On the Silk Road

Temple air-con, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (JAMES FLINT)

Temple air-con, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (JAMES FLINT)

You know you're not in Kansas anymore when you're standing next to a little plaque in the domestic terminal decorated with an arrow, an international airport graphic of a kneeling man, and the words ‘Prayer Room' in Uzbek, English, Arabic and Russian written underneath it.

Nope, not Kansas. Uzbekistan.

Still, there are similarities. Natural gas, for one thing. Uranium, for another. And the fear that Dorothy felt when her little house on the prairie lifted off the ground and span over-rainbow-wards for a third – it's neatly echoed in the fear you'll experience at the prospect of boarding an Uzbekistan Airlines twin-prop for the one hour hop from Taskkent to Samarkand.

But while Dorothy had every reason to be scared, the flight was the smoothest most professionally conducted small 'plane flight I've ever been on, right down to the uniformed stewardess with heels so high she couldn't actually stand up straight in the crampedinterior. Despite the practical drawbacks, the style seems de rigeur here, where all the female ground staff are dressed like dominatrixes. It's why you need a visa – if you didn't no one would ever get past the masochists clogging Duty Free.

The kitschy Soviet charm spreads outwards from the airport and into downtown Tashkent, just seven kilometers away down wide Eastern bloc boulevards bordered by the geometrically ambitious concrete facades of officeblocks and criss-crossed with the tracks of gently rusting trams in two-tone cream and green, their sides quaintly free of advertising, their bodywork clearly constructed of three single slabs of steel, welded together at the corners, pinched together at the ends, bolted onto the chassis, and tough as troop carriers, which is no doubt what they double as when needs must.

Tashkent, raised to the ground by an earthquake in 1966 and subsequently rebuilt to Russian specs, is certainly no picture postcard. Most tourists use it only as a gateway to the World Heritage cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Bit of a shame, that, as there are some interesting Soviet-era museums to see, good markets and a TSUM (state department store) to shop at, some fine hotels including a Sheraton and a Hotel Intercontinental (I stayed at the latter, extremely pleasant in a ‘wow, I could be anywhere' kind of way), and at least one decent nightclub, The Catacombs. This classy hang-out, currently owned by the daughter of the president/dictator Islam Karimov, boasts international standard DJs, a young, wealthy and internationally fashionable clientele, and a ‘Face Control' door policy enforced by bouncers sporting camo fatigues, guns and slightly silly berets.

If you can drag yourself away from the smooth local vodka and the svelte local girls, however, and overcome qualms about visiting a country whose leader is as in flagrant abuse of human rights as Islam Karimov, a whole other world awaits – a world that throws into stark perspective the one that rebuilt Tashkent.

The best places to find that world, in order of descending authenticity, are Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Khiva I didn't get to visit, so I can't tell you much about it other than that it's home to ‘the most homogeneous collection of architecture in the Islamic world, deep frozen, immune to time and lost in romantic imagination.' But Bukhara's no slouch in this respect, being a city whose history rivals that of any site on earth. It's been a bling place since Sogdian times, the pre-Islamist period chiefly known today for its artlessly cute clay ‘dragon' figurines which look more like like deers (or, to be accurate, like Spanish straw donkeys) with sometimes simple, sometimes insanely elaborate clusters of horns sprouting from their backs. Sacked with bankable regularity every seven centuries or so by every rampaging band of nutcases from the Persians thru' Alexander to Genghis Khan (who really did the business, razing everything but the stupedous Kalon Minaret, in its day the tallest building on earth) by the 16 th century Bukhara had rebuilt itself for the umpteenth time and was laying good claim to being the holiest city on earth, so cluttered with the turquoise domes of mosques and madrassahs that it was said that here, alone on earth, the sunlight actually radiated upwards.

What paid for all this was the taxes and incomes accrued from Bukhara's convenient position on the Silk Route. If you're of a religious bent you can come here and admire the architecture; if you're not, you can come here and shop. It's arguable which is the more venerable tradition. I'd plump for the latter, given the will-to-haggle of the stallkeepers in the three originaltoks , or covered bazaars, that still exist here. In the cluttered cool of their whitewashed arches, I discovered a reassuring truth about myself – that while soaring portals scratched with the veritable word of God and the venerated mausoleums of mass murderers leave me pretty cold, buying a paper wrap of paprika in a place where people have been performing pretty much the same act, day in, day out (with a short break for Soviet state controlled idiocy) for thousands of years gives me a visceral thrill. And that's before I find the bloke selling black market Uzbek pop CDs.

The other great thing about Bukhara is its B&Bs. Now that people are allowed to run businesses again these are cropping up all over Uzbekistan, but some of the best are here. I stayed in the Travel Agency K. Komil B&B, which sounds posh but was basically a old Jewish merchants house hidden away in the maze of mud streets, overhead gas pipes and wattle and daub walls that compromise the old town. Family-owned and run (by Komil himself, the enterprising eldest son), it boasts eighteenth century painted plasterwork in the rooms, a gigantic silver hot water boiler which Jules Verne could happily have piloted moonwards, satellite TV, a pregnant cat and an internet connection (www.bukhara.net/kkomil ). Highly recommended, especially the breakfast of ham, eggs, BBC World and home-made jam.

Bukhara's historic sites are handily clustered together, allowing you to lose yourself in imaginative Arabian-nights style reveries without too many pesky modern interruptions (although finding a soap powder called Barf on sale in a Silk Road shop is always going to be a joy, however tediously nerdy your sensitivity to historic recreationism). This is not true of Samarkand, where the Silk Road is now a dusty dual carriageway and points of interest are fairly far flung. More effort is, therefore, required, to see them, though taxis are cheap and the fact is that if you're here at all it's probably going to be on some more or less organised coach-type tour, as it's still quite tricky to get into and around Uzbekistan as a wholly independent traveller. The pay-off is that the buildings are even more monumental than Bukhara's; this after all was the capital of the legendary Tamerlane, psychotic ruler of the biggest land-empire in the history of the world, and he wanted it to live up to his reputation. Here you'll find what claims to be the greatest square in Central Asia (if not anywhere), the Registan, bordered on three sides by Islamic buildings of the highest quality; the awe/fear-inspiring Bibi Khanum Mosque, built on the proceeds of Tamerlane's plunder of Delhi in 1398; and the Shah-I-Zinda, a necropolis of mausoleums that's a walk-in primer of all that's best in the Islamic architectural tradition.

My favourite site, however, was one where there's nearly nothing left at all. Indeed, nobody even knew of its existence until a Russian archeologist dug it up in the 1930s. It's the remains of the biggest sextant ever built and it was constructed by Ulug Beg, Tamerlane's grandson, who by a curious quirk of history and genetics was a prototype Renaissance man. Able warrior, enlightened ruler, keen hunter and fond of a party, Ulug Beg was above all a man of science. Blessed with an extraordinary memory and a love of mathematics, from 1424 to 1429 he designed and ordered the construction of an astronomical observatory without equal anywhere in the world, which he proceeded to use to create a star catalogue with over 1000 entries, a task which no one since Ptolomy had even attempted. In the process he calculated the length of the year to within 58 seconds of modern electronic calculations and made various other discoveries that, like those of Galileo two centuries later, challenged the religious dogma of his day. Predicatably, this was his downfall. His studies offended his son Abd al-Latif, a power-crazed fundamentalist whose tendencies placed him firmly back in the family tradition, who ended up seizing the throne before having his father beheaded and his extraordinary observatory completely destroyed.

Or almost. In their fervour, al-Latif's crew had failed to realised that the base of the three-story high sextant they were so busy burning curled 11 metres down into the rock (into which it had been dug to minimise seismic disturbance). This fragment still survives – indeed, it has been beautifully restored - and you can now come and stand on this hilltop site, watch the sun set and the stars rise over the distant peaks of the vast mountain ranges that ring the horizon, and realise how foolish you are not to have known that once upon a time – and not so long ago – this city was known to all by its other name: the Centre of the Universe.

- The Observer, March 2004