Most of the day was occupied by a long drive in the coach from Khiva to Bukhara. We were eating breakfast by 6.30am so we could depart by 8.15am at the latest. For almost the whole journey we passed through flat land; rounded hills appeared only when we approached Bukhara. The journey from Khiva to Urgench and as far as about Turtkul was relatively fertile, then there was a vast stretch of bleak desert and semi-desert until more fertile conditions resumed east of Gazli. One of the most interesting stretches of road was when we drove over or beside the Amu Darya, which in May was still a wide but relatively shallow river with plenty of water. South-east of Turtkul, when we overlooked the border with Turkmenistan, large lakes added some much-needed visual interest (most of the lakes were in Turkmenistan).
Around Khiva and Urgench are trees, fields, orchards, padis and evidence of urban expansion in the form of new houses, the latter for the minority of Uzbek nationals who have prospered since the demise of communism. Cotton remains an important cash crop. Irrigation canals bring the water to sustain the fertile conditions. Very little mechanisation renders agricultural production less labour intensive (there was more mechanisation, especially in the form of tractors, on the approach to Bukhara), so men and women work side by side in the fields and orchards to care for and harvest their crops. Trolley buses operate along the main road between Khiva and Urgench. Bus shelters are sometimes large and of distinctive design, so much so that it would have been fun to make a photo study of the best ones. The bus shelters appear to be legacies of the Soviet era.
Urgench, which has a significant railway presence, looked even more overwhelmingly modern than on the first occasion we drove through part of it. The layout of most of the streets (all the main ones are wider than the quantity of traffic requires) dates from the Soviet era, and structures from that era are shabby reminders of a time now held in contempt by the vast majority. However, it is obvious that many buildings have gone up since Uzbekistan secured its independence. Buildings dating from after independence are of modest or no architectural merit, but at least they are brightly painted. The better ones suggest that a contemporary style of Uzbek architecture might evolve which connects with styles that date from the distant past. We were surprised with how many signs are still written in the Cyrillic script, even though the Uzbek language uses Latin letters.
The large squares, the other ill-kept open spaces such as parks, the wide streets and the box-like structures, the latter whether dating from the Soviet era or the last twenty of so years, ensure that Urgench assumes a somewhat sterile air, which in turn means that the industrial plant, whether rust-bucket or not, provide some longed-for gritty character.
Among my abiding impressions of Urgench are the banks occupying substantial premises at important intersections, the large but shabby Soviet-era apartment blocks and the wide Shavat Canal that divides the town into more or less equal halves. Restaurants and cafes are very functional and most advertise what they sell with pictures attached to walls and windows. Most women wear clothes in the western style and carry a lightweight umbrella to keep off the sun. In Khiva it is more common to see women wearing more traditional clothes as well as trousers almost indistinguishable from the shalwar that women might wear in Pakistan or parts of India.
It was interesting to see how the newest houses differ from those built in the past. Houses in urban areas in the past were built as closely together as possible with no gaps between each property. Most houses were built around a small courtyard and the rooms rarely spread over more than a single storey. Some houses had irregular ground plans because they did not occupy square or rectangular plots of land (e.g. they occupied plots of land where two streets failed to join at right angles). Very few houses had gardens because families had plots of land within walking distance of where they lived where they could grow fruit and vegetables and keep small livestock. Courtyards were used for different household tasks and people grew only a few potted plants. Such plants were usually herbs for the kitchen or flowers to provide some colour.
About the only similarity between the old and the newest houses in Uzbekistan is that most are arranged over just one storey, although the richest Uzbeks who have prospered under capitalism prefer to construct much larger houses spread over two or even three storeys. The largest houses often benefit from architects’ designs. The smaller houses are built so each one is identical. They are detached, stand along a perfectly straight road (the road is rarely sealed) and, although devoid of courtyards because all the rooms lead from a central hallway or corridor, gardens exist at the back. Contemporary housing in Uzbekistan therefore mimics housing encountered in developed nation states such as those in Western Europe and assets such as shady courtyards are dispensed with because of air conditioning.
At one point we drove past an estate of new, two-storey, detached houses with garages occupying what would otherwise have been an extra ground floor room beside the front door. Many Uzbek nationals who have made money the last decade or so aspire to live in a leafy suburb on the edge of a large city such as Birmingham.
We left Urgench and drove via Bagat and Balyqchi, which meant that we were never far from the railway that enters Turkmenistan before re-entering Uzbekistan north of Turkmenabat. We saw very little evidence of housing in the vernacular style (such houses are one-storey dwellings with a flat roof on square or rectangular plots of land built with mudbrick around a small courtyard. They have small doors, only a few small windows and one or two chimneys). Families not in the newest housing described above live in concrete and breeze block houses with pitched corrugated iron roofs very similar to those in the Turkish countryside.
Once beyond Balyqchi, where we drove along the A380 to the north, the main point of interest for well over two hours was the Amu Darya, which, after we had crossed it, always lay just to the south (for a long distance the river is the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). Desert and semi-desert persisted for about half the journey, but the desert and semi-desert were rarely as attractive as even the most beat-up parts of not dissimilar landscapes in west Texas. In fact, for kilometre after kilometre the rock, the sand and the stunted scrub looked like some vast brownfield site where one-time industrial plant had been cleared in the hope that nature would eventually disguise the damage done by humankind.
But for the light traffic along the road, signs of human life were few. Every so often people on their own, in pairs or in small groups stood beside the road waiting for a bus or a lift in a passing car or lorry. There were some abandoned buildings, petrol stations included. A few large flocks of sheep and goats were steered by their shepherds and goatherds toward unpromising patches of scrub. Just occasionally, perhaps at a road junction, two or three buildings in very poor condition constituted a settlement smaller than most hamlets. One such roadside settlement was Sarimoi with a few houses, a school and little else. An even smaller settlement further along the A380 had only two roadside buildings, one being a cafe.
Every so often we passed an army checkpoint. While coaches with tourists were let through without delay, everyone else had to stop so official documents, luggage and goods in lorries could be checked. The reason? Uzbekistan, in common with so many nation states around the globe, has worries about home-grown Muslim extremists, most of whom are Sunni.
We stopped three times before arriving in more fertile conditions close to Bukhara, once at a roadside restaurant, motel and petrol station in the desert for cups of green or black tea (I chatted with the owner of the complex who hoped that his considerable gamble in terms of investment would eventually pay off); once for a comfort break where the modest facilities overlooked the Amu Darya, a second toilet block just above the river and Turkmenistan to the south; and once at a roadside restaurant to eat the packed lunch we had been given by the staff in the hotel in Khiva.
Because there was nowhere else of similar character for about 60 kms in either direction, everyone bound to or from Khiva and Urgench stopped at the roadside restaurant. The first place we stopped at had the best, the cleanest and the most modern facilities, but even here the bar that doubled as a small shop had limited supplies. The restaurant had a shop unit, but the owners of the restaurant used it to store goods because whoever had owned or rented the unit had given up trying to make a profit (customers had not spent enough money to make the business viable). Uzbeks who stopped for food ordered bread, soup, a stew, meat grilled on skewers over a barbecue and/or raw onion soaked in water before being squeezed dry. But the stop everyone enjoyed the most was the second one because, in view of the toilet block and the Amu Darya, a tandir had been fired up and two women were baking loaves of bread. One of the two women used a kitchen utensil to create patterns in the dough similar to the one we had bought in Khiva.
Beside the restaurant where we ate our packed lunch, trees and a fence surrounded a tall radio or satellite mast. A few birds had been attracted to the only place in view where a few trees prospered.
Every so often in the desert we saw low fences made of straw that marked off square patches of ground. Inside each square was a plant of some sort, most often a bush able to withstand the very dry and, for most of the year at least, oppressively hot conditions. We assumed that this was part of a programme designed to reduce the amount of erosion that the largely exposed sand and rock are subject to.
The desert to the north of the road is called the Kyzylkum, which means that large parts of it have a red appearance (“kyzyl” means “red”). Meanwhile, the desert to the south in Turkmenistan is called the Karakum, which means in parts it has a dark appearance (“kara” means “black”). Every so often a dirt road led from the A380, perhaps to a distant village, quarry or factory. Lorries kicked up large trails of dust as they headed for destinations too far away to identify.
We eventually arrived in the dusty town of Gazli, a metropolis compared to what we had seen since leaving Urgench. The dusty soil with its thin cover of grass and dry scrub had a red tinge to it. We noted a petrol station, two or three shops, tall walls, small houses along unsealed roads, an abandoned factory dating from the Soviet era, lots of old cars and even more tyres of different sizes scattered on the ground. We sensed that almost everyone in the town was very poor.
By now we had seen a few rounded hills south and north of the road, but none of the hills rose much more than 50 metres above the desert floor. Not long after leaving Gazli, increasingly fertile conditions established themselves and the main road leading into Bukhara had villages spaced regularly along it. The land remained overwhelmingly flat, but at least there was water brought in canals and irrigation ditches, which meant that crops and livestock prospered. Fields, orchards, pasture, trees, standing water and some reed beds became more common and a few tractors made life a little easier for the men and the women whose livelihoods depended on agriculture. Although some old houses had been abandoned and new concrete and breeze block ones remained incomplete, in more than one village were one-storey, mudbrick houses with courtyards behind high walls. Facing the main road in most of the villages were a few shops, which suggested that local people had spare cash to spend. Every so often a child went to one of the shops to buy sweets, an ice cream or a soft drink with two or three 1,000 som notes. Small carts were pulled by donkeys.
By now it had been overcast for over two hours and, about 20 kms from Bukhara, rain began falling to the east. Just as we entered the most northerly outskirts of Bukhara itself, we saw some camels grazing on pasture.
The suburbs of Bukhara are dominated by wide roads, large roundabouts and lots of buildings dating from the Soviet and the post-Soviet eras (none of the buildings are of much architectural interest). There are also large, detached houses constructed to meet the aspirations of the minority of Uzbek citizens who have prospered since the demise of communism. However, even where the detached houses exist, the surroundings are not very attractive because yet more construction means they are situated in what is in effect an extensive building site. This said, Bukhara’s rich minority (have they secured their wealth by legal means, or through criminal activity or bribing corrupt government officials?) will one day live with the surroundings they think they deserve, those of a middle class suburb in Birmingham.
Two things I had not expected to see in the suburbs were indoor bowling alleys and tennis courts. Some Bukharans have money to burn.