A tale of two 'Stans

Helen Anderson finds the bizarre and beautiful on a road trip through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Someone once told me Tashkent has the best strippers in the world. It was either a Trivial Pursuit answer or he had personal experience – I didn't ask. Though I see no strippers, I notice plenty of poles. For pole-dancing. Many perfectly respectable restaurants in the Uzbekistan capital are built for several purposes: dining early in the evening, then mid-meal dancing, then dancing between and, possibly, on top of tables after the dishes have been cleared. At this point it's late and the focus will turn to a stage, often decorated with lights and mirrorballs and fake palms and poles. Then come the belly dancers. And the vodka. A lot of vodka. It's a most un-Muslim Muslim country.

So often on this road trip through two 'Stans – from the capital of Uzbekistan to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan – my expectations are confounded. Not once along this stretch of the old Silk Road does anything even vaguely remind me of somewhere else. And the further west we drive, through blasted, inscrutable desert and parched cotton fields, the more fascinating and, frankly, the more strange things become.

The tale of two 'Stans is fuelled by plov. It's a kind of rice stew whose distant cousin would be risotto and, though it's eaten throughout Central Asia, in Uzbekistan it's a national ritual, a point of regional pride and, apparently, an aphrodisiac. The first time it's served we're in a restaurant styled on an Uzbek nightclub owner's notion of the Garden of Eden – there are parrots flying around the toilets and the tables are tucked into forest grottoes fashioned from plaster. A waterfall trickles from the mezzanine into a tub frothing with detergent and plastic banana trees are sitting beside poles on a mirrored stage.

The plov is served, as always, on a platter in the middle of the table with a big wheel of freshly baked bread and paprika for seasoning. The rice is studded with Uzbek carrot, which is yellow, not orange, and gobbets of fatty mutton and large quantities of cottonseed oil. The rule of thumb, says our guide Ramil, is to drink green tea while eating plov, not vodka, a practice guaranteed to cause a hangover.

Tashkent was flattened by an earthquake in 1966, so the architecture is pure Soviet: breathtakingly brutal. The squares are vast, as are the boulevards, so wide a pedestrian can barely sprint across before the lights turn. The metro system, built to double as a nuclear shelter, is efficient and surprisingly scenic – each station is an individual statement of Soviet ambition: marble-lined, extravagantly lit and tiled with tableaux celebrating cosmonauts, poets and cotton harvests.

After the overwhelming scale of the public spaces, it's a relief to plunge into the elbow-to-elbow business of Chorsu Bazaar, a heaving market in what remains of the old city. Waiting for a mutton samosa, I observe the distinctive Uzbek dress code. Men wear the embroidered, squarish skull cap called the tubeteika, long coats and sometimes high boots; women wear vivid headscarves and long tunics, often in jewel-coloured velvet with big patterns, over loose trousers. There's a lot of laughter, which reveals a national dental policy based on gold teeth. “Partly necessity, partly for status," Ramil says, flashing a hint of gold himself.

The golden road to Samarkand – the phrase evokes the romance of the Silk Road and Central Asia's best-known city, though the reality is a little less poetic. It takes five hours to drive the 350 kilometres from Tashkent to Samarkand, as we stop-start at frequent military checkpoints. But by the time we arrive, the road and the fabled city are, indeed, glowing gold in the late, low sun and there is a feeling of being at the crossroads of historical superhighways.

Samarkand was a beautiful city when Alexander the Great claimed it in 329BC. Many ruled it after him, then Genghis Khan destroyed the city in 1220, killing or exiling a population of 200,000. Enter Timur, or Timur the Lame, or Tamberlane in the West, the chess-playing military genius and tyrant who picked up the pieces in the 14th century. He and his descendants turned Samarkand into Central Asia's trade and intellectual capital and it rose again as a splendid city on the Silk Road linking China, India and Persia. The Russians declared it the capital of the new Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924, then moved the capital to Tashkent six years later.

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Soon after, Islam Karimov was born in Samarkand. Raised in a Soviet orphanage, he grew up to become president of the Uzbek SSR just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Seamlessly, he became the first president of the secular republic of Uzbekistan in 1991 and there he remains, a ruthless autocrat.

Every country needs a hero and the newly independent Uzbekistan got a rehabilitated Tamberlane. In Samarkand, as in other cities, his bust has replaced Lenin's in a central square. But the focus, as always, is the old town, heralded by an outcrop of turquoise-tiled domes. The city's crowning glory is the medieval Registan, a majestic square bordered by three towering, tilting madrassas covered entirely with glittering mosaic tiles and majolica. Old photos show camel caravans milling among the crowds in the space now filled by awestruck tourists; the madrassas beyond the fluted portals, once full of lecture halls and dormitory cells, are now souvenir shops. From any vantage, the site is fabulous: its delicate proportions from a distance or a close scrutiny of 500-year-old azure and gold tiles.

For a mosaic enthusiast, as I am, Samarkand is full of wonders. On a bare hill, once the city walls, is an avenue of mausoleums called Shah-i-Zinda, or Tomb of the Living King, referring to the holy shrine of a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed. Tamberlane started burying his family near the living king in the 14th century and his descendants continued. As pilgrims and travellers walk up the avenue, each tomb seems more dazzling, the geometric tiled patterns and arabesques more mesmerising.

In the old town, at a community house behind the modest mausoleum of Tamberlane, we find old men playing backgammon under plane trees and join a gathering of friends around a plov cauldron. They're cooking for a wedding of 200 later that day. Tubs of rice soaked in water are being poured on top of industrial quantities of cooked onion, carrot and mutton. The teacups of vodka being passed around appear to be calming the father of the bride.

But perhaps it's the bride who'll need the most attention. On the Silk Road south of Samarkand we stop at Tamberlane's home town, Shakhrisabz, to see the monumental remains of his summer palace. Covered with magnificent unrestored tiling are two vast pillars that would have supported a dome of nearly 70 metres. In the centre of the palace stands a newish statue of the conqueror surrounded by half-a-dozen wedding parties posing for photographs. But something is wrong. The brides appear on the verge of tears. One in particular, stiff in a fairy floss of white polyester, is distraught; her middle-aged groom doesn't look much happier. “The brides have to look sad,” Ramil explains. “It's their role today – they're leaving their family.” It might be nuptial theatre but a bride's mother-in-law controls the household and divorce here is uncommon.

We leave the unhappy brides to their fate and head west to Bukhara, through baked, camel-coloured plains. Lured by a blaze of colour next to the road at Jom, once a horse-relay station for the Mongols, now a parched one-donkey village, we stop at an open-air market of sorts. The smiles flash golden at high noon. Laid out on tarps in the dust are hundreds of used domestic items for sale. People come from nowhere on donkeys, in Soviet-era box cars or on ancient motorcycles. A young man carves chunks of mutton fat; another decants vodka into BYO plastic bottles.

Our introduction to the holy city of Bukhara is with plov, in a plaza under a mulberry tree planted in 1477. Bukhara suffered fewer earthquakes than Samarkand, so much of the exquisite old city has been preserved. One of the few buildings in Central Asia to survive Genghis Khan stands here. It's said he was so astonished by the heavily decorated 47-metre Kalon Minaret that he ordered it to be spared.

Bukhara is said to be the best place to glimpse pre-Russian Turkestan (as a nation, Uzbekistan was a Soviet creation) and two days here aren't nearly enough. There are more than 100 significant buildings – madrassas, mosques, a royal fortress called the Ark, minarets, plazas surrounding drinking pools and caravanserai – each with a wild history involving Silk Road follies and terrible despots. Woven around these gems is a web of market alleys and arcades and three remaining domed bazaars, a shadow of the city's former might but still alive with the energy of human exchange. And almost every exchange in Uzbekistan is accompanied by the endearing gesture of placing the right hand on the heart to express heartfelt thanks or greeting.

Next morning we're dragging our suitcases along the new Old Silk Road, alongside stationary trucks from Turkey and Iran, in the bleak no-man's land between the borders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We're entering one of the world's most isolated countries and certainly one of the strangest. Independent travel here is not permitted; all tourists must hire a guide.

The passport control building bears a huge portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and, though he has been in power since February 2007, he is overshadowed by the bizarre legacy of his predecessor. For 15 years, from the end of the Soviet Union to his sudden death in 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov ran a dictatorship “less severe but more eccentric than Kim Jong-il's North Korea”, observed The New York Times. Niyazov decreed he would be known as Turkmenbashi, or Leader of the Turkmen, and erected gold statues of himself. His image appeared on buildings, watches and vodka bottles. He renamed the days of the week and months of year in honour of himself and his family. He became an international joke but the reality involved thousands of Turkmen being jailed, tortured or exiled, or disappearing. The nation's vast natural gas and oil reserves funded extravagant public works in the capital, while much of the country remained in poverty.

Most of Turkmenistan is desert. So the appearance of gardens, gushing fountains and hectares of lawn in the capital, Ashgabat, is disconcerting. Rising from the baked plains is a city designed by Turkmenbashi from imported white marble: ministries and academies that could each accommodate hundreds of people, palaces and monuments, sculptures and museums and an amusement park called Turkmenbashi World of Fairytales. The infrastructure is unbelievable for a national population of 5 million.

There are many statues of Turkmenbashi but none quite so striking as the one that revolves to follow the sun – a golden, 12-metre-high version atop the Arch of Neutrality. (In one of several moves to dismantle Niyazov's cult of personality, the current president announced in May last year that the monument would be shifted to the city outskirts.) From the arch's viewing platform it's possible to see the entire astonishing vision of squares and immaculate ministries and skyscraper apartment blocks. But the most astonishing thing is apparent only from ground level – where are all the people? There are gardeners, soldiers and plenty of police to be seen but the wide boulevards carry few cars and the parks around landmark sites are eerily quiet.

A slice of Turkmen life in riotous colour can be found on weekends about eight kilometres past the marble city centre, just past the world's longest irrigation canal (1375 kilometres) on the edge of the desert. The glorious, chaotic Tolkuchka Bazaar is one of the highlights of all Central Asia. The name means “shoulder by shoulder” and Turkmen come from all over the country to buy and sell camels and cars, fur hats and traditional embroidery, pomegranates, goats and yurt decorations. The world's most beautiful carpets and most exquisite tribal jewellery are sold here, though it's exceedingly difficult to leave the country with either. The unforgettable Turkmen sheepskin hats called telpeks are worn by most men, and women wear traditional long slim dresses with heavily embroidered yokes.

We approach the sprawling 70-hectare site early on Saturday morning and stare at a flying camel. Then another and another. The reluctant beasts are being hoisted by crane from truck to truck; their impassioned complaint rising above the singsong sales pitches and the incessant bleating of goats and sheep, the walking hats of Turkmenistan. A big male camel has just changed hands for $US900 but the money exchange will take some time – the largest note is 10,000 manat, which is worth about $2.40. From the backs of vintage utes and on tarps in the dust, hundreds of millions of manat are being counted in Tolkuchka at lightning speed.

I approach a young woman selling long, dark coats embroidered in a traditional geometric pattern in red, yellow and white. Her name is Borsan, meaning garden, and she sewed these coats during winter. In common with all the Turkmen we meet, she is friendly and gracious; we talk about children and agree on a price for a coat without haggling. She counts my thick wad of manat and as I go to leave, she presses both my hands and my money in a handshake, a customary Turkmen trader's exchange, and blesses me.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of World Expeditions and Thai Airways.

Getting there

Thai Airways flies to Bangkok for about $900 from Sydney and Melbourne and Uzbek Airways flies from Bangkok to Tashkent for about $792 (fares are low-season return, including taxes). Australians require visas for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; travellers must obtain visa invitation letters from registered Uzbek and Turkmen travel agencies, which entitle you to apply for visas.

Touring there

The author travelled on World Expeditions' 21-day Tashkent to Isfahan trip. Price from $5590, including accommodation, all meals, land transport, internal air transfers and guides. World Expeditions has several trips visiting Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.

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