Take a journey through the centre of the Silk Road

Off to Uzbekistan on the Silk Road in Central Asia

At the airport we received an unfriendly reception From the Uzbekistan immigration official. Our travel agent had supposedly taken care of all the details but on arrival the immigration department told us that visas are required and cost 50 US $. But the office was closed for what was called 5 minutes. Half an hour later the little window opened and a man scowled at us. He began the tedious low-tech process of issuing the visas.

 Due to a slight change in our itinerary we needed to extend the visa for 2 days. “No you must get out of the country”. He snapped. We said no and refused to leave his desk. It cost us 10 more dollars and a load of shouting (in front of long queues) to finally get the visa. He said he was only doing his job. I wonder how much more we would have had to pay for a smile let alone a warm welcome. In Dubai they go out of their way to be friendly and efficient and even give out a bowl of peppermints!

map of Central Asia Silk RouteCredit: Sue Visser

To keep you in the picture, here is a map we found on a wall in Khiva. I am sharing our experiences with you about the places with pictures and stories so that you too, can have a wonderful time on this part of the Silk Road. On this leg of the journey we will go to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. At a later stage I will tell you all about my favourite desert city - Khiva. 

African storks in SamerkandCredit: Sue Visser

Tashkent is the capital city of the state of Uzbekistan and is in a better state of recovery and repair than some of the other cities we had visited in Central Asia. It is a booming metropolis and the modern section has reinvented itself after the devastation of an earthquake in 1964. It measured 9 on the Richter scale and razed most of the buildings to the ground. A beautiful clean modern city emerged, thus purged of the greyness and oppression of Communism. Green parks, large open squares and a beautiful fountain with a monument to liberation set the tone. The stork is their symbol for freedom and African storks migrate to this place to breed. Here they seem to be tame and friendly and have no real predators as they do back home

Our guide showed us around the old city that suffered far less damage and most of the beautiful Mosques and other buildings survived. They are well maintained and they know how to use paint and tiles and even how to repair the odd roof or broken window pane. It is a Muslim country and there is a friendly laid back vibe. Most of the women let their hair down and wear normal dresses. On Sunday we strolled through the beautiful parks and saw people enjoying family outings. They were all beautifully dressed up in what we thought was their Sunday best. But later we found out that many of them are just beautifully groomed and dressed to the nines for a reason. They are obsessed about being photographed, especially with foreign tourists. They also take copious pictures of themselves and each other with their cell phones at the famous monuments and huge state buildings.

Friendship has no language barrierCredit: Sue Visser

The people are friendly and anybody can walk around the centre of a city at night. This includes toddlers and families with babies. They seem to have a good siesta so they can have family bonding time. There is music, fountains fun and laughter and people eat and enjoy leisure time. The next morning the place is still clean and tidy and one wonders why we need so many street cleaners back in SA.

It was exciting to visit the market place, still on the site of the original Silk Road. Here the silk is locally made and highly prized. Uzbekistan is a wealthy country and runs a brisk trade in cotton, silk, gold and gas. We loved the food hall. I finally saw a lot of different types of Kimchi. This mixture of fermented vegetables is similar to sauerkraut and includes other vegetables like carrots, onion and peppers. People are healthier to the extent they eat fermented foods and seemed to be the case here. There was also plenty of farm cheese and kefir for sale. (Kefir is similar to drinking yoghurt) Bees are still buzzing and at the market they sell all sorts of products made by bees. I was offered a scoop of liquid that included a few bees. Yum?  

Samarkand market

The Communists diverted the two rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea as a source of water for irrigating their crops and thus depleted its contents. But recently some of the water has been redirected from the Amur Daria and the Sid-aria Rivers back to the lake again.  We saw the concrete canals and water ducts that are still being used to "steal" this water. The endless fields of green crops are still thriving!

A lively lunchtimeCredit: Sue VisserSamarkand. Wow, what a lovely place. We arrived after 4 hours on a bumpy bus and had a traditional meal at a local eating house. They don’t really cater for vegetarians and serve a big round loaf of bread so as a gluten-free vegetarian, be warned to not expect anything more exciting than tomatoes and cucumbers!. We walked back to our hotel through a park with gushing fountains, music, children and happy people at 9 pm.

Tasty startersCredit: Sue VisserAfter the luscious green city of Samarkand we drive through the semi-desert terrain to Bukhara. This province provides riches from under the ground - gold, uranium, oil and especially natural gas. Most of their vehicles run on methane gas that is 90%cheaper than our petrol. Chevrolet cars are made here and moat people drive them. Back in the 11th century this area was an active part of the Silk Road.

As camels could only cover a distance of 30 km per day they needed an overnight facility called a Caravanserai. Camels eat a low thorny bush called yon tok. It is the only plant that survives in the desert . Travellers used to boil up the leaves to make a Tea to treat diarrhoea. They have deep roots that draw up water to the surface, so the locals plant melon seeds with them to take advantage of this.

CaravanseraiCredit: Sue Visser

We visited the ruins of a typical one that was built in the 12th century. It is built out of yellow clay Muslim bricks. In the background there is a modern gas station, a 21st century replacement. This is obviously a quicker and safer way to transport merchandise, including silk. Today they are building a new modern Silk Road – a dual carriageway that is mostly being financed by the Chinese government. Silk was considered to be the most versatile trading commodity (cash). Anything could be traded for a bale of silk, even camels. Money was also printed on silk instead of paper.

Old way to travelCredit: Sue Visser

The pottery and crafts centre we visited along the way is a typical Caravanserai complex that is used as a family home and workshop. We enjoyed sitting on the family table cum couch cum bed - I want one!

The skin used on their four-stringed instrument Comes from an ox's heart. We call it the pericardium. In Uzbekistan families have free education starting from nursery school and ending in a college or university degree. But employment is a problem so most of the youngsters go abroad to work. The average age in this "young" country is 21.

The next site we visited during our bouncy bumpy bus ride to Bukhara was the summer palace of Bukhara Emirs Sitorai Mokhi -Khosa. It is an interesting combination of Asian and Russian architectural styles. After that we were schlepped around another compulsory dose of the dead stuff including a mausoleum and a necropolis. Talk about not letting the dead bury the dead. Islam and Communism have a common fixation about “dead” monuments. By now we have heard three times that a Muslim wears a white turban on his head. It is made out of a piece of white cloth large enough to cover his body as a shroud, should he die at any time. No cremation is permitted and bodies must be immediately buried, so hence the ever ready headgear.

Preparing plov, a rice dishCredit: Sue VisserThe Sufi centre was originally built in 712. The unusual dome is based on the lotus flower. Islam teaching began in Central Asia and it took 160 years to convert most of the people to Islam. Mohammad was not in favour of holy men and monks like Sufis who not work for a living. He said we have two hands and feet and must work to earn our keep

Interesting it was to hear different versions of his teachings including the lengthy lectures from our guides. Standing out in the blazing heat makes it difficult to endure the religious enlightenment before visiting each complex especially when it is a stifling 38 degrees centigrade in the sun.

A short history lesson about ancient tyrants and mass slaughter

In the early 13th century the Mongolian invasion headed by Genghis Khan swept across the known civilized world of Central Asia. In Bukhara he razed buildings to the ground and butchered the people. We visited a beautiful mosque that had been reconstructed. It included an octagonal building in the centre court to mark the spot where Genghis ordered all the hundreds of surviving babies to be placed. He and his horsemen then trampled them to death.

Baby monument in MosqueCredit: Sue Visser

A century later control fell into the hands of the mighty Islāmic Timur Chine, better known as Tamerlane. He was bolder and bloodier and The city of Samarkand was his capital. He too, was a devout Islam and had his personal Imam to guide his religious studies and see that he had a few prayer breaks in between spilling the blood of innocent people.

It is no surprise that today man perpetuates such tyranny in the name of religion. Both sides build weapons of mass destruction to kill in the name of their God. Yet they claim to worship the same God. They wash their hands before eating, but not after issuing commands that result in what we can now see on television - cold blooded murder. As a result there are more ruined buildings and homeless broken people who are tortured for their beliefs.

Jim and Ali BabaCredit: Sue Visser

The people of Central Asia built up their plundered cities and then Communism reared its ugly head. Countries we visited like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were forced to unite and become part of the Soviet Republic. No religion was tolerated; buildings were smashed to the ground again after World War Two.

People then had a chance to work in a communal bee hive. Today we see the results in the form of factories, heavy industry, cotton crops, roads and bridges and huge grey apartment blocks for the hallowed workers. But many of the people we spoke to said that they were better off in those days. They had jobs, education, medical care and

We saw a very disturbing documentary on TV about the torture of Christians in Iraq by Muslim ISO extremists. Yet Islam is divided between the Shiites and the Sunnis who also kill each other. This journey has not just been about sight-seeing. It is more about simple ordinary people like us.

Bukhara the way to shop for carpets!Credit: Sue Visser

We have met wonderful, friendly happy folk who don't seem to care about blood, religion or history. We eat, drink and are merry and try to make people happy. One elderly couple in our tour group kept a lot of money in their purse to secretly give out to poor people every day. They also bought clothes and gifts to take back to orphanages they supported back home. They shared food with us, laughed and played with street children and were interested in everything. Healthy and happy at age 81. The more affluent young people in the streets only worry about their iPhones, clothes and how many bling-bling “selfies” they can take in a day. They laugh, smile and really make us feel at home.

The Uzbek way to say thank you, is really from the bottom of their hearts. "Rachmad" is what they say and then bow and touch their heart with the right hand. Thank you for joining us.