Beyond those great mountain ranges of the Himalayas, where the craggy terrains have not yet petered out to broader plains, lies the land of Uzbekistan - a timeless receptacle of a glorious past. That past has been so much a part of our own history that despite being from a different ethnicity, you feel like identifying with it. And that is what has been so special about our exploration of Uzbekistan, setting it apart from the many others we, a group of travel loving friends have experienced from time to time.
Exploration presupposes some elements of search, uncertainty and discovery. We had to dispense with those, allowing the New Discovery Tours and Logistics to offer us a highly organized plan, and they did an excellent job. I travelled from the USA, and met the other six of our group in Delhi, took a small plane of Uzbekistan Airlines to Tashkent to enter a treasure trove of art and culture.
The first thing that I adopted instantly is the greeting – right palm to my heart, left raised towards you and with a slight bow, uttering “Rahmah” meaning “mercy”, establishing the covenant of compassion between you and me. They have taken the first quality of Allah as the Merciful from Bismillahir Rahmanur Rahim to incorporate it in their salutation and I loved it! Our first visit was to Khasht Imam Square, the site of the tomb of the first Imam of Tashkent and then to monuments of some other saints, each a marvel of architectural and artistic wonders of great magnitude.
The tomb is made mostly with blue and white tiles and exotic wood carvings. The surrounding grounds are enhanced by beautiful trees and shrubs, with water pipes hidden under the grass irrigating them. Right in the centre of the square stands the large bronze statue of Amir Timur, known to us as Tamerlane or Temur Lang (Temur, the Lame). The wonder that dimmed all other spectacles was the library, which holds, among other priceless manuscripts, the first assembled Quran, handwritten by Caliph Uthman in the seventh century.
In the evening, we went to an exotic restaurant with colourful ambience and vibrant atmosphere. The food was quite good, but the icing on the cake was the live performance in the large ballroom. Two ladies in traditional colourful garbs played their instruments - one, a kind of accordion and the other, a hand drum called doira, as a girl performed a folk dance, Lezgi, which involves a lot of shaking of the shoulders and feet to the beat of the music and making a continuous clicking sound through intertwined palms and fingers. Besides the ingenuity and artistry of it all, I was impressed by this dancer, a perfect specimen of femininity and got an approximate idea of the houris (one of the beautiful virgins provided in paradise for all faithful Muslims) assigned to good men in heaven, sans their bashfulness, of course.
Our next destination was Khiva. We flew down to Urgench and got there in half an hour. Here, the main historical monuments are preserved inside a brick boundary wall called Itchan Kala or beautiful fort.
“But helpless pieces of the game He plays
Upon this checker-board of nights and days,
Hither and thither moves and checks and slays
And one by one into the closet lays.”
Surrounding three sides of a large courtyard there is a Madrasah; beyond that was the magnificently dominant, blue hued Juma Mosque. In the evening, our guide wanted to give us exposure to a totally different kind of cultural atmosphere. This time, the restaurant had singers and belly dancers, wiggling their bejewelled busts and hips, moving from table to table, offering further favours and expecting tips, only to meet with indifference from our only male companion, besides the guide.
On the fourth day we set off for Bukhara, a place associated in my mind with the famous ninth century sage and scholar Imam Bukhari, his compilation of hadith called Bukhari Sharif and the ‘alu-bukhara’ we have in our biriyanis or as chutney. It could also be the home of Nasruddin Hodja, the goofy philosopher, whose stories amused me a lot in my childhood.
The journey continued to take us across landscapes of breathtaking beauty, snow-peaked mountains, valleys cradling small towns around gurgling rapids, and the Amu Dariya, the deepest and longest river in Central Asia which is the main source of irrigation to the farms and fruit laden orchards lining the road.
Our first sightseeing experience upon reaching Bukhara was at the Samanid Mausoleum, a ninth century edifice at the centre of an extensive park. It is just a cubical structure with a dome on top, no colourful tiles, just bricks of two shapes laid alternately in a way that gives the impression of weaving – a perfect example of the grandeur of simplicity. An inscription of Omar Khayyam’s poem on the wall, surely a later addition, seems quite appropriate in this ambience.
The other grand structure in that area is the mosque and madrasah of Ulugh Begh, Timur’s grandson, a famed teacher and scholar.
Cheshme Ayub is another place that leaves you with a sense of awe at how time has stayed while humanity is moving on and on, how suffering has been the human condition for ever and ever and how true greatness lies in accepting it with humility and unwavering faith. We dipped our hands in the fountain which once, ages ago, had released the prophet Job from all his physical and emotional woes after God’s test of his steadfastness was over.
We were expecting Imam Bukhari’s tomb in Bukhara, as he was born here, but died in Samarkand, so we had to wait until we got there. A road trip from Bukhara took us to Timur’s capital, Samarkand, where most of the important structures are located. Most of the mosques and monuments are situated within the compound of the Shahi Zinda necropolis, named after a saint, Kashem Ibn Abbas, who was considered dead, but lived underground to escape persecution, and hence the title.
The mausoleum, madrasah and memorial complex of Imam Bukhari, the greatest scholar of the Islamic world, is on the outskirts of the city, matching in its grandeur and scale the other historical sites we had seen so far. My special moment was when, wandering around the courtyard, I had the urge to climb up a flight of steps to have a panoramic view of the city and from a remote recess came the sound of the most tuneful recitation of the Quran I have ever heard.
Here we visited Suzanne’s ceramics studio, where they create those traditional tiles as well as decorative plates, and crockery, in both conventional and innovative designs. We completed our sightseeing here by visiting the mosque and madrasah of Ulugh Begh.
The largest and most impressive structure in Samarkand is the mosque of Bibi Khanum. I felt quite elated at the evidence of feminine power in a Muslim world of powerful conquerors and saints. It was either ordered by Bibi Khanum to commemorate her husband Timur’s victorious return from India or, since Bibi also means mother, Timur got it built in honour of his mother. Both the possibilities honour womanhood in a beautiful way.
Next door, I mean three grand archways away from Bibi Khanum Mosque, is Siab Bazar. The perspective shifts to a throbbing, thriving heaven for food lovers as you enter the present and find the heart-warming simplicity of the common people carrying on with their day to day lives. I bought a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a cute old lady with a heart-warming smile for only 4,000! Don’t I sound rich? Well, it is the Uzbek Som, at 8,000 to a dollar rate, which left me in a calculation muddle, seeking help from my friends. Even the most practical purposes are touched with beauty here. Beautifully decorated breads freshly baked in clay ovens, piles of fruits and nuts, dried and fresh, varieties of sesame halwa, which the generous vendors, with weather-beaten red faces wrinkled in smiles, were happy to let us try for free - they make you appreciate the beauty of simple life and lift your spirits.
On our way to Ferghana, we made a short diversion to a nearby village, Koni Ghul, to visit the silk paper factory, hand created beautiful paper from the stems of mulberry tree. Everything gives a sense of environment-friendly purity - natural ingredients, craftsmen continuing in a family tradition under simplest of structures. A similar atmosphere we felt at the handloom factory in Ferghana, producing the famous Ikkat fabrics, vibrant with colour, symmetrical designs and a sense of authenticity. We watched girls weaving beautiful rustic scenes in silk carpets, all quite young, possibly because such intricacies require the faculties at their best, nimble fingers and focus. Ferghana also had its fair share of historical monuments, like an expansive Khudoyar Khan Palace, the Jami Mosque and a large madrasah, and we rounded up our tour by visiting a very old ceramic studio and gallery. The artefacts were irresistible and so, momentarily, I suspended the challenges of packing and weight watching and lived in the present, as wise men say.
Absorbing so much of art and culture, what was left to experience was an excursion into nature and we got an awesome taste of that back at Tashkent, through a two mile long cable chair ride across Chimgan Mountains. You feel humbled in the presence of such spectacular dimensions - the sky, the granite mountain ranges and the valley, I guess about 1,500 feet below, all the while hanging by a rope.
We could not leave the country without paying a visit to Chorsu Bazar, and then went to the city park, a 10-minute walk from our hotel, to meet my old friend, Nasruddin Hodja, on his donkey, and together we say a final “Rahmah” to all.