Alumnus Jeremy Burton (U61) joins the Oxford & Cambridge alumni travel programme exploring Central Asia
It stared with a chance find in an Oxfordshire second-hand bookshop for £1.50 and ended with another book, the first Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, the latter a book of Persian Poems, but more of that later. Having spent time last year in the Republic of Georgia, northern Turkey and the Crimea, the Central Asian Republics seemed to be the logical next step for us to take west to east down the road. We joined a small international group (from USA, UK (including two Churchillians), Hong Kong, and Malaysia) of Oxford and Cambridge alumni for a two week trip to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Sadly the section through northern Iran had been dropped from the schedule for geopolitical reasons when the trip was put together a year ago. From the outset it was clear that the most important component of the trip would be our guide, Bruce Wannell, an Oxford alumnus who had lectured on Islamic history at Isfahan University in Iran in the Late 1970s, was a Farsi speaker and had advance knowledge of just how tediously bureaucratic land border crossings were going to be!
Although most journeys to Uzbekistan start in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, much destroyed by earthquake in 1966, most visitors are heading for the more famous historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and, over the border in Turkmenistan, Merv, whose combined history stretches back to the time of the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great and the invasion of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. Today, however, Samarkand is synonymous with Tamerlane, also known as Timur, founder of the Islamic Timurid dynasty who made it the capital of his huge empire in the fourteenth century, and to a lesser extent his grandson Ulug Beg, renowned for his astronomical discoveries.
For the purist, the considerable degree of restoration to the ubiquitous turquoise and cobalt tiles adorning the major religious buildings only confirmed the skills of yesteryear’s craftsmen. For the rest of us, the first impression of soaring minarets and domes of the great madrasahs glistening in the morning sunlight were a revelation: superb mosaic and tile work, intriguing Kuffic calligraphy and geometric patterns on every facade.
But there is more to any city than its great monuments, and these great cities do not disappoint: a maze of narrow streets in ubiquitous sandstone, spice merchants, carpet sellers and craftsmen whittling colourful painted wooden chess pieces, all working away in hidden corners or in covered bazaars surrounded by refreshing fountains and plane trees with white-painted trunks to protect against the heat. Though mainly Sunni, women are usually unveiled and colourfully dressed, men long tunic shirts, wide trousers and jacket and invariably sporting a tubeteika, a traditional dome-shaped cap.
However, problems arose for those who had purchased a carpet in Uzbekistan when we got to the border with Turkmenistan. Competition between the two countries meant that customs staff singled out those who wanted to import their purchases into Turkmenistan for possible additional taxes!
Of course there is more to the Silk Road than the caravanserai, the major cities that make up the Silk Road; it is what links them together that conjours up the sense of what life must have been like for the traders, Chinese, Western and Asian who plied these routes more than five hundred years ago, disseminating not just merchandise, but news, religious ideas, culture, knowledge and ideas. The stretch across the border towards the ruins of Merv in Turkmenistan, for example, through the moon-like salt-white Karakum desert must have been rough-going in those days of horse or camel transport, a journey then of thirty-five tough days, a matter of hours for us. In times past fires were lit from the tops of minarets to guide travellers to the comforts of the oases en route. Today flames rise into the air instead from desert gas fields, the major source of revenue in Turkmenistan.
But the geography was not only long stretches of empty desert and scrub. The cotton and wheat fields of Uzbekistan were often bordered by endless lines of mulberry trees, occasionally interrupted by small farming settlements. Curiously a yellow-painted gas pipeline snaked along every road at waist level, bending into an arch over side roads to permit vehicle- or more likely donkey-traffic to pass under.
Eating tended to follow a pattern whether taking place in a restaurant or a private house: a mezes-style assortment of salads, nuts and bread, often followed by a dish called plov, fried and boiled meats, rice and vegetables, sometimes from a single large cauldron. A bottle or two of the local vodka inevitably completed the picture. Considering the influence of Persia (modern-day Iran) in central Asia, it was a bonus to find out that our guide had published a book of Persian poems which encapsulated the cultural legacy (as well as the bureaucratic challenges!) of this fascinating, yet mainly unknown part of the world. The following seems appropriate:
Discomforts and trials in this world are long drawn out
Yet suffering and joy will certainly one day cease.
Heaven’s wheel travels on for us day and night,
Behind each comes the next, following in its trace.
Here we travel and complete our voyagings,
Until our endless journey after death begins.