Tuesday, 3 April 2018

From beyond the far distant Oxus


Alim Khan, the last Emir of Bukhara, delighted to watch his enemies boiled in oil. I am enough of a Tory to think he was slightly better than the Bolsheviks who deposed him.

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The Registan in Samarkand. Lord Curzon, as he then wasn't, thought it the noblest public square in the world. Now I can agree with him. 

Sandy Arbuthnot in Greenmantle knew some interesting places in Samarkand and Sir Fitzroy Maclean, as he then wasn't, walked here through semi desert from Bokhara, followed by an NKVD man in an ill-fitting dark suit.

I read once that Tennyson's poems are like objects that you hold in your hand and are one moment astonishing diamonds and the next pieces of coloured glass.

Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are like that.

Each of them in turn has impressed me at first sight as the most impressive place I ever saw in my life, but each, like some famous beauty, on closer inspection proves to have had a lot of work done to make her stunning. 

I am never sure what is centuries old, what Brezhnev era and what created under the unlamented dictator who died last year.

A German designer who comes here because Bukharan patterns are alive and German ones lifeless (at first I thought she meant patterns of life but she meant patterns) told me that if the Acropolis were in Uzbekistan it would be completed and roofed. This is exactly right. 

The Soviets were not romantics: romanticism was bourgeois and decadent.  They saw no poetry in ruins. Nor did President Karimov after he sloughed off Lenin.

It could be much much worse. They are building a huge tourist centre close to the Ark in Bukhara, the fortress from which the Emir watched his enemies killed with cruel and unusual punishments.

Already Bukhara has 150 mostly small hotels but still the number of tourists is relatively few. Samarkand and Bukhara feel remote despite the occasional coach party, often of Indians.  

Marrakech is perhaps equally beautiful but it is a tourist trap and now almost as familiar as Bournemouth or Southend. Though these things change fast.

Gertrude Bell was the first white woman to enter Samarkand but when she left she noticed advertisements for charabanc excursions.

Enoch Powell said the life of nations like the life of men is lived in the imagination. Travel is lived entirely in the imagination and being somwhere distant and little visited fires the imagination. 

Lord Byron proudly said 'I have seen the ruins of Ephesus' but so can anyone for the price of a budget flight to Ismir. Lord Curzon boasting about Samarkand still moves us to envy.

I arrived in time to see the fairly deserted Registan at Samarkand tonight at dusk, the birds making a deafening noise and the tourists gone. I envy myself.

Part of it is the name. Samarkand like Madagascar, Persia and Mozambique captivates by the sound of its very name. We visited Lalish the Yazzidi holy village because Noemi loved the name. Names contain magic.

We are not far from the Oxus here.

1 comment:

  1. David in Ukraine4 April 2018 at 08:04

    Excellent Paul.

    I do so enjoy your travel blogs.