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Jewels of the Silk Road

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Stretching 6,500 km from Asia to Europe, the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road are dotted with exotic cities known to Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. Paul Connolly follows in their fabled footsteps in his new shoes


Suleyman insisted that I buy some new shoes. "You are wearing child's shoes," he said, pointing to my scuffed trainers. "Why do you English and Americans always dress as though you have no money? You have no respect for your appearance. Come, I take you to my cousin's shop. We will buy you some proper, leather shoes to wear tomorrow when we visit Merv."


I started to argue that the ancient Silk Road Turkmen city of Merv was a dusty, sprawling ruin on the southern edge of the Karakum desert and that leather shoes would surely be ruined in such an environment. But Suleyman's ice-blue eyes and stern, almost Teutonic, demeanour, were brooking no argument.


I had met Suleyman in the bar of the Sofitel Ashgabat Oguzkent in the Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat, the previous day. He was officially a teacher but supplemented his income surreptitiously as a driver/guide. He was there to meet a client, who had not showed up and now faced a solitary drive back to his home town, Mary. I was looking for someone to take me to Merv, a half-hour drive south of Mary. It was the perfect match.


I'd not been long in Turkmenistan, on the trail of Silk Road cities, but the Turkmens are a people who seem to make it their business to confound expectations. For a start, they mostly do not share the burnished, broad-angled countenances of their Uzbek and Tajik neighbours. Turkmen faces are more varied. Blue eyes are not unusual; Suleyman looks a little like actor Rutger Hauer. His obsession with shoes was not just a personal tic, either. Like many Turkmen males, he is fastidious about his footwear and always has a handkerchief to hand to buff his shoes.


Just 36 hours after our initial meeting, Suleyman and I stood beneath the walls of the Erk Kala, a citadel at the very centre of ancient Merv. We had driven to within 100 metres of the centre of one of the Silk Road's most important cities (and probably its largest) and there was nobody else around. Not a soul.


As we walked from the car, the ground beneath our feet crackled and crunched as I, and my new leather shoes, failed to avoid the hundreds of thousands of shards of pottery strewn over the desert floor. Erk Kala was built in the 6th century BC during the Achaemenian Empire. The surviving citadel walls, rebuilt over many years of occupation, still stand over 30m high, providing the highest point in the desert landscape for as far as the eye can see.


It was 9am and as quiet as only the desert can be. Suleyman whispered: "Alexander The Great probably stood right here 2,000 years ago after he conquered this city." It was an unutterably moving moment.

 

BLESSED WITH BEAUTY


However, the Silk Road isn't just about haunting, dead cities such as Merv.


Turkmenistan's Central Asian neighbour, Uzbekistan, still has blood coursing through the arteries of its Silk Road cities.


Bukhara, for example, may have been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO -which described it as "the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia, with a fabric that has remained largely intact" - but is a vigorous, robust, living city. A pulsing knot of lanes of crumbling mud houses, mosques, madrasas (religious institutions) and mausoleums, it is a place of opalescent turquoise-tiled domes, vast mosaic arches and towering minarets.


To wander through Bukhara's backstreets is to watch Central Asia come alive. Goats amble unconcernedly through caravanserai, boys play football and old men drink green tea in shady Lyabi Hauz square, built around a large pool and surrounded by three ancient madrassas.


Bukhara is blessed with beauty – the city has 997 historical monuments, 140 of them protected buildings. There are gigantic domed bazaars and arches high enough to accommodate camel caravans laden with silk and spices. But dominating the skyline is the Kalyan Minaret. Built in 1127, it stands 48 metres above ground. Such was the skill of the builders responsible for this baked-brick structure, that in 886 years it has rarely needed anything more than cosmetic repairs.


When Genghis Khan took Bukhara in 1220, he was drenched in blood. He slaughtered 30,000 of its inhabitants and reduced most of the buildings to rubble. My guide in Uzbekistan, a shy but clever chap named Kerim, told me that the immense Kalyan Minaret, lighthouse for the ships of the desert, halted Khan in his tracks.


The Mongol titan gazed up at the intricately carved gallery that forms the tower's crown. As he did so, his turban fell from his head. This caused him to laugh, and to proclaim that this minaret had made him remove his hat in its presence and was therefore to be spared from destruction. Even Bukhara, though, must bow in honour of Uzbekistan's Silk Road jewel, Samarkand. More than any of the Silk Road cities, this is a city of surprises. Upon first sight, it's a metropolis bristling with modernity – it has a sparkling opera house and all the straight lines and reflective glass associated with contemporary cities. But, as Kerim told me, "This is just the thinnest of veils."

 

ASSAULTED BY COLOUR


The old, fabled city reveals itself as the 21st century peels away in layers. And you are soon in an oasis of Central Asian exoticism. The old town is a mesmerising complex of narrow streets crowded with donkey carts, bicycles and people on foot. On both sides are the shops, little stalls where the craftsmen work in silver, leather and textiles. There are tailors, cobblers, and sellers of fried food, pancakes and melons, jars of saffron and paper cones of spices. You are bombarded with smell, assaulted by colour.
Then you're in the centre of the old town and the Registan hoves into view, a colossal square bordered on three sides by mighty madrasas - Ulugh Beg Madrasa (built in 1420), the Tilya-Kori Madrasa (1660) and the Sher-Dor (1636). The mosaics on all three are magisterial, detailed almost beyond belief.


Arguably, though, the nearby Gur-e Amir is the real showpiece of Samarkand. This is where the warrior-intellectual Tamerlane (or Timur), along with some of his family, was buried in 1405. Tamerlane was a man of quicksilver nature who, according to the rather biased Kerim, wanted to be "buried in the most beautiful city in his world."


The Gur-e Amir is indeed the very definition of Oriental splendour. Beyond a small wall there are the soaring arches, the curved brick walls, the towers, the tiled wall decorations rising in delicate arabesques. Above them all sits the golden dome, shimmering in the sun or ablaze with lights at night. It is all a glorious tribute to a man of many contrasts, a man who ruled an area of quite mercurial and unrelenting beauty – the Silk Road of Central Asia.

WAY TO GO

Advantour

Tel: 998 (71)150 3020/www.advantour.com

Specialises in Central Asia and can provide a comprehensive, custom-built itinerary for the independent traveller.

 

Emir Travel

Tel: 998 (65) 224 4965/www.emirtravel.com

A private agency run by Mila Akhmedova, a Bukharan native with more than 20 years' experience in the travel industry. It offers a full service for independent travellers, from visa application through to multilingual local guides.

 
The Captain' Choice Tour

Tel: 0845 304 5227/www.captainschoice.co.uk

Specialises in luxury travel to remote and exotic destinations. Its Silk Road by Private Train tour begins in Beijing and ends in Moscow, with highlights including Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

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