Silk Road. We travel not for trafficking alone; By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned. For lust of knowing what should not be known; We take the Golden Road to Samarkand. These final lines of James Elroy Flecker's 1913 poem The Golden Road to Samarkand evoke the romance of Uzbekistan's most glorious city. During the last week I was discovering two of the most popular cities along the Silk Road - Bukhara and Samarkand.
Bukhara: Central Asia's holiest city has buildings spanning a thousand years of history, and a lively old-town that hasn't changed much for the last 200 years. This makes Bukhara the perfect open-air museum. Most of the center is an architectural preserve, full of medressas, minarets, a massive royal fortress, and the remnants of a once-vast market complex. Two of these impressive medressas were greating me already when cycling into the city. The several meter high gates left me in amazement. I was soon to find out that Bukhara is full of these islamic schools.
It was as capital of the Samanid state in the 9th and 10th centuries that Bukhara, the ‘Pillar of Islam’ – blossomed as Central Asia’s religious and cultural heart. Among those nurtured here were the philosopherscientist Ibn Sina and the poets Firdausi and Rudaki – figures of a similar stature in the Persian Islamic world as, for example, Newton or Shakespeare in the West. A second lease of life came in the 16th century when the Uzbek Shaybanids made it the capital of what came to be known as the Bukhara khanate. The centre of Shaybanid Bukhara was a vast marketplace with dozens of specialist bazaars and caravanserais, more than 100 medressas (with 10,000 students) and more than 300 mosques. Afterwards it got ruled by a madman until the Russians took hold of it and made it part of the Uzbek SSR in 1924.
Samarkand: Cycling into Samarkand wasn't as romantic as entering Bukhara. The modern part of the city sprawls across acres of Soviet-built avenues with heavy traffic. But once I reached the Registan, the heart of Samarkand, I saw what makes this ancient city so special: Medieval Samarkand's commercial center today still is one of the most fantastic buildings in the world!
As a key Silk Road city, it sat on the crossroads leading to China, India and Persia, bringing in trade and artisans. From the 6th to the 13th century it grew into a city more populous than it is today, changing hands every couple of centuries – Western Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhanids, Seljuq Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah have all ruled here – before being destroyed by Chinggis Khan in 1220. This might have been the end of the story, but in 1370 Timur decided to make Samarkand his capital, and over the next 35 years forged a new, almost-mythical city – Central Asia’s economic and cultural epicentre. His grandson Ulugbek ruled until 1449 and made it an intellectual centre as well. Today, you meet Timur and Ulugbek throughout the city: There's a huge statue of Timur the Great, as well as his impressive mausoleum. Ulugbek, being more into science than into fighting, left behind a well-preserved observatory.
After a series of earthquakes, Samarkand's attractions that weren't already obliterated by Chinggis Khan, were knocked-on heavily. It was the Soviets who finally restored these treasures - even though they took some questionable liberties by doing so. Finally I have to admit that Samarkand was a bit too comercial for me. The medressas and mosques are filled with shops selling souvenirs to tourists.
Besides these two amazing cities, the roads in Uzbekistan don't have a lot to offer. When I left the desert after Bukhara, the sand turned into soil. Uncountable plantations of mostly cotton made cycling very boring. It's unbelievable that the whole Uzbek economy is dependent on this plant, while it doesn't even make sense to plant this thirsty crop in the semi-deserted land. Poor yields and low government-controlled prices leave farmers too poor to pay for machinery
or labour. Yet the government won’t let them rotate their crops or convert to fruit. It’s all cotton, all the time. The whole system would collapse entirely but for the country’s policy of sending school children, students and adults into the fields every autumn to harvest cotton.
These were my thoughts while I was pedalling along the streets that divide the cotton fields like straight lines for kilometers on end. The only distraction were the conversations with friendly locals at the side of the road. To leave this boring landscape behind and enter the mountains of Kyrgiztan as soon as possible, I was going for 120km on average per day. With the temperatures still at 38 degrees it was pretty hard work and I was very happy to reach the Oasis towns of Bukhara, Samarkand and finally the capital Tashkent, where I could rest my legs.