Greetings from the land of aggressively renovated historical sites

Hello from Uzbekistan, a land of powder-fine dusty sand, unrelenting heat, desecrated monuments and cripplingly few functional ATMs. But also a land brimming with historical sites and with food that has been considerably more flavorful than Kazakhstan (same basic staples but with the magical additions of salt and spice and adequate cooking technique).

I arrived in Uzbekistan on Wednesday, after throwing away all my prescription migraine medication (Uzbekistan has many, many, many pages of rules about prescription medications and I finally decided it wasn’t worth the inevitable hassle and bribe to get them in), and spent a considerable portion of my day in Tashkent seeking an ATM that was actually stocked with money. Uzbekistan is in somewhat of a currency spiral and is now printing 100,000 soum notes (worth approximately $11). It used to be necessary to carry a backpack for all of your cash, but the new, larger denomination notes mean only a large purse is necessary. Regardless, ATMs are frequently out of cash or nonfunctional or will dispense only $100 US dollar notes and no local currency. Which isn’t all that helpful for taking a taxi or eating or, really, doing anything. Aside from the ATMs, Tashkent struck me as a large, pleasant, typical capital city with no exceptional charm. Almost the entire city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966 and was rebuilt by the Soviets, so now it has gigantic, blocky cement buildings, wide avenues, and many tree-lined parks. It wasn’t terribly exciting, so I will spare you the details.

I only spent one night in Tashkent and then took a train to Samarkand, where I spent two nights, and proceeded from there to Bukhara. Both Samarkand and Bukhara are busting at the seams with historical buildings – mosques, medressas, necropoli and other burial complexes, palaces, caravanserai (the ‘shopping centers’ of the Silk Road), statuary, mosaics, and minarets. Samarkand is the grander of the two, brought to prominence in the 14th century by a local-born warrior named Timur (Tamerlane) who rose in the power vacuum left when Chinggis Khan died. Timur went on to conquer a grand swath of Central Asia, taking it back from Mongol khanates, and, in the process, butchering and torturing scores of people. He took all of his plundered loot and his enslaved artisans back to Samarkand, where they were put to work building this showpiece city. And it is spectacular. Immense, shimmering mosaics adorn the faces of gigantic mosques and minarets, blue-domed mausoleums dot the skyline, and every ceiling is a gold-filigreed masterpiece. But, if you were to visit Samarkand (or, quite honestly, anywhere in Uzbekistan) without a historical background, you would leave with the understanding that Timur was a kind, powerful, and benevolent ruler, and would know nothing of his depravity. His name is everywhere. Statues and monuments are everywhere. But nowhere is there a mention of the bloodbath that he left in his wake.

Gur-e-Amir mausoleum, where Timur is entombed.
One of many magnificently tiled and painted ceilings at the Shah-I-Zinda burial complex.

Bukhara, Samarkand’s less flashy, more earthy sibling just down the Silk Road, is an Islamic holy city and was the religious heart of the region prior to the rampages of Chinggis Khan, who burned it to the ground in the 13th century. It was a bit of a backwater during Timur’s time but then was largely rebuilt in the 16th century by the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty (who would rule the region until the Bolsheviks finally brought Bukhara to its knees in the 20th century – but not before the last Khan stirred up an anti-Russian mob who slaughtered the first Soviet delegation in 1918). Bukhara now has over 100 protected historical buildings. It is smaller and dustier than Samarkand, dotted with medressas and caravanserai topped with earthen domes and pillars. The streets are narrow, with covered markets leading to small plazas or opening into frescoed courtyards. All of which sounds lovely. And it is lovely. It would be lovelier if every single plaza, alley way, and courtyard wasn’t overflowing with carpet, cloth, and porcelain sellers. But, even setting aside the souvenir stands, the whole time I was in Bukhara, I couldn’t shake the feeling that things just weren’t quite right.

Chor Minor in Bukhara. Note the SPOTLESS plaza and the beginning of a souvenir shop at the entrance.
Kaylan minaret in Bukhara – actually an original!

It’s all a bit too perfect. The Uzbek renovation squads are notoriously overzealous and some of the renovation work has been so ostentatious that UNESCO has put a handful of these sites on the ‘endangered’ list. But I don’t even mean that, necessarily. It’s more that I get the feeling that we (tourists) are being purposefully shown a very orchestrated, Disney-fied, clean version of the country that doesn’t exist in reality. For example, if you go to Rome or Athens, both cities that are chock full of grandeur, you will see crumbling ruins and romantic fountains and plazas seeping with history. But your trains will also be late and you will see variable (sometimes large) piles of trash and pigeons will shit on you and someone will try to pickpocket you on the bus. Here, the high speed trains (catering to tourists) are ON TIME with a Swiss level of precision. There is no trash. None. There is no pigeon shit. There seems to be an extremely low level of crime against tourists, despite the fact that we all have to carry asinine amounts of cash since there are no functioning ATMS and every hotel wants US dollars. This all begs the question, what is going on? Do the birds not poop on the plazas in Uzbekistan? Am I walking around in some sort of weird, living museum? Where the plazas are scrubbed in the middle of the night and if a tourist sees a piece of trash, someone gets thrown in jail?

Shakhrisabz is a prime example. Shakhrisabz is a village about 2 hours south of Samarkand, over the mountains toward the Afghan border. This village was the birthplace of Timur, where he built a giant summer palace, mosque, and mausoleum. Apparently it used to be a charming village with crumbling ruins, but then about 10 years ago everything except for the most prominent pieces of the ruined buildings was bulldozed and a gigantic park was built with bits of Timur’s architecture sticking out from large squares of concrete and grass. I knew this, but went anyway because, well, I wanted to see it for myself. My driver was a younger Tartar guy who loves Eminem and who’s father is a pilot for Uzbek airways (where the pilots get checked for drunkeness by a doctor EVERY DAY before they can fly). The drive through the mountains, passing little villages perched on crumbly slopes, was gorgeous. The town itself… a monumental piece of post-Soviet arrogance where every historical feature has been wiped clean, renovated, filled up with cafes, or covered in concrete. There are still some original mosaics and original columns but they are small islands in a tremendous sea of sterile, empty park. I’m still glad I went though, if only because my guide kept telling me how young I look and how great my skin is. Ok, ma’am, even if you’re full of shit about how great this new park is and you keep trying to get my to buy “good price” souvenirs from your friends, you’re still my favorite person in Uzbekistan.

Aq-Saray, the entry gates to Timur’s summer palace in Shakhirisabz. Very impressive, but would have been more so without the inappropriate bulldozing of all associated ruins.

The Ark (fortress of the Shaybanid leaders) and Zindan (prison) monuments in Bukhara are another example of rampant Disney-ification. Both of these monuments have been renovated and reconstructed to within an inch of their lives, with only small, token patches of the real walls remaining. I was excited to visit the Zindan, because prior to this trip I’d read in The Great Game about the despot (butcher of Bukhara) Nasrullah Khan’s imprisonment and subsequent slaughter of two English emissaries, both of whom spent their imprisonment festering in the “bug pit” of this jail and were ultimately slaughtered when the Khan was offended that he waited too long for a reply from Queen Victoria. Well, it turns out that the Soviets dropped a bomb on the Ark and its environs and the “prison” looked to me like it had been completely rebuilt. Of course, the “bug pit” is present as part of the exhibit but I’m quite confident that this hole only resembles the one in which the Englishmen rotted for months. In what I’ve also realized is an Uzbek museum standard, the “prison” was filled with unrealistic mannequins dressed in costumes and the ark fortress was filled with fake knights. When I left the Ark fortress and prison, someone was walking a camel outside for tourists.

The walls of the Ark… bet you can tell which part is original.

So, the thing is, a lot of this stuff is really beautiful. Some of the buildings in Samarkand made me smile to myself like a crazy person and actually emit an audible gasp when I walked in. That city overall felt a bit less “retouched” and more like a place where people actually live. But in Bukhara, I really felt like someone was constantly trying to put one over on me. Make me think these pristine, brand new buildings are the same as historical monuments. Translate everything in the “water museum” that inexplicably occupied one of the medressas into English EXCEPT for the part about the Aral Sea (can’t show that something is bad here!). Try to make me think that old town Bukhara is a real city and not just a mass of hotels, cafes, and carpet shops. Ok, well, if people lived there I’d probably be able to find a store selling bread and water, right? But I had to leave the old city walls to find anything resembling a normal town, buy a bottle of water, or get groceries. 

Sure, Uzbekistan has “opened up” a bit in recent years but this basically amounts to a crack where there used to be a dead bolted door. I still have to register my location every night and carry around little pieces of paper (registration slips) to show the border guards when I leave. It used to be nearly impossible to visit if you weren’t on a guided tour, meaning the sites you saw were dictated by the tour guides. Though I’m now “free” to roam throughout the country, most people I meet are still traveling with a tour group and everything seems to be very well set up for this kind of orchestrated experience. There are far more tourists than I saw in Kazakhstan (though it is easy to be far more than zero!) but it still isn’t really that busy. Even during peak hours, most of the plazas are pretty empty and it’s rare to enter a building and find any other person inside. I took a brief trip out of Bukhara this morning to Char Bakr, a large burial complex 13km from the city that I’d read had been mercifully left off of the renovation list and was a bit more authentic. It was very easy to get to and outstandingly beautiful, nestled between apple orchards and grape vines, with a large mosque and multiple tiled mausoleums. I spent an hour there and only a few other tourists ever wandered in. So, I don’t know who is buying all of these carpets and ceramics or why entire cities seem to be set up to project an image of perfection to tourists. It’s weird. And very Soviet. There may not be any Lenins or communist stars left, but the heritage remains. 

Char Bark burial complex, outside of Bukhara.

I don’t want it to sound like I’m not enjoying my time here – I definitely am. In Bukhara I bought a $10 (900,000 soum) ticket for a “fashion show” in the interior of one of the medressas. The ticket included dinner and was a tourist hellscape but, frankly, where else would I be able to see bird-boned Russian models parading around in clothing of Bukhara’s ancient nobility to the tune of Uzbek folk music? It was worth every penny. I took no photos, though I’m sure I could ask one of the many men with large cameras who stood in front of me and filmed the whole thing to share. But I prefer to let it exist only in my memory. Like Jack in Titanic. I also considered visiting a hammam (bathhouse). But then I remembered my experience in Morocco, where I was forced to lie naked, face-down on a ceramic tiled floor while an immense Moroccan woman scrubbed me with tepid water and I decided to get a very cheap and very excellent massage instead.

I left Bukhara today and took a broiling 5-hour train ride west, across an absolutely bleak landscape of dusty gray sand sprinkled with tufts of prickly weeds, with a railway staff who insisted on letting the beleaguered air conditioning attempt (but fail) to cool our cabin and yelled whenever anyone opened a window. Tonight I’m staying in Urgench, a city with no tourist attractions where people actually live (no one, including myself, can figure out why I’m here). Tomorrow, I will spend another 2.5 hours driving across the desert to Nukus, in the semi-autonomous republic Karakalpakstan, to see a museum filled with an epic collection of art that was saved from destruction during Soviet times by hiding it in this isolated desert outpost. As my Lonely Planet says, this museum is “a reason to come here, apart from sampling the general sense of hopelessness and desolation.” Can’t wait.

One last mosaic for the road.

3 thoughts on “Greetings from the land of aggressively renovated historical sites

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