Uncovering the Hidden Treasures of Central Asia
Whenever I visit Central Asia, I find it amazing how little we know about the region. A largely unknown area before the 19th century’s ‘Great Game’, when British India and Tzarist Russia vied for ascendence in the area, and then sealed off behind the Soviet Iron Curtain for most of the 20th century, there is so much here – history, culture, landscapes, cuisine – that we in the West are only just discovering. And what a joy it is.
On this tour, I have a very diverse and worldly group, from the US, Canada, Australia (of Indian origin) and the UK. They are lawyers, civil and IT engineers, civil servants and teachers – a knowledgeable and well-travelled group. But by their own admission, none knew that much about the country they were about to explore.
Of course, all had heard of the Silk Road, of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva – after all, why else would they have booked the trip – but none had much of an idea of the treasures they were about to witness. In the medieval fortress town of Khiva, we not only gawped in wonder at the staggering, blue-tiled mosques and madrassas, the minarets and palaces, we learnt that a great 9th-century mathematician, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi – after whose name we get the term algebra – was born here.
In Bukhara, we visited the old silk markets, the towering Kolan minaret and mosque, and the char minar (see picture below) but also learnt of Russian expansionism in the 18th and 19th centuries and of the connected fate of Conolly and Stoddard, two luckless British officers beheaded in the town square here in 1842. And in Samarkand, all were amazed by the scale of the superb architecture of the Registan, the Bibi Khanym mosque and Amir Timur’s exquisite mausoleum. But we also learnt of the great 14th and 15th century Timurid empire that stretched from Delhi to the Mediterranean Sea and of Timur’s grandson, Uleg Bek that not only ruled the empire after his grandfather’s death but who was also a great astrologer. Building an observatory in Samarkand, he and his assistants mapped over 10,000 stars, recorded the orbits of the planets and measured the length of a year to within 62 seconds of today’s known reality.
All of us have heard of Galileo, but who has heard of Uleg Bek?
We had cooking lessons that explained the movement of cuisine along the Silk Road – who knew pasta was Chinese? – we learnt about religion and how the region became Islamic, we learnt of conquering armies, of trade – both ancient and modern – of agriculture, education and the environment. And we learnt about modern Uzbekistan.
I first travelled through the country shortly after it broke away from the disintegrating Soviet Union on my 3,000k Silk Road horse ride in 1999. Without the support of the Moscow ‘centre’, the country was struggling with its newly found independence. Inflation was rampant, unemployment was high and there were problems with militant Islam. In the early 2000s, I led several tours throughout the country, and it was clear things were improving. Returning now, after almost 15 years, it's impressive to see the country doing so well, with a booming economy, diverse industries and a stable government.
At schools in the West, in general, we get taught Western history, Western wars and Western politics. But here in Central Asia, there is a fascinating new world waiting to be explored, brimming over with everything an inquisitive traveller desires. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that tourism here is on the rise, and through that, we are starting to realise what a gem this region is.
* Finally allow me to shower some praise on a wonderful guide in Uzbekistan, Nilufar. While on this trip, Nilufar was voted in the top 10 guides in the Wanderlust Guide of the Year awards; with over 3,000 guides nominated this is quite an achievement. And when you read my blog and understand the world we have just been exposed to and all we’ve learnt about it, it is largely due to her incredible knowledge of the region and her rightful pride in her country. We are so lucky to have her as our main guide in Uzbekistan.