So, other people celebrate being married for 30 years by going to some romantic, luxurious destination but where are we off to? Uzbekistan! Most people’s first question is, ‘Where?’, followed shortly afterwards by, ‘Why?’ The ‘Where?’ is easy – a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia (if you don’t count the fact it borders the Aral Sea), lying between Kazakhstan to the north and east and Turkmenistan to the south and west. It only shares a short border with Afghanistan….
The ‘Why’ is easier to understand when you realise that Uzbekistan’s major cities are Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara – Silk Road names to conjure with. Sam Willis’s BBC 4 series last May, tracing the history of the route from the ancient Chinese capital city of Xian to Venice, caught our imaginations, particularly the fantastic tiled mosques and madrassas of the central Asian part of the route.
Trade along the Silk Road route has flourished since well before the time of Christ, allowing people and ideas to move freely and making Uzbekistan a cultural melting pot for centuries. In the 7th Century AD, Islam came to the region after conquering Persia and in the 8th and 9th Centuries Bukhara, in particular, was one of the most important centres of the Islamic world. Many of the finest surviving buildings there today are from rather later, though. The Mongols under Ghenghis Khan invaded the region in the 13th Century then were, in turn, ousted by Amir Timur, who made Samarkand his capital. Though a ruthless warrior, Timur was also passionate about science and the arts and brought renowned artisans from cities he captured to help him rebuild and expand Samarkand, commissioning much of the spectacular Islamic architecture which draws visitors to the city today.
Silk road trade declined during the 17th and 18th Centuries and eventually Central Asia became the setting for what Kipling called ‘The Great Game’, where British and Russian Empires competed for influence and territory – a kind of foreshadowing of the 20th Century Cold War. Uzbekistan’s more recent history is, perhaps, less exciting; the Trans-Caspian railway arrived in the late 19th Century, bringing Russian émigrés and industrialisation. Post Revolution, Soviet rule led to the closure of many mosques and madrassas but, since independence in 1992, these have been restored to their central place in Uzbekistan’s cultural heritage.
It’s not just the history that fascinates me, of course. ‘The Flora of the Silk Road’, by Christopher and Başak Gardner has also been whetting my appetite with its beautiful photos and interesting geological and geographical context. Sadly, weighing in at nearly three kg, it’s very much a coffee table book for perusal before and after the trip, rather than a field guide!
We fly to Tashkent tonight, then travel by train to Samarkand and on to Bukhara, before returning to Tashkent and heading into the Ugam-Chatkal national park for the last couple of days. I’m hoping for my fix of flowers then – we’ll be staying with a family as a ‘homestay’ there and are promised the opportunity to cook with them as well as a chance to explore the area of the national park around Kumushkan, so lots to look forward to.
I have no idea what the wifi in Uzbekistan is going to be like, so watch this space!