From the air, Uzbekistan, with its towering serrated peaks that sweep down to dusty desert plains. looks like it's been designed by some malevolent cosmic hand to keep visitors at bay. How could such a forbidding terrain sustain life, let alone one of the greatest civilisations ever known? And how is this Central Asian country, once the plaything of European empires, faring since it stepped out of the Soviet shadow. That is what I have come here to discover.
Uzbekistan was once the beating heart of the Silk Road, the ancient overland trade route that connected East with West. I've dreamed of visiting for years, even before I researched my book about an episode along China's section of the Silk Road. But time, geopolitics and a vast mountain range kept this heartland hidden from me as I wandered China's remote western oases, so tantalisingly close to Uzbekistan. Until now.
The cosmopolitan oases of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand – poetic names that belie the drama played out within their walls – were great crossroads that drew travellers, pilgrims and scholars from afar along with camel caravans.
Its merchants prospered, the wealth plied into golden fortresses, turquoise-domed mosques, madrassas – Islamic colleges – and mausoleums. At its peak, its fierce 14th-century ruler Timur built monuments on a scale the world had never seen, using artisans from across his vast empire; tile-makers, architects, glass-makers and painters from India, Persia and Syria.
And then it was over. His empire turned to dust, maritime routes took over and the landlocked region was forgotten by the West until European rivals turned covetous eyes and weapons on what was then called Turkestan. The Great Game – a 19th-century Cold War between Russia and Britain – played out amid its arid, strategic, sands. Soldiers, spies, adventurers and oddballs, whose accounts I have long devoured, arrived in its oases that still echo with romance and dastardly deeds.
I arrive in spring, when the country is thawing not just after its long winter. For much of last century, Uzbekistan was in Moscow's iron grip and few visitors reached the most splendid of the "Stans".
The demise of the Soviet Union brought independence nearly two decades ago, but also saw the rise of a home-grown dictator, Islam Karimov. His death two years ago has prompted a political and social loosening that some have dubbed the Uzbek Spring.
Arts that were discouraged or even banned during the Soviet era are undergoing a revival. Across the country, I meet artisans – their parents were forced into factories – who have returned to the craft of their forefathers.
Even Timur has had a makeover. Reviled as a murderous barbarian during the Soviet era, he has been recast as a national hero. Where once stood statues of Marx and Lenin, Timur is now heroically mounted on horseback.
Uzbekistan is a thin ribbon of a country in which most of the main towns are about six hours apart by road. It is possible to see the country's main sites in two to three weeks, arriving and leaving from the gleaming yet laidback capital Tashkent, home to 2.5 million of the country's 32 million people.
HORSES FOR COURSES: TASHKENT
My Uzbek friend, Charos, scans the menu in a bustling restaurant in Tashkent. "I think you will enjoy that," she says. "Horsemeat pizza." She isn't pulling my (hind) leg. Timur may be riding high, but this mount has met a more ignoble end. I swallow my reservations and we order. I did not plan on such a delicacy as my first meal in Uzbekistan. But I do not want to insult my new friend.
A little over an hour earlier, this English-speaking engineer was walking home from work when I stopped her to ask her for directions to a phone company. She walked me to the office, where no English was spoken, and waited for an hour to help secure a Sim card.
We share a pot of tea as we wait for the pizza. As is customary, she pours hers first into a tiny bowl – to ensure it isn't poisoned – and three times returns the liquid to the pot to ensure the brew is the right strength before offering me a cup. When the pizza arrives, it is surprisingly tasty even though it's topped with the blackest meat I've ever eaten.
Charos' hospitality to a stranger turned out to be typical. Across the country, I encounter a genuine curiosity and concern for foreign visitors. The cultural openness is apparent at Tashkent's ornate Alisher Navoi Opera House. The acclaimed Lausanne-based Bejart Ballet is making its first appearance at the newly renovated theatre. Although little English is spoken at the box office, there's enough for me to secure a ticket.
The thrilling performance is well-received with the audience on its feet and clapping in unison in the ornate theatre, with its gilt ceilings and intricate white plasterwork. Tashkent residents take their culture seriously and frock-up for the occasion. A sign in English advises no jeans and sports shoes.
Tashkent's Soviet-era metro is a work of art and each stop is richly detailed. I embark at the space-themed Kosmonavtlar station, full of tiled images of Soviet astronauts, and other space travellers, including Icarus.
The metro is the easiest way across town to Chorsu bazaar, the bustling daily market in an old part of town. Within the vast circular food hall, I discover the lemons are orange and the mulberries are white, at least in early spring. I order tea and a plate of dumplings from a stall and watch the locals haggle over food, clothes and electrical goods.
While haggling is expected – you won't be respected if you don't, a local tells me – it is nowhere near as aggressive as in India or many other Asian countries.
NICHE MARKET: KHIVA
I take an overnight sleeper train from Tashkent to Urgench, the jumping off place for Khiva. The 16-hour journey crosses flat desert scrub that was one of the most treacherous stretches of the Silk Road. Once heavily-laden camel caravans not only endured baking summers and bitter winters, but their valuable cargo was prey to marauding tribesmen.
The 10-metre walls of Khiva are like an Arabian Nights fantasy. I take a sunset walk along them, where the lookout niches are something of a lovers' lane for courting couples in the fading light. There are few places for local young Muslim population to discretely socialise. I avert my eyes and concentrate instead on the skyline of turquoise-domed mosques, tiled minarets and golden mudbrick dwellings.
Khiva is a place of extremes – of sublime beauty and vicious cruelty. The geometric lapis blue and white tile work in the Ark, or citadel, and in some of the mausoleums are the high points of spiritual and artistic devotion.
Many of historic Khiva buildings have been turned into museums, but the nearby Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum continues to draw pilgrims. Its ravishing blue mosaic tilework, which covers every inch of the high domed ceiling and interior walls, invites awe and contemplative calm. The man entombed in Khiva's holiest spot was a unique soul. Pahlavon Mahmud was a 14th century poet and wrestler – not occupations that often appear in the same sentence.
Tucked in the walls of the city's east gate is a reminder of the city's more brutal past. The windowless brick chambers once held slaves. Khiva was once the greatest slaving centre in Central Asia. Many slaves were captured by marauding Turkomen tribesmen. A Russian spy, Nikolai Muraviev, who secretly entered the city in 1819, noted that while Russian males fetched a higher price than Persian men, Russian women cost less than their Persian counterparts.
OH SUZANI: BUKHARA
About five hours by car from Khiva, Bukhara was once Central Asia's holiest city. Some say Bukhara's name comes from vihara, Sanskrit for monastery. Long before Islam arrived around the ninth century, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Nestorian Christianity flourished in the Silk Road's most cosmopolitan oasis.
I see flickers of its more recent religious mix as I rest by the central pool, the Lyabi-Hauz, where Muslim men in embroidered caps sit playing dominoes. Men in white skullcaps wander past. They are among the 500 Jews remaining in the city. I later follow their path to a small but active synagogue.
Bukharans remain great traders. The town's ancient trading domes are today filled with ceramics and the bright embroideries known as suzanis. Both hand-made crafts that have undergone a revival since the Soviet era when private production was banned.
Embroidery has long been considered a vital skill for Uzbek women. Embroidered fabrics – among them bed spreads and wall-hangings – formed part of their dowry for generations. Traditionally, a woman would leave a small part of the suzani's design – which often incorporates fruits and flowers – unfinished. Her daughter would eventually complete it, having successfully learned her skills from her mother.
Inside Bukhara's massive walled citadel, I see fading portraits of two Englishmen, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly. There's nothing to indicate the terrible fate these two Great Gamers met here.
Stoddart, who coined the phrase "Great Game", had been sent from India to forge an alliance with the Emir of Bukhara against the Russians in 1838. The move went disastrously wrong. Stoddart was taken prisoner, and spent much of it at the bottom of a scorpion and vermin-infested dungeon. When Conolly arrived two years later to secure his release, he too was thrown into the "bug pit". There they languished until June 1842 when they were publicly beheaded in front of the citadel.
I decide to cleanse the terrible memory at Bukhara's only women's baths. A large elderly woman sprawled on a topchan, the ubiquitous raised wooden platforms on which Uzbeks eat, play and unwind, rouses herself as I enter the ancient domed building. She indicates I should leave my clothes in a locker. All of them. She leads me, buck-naked, down a flight of stairs and along a subterranean corridor. I'm unsure what to expect. Hopefully not a bug pit.
I'm led into a brick steam-room. There is no plunge pool – a Bukharan bath is most similar to the baths of Istanbul than Japanese or Hungarian bathhouses. A young woman washes, soaps and scrubs me down. She covers me in brown herbal goo and indicates I should lie on a towel on the warm slate floor. After about 20 minutes, she showers me down and I emerge blinking into the harsh sunlight.
NIGHTS ON THE TILES: SAMARKAND
Nowhere is Timur's legacy more evident than in his former capital Samarkand. The Registan, three massive tiled madrassas surrounding a forecourt, was once described as "the noblest public square in the world".
That was high praise in the late 19th century by George Curzon, a future viceroy of India who would live surrounded by Mughal splendours. "I know nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur, and nothing in Europe," Curzon added. The Registan was in ruins when he arrived. A controversial restoration has returned this centrepiece to its former glory, outside and in, as cupolas glisten and mosaics glint.
Timur's tomb Gur-E-Amir, about a 20-minute walk away, too has been restored. His crypt was opened by a Soviet anthropologist in 1941, who determined that Timur – also known as Timur-the-Lame and Tamerlane – did indeed have a gammy leg. I return to both places by night, when there are few visitors and the subtle lighting creates an otherworldly atmosphere.
An avenue called Shah-i-Zinda means the Living King. The name seems a misnomer, given it is a necropolis. Among the 40 richly tiled tombs, the mausoleum of a cousin of the prophet, after whom the avenue has been named, remains a place of veneration in which a local mullah leads pilgrims in prayer.
The Museum of Afrasiab has rather too many objects in dusty cases for my liking, but a mural in the central hall stops me in my tracks. Known as the Ambassadors Painting, it has images associated with Indian mythology and a Chinese festival, and a parade of ambassadors of distant Silk Road lands.
I see no fabled golden peaches in Samarkand – wrong season, perhaps –but the city is full of mulberries, the tree so essential to silk production. A girl takes a pole to a tree's fruit-laden branches while her playmates hold a bedsheet underneath. It's a popular pastime, and not only for the young. An elderly man parks his car under a mulberry tree near Timur's tomb, climbs on the bonnet and catches falling berries in a plastic bowl. He offers me a handful. Timur may be gone, the Great Game almost forgotten, but the fruits of the Silk Road remain.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN UZBEKISTAN
THE BUG PIT, BUKHARA
In a former jail behind Bukhara's citadel is the hell hole where British officers Conolly and Stoddart were imprisoned. Within the prison's walls are displays of early photos of former inmates as well as shackles and whips used as recently as last century. In a separate room, a grille on the floor covers the six-and-a-half-metre deep Bug Pit. The only access was by a rope. A sign tells visitors the brick-lined pit was reserved for the prison's "least favourite inhabitants".
The vast market at Urgut, about a 40-minute drive from Samarkand, is busiest on Sundays and is a lively place to buy old suzanis. These are found in small shops at the rear of the market. Although women holding these bright embroidered fabrics are likely to find you long before you spot their shops. Suzani shopping here is not for the faint-hearted. Unlike elsewhere in Uzbekistan, where bargaining is laidback and relaxed, this is frenzied.
The ruined 40-metre tall entrance gates are all that survive of Timur's summer palace, Ak-Saray or the White Palace at the town of Shakhrisabz. They stand like decaying monuments to megalomania. Fragments of blue and turquoise tiles cover the towering gates and give a sense of what Samarkand's Registan may have looked like pre-restoration. The gates are surrounded by gardens, and the inevitable recent statue of Timur. Shakhrisabz was his birthplace, and the drive to the town – about an hour from Samarkand – takes visitors across a mountain range. The mountains provide a welcome change after the flat desert between the country's main oases.
The town has long been a centre for ceramics and produces a distinctive style with bold designs and muted colours. On the road between Bukhara and Samarkand, Gijduvan is home to one of the country's best-known family of ceramicists. Abdullo Narzullayev is from six generations of ceramicists. Abdullo learned his craft from his father, Ibodullo, whose works are held by several of the country's museums. Abdullo oversees the family's workshop, which produces a range of dishes and bowls, and its small museum. The family's matriarch oversees the production of high quality suzanis using natural dyes.
MUSEUM OF APPLIED ARTS, TASHKENT
Tucked away in a suburban street, a 1930s-era residence houses a small but exquisite collection of Uzbekistan arts and crafts in an elegant building full of carved wood and painted plasterwork known as ghanch. It has a fine collection of the heavy gowns and horsehair veils worn by Muslim women at a time when they were hidden from public gaze. But the gown's design and intricate embroidery revealed even as it concealed. The wearer's marital status, how many children she had and whether she was young or old were apparent to those who knew how to read the garment.
FOOD and DRINK
With morsels such as Russian caviar and Indian-style samosa, known as samsa, on many menus, Uzbek food is a melting pot of East and West. There's a local saying that breakfast is for yourself, so needs to be filling, lunch is for sharing with family and dinner with enemies, because if you eat too much at night you won't sleep well. It may explain why breakfast involves such an array of dishes among them fruits, cakes, grains, cottage cheese pancakes and meats.
The national dish sounds like it will land with a thud in the stomach. And indeed, plov can be on the oily side. The rice-based dish resembles Indian pilaf in which rice is mixed with spices, matchstick carrots and topped with meat. Mutton is the most widely used, although goat is another option. Although traditionally served at lunchtime, plov is frequently on the dinner menu at restaurants catering for tourists.
Lighter than plov and easier on the waistline, Dimlama is a slow-cooked soupy-stew of meat, vegetables and potatoes. Spring and summer is the best time for this dish, when the range of available vegetables is greatest. This mildly spiced dish most resembles an Irish stew.
DUMPLINGS AND SAMSA
Dumplings or manti use a thin dough in which is wrapped either minced meat, potato or pumpkin. Larger and flatter than Chinese-style dumplings – from where they may have originated - manti are steamed rather than fried. Served on a colourful lagan or plate, manti can be eaten with fingers rather than a knife and fork without offending local etiquette.
BREAD AND CAKES
Bakers use metal-spiked tools to decorate the circular non-bread, a type of bread also made by neighbouring Uygur Muslims in China's Xinjiang province. Tashkent's Chorsu bazaar is the place to see local bakers in action. A tantalising range of Russian-style cakes are available from tea cakes, dusted with icing sugar to Medovik, a flaky honey cake layered with cream.
TEA AND ALCOHOL
Green tea, or kuk-choy, served in little bowls, is the most popular drink. The custom is for the host to only half fill the bowl. This allows the host to demonstrate attentiveness to guests by constantly refilling their bowl. In the tea houses, chaykanas, the drink is often served with snacks of dried fruit, sweets and pastries. If you want Russian-style black tea, ask for kora-choy. Although about 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, beer, wine and spirits are widely available.
There are no direct flights between Australia and Uzbekistan. Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Seoul have regular connecting flights with Uzbekistan Airways to the capital Tashkent. See uzairways.com/en, singaporeair.com, malaysiaairlines.com, koreanair.com
Joyce Morgan will lead a special 18-day Journey Along The Silk Road tour to Uzbekistan departing Sydney on September 12, 2019. The tour visits Tashkent, Nukus, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. See renaissancetours.com.au
Tashkent: Lotte City Hotel lottehotel.com
Khiva: Asia Khiva asiahotels.uz/en/Asia-Khiva
Bukhara: Salom Inn booking.com
Samarkand: Sultan Boutique Hotel booking.com
The easiest way to travel between destinations is to hire a car and driver, which hotels and guesthouses will arrange. Trains can be booked in advance via advantour.com
The Australian government advises exercising a high degree of caution in Uzbekistan. However, there have been no reports of Australians experiencing difficulties while visiting the country. See smartraveller.gov.au
Joyce Morgan is the author of Journeys on the Silk Road (published Picador). She travelled to Uzbekistan at her own expense.