Tea to quench an army
Genghis Khan never had to contend with radar speed traps, but otherwise the view from the road to Samarkand must have been the same for him as it is for us - a flat expanse of cotton and wheat fields stretching as far as the eye can see. His hordes overran the land that is now Uzbekistan early in the 13th century, but the festival of Novruz, the celebration of the new year at the spring equinox on March 21, goes back even beyond that. It has its roots in the time of the fire-worshipping Zororastrians, when Alexander came this way in 329BC.
For modern-day Uzbeks, 80 per cent of whom are Sunni Muslim, it's a time to gather in the parks, meet friends, enjoy the first apple blossom and, above all, to eat plov. This national dish has many variations but usually includes rice, chickpeas, spices, raisins, yellow carrot and fat mutton cooked for many hours.
In Tashkent's Khalklar Dustligi ("Friendship of the Peoples") square the day before Novruz, large, sweating, gold-toothed men are stirring huge pans of plov and sumalyak, a porridge of germinated wheat. Families dressed in their best - green and mauve striped coats and little black and white skullcaps for the men, patterned velvet and gold embroidery for the women - order shashliki, long skewers of pieces of mutton separated by lumps of fat, cooked over charcoal braziers whose white smoke catches in your throat. Boys fly kites made of newspaper and a guitar player strolls by, while further along a free concert of Uzbek pop is packed with students in their sober black and white uniforms.
Tashkent is a modern city of wide boulevards, the original "city of a thousand fountains" having been largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966.
But this morning, I have seen the first of many venerable minarets, mosques, madrassas and mausoleums whose shining turquoise domes and blue and white tiled walls are the jewels of the cities along this part of the silk route, a highway for trade that once stretched from China to Europe with side turnings to India and Mongolia.
In Samarkand I find more fabulous buildings. The necropolis of Shahi Zinda, dating from the 9th century, displays the different kinds of decoration used over the centuries, from carved unglazed brick to majolica tiles.
Science has its monument a little way outside Samarkand, at the observatory built in the 15th century by Ulug Beg, Tamburlane's grandson and a fine astronomer and mathematician. Next to Samarkand's Siab Bazaar, a market full of traders in everything from meat to nuts to CDs and in full swing on Novruz day, is Bibi Khanum, the biggest mosque in Central Asia, named for Tamburlane's favourite wife. In the centre of town is the Registan, or main square, where the soaring portals of the buildings are arranged to face and complement each other "eyebrow style", and are as overwhelming as Manhattan skyscrapers.
When the visual grandeur becomes too much, I am offered respite by musician and instrument maker Bobir Sharipov. I wonder whether traders in the silk route days were as friendly and hospitable as they are in Uzbekistan. In a cell once used by a madrassa student, Sharipov plays for me the two-string dutor, draws medieval music from the babur, a kind of banjo made of fish skin and mulberry wood, and sounds the karnay, a copper horn as long as a man.
In the afternoon the rain comes down and finishes off any hopes of a public celebration of Novruz and the last flicker of Zoroastrian flame in Samarkand. It's better to visit between April and June, or from September to the beginning of November, when it's not as oppressively hot as the scorching Uzbek summers, or as penetratingly cold as their winters.
But the next day in Bukhara the sun is warm and the cafe owners are pouring the first green teas of the season around the Lyabi Khauz, one of only two remaining pools in a city that was once made cool by numerous canals and ponds. I chat with traders and craftsmen and admire the sharp stork-shaped scissors made by the Ikramov brothers, who claim descent from the Arabs who made weapons for Tamburlane's army. Everywhere I am treated to tea, none more fragrant than that of the spice-seller Bahtier Ahmedov in the Taki Zargaron, which is made of six different plants but no tea leaves.
Cheeky girls sell ceramics brought from the Ferghana Valley near Tashkent, but I stopped on the way to Bukhara to get a locally-made souvenir at the Gijduvan workshop, where the ceramics are designed in a more rustic style.
Master potter Abdullo Narzullaev poured not only tea, but also red wine made from the grapes that he grows over the front of his workshop.
Such easy hospitality takes the hard graft out of sightseeing. I'd anticipated travelling in Uzbekistan would be tough, but it is surprisingly relaxed. I don't even have to leave my hotel for the best sunset snap. From its roof-top bar in the old jewellers' quarter of Bukhara, there is a fine view of the blue-spangled 12th-century Great Minaret of the Poi Kalon, spared by Genghis Khan when his hordes razed the rest of the city. I wait for the best moment to take my picture, watching swifts wheeling overhead, and boys playing football against the wall of a 15th-century madrassa.
Silk Road and Beyond, a specialist in travel to Central Asia, offers tailor-made tours to Uzbekistan. A one-week tour, taking in Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent, including flights, seven nights' accommodation, transfers and a private guide and driver, costs from pound;1,250 per person. A 10-day tour, including the medieval city of Khiva, is from pound;1,440 per person. Details and booking: www.silkroadandbeyond.co.uk; 020 7371 3131. British Airways' franchise partner, BMED, operates the flights between London Heathrow and Tashkent. Information and booking at www.ba.com
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