After the disappointing 19th amendment I had just over a week in Sri Lanka before leaving on what was to be the most exciting trip of this period. There was much to do however, because I had to go down to Getamanna regarding the survey of the land I hoped to sell there, and I was also engaged in constructing a couple of new bathrooms at Lakmahal. These last were necessitated by the fact that the bathrooms attached to the two biggest bedrooms were on land that now belonged to my brother.
But the workmen I used, who had put up the additions to my cottage, were entirely reliable. I usually worked through Kithsiri, who had found them in the first place, but since I was going to Uzbekistan, I took him along as well, and found when I got back that the work had proceeded without any problems.
I had been helped with regard to Uzbekistan by Yves Giovannoni, who had headed the ICRC office in Colombo, having served previously in that country. My friends at the Embassy in Delhi got me the visa but this was facilitated by his contact Ravil who also arranged a tour that covered everything I wished to see.
After a night in Delhi, we got to Tashkent on the 8th of May, and were met by Ravil who was as nice as Yves had indicated. I had booked a hotel which was near enough to the Russian cathedral for us to walk there that first evening. I then had my first taste of the extraordinary hospitability of the Uzbeks, for as we were walking back a boy spoke to us and then offered to drive us back to the hotel. And that evening also introduced us to Uzbek food, and what was termed Bukhara bread, which was both crisp and luscious.The tour began the next day with a charming driver called Marsel, which I thought a European name but he turned out to be a Tatar. The guide was young and energetic and gave us a very full day, mosques and madrassahs and mausoleums and a splendid Museum of Applied Arts, with remarkable textiles and ceramics. I had not thought Tashkent would have much that was special, and this was the case when it was compared with other cities in the country, but it was full of beautiful old buildings. And the bazaar was fun, while we were taken to lunch at a Plov Centre, where that Uzbek favourite, lamb and rice and vegetables swirling in lamb fat, proved quite delicious.
The next day we took the early train to Samarkand, and visited the most extraordinary collection of monuments. Most impressive was the Registan, a square with three massive madrassahs on three sides, but magnificient too was Timur’s tomb, which was just by our hotel, so its domes could be seen from the bedroom window. After lunch we went to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, named after Timur’s Chinese wife. Legend has it that the architect demanded a kiss as the price of finishing the building, but this left a mark so Timur had the man executed.
That afternoon we also saw the observatory built by Timur’s intellectual grandson Ulugbek, and the Sha-i-Zinda, a collection of extraordinary and exquisite mausoleums, supposedly dating back to the 7th century, though expanded and enriched in Timur’s day.
I was determined to cover a lot of ground that day, so that we could finish the sites of Samarkand the next morning and then go on to Shakhrisabz, Timur’s birthplace, where he built himself a summer palace. There is nothing left of this but a gateway, but the pictures of that were fantastic, so I was determined to get there if possible. Besides, the drive was supposed to be lovely, and our guide in Samarkand, who was also the driver, proved quite willing to take us there for too much extra.
Before Shakhrisabz however we went to what is supposed to be the tomb of the Jewish prophet Daniel (he of the lions’ den). It is said that Timur brought his remains here from Susa, which explains why there is also a tomb of Daniel in Susa, which I had also visited. But more remarkable than the tomb was the Afrosiab museum, which has a still bright fresco of the 7th century Sogdian King Varkhouman, receiving visitors on camels and elephants.
The drive to Shakhrisabz was stunning, with more lamb for lunch at a restaurant with a superb view, and then the gateway to Timur’s palace was breathtaking. And the other remains there were also charming, a beautiful blue domed mosque and also the mausoleum complex where Timur had intended he be buried, except that he died suddenly in Kazakhstan in winter and it was too snowy to get him to his native village.
Our train to Bukhara was at noon the next day, and I spent the morning walking to a few of the smaller mosques in Samarkand, helped to find my way by anyone I asked, including a youngster who insisted that I have coffee with him and his charming wife. We got to Bukhara in time to walk to a couple of sites near our hotel, including the Char Minar, four elegant turquoise towers. The hotel was near the covered bazaar, and we could look out on the wonderful domed complex. In all three cities we visited we had been booked into delightful hotels, but the one in Bukhara was the most memorable, mainly because of the lovely courtyard where we were served breakfast by two youngsters who produced cream and honey in abundance, on top of everything else.
Samarkand had been wonderful, but Bukhara was even more so. Our guide there was a very competent young lady, who explained that, having been dropped at the farthest point, we had to walk back to the centre. It was certainly a strenuous day, but the sights were all quite wonderful, especially the Ark, a fortress housing a virtual town, with a mosque and a spectacular Coronation Court. Then there were a pair of beautiful madrassahs, one dating from the 15th century, a spectacular minaret, and a couple of elegant mausoleums.
I was so tired after that lengthy walk that I treated myself to a massage in the old hammam, even though the guidebook claimed that it was now tourist oriented and excessively expensive. But I had good value for what I paid, including being rubbed all over with ginger, and the staff were most convivial, the family having run the place for generations.
Next day, after an early morning walk to a couple of mosques not on the schedule, and our sumptuous breakfast, we were taken to the sights outside the city, including an exotic summer palace, with a harem and a pool outside, in which the ladies used to frolic until the emir, sitting high on pavilion nearby, flung an apple to his chosen companion for the night.
That evening, after a long nap, following beer and pistachios at the hotel for a late lunch, I visited the synagogue, still in use though by a dwindling Jewish community. The day ended with a dance performance in one of the madrassahs, where we were joined by a student who was determined to practice her English.
Next morning we set off on what was supposed to be a very long drive to Khiva, a town supposedly founded by Noah’s son Shem. But we made good time, so over lunch, at a small restaurant overlooking what I think was the Oxus river, I negotiated a side-trip to one of the old ruined forts of ancient Khorezm. The driver knew hardly any English, so we had to call our Bukhara guide, but we worked out a reasonable deal and so I saw Guldursun Qala, which was supposed to have been built two thousand years ago. Nothing remains now but enormous mud walls, inside which two boys were tending sheep.
In Khiva we stayed in a madrassah converted into a hotel, with lovely views from the bedroom along the enclosed courtyard. We had time that evening for a walk on the city walls, clambering up the stairs at the Northern gate, which were not in a state of great repair.
We only had a long morning in Khiva, but that was enough, with an energetic guide who managed to cover everything, and even allowed us to linger in the more marvelous places, such as the Juma mosque, with over 200 columns supporting its elegant roof. Lovely too was the Kuhna Ark, originally built in the 12th century but added to lavishly with an ornate Summer Mosque being constructed in the 19th century. The counterpart of the old ark was the 19th century Tosh-hovli Palace, with an impressive throne room, while we also visited the 19th century Isfandiyar Palace just outside the city walls.
This was on our way to buy food and wine, for our guide told us it made no sense to use the restaurant car in the train on our way back. I had asked Ravil to arrange for us to return to Tashkent by train, not only because it considerably reduced the cost, but also because I had fond memories of long journeys in Soviet trains in my youth. And the journey was indeed delightful, great scenery and comfortable berths. We had the lower ones, and resisted the request of a talkative lady (though fortunately she knew hardly any English) to exchange. She proceeded to keep talking to the man in the other upper bunk, but late in the night it seemed he mistook her conviviality and made an approach which was loudly rebuffed.
The date was my birthday, so we had also got a bottle of champagne, which was polished off, along with some excellent pate, the delicious Uzbek bread, and lots of cherries. The journey took three quarters of a day, so we had another bottle of wine, which the staff in the restaurant car managed to open with a nail they drove in and pulled out, there being no corkscrew on board.
Our flight was late in the afternoon, so on the first day I had asked Ravil whether we could get a car to take us to an interesting place east of Tashkent. He said that Kokand, which I first suggested, was too far, but thought Chimgan, in the hills to the northeast, would be perfect. He had managed to arrange for Marsel to pick us up, and we had a wonderful day, with a long lunch at a restaurant with little cabins above a beautiful river.
The chairlift was not working, but that did not matter for the scenery we drove through was lovely enough, and this left us time to visit the Museum of Fine Arts that we had missed out on the first day. I was glad about this, for it provided an overview of the range of cultures which had flourished in Uzbekistan over the centuries.
Ceylon Today 7 Feb 2017 – http://ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=14687