Jeremy Atiyah on Uzbekistan, the former Soviet republic where all roads lead to Samarkand
If I was pioneering a new country in Central Asia I might choose a fourteenth century monster as my national hero as well. Tamerlane, otherwise known as Tamberlaine or Timur, was the one who left towers of skulls in cities across Asia, while beautifying his own capital at Samarkand.

In Uzbekistan, the opinion poll of history has swung dramatically in favour of the local tyrant since the demise of the Soviet Union. "Don't forget that in 1991 Tamerlane changed from bad to good," people kept telling me. Where statues of Lenin once huffed and puffed, magnificent seated Tamerlanes have now reoccupied the parks and squares of the country's cities.

Not that this means the end of cultural inferiority complexes in Central Asia. In the airport I informed the immigration officer that I was staying for three days. "Enough time to get sick of it," he mumbled, before asking whether I lived in Piccadilly Circus.

Out in the streets of the capital Tashkent, signs of the new culture are patchy. The city is low-rise and surprisingly green in spring-time. Public buildings lurk in shrubbery, hidden on the edge of vast, empty squares. Had this really been the largest city in Soviet Central Asia? The official presidential residence looks like a 1960s high school. In the Hotel Tashkent receptionists are still hiding from customers behind stained columns, while gangsters sell pirated videos in the lobby.

One Soviet relic that Tashkent can be proud of is the Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, a crazy colonialists' pastiche of Soviet and Islamic motifs. Two dollars on the night will get you into classic performances of Romeo and Juliet or Othello, performances which the Russians once hoped would sustain the workers of the world.

Now it is hard to know who is sustaining who. An Uzbek tour guide screwed up his nose and told me that his people were not interested in "opera and puppet shows". The opera has become a Russian affair, with young ladies putting on European airs with their Sunday frocks.

A people which clutches Tamerlane to its bosom is not so easily impressed. The Chorsu Bazaar in the old city is more an Uzbek thing: a chaos of sheep heads, dust, cabbage, bees honey and rhubarb under corrugated iron - a booming private agricultural market and a hat-spotters' dream.

On the edge of the old city, I also passed by the Barak Khan Medrassa, which has recently been reconverted to the headquarters of Islam in Uzbekistan. This was surely another thing the Uzbeks could relate to: in the 1920s the Bolsheviks had deliberately humiliated them by using this quiet rose garden to store wine.

But it was hardly a nationalist hot-bed. There was a garden of mulberry and apricot trees, a covered area for prayer where cooling winds blew amid rickety wooden columns. I wandered into a small museum. "If you are really afraid of the Lord," said a plaque above the door, "don't forget to pay the attendant." No irony was intended.

The collection in the museum was every bit as dull as any Soviet museum, comprising a large number of Korans in different languages. "This is Uzbek independence," explained the museum attendant. He then promptly began to chant from the Koran for me - literally praying for tourism.

In need of more tourists? Eating in "home restaurants" is one of the more hopeful touristic concepts in Tashkent. For lunch, I joined an organised package to eat in an Uzbek home, which turned out to house a family of artists specialising in Uzbek styles from history.

In a leafy back street, I stepped through gates, past the family Lada, into a courtyard of vine trellises and newly seeded vegetable plots. A serious young Uzbek in a buttoned-up black shirt sat with us on the dirt floor.

He should have been a heritage minister. "My father was responsible for reintroducing this brown pigment from the tenth century," he said, pointing at a brown pot. "My grandfather named this bird `the bird of plenty'... this style is Irano-Greek, my father liked Persian peacocks..." Filial piety and national pride coalesced into obedience on a Soviet scale.

Even before Flecker's poem `The Golden Road to Samarkand' was being read in classrooms, the old capital of Asia had long gripped the Western imagination. Alexander the Great conquered the city he called Marakanda in 329 BC, and was not disappointed by its mythic beauty.

For the following thousand years or so, Samarkand grew rich as the place where efficient irrigation met the Silk Road. Even the eruption of Genghis Khan did not change this - in fact, it paved way for the national hero. During the last years of the fourteenth century, a rampant Tamerlane set out from here to conquer Asia.

Western travellers have never taken the Golden Road to Samarkand in large numbers, and even today Uzbek visa requirements are restrictive. Nor can the road from Tashkent be described as Golden, with industrial outcroppings and dead cows dotting the route. The route is interesting though - it even passes through another country. Fortunately the borders with Kazakhstan are not patrolled.

The old town of Samarkand contains a few smoky streets full of grilling shashlik from tea-houses, where friendly men in embroidered black square caps and mouthfuls of gold teeth sit under awnings.

Above all though, Samarkand is the city of Tamerlane. With awe, I tiptoed into his mausoleum, a fabulous blue, ribbed and swelling dome in a quiet courtyard. The building has undergone repeated restorations but the blonde Russian in sunglasses who showed me round spoke like a Hampstead art critic. "Oh God, the Uzbeks don't understand the essence of restoration," she groaned. "The Leningrad school was so much better."

While inspecting the great man's tomb - a chunk of black jade - all tourists are told the sinister story of how Soviet archaeologists once dared to break it open in spite of a legend that a terrible invader in the mould of Tamerlane would destroy whoever did so. Within hours of the tomb being opened came news of the greatest military attack in history - Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union.

Again, my guide was unimpressed. "Tamerlane?" she sneered. "Oh, he destroyed a lot of things. The mosques he built were too big and all fell down. Anyway he was not Uzbek, but Mongolian." This latter detail (which is true) is dismissed as irrelevant by Uzbek nationalists. My guide was keen on promoting a less proactive father of the nation - the national poet.

By far the best known architectural ensemble in all Central Asia is Samarkand's Registan, a huge square faced on three sides by the colossal portals of the old medrassas, thousands of square metres of azure Persian mosaics and leaning minarets, elaborate to the tiniest petal.

Tamerlane may have wrought revenge on the Soviets for opening his tomb, but he seems unconcerned about the spiritual state of the Registan. I walked into the Friday Mosque which forms part of the square and found chattering schoolchildren bouncing footballs, a toddler with a plastic gun and a man selling carpets on the floor.

Never mind. The ruins of what was once the greatest mosque in the world are just round the corner - Tamerlane's very own domed Bibi Khanem. Today swallows sweep about amid the massive buttresses and domes, wild trees grow in the forecourt, bits of blue tiling lie about in long grass. The city is currently in debate as to whether it might be feasible to rebuild this colossal ruin as a living mosque - a project comparable to reconverting Rome's Colosseum into a stadium, or the Acropolis to a town hall.

Further west from Samarkand lies the third of Uzbekistan's trio of historic cities, Bukhara. This tiny city shows fewer signs of modernisation than Samarkand or Tashkent - it was never Sovietised, but instead left to decay, in punishment for having resisted the Bolsheviks so fiercely.

Today it is a brown, brick-built city, still redolent of old Turkestan. It became notorious in nineteenth century Britain for the cruelty of its Emirs, in particular Nasrullah Khan who imprisoned two envoys sent to negotiate with the emir by Queen Victoria in the 1840s.

Their punishment for arriving without gifts was to be thrown into the so-called Bug Pit, a brick lined hole deep in the ground, with only a tiny circular entrance in the ceiling. A population of sheep bugs was specially introduced into the pit, along with armies of cockroaches and scorpions. After two years rotting in the bug pit, the two were finally brought out and beheaded.

I visited the bug-pit, which still contains dusty plastic models of Brits in distress cowering in the gloom. Tamerlane would have approved heartily.

FACT FILE

Accommodation.

The Hotel Inter-continental Tashkent prices start from US$225 per room per night as part of Inter-continental Hotels and Resorts weekend leisure package "Heart of the City". Rooms start from US$245 for week day nights. All prices include service and tax. Further information and reservations on 0181 847 2277.The Tashkent Hotel has rooms from about $30. Cheaper (from $20 per night), traditional style hostels are also now opening.

Transport

Lufthansa fly three times a week to Tashkent from Heathrow via Frankfurt. Prices start from pounds 1,162.80 per person, including tax. Information and reservations on 0345 737 747. Uzbekistan Airways (0171 9354775) offers direct London - Tashkent flights at pounds 575 + pounds 17 tax.

Tours

Steppes East offers a tour of Uzbekistan, beginning and ending in Tashkent, and taking in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Prices start from pounds 1475 per person. Further information from Steppes East on 01285 810267.

Voyages Jules Verne (Tel: 0171 6161000) sometimes offer stopovers in Uzbekistan.

Explore Worldwide (Tel: 01252 319448) offer overland trips through much of Central Asia.

Visas

Visas are difficult to obtain. Tourists must present an invitation from a travel agency in Uzbekistan along with bookings. Only citizens of countries where no Consulate of Uzbekistan exists may obtain visas on arrival (Irish citizens for example). Visas must be used within one month of issue. Further information from the Embassy of Uzbekistan, 72 Wigmore Street, London W1. Tel: 0171 935 1899.

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