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Travel: On the Silk Route

History is a constant companion in Uzbekistan

Travel: On the Silk Route

Road signs along the Silk Route. Photos by the writer

Bijo Mathew Philip

Under the high blue dome of Gur-e-Emir in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand lies ‘Timur the Lame’. The Turko-Mongol chieftain’s grave of green jade, blackened with age, is distinct from the pale green and more elegant crypts of his progeny around it. The gravestone is broken in the middle. The Soviets opened his grave on June 20, 1941. It contained decomposed bones of a man of above average height and a lame leg.  

Delhi took over a century to recover from the rampage Timur inflicted in 1398. It was no different for the other great cities of the time — Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Isfahan and many more. In ‘The Discovery of India’, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “All along his route, he created a wilderness adorned with pyramids of skulls of those who he had slain; and Delhi itself became a city of the dead.”

Central Asia thrived during Timur’s reign. Samarkand was the capital of his empire, although the city itself precedes him by thousands of years. Samarkand and Bukhara further west flourished in their unique position on the fabled Silk Route. Gur-e-Emir, which was built in the 15th century, and the garden surrounding Registan Square now form the heart of modern Samarkand.

I visited Uzbekistan in spring, which starts from March and lasts until early June. Its capital, Tashkent, is a modern city. The weather in May was pleasantly cool.

Tashkent suffered a devastating earthquake in 1966. What we see around in the town now was built by the Soviets employing their unique modernist architecture. We stayed in the town overnight, just enough time to secure our rented car. I went for a walk to find a place to eat and was pleasantly surprised to come across the memorial park with the bust of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. He died in Tashkent after signing a peace treaty to end the 1965 war with Pakistan.

All hotels we stayed in were excellent and cost less than $100 a night. They were in leafy neighbourhoods, not too far from the town centre. We headed for Andijan the next morning. The birthplace of Babur, it is 350 km south-east of Tashkent in the fertile Fergana valley.

The notion of Central Asia will be incomplete without its legendary river Amu Darya or Syr Darya, known in the West as Oxus and Jaxartes. Syr Darya originates from the glaciers of Tian Shan mountains east of Uzbekistan. We crossed Syr Darya, near the town of Kokand. The river was full here as it traversed out of the valley. Beyond it, the river flows 1,000 km through dry aridity and dissipates in a modern man-made desert that was once Aral Sea.

Babur, scion of the quasi-royal family of Fergana, was a descendant of Timur on the father’s side and Genghis Khan through his mother. Babur lost his parent realm in tribal warfare before he turned 20. He turned the tables on his fate, and took Delhi in the Battle of Panipat in 1526. His memoirs mention that Babur would longingly reminisce about the sweetness of melons back home. I was expecting in Andijan a memorial commemorating the founding Mughal. Instead, I found an arid, non-descript town framed by the snow-capped mountains beyond the borders of Tajikistan.

We tried walking around in search for the traditional souq and then on impulse, visited a silk-producing unit. A kindly old man was happy to show us around. The drive to the mountains on the Tajik border was less rewarding. Mountains and snow were enticingly close but we were left with driving on dusty roads. The famed melons were not much seen; perhaps not in this season.

We drove straight from Andijan to Samarkand, 650 km away, skirting Tashkent on the way. It took us almost a full day crossing the central plains of Uzbekistan, surrounded by Soviet-era canals, agricultural fields and grasslands that bloomed with many coloured tulips. We were on the Silk Road. The signs guided us to faraway towns of yore like Kashgar, Khojund or Bukhara. The roadside joints were inexpensive and served palov with mutton for lunch.

Samarkand is a pleasant town of less than a million, tucked between deserts north and south. Genghis Khan had almost obliterated the ancient city after a long siege in 1220. The city was extensively rebuilt by the 15th century in the Timurid renaissance. The Registan, the magnificent three madrasahs’ complex, and the surrounding garden now dominate the city centre. The city looked upwardly mobile and its tidy streets teamed with young people from near and far.  

Gur-e-Emir is a mile from Regis tan on the other end of the garden. A giant statue of a stern-faced Emir on a throne watched the busy roundabout. A tall girl approached us and introduced herself as we were going around Registan. She was from Kashkadar’ya near Termiz on the Afghan border. She had come on a holiday with a group from her high school. She introduced us to her friends as guests from India. A handsome boy sang what seemed to be a folk song strumming Ghijak, the Uzbek fiddle. The students were unassuming, inquisitive the way schoolkids are and made us feel welcome.

I came back at night with my camera. The Registan, glowing in spotlights, looked awash in golden hues. Tourists in hundreds were still milling around. As I set up my tripod and camera, a few hawkers approached. I talked at length with a young guide from a village close by. He said he had done a diploma in tourism that taught him English, history of the country, etc. Tourism was thriving for a few years after two decades of tumult following disintegration of USSR. Then Covid 19 struck and it put paid to the grander plans. Now that restrictions on travel have eased, he hoped that tourists would flock, bringing prosperity to his ilk. I could relate to him.

A girl selling tandyr nan in Kokand. Photo by the writer  

Travel Tips

  • Uzbekistan can be visited all-year round, though July and August can get hot, with temperatures hovering above 40ºC. Winter can be cold and snowy.
  • There are many direct flights from Delhi to Tashkent. It takes about three hours to reach.
  • It is a safe country for tourists.

    Though there are no stringent restrictions, it is ideal to dress modestly.

    Food is inexpensive.

    While English is not so popular, it will not be difficult to find an English-speaking local resident who could help in towns.

Modernity and tradition on the Fergana Road. Photo by the writer

The magnificent Registan madrasah. Photo by the writer

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