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     Volume 8 Issue 81 | August 8, 2009 |

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On the Silk Road

Adnan R. Amin
Shohi Zinda

The apple-cheeked old woman, perched heavily atop an LG packing-box beside the Oloy Bozori, broke into a gap-toothed chuckle and held out four plump fingers. I reexamined the pack of cigarettes in my hand and felt further confused. Four or forty? Hundred or thousand? Prompted by the quickening tapping of her pumps - I gingerly drew out the fat wad of 500 cÿms and surrendered it all. She pulled out some notes and returned the rest, giving my cold hands a little squeeze, unleashing a flurry of softly-slurred words which could've come just as easily from my grandmother as from a tobacco-vendor. Her unnecessary but kind words on that freezing night left me warmer in this new city where no one knew me or where I came from. On my first day in Tashkent, fully-aware of the moral and statistical wrongness of trying to judge a people based on first-time chance encounters I was enchanted by its people.

I was in Uzbekistan: a middle-income country, three times the size of ours, with a 95 per cent literacy-rate, a legacy of modern infrastructure, extremely strategic location bang in the middle of Asia yet mostly relegated by us as one of those tottering spin-offs from the Soviet Disintegration. The Uzbek Government, supported by Unicef and The World Bank, was developing a brand for its integrated nutrition-interventions - the Nutrition Improvement Strategy (NIS). And I, their trusted brand and communications consultant, was hopelessly lost in translation.

Bullah House

Earlier, I had been caught off-guard by subzero temperatures near the end of March. The poorly heated airport functions with an air of supreme authority, capricious self-governance and ill-acknowledged chaos. Of the green-uniformed immigration police and officials, probably not more than four speak English. The woman examining my invitation had seemed deeply suspicious of its alien scribbling. As if I had invented it. Ever-barking passport controllers, I deeply suspect now, do little more than match photos to faces. Money-changers drop shutters at night and flimsy internet kiosks become sleeping chambers. The lounge serves as a shelter for an oriental cleaning-force and a horde of feisty, drunken cabbies.

The nervous, heavyset woman who changed my US$100 had dumped several, fat bundles of cÿms and hobbled away into the dark - leaving me mystified, suspicious and alarmed. But it wasn't a tourist-scam after all. I had been deposited at the Hotel Dedeman - a block away from Unicef, housed in a Victorian mansion, sitting over a reinforced bunker. Days of finalising brand and media strategies passed quickly. Like an alien, I ate 4-star and breathed conditioned air inside identical white SUVs for a week. Till Navruz arrived.

Navruz is the first day of Spring and New Year in the Iranian calendar. Celebrated in ancient Babylon, it signifies the transition from hunting to husbandry. The Avesta indicates Persian King Jamshid popularised Navruz and accepted tributes at the Persepolis from all empires. Millennia later, Navruz was still being celebrated with great pomp and enthusiasm in Tashkent. Thousands thronged the vast, picturesque parliament complex frolicking around fountains, photographing post-independence sculptures and cheering ministerial convoys. Elderly visitors to the WW-II shrine thumbed through ornate brass-plated pages of codices, scanning alphabetical lists for friends lost in combat. Oriental families had come too, perhaps to honour this city that had welcomed all during that Great War.

At the central park a band played hissing pop tunes to the cheer of sprightly young people who dressed in hip clothes and smoked hi-tech Kent cigarettes. Families dressed in traditional costumes, I learnt, were from Samarqand or Khiva or Ferghana. You could tell from their attire. And also from their hesitation, difficulty in blending in and timid steps in this dashing metropolis, I thought later. I tried to blend in with the masses. Only, every 10-15 minutes, someone came up to ask if I was 'namaste', i.e., Indian. Alas! Even this alien land of foreign tongues had been invaded by the pervasive stealth-weapon of Hindi soaps.

A mosque in Tashkent.

Frozen in the middle of a resounding gallop, a giant brass stallion gleamed beneath a cutlass-wielding Amir Temur in the central park. A Mongol warrior, Temur stands in the centre of not only Tashkent, but also the Uzbek national identity. With this titanic sculpture started a riot of museums, shrines, mosques and statues bold, distinct and masterful. At the central plaza thousands flocked to admire traditional paintings on display, chat up aspiring artistes and shop for collectibles ranging from ancient manuscripts to KGB spy-cameras.

People in Tashkent speak Russian with the dashing flamboyance of hereditary urbanites. But their faces, beautiful as they are, can't always be matched to the language. Racial origins range from Russian, Tatar, Tajik, Kazakh, Chinese, Korean, Japanese to Macedonian, descended from settlers who had arrived with Alexander. With a communist discipline in its stride, Tashkent is an insomniac metropolis. A day's hard work is often avenged by a night of free-flowing Vodka, frenzied discos, unbridled Bardh songs and sometimes, the pure rush of drunken driving. Benzene-driven Volgas, mean, sturdy and throbbing with raw, soviet-style power, leave trails of black plumes. Increasingly mellow, lush neighborhoods ripple outwards from the city centre towards a quiet suburb where children's chirping, lovers' hushed promises and bicycle-bells slowly drown out the drone of high-speed traffic.

On suburban verandahs retired old men, basking like crocodiles, wait out their drunken stupor. Grass grows slowly inside carcasses of sturdy Russian automobiles, ditched for more efficient Japanese breeds. Children hide inside their corroded skeletons and declare war against neighbours. Some 80's rock song wafts from a rebel teenager's stereo. Kite-wars erupt on rooftops just as neighborhood girls stroll out with their Walkmans. In backyard orchards, fair maidens gather to brew the traditional Sumailak in huge cauldrons with iron ladles.


The high-speed train 'Registon' reaches Samarqand in about three hours. It meanders over the silk-road trail - packed with, perhaps, the same fragile anticipation felt by ancient merchants. Outside hundreds of miles of evergreen plains, dotted by adobe clusters and cattle herds, get mired in the past. Then the first sight of rockpiles that quickly grow into a snow-swept range. Across the plain, boldly facing the ancient, relentless Turkemen range, rises a huddle of hills, cloaked in soft green moss and bursting with young life. It was suddenly very easy to see why the great Silk Road, unfurling beneath the strict vigil of majestic icy peaks and led on by goading whispers of the mossy hills, had chosen to cut a swath between the two.

Deep inside the alpine district, quietly crouched Samarqand. Radiant. For over 3000 years it has remained a centre of culture, art, commerce and learning. Here, papermaking was perfected and passed on to Europe. As we arrived, the eastbound Gagarin Street led into the city, where ancient mosques and shrines raised their peacock-blue heads beyond the muddy cityscape. Our hotel of choice was a partly-converted residence inviting, homely and tender. Beyond its high gates, this lodging of woodwork ran around a lush cherry orchard. The 10-year-old son checked us in, the father took our bags and the two daughters led us inside. The rooms were heated by water, paneled by planks and covered in Iranian carpets. Painstakingly embroidered with silver, gold and crimson black 'Suzanne's hung resplendent from walls. New brides customarily embroider these wall-mats to demonstrate their sense of tradition, refined taste and most importantly, coming-of-age. Before long, this family's new bride came out to serve green tea with honey-laced walnuts, cashews, prunes and sugar cubes. The mother offered terse, hushed instructions as the men watched proudly. At dinner, grandmother offered pre-dinner Munazat and broke bread with us. We feasted on their hospitality, watched Turkish channels on their television and claimed their garden-chairs.

Barely 20 feet from our hotel the tomb of Temur, the Gour-E-Amir rises 1000 feet into the air a massive stone structure with intricate brickwork and brilliant patterns. The nearby bozori selling everything from apricots to air-conditioners is a social club of sorts. Antique-peddlers gossip in the shades of minarets and bakers slap on dough inside earthen ovens. Mother-daughter teams dust their wares with peacock feathers. Jolly old men offer paintings, Rehels, jewellery-boxes, statuettes all made by hand. Bargaining is still a way of life here - requiring much patience, mutual respect and equitable compromises for mutual profits.

Registon Square comprises of three 12th-14th century complexes with mosaic gateways, minarets and domes that have now become the hallmark of Muslim architecture. Nearby is the Al-Biruni Memorial housing instruments of astronomy, scientific sketches, paintings, Q'uranic calligraphy and the fabled hand-illustrated books popularised by the Ottomans. We paid tribute to saints, dervishes and royalty at the Shohi-Zinda a vast, hilltop necropolis with sarcophagi and shrines that glimmer on the hillside. We stood on the footprints of Omar Khaiyam and gazed down upon the city that had once shared his despair.


Registhan view

The drive to Bukhara was our first close encounter with the Silk Road - amidst its sights, sounds and scents. Today's Silk Road is an 8-lane freeway, punctuated by arched stone gates where trade caravans would stop for water and shade. We passed donkey-carts and 16-wheelers plying the trail together. And at last, Bukhara. Peaceful. Distant.

There is a sense of disconnect between Bukhara and the bustling, impersonal and intolerant world out there. Like an ancient sage, she crouches amidst the dunes with monastic solitude. A faithful, mourning chaperone to her builders the city seems frozen in some other time. From the fading, cobalt stripes on Chor-Minar, the eroding towers of the Ark Citadel - you will sense the profound age that weighs down upon Bukhara: the weight of standing witness to centuries of prosperity and famines, dynasties and rebels, faith and false prophets.

Largely a Tajik city, commuters here look different: paler skin, squarer jaws, slightly lighter hair, thinner lips and quieter manners. The children look like Matroyashka dolls. Women and young girls are glowing beauties draped in long, velvet dresses, brocade head-coverings and elaborately-embroidered, red canvass pumps. And most are hard at work at bazaars and cotton-fields, souvenir shops and diners. Here, it's the women who often lead social interactions, guide family decisions and manage finances. To conserve this arrangement there are no edicts or social movements, but grasp and harmony of the natural order of things.

In this deeply religious city that has lent its name to the venerable Imam Bukhari, beautiful Tajik children, doubling on bikes to school, dismount in front of holy shrines, mazaars and plying cars too, come to a grinding halt. Hundreds of saints, sages and heretics, world-renowned and nameless, lie beneath its hallowed grounds and watch over Bukhara and its people.

As we traversed cobblestone walkways of old Bukhara, people stopped us to announce themselves, learn our names and guide us to the best places to visit. They treat you like honored guests. With child-like simplicity, they inquire about your race, religion, spouse and salaries. At an open-air restaurant, where the air was heavy with the sweet smoke of Chilim. The mouth-watering Mastava soup, smoked lamb, homemade Katlama loaves, garden salad and assortment of dried fruits were all served on exquisite earthenware. Also served in rudimentary earthen glasses were the fruity 'Vini Italia' sweet wines, 'Bukhara' Vodka and sour cherry sherbet.

As darkness falls, the warm desert breeze, like long-stifled sighs, dashes around through deserted thoroughfares and desolate alleys. This is an incredibly alive and sentient city that will speak to you in hushed whispers if you listen. I feel my journey through the Silk Road has taught me much. Too long, I had indiscriminately suspected unwarranted benevolence as being, ultimately, schemes of deception. I had presupposed agenda in altruism. I now try to assume the best in people instead of the worst. I have no regrets only room for improvement.



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