges, olives and figs. I bought my ticket, in fact just a little slip of paper with something the seller had scribbled on it. And then I waited. Someone offered me a seat. Men came and chatted to me. Where was I from? Which football team did I support?

Then the colourful little bus pulled up, and we all piled in. Apparently the scrawl on my ticket included my seat number, but the numbers on the seats did not go as high as mine, and in fact any idea of reservations was a nonsense. Everyone took whichever they could. The friends I had made while waiting took care of me, and I was given a seat. As we trundled out of Kokand, more and more people piled in. Soon the bus was crammed full with people from the villages along the way, together with the provisions they had bought in the town. Some stood, others sat on their bags. It was all immensely cheerful. However crushed and uncomfortable, people laughed and joked and offered round pieces of fruit and biscuits, as if it were all a big party. The ticket seller, who had to push and shove his way around the bus, joined in the fun, joking as he went. He also spoke a little English. When he translated my humdrum answers to his questions about myself, my home, the ladies around us hooted with laughter. I smiled uncertainly, not knowing what he had told them about me.

Andijan Aug 2013 15
Melons, Andijan

There are many good things about Andijan. First of all, the hotel I stayed in was terrific; a big, comfortable room, a swimming pool, and a marvellous breakfast, all for a very modest price. The thing I enjoyed most of all was the melons. Fergana is famous for them. Andijan’s most celebrated son is Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Born in Andijan, he succeeded as ruler of Fergana near the end of the 15th century, at the age of 12. At 15, he conquered Samarkand. However, facing rebellions, he ended up losing both Andijan and Samarkand. His fortunes later rose, as he captured Kabul and ruled Afghanistan before moving on to the conquest of India. But it seems he never ceased to lament the loss of his homeland, or of Samarkand, the capital of his ancestor, Timur. In his memoir, the Baburnameh, Babur wrote repeatedly of the delights of melons. He knew what he was talking about. I have never eaten more delicious, juicier, sweeter melons than those I ate in Andijan. Other fruits were excellent as well. The figs were wonderful.

Andijan Aug 2013 12
The Eski Bazaar, Andijan

I hopped in a minivan to go to the old town, clustered around the sprawling Eski (‘Old’) Bazaar, one of the most inspiring in Central Asia, with its piles of produce, the rich bounty of Fergana’s fertile land. I ate there two or three times during my stay. Everything seemed tasty. The salads were wonderful, the tomatoes sweet and delicious. It is something that had struck me before in the Fergana Valley, during stays in Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, as well as Khujand, in Tajikistan. The food is good in Fergana. It is typical, simple Central Asian fare, laghman, manty, shashlik and the rest. But somehow it is better, tastier, fresher. The chaikhana I frequented during my stay was bustling with life and colour. Each time I received a warm greeting, and a cheerful sense of fun as we tried to work out what I should eat. I found Andijan delightful.

Andijan Aug 2013 10
A chaikhana, Andijan

Since 2005, the name Andijan is associated with something altogether more negative, the massacre that took place there in May of that year. The violence of the security forces, the huge over-reaction of the authorities, speaks volumes about the regime’s paranoia, its fear of its own people. Concerns about the oppressiveness of the regime had been growing for some time. Uzbekistan had acquired strategic importance for the United States and its allies following the invasion of Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2005, Uzbekistan hosted a US military base, which was used in supporting its operations in Afghanistan. The importance of this trumped human rights concerns. Things changed after the massacre. The Americans departed at the insistence of the Uzbekistan government following US criticism of the bloodshed in Andijan.

In 2004, the British ambassador in Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, had been forced to resign following his outspoken criticism of the country’s human rights record and what he saw as the tolerance of it by the US administration of President George W. Bush. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he had said that "there is no point in having cocktail-party relationships with a fascist regime". Murray fell out of favour with the UK Foreign Office. He was removed from his post in Tashkent, and agreed to resign from the diplomatic service the following year. Whatever the reasons for his falling out of grace, his case illustrates the dilemma faced by diplomats (and international organisations) when they have to maintain relations with a distasteful regime. Unlike many, Murray chose not to dodge that dilemma.

The backdrop to the massacre was the trial of 23 local businessmen, who the authorities, with precious little evidence, accused of Islamic extremist activities. Specifically, they were accused of membership of the Akromiya movement, inspired by an imprisoned mathematician, Akrom Yuldoshev, who in the early 1990s had written a pamphlet calling on businesses to pool resources for the common good of society, in line with Islamic principles. More likely is that they were caught up in a power struggle following the purge of a long-serving Andijan governor. In a country submerged in corruption and cronyism, the arrests may have been part of a crackdown on businesses not under the thumb of the authorities. When the trial began in February 2005, protesters gathered outside the courtroom, their numbers gradually swelling over the following weeks.

Matters came to a head following the arrest on 12 May of several protesters and relatives of the accused men. The next day, armed men attacked the prison, releasing the 23 men as well as several hundred others. Several prison guards were killed. The armed men also seized Andijan’s government administration building, taking several senior officials hostage. They tried but failed to take over the headquarters of the National Security Service. Their principal demand was the resignation of Karimov. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the trial, this was clearly a serious criminal act, an act of rebellion, to which the authorities had to respond. But the violence and indiscriminate nature of their response was beyond all proportion to the threat they faced. The massacre came not long after the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Perhaps the example of those exercises in popular will impelled Karimov to such a fierce response in Andijan. Perhaps he thought the US-led ‘war on terror’ gave him cover for such violence against his own citizens.

During 13 May, protesters continued to gather on the central Bobur Square. That evening, the square was sealed off and security forces attacked the crowds, according to witnesses firing indiscriminately. The numbers of victims are disputed, but several hundred were killed, including children. The government blamed Islamist extremists for the violence, but most of the dead were ordinary civilians. Thousands of panicked people fled for the border, seeking refuge in Kyrgyzstan. The crackdown did not stop there. Following the events, many journalists went into exile. Several international NGOs and media organisations were forced out. Uzbekistan’s already sham democracy had been snuffed out, all pretence gone. This was now a regime whose legitimacy derived from brute force.

Since the events of May 2005, Bobur Square has been renamed Navoi Square, after Alisher Navoi, the great 16th century poet. The statue of Babur that had stood there has been moved (it is now close to the hotel where I stayed). A big open space, criss-crossed by major roads, there is nothing to indicate what happened there. All is now peaceful, no obvious sign of tension. A gang of colourfully dressed women tilled over the earth on a roundabout at one end. The people of Andijan went busily about their work. They smiled happily. They were welcoming and hospitable to the visiting foreigner. But it cannot be imagined that the events of 2005 have been forgotten. The scars are surely there.

Onwards from Bukhara there were no more comfortable train journeys. To get to my next destination, Khiva, in western Uzbekistan, it was back to shared taxis. First of all an early-morning minivan ride to a car park on the edge of Bukhara, where the taxis wait for passengers. On this occasion there was no problem finding one that was ready to leave. To my irritation, I knew I was being charged above the normal rate, but the driver was having none of it. So he gathered up the other passengers, and we set off on the long journey across the Kyzylkum desert to Urgench, where the driver helped me find another taxi for the thirty-minute onward trip to Khiva. The drive to Urgench was at break-neck speed, the road sometimes disappearing under the desert sand. At one point we broke down, but after some quick tinkering beneath the bonnet, off we went again.

Urgench is a modern, nondescript Soviet city, with nothing of tempt a visitor to linger. Like most visitors, I passed through quickly. Arriving in Khiva, I was set down by the massive crenelated walls of the old walled city, the Ichan Qala. Walking through the western gate, I got my first view of the narrow thoroughfare that passes through the old city from west to east, in the foreground the fat, squat, truncated Kalta Minor Minaret, further along the tall Juma Minaret. One of the most striking things about Khiva is the variations in colour at different times of the day, as the sun hits the old buildings from different angles. In the mid-afternoon sunshine at the western gate, the turquoise tiles of the Kalta Minor Minaret are, by the glow of the evening light, transformed and contrasted by the rich golden hues of the geometric designs circling its bulk. The minaret, begun in the mid-19th century, was never completed, work abandoned after the death of Mohammed Amin Khan. The prodigious size of the base of the unfinished minaret hints at the ambition of the departed Khan, who, it is said, had wanted to build a tower so high that he could see all the way to Bukhara. It would also have overlooked the Kuhna Ark, the Khan’s residence, including the harem, which may have been among the reasons his successors left it unfinished.

Khiva Aug 2013 1 Khiva Aug 2013 2
The Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva, afternoon and evening

Below its minaret, the Juma Mosque, built in the 18th century, consists of a large space covered by a flat roof, held up by more than 200 of the intricately carved wooden columns that figure so prominently in traditional Central Asian architecture. While most of the columns date from the 18th and 19th centuries, a few are thought to be much older, some possibly from the 10th century, having been salvaged from demolished medieval buildings. Amid the dimness, shafts of sunlight beam through holes in the ceiling creating islands of brightness, enlivened by potted plants. It is a cool and beautiful refuge from the baking heat outside.

Khiva Aug 2013 32
Inside the Juma Mosque, Khiva

Further along from the Juma Mosque, past the elegant 19th century Allakuli Khan Medressa, is the east gate of the old city. Leading to the gate is a long, gloomy passageway, with niches in the walls. When I visited, some of these niches were occupied by souvenir sellers. But in the 19th century, a very different kind of trade went on here, as this was Khiva’s slave market. The slaves were held in these niches to be inspected by prospective buyers. Khiva’s was the most important slave market in Central Asia, fed by the marauding Turkmen slavers who menaced the surrounding deserts, robbing caravans and carrying off unfortunate men, women and children from remote outposts and encampments, or even fishermen on the shores of the Caspian. A great many of the victims were Persian, but some were Russian. As with Bukhara, the freeing of Russian slaves was a pretext for St. Petersburg’s ambitions in the region. Captain Nikolai Muraviev, a Russian envoy who made the perilous journey to Khiva in 1819, was much moved by the pleas of Russian slaves as he was led through the streets of the city, more especially given that there was nothing he could do for them, beyond reporting on their plight when he returned from his mission.

Khiva Aug 2013 28
The former slave market, Khiva

Russia made several attempts to take the city before it was finally overcome. In 1717, Peter the Great sent an expedition to Khiva, his interest having been piqued by an offer from the Khan some years earlier to become Peter’s vassal in exchange for his protection. The mission went badly wrong. The Khan had in the meantime changed his mind. When the 4,000-strong Russian force, led by Prince Alexander Bekovich, a Caucasian Muslim who had converted to Christianity, arrived, after a gruelling journey, the Khan greeted them warmly, and then, having persuaded them to divide up their force, the better to be accommodated, had them slaughtered, just a few spared in order to carry word of the disaster back to Russia. The boastful Khan sent Bekovich’s head to his counterpart in Bukhara, but the Emir sent it back, declaring he wished no part in such a perfidious act.

At this time, Russia’s frontier was hundreds of miles to the north and west of Khiva, across baking hot desert in summer and frozen wastes in winter. Just reaching Khiva was a major endeavour. In 1801, another expedition, of 22,000 Cossacks, set off from Orenburg at the behest of Tsar Paul with the notion of reaching India by way of Khiva and Bukhara, and driving the British out of the subcontinent. It was madcap idea. They had little idea of what lay ahead of them on the route. They made it perhaps half way to Khiva when a horseman caught up with them, informing them that Paul had been assassinated, and that the newly installed Tsar Alexander had called the whole thing off.

A third attempt, in 1839-40, also ended in disaster. This campaign was a response to Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. A force of over 5,000 men, with a baggage train of 10,000 camels, led by General Vasily Perovsky, set off from Orenburg in November 1839, but faced with exceptionally harsh winter conditions and the loss of half the camels, they were forced to turn back in February. They made it back to Orenburg in May, having lost 1,000 men and most of the camels, without ever having engaged Khivan forces.

As Perovsky set about his abortive mission, two British officers reached Khiva from the south, with the aim of freeing the Russian slaves and depriving St. Petersburg of its pretext for moving against the Khanate. Captain James Abbott travelled alone, in Afghan dress, from Herat, in Afghanistan. His arrival was greeted with suspicion. But the Khan was sufficiently worried about Perovsky’s advance to agree to free the Russian slaves in his realm if the Russians halted all military operations aimed at Khiva and agreed to release Khivan hostages held in Orenburg. Abbott set off on the long journey to St. Petersburg, where he hoped to deliver a letter from the Khan to the Tsar. He was soon captured and robbed by brigands, and his men were carried off for sale into slavery. He had a lucky escape, however, when an envoy sent from Herat to look for him managed to impress on his captors the gravity of their mistake in molesting a man carrying a letter from the Khan.

Khiva Aug 2013 47
The old town, Khiva

In the meantime, another British officer, Lt. Richmond Shakespear, arrived in Khiva. News of the disaster that had befallen Perovsky’s army had by now reached Khiva, but the Khan was still worried. After long negotiations, he agreed to release all the Russian slaves in his domain into Shakespear’s care, and provided an escort for their journey to Russian territory. For Shakespear it was a triumph. He described how the freed slaves were ‘very grateful, and altogether it was one of the pleasantest duties I have ever executed.’ He was much feted in Russia, and was received by the Tsar in St. Petersburg. But gratitude in official Russian circles was privately matched by irritation that a Briton, who was naturally, and not inaccurately, assumed to be a spy, had pulled off such a feat.

Khiva finally to a three-prong Russian advance in 1873. The desperate Khan sent out an envoy to offer unconditional surrender to General Konstantin Kaufman, the Governor General of Russian Turkestan since the conquest of Tashkent in 1865. Tashkent had been the first major Central Asian city to fall to the Russians. Samarkand and Bukhara had fallen in quick succession, and now it was the turn of Khiva. Kaufman refused the Khan’s offer until he was in the city, having first turned his artillery on Khiva’s walls, at which the Khan fled.

Khiva Aug 2013 38
Inside the Tosh-Halvi Palace, Khiva

Khiva is the best preserved of the old towns of Central Asia, if not as enchanting or as beautiful as Bukhara. The massive bulk of the restored walls of the Ichan Qala are still intact. Unlike in Ark in Bukhara, Khiva’s Kuhna Ark is well preserved. But the architectural gem in Khiva is the Tosh-Halvi Palace, finished in 1841. It is a warren of rooms and corridors opening out on to bright courtyards, surrounded on the first storey by shady galleries, intended to catch any breeze in the summer heat. The courtyards are decorated with the usual intricate patterns of tiles. Two of them contain platforms on which yurts would have been placed, for the comfort of the once nomadic Khans and their extended families. Such a building bears witness to the accomplishment of Central Asian civilisation even as the modern world in the form of the advance of Imperial Russia was closing in.

Following the surrender to Russia and acceptance of the status of a protectorate, in some ways Khiva thrived. Indeed, in the last decades before the Bolshevik takeover there was something of a construction splurge. Mohammad Rakhim Khan II, having surrendered to the Russians, built the large medressa that bears his name, across from the Khuna Ark. He reigned until 1910. The Islom-Hoja Medressa and its fine minaret were completed in 1910. Islom Hoja, who had commissioned the medressa, was Grand Vizier during the reign of Mohammad Rakhim Khan. He was a liberal and a moderniser, who opened a European-style school and a hospital, and brought the telegraph to the city. But his reforms brought him into conflict with conservatives, especially among the clergy, and he was assassinated in 1913, with the tacit approval of Mohammad Rakhim Khan’s successor, Isfandiyar Khan. The medressa’s architect was buried alive.

The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum was rebuilt in the 19th century, to house the tomb of the renowned 14th century poet and philosopher. In 1913, it was taken over by the Khivan royal family as their mausoleum. Inside the tiling is especially lovely. In the main chamber is the tomb of Mohammad Rakhim Khan II. In a small side chamber, pilgrims kneeled in front of the doors looking in upon the tomb of Pahlavon Mahmud, quietly whispering their devotions. In the main chamber the pilgrims offered money to a prayer leader, and, kneeling on a rug, with a plate of bread in the middle, their hands cupped in prayer, listened while he recited.

Travellers to Bukhara
From Samarkand I continued by train to Bukhara. A great political, cultural and religious centre through millennia, Bukhara’s many historical monuments have been restored less assertively and more sensitively than those of Samarkand. Although much has changed in the past one hundred years, it is nevertheless possible to get much more of a sense of the old city wandering around its streets and lanes, than is the case in Samarkand. Much has yet to undergo restoration at all. Like Samarkand, Bukhara is attracting more and more tourists, but it is as yet far from overwhelmed. For me it was the most beautiful, the most atmospheric city I visited in Central Asia.

Bukhara was the capital of the Persian Samanid dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. The intricate yet beautifully simple mausoleum of Ismail Samani, the founder of the dynasty, is in stark contrast to the scale and bombast of the monuments of Samarkand. In general, Bukahra’s architecture seems to express elegance, beauty and the sense of quiet peacefulness that is so often evident in Islamic design than the power and awe that the great buildings of Samarkand seem been built for. But this impression might in part be due to the restoration and rebuilding of recent times, and the redesign of the old centre of Samarkand.

Bukhara Aug 2013 23
The Kalon Minaret and Mosque, Bukhara

The Kalon minaret, standing at nearly 50 metres, was built in the 12th century under the rule of the Turkic Karakhanid dynasty, which supplanted the Samanids. Circled by concentric rings of geometric patterns, the tower tapers towards the top before opening out into an elaborately decorated gallery. It is said that when Genghis Khan conquered the city in 1220, he was so impressed by the tower that he ordered that it be spared when much of the rest of the city was destroyed. The minaret was once also known as the tower of death, as criminals were for centuries executed by being hurled from it. Fitzroy MacLean, then a young diplomat serving at the British embassy in Moscow, visited Bukhara in 1938, and wrote how executions in this manner, having ceased after 1870, had again been practiced in 1917-1920. MacLean travelled widely in Central Asia and the Caucasus, doggedly trying to evade his NKVD shadows. He wrote about his experiences in his memoir, Eastern Approaches, which also covered his time with the SAS in North Africa and as an envoy with Tito’s Partisans in Yugoslavia. He described Bukhara, where he slept in parks during his stay, as an ‘enchanted city’, rivalling ‘the finest architecture of the Italian Renaissance.’

Down one side of the Kalon minaret there are lighter patches, where the damage done by Boslshevik artillery in 1920 was repaired. In the 1870s, The Emirate of Bukhara, which covered a large territory, including Samarkand, became a Russian protectorate, but retained broad autonomy. When Bolsheviks first tried to take control of the city in 1918, the last Emir, Alim Khan, had them slaughtered, along with several hundred Russian Bolshevik sympathisers in the city. But it was a temporary respite. In 1920 a stronger Red Army unit under General Frunze arrived, storming the Ark, or citadel, leaving the Emir to flee into exile (he died in 1944 in Kabul).

Bukhara Aug 2013 22
The Mir-I-Arab Medressa, Bukhara

Below the Kalon Minaret is a 17th century mosque of the same name, which replaced an earlier mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan. Used as a warehouse in Soviet times, it was returned to its intended use in 1991. Inside, a large open space is surrounded by arched galleries. It is said it can fit 10,000 worshipers. Opposite the mosque is the Mir-i-Arab Medressa. Unusual among the numerous medressas in Uzbekistan, this one is still working, and visitors were not allowed beyond the entrance foyer. I listened from there to the students at prayer. Later I looked in at the courtyard, laid out in the typical pattern, with arched alcoves all around, on two stories, where the students live and study, all richly decorated with blue and gold tiles.

Unlike in Samarkand, in Bukhara the historical buildings are surrounded on all sides by the old town. Wandering around its dusty streets there are several unrestored medressas and mosques. Bukhara had once been noted for its numerous pools, which were used for drinking and washing. They also spread disease, and were mostly drained after the communist takeover. But there are a few left, including the Lyabi-Hauz (‘around the pool’ in Tajik), a plaza around a pool, shaded by mulberry trees, some of them very ancient, which is the heart of the old town. Richly tiled medressas fronting on to the plaza cast their reflections in the pool. Where once old men sat drinking tea and playing draughts in the shade of the trees, now there are restaurants frequented by families, as well as by tourists. One afternoon I sat in the shade of a tree by another pool in a less frequented part of the old town, overlooked by a medressa and a mosque, with a smaller version of the Kalon Minaret. Boys played around the pool, diving into the water from the steps. The oldest medressa in Bukhara and all Uzbekistan is the Ulugbek Medressa, built in 1417, unrestored, but with much of its intricate tiling still intact.

Bukhara Aug 2013 60 Bukhara Aug 2013 65
The old town, Bukhara

In the narrow streets close to the Lyabi-Hauz is the Jewish Centre, comprising a small synagogue and school. This is the old Jewish quarter, once a ghetto, but with few of its Jews left today. Daniel Metcalfe had written about Bukhara’s Jewish community in his 2009 book Out of Steppe, about his travels among some of the endangered minority groups in Central Asia. He had pretended to be Jewish, discovering his family roots in Bukhara, in order to gain an entrée to this dwindling people. Spotting a man about to enter the Centre, I asked if I could have a look inside. The synagogue itself is small and simple. He told me a bit about the Bukharan Jews. Only a few hundred remain today, most having left as the Soviet Union broke up, for Israel and America, and some for Europe. At the time of the communist takeover there were several synagogues in Bukhara, but only two are left now.

Jews have a long history in Central Asia, some say going back well over two millennia. They have their own language, Bukhori, a dialect of Tajik. In the heyday of the Silk Road, they had thrived, playing an important role in the trans-continental trade. After the discovery of the sea route between Europe and Asia, the Jews of Bukhara went into a long decline that mirrored that of the Silk Road itself. Once a great centre of Islamic culture and learning, Central Asia became a vast, remote and little-known desert. In Bukahra, trade and intellectual enquiry were replaced by ignorance and religious intolerance. The Jews faced persecution and pressure to convert to Islam. Yet somehow they survived. The first synagogue was built in 1620. Before that, it is said that Jews shared the Maghoki-Attar Mosque, praying there in the evening, after the Muslims had finished their devotions. This is the oldest mosque in Bukhara, a mixture of the 12-century original and 16th century reconstruction. The holiness of the site long predates the arrival of Islam. Beneath the mosque, archaeologists have found the remains of a 5th century Zoroastrian temple.

In 1843, Bukhara was visited by an eccentric German Jewish convert to Christianity, Joseph Wolff, who had travelled widely in Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa in search of the lost tribes of Israel. Wolff, having settled in England, had become an Anglican Priest. He travelled to Bukhara in the hope of helping two British officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly, who had been held captive there. In fact the two men had already been executed by the time he arrived. According to Wolff’s account, he avoided the same fate only because the Emir, Nasrullah Khan, found his clerical attire hilarious and laughed uncontrollably at the sight.

Sir Alexander 'Bokhara' Burnes

Conolly is said to have coined the phrase the ‘Great Game’ to describe the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia. He was a noted player of the game, having undertaken a journey from Russia through the Caucasus and Central Asia to India in 1829-31. Perhaps the most famous of all the Great Game players was a Scot named Alexander Burnes, an officer in the army of the British East India Company. An extraordinarily talented linguist, fluent in Persian, Hindustani and several other oriental languages, Burnes undertook his travels in local garb, and was at ease in the manners and customs of the people of the region. In 1832, he made a journey from India, through Afghanistan, and up to Bukhara. Burnes became fast friends with the Koosh Begee, or Grand Vizier of Bukhara, but he never met Nasrullah Khan, who had succeeded as Emir five years previously. In Britain his exploits made him a hero, and earned him the epithet ‘Bokhara Burnes.’ He was showered with honours, and granted a private audience with the King. Burnes was later one of the first casualties of Britain’s disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, cut down by a mob in Kabul in November 1841.

Stoddart had been sent to Bukhara to reassure the Emir about British intentions in the invasion of Afghanistan, as well as to try to persuade him to release the Russian slaves in Bukhara, and thus remove a potential excuse for a Russian attack. He was also supposed to sound out the possibility of a treaty of friendship between Britain and Bukhara, whose main aim, as always in the Great Game, would be to forestall Russian influence.

When Burnes had visited Bukhara a few years earlier he had gone to the slave market, describing how ‘the feelings of a European revolt at this most odious traffic’ (it was not long since Britain had outlawed the Atlantic slave trade). He also discreetly met a Russian slave, said to be one of 130 in the city, who had been seized by slavers at a Russian outpost at the age of ten. After 15 years in captivity, the man acknowledged that he was well treated by his master, but said he longed to see his native land. While publicly professing Islam, crossing himself he told Burnes he remained a Christian in his heart.

Bukhara Aug 2013 37
The Ark, Bukhara

Stoddart’s mission to Bukhara went wrong from the outset. Unlike Burnes, who had been careful scrupulously to respect local customs during his visit, Stoddart ignored Bukhara’s protocols, riding through the city to the Ark, although non-Muslims were expressly forbidden to ride a horse in the city. A bluff soldier, Stoddart was no diplomat. When summoned into the Emir’s presence, rather than performing a symbolic act of obeisance, as urged to do by a court usher, Stoddart struck the man. Nasrullah Khan had him thrown into prison, into the notorious vermin-infested ‘bug pit’. The unfortunate Stoddart remained a captive for the next three years, some of the time under relatively comfortable house arrest, at other times in the Emir’s frightful gaol, depending on the whim of the capricious despot.

I visited the gaol, the Zindon, close by the Ark, now open to the public as a rather gruesome museum. The bug pit itself, a deep, squalid brick hole, is still there, with a couple of wretched-looking stuffed human dummies completing the grim scene. Bizarrely, the floor of the pit was strewn with money, as if it were a wishing well. I could hardly imagine a more unlikely place to look for good fortune. For the men who languished there, including Stoddart, it must have seemed like Hell.

Bukhara Aug 2013 44
The Ark, as it was

The Ark itself, with its thick walls, is still impressive. It was severely damaged when Frunze stormed it in 1920, supported by aerial bombardment. Apparently the royal apartments were in a bad state of disrepair even before that. Its entrance is flanked by twin towers built in the 18th century. Across from the Ark is the intricately decorated Bolo-Hauz Mosque, built in the 18th century, where Emirs once worshipped.

Conolly’s mission was no less ill-starred than Stoddart’s. He set out with big plans to persuade the three khanates of central Asia, Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand, to unite against Russia and to abolish slavery. He also hoped to secure the release of Stoddart. Burnes had warned that there was little chance of persuading the khans, longstanding rivals, to unite, but Conolly had not been deterred. He was well received in Khiva and Kokand, but found no interest in his proposals. Indeed, Kokand was about to go to war with Bukhara. So Conolly set off on the final stage of his mission, to Bukhara. His initial welcome by the Emir appeared cordial, but his prior visits to Khiva and Kokand had confirmed Nasrullah Khan’s suspicions that he, as well as Stoddart, was a spy, in cahoots with his old enemies. Furthermore, the Emir was peeved that he had not received a reply to a letter he had sent some months earlier to Queen Victoria, who he considered to be his equal. Conolly joined Stoddart in the bug pit. What finally did for them was the news of the catastrophic British retreat from Kabul in January 1842. The British, it appeared, were not to be feared. On a June morning in 1842, Stoddart and Conolly were led out onto the Registan, the great square in front of the Ark, filthy, ragged and half-starved. Their graves had already been dug. First Stoddart, and then Conolly was beheaded with a large knife.

The stories of Stoddart and Conolly, of Burnes and other adventurers of their ilk, had long captivated me. Peter Hopkirk opened his masterful history of The Great Game with an account of the execution of Stoddart and Conolly. As I walked across the wide space in front of the Ark, now empty, the bustling market that old photos reveal once stood there gone, I thought of those two hapless, ill-prepared, yet courageous men, their remains presumably still somewhere beneath my feet. I have taken part in numerous overseas missions, working for international organisations, some of them in Central Asia. Nowadays we have elaborate security backup, constant communications with headquarters, and security rules that prohibit us from doing anything that might put us at risk. In truth, international workers are sometimes still killed, despite all precautions; several have died in recent years in Afghanistan. But how different are the experiences of the modern traveller to those of the early pioneers, men like Stoddart and Conolly who set out on journeys lasting several months, across little known lands, risking attack by brigands and capture by slave traders, far from any possibility of help, never knowing what their fate might be when they reached their destination. What effete times we live in by comparison.

A journey to Samarkand
Ever since as a teenager I read a magazine article about Samarkand I had dreamed of one-day going there. The very name seemed to conjure up a place of wonder, almost of legend, the magnificent buildings, the great centre of Islamic culture and learning, one of the marvels of the world. When Alexander the Great conquered the city, the capital of the Sogdian Empire, known to the Greeks as Marakanda, he is said to have exclaimed that everything he had heard about it was true, except that it was even more beautiful than he had imagined. Marco Polo described it as a splendid city. Nowhere calls to mind the romance of the Silk Road as much as Samarkand. It changed hands several times before its conquest by Ghengis Khan in 1220, which was followed by significant destruction. But 150 years later the city was reborn as the capital of Timur’s Empire. As he wrought devastation across the Eurasian continent, Timur, or Tamerlane, pillaged his conquests and brought back great minds, architects and artists to build the city whose remnants we still marvel at today. The romanticism of Samarkand in the western imagination was evoked in the 1913 poem by James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand. Flecker was born in Lewisham, close to my own south-London home. The poem’s sentiment expresses the purpose of many who travel. And Samarkand had long seemed to me one of the most enchanted of destinations.

We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

My journey was less romantic. I arrived by rail from Tashkent on a smart, fast, comfortable train. Samarkand’s railway station is a few miles from the city centre, and I hopped into a public minivan for the journey into town, which passed through the broad, straight avenues of the modern part of the city. My accommodation was in the old town, close to the Registan, a great open space fronted on three sides by huge, mosaic covered medressas. Meaning ‘Sandy Place’ in Tajik, the Registan was once the commercial centre and bazaar. On one side, the oldest of the three is the 15th century Ulugbek Medressa, named after Timur’s grandson and successor, a great mathematician and astronomer, who is said to have taught here. The other two were built in the 17th century. The Sher Dor (‘Lion’) Medressa features what look like two leopards or tigers over the entrance, although they are supposed to be lions. In between them stands the Tilla-Kari (Gold-covered) Medressa.

Samarkand 2013 23
Ulugbek Medressa, Samarkand

There is no doubting the splendour of the Registan, the sheer impressiveness of its scale. The space between the three medressas was covered with raised platforms when I was there, to form a stage. There were light systems attached to scaffolding. Apparently there was to be an international folklore festival. It very much spoiled the scene. Much was done during the Soviet period and since to restore the medressas, a controversial work, involving rebuilding as much as restoring. Once the Registan must have been the heart of the city. But now it has been deprived of its surroundings, its context, obliterated by the planners of the 20th and early 21st centuries. These great buildings now stand out like sore thumbs amid the wide open spaces, the broad avenues of the modern town. The former intimacy that once characterised the Registan, the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the life of the city that once was, could be seen in old photographs. The black and white pictures show that the buildings were crumbling, but the city they depict had a soul that has now gone. For all their magnificence, the three medressas look forlorn, mere museums, sites on the tourist trail. No longer the romantic city of the imagination.

Much the same could be said for other historical sites of Samarkand. The huge Bibi Khanum mosque, named after Timur’s wife, was originally built with the help of craftsmen and elephants brought by Timur from his campaign in India. Badly damaged in an earthquake in 1897, it was later heavily reconstructed. In the interior courtyard is an enormous stone Koran stand that would have been about the right size for the Uthman Koran, now in Tashkent, which is said to have been brought to Samarkand by Timur. The mosque sits on a recently laid out, broad tree-lined avenue. Close to the entrance is a signpost directing tourists to Samarkand’s various sites. Like the Registan, the mosque stands on its own, outside of any context or setting, a stage on the tourist trail through Samarkand. Impressive in its size, but somehow not satisfying.

Samarkand 2013 50
Shah-I-Sinda, Samarkand

A little way off from the Bibi Khanum mosque, beside a busy highway, is the Shah-I-Sinda, the Avenue of Mausloeums. The narrow avenue leads up a hill, with fabulously tiled tombs on either side. After controversial heavy restoration work in 2005, much of the mosaic work is not original. But it is beautiful. The heart of the complex is the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have brought Islam to the region. There had been a shrine here long before the time of Timur, and the rest of the mausoleums came later, as Timur and Ulugbek buried their family members here. Shah-I-Sinda is a place of pilgrimage, and as such more of living place than some of the city’s other tourist sites. Pilgrims far outnumbered tourists when I was there. Local people came to pray in the mausoleums, leaving small offerings of money on the tombs. Most important is the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, the ‘tomb of the living King’ after which Shah-I-Sinda is named. In the beautifully tiled interior, a prayer leader led pilgrims in their devotions. As I was leaving Shah-I-Sinda, I looked into a little courtyard next to the entrance. A group of devout young men had just slaughtered a sheep, and were looking very pleased with themselves.

Some distance away, beyond Samarkand’s bazaar, is the Afrosiab Museum, around which are excavations of Marakanda, the early city of Samarkand. The centrepiece of the museum is the remains of a 7th century fresco depicting the Sogdian King Varkhouman receiving foreign emissaries riding on elephants, camels and horses.

Samarkand 2013 86
Statue of Ulugbek, Samarkand

Continuing in the same direction, you come to Ulugbek’s observatory, the remains of which were discovered early in the 20th century. In the 15th century it was one of the finest in the world. Now all that remains is a portion of the track along which the vast sextant once ran. Using this observatory, Ulugbek produced the most important star catalogue since Ptolemy, correcting many mistakes made in earlier catalogues. At the site of the observatory there is also a small museum to Ulugbek’s achievements. The exhibits stress the wide influence of Ulugbek’s work, which, among others, was translated into Latin by the noted Oxford orientalist Thomas Hyde and published in 1665. His influence spread east to China as well as west to Europe. This is a reminder that in the middle ages Central Asia, and in particular Samarkand, was at the centre of scientific enquiry. Sadly, the observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics upon Ulugbek’s death in 1449 (he was beheaded at the order of his eldest son). Today Uzbekistan’s government uses Ulugbek to extend awareness of the country’s rich history around the world. Three years earlier, I had seen a bust of Ulugbek in a park in Riga, a gift from Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov during a visit to Latvia.

Samarkand 2013 67
Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand

Perhaps the most striking of Samarkand’s monuments is the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum. Among those interred there are Timur, two of his sons, and two grandsons, one of them Ulugbek. The richly tiled building has also undergone significant reconstruction. Under the high blue dome, a simple dark jade stone marks the tomb of Timur in the crypt below. To one side of it is the simple marble stone that marks the grave of Ulugbek. While I was there, a group of bearded men came in and prayed by the tombs. This might seem peculiar, that the butcher of millions should be accorded almost saintly status. For Timur is now revered in Uzbekistan. At the entrance of the museum at Ulugbek’s observatory, a plaque contained the following words: ‘The history of Central Asia during the reign of Amir Temur and the Temurids is inscribed in the general history of world civilisation as one of the brightest periods of its development.’

Samarkand 2013 78
Timur's gravestone, Samarkand

Not far from the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum is a statue of a seated, regal looking Timur. In 1941, his tomb, as well as that of Ulugbek, had been opened. It was confirmed that Timur was indeed lame, due to an injury in his youth. Using his skull, his face was reconstructed, so we have a fairly good idea what he looked like. His tomb was said to have been inscribed with the words ‘When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.’ As I sat looking at Timur’s tombstone, it was Ozymandias, king of kings, from the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that came to my mind. The mighty ruler, the terror of the world, now a broken black tombstone. But still, sitting in that room, in that presence, it was hard not to feel awe.

A few days in Tashkent
Travelling up from Khujand to Tashkent proved quite straightforward. A taxi up to the border, and then a bus on to the Uzbek capital. There was a bit of a wait at the frontier. I was ultra-careful filling in the customs declaration, in two copies, before entering Uzbekistan. I had been given to believe that I should not miss off anything. I carefully listed the different kinds of pills I had – just the usual things that travellers carry, painkillers, pills for upset stomachs; also reading material, including a couple of magazines, laptop, ipod, cameras, they all got listed with their estimated values. Of course, the customs official did not know English, and I struggled to mime each of the items on the list. He was plainly irritated that I had gone into such unnecessary detail.

Next I had to change some money and find transport up to Tashkent. As I left the border post, taxi drivers descended on me, offering to take me for large sums of dollars, and assuring me there were no buses for Tashkent. But there was a bus stop not fifty metres away, sitting on the long straight main road that led away over the dusty plain towards Tashkent. At the bus stop there was also a shop, where a jolly lady exchanged some of my dollars for Soms, and told me that buses went by all the time. This was my first experience with Uzbek money. Thick wads of tatty low-value notes (there are no high-value notes), bound up with elastic bands, stuffed in envelopes. Uzbekistan is one of few countries left where there is still a black market in currency, and the rate is sufficiently better than the official rate to make changing money at official outlets highly unappealing. Soon a bus pulled up. What a difference from Tajikistan. Proper public transport. A normal, comfortable, air-conditioned bus.

Tashkent was my base during my stay in Uzbekistan. From there I set out westwards for Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, and then eastwards to the Fergana Valley. A big sprawling city, baking hot in summer, for a short visit Tashkent does not have much to charm. The main centre of Russian Turkestan from its conquest by the Tsarist Empire in 1865, Tashkent has two faces, a modern city with monumental squares and gardens, and an older, traditional city, with dusty streets and plain walls concealing the shady courtyards and family lives behind them. It still contains a significant Russian population.

Tashkent July 2013 2
Timur, Tashkent

Much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. In recent years, the authoritarian President, Islam Karimov, in power for more than 20 years, since before the end of the Soviet Union, has overseen the remodelling of the city centre, a testament to his own aggrandisement, with its parks, monuments and ornamental gardens. When I was there, in baking summer temperatures up into the mid-40s, it all seemed rather empty and sterile. Elsewhere, in the bazaars and the popular restaurant streets, the city was bustling, but not here in the great new centre of the capital. The central Amir Timur Square is dominated by a statue of Timur, or Tamarlane, where one of Marx had stood until 1993, and before him Stalin. Timur, whose capital was at Samarkand, is now a national hero in Uzbekistan. The square had been shaded by old plane trees until they were chopped down on Karimov’s order in 2010. Before then, apparently, old men had sat in the shade of the trees, playing chess. It must have been a cooler, pleasanter and altogether more human place. Now Timur sits alone astride his horse on the parched square, with just a few visitors briefly braving the heat to take a few snaps.

I was staying close to the sprawling Chorsu Bazaar. In among the vast galleries, filled with traders selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, I was after a very particular commodity, cash. In Tashkent, the Chorsu Bazaar was the place to buy Uzbekistan currency from black market traders. I changed money in other towns in Uzbekistan, but I found it particularly nerve-wracking in Tashkent. I had read online about how and where to change money, including official websites with dire warnings that changing money on the black market was illegal, and that stiff penalties could result if caught. What made the exercise difficult in Tashkent was the pervasive presence of policemen, in their green uniforms and little peeked caps. A police officer stood at each entrance of every metro station; more of them often loitered inside. In the market, they were all over the place, strolling around.

The money changers were not hard to spot: men holding carrier bags homed in on foreigners. The transaction was not all that speedy. I had been told what the going rate should be, and usually I had to haggle briefly to get it. But the most time-consuming part was counting the great bundles of cash. Receiving wads of 100 1,000 Som notes, tied up in elastic bands, I usually counted one pile, and if it was OK, accepted the rest without counting. The amount I received was not always exactly right, a 1,000 or two either way. But more or less, it was correct. But as I counted, I was always worried that a policeman might home into view at any moment. A couple of times, as I emerged from Chorsu metro station, a money changer was there, offering me a rate, in full view of the policeman standing over the entrance. I didn’t know, but I couldn’t help wondering whether it were not some kind of entrapment, enticing me to break the rules and pay the price. I declined.

I had never before been in a place where the police were so omnipresent as Tashkent. They no longer harass foreign visitors as I had read they once did. Tourism is now encouraged. In Uzbekistan foreigners may only stay in registered hotels or guest houses, and must receive a small slip of paper at each place to prove it. As required, I carried them with me all the time. If asked, you have to be able to produce a slip for each night since you arrived in the country. And you have to present them at the airport on departure. I was only once asked to show my documents by police, at a desk inside a metro station, where they also looked through my small rucksack. They were polite and correct. But still, the sense of being always under surveillance and control was unsettling. It is a mark of the paranoia of the regime, its insecurity and fear of its own people, heightened since the Andijan massacre in 2005, when Uzbek troops fired on protesting crowds. I was only in Uzbekistan for three weeks. For the people who live there the heavy police presence is a constant reminder of the limits of freedom in their country.

Not far from the Chorsu Bazaar, by the circus, is the national food restaurant, a temple to Central Asian cooking. Entering the great big hall of a place, you pass huge cauldrons filled with different national dishes. Outside, shashlik sizzles on charcoal stoves. Gathered around a large table, a couple of dozen ladies in white overalls prepare various dishes, laughing and joking all the while. While in Tashkent, I ate there every day.

Tashkent July 2013 6
Barakhan Medressa, Tashkent

The most important surviving historical site in Tashkent is the Khast Imam complex, the centre of Uzbekistan’s Islamic community. Dominating the complex is the vast Hazrat Imam mosque, built in 2007 at the initiative of President Karimov, and flanked by two towering 54-metre minarets. But the complex also includes important historical buildings, now restored, including the 16th century Barakhan Medressa. The smaller Muyi Muborak Medressa, also built in the 16th century, is named after the ‘sacred hair’ of the Prophet Muhammad, which it is said to contain. It also houses a library of rare manuscripts, most notable of which is the 7th century Uthman Koran, believed to have belonged to Islam’s third Caliph, and to be the oldest Koran in the world. The enormous tome may have been brought to Samarkand by Timur, before being carted off to St. Petersburg by the region’s Russian conquerors. Lenin had it sent it back to Tashkent as a gesture of goodwill.

Travels in northern Tajikistan
I travelled back from Khorog to Dushanbe by the southern route, following the Panj river along the border with Afghanistan before turning north through the Kulyabi region, home region of Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon. The Kulyabis had emerged victorious in the civil war of the 1990s, which was more than anything a war among regional clans for power. How often did I hear from Pamiris, who were on the losing side, the resentment of the power of the Kulyabis, who had taken the fruits of their victory in jobs and opportunities? It was a long, but pleasant journey. Among the six other passengers were two English-speaking Pamiris, one of whom turned out to be the nephew of a Pamiri friend in London. We stopped, for lunch in Kala-i-Kum, a quite palatable plov (pilaf), known here as osh, and then again in the afternoon, when we gorged ourselves on juicy melons.

Istaravshan July 2013 9
Istaravshan old town

After a day in Dushanbe, doing laundry, eating Indian food and drinking cappuccinos, I set off to northern Tajikistan, from where I would cross into Uzbekistan. The journey took me over mountains and then down into the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet. My first stop was a night in Istaravshan. I stopped there because it is said to have the best preserved old town in Tajikistan, a taste of what was to come during my travels in Uzbekistan, but without tourists. First of all I looked for a hotel. What I found was pretty awful; a basic room with no running water. The owner brought me a bowl of hot water to wash. Istaravshan has a vibrant market, as well as some fine historic buildings. The sprawling old town is much like so many in the Muslim world, dusty streets with blank windowless walls, hiding the life within, the courtyards, gardens, families. For the outsider strolling along these streets, there is little to see.

Istaravshan July 2013 6
Abdullatif Sultan Medressa, Istaravshan

At the Hazrat-i-Shah mosque I saw for the first time the wooden pillars and bright, intricately painted ceilings that I would see in mosques around the region, in Khujand, Khiva, Kokand and Andijan. The beautiful designs appear to represent Islam as a joyful religion, so different from the harsh austerity that often appears to epitomise Islam in much of today’s world. As worshippers poured out of the mosque after prayers, one of them stopped to talk to me. He told me how Istaravshan was the most historical town in Tajikistan, with more important monuments than nearby, larger Khujand. He pointed out the monumental gate on the nearby hill, overlooking and dominating the town. The gate had only been built a decade before, to mark two and a half millennia since the town’s founding. The hill is the site of an ancient Sogdian fortress, which was stormed by Alexander the Great. Alexander named the city Cyropol. In the midst of the old town is the 15th century Abdullatif Sultan Medressa. Well restored, the high blue-domed building, covered with intricate mosaics, is typical of the region. Still a working medressa, there was no one about as I wandered around.

From Istaravshan, I headed north on the short journey to Khujand. This is Tajikistan’s second city, and its most developed and most prosperous. My hotel had a good bathroom and internet access. Known as Leninabad during the Soviet period, much of Tajikistan’s Soviet-era elite came from here, although the city has an Uzbek majority. It also has a reputation as a centre of intellectual life.

Khojand July 2013 3
Sheikh Massal as-Din Mosque, Khujand

During my stay, Khujand was impossibly hot, in the mid-40s. Walking outside in the heat of the afternoon was almost unbearable. Khujand is an old city. It is the site of Cyropolis, founded by Cyrus the Great of Persia, and of Alexandria Eschate, the easternmost outpost of Alexander the Great’s empire. At the heart of the city are the remains of the earthen walls of the tenth-century citadel. At the other end of the town centre is an impressive bazaar, with a vast 1950s hall fronted by an ornate arch whose style echoes that of numerous medressas in the region, an apparent attempt to adapt the religious architectural heritage to the secular communist state. Across a wide open, sun-drenched piazza is a mosque, mausoleum and medressa complex, in the process of being expanded; the religious heritage is making a comeback. Again I was struck by the beautifully carved wooden pillars and the brightly painted ceilings.

As I struggled on through the fearsome heat, to my great surprise I came across a statue of a she-wolf suckling two little boys, Romulus and Remus surely. But what could they be doing in Khujand. I later read that a painting of the wolf and children had been found at an archaeological site near Istaravshan, with a Latin inscription, apparently a link with the classical past going back to Alexander the Great’s conquest.


Log in