‘He is gypsy boy. He wants money. Do not give it to him.’
Two young men, university age or thereabouts, have just seated themselves beside me. Both are wearing crisp white shirts, both have side-parted hair, neatly gelled. They scowl at the gypsy boy, and wave him off, using exaggerated arm movements. The boy, his skin a dark caramel colour, unlike the fairer skinned Uzbeks that sit beside me, scampers back a few feet. His hair is tousled, and contains bits of grass and dirt; there is grass on his back as well, and on his pants. Has he been rolling on the ground? His mother comes over, also of caramel skin, with a babe in one arm, and another in tow. She puts a hand out to me, expectant; she stares at me defiantly. There is something odd about the gaze of the woman. Drunk perhaps. Or just manic from desperate need, the day-in-day-out struggle to support her children slowly scarring her soul. Who knows? The university boys shoo her away as well.
‘So, can you help me get to Australia?’ The university boys also have an ulterior motive for approaching me, although it is not money they are after.
I take a quick glance at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, whose entrance I am sitting outside of, before slowly telling them what I have told countless others. That there is a way for them to get to Australia. I tell them the type of visa they will need to obtain, give them a website address, where they can begin the visa application process.
They aren’t satisfied with the answer. They didn’t want to be directed to a website. They wanted a guardian angel. They wanted a magic wand to be waved; they wanted to be whisked away.
They boys wander off, in search of another potential benefactor.
A group of kids surrounds me; they laugh, and stare, and run up to touch my leg before running away again. Several squat women stand behind them, heads covered by colourful kerchiefs. These women, though almost certainly Uzbek citizens, are ethnically Tajik; I can tell by their features, which more closely resemble those of Persians/Iranians. Samarkand has a large population of ethnic Tajiks. Prior to the creation of the Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics (i.e. when Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan were named and given borders), Samarkand was part of Turkestan, home to both Uzbeks and Tajiks. The same remains true today.
The kids run off. They’re replaced by a man, also ethnically Tajik, who approaches me with a cell phone held out. He wants a photo with me. Why? I couldn’t say.
I stand up, pose with the man, and his four friends – these folk are also ethnically Tajik – while the photo is taken. Already another man is approaching me; another cell phone held out, more photos wanted. I wave the man off – this could go on all day if I don’t put a stop to it – and begin a slow circumambulation of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
The sleek, overtly manicured, and somewhat kitschy facade of Samarkand’s tourist centre disintegrates just a few metres back from the main road. Behind the mausoleum is the real Samarkand. Dusty, underdeveloped, resource deprived, but with charming Old World character. Outside of the tourist centre you get a sense of the history of the city, you get a feel for its context, you see its relation to the environment. The mud brick buildings here are the same colour as the ground itself. The dilapidated Russian Ladas that line the street are a reminder of the nation’s involvement in the Soviet Union. The shashlyk restaurant on the corner, with the aroma of searing meat and freshly sliced onion issuing from its doors, is a scene typical of Uzbekistan. And then you look at the skyline, and take in the magnificent blue domes, flashing aquamarine in the early afternoon light, seen between power lines and satellite dishes, and you confirm you are in Samarkand, and nowhere else.
Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, with occupation dating back to 700 BCE. In its early days it was known as Afrosiab, and it was one of the key cities of the Sogdian civilisation, and an important trading hub on the ancient Silk Road. It was sacked by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE – the Greeks called the city Maracanda; the name stuck – and then, after changing hands dozens of times during the next 1500 years, it was sacked again by Genghis Khan in 1220 (all the big names came here). Move forward a couple hundred years and Samarkand is now the capital of the Timurid Empire. Timur, the mighty emperor, whose military campaigns were so brutal they slaughtered five per cent of the population of the world, sought to make Samarkand the jewel in his crown. He brought artists, artisans, and architects from far and wide and commissioned them to build a city of unparalleled beauty.
The ruins of Bibi Khanym Mosque (the mosque is largely restored these days) is probably my favourite place Samarkand. It is certainly my favourite of the many blue domes in the city. The semi-collapsed state of the mosque, the remnant unrestored walls, the hint of something much bigger, much grander, that is forever lost to the world, tantalises the imagination exponentially more than the non-original restoration work. So much of the historical centre of Samarkand has been unsympathetically restored, so much looks brand new, scrubbed clean of all stains, all blemishes. It’s refreshing to see a building that shows the passage of time once in a while.
I return to the main entrance of Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Bibi Khanym was Timur’s wife. Legend has it she built the mosque to honour her husband while he was away waging wars in India. The less romantic reality is that it was Timur who ordered the construction of the mosque. He did so to honour himself, following a successful campaign in India. Today the mosque commemorates his wife, who was buried in a tomb nearby.
Across the road lie the remains of Afrosiab, the old city of Samarkand. These days there is very little of it to see, you can thank Genghis Khan for that. He burnt the place to the ground, and it was never rebuilt. The remains of the city are now just dust; dust in the form of a giant, unnatural mound. You can make out shapes amongst the old city, craggy hillocks that might once have been a palace, odd angular rises that might have been bastions; your eye runs from formation to formation, imagining a wealth of richly decorated structures. But it is all just imagination. Most likely what remains bears little resemblance to the original Afrosiab. The perimeter of the city, where the giant, unnatural mound rises above the surrounding plain via a series of short, steep cliffs, is perhaps the most impressive feature of the site. Was this cliff once a defensive wall? Or is it just part of the natural landscape and nothing to do with the city at all? It’s hard to tell.
For some obscure reason the ruins of Afrosiab began to be used as a cemetery by the citizens of Samarkand many centuries ago. Amongst the cemetery is one of Samarkand’s most famous sights: the Shah-i-Zinda complex of mausoleums, also known as the Avenue of Mausoleums. The mausoleums were built between the 11th and 19th Centuries; amongst the mix are many of Timur’s kith and kin.
I continue past Shah-i-Zinda, following the shallow, malodourous drainage line that runs along the base of the perimeter wall – if it is in fact a wall – of Afrosiab. An unguarded gate leading into the cemetery, and a set of stairs climbing to the top of Afrosiab, is too tempting to walk past. The gate is bumped open, and the steps climbed; moments later I am there, at the top of the cliffs, gazing over the suburbs of Samarkand. Whoever it was that carved the stairs into this cliff clearly took no effort to avoid its many graves. Or perhaps the graves had no markers, and the path builders, despite their best efforts, were unable to avoid the many burial sites. Right next to the path, half buried in the ground, is a staved-in skull. It’s small; a child’s skull. Other bones are scattered about, most are heavily decomposed and fragmented, no longer attributable to any particular part of the human body. Why are there so many bones here? Looking around at the graves, I see the majority have collapsed, a result of insufficient backfill, I suppose. The bones have then washed out of the graves, or been pulled out by wild animals. A little gruesome, but all completely normal, if you think about it. This is what happens to untended graves. This is nature taking its course.
I return to ground level, and continue along the base of the cliff. Quarried into the cliff here are a multitude of bricked up caves and rudimentary hovels. Who are they used by? People who might otherwise be homeless? Farmers who are after a temporary storage shed? Kids playing games? Who knows? I’m pretty sure they are inhabited; the reek of human waste is quite strong here.
A little further along the cliff line I find a cow skull, with skin still attached. It’s a fresh head, the meat not yet begun to decompose, the eyes still liquid and bulging. Has a disgruntled abattoir worker thrown the unwanted head here? Was it a butcher? Biology students? No idea. I’m going to ignore it.
Twenty metres further along is another cow head, equally fresh.
Then, a few steps further, a disturbing sight: a mass of cow heads, all fresh. They are upturned, and placed in a circle. No one around; nothing nearby to explain the occurrence. Perhaps this is completely normal, completely justifiable. But it is creepy. I go no closer.
The road splits; one arm leads to the burial site of Daniel, and when I say Daniel, I mean Daniel the biblical figure, the man who served Nebuchadnezzar, but remained secretly loyal to the King of Israel. I’m told there are six other sites that also claim to contain the corporeal remains of Daniel, which is quite a few, considering he never really existed in the first place. The other arm of the road leads to the Ulugh Beg Observatory.
I stop at the crossroads to take in the perfect ordinariness of the intersection. Long stretches of dusty tarmac; nondescript shops, the most basic of housing. It is all so ordinary, and yet it is also completely extraordinary, depending on your frame of reference. For me, I have been in Central Asia long enough that it some elements of this scene are taking on the semblance of normality, but I haven’t been here long enough for the cow heads, the buried biblical figures, the destroyed ancient cities, to seem commonplace.
A cart is trundling towards me, travelling along the wrong side of the road, pulled forth by a small, underweight donkey. Seated in the cart are a man and a woman, of roughly the same age, both wizened from a lifetime spent in the sun, along with a child of about five years in age. All three are covered in dust, and burnt from the sun, their features obscured and indeterminate. All three are staring at me. The cart stops beside me. The staring continues; no attempt at communication is made. Then the dad flicks the reins, and away they go, continuing down the wrong side of the highway.
Who were they, I wonder, as their departing forms shrink in size?
Now they are even smaller; just blips on the road, merged with the donkey, merged with the earth.
Could they be Afghans?
Descendants of the Mongol hordes?
Second or third generation migrants from the Ukraine, or Korea?
Traders from Western China?
Do they speak Uzbek? Qaraqalpaq? Tartar?
Are they Sufis? Zoroastrians? Buddhists?
So many possibilities. So many different ethnic groups. So much mixing. The man or woman that is today an Uzbek, is the descendant of a line of Tajiks, who were themselves descended from a line of Mongols, who were in turn descendants of a line of Turks, who were in turn descendants of a line of Greeks, and so on. Along the way they’ve been followers of Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and who knows what else.
And Samarkand has been home to them all.
Practical information and how to reach Samarkand:
Samarkand is 300 km from Tashkent. There are trains running between the two cities (3 hours); otherwise you will need to find a share-taxi.
Read more on Samarkand in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.