Central Asian Silk Route Expedition (2014)

Central Asian Silk Route Expedition (2014)

6000 kms 3 Weeks :Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan

Landlocked Central Asia, rugged, remote and relatively inaccessible, has straddled the Silk Route between Asia and Europe for several centuries. The region is home to some of the loftiest mountain ranges on our planet—Hindukush, Karakoram, Altai, Tien Shan, Alai, Pamir—fierce deserts, Kizylkum and Karakum, and the vast and featureless steppes where nary a blade of grass grows. Yet, it has allured traders, treasure-hunters and adventure-seekers alike. Merv, Sogdiana and Turkestan bristled with challenge and danger but yet reverberated with the sounds made by the hooves of camels and horses drawing caravans bearing precious silks, tea, glittering gems and other cargo headed for markets as far as Venice and beyond. In the last millennium, geography and history conspired to give this region a shared destiny from which the constituent nations have disentangled themselves after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

What does the roof of the world look like today, 20 years after the countries of Central Asia gained the opportunity to determine their own individual destinies? The legitimacy of today’s political division of Central Asia is but a product of Joseph Stalin’s whimsy. As such, the national boundaries are based on no rationale, neither ethnicity nor culture. Yet, Stalin’s impulsive demarcation of the political boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet republics has now produced nation states that are unequally endowed with natural and mineral resources. How do these countries cope with this quirk of destiny?

A road journey

India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF), a research organisation based in Delhi, decided to find out first hand the forces transforming this region in the 21st century by undertaking a road journey through three countries of Central Asia. A hand-picked team of 15 delegates comprising scholars, policy analysts, economists and linguists set out on a historical journey through these countries under the stewardship of K. Santhanam, well-known nuclear scientist and the President of ICAF. The endeavour, blessed and supported by India’s External Affairs Ministry, also drew upon the enormous goodwill enjoyed by India in these regions for reasons historical and contemporary. The team hired local vehicles and drivers in each country, which greatly helped in navigating this relatively less-charted region. All along the route, host governments and institutions generously shared their perspectives on issues of common interest to India and the region.

Over a period of three weeks in September-October this year, the expedition traversed more than 5,000 kilometres. It began in Astana, the Kazakh capital, and terminated in Urgench in Uzbekistan. The Kazakh leg of the journey took us from Astana through Karaganda and Temirtau, the latter better known as Lakshmi Mittal’s steel city; along Lake Balkhash to the Kazakh uranium mining town of the same name; through Taldykorgan and Zharkent to Khorgos, the border town that straddles both Kazakhstan and China where the team was allowed to make a brief, unscheduled, foray into Chinese territory. Finally, the delegation spent a day in Almaty, meeting with officials of institutions, universities and think tanks before crossing over into the Kyrgyz Republic. The Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Ashok Kumar Sharma, accompanied the ICAF delegation for most of its journey through the country.

The Kyrgyz leg took us to Bishkek, the capital, and thence to Osh through some stunning mountain ranges before ending in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley. The Uzbek leg of the expedition covered the Uzbek part of the valley; passed through Andijon, the birthplace of Babur, the first Mughal ruler, and Kokand, the last Khanate in Ferghana; and reached Tashkent, the capital. From Tashkent, the expedition drove into the historic towns of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva through the Kyzilkum desert before terminating in Urgench. The route took us through some spectacular mountain ranges, stark deserts, fertile valleys, modern cities, isolated villages and ancient towns. Almost the entire journey closely followed the fabled Silk Route in Central Asia, now transformed into a seamless state-of-the-art highway catering to every comfort of the modern traveller. Apart from structured meetings with policymakers, think tanks and officials, the journey was enlivened by impromptu interactions with people along the entire route.


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Astana, the new capital

Astana, the starting point of the expedition, is in many ways a stark contrast to what came after. The city shivers in sub-zero temperatures in the month of September while the rest of Central Asia basks in celebratory summer weather. Astana is the spanking new capital of Kazakhstan, built with all the lavishness that only oil wealth can afford; it has none of the charm of old cities like Almaty or Bishkek or the grace of historical towns like Bukhara or Khiva. The town rises like a giant plastic Legoland in the middle of a bereft steppes otherwise incapable of supporting human habitation. Entirely an artificial construct, Astana’s gleaming skyscrapers, festooned with glittering fairy lights, seem all the more unreal because of the absence of people on its streets. Its broad and neatly laid-out avenues, glitzy plazas and snazzy shopping malls look more like a gargantuan film set minus its actors than a living city. Oil wealth can certainly build new capitals—Nigeria built Abuja and Myanmar Nay Pyi Taw —but it takes people to put life and soul into these cities. Astana, established only in 1997, has some way to go before it catches up, if at all, with the liveliness of the country’s earlier capital Almaty.

Our next stop is Temirtau, where ArcelorMittal has a huge steel plant. Mittal’s company produces three million tonnes of steel, most of which goes to build the skyscrapers in Astana, 220 km away. After the dazzling perfection of Astana, Temirtau is comfortingly Indian. The hotel we stay in is owned by Mittal and serves Indian food alongside Kazakh and Russian fare. Mittal also runs a power plant that burns coal from its own mines not far away. His company supplies water, electricity and steam to the city, and runs the town’s tram services. Mittal also runs hospitals and schools. ArcelorMittal and its subsidiaries provide employment to around 35,000 people in Temirtau, of which persons of Indian origin are just a handful—at the top. Incidentally, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan, began his career as a worker in a steel plant in Temirtau.

(Published in Frontline dated Dec 27, 2013)

Kyrgyz Republic

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THE Central Asia motoring expedition organised by the India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF) crossed into Kyrgyz Republic eight days and 4,000 kilometres after it began on September 18, 2013, at Astana in Kazakhstan. Kyrgyz Republic shares borders with China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, each with many border crossings. We chose the shortest route though, between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic, one that takes no more than two hours. Korday, a village on the Chu river on the Kazakh side becomes Akjol-chu on the other side of the border. It is a busy crossing where traders cart merchandise from one country to the other. Everyone entering Kyrgyz Republic through a land border is required to take his/her personal belongings and walk through barricades for about 500 metres under the glare of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras and the watchful eyes of border security guards. The crossing itself is uneventful and the immigration officials are friendly. But as I step into Kyrgyz territory, one of the guards asks me to step aside in order to inspect the recent photos in my camera. He makes sure I delete pictures of the check post in my camera before waving me off. We board a minibus and head towards Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyz Republic.

Sandwiched between the endless steppes of Kazakhstan and the barren desert landscape that makes up most of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Republic is a haven of verdure. Almost 80 per cent of the country is mountainous but the hills are interspersed with expansive pastures and lush valleys. Arable land is limited to the fertile Ferghana Valley in the south, shared with neighbouring Uzbekistan.

It is therefore natural that Kirghizia has traditionally been home to nomadic tribesmen and -women who kept moving with their portable yurts (cloth tent dwellings of nomads) and livestock. The horse and the soaring condor were their sole means of transportation and communication respectively until almost the 20th century. Even now, in the remoter parts, the nomadic lifestyle subsists, vignettes of which we could glimpse as we sped through the highlands.

Kirghizia, befitting the appellation “roof of the world”, is home to some of the stunning mountain ranges of our planet—Alay, Tien Shan and the Pamirs—all of which we cross at some point during our journey. The Tien Shan range (Heavenly Mountains) extends westward for approximately 370 km from the Chu river to the Talas river in Kazakhstan. It rises to a height of 15,994 feet (4,875 m) at the West Alamedin peak and forms part of the border between the two countries. However, the route from Almaty to Bishkek is flat and almost entirely urban, with shops and businesses lining the highway.

Kyrgyz Republic is perhaps not as well endowed with minerals as neighbouring Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It does have a massive gold mine at Kumtor, the second highest in the world after Peru’s Yanacocha. Located on the banks of Lake Issykul in the Tien Shan range, this mine is worked by a Canadian company and has already produced several thousand tonnes of gold. The country also has deposits of mercury, uranium, silver, copper and coal in modest quantities. What Kirghizia has in abundance, however, is yet another precious resource, more valuable than even gold —water. Home to two major river systems of the region, namely, Amu Darya and Syr Darya and their many tributaries, including the Irtysh, the land is alluvial and is conducive to cultivation. Cotton and tobacco are the main crops. The vast pastures sustain huge populations of goat and sheep, which yield both wool and meat.

Yet, being downstream of Tajikistan makes the Kyrgyz a bit vulnerable since the former plans to build a series of dams that might affect the flow of water downstream in the Amu and Syr basins. Of special concern is Tajikistan’s CASA-1,000 hydel project, which has concluded a deal to export electricity to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The transmission lines will have to transit Kyrgyz territory and could thus bring substantial transit revenues to the republic. The Kyrgyz government is in talks with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to export electricity from its own hydel projects as well.

The nation’s largest ethnic group is the Kyrgyz, a Turkic people who constitute 70 per cent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Russians, concentrated in the north, and Uzbeks, living in the south. There are also small numbers of minorities who include Dungans, Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs and Ukrainians. Of the formerly sizable Volga German community, exiled here by the Russian leader Joseph Stalin from their earlier homes, a few small groups remain.

In Bishkek, the ICAF delegation participates in a round table where many think tanks and universities are represented. While reiterating the historical and cultural ties between India and the Kyrgyz Republic, our hosts take this opportunity to apprise us of their current needs. The Kyrgyz need hospitals and are in talks with the Apollo Hospitals group to set up one in Bishkek. In the early 1990s, the Government of India had offered credit lines to Kyrgyz Republic, but the envisaged projects did not take off and the credit lines expired. Now, the Kyrgyz are looking to India for training their youth in information technology and associated skills.

We are assured that unlike the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz consider themselves Asians foremost and that they are looking to India for cooperation and synergy. N. Aitmurzaev, Rector of the Diplomatic Academy under the Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyz Republic, is keen that the transmission lines going through his country should extend beyond Pakistan to India. It would be well worth India’s while to explore the possibility of accessing hydel power from the two water-rich Central Asian neighbours, just as it has done with Bhutan. After all, as the crow flies, Bishkek is only 1,600 km from New Delhi, and India can use all the electricity it can tap from its neighbourhood. Jayant Khobragade, India’s Ambassador to Kyrgyz Republic, hosts a dinner for the ICAF delegation. He is full of ideas to strengthen Indo-Kyrgyz relations through the extension of soft power as represented by Bollywood. He is also exploring the possibility of Indian investors setting up hydel projects in Kyrgyz Republic. Technology has not only shrunk distances, but also conquered geographical challenges.

Irena Oralbayeva, former Kyrgyz Ambassador to India and an experienced India hand in the republic, is worried about the proliferation of madrasas in her country. Decades of Russian domination had virtually obliterated religious bigotry from the region. But now, headscarves and chadors are making a comeback. While one spots an occasional chador-clad woman on the streets of Bishkek, they are much more ubiquitous in the Ferghana Valley. This was not the case during Soviet times, Irena Oralbayeva tells us. While Kyrgyz Republic does not share a border with Afghanistan, it does have a border with Tajikistan which has its own brand of the Taliban: Hizb-ul-Tehrir, the Central Asian counterpart of militant outfits in South Asia, is a destabilising influence in the region. That explains why the Kyrgyz would rather have the Hamid Karzai government continue in Afghanistan since, according to them, he is able to stanch the seepage of militancy across his border. Apart from Afghanistan and the Hizb-ul-Tehrir, the Kyrgyz also have to reckon with a 1,000-km border with the Xinjiang region of China with its attendant problems of Uighur infiltration.

Bishkek is a lovely city, and like Almaty, its streets are tree-lined and park-studded. Business establishments still sport names painted in the Cyrillic script. Kyrgyz was originally written in the Turkic alphabet, but gradually a modified Perso-Arabic script replaced it.

The Soviets, of course, brought in the Cyrillic script. When Kyrgyzstan became independent following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, it was hoped that the country would revert to the Latin alphabet with which it had a brief dalliance before the Russians introduced Cyrillic, but that has not yet come to pass. The youth, however, are keen to learn English which, they believe, will open many doors to employment.

Osh & Ferghana valley

The next leg of our journey—from Bishkek to Osh, the second largest Kyrgyz city located in the Ferghana Valley—takes us through the most spectacular landscape of the entire trip. Persuaded by our hosts to leave after lunch, we have a delayed start from Bishkek although we have some 700 km of almost entirely mountainous terrain to cover. Our delegation transfers to six smaller cars, and we brace ourselves for the very long journey ahead. Following some terrorist incidents in the not-too-distant past, buses and vans are not allowed to ply on this route. On the “roof of the world”, there is a delicate peace prevailing for now, but in 2005, these highlands seethed with ethnic clashes in which hundreds of people died. The Tajik border is just 20 km away from a certain point on this road, and we are advised not to linger until we cross this point. Kyrgyz Republic is building an alternative road that will skirt the Tajik border, but that is for the future. For now, this is the only route for all travellers to Osh unless they choose to fly from Bishkek.

There are no villages en route, only yurts, and nowhere to stay the night if we get stuck. But as we near the foothills of the Tien Shan range, one of the cars has already sprung a leak and is steadily dripping green coolant all the way, forcing us to make an unscheduled stop to fix the problem. Our Kyrgyz driver is unfazed. He does some jugaad and, voila, we are cruising again through tunnels and mountains.

It is a stunningly beautiful route that needs to be savoured at leisure, but we are zipping through flawless macadam wrapped around the mountains like a giant black serpent. At places, the road plunges into valleys that offer a 360-degree horizon with brilliant hues conjured up by an abundance of ozone. The meadows—highland steppes—are clothed in emerald. The slopes and valleys are dotted with grazing horses, their silken manes silhouetted against the setting sun. Tribesmen and -women in colourful clothes sell solidified mare’s milk, a delicacy in these parts. In certain stretches, there are apple orchards; almost all the fruit vendors are women, seated on low stools by the highway with their produce. We keep a watchful eye for the legendary Kyrgyz condor but find only lesser birds of prey. Yonder, layer after layer of mountain ranges unfold and the scenery is breathtaking.

On the other side of the mountain ranges lie the Ferghana cities of Jalalabad and Osh. The Kyrgyz Ferghana has 600,000 Uzbeks and many Tajiks. Similarly, there are 500,000 Kyrgyz in neighbouring Uzbekistan and a considerable number in Tajikistan. Separated by a quirk of history and caught in political crossfire, the people of the Ferghana Valley have learnt to live with uncertainty. They fear that when the United States’ troops pull out of Central Asia in 2014, this region could once again turn into a tinderbox.

We stop for tea at a wayside eatery and watch a spectacular sunset on the banks of the Naryn river. A 12-hour drive later, we reach Osh around 2 a.m. through a scenic landscape veiled in darkness. Surprise, surprise, even at this unearthly hour, three Indian medical students, studying at the Osh State University, are waiting for us with stacks of rotis, dal and vegetables cooked lovingly in their bachelor apartments. The three helpful men remain with us throughout our brief stay in Osh, helping us make the most of it.

The following day we visit the Osh State University and meet the faculty and some students. Kanybek Isakov, the Rector, fields all our questions with grace and patience. The university, established in 1951, trains 27,000 students in 14 faculties. We are impressed by the vibrant atmosphere on this campus, which attracts many Indian students. There is an India Study Centre at the Osh State University; India was the first country to establish one like this.

The university has taken it upon itself to popularise the epic of Manas, a traditional epic poem celebrating the legendary hero of Kirghizia. The plot of Manas revolves around a series of events that coincide with the history of the region in the 17th century, primarily the interaction of the Turki-speaking people from the mountains to the south with the Mongols from the bordering area of Jungaria. The epic of Manas is a unifying force in a nation that is made up of many different tribes. The government of Kyrgyz Republic celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995. Throughout the Soviet period, each Kyrgyz considered it a matter of national responsibility to tell the Manas story to his or her children, and the epic survived that era just as it survived the Mongol invasion of the 12th to 14th centuries. Isakov holds up a voluminous copy of the epic and tells us that it needs to be translated into Hindi.

We visit Osh’s fabled open market with its profusion of produce, most of which is local. The bazaar is redolent with the aroma of non, the local circular bread. However, the merchandise is almost all Chinese.

The Sulayman hill on the outskirts of Osh provides a fabulous view of Osh town with its newly built mosque. On this hill is a modest edifice which the Kyrgyz claim is the home of Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. While Babur hails from Andijon in the Uzbek part of Ferghana, the Kyrgyz believe that he spent many years in this tiny tenement planning his campaigns. It has now been converted into a dargah. We huff and puff up the hill to see it though we are sceptical that Babur had anything to do with it. But Babur is such an outstanding son of Ferghana that the Kyrgyz may be forgiven for wanting to claim their share of this legendary conqueror.

(Published in Frontline dated Jan 10, 2014)


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After the severe steppes of Kazakhstan and the stark mountains of the Kyrgyz Republic, the India-Central Asia Foundation (ICAF) expedition through Central Asia entered Uzbekistan on the last leg of its journey. This republic came across as a stark contrast to the lands we had crossed so far, not only for its varied landscape, vibrant people, colourful culture and chequered history but also for the thoroughness of the Uzbek immigration and customs officials at the land border. Our luggage was rummaged through meticulously, even our laptops were opened and files scrutinised. The procedure took a long time, but all the while we were entertained by the immigration officials who spotted resemblances to Bollywood stars in the facial features of the three young women in our team.

Professor P.L. Dash of Bombay University, who is currently the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, the Uzkek capital, had come all the way to the border to receive and accompany the delegation. A new set of vehicles had been arranged to take the team through the next 1,500 kilometres of Uzbek territory. The Cyrillic script gives way to Latin and the Russian language makes way for Uzbek. Yet, all the towns of the Ferghana Valley—Andijon, Ferghana, Rishton, Namangan, Kokand—still bear the unmistakable imprint of Soviet influence, with their broad, tree-lined avenues and clean streets.

The legendary fertility of the Ferghana Valley is much in evidence. Both sides of the highway have burst into a profusion of blinding white flashes as far as the eye can see. This is cotton country. September is also the fruiting season, and in villages and towns, every home is fronted with trellises, all laden with luscious grapes. Throughout the countryside, there are melons, watermelons, apples, apricots, quinces, persimmons and many other fruits that we do not even recognise. In parks, public spaces, cafes, restaurants and streets, there are fruit trees and the sidewalks are stained with fruit juice. No wonder, Babur spoke so nostalgically of the sweetness of the melons of his homeland.

Babur’s land

Ferghana today is just as nostalgic for Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur, its most illustrious son. The legendary Uzbek boy who went on to shape the destiny of Hindustan for the next 300 years dominates the psyche and public spaces of Ferghana. Besides Babur’s rather modest home in Andijon, now turned into a museum, there is a Babur Park, a Babur Monument, a Babur International Foundation and several other institutions devoted to the study of Babur’s life and times.

The son of a modest chieftain, Babur traces his lineage to the legendary Timur on his father’s side and to the fearsome Mongol warrior Genghis Khan on his mother’s. After suffering reverses in his own homeland, Babur was forced to seek his fortunes in neighbouring Afghanistan and, eventually, India, where he founded the Mughal empire. Historians have it that Babur was a military adventurer of genius and an empire builder of good fortune. Babur was also a gifted Turki poet and a lover of nature who built lavish gardens. Baburnama, his memoirs in the Chagatai language, portray a ruler unusually magnanimous for his age, cultured, witty and displaying an adventurous spirit.

We drove from Andijon to Ferghana town, where we halted for the night. The following day, we visited Kokand, the region’s last flourishing and independent Khanate that was crushed by Tsarist soldiers and brought under the Russian empire in 1876. The citadel of Khodayar Khan, the last Khan of this region, still stands, albeit a little damaged. It has since been converted into a delightful museum. Ferghana is also known for its silk weaving and ceramics, besides other handicrafts. We make a brief stopover at Rishton, known for its signature pottery.

Ferghana, of course, has moved on. It now has a Chevrolet plant. Cars manufactured here will have to travel all the way across the giant mountains before they can reach their showrooms in Tashkent and the rest of the country.

We met Dinesh Prabu, a textile engineer from Tirumangalam in Tamil Nadu, who, along with his colleagues, was setting up the machinery at the Indorama textile plant in Kokand.

Ferghana’s fecundity and the consequent prosperity seem to be its undoing. Coveted by all the three countries abutting it and settled by people from all over Central Asia, the region is an ethnic soup. Its economy relies heavily on trade, and that is the challenge for Uzbekistan, which is doubly landlocked. In fact, almost all the cotton grown in Ferghana is exported as raw material. Besides, the country also produces substantial quantities of gold, uranium and copper, all of which have to cross the Chaktal range that stands between Ferghana and Tashkent before they are exported.

There used to be a railway line between Ferghana and Tashkent, but that ran through Tajik territory. Services have been suspended since 2005. The Uzbeks are now building another railway line through the mountains with Chinese help. The new line will bypass Tajik territory and run through a series of tunnels. For now, all commodities move by road through mountain passes that abut Tajikistan. Every tunnel and bridge on the Uzbek side is heavily guarded. After all, there is just one 400-kilometre road that connects Ferghana Valley with Tashkent and if that is cut off, the Uzbeks will lose control over their part of the valley.

Indology in Tashkent

In Tashkent, the ICAF delegation held extensive discussions with a distinguished panel of Indologists from the University of World Economy and Diplomacy. Speeches were made in chaste Hindi by our hosts and we discussed the role of Uzbekistan in the region and the threats to its stability from the rise of Islamist fundamentalism, especially after the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops from Afghanistan in 2014. A visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Indology Centre gave us an indication of Uzbek interest in the study of India and Indian languages. However, the faculty lamented New Delhi’s lackadaisical approach to fostering Indology studies, contrasting it with the proactive interest the Chinese have shown in promoting the Chinese language and culture in Uzbekistan.

In Tashkent, we participated in a solemn ceremony held by the Indian embassy to commemorate the birth anniversary of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. A small group of Indians had gathered in Shastri Park to remember the beloved leader who breathed his last on this soil. At the Al-Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies, we were shown a treasure house of 40,000 rare manuscripts, most of which are yet to be deciphered. One of our team members, Ramakant Dwivedi, is an alumnus of this institute.

Samarkand: past and present

Samarkand, the next stopover on our itinerary, is indeed the magnet of Central Asia and a prominent town on the ancient Silk Road. Today, it is largely known for its Timurid legacy, its Registan and other glittering monuments built in the 14th and 15th centuries. However, Samarkand’s glory predates Islam.

Founded in the 7th century B.C. as Afrasiob, this region was the heart of Sogdiana. The ethnically Iranian Sogdians who lived in Samarkand played a key role in the commerce along the Silk Road even though they never established a single strong state. Located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan river in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, Afrasiob reigned supreme at the crossroads of world cultures, until Genghis Khan destroyed it in the 13th century. However, it bounced back to prominence once again as Samarkand during the Timurid period.

Archaeological excavations of Afrasiob have revealed an ancient citadel and fortifications, the palace of the ruler with its wall paintings still intact, and its residential and craft quarters. There is considerable evidence in the paintings, archaeological material and written sources to show that several religions were practised in Afrasiob. The excavations have revealed fire altars from private homes and fragments of ossuaries, pointing to the importance of Zoroastrianism. Xuanzang’s biographer reports that during the monk’s visit in 631, Zoroastrian priests chased away two of his Buddhist followers.

Sogdians, however, were among the translators of Buddhist scriptures in China, presumably because they had the linguistic skills, honed by life at the crossroads of major trade routes connecting China with India via Central Asia. Today, little of the Buddhist heritage survives in Sogdiana, much to the chagrin of Sunita Dwivedi, author of three books on the Buddhist heritage of Central Asia and a member of our team. There is also evidence of Hindu influence in nearby Panjakent, not to mention the remnants of Nestorian Christian artefacts.

Today, Samarkand seems to have shrugged off its past grandeur and moved on. Its splendid Islamic monuments merely form a backdrop for a modern city bustling with fashionable avenues and shopping malls. The city’s central attraction is Registan Square, a perfectly balanced ensemble of exquisite Timurid architecture. It is certainly one of the most beautiful city squares in the world, comparable to Imam Square in Esfahan (See “An architectural symphony”, Frontline, September 24, 2004).

The city’s myriad monuments were painstakingly restored during the Soviet rule, and the modern-day visitor can hardly tell the difference between the ancient structure and the restored version. Gur Emir, Timur’s flamboyant tomb, is an ode to symmetry and extravagance befitting his personality, while the Bibi Khanum mosque, built for his favourite Mongol wife, is a structure of immense grace and beauty. We also visited Ulugh Beg’s Observatory to admire the marble sextant built by Timur’s astronomer grandson.

The starkness of Bukhara

Bukhara, unlike Samarkand, is a quintessential desert town, an oasis stopover for weary traders embarking upon the punishing wilderness of the Kyzilkum and Karakum deserts, which they must cross to reach the markets in Byzantine. Bukhara’s architecture is stark, mostly unglazed and unembellished, emphasising its burnished brown rawness and aesthetics. The iconic Kalyan Minaret and Mosque dominate the skyline. Originally built as a beacon to guide travellers, the minaret’s unrivalled elegance belies its bloody past. Successive emirs used the top of the minaret to fling convicts down to their death in an age when cruelty was celebrated as the mark of manhood. We wandered through Bukhara’s labyrinthine alleys and climbed to the top of the Ark citadel to have a bird’s-eye view of this enchanting town.

The very last leg of our journey took us through the Kyzilkum desert. Karakalpakistan, named after the black caps worn by its inhabitants, is an autonomous province of Uzbekistan populated by Kazakh people and is located on the road from Bukhara to Urgench, the main town in the Khorazem province. The rivers Amu Dharya and Syr Dharya, mighty when they start their course from the highlands of Tajikistan, dwindle to mere streams as they reach the end of their journey in the desert. The Kyzilkum desert, stretching for several hundred kilometres, has a world-class road slicing through it but no villages. Not long ago, there was no road through this desert and camel caravans had to brave the searing heat and venomous vermin. If they survived both, they still had to negotiate stretches infested with brigands and wild tribesmen. Today, travellers can cruise in air-conditioned comfort and stop at a midway eatery and refuel their vehicles, too. No wonder many choose to do so. We found the eatery crammed with motorbikes and sports-utility vehicles of two groups on expedition, one from Malaysia—all men, on bikes —and the other, a group of Europeans.

Khiva and algebra

The end of the desert stretch brought us to Khiva, a town much like Bukhara in its infamy as also in its architecture. It was the ancient capital of the Khorazem province. According to archaeological evidence, the city existed in as early as the 6th century, but it was first recorded in the 10th century by two Arabian travellers. In the 16th century, it became the capital of the Khanate of Khiva. By the 17th century, the city began to develop as a slave market. During the first half of the 19th century alone, some one million Persians as well as an unknown number of Russians were enslaved and transported there before being sold. Many of them were sent to work on the construction of buildings in the walled Ichan Kala (Royal Court), which is the most striking feature of the historic city. Slavery was abolished only after the October Revolution in 1917.

Khiva has 94 mosques and 63 madrassas and is considered an important centre of Islam. In 1990, Ichan Kala was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), paving the way for its preservation as a museum city. Spotlessly clean, the town, however, seems to lack the vibrancy of a quintessential caravan city of yore. Today, all we have are camera-wielding tourists haggling for trinkets with local craftswomen.

We wandered through the maze of masjids, museums, maqbaras, and madrassas. There is a gorgeous unfinished minaret in the heart of Ichan Kala. Legend has it that the Khan who began its construction died before its completion and his successor decided not to finish the structure, since a full-size minaret would have given the muezzin unhindered view of the emir’s harem.

Despite its unsavoury history, Khiva was not without distinction. In its precincts lived the father of modern algebra and trigonometry in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. Mohammed Ibn Musa al-Khorezmi’s systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations led to algebra, a word derived from the title of his book on the subject, The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing.

According to Wikipedia, Al-Khorezmi systematised and corrected Ptolemy’s data for Africa and West Asia, presented the coordinates of places based on those in the Geography of Ptolemy but with improved values for the Mediterranean Sea, Asia, and Africa, and wrote on mechanical devices such as the astrolabe and the sundial. He assisted in a project to determine the circumference of the earth and in making a world map for Al-Ma’mun, the caliph, overseeing 70 geographers. Al-Khorezmi’s statue dominates the square in Ichan Kala.

At the Mamun Institute in Khiva, originally set up by Alberuni himself more than 1,500 years ago and functioning almost continuously except for a break of about 150 years, there is a museum that gives us a crash course on Uzbek history from the prehistoric times to the present. Al-Khorezmi occupies pride of place in the museum alongside Ibn Sina, the African physician who came to Khiva to heal and cure.

Climate change and the Aral Sea

At Urgench State University, the ICAF delegation was briefed about the concerns of the region, mainly relating to climate change. The Aral Sea, not far from here, is drying up, raising the salinity of the already unyielding land. The population here is dependent mostly on agriculture, and if this trend continues, the people of this region may have to move to cities to find other employment. Upstream states such as Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic have been building dams and hydel projects, hastening the demise of the Aral Sea.

The ICAF delegation wrapped up its historical journey through Central Asia at Urgench from where it flew back to Delhi.

The journey took us over 5,000 kilometres of the most challenging terrain on the earth. It straddled some spectacular mountain ranges, teetering passes, withering wilderness, vast steppes, fertile valleys and river basins, and seemingly interminable stretches of barren desert. We passed through three national capitals and numerous historic towns and villages en route. We met with officials, politicians, academics and ordinary people to exchange views and perspectives and to rediscover our common heritage.

The journey gave us valuable insights into the heroic efforts being made by the three Central Asian Republics to break free of the shackles of history and geography to find their rightful place in today’s world.

(Published in Frontline dated Jan 24, 2014)

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