Out-stan-ding... Silk Road by rail
While Henry Ford’s opinion of his Model T Ford was that “you can have any colour, so long as it’s black”, Ashgabat’s architecture is quite the contrary, it’s glaringly white. There is even a law that cars have to be white in this city, as the President considers white to be lucky. We drove past neon-lit marble buildings, our eyes blinking, having arrived in the small hours of the morning. The wide boulevards were lined with manicured flowerbeds and fountains played elegantly. We arrived at our hotel, next to the golden topped Oguzkhan Presidential Palace of Turkmenistan.
Our visit to the vast domed Turkmenbashi Ruhy mosque, where extracts from the first President’s book are inscribed alongside verses from the Koran, left us in no illusions as to how society is governed in this part of the world. The highlight of our brief stay in this central Asian metropolis was a visit to the carpet museum. As we left, the Minister for Carpets arrived unscheduled. "We are the only country in the world…" our guide, whose accompaniment was compulsory, announced, "that has a Ministry of Carpets".
We had come to embark upon ‘the golden journey to Samarkand’ and beyond, aboard the Orient Silk Road Express. For the next twelve days, the train took us along the arteries of the Silk Road; the ancient commercial, philosophical and ideological bridge between Europe and Asia. Our luxury train rumbled eastwards past Merv, once called ‘the mother of the world’, where we gazed at Sultan Sanjar’s now lonely tomb.
Crossing the border, we entered our second Stan, Uzbekistan. We arrived in Bukhara to a fanfare of giant golden trumpets and a muscular man who lifted weights in his teeth. Here we met our extremely knowledgeable and entertaining guide Yulia, who was a former stand-up comedienne. The old city of Bukhara has an alluring charm, replete with mosques, madrassas and bazaars. The Kalyan minaret was so impressive that Genghis Khan spared it as he laid waste to the rest of this easy-going city. We bought exotic Silk Road commodities such as fabrics, infusions and miniature paintings, and encountered the persuasive salesmanship that only a carpet shop can supply.
We grew pleasantly accustomed to dining in style upon plov – the national dish made with rice, meat, grated carrots and onions – and gently spiced local dishes as our train chugged on to Urgench. We were met with more golden trumpets and, this time, a display of traditional dance. We had come to explore Khiva, a living museum of a medieval city. Along the streets and alleys we discovered shops of all descriptions: bread makers, embroiderers, carpenters and craftsmen, as if straight from the pages of Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights.
Through desert and across the barren steppe, past isolated villages where life was undoubtedly simple and hardy; the locomotive pulled us inexorably and with mounting excitement towards Samarkand. At the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum where Timur – the founder of Persia's Timurid Empire – now lies, we encountered for the first time "the scourge of God and terror of the world", as Christopher Marlowe so vividly described the marauding 14th century autocrat of the Silk Road. His dark green tombstone lies directly under the towering dome; all golden stalactites and niches of exquisitely beautiful tiling. Rarely can a building have made such a powerful statement about a man.
Anyone seeking evidence that the Silk Road really existed only needs to visit one room in the Afrasiab Museum to find it. It contains a 7th century mural depicting Sogdians – the great traders of central Asia – receiving delegations from Korea, China and Tibet. Looking directly into the eyes of men and women well over a millennium old, the distance of time obliterated by the immediacy of the images, it was instantly apparent that ‘globalisation’ is not a recent phenomenon.
Modern Samarkand is a city clogged with traffic. We made our way down pot-holed roads to a traditional paper-making workshop. The paper produced here was renowned for its quality and many manuscripts of the 9th and 10th century were written on it. However, it was the vestiges of Timurid Asia that dominated our visit, just as the warrior ruler’s seated statue now surveys this former capital. The Observatory of his grandson, Ulugh Beg, and the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, with its avenue of blue-tiled resting places of the former royal family, were staging posts along the way to the crowning glory of this country: the Registan. Comprising a square adorned with the frontages of three great madrassas it is a breath-taking sight. The trio of massive iwans stand impressively (albeit a little controversially) restored. The Sher-Dor depicts, unusually in Islamic art, two majestic tigers. More beautiful still, hidden in a courtyard behind its façade, is the Tilla Kari mosque. Its interior, a graceful blaze of gold and blue-purple tiling, soars heavenwards in a stunning display that one can only feel privileged to have seen.
Our engine pulled us on to Shakhrisabz to gaze upon the remains of Timur’s former palace of Ak Sarai. For once, Timur was upstaged – by a visit to a home in a village community up in the hills. Welcomed into their family, the Uzbek people shared with us their rituals, music and domestic life in a way which put ours into a humbling perspective. Stopping only for a splendid barbecue, our train sped us to Tashkent, a verdant and bright city whose decorative metro system rivals that of Moscow. It is home to the oldest copy of the Koran, written in giant script on an enormous book, and a fine orchestra that performed for us.
The Orient Silk Road Express traversed the Oxus and crossing the border at 2 am, we entered our last Stan, Kazakhstan. We went first to the city of Turkestan to visit the mausoleum that Timur had built for Yasaui – a Sufi (a mystical Islamic belief) – before we rolled into our terminus in Almaty. At the memorial in Panfilov Park, we paid our respects to the Kazakh sons who gave their lives in the second world war. We also did this for Uzbek comrades at the statue of the Crying Mother in Tashkent, before we experienced the intense devotion, illuminated by flickering candles and stunning iconography, of Russian Orthodox worshippers in the Zenkov Cathedral. As our party of Silk Road railway children said our goodbyes at a hill top restaurant, designed like a giant yurt and reached by cable car, I had in mind Timur’s dictum: "Let he who doubt our power and munificence look upon our buildings". No one who took our journey could be in any doubt.
It had been an out-Stan-ding adventure!
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