Uzbekistan Adventure – mosques, madrasahs and mosaics

Travels of the exotic kind – following the Silk Route from Tashkent to Khiva

1998: Singers at a performance in Bukhara

CRIMINALS and unfaithful wives were thrown from the Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara, known as the Tower of Death. I look up at this magnificent structure, 47 metres high, built in the city’s heyday of the 10th century.  The practice of hurling people from the summit continued until 1884 when the Russians, who had invaded Uzbekistan a decade earlier,  finally put a stop to it.


The 47-metre Kalyan Minaret known as the Tower of Death

Two hundred kilometres away in Samarkand I listen as our guide tells us that human heads were impaled on spikes in the Registan – a huge square surrounded by three magnificent madrasahs – the most stunning building in Central Asia.  During my travels through Uzbekistan I hear other grim snippers of macabre practices, but these are mixed with noble stories of heroes and kings, and I lap up every exotic detail.

I went to Uzbekistan in May 1998 and during my visit scarcely saw a tourist, save a group of Swiss who alighted from a tour bus one day. Our  group consisted of seven women from Australia, lead by a fantastic guide – 23-year-old Radik and our driver.

Photos I saw recently on the Internet show groups queuing to enter some of the most popular sights; I also found many packaged trips, most of which combine Uzbekistan with a couple or all of the nearby ‘stans’ (stan means ‘place’) such as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Below is some of a story of mine, which appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine in 1999. I was very lucky to visit Uzbekistan when tourism was in its infancy.

“After a 30-hour journey from Australia and an officious reception from immigration officers at Tashkent airport, it was a like a homecoming to be welcomed with tea and cakes into the home of two women, a teacher and her elderly mother, whose apartment became our hotel for the night. Our small group of seven Australians was spilt up for our first night in Uzbekistan; five stayed at the rather forlorn Hotel Tashkent, whose grandiose façade was very misleading, while my friend and I had inadvertently struck the jackpot when allocated to the modest home of local ladies with whom we swapped nods, smiles and a few words of Russian.

The next day we were taking the ‘Golden Road to Samarkand’, the legendary city of the Silk Route.  Named after the most precious commodity of the time, the Silk Route was a system of roads that linked China to Imperial Rome, dating from 138BC.  China was the first country in the world to breed silk worms and produce silk  fabric and through its diplomatic missions in the 2nd century BC to around 220 AD, it was able to introduce it to merchants in Persia who were keen to trade it further afield. East literally met West as vast caravans crossed the deserts laden with the fabric along with spices, lacquerware, jade and arms.

Uzbekistan, the undisputed jewel of Central Asia, struck me as the very place where east and west had fused. For centuries the country, today is wedged between four former Soviet republics and bordered by Afghanistan to the south, had been invaded from all sides.

All the big names in history passed through it, creating and destroying empires in their wake. Alexander the Great conquered in the 4th century BC on his way to India; Turks invaded over the next three centuries until the Arabs brought Islam around 700AD. The Mongols came from the East in the 10th century culminating with the invasion of Genghis Khan who destroyed Samarkand and Bukhara but left the Kalyan Minaret untouched because, according to the history books, its sheer size ‘stopped him in his tracks’.

Around 1370 a Mongol chieftain called Tamerlane luckily decided to settle in Samarkand and embark on a massive building plan, erecting the sensational monuments that survive today. He is Uzbekistan’s hero and his tomb is adorned with the most spectacular of the city’s many blue domes. The following 200 years were dominated by the Uzbek descendants of the Mongols, named after their ruler Khan Uzbek, while the Russians, who had been steadily advancing east in the 19th century, finally took over most of Central Asia in 1868.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan finally gained independence. The constant flow of caravans and the spread of Islam had resulted in the construction of some of the most majestic buildings in the world, while the Soviets left their own legacy – tree-lined streets, some brutal ‘Stalinesque” architecture in the capital Tashkent, vast cotton fields, the Cyrillic alphabet and cheap vodka. Our group was on a tour designed by Raisa & Associates, one of the handful of tour operators who had sprung up since independence. Raisa, a mother of two, had worked for the Soviet company Intourist for 20 years before starting her business. Our guide was Radik, a young man of Tartar descent and our vehicle was a study, but somewhat battered Soviet-built mini-van.

I wondered whether Samarkand could live up to the images I had seen in travel books of the Silk Route, but as our mini-bus reached the city at noon on a perfect May day the sight of turquoise blue domes glistening with mosaics dispelled any doubts. We were staying at a guesthouse, owned by a charming man with the wonderful name of Furkat Rominov, which was conveniently located a five minute walk from the Registan, the city’s highlight and a remarkable complex of madrasas, domes and mosques set around a huge square and bordered by rose gardens.

Teapot I bought in Uzbekistan in 1998

Registan (which means “sandy place”, as plenty of that stuff was needed to soak up the blood of those gruesome executions) is considered the most beautiful building in Cenral Asia. We would visit in the late afternoon when the light would be perfect. Our our first top was Gur Emir, the tomb of Tamerlane. A complex of  many ruined buildings including a  hanaka or hostel for wandering devishes and a mosque, the actual tomb is topped with the most magnificent dome, 32 metres high and  fluted with 64 architectural ‘ribs’. It was originally intended as the resting place of Tamerlane’s grandson, but as Tamerlane himself died in battle during its construction in 1405, the tomb was quickly finished and became the hero’s burial site.

Our afternoon visit to the Registan was perfect with the sun hitting the millions of mosaics that covered the three madrassa and the mosque. Sensational today, it would have been awe-inspiring in its medieval heyday when bustling with traders and camels and students who inhabited the madrasas, which were the Islamic universities of the day.

During our afternoon visit we encountered only one other tourist who was strolling around taking pictures. The madrasahs once occupied by students were either empty or being used by crafty merchants who had moved into the ‘cells’ and transformed them into shops where their carpets and artefacts were displayed. They were very happy to see us and happily exchanged our US dollars into the local currency sums, at excellent black market rates. The next day I took an early stroll to the Registan to catch the morning light and was surprised to see a man leading a small heard of goats out of his grim, Russian-built apartment block. He was defying the local authorities, of course, who had banned citizens from keeping farm animals in apartment basements, but no doubt old habits die hard.” There’s quite a bit more to my published story – but I think you get the gist.

Miri-I-Arab Madrasah, Bukhara

Uzbekistan has around 4000 archaeological and architectural monuments – it’s amazing to think that so many of these treasures were built in medieval times and have survived in pretty good condition despite the vandals and hooligans that overran Central Asia over many centuries.

We visited just a handful of Samarkand’s treasures – the Bibi Khanym, the biggest mosque in Central Asia, built in 1399 and named for Tamelane’s Chinese wife and partially destroyed by several earthquakes, the last in 1897, and the Shan-I-Zinda, a series of tombs dating from the 11th to 19th centuries.

Although the city has dozens of amazing domes, minarets and dazzling mosaics, it was Samarkand’s people who turned out to be the surprise attraction. They were just as photogenic – the women were saw at the Samarkand market were festooned in dresses completely covered in sequins or tiny mirrors sewn into the fabric, which were worn over pantaloons made of rich gold-thread fabric. And we found some unlikely items for sale. One member of our party who’d been to Uzbekistan two years earlier told us that freshwater pearls were an excellent buy. We managed to track down the lady with the pearl stall and after six of us bought a few strings each, I bought the last batch (11 strands) for an the unbelievable price of A$4.50.

Bukhara, a UNESCO world heritage site, was our next stop reached after a five-hour journey across the desert. On the way we passed apple orchards and vineyards (no doubt products of irrigation schemes) and an hour before arriving in Bukhara we stopped to view the façade of the only remaining caravanserai in the country. Back in medieval times, there was a caravanseri (accommodation for travellers and camels) every 40km, for that’s as far as a camel could walk before needing water and a good rest. Now there’s only one left and it was crumbling. I’m not sure what condition it is in today.  While Samarkand is seriously impressive, I was equally fascinated by Bukhara and its many buildings, especially the complex of mosques and madrasahs that surrounds the Kalyan Tower, which includes the Miri-I-Arab Madrasah. One of my favourites was the squat, four-towered mosque, the Chor-Minor pictured below. It’s quite new, dating from the 19th century and each of its towers represents one of the religions of the day: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.

One of the reasons I’d love to go back to Uzbekistan, is to spend more time in Khiva – the third main city. It struck me as a perfect film set where you could certainly stage a few Biblical movies. The old city is enclosed by 2km of mud-brick walls, protecting the ‘ark’ or fortress. Within the walls are several striped minarets and towers (blue is a popular colour) and of course a range of mosques each topped with a dome.

Here we mingled with traders and families, who were more than a little intrigued to see seven Western women out of their own. We popped into a hat seller and tried on various styles of fur hat – in fact the merchant sold nothing but fur hats. It was fun trying on headgear that would not have been out of place on the set of Doctor Zhivago. I asked the merchant about a particular hat I liked – a fur pillbox – wanting to know its fur. His face erupted into a huge smile, displaying the gold-capped teeth that many folks, even the young men, seem to have. I expected something quite exotic but “water rat!” was what he proudly proclaimed. I didn’t hesitate after that and quickly struck up a bargain with him and he wrapped it up. (My 20-year-old note book tells me it cost US$15).  I’ve never worn it in Australia or anywhere for that matter – it was a spontaneous in-situ purchase – but I doubt I’ll ever part with it, nor the purple velvet coat I bought days earlier in Bukhara’s summer palace.

Pill box hat made from “water rat” fur, a tea-cosy and strings of freshwater pearls

During our ramblings in Uzbekistan, I often struck out on my own to see what the shops held or hunt down a bottle of wine – I returned with a bottle of red, which was more like port than table wine, and another time, picked up a bottle of vodka for $2. Another time we went to a fabulous dance performance in Bukhara, held in the grounds of an former madrasah.

The female performers were dressed in robes made from a cloth called ikat, while the clothes of both men and women were stitched with silk thread in a style known as ‘suzani’ embroidery.  I’d love to go back to Uzbekistan and spend more time wandering the markets and poking around the exquisite buildings, but I fear I will no longer have the place to myself. Rather than one other tourist strolling through the Registan in the late afternoon, there’s bound to be hundreds and tour buses clogging up the carpark.

Such is life on the road I guess – and especially the old Silk Road, now being rediscovered by a new band of wanderers.

Here’s a link to the company that arranged our tour 20 years ago.


1998: A family in Khiva with the kids proudly displaying the koalas I gave them! Pictured in front of the blue-striped, flat-topped Kaltor Minor minaret 




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