More in Khiva and Bukhara than in Samarkand and Tashkent, middle-aged women in traditional dress walked around with a metal container about the size of a round tuna can which they held on the end of a handle. Whether the handle was made of wood or metal I could not always tell. Smoke, often or always perfumed, issued from the metal container. Every so often the women stopped and wafted the smoke in the direction of people or buildings. We were advised that women who did this were offering blessings to the people or places on whom the smoke was directed. I never saw anyone give money to the women, but it is probably conventional to provide them with some som. We were reminded of how incense is used in many churches, but also feared that this tradition is probably under threat as Muslims in Uzbekistan fall ever more rigidly under the spell of Sunni orthodoxy, especially as defined by the Wahhabis.
We were going to Tashkent by train later in the day, but, before doing so, were visiting Shahrisabz, which provided us with a delightful journey in cars with only three passengers per vehicle through the ridge of hills and mountains to the south of Samarkand. Shahrisabz used to be a quiet Uzbek backwater, but in recent years a lot of development has taken place in an effort to encourage local people to stay in the area rather than move to larger cities where work opportunities are better. But why the trip at all? Because Shahrisabz is very close to Amir Timur’s birthplace and, when he was alive, he ordered the construction of important monuments in the town such as the Aksaray Palace. After his death, other important monuments were added such as Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, the Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal, Gumbazi Seyidan, the Khazrati Imam Complex (which includes the Tomb of Jehangir and the Crypt of Timur) and Chubin Medressa, now the Amir Timur Museum.
All that survives of the Aksaray Palace are parts of the 38 metre-high pishtak covered with delightful but unrestored mosaics, but the scale of the ruin gives an idea of how imposing the whole structure must have been. Some distance away, a large, modern statue of Amir Timur stands at what had been the centre of the palace. Kok-Gumbaz Mosque is dominated by its blue dome and, internally, palm trees have been painted on the walls by the Indian and the Iranian designers responsible for its construction and decoration. The Mausoleum of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal and Gumbazi Seyidan form part of Dorut Tilyovat, the House of Meditation, the original burial complex of Timur’s forebears. This said, the ornate Gumbazi Seyidan was constructed on the order of Ulug Bek as a mausoleum for his own descendants. The Khazrati Imam Complex is a mausoleum ensemble which Timur completed in 1392. The Tomb of Jehangir is in need of tender loving care. The Crypt of Timur is a bunker with a wooden door leading to an underground room which is plain except for qur’anic inscriptions on the arches and a large stone casket. On the casket are biographical inscriptions about Timur. When the room was discovered in 1963, archaeologists assumed that the crypt was intended for Timur because of the inscriptions. Inside the casket are two unidentified corpses.
Although I enjoyed the monuments at Shahrisabz, I did not like how the land around them has been landscaped in a rather sterile manner; how lots of apartments, houses and shops have been built between the monuments; and how remnants of the old town have been blocked from view by the construction of high walls. This said, at least all the development gave the impression that the local economy is buoyant, although I suspect that far too many shops will eventually open in the hope that tourists, both Uzbek and foreign, will buy all the fabrics, pottery, paintings, clothes, leather goods and other craft items. Already too much is on display for the number of visitors rich enough to afford most of the things for sale and very soon yet more expensive things will be available.
After the tour, we were driven in our cars to a large old house close to what had until recently been the centre of the town to find what is now a restaurant, and here we ate a very pleasant lunch at tables on a raised area under a roof supported by wooden columns. The restaurant was as popular with visiting Uzbeks as with foreign tourists. As usual, the meal began with a few salads and hot savoury pastries, then a soup with meatballs followed. The main course was diced beef with large pieces of carrot and potato. Cherries, raisins, sultanas, peanuts, water and tea were part of the deal, but those who so wished could buy beer or wine (Hilary opted for a beer. It had been a very hot morning and a lot of time had been spent in the sunshine).
In some respects, the best part of the trip was the drive to and from Shahrisabz itself because, for the first and only time in Uzbekistan, we drove through hills and mountains. It was a delight to see so much greenery and, in the distance, the mighty snow-capped Fan Mountains that divide Uzbekistan from Tajikistan.
We drove south-east from the centre of Samarkand and were soon in a dusty suburb where houses were more common than apartment blocks. We arrived at a busy intersection surrounded by market stalls. Many men had gathered on a street corner, perhaps hoping to be hired to do a day’s work on one of Samarkand’s many building sites or restoration programmes. Every so often a car stopped beside the men who in small groups engaged in discussion with the driver. Occasionally, one or two men got into a car and were driven off.
We arrived in Sochak, a village rapidly transforming into a town that housed growing numbers of people who worked in Samarkand. Most of Sochak’s original inhabitants made their living from the land; there were grapevines, fruit trees, cattle and carts pulled by donkeys. Along the road were trees with the bottom metre or so of the trunk painted with lime-based paint said to act as a deterrent to insects that like to bite or suck blood.
As the hills and the mountains got closer, we crossed a river, drove beside a reservoir and saw a sign for a village called Kyzylbash (I assume that the village is, or must once have been, home to Kyzylbash/Qizilbash, Shia Muslims subject to intense hostility in those parts of the world where Sunni Muslims are their neighbours). When the ascent to the summit began, the villages nestled among the undulations with lots of trees surrounding them. Although some of the trees were in orchards, others grew wild. Fields, albeit increasingly small, persisted where the land was relatively flat, but pasture rapidly assumed greater importance. Some of the villages had a few shops and a cafe or restaurant as well as modest accommodation. The hills and the mountains were a popular destination for city dwellers anxious to escape the oppressive heat of the long, unrelenting summer.
We arrived in Urgut, a town in the prettiest situation so far encountered in Uzbekistan. Once out of Urgut the ascent resumed and villages stood at the foot of mountains towering overhead. Pasture persisted, although now it was often littered with large rocks that had fallen from the mountains themselves.
The villages were consistently pretty and most had a large number of old houses built with stone. Many roofs were pitched. For some distance we drove beside a meandering river as it descended a valley. A stall beside the road sold every part of a recently slaughtered sheep that a human might consider eating. We went through a checkpoint where our driver had to show his ID. Just beyond the checkpoint a family had set up a stall from where they sold cheese and eggs. Every so often we passed a wooden bridge over a river or stream. The bridges never had handrails. Two sturdy logs connected both banks and provided the bridges with their strength. Planks of wood were nailed to the logs at right angles. Occasionally, lengths of squared timber were placed at right angles on top of the planks and nails driven through them and the planks so they were secured to the logs below. This obviously made the bridges more structurally sound. Some bridges were wide enough for a car to cross them with great care.
We arrived at the summit where a large, concrete, Soviet-era sign indicated that people were either leaving or entering Samarkand province. We stopped so that we could stretch our legs, admire the views north and south and examine the stalls of a small market that had established itself to sell goods to people in transit. Most stalls sold fresh fruit (e.g. cherries), dried fruit or vegetables. Also available were sweets, cheese, honey and herbs such as thyme. A small trailer supplied customers with hot drinks and snacks.
We began the descent to Shahrisabz and in the process passed beside more pretty villages nestling among the folds of the hills. One village appeared to comprise solely of houses of recent construction. All the houses were in good condition and suggested an air of prosperity rarely encountered in rural Uzbekistan. However, south of the summit trees were less common and the undulating hills were dominated by pasture. We drove beside a very large flock of sheep and goats being driven to grass on higher slopes.
We were now on the plain below the mountains, but could still see the snow-capped Fan Mountains to the east. Conditions were dry and, if anything, the heat was greater than around Samarkand. The road continued a considerable distance beyond Shahrisabz to Termiz a few kilometres from the border with Afghanistan where it is said that members of the Taliban high command occasionally visit so they can engage in rest and recreation away from the nation state they have turned into an almost complete disaster area. It is also said that Termiz has many heavily armed drug dealers because the city is used as a transit point for getting Afghan drugs onto the international market, drugs that, among other things, provide funds for the Taliban itself.
I had very little time in Shahrisabz to examine the remnants of the old town that survive not far from the major monuments, but they looked quite interesting. Mud walls, flat roofs, unsealed roads and dusty conditions are the norm, and most people have to walk quite some way to access shops that do not aspire to sell goods to tourists. With luck, all the somewhat misguided development will bring the area some much-needed prosperity and encourage local people to stay rather than move elsewhere in the hope of living more comfortably. All the development should also make Shahrisabz a destination in its own right rather than a town which, as at present, most people visit on their way elsewhere without staying overnight. This said, how would you feel if you lived in one of the remnants of the old town hidden from view by a high wall?
Although covering precisely the same route, the journey back was full of delight: the hills, mountains, fields, pasture, orchards, livestock, rivers, meandering streams and villages in pretty surroundings were observed in light that was more clear the higher we ascended. At one point we drove past a sandy cliff riddled with swallows’ nests. The Fan Mountains could be seen with a clarity better than at any point earlier in the day.