Uzbekistan: Finding the Lost Heart of Central Asia
At the crossroads of the Silk Road, Central Asia is rich in culture and history, but it is also mystifying like a black hole. It used to be the frontier of the Soviet empire, and was closed off from the rest of the world. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has begun to find its place between Russia, China and the US. However, this region, like a satellite, seems distant, ambiguous, and mysterious. In the form of “travel writing,” this article attempts to give firsthand accounts to this rarely known but increasingly important corner of the world.
I – The Lost Heart
Travels rarely begin where we think they do.
In a bar around Timur Square, a Punjabi man in a turban suddenly began to throw banknotes to the sky. Though a note of 1000 som was only worth 80 cents yuan, this was the first time I had ever seen such an extravagant scene. Uzbek dance girls were wearing sequin skirts as if they had nothing on, and kept grinding their body around the Punjabi man. The rhythm of Russian pop music added to the lavish and decadent atmosphere. At first, the Punjabi man only threw one note at a time. As the girls started to scream, he finally decided to throw a whole stack of banknotes into the sky. A cash rain fell. Under laser nights, notes flew everywhere. A barman could not help but pick up a few notes that were blown to his feet. He was tall, skinny, and still a child.
Azama belted down the vodka in his glass, and flipped back his brown hair from his forehead that swept past his defined face. There was a flagon on the table with a half-liter vodka, but now it ended up in our bellies.
“What you have seen before was all damn fake,” he was muttering. “This is the reality! The Uzbek reality!”
I had met Azama at another bar earlier. It was a glamorous international bar. There was a band, but no dance girls. The clients were mostly young people, and foreigners stationed in Tashkent. At the time, the businessman-like Azama was sitting at the bar. He was wearing a beige suit, chino pants, and boat shoes. He was drinking with a bald fat guy. Obviously vodka had help to increase his interest in strangers, so we started to talk.
Azama told me that earlier on he had been in the export business, “to export Uzbek dried fruits to the US.” Then “the economy collapsed, and the Lehman Brothers went bankrupt,” and his dried fruits business had been “destroyed.”
At the moment, I was still more or less sober, and I had tried to figure out the long reflex arc between the Lehman Brothers and his Uzbek dried fruits business, but to no avail.
I asked him what he did afterwards.
“Then I began to buy real estate in Tashkent.”
By now, he has had seven or eight apartments that were scattered around Tashkent. With rents from these apartments, he was able to live a carefree life.
Azama smiled, “Real estate is the only way to go. It is the same everywhere in the world.”
Then Azama asked me whether I would like to share some vodka with him. I looked at my watch, and it was almost midnight. I was alone, and did not really know him. However, these good excuses were not enough to stop me from accepting his invitation. Later, I would comfort myself: this was to help maintain the newly established friendship between China and Uzbekistan, and to contribute to the dialogue, and make it go on more smoothly.
Azama took the flagon, and poured me a full glass of vodka. We belted it down. He happily poured me another glass, and then another. According to Uzbek tradition, one could not just have only one drink of vodka.
Everybody was getting high in the bar, and the dance floor was filled with young bodies.
“Look! That girl’s already stoned!”
In the direction where Azama pointed, I saw an Uzbek girl dancing ecstatically. She had a nice figure, and was wearing a shoulder straps dress, and hot pants. Mimicking giving heads, she was obviously already in a state of hallucination. On the dance floor, be it the way people were dressed, or what the music was, it was no different than any international bar.
Azama asked me whether I was bored. He said, he did not like the pretentious international flair of this bar, and had a better place to go to.
He promised me: “That would be the real Uzbekistan.”
After paying the bills, we took an illegal cab, and drove along empty boulevards. A few years before, as I had first come to Tashkent, I was shocked by the openness of this Islamic country. I once walked accidentally into a bar named Diplomat. Seeing the shameless atmosphere, I thought it satirical to have Diplomat as its name.
“Are we going to Diplomat?” I asked.
“It has been smashed up.”
“Who did that? The mafia?”
“The police,” Azama laughed out loud, “but it is the same.”
The illegal cab drove through the empty Timur Square. The gigantic Hotel Uzbekistan looked like a nest. Then I realized where we were going was close to the government buildings.
The bar had no signs. A few bouncers stood at the door. After nightfall, the temperature in Tashkent suddenly dropped, but these guys were wearing skin-tight T-shirts, and were not at all bothered by the chill.
We went into the dimly lit bar. Dance girls with long hair were everywhere. Without exception, they had very little on but were all very pretty. They sat on the clients’ laps and moved their bodies to the music. The price of a lap dance was only two US dollars. In the middle of the dance floor, a topless dance girl hung upside down on a pole, like an avant-garde installation piece. This was not Diplomat, but was just as good, if not better.
We continued drinking our vodka. Azama looked left and right and around, and finally pointed to a dance girl, saying it was his “ex-girlfriend.” They had lived together for a year. At the moment, this “ex-girlfriend” was sitting on the lap of a Punjabi man.
“Why are there so many Indians in Tashkent?” I asked Azama.
“They love Uzbek girls,” Azama said, “Have you seen these dance girls? 200 to 500 US dollars a night. Expensive? Yes, but they are well worth the price.”
On my flight to Tashkent, I was reading Craig Murray’s memoir. He was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan. His greatest achievement during his term was that he fell in love with a dance girl from Tashkent. The girl was seeing three men simultaneously, which made the ambassador very depressed, and he was close to committing suicide quite a few times.
I asked Azama whether what we were seeing made him sad. Because of alcohol, his eyes looked blurry, and there was a flash of red upon his cheekbones.
“No, no,” he denied, “the world is the way it is.”
At this moment, the Punjabi man started to throw banknotes into the sky. At first just a few notes, then he threw a whole stack of notes all over the place. It felt unreal in the bar. Azama belted down his vodka, stood up, and congratulated me on seeing the Uzbek “reality.” He was completed stoned, and I was also surprised at my own wobbliness. Azama and I parted ways in front of the bar. As he cranked down the window of an illegal cab, he shouted something to me.
Tashkent at midnight and a drunkard’s confession.
In a second, I was a bit sober, and realized I was in a foreign country. My travels, they started right here.
Tashkent is the largest city in Central Asia with a population of more than two million. I loved its wide, tidy boulevards, chestnut trees and French sycamores along them.
The heart of the city was Timur Square. There, quite a few boulevards, like rays of the sun, lead to all directions of the city. In the middle of the square, the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur sits high on horseback—he has become the national symbol after Uzbekistan’s independence.
However, it would not be difficult for historians to see the paradox here: Timur was not Uzbek, but Turkic. After his death, the empire declined, and Shaybani, the ancestor of the Uzbeks, took the opportunity to lead his troops down the south, and defeated Timur’s descendants, thus occupying what is known today as Uzbekistan.
Later, the Shaybani Empire split into three Khanates: Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand. In the 19th century, these three isolated, feeble regional forces could not resist the artilleries from the Tsar of Russia.
In 1865, the Russians occupied Tashkent, which was not the Tsar’s intention. The general Chernyayev acted against the direct orders of the Tsar out of vanity and his crave for wealth. He led 1900 soldiers—mostly fugitives, opportunists and bankrupt serfs—against 30000 defenders. In the end, this troop occupied Tashkent at a minimal cost of 19 casualties. Since then, the Russians had occupied the bridgehead of the entire Central Asia. And the general Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman, General Chernyayev’s superior, became the de facto Governor-General of the city.
In an old photo, I discovered where the Timur statue was there had been a statue of General von Kaufman. In the photo, he held a sword, and the pedestal was a double-headed eagle spreading its wings, which symbolized the Tsar’s balanced trans-Eurasia rule. When I first came to Tashkent, I had strolled the streets, trying to trace the age of the Tsar, but found nothing instead. In 1966, an earthquake rocked the city to pieces. Earlier than that, there had been the Bolshevik hammer and sickle.
The statue of von Kaufman had been soon pushed down, and a Lenin bust was erected in its place. Today’s Timur Square was called the “Revolution Square” at the time. In 1947, the statue of Stalin replaced Lenin’s. Strangely enough, it dodged Khruschchev’s “housecleaning.” It was not until 1986 that his statue was replaced by the bearded Marx, four years after Leonid Brezhnev had been in power.
In the summer of 1991, the British travel writer Colin Thubron came to Tashkent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He saw that the Marx statue was still there, and not far from there, there was the largest Lenin statue in the world. There were vendors selling kebab and pilaf, but they had little business.
As if it had caught a cold between summer and fall, Tashkent had lost itself. At the time, people knew clearly that both statues of Marx and Lenin would be pushed down, but nobody knew who would replace them.
It was not until 1993 that Amir Timur stumbled out of the fog of materialism, replacing the Germans and the Russians, and became the spiritual leader of Uzbekistan. The government consecrated the medieval conqueror, and worshipped him with countless monuments, museums, and street names. However, this time around, history made another joke: since Timur was honored, then the real ancestor of Uzbekistan, Shaybani, has been doomed to be regarded as an “intruder” or “enemy.”
Whether they themselves like it or not, that’s the official statement of the Uzbeks.
In the fall of 2011, I visited Tashkent for the first time. Timur Square was already how it looks like today. My guide at the time, Maria, told me that two years before, the square had still been a beautiful park with ancient trees everywhere, some of which were more than a hundred years old. This place had been the site of memory for a few generations who had been living in Tashkent. There had been old men playing chess, young couples holding hands, as well as mothers taking a stroll with their baby carriages. However, the trees were cut down overnight, and were replaced by lawns. Nobody knew what had happened.
One rumor was that trees had been cut down in order to better reveal a new lavish building. This new building was said to be magnificent with white Corinthian columns, as if it was a temple of Zeus that who knows why appeared there. Though this could not be backed up with evidence, it did match a kind of reality: it alluded to the eldest daughter of the former President Karimov, Karimova.
Karimova was once the most powerful person in Uzbekistan, and controlled a large business empire. She was considered to be in line to succeed her father. The white temple was funded by the Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation that she supported.
The first time I visited Tashkent, people were somehow unwilling to talk about her. But this time, Karimova has become the talk of town.
Firstly, in the summer of 2012, Karimova, under the stage name “Googoosha” released an electronic dance music album in the US. She described herself as a “poet, mezzo soprano, designer, and exotic Uzbek beauty.” In order to give the international audience an idea of who she was, she compared herself to Lady Gaga, and said in a publicity statement: “Do you like Lady Gaga? Then why not look up the exotic pop star Googoosha!”
Karimova also released her own fashion line “Guli.” On her official website, she wrote in third person: “It is impossible to disregard, the fact, that the founder of these creative collections is a political scientist …with a PhD from Harvard University…”
No one knows exactly how, but it was clear that Karimova’s actions infuriated her father. In 2013, she began to be mired in quite a few political and business scandals. One netizen in Tashkent told me that she was “slapped” by her father Karimov, and was then under house arrest, and later disappeared.
In 2016, the sudden death of the president Karimov marked the end of Uzbekistan’s strongman era. “Googoosha” failed to attend her father’s funeral in Samarkand, which meant that she had totally lost power. In the summer of 2017, the government formally arrested Karimova on a number of charges, including organized crime, money laundering and fraud. That is why the former princess has become once again a hot topic in Tashkent.
In front of the Timur statue, there were always many tourists taking photos. Despite the large crowds of tourists, this treeless square gave a sense of vastness. I crossed the square and walked along a boulevard. The locals told me that great changes had already taken place in the past few years. Unfortunately, I disagreed. Tashkent still seemed to be a shell lost on the riverbed of history—those gloomy Russian architectures and wide boulevards all reminded one of the Soviet Union, or even Beijing in the 1990s.
I passed by Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. The sky was full of crows turning in the twilight, and the fallen leaves under my feet rustled. Suddenly I felt as if I was back in my childhood. I clearly remembered I had seen exactly the same scene on my way home after I had just begun elementary school. I paused and heard the music of “The Nutcracker” floating from the heavy bulky windows to the boulevards, which were lined up with chestnut trees.
The designer of this theatre was also the one who had designed the KGB headquarters. The theatre had been build by 3000 Japanese war prisoners. Later, I bought a ticket to have a look inside. The majority of the visitors was a large group of French seniors, and there were also a few Russian locals. I was not surprised to find the bust of Uzbekistan’s poet laureate Navoi together with that of Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Mussorgsky.
However, the Russian influence was dwindling. Compared to a few years before, more and more signs and advertisements had used a Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet. It was hard to spot any Russian on the street, except the graffiti left from the Soviet era. I wondered, whether those generations would become illiterate or word blind, who had grown up in a Russian environment.
During the Second World War, many Soviet intellectuals and artists had moved to Tashkent. They loved the slow pace of life in the south, and enjoyed walking on pebble streets. They loved being away from the mainstream. Solzhenitsyn set the background of Cancer Ward in Tashkent. Bulgakov’s widow Elena hid the manuscript of The Master and Margarita here, until it was published in 1967. Igor Savitsky smuggled a large number of Soviet surrealist paintings here. In Russia, these astonishing works would not have survived, but they had found respite in the remote and sandy Uzbek city Nukus.
Nowadays, only two brands of cars run on the street, either Lada or Chevrolet. Lada is the last relic from the Soviet era, and the cars tend to be shabby; Chevrolet is a product of the government’s joint venture with the US, signifying that Western capital has rushed into the vacuum left by the red empire.
Western countries had been at first quite concerned how Uzbekistan was governed. However, after the attacks of 9·11, the US urgently needed to establish a stable supply line for the nearby Afghan military operations, so it decided to become friends with Uzbekistan. Many companies like Chevrolet has started to invest in factories, and many foreign luxury hotels has risen up on the horizon. Many companies that help apply for “Green Cards” have also sprung up. I noticed they usually had the US dollar or the Statue of Liberty on their signs.
After walking out of the Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, I took a cab to an Irish pub. An Uzbek lady with Angelina Jolie’s thick lips was talking to an old American guy. I heard the American guy say: “Of course I will do everything to help you. But as you know President Trump has just signed an executive order of a travel ban. Now it is no longer so easy to travel to the US.”
Then he paused, and looked at his “Jolie” lustfully: “But, I promise you, Babe, I will do everything…”
There used to be many hawkers who exchanged foreign currencies on the street outside the Chorsu Bazaar. This time around, there was none of them. On my last visit to Tashkent, it was right here that I had exchanged 200 US dollars for soms. Years of inflation had made the som sink in value, but the Karimov government was not willing to adjust the exchange rate or release banknotes of greater values. At that time, as I was walking on the street outside the Chorsu Bazaar, many people walked up to me, and asked me whether I wanted to exchange US dollars for soms. Later, I was shocked to find that I got a dozen stacks of soms wrapped up with rubber bands for 200 US dollars. I had to fill my backpack with banknotes, and lamented the heavy burden of a rich man. However, this time, the black market has disappeared.
After the death of President Karimov, many people had been worried that the country would be leaderless and fall into chaos. But the then-Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev successfully succeeded the presidency. The first great thing he did was to eradicate the black market. He did not use any violence, but asked state-owned banks to use the same exchange rate as on the black market. This move was so effective—Uzbekistan’s largest private financial market disappeared traceless overnight.
Where have these hawkers gone? I wondered as I strolled the street. Then I realized: these so-called “black market hawkers” were just normal Tashkent locals. The black market had disappeared, but they were still on this street, doing all kinds of other businesses. Some were selling handicrafts; some were selling pots and jars; some were selling nan breads; and others brought in a few cucumbers and a few bunches of mulberries from their own yards to earn some negligible money.
An old lady wearing a turban suddenly stopped in front of me, and started to mumble. Then I realized that I was passing by Kukeldash Madrasa, which sat atop a hill, overlooking the Chorsu Bazaar. During the Soviet era, it had been used as a warehouse, and the nearby Khoja Akhrar Vali Juma Mosque had been used as a factory.
There were persimmon trees in the courtyard of Kukeldash Madrasa, and its lawn was freshly green. A few students wearing suits and flowery summer hats were chatting in the afternoon sunlight. They told me that there was a place for delicious pilafs nearby, and suggested that I should take a look at the oldest Quran in the world just across from the Bukhari Islamic Madrasa.
Al-Bukhari was an Islamic saint, who had walked throughout the Arab world to collect the words of Mohammed. His Bukhari Sharif is considered by Sunni Islam as an authoritative text, only second to Quran. Al-Bukhari was born in Bukhara, and buried in Samarkand. Perhaps that’s why Uzbekistan’s most renowned Islamic madrasa was named after him.
During the Soviet era, the Bukhari Madrasa was one of the only two Islamic madrasas that had remained open in Central Asia. The school had as few as only 20 or so students, but now more than 300 students study Arabic or Quran here.
Under the Soviet rule, Uzbekistan was less of a religious country, though 90% of the population was Muslin. After Uzbekistan’s independence, Islam quickly filled the vacuum left by Communism. The deserted mosques and Islamic madrasas were restored to their original functions. At that time, Islamic extremists also appeared.
Taliban’s success in Afghanistan motivated these extremists to imagine an Islamic nation without the separation of church and state in Uzbekistan. The strongman Karimov could not tolerate his authority being challenged. He chose to crack down on extremists, exactly like how Islam had been suppressed during the Soviet era.
But the politicians knew all too well that Islam itself was the best way of showing authority and power. Thus, though Islam was suppressed, many mosques and Islamic madrasas were restored and rebuilt.
On the square where the Bukhari Madrasa was, I saw a brand-new Hazrat Imam Mosque. It is the largest Mosque in Tashkent. With beautiful sandalwood columns from India, green marbles from Turkey, and blue tiles from Iran, this seems to suggest that Uzbekistan has become again a spiritual center.
I looked at my watch: it was prayer time. I have been to many Islamic countries, and during each prayer, the loudspeakers on the minaret will broadcast the call. The Imam’s call to prayer, like a tenor’s long aria, resounds in the city, and makes people stop and listen.
However, it was very quiet here on the square. After the controversial 2005 Andijan Unrest, the government had forbidden the daily 5 prayers. Though the Hazrat Iman Mosque has a 50-meter high minaret, it has never been used. In the sunlight, the minaret looked blindingly tall, like a silent giant.
I crossed the empty square, and went into the Muyi Mubarak Library, which holds the Uthman Quran, the oldest Quran in the world that once belonged to Caliph Uthman. It is said that Uthman was murdered while reading the Quran in 655, thus the Quran had been stained with his blood. After Uthman’s death, the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, became the new caliph. But he was soon murdered by Uthman’s nephew Muawiyah. Muawiyah became the new caliph, which marked the beginning of the age of the Umayyad Caliphate. The seed of conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims was thus sown.
This huge Quran was displayed on a podium in the middle of the room. Because of lack of daylight, it felt ancient. Through the glass cover, I examined the Quran carefully, and was surprised to find that it was shockingly simple, without much decoration, but gave you a great sense of history. On the yellowed pages, the Quran was filled with ancient scriptures, which looked like wondering troops, and one became easily disoriented. For the first time, I felt that the calligraphy of Arabic contained a kind of frightening ferocity. I tried to trace Uthman’s blood, but to no avail—the opened page was very clean. Perhaps the bloodstains were on another page, or perhaps it was just hearsay.
A white-bearded old man wearing a square hat also came to look at the Quran. From his clothes, I could tell he was probably from Fergana. That is an ancient and rich valley, and the most religious region of Uzbekistan.
“Do you come from Fergana?” I asked with my broken Uzbek.
“Fergana, Fergana,” the old man repeated in his hoarse voice. His face was wrinkled, but his eyes seemed full of tears due to excitement. His partner sat on the bench by the door. Her large body was wrapped in a traditional Fergana dress.
It was Ali who had brought this Quran to Kufa in Iraq. In the 14th century, Timur conquered Kufa. This devout Turk brought the Quran to the capital Samarkand. In 1868, General von Kaufman presented it as a gift to the Tsar in St. Petersburg. Another version was this: the Imam of Samarkand at the time sold this deerskin book that nobody could read to the Russians for 125 rubles. In 1924, the Turkestan Soviet Socialist Republic was founded. As a gesture of friendship to the Muslims in Central Asia, Lenin returned this Quran to Tashkent.
After a few centuries of passing from one powerful hand to another, this holy book finally lay quietly before my eyes. In the dim light, the Fergana man started to pray. I looked long and hard at the holy book, and hoped to etch its image permanently in my mind.
On my last day in Tashkent, I got to know a lady named Ekaterina. She followed me on Instagram, saying she worked for a travel magazine, and asked whether they could publish my photos.
We arranged to meet at a café by the Minor subway station. She stepped out from a silver Chevrolet sedan, wearing a grey overcoat and light pink high heels. Her black hair was slightly curvy, and she had light freckles around her delicate nose. I thought she did not look like an Uzbek. Perhaps because she lacked more pronounced racial features, or perhaps she dressed herself too internationally: she wore a pair of Japanese-style glasses and earrings in the form of rings. Her English was pretty fluent, with even a slight American accent. If not for her name, I would not be able to associate her with any particular country.
We sat down and ordered tee. She took out a magazine from her bag. Contrary to her exquisite appearance, the magazine was poorly bound. I wasn’t even sure whether that was indeed a travel magazine. As I flipped through it, I saw only one after another Uzbek man in suit and tie, and their boring interviews. Apparently, there were important local businessmen. Perhaps their work had something to do with travel.
I closed the magazine, and looked at Ekaterina. She told me that the magazine mainly focused on travels in Uzbekistan, and occasionally about overseas travels.
“Where have you been then?” I asked.
“I just came back from Gilan,” she said, “at a high altitude, the village is deep in the mountains. The locals can hardly speak Russian, but are very friendly. I love it there. That’s why I have started to learn Uzbek upon return.”
“So you don’t speak Uzbek?” I asked in surprise.
“My mother tongue is Russian. All my friends speak Russian.”
“So you are Russian?”
“It is hard to say where I am from.”
So Ekaterina told me her family story: she’s 27 years old this year, and was born in Tashkent. Her father was a Russian-speaking Jew, and her mother a Greek-born Azerbaijani—they belonged to the vast Soviet Union.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, her father left her and her mother for the US, when she was five. She heard that her father had a new family now on the other side of the ocean. He had a son and a daughter there. She and her father had never seen each other again. Ekaterina lived with her mother. She grew up in a Russian community, and went to a Russian middle school, and then studied Slavic languages in college. After graduation, she had first worked for a men’s fashion magazine. A few months before, she had quit and started to work for this travel magazine, because this new job allowed home office. She had moved out of her mother’s place, and lived by herself in an apartment. She also had a dog.
I asked her whether she wanted to get married.
“I won’t marry,” she said, as if it was no longer possible to marry at the age of 27. “I find it hard to believe men, perhaps that was because of my father.”
As she said this, there was not a bit of sadness in her tone. It was more like she was stating a fact. She had an exquisite face, but her calmness could scare men.
“When I was young, I had many Jewish friends,” she said, “then they were gone, some to Israel, some to the US.”
“Don’t you want to leave here?” I asked.
“No, I feel happy here.”
“Haven’t you been to the US, to see your father?”
“No,” she said, “that’s his dream to go to the US, but that’s not mine. I have never had an American dream.”
“What about Russia, since your mother tongue is Russian?”
“What would I do in Russian? Where would I live?” She tensed up, and then relaxed. “I love Tashkent. I love the streets here. I love pilaf, baked buns, and kebab. If I am bored, I will drive myself to the countryside, and lie on the grass. There it is silent. I do not know where else I can have such a life.”
I nodded. I could neither agree nor disagree. For a while, I could not even figure out why she had contacted me in the first place. Was it really that she wanted to commission photos from me? Perhaps she just wanted to find a stranger to have a casual chat about life.
We spent about an hour or so in the café. Meanwhile, the fall rain came quietly, and blew a few leaves away.
II – The Uneasy Valley
Other than what I had expected, the road to Fergana was not bumpy, but I felt excited, and a bit worried. On the map, Fergana Valley is surrounded by the Pamir Mountains to the south, and the Tian Shan Mountains to the north. The famous Syr Darya River crosses the valley, and flows westward. The valley is 300 km long and 170 km wide. It is the most fertile farming belt in Central Asia as well as an area where religious and racial conflicts mix, thus it is called the “Balkan” of Central Asia.
The complexity of history exerts an astonishingly continuous influence upon the reality, and Fergana Valley is such a great example. In 1924, the Soviet Union divided the Turkestan province of the Tsarist era into 5 republics. Stalin was worried about the rise of a unified Pan-Turkic country, so he decided to adopt the divide-and-conquer principle, the controversial racial classification method as well as adjusting national division of labor geared toward a single Soviet planned economy. These kinds of divisions created strange borderlines in the valley that cut off ethnic groups, thus laying the foundation for later ethnic conflicts. If one looked at the map closely, one could see that the borderlines were sharp zigzags, like an electrocardiogram with a fast heartbeat. In the large Soviet system, these borderlines were simply theoretical lines on a map, but once these republics gained independence, they became real borders.
Nowadays, Fergana Valley is shared by three countries (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). In the territory of each country, there are enclaves from the other countries. The Tajik Civil War, 2005 Andijan Unrest, and the political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan have turned the valley into a region of mutual hostility. Back in the Bronze Age, there had already been ancient civilizations in the Fergana Valley, but the glory of these civilizations seemed to have disappeared for a long time from travelers’ radar.
The traditional route of entering Fergana Valley is to go through Khujand of Tajikistan. In 329 B.C., Alexander the Great traveled into Fergana Valley through Khujand, and built a most oriental Greek city. However, because of border problems, I was not able to travel on this ancient route. I had to stay on Uzbek roads, and travel through Chatkal Range.
On leaving Tashkent, the van I took ran into gray smog. Through the window, I saw a low-hanging sun that looked like a coal ball close to being burned. We passed two polluted industrial cities—Almalyk and Angren. In 1942, coals from this region were transported continuously to the Soviet-German fronts, feeding the Soviet war machines. Nowadays, transmission towers and dusty sunflowers are dotted between semi-abandoned Soviet style apartment buildings. Nothing seems to have changed since last century.
The van started to wind its way up the mountain. It had to slow down occasionally in order to avoid the fallen rocks in the middle of the road. Vegetation seemed to have suddenly disappeared altogether. There were only scar-like black and gray rock masses, and small rocks from soil erosion. From Ürümqi to Almaty, I have seen Tian Shan from many places. Now this was the western edge of this mountain range. As the altitude rose, the air became more translucent.
The van stopped before the Kamchik Pass. The snowy top of Chatkal was already in sight. By the viewing platform, there was a dusty shop selling apples and snacks. An Uzbek family was taking photos with the snowy mountain range as the background. A man wearing a cap was sitting on an old Soviet motorcycle. At his feet, a yellow dog was bathing in the sun.
Soon after, I saw shepherders herding black goats to another pasture. They were riding on horseback, throwing out their lassoes. The goat flock walked away in a cloud of dust. Wind blew from the other side of the mountain, and brought with it occasional cellphone signals from Tajikistan. Not far from the south, the silhouette of the Pamir Range already appeared in the thin air. I knew it was Tajikistan on the other side, a different world that spoke the Mountain Iranian language.
After armed checkpoints across the Syr Darya River, we were officially in Fergana Valley. Suddenly, there appeared an agrarian landscape: one after another yellow mud house, grape vines, pomegranate trees, mulberry trees, and large stretches of cotton fields. Smog once again covered the horizon. In the foggy cotton fields, I saw many Uzbek women picking cotton.
In the 19th century, the Russian empire turned the valley into a cotton base. Cotton replaced other traditional crops planted by local farmers, and became the principle cash crop. According to one survey: in 1860, cotton supplied by Central Asia only accounted for 7% of its consumption in Russia. In 1915, it went up to 70%.
This continued into the Soviet era. In 1939, with the help of 180000 “volunteers,” the 270 km long Great Fergana Canal was completed. In order to irrigate more cotton fields, the course of the two longest rivers in Central Asia—Amu Darya and Syr Darya—was changed, eventually resulting in the drastic shrinking of the Aral Sea.
Due to the long-term cultivation of single crops and the use of fertilizers, the Fergana Valley became arid. However, this economic model was hard to change. After its independence, Uzbekistan has maintained its leading role in the world in the production of cotton. Before 2017, all the elementary and middle school students were required to participate in voluntary cotton harvests. During the cotton-picking season, trains with insufficient capacities were packed with female cotton-picking workers. A few days later, an Indonesian traveler told me that his train ticket had been suddenly canceled, because the train he was supposed to be on would be changed to be a “Cotton Picking Express.”
I struck up a conversation with an Uzbek female worker who was picking cotton. She wore a bright turban, and carried a cotton bag. In the cotton fields as high as her shoulders, she walked as if she was wading through a reed marsh. She told me that female workers had to pick between 50 kg and 60 kg of cotton everyday, and they would earn about 20 yuan. She’s 26 years old, and had a 5-year old son. She pointed to her ring, and asked whether I was married. She burst into laughter, seeing how confused I was.
In the Chinese history books, the Fergana Valley was famous for another product—the Fergana horse. During his diplomatic expedition to Central Asia, Zhang Qian visited Dayuan in the Fergana valley, and brought back the first accounts of the Fergana horses: they could travel thousands of miles in a day, sweat blood, ate alfalfa, and were decedents of heavenly horses.
Since then, all the precious treasures from Central Asia had paled in comparison. Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty would trade anything for these horses. A few centuries later, Marco Polo also passed through this region. He heard that the pedigree of the Fergana horses could be traced back to the Thessalian warhorses brought by Alexander the Great on his east expeditions.
At first, Wudi sent an emissary to exchange gold horses for the Fergana horses. The king of Dayuan was not interested, and refused such an exchange. The emissary threatened that an army would be coming, but the king of Dayuan thought that the Han Dynasty lay in the East, and between the two countries, there were tens of thousands of miles of desert. In addition, there was also Xiongnu to the north. The king thought Wudi would not send an army this far to attack Dayuan. This angered the emissary, who threatened to break the gold horses to pieces, and then left. As the emissary almost reached the border, the king of Dayuan arranged to kill him and take all of his possessions.
Wudi was furious, and vowed to take revenge on Dayuan. He gathered an expeditionary army, and let the brother of his favored concubine, the general Li Guangli, lead the army. In 104 A.D., this army disappeared outside Yumen Pass. According to historical records, the plague of locusts was rampant that year, and there was nothing to be harvested. Tens of thousands of soldiers died on the road. Many countries in Central Asia closed their cities and refused to provide food. When General Li Guangli appeared in the Fergana Valley a few months later, there were only a dozen soldiers left.
General Li Guangli was defeated on his first west expedition to Dayuan. Afraid of losing his life, he was hesitant whether he should return. Wudi sent out word that as soon as Li Guangli entered Yumen Pass, he would be killed right on the spot. The hot-tempered Wudi mobilized all the troops in the country, released all the prisoners, sent out additionally unruly youngsters, and prepared enough supplies. Within a year, a troop of 60 thousand soldiers marched vigorously from Dunhuang.
This time around, the Han army was able to besiege the capital of Dayuan. They changed the course of the rivers, and cut off water supplies. The inhabitants beheaded their own king, and promised General Li Guangli that as soon as he withdrew the army, he could take as many Fergana horses as he would like. Li Guangli selected dozens of good horses and 3000 average horses, and returned with flying colors. All the soldiers were promoted to a higher rank. Since then, Dayuan had became a vassal state.
The original site of Dayuan is not far from Kokand. However, there were no ruins to be seen in Kokand. This ancient city looked young with a bit of Soviet bleakness.
I stayed in the best hotel in town. The room was covered with old carpets, and decorated with tasteless furniture. The room was dim, which reminded me of Kokand’s dim history. There was a Spartan buffet breakfast: boiled eggs as cold as ex-girlfriends, cold nan breads, and slices of frozen watermelon. I drank a cup of lukewarm tea, and went out of the hotel to explore this city. In the 18th century, Kokand was, like Bukhara and Khiva, a khanate. In its heyday, its territory extended from the Fergana Valley all the way to the Kazakh Steppe to the north of Tashkent. The 19th century witnessed the Russian occupation of Central Asia. Kokand kept losing its territory and was eventually annexed by Russia.
In its precarious days, the last khan of Kokand Khudayar did not forget to build his palace. The funny thing is, if not for this khan, today’s Kokand would not have any place of interest, and would become a boring city. The palace was not far from my hotel. It was completed in 1873. It had 6 courtyards and 113 rooms, half of which belonged to the harem. The khan was a devout Islamic, but had 43 concubines. In order to deal with the Islamic rule that a man could only have four wives, he always brought an imam with him, so that the imam could hold a wedding or a divorce ceremony whenever he wanted. Only three years after the completion of the palace, the Russians came. The gunfire of General von Kaufman turned most parts of the palace into rubbles. Only 19 rooms survived.
I wandered in the courtyards of this khan, and was not very much impressed. Compared with these remaining, carefully restored rooms, I was more interested in the legends that were scattered in the corners of history. Descriptions of cruelty in Kokand often appeared in travel writings on Central Asia in the 19th century.
In 1873, the American diplomat Eugene Schulyer came to Kokand. He witnessed a typical khanate carnival: a prisoner on death row was taken to parade the streets, followed by an executioner. As a prelude to the carnival, crowds threw rocks at the prisoner. It was not until the atmosphere had become heated that the executioner pulled out a knife, and cut the prisoner’s throat. The prisoner then fell onto the ground like a clump of mud, left exposed for hours. The sand ground was then soaked in his blood.
Nowadays, the rooms of the palace have been turned into a museum to introduce the history of Kokand. I walked around, but did not see any mentioning of a famous figure from Kokand. For the Chinese, the most famous figure from Kokand was not the cruel khan, but a catamite with a beautiful face, who later grew up to become the “Butcher of Central Asia” as the Uyghurs would call him.
Yaqub Beg was born in Kokand. When he was young, both of his parents died. He was adopted by wandering artists, and learned dance and gymnastics. When he was ten, he became “Badcha,” a dance boy dressed as a girl. He was picked up by Kokand officials, and was then sold onto others. Perhaps because of his childhood trauma, he grew up to be calculating and cruel. He was promoted for his crackdown on the revolt from Kazakhs, and quickly gained military power.
In 1757, the emperor Qianlong annihilated the Dzungar Khanate, and pacified the Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas, and incorporated Xinjiang into the Chinese territory. Kokand became China’s neighbor. For a long time, Kokand bowed to China. However, this was only a matter of expediency, in order to benefit from trade activities with Xinjiang. Kokand took in Khoja nobles, and supported their uprising against Qing.
In 1864, civil unrest took place. The then Kokand general Yaqub Beg took the opportunity, and invaded Kashgar. In order to establish his authority, he set up a puppet regime in the name of Khoja’s great-grandson Buzurg. Immediately afterwards, he gathered old Kokand officials, expanded his army, and invaded more cities. In barely a few years’ time, Yaqub Beg was able to annex the whole Xinjiang region except Ili. He declared himself Amir of Kashgaria, and ruled Xinjiang with heavy taxation, and strict Islamic rules. At the time, Kokand was already annihilated. Neither the Tsarist Russia or the British Empire would like the other to take control of Xinjiang, thus they were willing to let Yaqub Beg become the buffer zone between the two great empires.
In 1875, Zuo Zongtang led Qing forces into Xinjiang, and reclaimed the lost territory. The local Uyghurs were already sick of Yaqub Beg’s rule. As the Qing force came south, Yaqub Beg died suddenly in Yanqi of Xinjiang. Soon, Kashgaria crumbled to ashes. Yaqub Beg’s son buried him in Kashgar.
The cause of Yaqub Beg’s death was unclear. According to Draft History of Qing, he committed suicide upon defeat. The Xinjiang historian Musa Sayrami said in his History of Hamid that Yaqub Beg was poisoned by Yakan nobles. The Korean scholar on Central Asia, Kim Hodong, said in his book Holy War in China that Yaqub Beg died of a stroke.
After leaving the Palace, I wandered aimlessly in the alleys of a Muslim district. The locals’ yellow mud houses all had high walls and wrought iron gates, as if they were guarded fortresses. I passed by an Islamic madrasa, and then a Muslim graveyard. The birth and death dates of the deceased were engraved on their tombstones along with the Islamic symbol of star and crescent. Nearby, there was a dilapidated mosque. And a real glimmering crescent already hung in the sky.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks invaded Kokand, and overthrew the temporary autonomous government. The three-day long crackdown led to the death of 14000 people. This was only another “carnival” that had happened in Kokand. Now walking in the Muslim alleys, faced with closed houses, I suddenly realized something: in the Fergana Valley, in Kokand, the closed houses were in fact the last fortresses.
Later on, a little boy pushed a pushcart of nan breads, and sneaked into a house. Through a temporarily open gate, I was surprised to see another world inside the house: vegetables growing on a small pot of land, and above it, grape trellises. There were persimmon and pomegranate trees around a wooden sofa, where the family could cool off under the shade on a summer’s day. A woman in a turban was holding a babbling child. She saw that I was stealing a glance at them, but was not bothered. Instead, she held up the child, as if she was presenting her proud medal. Smilingly, I waved to her, and then walked away.
After returning to my shabby hotel, I started to study the map. The Fergana Valley is the gateway to the Silk Road. I was not surprised to find that there was still a town that produced silk. The next morning, I took a bus to Margilan—the silk center of the Soviet era and the heart of Uzbekistan’s black market. Silk production in Margilan dated back much earlier than the Soviet era. In the 9th century, this town on the Silk Road had already had its silk production—though its silk quality could not rival that of China’s. During the Soviet era, Margilan Silk was sold all over the country. Meanwhile, the dying planned economy made the black market famous.
In Margilan, I noticed that almost all the women wore a turban, whereas all the men wore a traditional square hat.
On my way to the grand bazaar, mulberry trees lined up the roads. Under the shade, a row of vendors was selling pomegranates. The bright red pomegranate seeds clung tightly together, and the pomegranates were so ripe as if they were able to burst open themselves. I remembered that the founder Babur of the Mughal Empire was born in the Fergana Valley. In his old age, he wrote in his memoir: “Most of the infamous rogues in Samarkand and Bukhara come from Margilan.” But it was the products here that he still vividly remembered, “They have the best pomegranates and almonds.”
The Yodgorlik Silk Factory still uses ancient techniques, from boiling silkworm cocoons to spinning the cocoons to dyeing. These techniques are more than a thousand years old, and there is no need for electricity. Here, the red dye comes from pomegranate rinds, yellow dye from onions, and brown dye from nuts. The female workers were weaving while listing to Uzbek music from their cellphones. They could earn 1000 yuan a month.
In front of the Silk Factory entrance, I ran into two girls, who were talking under their breath. They were wearing jeans, and had ponytails. Neither of them was wearing a turban. They noticed me, and seemed to want to talk. Finally, the girl wearing a black jacket came up to me.
“We are third-year English students at Fergana State University,” the girl blushed. “Our teacher gave us an assignment to interview tourists in Fergana in English…but Fergana has no tourists…” as she explained, her face blushed even more, “so we have come to Margilan to try our luck…could you do an interview with us?”
“What do you want to know?”
She asked some simple questions like “Why did you come to Fergana?” “Where have you been?” “What’s your impression?” and “Do you like Uzbek food?”
After asking and answering these questions, we fell into silence. Thus I asked her whether I could ask her a few questions in return. We went to the roadside, sat down, and started chatting. Before we said goodbye to each other, we added each other on the Uzbek version of WeChat: Telegram.
In the next few days, she often sent me messages, and then we would chat for a while. In the virtual world, she became more daring, and occasionally sent me a few photos: the meals she cooked, her room, her doll…sometimes, I would forget to respond. Then she would send me an angry emoji, or asked me: “Are you still alive?” Slowly, I was eventually able to piece together some of her stories.
Her name was Nicola. She was born in Fergana, and was 21 years old. She had never left the valley before, and had not even been to Tashkent or Samarkand. In conservative Fergana, girls her age, once graduated, would have to marry according to their parents’ arrangement—this was a local tradition. She would graduate in one year, and her parents had already started looking for a man for her. But she did not want to marry and had no idea what a marriage was. During high school, she had fallen in love with a boy. Later, that boy went to college in Tashkent. They saw each other less and less, and slowly they lost touch. She knew that the girls in Tashkent were prettier and more open. She and the boy would never be together.
She did not know what to do. She did not want to marry a man she did not know. She thought about leaving Fergana, and studied abroad. She even thought about suicide. She asked me what she should do.
Most of the time, Nicola was talking by herself, and I could only remain silent. For her, I, a foreign traveler, perhaps was like a distant star in the universe, to whom she could easily reveal her innermost secrets. She said she had only told a best girlfriend these secrets. The girlfriend suggested that she should study the Quran, which would bring her peace.
“But the Quran will only ask me to accept everything,” she said. Then silence. “However, this is perhaps the life I am supposed to live.”
Upon leaving Margilan, I went to Fergana, which was about 30 km away. This is the industrial center of the whole valley, a new city built by the Russians.
Like many Russian cities, there was a fortress from the Tsarist era in the city center, and boulevards radiated out from this fortress. As I wandered the streets, I noticed their names: Fergana Street, Navoi Street, Timur Street…a local told me that these distinctive names corresponded to the old Karl Marx Street, Pushkin Street, Communism Street. Still, many of the elderly used the original names.
However, these Soviet names have become part of the scarred past. Many of the Russians have disappeared with them. The younger generations have mostly gone to Tashkent. The older generations have either died out, or are too old to move. Yes, this city has obviously Russian genres, but I could only see Uzbeks, and occasionally Tartars on the street.
What about the Meskhetian Turks? They were expelled by Stalin from Georgia, and sent here. In 1989, it was here in Fergana that a riot between the Meskhetian Turks and the native Uzbeks broke out, and hundreds of people died. The Meskhetian Turks followed Shia, whereas the Uzbeks followed Sunni, though they belonged to the same ethnic groups. In the Soviet era, religions were abolished, and racial harmony was promoted, and the boundary between religion and ethnicity was blurred. A relatively stable relationship seemed to have maintained for dozens of years. But once this system crumbled, the religious forces and the nationalist forces came together, and tragedies occurred.
The turmoil was often cruel, violent, and would shake Central Asia. The Meskhetian Turks were quickly driven out. Most of them went to Azerbaijan. Those who could not easily leave were the ethnic groups that had been living here for centuries: the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz.
Stalin’s creative demarcations hoped to divide ethnic groups, and manage them separately. But the Fergana Valley had been multi-ethnic since ancient times. In the border regions, the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz could never simply get rid of each other, even if they tried hard.
The Fergana Valley is one step away from the border of Kyrgyzstan; many Uzbeks still live on the other side of the border. In the Soviet era, borderlines did not have real meanings. The Uzbeks could simply cross the border to shop at a bazaar, do business, and visit relatives. However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the borderlines have become real. Overnight the Uzbeks who lived in Kyrgyzstan found themselves unable to continue their life like before—they have become an ethnic minority in another country.
An Uzbek told me that the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz were two ethnic groups. His firm tone confirmed the Central Asia historian Vladimir Nalivkin’s views. In his co-authored Muslim Women of the Fergana Valley: A 19th Century Ethnography from Central Asia, he summarized the not so harmonious relationship between the two ethnic groups: the Uzbeks are settlers, and the Kyrgyz are nomads. The Uzbeks look down up the Kyrgyz, but are afraid of their strength. Most Uzbeks are peasants, artisans and businessmen, whereas the Kyrgyz like to herd their flocks in the mountains, and live in traditional Kyrgyz yurts. From time to time, they rob the Uzbeks of their horses. Only when they need to buy something, they would come down to oasis towns where the Uzbeks live. Then the Uzbeks would laugh at the Kyrgyz’s ignorance and rip them off.
After their independence, riots between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz in the valley broke out from time to time. The latest one took place in 2010, and hundreds of people lost their lives. Now, these two countries have stricter border controls, which makes exchanges more difficult. A fictional borderline on a map has become a geographical or even psychological dividing line.
Since I did not have a visa to Kyrgyzstan, I was not able to go to the other side of the borer, thus I was not able to enter the Uzbek enclave in Kyrgyzstan legally. (In order to do that, I would need a multiple-entry visa to Uzbekistan and one to Kyrgyzstan.) But I do know that there are 4 Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan, and the nearest one to Fergana is Shakhimardan. It is located in a valley at the junction of Aksu River and Kara-Suu River, surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and only 19 km from the Uzbek border.
This is really a country within another country: the locals speak Uzbek, use Uzbek currency, obey Uzbek laws, and consider Timur as their national hero. The world outside the valley speaks Kyrgyz, uses Kyrgyz currency, and considers Manas as their national hero. In the Soviet era, they belonged to the same country, and lived the same kind of life. However, these two young countries needed to construct or even fictionalize their histories, and senses of honor, thus they have embarked on different paths and live different lives.
An Uzbek told me that I could hire an unlicensed driver to take the risk of bringing me to Shakhimardan. Here, as long you have money, you can get anything done.
“What if we get checked?”
“Do you have US dollars on you?” he said, “then bribe the soldiers!”
But I have now understood the meaning of borderlines, and have decided to leave Fergana for Samarkand.
III – The Golden Journey to Samarkand
Few cities are as mysterious as Samarkand, as if it were a phantom.
Samarkand used to the center of the whole Islamic world, and the capital of a large empire. Different from Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul, it is locked inland. For both the East and the West, it is the geographical border. Since the 16th century, wars, lootings, and earthquakes have turned it almost into a ghost city. The collapse of the Silk Road has turned Central Asia into a black hole. In the fog of history, Samarkand has slept for a number of centuries, but only a handful of travelers have been here.
Perhaps because of this, Samarkand has become the “Atlantis” of the imagination. Goethe, Keats, Handel have all dreamed of being here. In the early 20th century, the British poet James Elroy Flecker wrote in his poetic prose play Hassan: “Out of the longings for an unknown world, we have embarked on the golden journey to Samarkand.” The businessmen in his play did not seem to be on a business trip, but on an expedition to explore the mysterious unknown.
I returned to Tashkent, and from there, onto Samarkand. M39 extends southwestward, connecting Samarkand, Shahrisabz until the Afghan border. I crossed the Syr Dayar River once again. More than a century ago, people still needed an hour on the ferry to cross this river. In 1895, a railway was built over the Syr Dayar River that connected Tashkent, Samarkand, and the Trans-Caspian Railway. However, the expected trade did not take place. Nowadays, there are large stretches of cotton fields and cotton factories scattered along the railway line.
After crossing the Syr Dayar River, everything appeared bleak. The Russians called this piece of dry land “Hungry Steppe.” In Great Tang Records on Western Regions, Xuanzang wrote about this place as well: the roads disappeared in the endless desert, and one could only follow the bones of the predecessors and the camels to find the right direction.
To some extent, it was Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign that had changed this place. The cotton fields, farms, and towns that I have seen are all products of the Soviet era, and they still seem to have a Soviet aura. That is a magical phenomenon: shabby and lively at the same time. I saw a few egrets perched on poles, but no one knows why they were there.
In the afternoon, we arrived in Jizzakh. It was a crossroad of the Silk Road, a strategic junction on the way from the Fergana Valley to Samarkand. Thus the name, which means “key.” One could easily travel here from Kokand westward across the Fergana Valley. However, because of border problems, I had to go on a roundabout route.
The Uzbeks told me that two things were famous in Jizzakh. First, it is the hometown of the former Frist Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Sharof Rashidov. Many squares, schools, and streets that had been named after him have been retained. Rashidov had governed Uzbekistan for 24 years, and his favorite catch phrase was “for the prestige and trust of comrade Brezhnev.” However, this did not prevent him from falsifying the actual cotton production, which he used to solidify his power, and fill his pockets.
After Gorbachev took office, the Great Cotton Scandal surfaced. The investigation started in 1982, and lasted until the eve of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 18 thousand communist party members were expelled, and the amounts of money involved were close to 6500 million US dollars. However, as the investigation deepened, Gorbachev discovered that this case had already involved the power core of the Soviet Union. In order to stabilize the political situation, he had to personally terminate the investigation. After the dissolution of the great Soviet Union, the Great Cotton Scandal went unresolved.
However, for most Uzbeks, Rashidov is still a hero. Although he was greedy, corrupt, and governed like a mafia boss, he had cheated only Moscow after all. The money he cheated out of cotton was mostly shared by his cliques. But still, there was a little bit used to improve the lives of the common people. Before Rashidov, Jizzakh was only an isolated settlement. During his time, it had become a medium-sized city. It was rumored to replace Tashkent, and become Uzbekistan’s capital.
Crossing Rashidov Street, I went to a famous local samsa shop. Jizzakh’s samsa is the second thing that’s famous throughout the country. It suited my taste far better than Rashidov. Jizzakh’s samsa is three or four times bigger than a normal samsa. It is not a snack but a meal. When I stepped in, I saw people sitting by the tables under grapevines eating or waiting to eat their samsa.
The outer skin of the bun was roasted crispy. Once cut open, the steamy mutton fat oozed out, and spread all over the plate. It is said the true standard of judging whether a samsa is good or not is to see how much mutton fat flows out. From this point of view, Jizzakh’s samsa did not disappoint.
I looked at the Uzbeks around me. As soon as they saw the steamy mutton fat, they all seemed to be very happy, as if that was a supreme delicacy. I had to neutralize the grease with my tomato salad.
With the dizziness from the grease, I hit the road again. Out of Jizzakh, trains and buses had to travel along the Zerafshan River. I quickly dozed off until the van suddenly stopped. The bow-legged driver told me that we were in front of Timur’s Gate.
Here, the incomparable Pamir plateau had gradually faded. Timur’s Gate was in fact a narrow opening. For centuries, the Turkic and Mongolian nomads had come through, and entered the fertile Zerafshan valley. Earlier than that, the Greeks had called the river that contained gold-bearing sand “Polytimetu,” meaning “very precious.” Whoever controlled the gate had an upper hand in war. It is said, after an all too intense battle, the color of the Zerafshan River had been red for a whole month. Nowadays, the stone arch is full of colorful graffiti. I opened my eyes wide, trying to find inscriptions from the Timur era, yet I only saw the Uzbek line: “I was here.”
Nightfall. After a sea of cotton fields and nameless towns, our van finally drove into a characterless suburb. Suddenly there were more people on the street. Cars were honking their horns. Messy wires formed a web above head. I suddenly realized that the ancient city was sitting right inside this dim and dilapidated shell. It is like a famous jewel, which has been stared at, discussed, and desired by too many people.
Compared with people in Tashkent, people in Samarkand have harsher facial features, Persian high noses, and are less fashionable. They are Tajiks, who speak a Persian dialect. Samarkand has been a Persian city since ancient times.
Outside the van window, a few bluish green domes of mosques appeared—that is Shah-i-Zinda, the most sacred necropolis in Samarkand. Six years before, I had visited it in the same season, and also in the evening. At that time, most of the tourists were already gone. The huge Shah-i-Zinda felt like an empty opera house.
On that trip, we had stayed at a huge futuristic Soviet hotel. The lobby was really dim, with just a few brown leather sofas. I also remembered talking with our guide, Maria, on the sofa that evening, and we talked about the future in our imagination. Later on, Maria quit her job as guide, and left for New York City. Now she works at a radio station.
The hotel still stood there. In the twilight, it looked like a futuristic palace. However, I was surprised to find that it had been shut down. A rusty lock hung on the brown glass gate. Fallen leaves gathered on the ground.
What changes can six years bring to an ancient city in the end?
Afrosiyob lies to the northeast of the new town of Samarkand, and is the birthplace of this ancient city. There is no doubt that this city is inextricably connected with the Persian civilization, because “Afrosiyob” comes from the name of a local Persian king. In Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh, this king was known for his fierceness, cruelty, bravery and wisdom.
I walked on the broken hill, between weeds and rocks, trying to imagine the city that wowed Alexander the Great. My intuition was that it must be far more magnificent than today’s Samarkand.
The ancient palace is now an archaeological site. Thick walls go deep beneath the surface. It was still not difficult to make out halls, rooms, and hallways. It overlooked a tributary of the Zerafshan River, and the faraway Pamir plateau glittered in the fall sky.
The inhabitants of Afrosiyob are Sogdians, an old ethnic group that speaks an Iranian dialect. They are natural merchants good at sales. In Chinese legends, the Sogdians were said to put honey on the lips of their babies, so that they would grow up eloquent.
In the Tang Dynasty, a great number of Sogdians traveled back and forth on the Silk Road, and many even settled in China. There were Sogdians in Xi’an, Luoyang, Gansu, Hebei or even the Shandong peninsular. In fact, An Lushan was a Sogdian, who later devastated the great empire of Tang. Yao Runeng in his Lushan Deeds said that An Lushan could speak nine languages, was wise, kind, and held the post of trade interpreter in the border town of Yingzhou.
An Lushan knew how to dance Sogdian Whirl, which was wildly popular in the Samarkand region. During the reign of Xuanzong, the ruler of Samarkand sent many Sogdian Whirl dance girls as gifts to Tang. These Sogdian girls wore pink brocade robes, green trousers, and red deerskin boots. They stood on a big rotating ball, and did all kinds of amazing rotations. It was said that Yang Guifei had also learned this dance (wasn’t she fat in the end?) and this was seen as a sign of impeding chaos by the poet Bai Juyi and the authors of New Book of Tang.
The Sogdians originally believed in Zoroastrianism. There were Zoroastrian temples in Xi’an and Luoyang. In the grottos in Kupa of Xinjiang, there were murals depicting worship scenes of Zoroastrianism. However, in the 8th century, the Sogdians were converted to Islamism. Arabic troops conquered here, which led believers of Zoroastrianism to leave for Bombay in India. It is said that they are still merchants in Bombay. The Tata Group is the descendant of Zoroastrian believers.
After the An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty was not able to worry about the western regions. After a defeat with an Arab army, the Tang forces totally retreated from Central Asia. In 1220, Genghis Khan’s iron troops destroyed this place, and the plot of land before my eyes had since then fallen into the oblivion of history.
As time went by, the original palace had sunken to a depth equal to two stories, and was slowly forgotten by later generations. It was not until in the 1880s that the Russian archaeologists had started to work on the ruins in Afrosiyob. Their findings are displayed in a marble archaeological museum near Afrosiyob.
I took the time to visit this museum, and deeply felt this could be the most valuable place in Samarkand. The exhibition included artifacts from each excavation, from stoneware in ancient times, to silver coins from the period of Alexander the Great, to Zoroastrian altars and clay pots that stored bones and human remains—Zoroastrianism dictated that sky burials must be performed on the dead. Only bones picked clean by crows and chewed clean by wild beasts could be gathered.
I was more interested in the traces of the Silk Road. Chinese silk and porcelain were introduced here, whereas the Sogdians had introduced the making of glass and wine to China. Precious stones, jewelries, and coins from the East and West have been collected here, as well as chess-playing figures that were carefully carved on bones. These figures reminded me of the “drunken Sogdian” in a tavern of the Tang Dynasty—a kind of wooden puppet with a wide-brimmed hat, a high nose, and blue eyes, indicating a drunken Sogdian. The guest who sat in the direction of where the puppet fell must belt down his drink.
I also saw that many mural paintings had been preserved. Since Islam forbade idol worship, the Arabs had scraped off the eyes of figures on the murals. However, the brushstrokes of these paintings were still excellent, and the colors still vivid after a thousand years. It was the heyday of the Tang Dynasty and the Sogdian civilization.
I examined the murals carefully, and saw one magnificent scene of nations paying tributes. The king of Samarkand sat high on his throne, wearing a fantastic robe and exquisite decorations. Envoys from different countries offered their treasures: a Tang envoy holding silk, a Turkic of long hair, a Koryo-saram with braids, and nomadic leaders from the Pamir plateau…Samarkand seemed more prosperous then.
On another mural, I saw a princess riding on a white elephant, followed by her entourage on horseback and camelback. The theme of another mural was the court of Tang Dynasty. I was surprised to find that the main figure of the mural was the empress Wu Zetian: she was sitting leisurely on a dragon boat, and listening to lute of the western regions, while watching a cavalry hunt a cheetah.
The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings that Emperor Huizong of Song collected mentioned paintings from the famous Tang father and son painters Hu Gui and Hu Qian, who were known for their work on hunting scenes and foreign landscapes, as well as The Lion Tribute from Yan Liben, which depicted an envoy bowing to the emperor of Tang and paying the tribute of a lion, the king of beasts. The American Sinologist Edward H. Schafer thinks that paintings of foreign themes in the Tang dynasty provoked a kind of condescending pride. As I looked at the Sogdian murals, I could not help feeling that pride as well. On the two ends of the Silk Road, the Chinese and the Sogdians were at the height of their civilizations. Perhaps that kind of pride was mutual and coexisting.
Yan Liben’s The Lion Tribute did not survive. But I could still imagine, from the Sogdian murals, the scenes that he had painted: people of the western regions, wild beasts, and emperors.
During my time in Samarkand, I had passed the Registan square quite a few times. I could still feel how my heart trembled as I had been here six years before. It was different from the magnificent narratives that I was used to. It was neither Eastern nor Western, but Islamic and Central Asian.
Timur once said, “If you do not believe in our strength, then please take a look at our architecture.” To some extent, he was right. He died of typhoid fever on his expedition to China. However, when I walked on Registan square, I would play with this idea: what if Timur did not die of an illness, what would he bring to the Ming dynasty? Of course history does not allow hypotheses. I am also happy that Timur was not able to complete his mission. His successor Ulugh Beg gave up the expedition toward the East. Instead, he devoted his life to the study of astronomy and the urban construction of Samarkand.
Today, these madrasas stand symmetrically on the square. The Ulugh Beg Madrasah is the oldest, and was completed in 1420. A hundred years after that, Timur’s great-grandson Babur also stood on the roof of the madrasa, and directed his troops to fight against the invading Uzbek tribes. Babur was eventually defeated, and was forced into exile in India. The Uzbeks became the new owners of the Registan.
The Uzbeks had pushed down a big hotel and a Mevlevi house across from the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. They had then built another two madrasas after the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. The nouveau riche mentality of the Uzbeks was reflected in their architecture. One of the madrasas was decorated with a roaring felid. It was meant to be a lion but looked like a tiger. It did not matter to the Uzbeks; they just wanted to show off their power, and to take the opportunity to ignore Islamic prohibition of animal paintings. The other madrasa was also luxurious, with paintings of radiating suns and flowers as well as decorations of golden leaves on the dome. The name of this madrasa was quite obvious to tell, and meant “dome over gold.”
The Registan was once the center of Central Asia. But as soon as I walked through high archways into the courtyards of the madrasas, the illusions pressed upon me by the Registan evaporated in a second. I felt I had drawn the curtain, and now saw the backstage.
Everything here was fairly simple: not too much decoration, no showing off, weeds growing in the cracks of walls, dust gathered on the beams…I realized that the mission here had already been fulfilled: they were once the student dormitories, but now they had become souvenir shops.
The Tajik vendors yelled in various languages, but they did not seem as persuasive as their Sogdian ancestors. Very few tourists were interested in the same scarfs, plates, and fridge magnets. I walked into a few ships, just because the vendors were so friendly, and their soliciting voices seemed almost tragic.
A middle-aged female shop owner told me that she had been running this business here for more than 10 years. She tried to sell me everything, from expensive jewelry to cheap plates, but nothing appealed to me. In the end, frustrated, I pulled out from a corner a picture album of the Soviet era.
The print quality was poor, which made the old photos of the 19th century seem ancient. I discovered that a hundred years before, the Registan had almost been a site of ruins. Wars and earthquakes had turned 18th century Samarkand into an empty city. In the face of time, even the greatest martial art becomes vulnerable.
The album introduced the Russian’s construction of the Registan. They had done a great job, except that they had added a blue dome to one of the madrasas. However, the Uzbeks contributed most to the restoration for how the Registan is today. After its independence, Uzbekistan has abandoned Lenin and chosen Timur as their national hero. In order to make Timur’s capital once again a proud introduction to Uzbekistan, the glory of Samarkand has been destined to be restored.
One evening, as I walked past the Registan again, there was a big light show. The walls of the madrasas became huge canvases. In the accompaniment of light and sound, Timur seemed to be riding on horseback toward the elderly foreign audience who had paid 15 US dollars…
The Registan is so large that very few can circle to its back. As I accidentally walked there, I saw a marble platform with a few gravestones from the Shaybani era. Shaybani was the Uzbeks’ true ancestor. He drove out Timur’s descendents, and occupied Samarkand or even Uzbekistan today. However, his mausoleum was dilapidated, and no one came for a visit. The reason was simple and sad: were the ancestry of Shaybani confirmed, the glory of the Timurid dynasty would no longer belong to Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks would have to face this reality: it was not until the 16th century that the Uzbek tribes had arrived here, and during the past hundred years after, this whole region had been a black hole.
In the northeast corner of the Registan stands Bibi-Khanym Mosque—the only surviving architecture built by Timur. In October 1404, the Spanish envoy Clavijo came here, and marveled at its magnificence. However, Timur thought the arch was too low and did not match his achievements.
So he ordered to abolish the mosque, and started to rebuild it. He stayed on site most of the day, like a foreman, and supervised the construction. Clavijo wrote in his memoir that Timur ordered the cooks to boil meat chunks, and then threw them to the artisans below, as if he was feeding dogs. These artisans came from Persia, Iraq, and Azerbaijan. In order to build the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Timur used all the resources of his country. Calvijo said, when Timur was satisfied with the work, he threw gold coins directly at the masons.
It turned out that the Bibi-Khanym Mosque was not as strong as it seemed—like the Timurid dynasty. Shortly after its completion, rocks fell from the dome. People argued about the reasons, and their conclusions were: the schedule was too tight. Earthquakes accelerated the destruction of the mosque. In 1897, before its complete collapse, it was used as a stable for the Tsarist cavalry.
In the courtyard, I saw a gray marble podium, which used to display the Uthman Quran. There was also a tourist group from China. A Chinese girl wearing a purple windbreaker was taking a photo with the dilapidated dome as the background. She spread out her arms, crossed her legs, and made a flying pose. I heard their Chinese guide, who said Bibi-Khanym meant “the chief consort,” and that this mosque was built for Timur’s Chinese chief consort.
“As a result, the architect fell madly in love with Timur’s chief consort, and said if he did not get a kiss from her, the mosque would never be completed. Tumir discovered this affair, and executed the architect. From then on, he ordered women to wear a turban, so that they could no longer seduce men.”
What the tour guide said made everyone laugh, which also made the Chinese girl’s pose more confident. However, Timur’s chief consort was called Saray Mulk Khanum, a princess of the Chagtatai Khanate, and at the time, she was well past her prime to seduce the architect.
Timur’s death had indeed something to do with China. In the winter of 1404, he led an army of 200 thousand soldiers on an expedition to China. It was unusually cold that winter. As they crossed the Kazakh Steppe, many soldiers and warhorses were frozen to death. Timur also came down with a cold. His Arabic biographer said: “Decoction and ice bags made his mouth and nose spurt foams, as if he was a camel suddenly pulled by the reins.” In February 1405, Timur died of pneumonia. He was buried in Samarkand.
I went to the Guri Amir—Timur’s mausoleum. Compared with my impressions from six years before, it felt more spacious and somber. Sunlight shone through the lattice windows. Golden leaves were decorated from the dome to the walls. The seemingly abstract patterns on the walls were in fact Arabic words “Allah is immortal.” The whole mausoleum seemed like a three-dimensional book of scriptures—I could imagine the shock it would bring to Muslims.
People were pouring into the mausoleum. The Uzbeks had awe on their faces, and made praying gestures from time to time. The foreign tourists looked as if they were discovering a secret—they walked into Timur’s mausoleum, a conqueror comparable to Attila and Genghis Khan, and whose name was synonymous with horror, and now he lay in that small black jade casket.
I sat on a bench by the wall, and tried to sink into a historical mood. A few platitudes crossed my mind, i.e. “Everyone has to die,” “Even great conquerors will turn to dust,” and so forth. But I knew that these thoughts were simply useless. What I admired more was the archaeological spirit of the Soviet scientist Gerasimov.
The famous saying “If I live, I will make the world tremble” was engraved on Timur’s casket. The local legend said if Timur’s remains were moved, it would bring great disasters—disasters much greater than what he had caused in his lifetime. But in the night of June 22rd 1941, Gerasimov’s team opened Timur’s tomb.
In a black-and-white photo of that time, I saw Gerasimov in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, which revealed his strong forearms. He held Timur’s skull, and a smile of materialism flashed on his face. By his side were his six smiling assistants. Lamps shed bright light on their faces, as if they were admiring a newly excavated treasure together. The following day, as the day broke, came the news of Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union.
But the archaeological excavation continued. In the spirit of positivism, Gerasimov dissected Timur’s remains. There was still red hair on his skull. He was about 1.7 meter tall, taller than the average Turkic at the time. His right leg had been injured by swords, which confirmed his nickname “Timur the Lame.” In addition, he had indeed died of pneumonia.
With the skull, Gerasimov was able to reconstruct Timur’s face, and built a bronze bust of him. Timur had upright eyebrows with prominent cheekbones. There were also two deep nasolabial folds by the sides of his nose. He looked a bit like a peasant leader in a Chinese history book. Perhaps, the images in Chinese history books were more or less influenced by Soviet aesthetics.
Out of the Guri Amir, the chaotic streets engulfed me immediately. I was wondering why I had come here six years before. I had had an impression of its bleakness. I remembered that the streets were empty, and tree shadows flickered under the lamps. Maria was standing in front, wearing a colorful Uzbek hat. I was walking at the back, trying to catch up with her. We had just left Shah-i-Zinda, and the necropolis in the twilight had left us feeling sorrowful.
To some extent, that had been the origin of my bleak impression of Samarkand: it was a graveyard of an ancient civilization, a piece of beautiful necropolis. The traces of history had nothing more to do with present-day Samarkand. As a tourist, I was mechanically going from one ruin to another, trying to glean a faraway light from each of them. Perhaps, that’s why Maria had given up her job as a tour guide. She was tired of talking about the fading Samarkand and the past that have been cut off from the present.
With nostalgia, I crossed the Registan toward Shah-i-Zinda. Slowly, I found myself blend into a small stream of people going to Shah-i-Zinda. Most of them were Tajiks and Uzbeks. The women were wearing traditional clothing, and the men were wearing hats. A few tourists like myself were accompanied by English- or French-speaking tour guides.
Shah-i-Zinda is a necropolis of consorts and nobles from the Ulugh Beg era. The design of every mausoleum was elegant, with smooth mosaics and bluish green domes. One octagonal mausoleum was entirely Azerbaijani, which showed how vast the Timurid Empire was.
In 2005, the government renovated the Shah-i-Zinda. Many felt that its beauty was clipped. In Claudius Bombarnac: the Adventures of a Special Correspondent, Jules Verne, through the protagonist reporter, praised Shah-i-Zinda’s “unspeakable beauty.” This reporter was fluent in several languages and took the Grand Transasiatic train to Beijing. He said: “Even if I can string words, mosaics, gables, beams, reliefs, niches, enamels, and arches in one sentence, the image will still be incomplete.
Each mausoleum is at the same time a mosque, thus Shah-i-Zinda is a sacred place. I saw a group of Tajiks sitting on the benches by a mausoleum, and reciting Arabic scriptures with an amateur imam. The imam was a middle-aged man with well-defined facial features, and he wore a leather jacket. After the prayer, we struck a conversation. He told me that he was just an average Muslim. He had taught himself Arabic, and how to say these payer scriptures in a measured tone. He led the prayer here, and everybody would give him some changes.
“A few hundred soms per person,” he said, “but I am not doing it for money.”
They came here to visit the mausoleum of Kusam Ibn Abbas. It was at the end of the stairs. Kusam Ibn Abbas was a cousin of Muhammad, who brought Islam to Samarkand in 676. He annoyed the Sogdians, who believed in Zoroastrianism. As Kusam Ihn Abbas was praying, the Sogdians chopped off his head. A sentence from the Quran was engraved on his coffin: those who died because of faith in Allah did not die, they are still living. This is the origin of the name Shah-i-Zinda, meaning “the living king.”
The Mongolians had destroyed Samarkand, but kept Kusam Ibn Abbas’s mausoleum. So in 1333, when the Marco Polo of the Islamic world, the Muslim Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta cam here, he found Shah-i-Zinda still sacred. He wrote in his travelogue: every Thursday and Sunday evening, the Samarkand locals would come to Kusam Ibn Abbas’s mausoleum with their sacrifices of cattle, sheep, dirham, and dinar.
The Soviet era was an exception in the history of the Shah-i-Zinda. This sacred religious site was turned into an anti-religion museum. However, as the amateur imam had told me, people still came here in the Soviet era, gathered around Kusam Ibn Abbas’s mausoleum, and prayed.
Along the stone stairs across archways, I entered Kusam Ibn Abbas’s mausoleum. Like the others, I looked at his casket behind wooden fences. Behind me, a row of female pilgrims was sitting on a bench by the wall. They all wore a turban, which could not hide their fatigue from a long journey. They were praying quietly, occasionally raising their coarse hands into the sky.
Among them, there was a young girl, who did not wear a turban. She was wearing a red skirt and a cloak-like jacket. She wore fine makeup and earrings. She looked like she was in her 20s. Later, she told me that she came from Tashkent, and was studying religion and philosophy in college. She had many Pakistan and Indonesian teachers, who wore turbans.
“Will you wear a turban?” I asked.
“I am considering it,” she said, “I will decide after I have a deeper understanding of religions.”
After leaving the Kusam Ibn Abbas Mausoleum, we parted ways. I watched her slowly walk downstairs, and that wisp of red finally blended into the surrounding twilight.
IV – The Great Game and Drift in Bukhara
It was my last night in Samarkand. I decided to go to a disco. If there is a thing called “travel philosophy,” then my “travel philosophy” is to see the nightlife of a place. In my opinion, be it a city or a country, they all have two faces—which are different during the day and the night. Even a place of decorum will take off its mask at night, and become relaxed or even wild.
The nightlife in Samarkand begins in the restaurant. After dinner, the restaurant turns into a disco. Traditional Uzbek or Tajik music will be played, and people who have just had a full meal push the tables aside, and start to dance. Most people who go to a restaurant are families. Thus not only young people but also older uncles and aunts dance as well. The scene can be amazing, a local specialty. But the prerequisite is that you have to dine in that restaurant until very late.
Out of Shah-i-Zinda, I grabbed some simple food, and went to a café bar. At the bar there were a couple people. There were also two pairs of whispering lovers in the booths. The waitress had a punk hairdo, and wore a black T-shirt, which revealed the tattoos on her forearm. I ordered a beer, and asked her whether there was a place to dance. She thought about it for while, grabbed a pen and a piece of paper, and drew me a simple map.
There was a Brit sitting next to me. He had already been in Uzbekistan for over a week. Just like me, his next station was Bukhara. He wanted to see the famous oasis town. In 1842, two British officers were brutally murdered (the process of torture and murder was unimaginable), which became a footnote to The Great Game. In the British Empire, the sensational effect of this was no less than the Opium War to China. Thus Bukhara was almost synonymous with “barbarism” and “despotism.”
“Frankly speaking, as I think about that part of history, I feel scared,” said the Brit, “elsewhere I would look for some fun, but here, I am fine with a beer.”
I hailed an illegal cab, and went to the disco recommended by the waitress. Compared with those in Tashkent, the discos in Samarkand were more conservative. There ware no dance girls here, only young men, who kept drinking one shot of vodka after another. The men and women on the dance floor were also normally dressed.
However, once foreigners appeared, the locals would come up, and gather around them. Soon I was invited for a shot of vodka. As I belted it down, I was given more and then more.
Soon I found myself in the middle of the dance floor. A daring girl came up to me, and shook her bottom. A round of exciting whistles could be heard. I was again pulled back to the bar to keep drinking vodka. Now I was drinking this thing like water. We drank one shot of vodka after another, until I was about to leave.
An Uzbek in a while shirt wanted to drive me home. Before that, we had toasted together a few times. I thought it better not to take on his offer. But he looked quite sober, and insisted. As we walked out of the disco, the night of Samarkand was cool like water. I was in his broken Lada, and we were driving fast on the empty streets. What I last remembered was that we shook hands in front of the hotel, called each other brother, and felt that the friendship between China and Uzbekistan had reached another level.
On the following day on my way to Bukhara via Shahrisabz, I was thinking of the scenes the night before. Alcohol was like a mouse that has chewed my memory blurry. I looked at the desolate towns through the window, and people’s faces had become blurred.
Shahrisabz was Timur’s hometown. The only thing remained was the broken arch of his summer palace. Earlier, one could walk up the stairs to the arch, but too many young people had chosen here to commit suicide, thus the stairs had been closed off.
I had lunch at a restaurant named Shanghai, and ordered a Shanghai pork stir-fry. The stir-fry was not very Shanghai. I thought perhaps the boss came from Jalal-Abad in Kyrgyzstan. The city was close to Uzbekistan, and had a district called Shanghai.
The boss walked out of the kitchen smilingly. He was a big guy with a moustache. After we struck a conversation, he told me that he called the restaurant Shanghai, because he had been there once, and found it beautiful there. Upon return, he opened this restaurant. Besides regular Uzbek food, he also offered stir-fry with Shanghai flavors. I looked around, and saw that this restaurant had a lot of business. Many customers were young people. In Timur’s hometown, Shanghai had become a kind of romantic imagination like New York City.
Out of Shahrisabz, the van was driving in the almost white desert. Occasionally I saw trucks with cotton or big rocks limping on the desolate highway. I closed my eyes, listening to the engine. When I opened my eyes, the bleakness remained around me. Except for a highway, there was no landmark in sight. Roman historians had marveled at the talent of the locals: they relied on stars in the dessert sky for directions, like sailors on the sea.
It was this endless desert that had cut off Bukhara, and became its largest obstacle. In 1552, the Mongolian nobles, who had fled from Astrakhan, ruled here. At that time, the Silk Road did not exist anymore. The Sunni-controlled Bukhara and the Shia-controlled Persia were in conflict with each other. Bukhara had thus fallen into centuries’ isolation. In that long period, there had been temporary prosperity and change of political power, but seen in the long river of time, these were negligible waves. More often, Bukhara was synonymous with cruelty, decline, and slave market. However, no single force could easily occupy here. Even Russia could only turn Bukhara into one of its protectorate, until the arrival of the hot-tempered Bolsheviks.
In the direction of the setting sun, we entered the new town of Bukhara. I saw the hotel built by the last Bukhara emir for the Tsar (at the time the railway had just been connected). This was a well-preserved Western-style architecture, very much like something that the Four Seasons Hotels Limited would use as a luxury hotel. However, the Tsar had never been here, nor had Western capital. In the Soviet era, this place was used as library, school, kindergarten, but now it was deadly quiet here. I saw swaying branches of a tall eucalyptus tree and groups of crows flying through them, making strange sounds, and ready to call it a night.
As far as I could remember, the Bukhara six years before still had had a so-called “nightlife,” but now there was only bleakness. I asked the driver about a few places that I had been on my last trip. Without an exception, they all had been closed down. The desert climate was also unusually strange. Yesterday it was still 25 degrees, and today it dropped to 5 degrees. One fellow traveler had obviously had enough of this, and decided to end the trip right away. But all the planet tickets and train tickets had been sold out.
Bukhara still gave one the impression of being trapped.
In the morning, I wandered around in Bukhara’s labyrinthine alleys. This medieval old town, like a living fossil, was still inhabited. Some of these stone gray houses had been renovated, and some others were already dilapidated. Like silent mouths, these carved wooden doors were tightly closed. From the cracks, sounds of plates and whispers could be heard. Occasionally I saw women wearing colorful robes and turbans or men wearing sheepskin hats. Their facial features could not hide their Iranian provenance, which reminded me that the Tajiks were the majority in Bukhara.
However, people’s identities are vague and fluid. They speak Tajik, but have nothing to do with Tajikistan. For a long time, the identities of the people in Bukhara were entirely based on this city-state. They were the people who lived in Bukhara and spoke Tajik—that’s their own long imbedded impressions, before Stalin separated ethnicity and borders.
I accidently walked into a madrasa, which turned out to be a souvenir shop. A beautiful, tall Tajik female shopkeeper showed me her scarves. She looked like an actress in Iranian films. Obviously, she was quite confident about her appearance. She took down one scarf after another, and tried it on for me. She looked straight in my eyes the whole time, and was not at all shy or contrived. I stood there, and found myself admiring the model instead of the scarves.
“You must be Tajik,” I said with a bit of a flattering tone.
“No, I am Uzbek.”
“But I heard you speak Tajik just now.”
“Yes, but I am Uzbek.” She sized me up, as if she had run into a weirdo.
“Here,” she gesticulated with her hands, “it is Uzbekistan.”
Obviously, she spoke Tajik, but had Uzbek nationality. Obviously, I knew here it was Uzbekistan.
However, our broken foreign languages were not enough to clarify the subtlety of this matter.
Therefore, I used the common international language—US dollars, bought a scarf, and left the madrasa.
Near a pond, I sat down on a bench. Here was Lyab-i Hauz, which meant “by the pond” in Tajik. In the center, there was a water storage pond. It used to be Bukhara’s principle source of drinking water.
In the black and white photos of this place in the early 20th century, it was full of secular life here. Mulberry trees were planted around the pond. There was a bustling outdoor teahouse. People were sitting on wooden sofas, chatting, playing chess or daydreaming. A server ran around with a pot of fresh green tea after another. Rich people would hire professional water carriers, who filled a large chagul and then put it on the back of a little donkey. However, because the pond could not be cleaned often, it had became a source of epidemics, which led to the average life expectance of 32 years in Bukhara.
Today, the mulberry trees were still reflected on the smooth water surface. The teahouse was till there. The Soviet removed the mud, cleaned the pond, and refilled it with water, but no one took their water here anymore.
Six years before, I had been here. It was unusually warm that day. I sat on a wooden sofa of the outdoor teahouse, drinking tea while stealing a rare quiet moment on my trip. The “die-hards” would bring their own teakettle, come in the morning, and leave in the evening, just like punctual office workers.
I remembered there had been a solemn old man, wearing a Soviet military uniform covered in stars and medals. With Maria’s help, we struck a conversation. The old man told me that he was a veteran of the Great Patriotic War. He had participated in the counterattacks against Germany on the banks of Dnieper in Ukraine.
“I am part of General Zhukov’s troop,” he said and his dim eyes suddenly lit up.
This time, there were still many elderly there, drinking tea. They wore gray suits, which were often a size too large, and small square hats. Some were chatting together. A few others were playing backgammon. However, there were fewer people here than six years before, and the old man in a military uniform was no longer among them.
A souvenir stand nearby was selling Soviet relics: military caps, belts, coins, binoculars, military water bottles…and a few dusty old military uniforms covered with stars and medals hung on the shelves. I could not keep wondering, whether that old man was still around and whether his uniform along with its many medals would end up here, and become a product that no one wanted to buy. The souvenirs from the past were so numerous and unbelievably cheap. Who would think that they were the honor and pride of a generation, who used their lives to protect these treasures?
At this moment, the Nadir Divan-begi Madrasa welcomed the first couple to take their wedding photos. I saw them hug each other before the arch of the madrasa, and the complex Islamic patterns became the background of their happy moment. After the photo session, they walked directly past the teahouse to a coffee shop, and ordered a latte. I rummaged through my memory—no, six years before, there had been no coffee shop.
As if it was to comfort a returning traveler, I found the statue of Nasreddin riding on a donkey still there. Nasreddin was Sufi, and a wise man, and in China, he was called “Afandi.” Many nations believed that Nasreddin belonged to them. People in Bukhara believed that Nasreddin had lived in Bukhara. Yakov Protazanov, a founding father of Russian cinema had also made a film called Nasreddin in Bukhara.
In fact, Nasreddin was born in present-day Turkey. He had been to many places of the Islamic world. He has been remembered, not just because of his wisdom, but he has also fought against the Mongolian invasion of the Islamic world. I have discovered from the Arabic world to China, where the stories of Nasreddin have been spread, these countries have all been attacked by the Mongols without exception.
Of course Genghis Khan has also shattered Bukhara. This ancient city has very little ancient architecture left. The only exception is the Kalyan minaret, which is 47 meters high, and means “great” in Tajik. Genghis Kahn destroyed the mosque with the same name, but was shocked by the height of the minaret. It is said there had been no architecture in his life of expeditions that had made him bend and look up. That’s how the Kalyan minaret has survived.
I lingered by the minaret, and saw that the mosaics had fallen off but the honey-colored bricks were almost intact. The emir had banned locals from climbing up the minaret to prevent them from stealing a look at the ladies in nearby courtyards. Only those on death row were allowed to have the honor of going up the 105 stairs. But they were quickly pushed down, once on top.
Six years before, I had bribed a gatekeeper to climb up the minaret to have a bird view of Bukhara. However, this time, it was forbidden to climb up the minaret, which was now fenced up. There was no gatekeeper. I circled around in vain, and looked instead at the mosque nearby and the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa across the square. Without a doubt, these were the most beautiful buildings in Bukhara: turquoise domes, radiating in the sunlight like a hot balloon, and gorgeously carved arches, which reminded me of the Registan in Samarkand.
The madrasa is still in use. Around 200 students study Arabic here, in order to become imams. I followed a boy wearing a student cap, out of the mosque, past the square, and into the madrasa. He suddenly turned around, and told me that the madrasa was not open to tourists.
I asked him boringly what he was studying at the madrasa.
“And math and history?”
“No, only Arabic is taught here,” he said as he walked, “and the Quran.”
He entered the madrasa vigilantly, and closed the gate behind him. Through the momentary opening of the gate, I could see that the courtyard was decorated with brilliant mosaics.
For the 21 years after 1925, the madrasa had been completely closed down. As prisoner-of-war in Central Asia, the Austrian Gustav Krist wrote in his book Alone Through the Forbidden Land, Journeys in Disguise Through Soviet Central Asia about the madrasa at the time: as soon as he walked into the imam’s room, he saw a poster on the wall as well as a few red words in Uzbek: “Workers of the world, unite!”
But what seemed more dilapidated were the bazaars in Bukhara. Once upon a time, the bazaars in Bukhara were the pride of Central Asia and the heart and financial pillar of this city. At their heyday, the bazaars were lively and crowded with people. From the early morning until late in the evening, countless camels and donkeys carried goods piled high on their backs, and passed by the crowds. There were vendors all over, selling anything imaginable, from saddles and furs to tobacco and spices. Tajik businessmen wore baggy long robes. All the transactions and negotiations where done in the sleeves. Young waiters were running around with their plates. The smell of kebab filled the whole place. Blacksmiths’ hammering sounds resounded under the dome.
Most of the businessmen came from Persia, India, and Afghanistan. In the 18th century, the Turkmen tribes had begun to sell Russian slaves here. In its heyday, there were thousands of Christian slaves living in Bukhara who led miserable lives. To emancipate these slaves became the best excuse of Russia’s invasion of Central Asia.
Today, only three of the five domed bazaars have survived, but they have become depressing souvenir markets—because the imposition of tourist prices, I found that hardly any local came here to shop. The vendors sat boringly behind their stands to kill time. What they were selling—even sheepskin hats that locals wore—was to satisfy tourists’ fantasy of the Silk Road.
Bukhara was once known for its handmade maroon carpets, now everything’s machine-made. Spreading out a carpet, dust flew up, and I got to know why: the price was way too high. When I walked into a wooden puppet shop, I noticed that all the puppets were labeled in US dollars. A wooden Nasreddin puppet cost 100 US dollars.
“If you buy two, I can give you a discount,” said the shop owner.
In the hat market, I passed by an older guy who was selling CDs. On his square face was a pair of brown glasses. He wore a leather jacket and a red scarf around his neck. I suddenly remembered six years before, he had worn the same outfit, standing here and playing tanpura. He then told me that he had made the music on the CD all by himself.
“Since I was fifteen, I have begun to learn tanpura from my father. Music has helped me through the dark Soviet times. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, one could hardly survive the rocketing inflation, but I had my tanpura, my music, and I have survived.” He confided.
“I put all my savings into making this CD. All the songs included in the CD are Tajik folksongs. A few songs are my own creation.” He picked up his tanpura, and started to play. His sorrowful voice had touched me deeply last time.
He had not changed a bit for the past six years, though a few faint crow’s feet appeared around the corners of his eyes. His selling tone and story were exactly the same as I had remembered: he started to play tanpura at the age of 15. What he had gone through in the Soviet Era. How he had survived because of music. And how he made this CD…
Then he picked up his tanpura, and started to play. I stood there, the memory of six years before and the scenes before my eyes started to dance like snowflakes, and they slowly overlapped.
“Would you like a CD?”
“I bought one six years ago.”
He looked at me sarcastically, nodding reluctantly; perhaps he thought my excuse was just too lame.
The streets quieted down in twilight. The few remaining tourists also started to leave. The guy put away his CDs, and pulled down his steel rolling door with a bang.
There was no nightlife at all in Bukhara. The cold wind drove the tourists to pass the empty streets, and return to their hotels. I had to pop up my collar against the sudden chill of the night. A stray cat followed me, and meowed, hoping to get some food. One of her eyes was inflamed, and she was so skinny, and it was unlikely that she would survive this winter.
A little girl suddenly came out of the shadow, trying to sell me the roasted buns in her basket. She was only 7 or 8 years old, with a messy ponytail, but seemed mature beyond her years. Her roasted buns were cold now, and did not look appetizing. Perhaps they were the last remaining few.
“Buy one,” she said to me, “please.”
I looked into her basket. There were still 4 left. Perhaps after selling these, she could go home.
“How much do 4 cost?”
I heard her almost cry out with joy.
“You want 4…?” She asked. Afraid that I might change my mind, she cut herself short, “only 8000 soms, 1 US dollar.”
I gave her the money, and she happily took it. She wanted to find a plastic bag but found out there was none left. She put down her basket and rummaged in her backpack. She took out two pieces of newspapers, wrapped the buns in them, and handed them to me. As soon as I took the wrapped buns, I realized that that was not newspaper but pages from her math book.
I took a few steps forward, then turned around, and found her disappear in the alley. I put the roasted buns on the ground for that stray cat. She seemed to be shocked by this sudden good luck. She took a roasted bun in her mouth, ran flying to a corner, and gulped it down. In Bukhara, I have seen the world’s most hungry cat.
Back at the hotel, I read Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. This masterpiece played between the Russian Empire and Victorian UK for supremacy in Central Asia. The term “the great game” was coined by the British officer Arthur Conolly, who became known due to Kipling’s novel Lord Jim. Since the era of the Great Game, Bukhara have surfaced from the darkness of the Middle Ages, and have become part of the turbulent world history.
In order to witness that part of history, I went to the royal palace, the Ark of Bukhara. This fortress is a city within a city. After thousands of years of wind and rain, half of it was finally destroyed by the Bolshevik cannonballs in September 1920. Its mission came to an end, and it was turned into a museum like the Forbidden City. The entry ticket cost almost nothing.
In the pale daylight, I saw the fortress stand there, a medieval gatehouse flanked by two ochre watchtowers, like a mirage. Above them, there had been a mechanical clock carelessly put together by an Italian prisoner, but it was nowhere to find. As I walked toward the buildings, I felt the passage of time. By my side was a group of middle-aged Uzbek women in their long robes.
In the 19th century, Russia had started to invade Central Asia, hoping to open a route to the British colony India—this was a national policy set by Peter the Great. In order to respond to the Russian threat, the British Empire also looked toward Central Asia. At the time, there was not even a map, in the modern sense of the word. The wishful thinking of the British Empire was to use the forces of the local khanates to stop the Russians. At the time, Central Asia had already split into three khanates that were hostile to each other—Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand. There were Kazakh and Turkmen tribes scattered between them.
For the rulers of Bukhara, its long isolation had only made their rulings more brutal. The famous Nasrullah killed more than thirty royals, when he came to power. Even at his deathbed, he would not die until he had seen his wife and three daughters killed before him. In his diary, Conolly called him “crazy,” and underscored that word with two underlines. Later, Conolly himself also suffered the consequence of this “craziness.”
Before Christmas Eve of 1838, Colonel Charles Stoddart came to Bukhara. His secret mission was to persuade the Emir Nasrullah to fight together against the Russian Empire. Things did not go smoothly from the very beginning. The arrogant Brit overlooked the oriental customs, and underestimated the Emir’s vanity. He did not bring valuable gifts, and even his introduction letter was only signed by the Governor of India, and not by the Queen herself. He rode on horseback into the fortress, and waved to the Emir, who looked at him coldly. That look pinned him onto the board of history. Stoddart was thrown into a dungeon full of toxic insects, and thus he paid for his arrogance and ignorance.
In the three years after, Nasrullah had had Stoddart in the palm of his hands, and abused him like playing with a mouse. He was indeed an experienced abuser, and Stoddart had no choice but to accept his role as the abused. Once, the executioner came to the dungeon, and Stoddart thought his time was due. At this final moment, he broke down and converted himself to Islam. The attitude of Nasrullah towards Stoddart changed subtly according to the situation of the British war in Afghanistan. When the British army occupied Kabul in 1839, Stoddart was released out of the dungeon, and was then only under house arrest. It turned out to be a brief revival before his final death.
In September 1840, captain Conolly of the Bengal Light Cavalry, the lonely hero, came to rescue Stoddart. He planned also to convince Nasrullah to ally with the British Empire, so as to open the Central Asian market for British products and Christianity. He coined the word “the great game,” and became the best interpreter of this word.
On the ship to India, Conolly ran into the archbishop of Calcutta, and his belief was strengthened. He had suffered romantic setbacks. So now he had no one to worry about and decided to complete the impossible mission all by himself.
Destiny once again teased the Brit. Conolly was also thrown into the dungeon. Nasrullah wrote to Queen Victoria, but received no reply. The Governor of India also denied that Stoddart and Conolly had anything to do with the British Empire. When news of the British “Waterloo” at the Khyber Pass came, Nasrullah was finally sure that the British Empire was a second-class country, and that he would not suffer any consequences of punishing the two British prisoners.
On June 24th 1842, in broad daylight, the two Brits were sent to the square below the fortress to dig their own graves. Then their hands were bound behind their backs, and they were forced to kneel before the graves. I don’t know whether it was God or Allah that Stoddart called upon before death. Obviously, neither of them helped him. He and Conolly were beheaded, their corpses thrown into the pit, and then forgotten.
The dungeon looked like something in a horror film—there was no gate, and one could only get down and come out with a hanging rope. I saw iron chains on the mud walls around the necks of dummies. Nowadays, there were no toxic insects anymore, but coins that people had thrown in. They glittered with a metallic shimmer. A middle-aged Uzbek woman went close to the entrance of the dungeon, prayed, and threw in a few coins. Even the world’s most horrible corner will eventually become a place of prayer for tourists.
Three years after Stoddart and Conolly had died, there was no news in the British Empire about them. Their relatives raised some money, and asked Joseph Wolff to find out about their whereabouts. Wolff was an eccentric Bavarian missionary. He hit the road with a few dozen copies of the Arabic version of Robinson Crusoe. Obviously he had learned the lesson from Stoddart. He wore a full canonical garb to see Nasrullah, but cried out thirty times: “Allah is the greatest.” Nasrullah was amused that he laughed uncontrollably. Every time he asked Wolff a question, he ended up laughing. In the end, Wolff’s life was spared. In the sound of “God Save the Queen,” he left Bukhara.
From the ruins of the fortress, one could see the old town of Bukhara, but an iron gate blocked my way. A gatekeeper came up, and there was a smile on his face, which I thought meant he needed some bribery. He took my money, put it into his uniform pocket, looked around, and opened the gate.
The ruins of this fortress were the masterworks of the Bolsheviks. It was a barren hill. Four days of serious bombings had destroyed most parts of this fortress. The last emir fled to Afghanistan, and had to leave his beloved catamite behind. On this empty square, revolutionary people had gathered here, and a red flag had fluttered on the Kalyan Minaret.
Within two weeks of the fall of Bukhara, 14000 Bukharians had joined the Communist Party, vowing to be loyal to the “new emir.” After the following purge, the number of revolutionaries was down to around 1000. In 1959, the last veil of Central Asia was burned in broad daylight on the square. Now standing on the ruins and watching the domes of the madrasas in the city and the ochre silhouette of the city, I felt that Bukhara was still a medieval oriental city, and it would remain so forever.
I was exhausted upon return to the hotel, and fell immediately asleep. I dreamt of being thrown into the dungeon by an emir, and then I dreamt I heard bombings and that the walls were falling apart. I woke up with fear, and found many mice were running around in my room. I turned on the table lamp, and the shadow of the mice suddenly disappeared. I took a deep breath, knowing that must be the shadowy impressions that the Bukharians left on travelers.
To the south of the Lyab-i Hauz was an ancient Jewish quarter. I marveled at how the Jews had drifted all the way to the distant Central Asia. One evening, I strolled through the alleys of the Jewish quarter, and it felt empty and ghostly. The deserted mud walls seemed dilapidated. Narrow wooden doors were shut like closed mouths. There was almost no window open onto the street. Had there been one, it was all sealed up in wooden strips.
Obviously, these houses had long been deserted, and the locks were rusty. There were sheets of sales information on some doors, which had already turned brittle in wind. I saw very few locals. People either lived here quietly or had chosen to leave, drifting farther away.
Twilight, like a tide, diluted the only ochre color of the alleys. A door creaked open. I saw an old man with a crutch limping in the alley. He wore a Jewish hat, and his beard was all white. Like a knife, time had cut out wrinkles deep in his face. He saw me, but avoided seeing me in the eye. He looked no different than any other old man that I had seen in Bukhara. But he was a Jew, with an engrained vigilance on his face. That is an innate quality bestowed upon the Jews by history.
His little granddaughter also came out. She wore a red sweater, and had black curly hair that had been combed into a ponytail. She smiled at me for a moment, and showed me her white front teeth. Then she helped the old man walk slowly to the house across the alley. Through the cracks of the door, muted slivers of warm light flickered. It suddenly dawned on me that that was a synagogue. Although it looked exactly the same as a normal house, its sign revealed its true function. Its sign was unremarkable, and the words were hardly legible, as if they deliberately wanted to hide something.
After the little girl came out of the synagogue, I asked her whether I could go in. She nodded, and smiled again. But it was more embarrassment than smile. She put a finger to her lips, meaning that I should keep quiet. I told her I would. Then I quietly pushed open the door, and went in.
The courtyard gave out the impression of its richness accumulated over time. There were chairs piling up on one side of the wall. On the walls were large and small frames of pictures of Jesus and Moses as well as saints from all ages. There were quite a few black and white photos. Those in the photos wore clothes from the emir era. Perhaps they were the rabbis, who had lived in Bukhara.
Through the window, I saw twenty or so Jews in a room. Some were sitting on a chair; some were standing by the wall; they all wore Jewish hats, and were talking with each other. Most of them looked no different than ordinary Bukharians, but a few had a paler skin tone. In a corner, there was a little chair, and a ribbon hung over it, which was used for a boy’s circumcision. A prayer book was spread open on the table in the middle of the room. I later discovered although the prayers were written in Hebrew, the Cyrillic alphabet was used to mark the pronunciations. The Jews in Bukhara could no longer speak Hebrew, and Tajik and Russian had become their mother tongues.
Just over a century ago, there were 4000 Jews living in Bukhara, who dominated the cold-dyeing business. Only the Jews knew how to dye the Bukharian carpets with brilliant colors. They grilled a kind of insect on the mulberry tree, and ground the grilled insects for a special carmine color. This color had become the logo and soul of Bukharian carpets.
However, the wealth of the Jews had not been transformed into political and social influence. In the Islam-dominated Bukhara, they had to wear square leather hats to indicate their Jewish identity. Besides, they had to wear a string belt, suggesting that they could be hanged anytime as Jews. Jews were forbidden to ride horses inside the city. Even the first successful Jewish business in Bukhara, who was rich enough to become the first to buy a car, had to park his car outside the city.
Following the rabbi, the Jews in the room began to pray. They held their hands open before their chest, as if they were holding an invisible, sacred book. It was already very dark, and this lit room seemed to be a haven in the vast universe. Perhaps for the Bukharian Jews, it was indeed a haven.
After the prayer, the room was silent for a moment, and then people started to talk with each other again. I struck a conversation with a Jew by the door. He was around 40 years old, not very tall, dressed in an exquisite Italian suit, and wore a tie. He told me that he had lived there before and immigrated to the US 8 years ago. This time, he made a pint of returning to Bukhara to see the place where he had lived and to meet old friends who were still alive. He said, today was Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles, when people gathered and prayed together. All the Jews in Bukhara, including occasional travelers, would come here on this day. He pointed to a couple in the room, and said that they were traveling from Israel.
I asked him how his life in the US was.
“It was really difficult at the beginning,” he said, “you know what, before leaving for the US, I could barely speak English.”
He told me after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Bukharian Jews had gradually left. Most of them had gone to Israel. Today, no more than 200 Jews still lived in Bukhara.
“Why didn’t you go to the US?” I asked.
“My son is 18 years old this year. Were he in Israel, he would have to fulfill his military service obligation. That’s stipulated by Israeli law. But I do not want my son to go to the battlefield, I do not want him to go through danger and war…” He paused, looking for the appropriate words, and then said, “The Jews in Bukhara have been living alongside the Muslims for a few hundred years. You have seen this with your own eyes. We live here and a few steps away is the Muslim quarter. We know fully well that wars will never help two religions or two ethnic groups to reconcile. Never.”
I walked out of the family synagogue, and wanted to return to Lyab-i Hauz, but I was lost in the dark alleys. I passed by another synagogue, one that looked more formal, more like a synagogue. But when I went in, there was not a single soul. Through a hallway, I saw a shed put up for the Festival of Tabernacles. Plastic fruits hung on the shed. An old rabbi sat alone in front of a donation box. On the wall behind him were photos of visits from foreign dignitaries, including former US secretary of State Albright and Hilary Clinton.
Expressionless, the old rabbi stood up, and took me to a room. As if he was reciting a document, he began to recount the history of the Bukharian Jews in an official tone: Their ancestors came from Shiraz and Merv, and were led here by Timur. They had suffered persecutions during the Soviet era, which led to the emigration of many abroad. Now the situation has become much better, because President Karimov advocated for freedom and equality of all religions. People have stopped emigrating overseas. Now 5000 Jews still lived in Bukhara.
“But why do I see that many Jews are putting their houses on sale?” I asked.
“Their houses are too old.”
“Was emigration permitted during the Soviet era?”
The rabbi did not answer. Instead, he started to tell me about the celebrities who had been here. He was also in these photos, and looked much younger. Then he told me that his guided tour was over, and that I should feel free to make a donation.
During such an important festival, there had been not a single Jew. This spoke for everything. As I stuffed money into the donation box, I had a last glimpse of this empty synagogue. The old rabbi went back to his chair, and closed his eyes. He looked as if he was exhausted, as if he was thinking of the past.
He sat there, waiting for his working hours to end for the day.
V – The Trapped Guard of the Aral Sea
We were driving up north to the Aral Sea. The last city on my trip was Nukus, the capital of the autonomous Karakalpakstan Republic. In this forgotten Soviet border city, I hired a tough-looking Karakalpak driver and a most sturdy Mitsubishi 4WD. The driver wore a moustache, and had a couple gold teeth in his mouth. He spoke a Karakalpa dialect. Compared with Uzbek, this language seemed closer to Kazakh.
The autonomous Karakalpasktan Republic lies in the most western part of Uzbekistan. Most of the land is not inhabited. My map shows very few settlements here. After leaving Khwarazam, the large oasis region, the Amu Darya River flows into the Karakalpakstan Republic. It looks like a crack on the map. It meanders up north, and then disappears. I have noticed that from where the Amu Darya disappears to the Aral Sea, there is a large blank space on the map. I wanted to know what that large black meant in the real world.
From the Fergana Valley all the way here, I have almost crossed the underbelly of Central Asia. However, I felt a kind of tension in Nukus. When the Mitsubishi 4WD drove out of Nukus, I could not keep my eyes off these Soviet residential buildings and streets. This meant the set of aesthetics and lifestyle that I have been familiar with was lowly left behind, and would eventually disappear into thin air. Before I knew it, we were already on the empty highway flanked by the last stretch of cotton fields in Central Asia.
Two hours went by quickly on the highway. The Mitsubishi 4WD drove into a desert steppe. A flat piece of ochre land spread before my eyes. Except for a couple thorny shrubberies, everything was laid bare in sight. I did not know where we were going. Then it dawned on me that we were driving on the riverbed. A few hundred years before, this had been a river, but now already dried up and degraded into a desert. The sky was pale light blue. Where the sight could reach, it became one pale white seam with the desert steppe.
Following the car rut, we passed a couple mud houses and two yurts. They were scattered in the wild, like lost chess pieces. A Karakalpak shepherder was herding a sheep flock to another pasture in the near distance. The sheep flock was lead by a donkey, and followed by a shepherd. They were coming toward us with a cloud of dust behind them. As we passed the shepherder, he grinned with mud on his face. In the rearview mirror, I followed him, until his shadow became an ever smaller coin of decreasing value. The column of dust also became smaller and smaller, and eventually disappeared on the slightly elevated horizon. The land was like a sea, and immediately fell back to its bleakness and quietude. I had never expected not to see anyone for the next hundred kilometers.
There were a few plastic barrels in the trunk of the Mitsubishi 4WD. At first, I thought they were barrels of gasoline. As we bumped on the road, the liquid in the barrels started to shake, making a crashing sound. I thought a fatal danger could come at any moment. Luckily, it was not gasoline inside, but just fresh water—the driver later told me.
We passed by a nameless lake. On the banks, the reeds grew up to almost 3 meters tall. The Mitsubishi 4WD turned onto a beach, and was parked before a mud house on the shore. The house looked crooked and deserted. Upon hearing the van, a pair of father and son opened the door, and came out.
The father’s face had deep wrinkles on it as if cut by a knife. He narrowed his eyes to a line. The son’s face was tanned dark red. They greeted the driver, and then expressionlessly began to take the plastic barrels into their house. The driver told me that they were relatives of his wife. And they farmed carps. A few years before, there had still been a settlement of fishermen, but almost everybody had gone. They were the last household who had stayed.
The driver opened the freezer to take out a couple fish. Suddenly, his hand retreated, as if hit by electric shock.
“There’s a snake!” He cried out drily.
The old fisherman rushed over. I also went up closer to see what was going on. In a dark corner of the freezer, a small green snake lay coiled, its head looking up. No one knew how the snake had gotten into the freezer. The old fishermen picked up a wooden stick, and fished out the snake, while making a hissing noise. The snake had already been frozen, and could hardly move. The old fisher used the stick to flip it under the sun.
“Once it warms up, it will slip away,” said the old fisherman. Then he and the driver had a small talk.
I walked further inside the house. Through the open wooden door, I saw the old fisherman’s son pouring the plastic barrels of water into a big vat. On the wall hung a winter coat, and behind it was a pair of muddy rubber boots. In a corner, there was a bag of potatoes as well as a washbowl with a few carrots in it. A small, skinny yellow cat walked out of the bedroom. Even for such a cat, persistence was written on its face.
I could hardly understand why the father and son had chosen to stay here. The driver told me that he came here every half a month to bring them fresh water, and would take a few fish home. The father and son farmed fish in the summer, and returned to Nukus in the fall. At the moment, they were standing in the sunlight and chatting in Karakalpak. I looked at the lake, and it was so quiet and looked like a gray mirror. From the exposed lakebed, one could see that the lake has been shrinking gradually. Perhaps in no time, the father and son would eventually have to leave here as well.
After leaving the lake area, the Mitsubishi 4WD climbed up to a vast desert steppe. I had never see such a vast surface of the earth before. There was not a single tree, not a single mountain range, just the endless earth spreading in all directions. I tried to remember where we came from, but after just a few minutes, I had already lost my sense of orientation. Looking around, there was not a single landmark reference, nor was there anything like the so-called “road.”
The Mitsubishi ran at a speed of 80 km/h, but no matter what, there was no change of scenes outside the window. It felt like we were not driving on land, but rather sailing on a ship. However, the driver turned the van around here and there under such conditions. He knew exactly which “road” to take, and which one not to take.
I could not figure out how he managed this. Where did his sense of orientation come from? Perhaps this was an innate ability of the nomads. In the past, wasn’t it from right here that the nomads had led their troops down south to attack the Khwarazm oasis?
In front of us, a few brown birds were pecking on the ground. They had probably never seen such a huge steel machine like this van in their lifetime. Before they could fly away, they were already caught under the wheels. The driver sucked his gums, muttered, and glanced at the rearview mirror. The graveyard was soon behind us. Just a few more corpses on the ground. I looked at my cellphone, and there was no signal. There wasn’t a satellite phone in the car either, in other words, if the van got stuck, we would be trapped in a no man’s land of hundreds of square kilometers. Like those dead birds, no one would care about us. My palms became sweaty.
We drove for an hour or so like this. Then the horizon fluctuated like flowing water, and a few trees loomed ahead. At first, I thought that was just a mirage, but after twenty minutes, the image of the trees was clearer. That was indeed a row of trees. In such a desert, this meant there was a well, water beneath the earth as well as households. The driver told me, this was the farthest village in Uzbekistan.
Then another half an hour passed. We finally entered this isolated village. The village was lined up with poplars. A few rows of brick houses looked very organized. It was quiet: we saw nobody on the street, and heard no noise. The driver drove to a household with ease, and parked the van in front of the yard. He turned off the engine, and jumped off the van. He pushed open the yard gate, as if he were coming to his own home.
This was a three-generation Karakalpak family. The host was tall and thin. The hostess wore a pink dress. Their father wore a chunky knit sweater. He had already lost all of his teeth, but seemed still in good shape.
The living room was carpeted like in a yurt and very well heated. We sat down around a small table on the floor. The hostess brought out sparkling white beverages in a coke bottle, which was called “shubat,” their homemade fermented camel milk. It had a taste favored by the nomads, very sour with low ABV.
I chatted with the driver and the old man, while drinking “kumis.” The TV was on, and the Russian MTV was playing. A beautiful Russian was sitting in a bar, drinking away after a breakup. The grandson of the old man was hiding behind the curtain. He was staring at the screen as if cast in a spell.
“My daughter-in-laws are Kazakh, Uzbek and Karakalpak,” the old man looked at the screen, and laughed heartily, “but no Russian yet!”
They were the last group of the toughest Karakalpak nomads. They had lived where there was water and grass. Gradually they settled down here. I walked to the yard, and saw an almond tree, and under it, a bathtub in the open air. In the summer, the whole family could enjoy a meal, take a bath, and look at the Milky Way under the shade. The Milky Way here must be fantastic, just like the lights of big cities on the other side of the world.
It was afternoon. There was not a single cloud in the sky. The sun sprinkled its light in the yard, on the walls, and through the trees, a universal radiance. I sucked on this clear, dry air that smelled of cow dung.
The Aral Sea was still farther away.
Two hours later, the sun was not as blinding as before. In the sunlight that seemed to have lost its focus, the Mitsubishi 4DW ran down the steppe into undulating foothills. Broken shells were scattered on the soft, fine sandy grounds. All the plants were dried up, as if they were fossils from ancient times. Here used to be part of the Aral Sea. Although dried up, it still maintained its original lakebed with a frightening bleakness. Day after day, the territory of the lake kept shrinking. Now, it finally appeared at the end of the foothills.
The driver stopped the car, and pointed to the Aral Sea in the distance. Although the lake was still some distance away, we could not drive over. I jumped off the van, and walked to the lake. The sun shone brightly, but the temperature was quite low. The sky was a chaotic whiteness. It felt salty and sticky, as the lake wind blew on my face.
The lake was grayish black and smooth, as if it had stopped in time. Even waves were in slow motion like in a film, and one could make out the undulating folds and lines. I could not see farther, because a cloud of fog had swallowed the farther end of the lake, as if it wanted to hide something.
Unexpectedly, I saw silhouettes of several people flickering on the far shore. I stepped on the sandy shore toward them, and slowly I could see that they were workers digging dirt. They were wearing windbreakers and beanies. Scarves were wrapped around their heads, leaving out only the eyes. They were also wearing rain boots covered in mud. There were four of them. They all seemed to be Karakalpaks. One of them was obviously a giant, casting a long shadow. He was carrying a bag of mud with his bare hands.
They were surprised to see me, and stopped their work at hand. I asked what they were doing. They said that they were collecting insect eggs. However, I did not see any eggs at all. Only swarms of flies were rolling in the air close to the ground.
The giant suddenly spoke up in his broken Chinese: “Our boss, Chinese, he lives here.”
“Your boss is Chinese?”
He reached out his giant hand, and pointed to a simple tent that was not far away. At the moment, the sun shattered into a blinding glare, as if dropping a fog over the earth. Through the light fog, I saw a man standing in front of the tent watching the lake.
“His name, Wang,” said the giant.
Wang of the Aral Sea wore a pair of brown lenses. His teeth had been stained black from smoking. He looked thin and a bit hunchbacked. He had a Shandong accent. Later he told me that he came from Zibo.
“The workers said that you are collecting a kind of insect eggs?” I asked, after we greeted each other.
“That is in fact a microbe. After deep processing, it could be used as shrimp feed,” he said.
In order to collect such insect eggs, Wang of the Aral Sea had been living by the bleak Aral Sea for seven years. For more than half of the year each year, he lived alone in the tent in front of him.
As soon as I walked into the tent, I knew immediately that he did not have a lady friend here, because there was a kind of chaos in the tent for someone who had been single for a long time. Boxes of food from China were piled up in the corner. Kitchen knives were lying on the cutting board. A little cat was looking for food, and gingerly passed by the pots and pans, while sniffing around. Most of the space in the tent was taken up by a wooden bed piled up with stuff. At the foot of the bed, there was a small table, and a sticky light bulb hanging above it. The tent was well heated by the small coal stove from the countryside of Northern China, which turned the tent hot and dry. These were almost all the things that he owned. It felt like a temporary dormitory on a construction site, not a home where someone had lived for seven long years.
We sat down by the stove. Wang of the Aral Sea had not seen a Chinese for a long time, and suggested that we drink Chinese tea. He took out some tealeaves, and set the blackened teapot on the stove. I could not help but ask him why he had been living in such a simple tent. He said the workers had set up a yurt for him, but a rare storm had bent the keel of the yurt, so he had decided to live in an easily fixable tent like this.
There was neither cellphone signal nor internet. The closest Wi-Fi spot was 160 kilometers away. That’s where the factory building was. It used to be a Soviet fish cannery. All the supplies, including fresh water, had to be shipped from the factory building. He went to the factory every two months, to check emails and report to the Chinese headquarters, then he drove back here.
A worker came in, but after a few words of exchange with him in Russian, the worker turned around and left. It could be seen that the worker was very respectful towards him. Wang of the Aral Sea told me about his way of management. He often said to the workers that they were here for one goal, that is, to make money. He did not allow the workers to drink, but knew that they drank in secret. As long as they did not get into trouble, he would “turn a blind eye.” He called this “Chinese wisdom.”
The day went by quickly, and the night was endlessly long. During the day, he took a walk to the beach, checked the workers and the eggs. It went by quickly. In the evening, he cooked himself a simple meal. He was not used to the meals that the workers cooked, so he cooked his own. He told me excitedly that he had managed to get some nappa cabbage a few days before, and there was still some left. His tone seemed to suggest that he was actually talking about crabs and not nappa cabbage.
Being isolated for long periods of time made him more addicted to smoking. As we talked, he kept smoking one cigarette after another. “After dark, I need wine. It is very difficult without wine,” he said as he blew a ring of smoke.
Sometimes, when he felt unbearably lonely, he would invite a worker over to his tent for a drink together. He had drunk all the baiju (Chinese liquor), and now he drank the easier-to-get vodka. Despite this, he still felt that he was close to a breakdown, whenever it came to a tipping point. “When you stay long enough in such a place, there are always times you feel you are close to a breakdown.” He smoked hard into his lungs, and then spit out the smoke, as if it was a way of concealing his sorrows. “How shall I call it, this feeling? Unbearably nervous, restless, stand up or sit down, neither works. Frankly, I was close to a breakdown yesterday.”
The day before he had driven an ATV up and down the empty foothills to let the rocketing adrenalin numb his nerves. He had run into a she-wolf. They stared at each other, as if they were looking at themselves. Suddenly he sped up toward the she-wolf. The she-wolf was so scared that she turned around right away while howling sorrowfully. This had lasted an hour or so. By that time, his face had been numb from the wind, and he had felt a bit better.
It was then nightfall. We walked out of the tent, and saw a crescent moon hanging on the shimmering sea.
As we talked, my driver had already set up a yurt nearby. He took out mutton, potatoes, and carrots that he had brought from Nukus. In the chill wind, he set up a fire, and started to make a karakalpak stew. Firewood crackled, and the splashed cinders looked like flickering fireflies.
I invited Wang of the Aral Sea to have dinner in our yurt. He brought vodka and the precious nappa cabbage. We drank vodka while eating the cabbage and the stew.
He told me about those who had been here. From time to time, he fished out his cellphone to show me photos. He could still clearly remember things that had happened a few years before, as if he was talking about something that had happened the day before. For him, every visit was a festival.
“Last year there were two Malaysians. The year before, two Hong Kongese. There have been Americans and Europeans, but very few. There have been extremely few Chinese.” He thought about it for a second and corrected himself, “There had been none.”
Besides travellers, there had also been armed border guards, government officials who meant to solicit bribes, as well as UN officials—two men and one woman—on a field trip to the Aral Sea to check on its desertification.
“They planned to plant trees here, but found it way too bleak here. In the evening, they had a drink here at my place. They got so drunk that they…” he smiled, “well, this, I cannot tell you!”
That evening, we drank up a whole bottle of vodka. He said a few times that he was leaving, but then raised a new topic and stayed. He said that his tent was right by the lake a few years before. Now it was a hundred meters from the lake. This had happened in just a few years’ time. He said there was an island in the Aral Sea. According to legends, there was a vicious dragon guarding a treasure. In fact, that was where the Soviet Union had carried out secret biochemical tests. The island had been under the lake surface. Since the Aral Sea shrank, it came out of the water.
“No one has ever talked about this,” his eyes narrowed to a line in the rings of smoke, “but I know all this.”
Afterwards, he finally left, staggering back to his tent. I got into my sleeping bag, but felt very sober. I listened to the wind blowing outside our yurt, past the lake, as if it was the sorrowful howling of some living being.
For some reason, I thought of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. There was a white man called Kurtz, who had lived alone in the rainforest of Congo and collected numerous diamonds and ivories for the British Empire. He was reputed to be a charismatic demigod of all the tribes by the Congo River. However, when the protagonist finally found him, he turned out to be an ailing old man living in a dilapidated cabin.
Of course Wang of the Aral Sea was different from Kurtz, but both of them were willing to live under some extreme conditions. There must be something especial in them that even the worst environment could not destroy their inner core.
The following morning, I left the Aral Sea. As I said goodbye to Wang of the Aral Sea, we agreed to meet again in China. Through the flying dust in the rearview mirror, I saw him stand there and disappear only when our van climbed uphill.
On the way back to Nukus, I visited a city called Muynak, where Wang’s factory was. Muynak used to be the largest port in the Aral Sea, a typical land flowing with milk and honey. In 1921, the Soviet Union suffered a famine, and Lenin asked Muynak for help. Within a few days, 21000 tons of canned fish from the Aral Sea reached the Volga region, saving tens of thousands of lives.
However, when the Mitsubishi arrived in Muynak after four hours of a bumpy journey, I saw a poor, bleak small city. Loess and wasteland as well as dusty brick houses were everywhere. People seemed lost and trapped for too long.
Because of the recession of the Aral Sea, this port was already 160 kilometers away from the sea. Since the Aral Sea shrank, its salinity was a dozen times higher than before, a level too high for fish to survive. Thus ten thousand fishermen in Muynak had lost their jobs. All of this has happened within one generation, and has become the most shocking footnote of natural disasters.
I went to the former dock, and did not see a drop of water. The dry lakebed was endless, and a row of rusty boasts was stranded on it. Down a few stairs, I walked on the lakebed to the boats. I could still make out the original paint spray on the rusty bodies of the boats. In the cabin, wine bottles, old newspapers, and broken fishing nets were scattered.
There was no longer a trace of the lake. Patches of shrubberies grew around the boats. There had been fishing boats all over the place before my eyes, but now most of the jobless fishermen had sold their boats as scrap metal. The remaining dozens of boats had become the only witness to the great changes of the vast lake.
I touched a boat body. Under the red rust, the metal texture still seemed to breathe. I felt speechless in such a situation. From the Fergana Valley to the Karakalpakstan Republic, I had seen so many fields of cotton. They supported the country, but exerted so much pressure on the ecological environment. Because the desertification of the Aral Sea, toxic saline substances deposited in the topsoil could be blown all over Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or even all the way to Georgia and Russia.
As early as the Soviet era, the government had considered bringing in water from Siberia to save the Aral Sea. But that was almost the end of the Soviet era. The empire could no longer support such a large project. In 1987, the project finally came to an official end.
In 1994, the leaders of the five Central Asian republics came to an agreement of devoting 1% of governmental budget each year to the restoration of the Aral Sea. But no country was willing to cut down cotton production and bear the attendant loss and pain. That would make the already fragile national economy even worse. The restoration became empty talk and came to nothing.
At the same time, the Aral Sea kept shrinking. In 1987, the Aral Sea split into two bodies, Southern Aral Sea and Northern Aral Sea. In 2003, Southern Aral Sea in Uzbekistan split into eastern and western basins. Perhaps the Aral Sea—one of the three largest endorheic lakes—would soon disappear from the earth completely.
I stood at the sign by the port, reading the timeline of the shrinking of the Aral Sea. I recalled the large emptiness I had seen on the map. The whole area was deserted. Only abandoned houses remained. Many families had already moved away, and only a small number of people still lived here.
The Karakalpak driver told me that he used to be a fisherman in Muynak. A dozen years before, he had clenched his teeth, sold his boat and all his belongings, and moved to Nukus to start over. Later he had become a driver. He summarized his life like this: He had experienced two great changes. One was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which meant change of country and identity; the other was the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which meant the lifestyle of a few generations was forced to come to an end.
At noon, he took me to his former neighbor’s for lunch. The hostess in a turban brought out food, and then quietly left the room to us. Her husband had also left here, and worked now in another city to make money.
After lunch, we stepped out into the courtyard. That was the last tail of the fall. Lines after lines of Siberian geese flew in the sky in changing formations. They were ready to fly south for the winter. We watched the geese, and imagined their long flight. Then we happened to take out our cellphones at the same time, and started to take photos of the sky.
That’s because, right here, such a scene of life was rare.