Saturday, 31 March 2018

I take the golden road to Samarkand


Tashkent is not dour if you lived twenty years in Bucharest but it has no heart. Though a city of four million people, once the largest in the Soviet Union after Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, it is empty. It is very Soviet, which to me is charming, but my ignorant impression was that here was a place which had had its heart ripped out and nothing to replace it with.

The city is as old as Rome but badly damaged in an earthquake in 1966 and its ancient buildings have been rebuilt. The roads have little traffic but, as throughout the USSR, are wide enough for military planes to land on them,

I had a pleasant plov (pilaff, the national dish) at the city's best restaurant, Caravan, and a much better dinner at Florea. I attended La Traviata sung very well. The very talkative audience was almost entirely female and over fifty. This I read was the place where one came closest to the still beating heart of Tashkent. The beautiful opera house was built for the Communist administration by the architect of the last Emir of Bukhara.


I remembered Colin Thubron's 'The Lost Heart of Asia' and wanted to miss out Khiva but luckily my travel agent persuaded me not to. Colin Thubron found it a lifeless over restored museum. That was in the early 90s and I suppose it is true, but Khiva is less well cared for than when he saw it, everywhere else is now much more restored than 25 years ago and it has far fewer  tourists than most beautiful places nowadays. Every vista makes your jaw drop

Marrakesh is less lovely but still very lovely. But Marrakesh is touristland. Khiva has what Marrakesh has lost, that wonderful feeling of being remote. Every scene looks like it's from the Sunday Times colour supplement but there seem to be no Sunday Times readers. An Englishman does not go abroad to meet Englishmen.

Yesterday was very hot. Today was supposed to be 31° Celsius but instead it is 3° which is a surprise. It's also raining, which one doesn't expect in a desert.

I have read about twentieth century Englishman in Uzbekistan like the heroic Colonel Bailey and that great writer Sir Fitzroy Maclean but the astonishing Captain Burnaby, who defied the Tsar by entering Khiva, was only a name to me until today. Here is an excerpt from the conversation he had with a worthy citizen who put him up in a large house in a village through which he passed.

' Which do you like best, your horse or your wife ?' inquired the man.—' That depends upon the woman,' I replied ; and the guide, here joining in the conversation, said in England they do not buy or sell their wives, and that I was not a married man. 'What! you have not got a wife?'—' No; how could I travel if I had one ?'—' Why, you might leave her behind, and lock her up, as our merchants do with their wives when they go on a journey.' In my country the women are never locked up.'—' What a marvel l' said the man ; 'and how can you trust them ? Is it not dangerous to expose them to so much temptation ? They are poor, weak creatures, and easily led. But if one of them is unfaithful to her husband, what does he do ?'—' He goes to our moullab, whom we call a judge, and obtains a divorce, and marries some one else.'—' What! you mean to say he does not cut the woman's throat?'—' No he would very likely be hanged himself if he did.'—' What a country!' said the host ; we manage things better in Khiva.'

From what I gather from my reading even seventy years of Marxism did not lift the condition of women very much higher.

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