Train from Beyneu to Kungrad
Caught by the Kazakh border guards!
T'is said that the road to Samarkand is paved in gold, but that is not so, at least my road wasn't. My road consisted of dilapitated train tracks and mud caked highways. But there was gold along the way, only not on the road. The gold was stacked in rows upon rows, within the mouths of the people of this region. Perhaps a road could be paved with all this gold, certainly the combined amount of gold that is hidden in the jaws of the Central Asians is equal to the gold reserves of a small country. It is more prevalent in the older generation than in the younger one, with some of the older folks sporting a full set of golden teeth. When they smile you need to put on sunglasses, just to soften the glare somewhat.
I have met many a golden smile along the way to Samarkand, and maybe that is what is meant by the saying. My road took me from Beyneu at the Kazakh-Uzbek border to Kungrad on a slow cold train, full of merchants walking in and out of the train compartment, letting in the cold breeze from outside everytime they opened the door.
Boats at the bottom of the Aral Sea
Since this a rather obscure border crossing, the guards were at first surprised and than happy to see a foreigner on the train. Crossing here was relaxed and fun, and the border formalities were easy going and efficient. The only drawback was that perhaps the speed of the train, and the fact that I would be arriving late at night in Kungrad a place I knew nothing about. My plan was to get to Moynaq another former fishing port on the Aral Sea, that is now high and dry. But I didn't think there would be any public transport to this little place at the time I would be arriving, so I decided to just let fate decide what would happen to me when I got to Kungrad. Fate is a funny thing and sometimes it works to your advantage, this was certainly the case with me that night. It was fate that put me on the last mini-bus to Moynaq and eventually had me stay with the driver of the self same mini-bus, thus avoiding what was according to my guidebook a rather filthy and none to cheap hotel.
Fate also had the mini-bus driver give me a
Rusting quietly in the snow
tour of the town and especially the rusting hulks of fishing boats laying just outside town. I found Moynaq more impressive than Aralsk, as far as poignent reminders of the disaster is concerned. It was easy to see where the former shores had once been, leaving a big empty dessert in its wake, with plenty of fishing vessels lying about, unlike in Aralsk. It seemed somehow more forlorn here. Of course Moynaq is not really in the direction of Samarkand, in fact it probably is on the road to nowhere these days. It was time to set my sights on this mythical city and so I turned my eyes from the sad remains of a life long gone, and started on the journey to Samarkand.
First stop, Nukus, capital of Karakalpakstan, which nobody would ever visit if it weren't for the Savatsky Karakalpakstan Art Museum, which contains a rather unique collection of what was once banned Soviet art from all over the country. It was saved by the man after whom the museum is now named, collecting all those paintings and saving them from the authorities by bringing them to Nukus, far enough away from the all-seeing eyes of
Only need some water
the former Soviet rulers. Apart from that the city hasn't got much, a few old and ugly concrete state structures and a few new concrete and glass government structures, only marginally less ugly. So after taking in the museum I left for Khiva, a museum all on its own.
Khiva, is as stated a museum city, which means it is dead! And that is Khiva's biggest drawback. It is well preserved, it has fine town walls, a plethora of beautiful Islamic buildings and it is squeeky clean, but there is hardly any life within the old town. Everybody has been moved either to the outer limits of the old town or beyond the city walls into the newer part of town. The mosque's are not in use, except as museums or to house souvenir shops and so it is with all the buildings. And this takes away a lot of the charm of a city, without the people, the sounds and the smells it becomes very artificial and the appeal lessens. Walking through Khiva I felt more like I was walking through a painting, with nobody around. After dark, even the few souvenir sellers left and the inner town
Cows and ships, an unusual combination
became eerily quiet. Perhaps it has also got to do with the time of year I am visiting, the winter keeps people inside, thus compounding Khiva's solitude.
I continued on the theme of visiting former obscure Islamic khanates and emirates, with alluring names, by moving on to Bukhara. Bukhara has much more charm than Khiva, and the monuments I thought were more impressive. Perhaps this has got to do with the fact that while some of the buildings have been turned into museums, not all have and some are still used for what they were intended. Combine this with a still functioning old town surrounding the sights and it makes for a much better vibe than I had in Khiva. Things were happening on the streets here, people were moving around, there were markets and bazaars, some with just the usual souvenirs, but many simply with daily goods. And so I felt more at ease in this town, strolling around the narrow alleyways and watching the locals flash their golden teeth at me. It was clear I was approaching my destination!
Golden Samarkand. It was not golden when I arrived, it was white! White with fresh snow, draped
View over Khiva
over this most alluring of cities. The one that has somehow managed to set itself into the Western mind as the ultimate symbol of an exotic fairy tale kind of place. But is it? Not for me, it is beautiful for sure, and the megalomanic monuments of Timurid times are certainly impressive, but mystical or exotic is not the word I would use to describe it. It can be devided into three parts, a shrinking old town, a Soviet part and the Russian Tsarist part, interspersed are the few huge edifices which everybody associates with Samarkand. They are like islands in a bland sea, none really connected with the other anymore. I think maybe Samarkand is all a little too big for me, the sights are big, the streets are wide and many of the buildings in the centre are big. I found Bukhara the nicest of the towns I passed through, it was smaller and more cosy and things fitted together there, the mosques and medressa's blending into the old city, unlike Samarkand or Khiva.
And so ends my road to Samarkand, and as I leave it, I see a last glitter of gold, a smile from the
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum in the foreground and the Kalta Minor Minaret in the back
train conductor as I show him my ticket to Tashkent.
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