Former Soviet Union: `Let's drink to Islam!'

Welcome to a land where they build statues of the `Scourge of God', where villagers are reduced to eating berries from the forest while the wealthy build palaces amid the trees, and where geologists and journalists love baby bears
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Samarkand: the very name is exotic. Part fable, part fantasy, this legendary city has seduced imaginations for centuries and now, after decades languishing in Soviet obscurity, it's open for business. The triumvirate of Uzbek historic cities (Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva) that awed Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan but were once practically inaccessible are now a mere flight away from Europe, and an invasion of dollar-rich tourists.

The five-hour bus ride from Tashkent to Samarkand left me feeling dusty and irascible as I trudged into the city centre. But then I rounded a corner, caught sight of the Bibi Khanym Mosque looming over the empty street and in an instant my mood changed. Built for Tamerlane - Marlowe's "Scourge of God" - this building was designed to impress; 600 years later it continues to stun visitors into respectful awe. Twenty years ago it was a ruin, and reconstruction continues today, but even under repair it is a great sight.

The ghost of Intourist still haunts Uzbekistan, where visas are usually only granted to those who pre-book accommodation in expensive, monolithic, state-owned hotels. Fortunately, I'd picked up my visa in Kazakhstan where such rules seemed to be unknown, and found a cheerful little place that was happy to provide a bed for a few dollars.

A live golden eagle guarded the restaurant where I wrestled with shashlyk, the rubbery kebab found all over Central Asia. As the cook threw scraps of meat to the fearsome-looking bird, one of the waiters, called Timur, suggested escaping its glare for a while. He agreed to guide me around the city in exchange for some English- language practice.

As the Soviet Empire fell and - in 1991 - an independent Uzbekistan was created, the local people began searching for new heroes to replace their fallen Communist idols. Tamerlane ("Amir Timur" in Uzbek) fitted the bill perfectly. Conqueror of Asia, plunderer of India and mass murderer, he lies buried in the Gur Amir mausoleum in Samarkand and, in the dark of the crypt, Timur told me the story of the curse cast on his namesake's grave.

Legend said that whoever disturbed Tamerlane's slumber would be troubled by a tyrant greater than him. The Russians, sceptical of such superstition, opened the tomb in secret on the night of 21 June 1941, and within hours Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union.

My own night's sleep was disturbed by a visit from the police. The hotel, it seemed, was not fit for foreign guests and I was asked to leave. The hotel manager, the policeman and I discussed my options over a bottle of vodka. After half the bottle, the policeman grew sympathetic. I could stay "one night only". An hour later and this was "maybe two nights". After a second bottle I could stay as long as I liked, and was asked "would I like to see photos of the policeman's family?".

Struggling with a monstrous hangover, I met Timur in the Registan. He laughed at my nocturnal adventures and together we explored the complex that Lord Curzon called the "noblest public square in the world". The majestic proportions and sumptuous tiling makes this one of the most arresting sights in Asia.

The medressas (Islamic colleges) that form this three-sided masterpiece now house museums and tourist boutiques. Inside the Tilli-Kari Medressa I marvelled at the glorious gold trompe l'oeil ceiling, said to include 1,000 square yards of gilding. Several sight-seeing days and vodka-fuelled nights followed, until Timur informed me that the Taliban militia, fighting in nearby Afghanistan, had recently stated their aim to make Bukhara, my next destination, their new capital. It was a sobering thought, and time to move on.

British travellers haven't had a lot of success visiting Bukhara. In the 1840s two British officers spent months in its vermin-infested dungeon before being beheaded. After the Bolshevik revolution, a British spy narrowly escaped a similar fate after a series of dangerous escapades, including once being ordered to hunt himself down. I hoped for better luck.

After the luminous tiles of Samarkand, the brown brick architecture of Bukhara is disappointing. Soon, though, the human scale of the buildings and their intricate details begin to delight. Genghis Khan came here in 1220, and was so impressed that he forgot to raze it to the ground. His favourite structure, already 90 years old when he dropped by, was the Kalan Minaret. This phenomenal tower, 47 metres high, appealed to the Mongols for its punishment potential and throwing criminals from the top was a favoured sentence.

The heart of Bukhara is the picturesque pool, Labi-Hauz. Tea-shops line its banks, and the greasy smoke from shashlyk stalls wafts across the water. Bearded old men sit drinking tea and vodka and swapping war stories. Half the veterans wore the Uzbek khalat - an outdoor coat that resembles a dressing gown - and most wore a chestful of medals and smiles that flashed gold teeth.

I asked them about the abolition of the country which they had fought to defend. Most had mixed emotions; they were poorer in wealth terms but proud of their Uzbek nationality. A number commented on the rise of Islam in the new republic. "A good thing?" I asked. "Of course," one replied, "we're all Muslims here." "What about all this vodka - it's not very Islamic, is it?" I asked and he chortled: "We are not fundamentalist, we are not Taliban here!" He proposed a toast: "Let's drink to Islam." I almost choked on my vodka.

Today Bukhara has changed from the city that once boasted 300 mosques and the burial sites of 33,000 saints. The major mosques are being restored, but what seven decades of communism left behind is quickly disappearing under the weight of Western commercialism. Exploring the remaining covered markets, I ducked into a particularly attractive medressa, only to discover a bar serving Budweiser and a Michael Jackson tape played on a tinny Japanese stereo.

I found characterful lodgings in the traditional house of Mubinjon Tadjiev, an ex-Olympic sprinter - and an idiosyncratic guide to the city. The tourist season was almost over, and with time on his hands, he invited me to a traditional Uzbek wedding.

At 4.30am the next day, I was woken by the sound of Mubinjon revving the car engine, preparing to leave. We cruised through the dark looking for the wedding house. Several hundred parked cars and deafening music pointed to a party already well underway. The entire male population of Bukhara must have been crammed into the wedding tents, and the vodka was flowing freely - a very necessary cholesterol solvent for the large plateful of plov (a rice dish, flavoured with mutton fat and grated vegetables) that I was given.

The wedding party proceeded to move around Bukhara throughout the day, in convoys of horn-blaring cars. At one point, we stopped out in the desert for a group of Turkomen horsemen to give a traditional blessing and rifle salute. Some time in the night, I staggered back to the guesthouse, deafened, queasy and very drunk, to recover in time to catch the bus for Khiva.

But the government had stolen my bus. The annual cotton harvest, the most important event of the Uzbek economic year, was in full swing and all "surplus" buses had been requisitioned to take workers to the cotton fields. My only option was to travel by taxi so I found some others to share the cost with, and began negotiating the price for the 12-hour trip through the desert. Four hours later we departed. Six hours after this we were hopelessly lost, deep in the desert, close to the Turkmenistan border.

Navigating by the stars, we eventually found the correct road and, 20 hours after leaving Bukhara, reached Urgench, the major city of the region and 30 minutes drive from Khiva. One of my fellow passengers offered me a room for the night - and a lift to Khiva in the morning.

The scary desert of the night looked benign and peaceful in the soft early light. Khiva's castellated walls rose sheer out of the desert sands, hard against the sky. The city has been preserved as a museum, and it has the hollow feeling of a civilisation living beyond its time.

But, though it can be dated back six millennia, much of Khiva is surprisingly new (the elegant Islam Khoja minaret was built in 1912, 20 years after Blackpool Tower) and the Soviet restoration of the city was so thorough that it is difficult to distinguish between the old and the ancient. So clinical is the atmosphere that few would want to try.

I retreated to the bazaar outside the walls. Most of the men wore khalats, and on the road back to Tashkent, in the bitter cold of the desert night, I was glad I'd followed suit. I was in good company.

The next day in the centre of Tashkent I saw a statue of the new hero of Uzbekistan. Tamerlane sat astride a bronze charger. He wore a khalat, and his out-stretched arm pointed down the Golden Road towards Samarkand.

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