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Winding through the silk road

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Edward J. Taylor on 03 Jun 2018

The Straits Times

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On a train journey, ancient cities and trade routes captivate with their treasures and timelessness

 

The Silk Road, singular, is a bit of a misnomer as it was actually a series of trade routes that spider-webbed across Asia. The best-known curved north-west out of Xi'an, China, and it was this route that was traced by our plane, above wide dusty expanses of empty space.

 

Quick glimpses at my GPS revealed names of old desert oases that had hidden Buddhist treasures since antiquity. The last of these, Urumqi, was shaded by the heavenly Tien Shan, which, from 10,000m in the air, was a network of steep crags in a a foreboding landscape.

 

My Singaporean wife and I met our group of 12 the following morning in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Though we had booked our 14-day Silk Road train journey with Paveway Explorer Holidays (www.pavewayexplorer.com) in Singapore, it was run by a German tour operator, which provided comfort in presumed precision.

 

We were soon led to our train at Central Station, our guards waiting on the platform for us. These men and women would also be essential in fetching us tea and coffee at all hours over the next 10 days.

 

Our cabin was homey and comfortable for the two of us and the endless breadth of the landscape gave the illusion of added depth. Gazing at the emptiness of the steppe was much like looking at the sea; it has a meditative quality and the mind, tiring eventually of grasping for details, begins to slow and settle into the quiet, allowing deeper thoughts to arise.

 

Herds of livestock appeared now and again, in massive numbers spread across the earth like waypoints. Cattle, sheep and goats lowered their heads to graze. Horses held theirs high as they raced along. Two-humped Bactrian camels bobbed theirs in time to our rattling train, their humps the highest things in sight.

 

There were sometimes men with these herds, walking along with a stick in their hand. This was the rate at which time had passed for centuries, moving no faster than the movement of a single foot. Yet my train - and its precise schedules - was the physical manifestation of industrialised time, quite arbitrary really, as it moved towards the sun, the greatest pacesetter of all falling in the west.

 

CULTURE CAPITAL

 

Even in the rain, Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, was an attractive city. Stalinist buildings on one block, followed by a style that was softer and prettily European. Loveliest of all were the trees that lined every street - bigger, older plane trees near the centre, the newer sections shaded with poplars.

 

The faces around me were more Asiatic than in Kazakhstan and the Caucasian Russians from beyond the steppe were in little evidence.

 

I am not usually much of a shopper, but in the spirit of the Silk Road, I felt the need to buy trinkets, mostly food, along the way. The aroma of fresh flatbread was too tempting to resist. A seller handed us one fresh from the oven while, behind him, earlier baked ones stood vertically in a cabinet like a collection of old books.

 

We loaded up for our continuing journey with cashews and other nuts in the domed court that serves as the heart of the Chorsu Bazaar.

 

How lucky we are, I thought, as our trip is merely a fraction of what the China-to-Europe expedition would have taken. Even by rail, a traveller could expect two weeks, four if by ship. A minor investment, considering the 18 months it had taken the previous millennium.

 

We eventually descended into the city's famous metro system. Each of the 29 stops had its own unique design theme, from Islam to Baroque to Space Age. Photography of these works of art was prohibited as they are considered military installations, although photos can be found online.

 

Our final stop was near a modest hall, where a tuxedo-clad orchestra played local and European standards on folk instruments. It was a wonderful blend of folk Uzbek and the high culture of the Russian orchestra. Music is the heart of any culture - it is in religion, festivals and the tales of storytellers. Most of all, it is in the imagination, offering a promise of the delights to come.

 

MAGNIFICENT MADRASAS

 

Samarkand. Now we were getting into the classic Silk Road, the names reverberating with legend.

 

Our first stop was the Gur-E-Amir mausoleum, the burial place of 14thcentury conqueror Timur, better known as Tamerlane. This is one of the most visited sites in Central Asia, a magnificent structure rising above the city, the tiles and domes a bright blue not diminished by the grey sky above.

 

Old Samarkand is subterranean as the Mongol invasions of the 13th century obliterated it completely. The museum at the ancient Afrosiab site maintains a 7thcentury fresco that depicted a Sogdian king receiving dignitaries from as far off as China. Yet, the deserted hillocks and dusty plain outside betrayed little of the great city that had dazzled Alexander the Great 2,300 years before.

 

But it is The Registan that is Samarkand's treasure, three madrasas staring at one another above a square that once served as a marketplace. The age of these structures was betrayed by their inability to stand up straight, none more so than the minarets.

 

We eventually descended into the city's famous metro system. Each of the 29 stops had its own unique design theme, from Islam to Baroque to Space Age. Photography of these works of art was prohibited as they are considered military installations, although photos can be found online.

 

Our final stop was near a modest hall, where a tuxedo-clad orchestra played local and European standards on folk instruments. It was a wonderful blend of folk Uzbek and the high culture of the Russian orchestra. Music is the heart of any culture - it is in religion, festivals and the tales of storytellers. Most of all, it is in the imagination, offering a promise of the delights to come.

 

MAGNIFICENT MADRASAS

 

Samarkand. Now we were getting into the classic Silk Road, the names reverberating with legend.

 

Our first stop was the Gur-E-Amir mausoleum, the burial place of 14thcentury conqueror Timur, better known as Tamerlane. This is one of the most visited sites in Central Asia, a magnificent structure rising above the city, the tiles and domes a bright blue not diminished by the grey sky above.

 

Old Samarkand is subterranean as the Mongol invasions of the 13th century obliterated it completely. The museum at the ancient Afrosiab site maintains a 7thcentury fresco that depicted a Sogdian king receiving dignitaries from as far off as China. Yet, the deserted hillocks and dusty plain outside betrayed little of the great city that had dazzled Alexander the Great 2,300 years before.

 

But it is The Registan that is Samarkand's treasure, three madrasas staring at one another above a square that once served as a marketplace. The age of these structures was betrayed by their inability to stand up straight, none more so than the minarets.

 

Despite the imperfections, their beauty was mesmerising. Little doubt, since Timur had brought here any artisans he had captured during his wide raids, their work apparent in the intricate details of lions and blue onion domes on the facades.

 

The inner courtyards were all flanked by doorways that led to shops now occupying former student cells. In one, a musician demonstrated his merchandise, playing each and every instrument with perfection. Here again, I found my Silk Road, one defined by music, sounds overlapping across cultures.

 

Most impressive was the Tilla Kari Madrasa, the most weathered of all, but whose solid gold interior froze me for a good 10 minutes.

 

Every madrasa or mosque I visited did not fail to stun me, the colours hypnotic, with the intricacy of the spirals, the honeycomb geometry of the stalactites and the flawless slope to the ceilings.

 

It made it worth it, I suppose, to sit through all those algebra classes in school, to be able to stand beneath these domes and marvel at their perfection. Even so, algebra rarely deals with infinity and the scale of things was large and momentous, the eyes pulled heavenwards by the pitch of arch and dome.

 

Nowhere else was this as true as during a return visit to The Registan, this time at night. The madrasas hung in the air against the dark, their surfaces miraculously devoid of all colour but a brilliant white, minarets holding up the featureless black sky. It was as if encountering the gates of heaven itself.

 

OASIS LOST IN TIME

 

We were somewhere outside Samarkand when the desert began to take hold. Yet, despite the dry, parched look to things, there was far more water to be seen, in the form of broad rivers, narrow irrigation channels and oasis-like collective pools. This abundance of water may help explain the profuse flowers sprouting acre after acre from the arid earth.

 

But between these, salt stains bleached the landscape like abnormal pigmentation. Coming from nowhere and heading towards the same, two men bounced across this desert on a motorcycle.

 

In such an environment, it was easy to see Khiva, also in Uzbekistan, as an oasis.

 

The compact nature of the walled, fortress-like town had a splendid charm, the absence of cars within adding to the ambience. There were few temporal markers within, making it easy to forget the century.

 

The most impressive building was the Kuhna Ark, and climbing up and around its multi-level, angular dimensions was a return to the games of childhood.

 

This spirit remained with me as I climbed on all fours up the steep, spiralling internal stairwell of the Juma Minaret across town, light coming from only a few small windows and the screen of my iPhone. Looking down into the maze of alleyways, I could imagine traders here in days past, adorned in a fashion show with origins all across Asia. It was the birth of the global economy.

 

These ancient roots can still be glimpsed in the bazaar just outside the East Gate, where sellers sit on blankets in the shade, under the gaze of camels bellowing obstinately in the corners. A box of onions has been left in the streaming sunlight, each orb gleaming like the top of a minaret.

 

Under picture-perfect blue skies, I wandered the lanes again and again, before winding up the day with a cup of tea in one of the squares, taking a hint from Katya, the town's famous camel, who lazed about in the shade nearby.

 

OF TREASURES AND MYSTERY

 

That night, we crossed the Oxus, now less romantically known as the Amu Darya. The fading light helped preserve the mystery of Central Asia's greatest river, which had held spellbound dozens of writers and explorers.

 

But in this parched part of the world, water is far more important than lore and the river's output was abundant enough to support a number of empires, most notably those of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, though centuries apart.

 

In modern times, over-irrigation has greatly diminished its flow, dramatic proof being the Aral Sea, now one-tenth its previous size.

 

The next two days I spent wandering Bukhara in Uzbekistan, exploring all the hidden corners and narrow lanes. A carpet seller explained heft and weave, all in a flawless London accent. Sellers huddled in the crumbling Abdul Aziz Khan Madrasa, their business pitch much more solid than the edifice around them. The diminutive Char Minar mosque stood alone in a sunken courtyard, quiet, full of atmosphere and somehow reminiscent of a space shuttle.

 

I strolled through the labyrinth of covered bazaars, the sellers friendly and unaggressive. I bought a drum in a caravanserai from a musician, whose 10-year-old son tapped out a few licks before handing it over. I also bought a hand puppet for my daughter, its creator considered a national treasure.

 

My days usually found me settling with a coffee by the pond Lyabi Hauz, trying to focus on my book, but pulled away constantly by the passage of life. And all around was like a multi-hued demonstration of the colour blue.

 

The final evening, our group watched a concert in the Namozgohk Mosque, where, on a massive carpet laid across the courtyard, a series of local dances were performed. It was difficult to assess which was more beautiful, the movements or the costumes.

 

Between dances, four models drifted through, wearing a stunning array of clothing that ran across the centuries. Swallows flitted above, alighting on the bounce of the notes emitting from the percussion and strings.

 

And as those notes drifted far and away, I found myself thinking that we would follow suit.

 

• Edward J. Taylor is an American freelance writer who divides his time between Kyoto and Singapore.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.