Gentle breeze from yore
Part of the summer this year was spent in Samarqand, the city of fruits. The apricot here is no longer worth its weight in gold. Not one camel was spotted laden with Chinese silk and ivory and indigo from India.
The Great Silk Road of ancient times is paved into a motorway now and lined with polythene bags, plastic bottles and also with women with the most mesmerising smiles. These women encountered on the highway look very Indian and beg for money in return for smoking us down with the aroma of wild herbs smouldering on coals collected in tin cans.
"They are gypsies and not Uzbek," says Dilshodbek, our 27-year-old driver. The colourful caravan sarai has vanished from the Great Silk Road and all the satin and silk, both real and synthetic, is now stacked on plastic shelves at super markets.
However, what does remain constant is the age-old kissing and caressing by a very special breeze that blows here at this time of the year. And, that is enough reason to visit Samarqand.
A visit to Samarqand is also remembered for waking up to the call of cuckoo birds nestling in majestic trees that know how to whirl like dervishes in the wind. Situated on the left coast of the Zarafshan River, three sides of the city are sheltered by mountains and the fourth side acts as a window, letting in three air currents.
It was so easy for this landscape to seduce Timur, the Turkised Mongol and conqueror of Persian lands. Known as the Lord of Iron, Timur lost no time in grooming Samarqand as his capital in 1370. Besides, the place provided enough natural resources like stone and metal. These were used by Timurid rulers to dot the kingdom with an amazing array of buildings capped in azure coloured domes and gilded with tiles that are brushed in different shades of indigo brought from India. Timur's ruins stand to this day like an endless mirage of water against a dusty, thirsty landscape in brown.
Dwarfed below the magnificent mausoleum of Timur, I forgave the formidable warrior king for sacking Delhi in 1398. It seems Timur
meant no harm except to make sure that all the important posts on the Great Silk Road were brought under his authority including those claimed by the rulers of Delhi of that time.
In modern parley, the damage caused to the citizens of Delhi by Timur can perhaps best be dismissed as collateral.
The journey on the Great Silk Road began from Tashkent where the Park Turon Hotel (called after the ancient name for Turkey) is owned by an Indian. The lobby of the hotel swarmed with Indians and Pakistanis visiting here mostly in search of business opportunities in construction, textiles and information technology.
A favourite snack in the city is the somsa, perhaps a forerunner of our own beloved samosa. The somsa is a square or rectangle pie stuffed with minced meat and cubed fat of the sheep. Instead of deep frying the somsa, it is slapped on the walls of a clay oven called tandoori and left to crisp in fat that oozes out of its own filling.
A 72-year-old professor of chemistry strolls by the boulevard designed during the days when Uzbekistan was still a Soviet state. The professor speaks about five languages and continues to teach students of medicine even after retirement.
"My pension is US $100. To live comfortably in Tashkent, I would need at least US $1,000. There can be no retirement for me. Today, life is all about money," smiled the professor who is happy that Uzbekistan is free.
"We won our freedom only to make money it seems. Religious freedom is fine and it is a good thing that so many new mosques are being built. But more schools will help our young people more, don't you think?" the professor wondered. He misses the excellent and free-of-cost education system during the Soviet times.
However, Dilshodbek, who has three children and was about nine years old when Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, is happy that he can dream of a big house and a big car unlike his father.
His children are sent to the kindergarten while he and his wife go to work during the day. Dilshod hopes to own his own travel agency by next year. He also promises that the drive from Samarqand to Bukhara is more reminiscent of the faded glory of the Great Silk Road.
Postscript: There is no escape from Shahrukh Khan even here. A group of giggling women just made me commit forgery by asking me to write the name of the Bollywood heart-throb on the back of photographs that they make at the magnificent Registan Square in Samarqand.