Twelve days on the Silk Road (2013)

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There were only fleeting glimpses of Lenin during our trip along the Silk Road in Uzbekistan; a country that emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, where Lenin’s image had been commonplace since the Bolshevik Revolution turned the region into one of the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). Prior to the Russian conquest in the 1860s, the territory that is now called Uzbekistan had been divided into “khanates” ruled by emirs. Further back in time Central Asia was subjected to the destructive march of various conquerors and imperialists: Tamerlane (who has become the new Uzbek hero); the Mongols under Genghis Khan; the Arabs in the 8th Century; the Persians and (not least) the Macedonians under Alexander the Great who destroyed the first settlement at Samarkand over 2300 years ago.

Like many others Lenin was dispatched to the dustbin of history after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discredited Communist Party. But the man who took over as President of independent Uzbekistan had been General Secretary of the Party in the 1980s. His name is Karimov and 22 years later he seems to be doing his utmost to follow in the footsteps of the infamous Central Asian tyrants.[1]

Going backwards into the future, Lenin has been airbrushed out of existence, almost… His bust and profile on little badges can be purchased at street markets in Tashkent and the other Silk Road cities. But his statues have all disappeared from the squares and parks. We caught one fleeting glimpse of his face during a visit to a children’s home, where some old photographs showed Lenin gazing in a severe (fatherly?) manner at the young residents from a fading photograph framed on a wall. Since 1991 he has been replaced by Karimov.[2]

Nonetheless, although there are some Presidential sayings and slogans on display here and there, the latest thuggish Uzbek ruler seems to prefer to create his imagined nation by rehabilitating and venerating the most brutal and bloodthirsty character from the history of the region: Tamerlane. Our tour of the Silk Road was punctuated by references to the tyrant and his awful achievements, such as mass murder of Indians during a siege of Delhi at the end of the 15th Century when his empire was reaching maximum extent. The ugly modern statues of Tamerlane that have been built on the main squares of Tashkent and Samarkand were compulsory viewing and our itinerary also included a stopover at his birthplace, the rather non-descript town of Shahrisabz. One of the highlights of the tour around Samarkand is the enormous mausoleum where the tyrant’s body lies, topped with an incredible blue tiled dome illuminated at night.

Consolidating the dictatorship is apparently carried out by appealing to a glorious past and by repressing dissent in the present. The treatment of Muslims and the Islamic religion in this process is a curious phenomenon. Uzbekistan is a secular state, with a Muslim majority, but with no sounds of wailing muezzins in the early morning calling the faithful to prayer. Most of the madrassas are no longer used for Koran studies but for the sale of merchandise. However, many women cover their heads and we were invited to the spectacle of the ritual slaughter of a sheep after visiting a Sufi shrine near Bukhara.

On the one hand the restoration of the many fantastically beautiful mosques, madrassas and mausoleums that dominate the skylines of Bukhara, Khiva and Samarkand has proceeded apace. There’s money to be made from emphasizing the creativity and splendour of Islamic design. Thus, the “tourist pull factor” ensures the good condition of these magnificent monuments. But at times during our trip I felt as if we were on a long distance conveyor belt, being auto-fed on the main sights… Happily our guide, a well-known critical Danish journalist specialized in the ex-Soviet Union, was able to introduce other dimensions to the tour including meetings with Uzbek families, teachers, students and the staff at the children’s home.

On the other hand, President Karimov and his clan are scared that unrest will spread along the southern and eastern borders where Uzbeks share space with Afghans, Tajiks and other ethnic groups that seem potentially more susceptible to the angry messages of the fundamentalists. The upshot is an excuse for widespread repression. It has been estimated that there are over 10,000 political prisoners in Karimov’s jails. We had an opportunity to see where inspiration for incarceration Central Asian style is found when we visited Bukhara’s Citadel (the Emir’s palace in the pre-Russian period) and the nearby Zindar (prison). This gloomy structure includes a so-called “bug pit” or hole in the ground where unfortunate prisoners were cast, awaiting execution.[3] There are also many reports of the use in torture in “modern” Uzbekistan.

Another phenomenon that we were able to observe concerns the cultivation of cotton. During the Soviet era the Fergana Valley in the east and the floodplains of the Amu Darya River in the west were assigned as cotton growing regions. One of the consequences of this agricultural development strategy was the drying up of the Aral Sea; vast amounts of water are needed to irrigate the cotton fields in the arid western region, so the river no longer reaches its shores. Another outcome was that the toiling masses are expected to participate as low-paid, semi-slave labour during the cotton harvest. As we drove around the countryside in our tour bus we could see many groups of people hard at work in the sweltering sun picking cotton…

In the cities we visited it is impossible to avoid crowds gathered with brides and bridegrooms on display in the parks and avenues around the monuments. Weddings are apparently a big event in the lives of the Uzbeks and huge amounts of money are spent on lavish celebrations. We talked with Mishka, an English language student at Samarkand University. She spoke about her pre-arranged partner and forthcoming wedding in a shaky voice; hoping that her husband would allow her to continue to work outside their home. It seems that many Uzbek women become labourers in the households of their mothers-in-law. The prospects for happy married life seemed rather bleak. But perhaps her saddest remarks concerned the world of information and the social media. Although the internet offers endless opportunities to improve language skills, Mishka told us that she had been asked to close her Facebook account and had limited access to the worldwide web. The government does not encourage public debate on any topic of significance. Silence and a retreat to the world of 15th Century heroes is the strategy of Karimov, who may be replaced as President by his daughter, a corrupt business-woman, diplomat and celebrity singer!

There were more than enough impressions to fill our notebooks during our twelve day trip. To round it all off, one of my old dreams was fulfilled: instead of bumping along dusty roads in another Chinese bus the tour organizers had booked train tickets for a three hour journey from Samarkand back to Tashkent. Uzbek railways have taken over Russian rolling stock, so our carriage was just as I imagined: big compartments, carpets in the corridor and a samovar for the tea, as well as service with a smile! It was great to gaze at the countryside and the distant mountains from the comfort of the train. Lenin had been keen on trains too I remember. The railways were considered to be essential for spreading communist propaganda and revolutionary zeal. Times have changed…

[1] This was written in October 2013. Karimov the dictator survived for another three years, finally expiring in September 2016. So far his successor appears to be maintaining the same hard line against dissent.

[2] Two great works of 20th Century literature come to mind: George Orwell’s 1984 and Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. These writers skillfully showed how the past can be re-written every day by removing unwanted names from yesterday’s reports and how “persona non grata” can be “photo-shopped” into oblivion.

[3] The prison is described in Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game”, about the struggle between the Russians and the British for influence and control in the region, notably during the 19th Century age of expanding empires.

The following are a dozen selected pictures from our Silk Road collection. There were endless opportunities to snap shots of mosques, madrasahs, castles, mausoleums and so on… I took some photos of the people too…

Minaret in Khiva

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Well-dressed school children in Khiva

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Women weaving the distinctive Central Asian fabrics

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Wedding pose with shy young couple, Khiva

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Yurt in the semi-desert between Khiva and Bukhara

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Courtyard of the Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara

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Chor-Minor Madrasah in Bukhara

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Samanid Mausoleum from the 9th-10th centuries, Bukhara

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Cotton loaded on a truck

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Sher Dor madrasah on the Registan (Great Square) in Samarkand

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Russian orthodox church in Samarkand

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On the train from Samarkand to Tashkent

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