Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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The golden road to Samarkand

The Times, 16th February 2013

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Alexander the Great rode his famous horse, Bucephalus, across the Oxus over a pontoon bridge constructed from inflated cowhides. We had to walk, carrying our bags, and the cowhides had been replaced by a series of rusty metal-bottomed boats. The Turkmen authorities don’t like photos being taken here but, even though I have no permanent record, I shall never forget the scene that morning. This is one of the key intersections of the Great Silk Road, that great network of trails which for centuries linked Asia with Europe with branch lines that spread north into the Urals and south into the Arabian Peninsula.

In 1961, while I was still an undergraduate at Oxford, I rode a BSA twin-cylinder 500cc Silver Star motorcycle across Asia along the Silk Road, following the route Marco Polo took at the end of the 13th century. I had almost reached the Oxus when, having run out of time, I was forced to divert to India and a boat home so as to reach England in time for the Michaelmas term. Now, at last, more than 50 years later, the dream had come true. The brown muddy waters of the Oxus, known here as the Amu Darya, swirled beneath the bridge. Turkmens and Uzbeks hustled past, laden with bundles of fruit and other produce. One man rode by on a magnificent Turkmen stallion.

I have to admit that, as I walked across that rickety bridge, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. It might have taken me half a century or more to get there but I had made it in the end.

We had flown to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, six days earlier. After a day in the capital, our small party had set out on a five-day cross-country drive which was as memorable as any I can recall. For that first half of our two-week trip took us not only to Samarkand and Bukhara, perhaps the most famous of all the cities of Central Asia, but to Ancient Merv as well, and the Bronze Age sites of Margush.

SamarkandFor me, the high point of that first week was undoubtedly our time in Samarkand. “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.” As a boy at school I learnt James Elroy Flecker’s famous lines, as so many did. Samarkand more than lived up to its reputation. If I had to plump for one special memory, I would have to go for Registan Square at sunset, when the evening light is falling on the exquisite fluted domes, the mosaic-covered madrasahs, the majestic arches and the towering minarets.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, visiting Samarkand and other jewels of Central Asia was a difficult business. It wasn’t just the distances and lack of transport options. The bureaucracy was a major deterrent as well. Now new airlines are in business and these great Silk Road cities — beautifully preserved and maintained by Soviet archaeologists and cultural experts — are accessible in a way they never were before. Some critics maintain that, in certain cases, the reconstruction or restoration has been pursued too enthusiastically. I’m not sure I agree. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all listed today as Unesco World Heritage sites, an accolade not lightly bestowed.

Central AsiaOf course, the sublime architecture is inextricably linked, even determined by, the towering personalities who dominated the scene. Amir Timur (Tamerlane), who lived from 1336 to 1405, made Samarkand his capital and initiated huge construction works. What we see today is the epitome of the Central Asian imperial style: buildings with huge portals, high blue domes and brilliant majolica tiling.

Timur was born in Shakhrisabz, and that’s where we headed next to find his message to posterity, inscribed on the walls of Ak-Saray Palace: “If you have doubts about our might and power, look at our monuments.” It’s a message that resonates today, especially as many of the city mosques and madrasahs are still functioning. As I wandered round, I tried to peer through the arches of the famous madrasahs to see what the students were up to. It was like visiting an Oxford college in term-time, when visitors have to be discouraged from sneaking past the porter’s lodge into the quadrangles.

During the “Great Game” of the 19th century, Britain and Russia strove for dominance of Central Asia. Some of the most memorable episodes of that era took place in Bukhara. Here, on June 24, 1842, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly were beheaded. Stoddart apparently had violated protocol by refusing to dismount from his horse on arrival in Bukhara, and had been imprisoned by Emir Nazrullah Khan as a result. Conolly, reaching Samarkand some months later with a view to rescuing Stoddart, had also been imprisoned. Both met their end on the same day with the Emir surveying the grisly spectacle from the ramparts of the great fortress.

Outside the cities, there are plenty of ruins to be seen. After we had crossed the Oxus and entered Turkmenistan, we visited Gonur-Depe, the ruins of a Bronze Age city in the heart of the Karakum desert. Here we were welcomed by the legendary Russian archaeologist, Professor Victor Sarianidi. The professor first came to Gonur-Depe in 1972 on an archaeological expedition organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Turkmen Ministry of Culture.

We sat in a tent drinking green tea while the professor expounded his conviction, based on decades of research, that Gonur-Depe was the site of the “fifth great centre of early civilisation”, the central Asian centre, comparable to Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It was, he believed, the home of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world. Artefacts discovered at the site indicated that the first people to come there had arrived as long ago as the beginning of the third millennium BC.

Ancient Nisa, the capital of the Parthian empire, was an interesting contrast to the nearby Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat, the latter a wonderfully bizarre city of fountains and lavish white marble buildings, most of the marble having been imported at vast expense from Italy. In Nisa, there is not much to see on the ground except some crumbling walls and some burial mounds. But when you climb up on to the ramparts and look into the middle distance, your imagination — streaking back over the centuries — will have an absolute field day. Even the Romans learnt to treat the Parthians with respect — at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, the Romans got a sound thrashing.

Darvasa gas crater Cities and ruins apart, there was some amazing scenery, none more spectacular than the Darvasa gas crater, reached by 4x4 across the desert. This is a great cauldron of smoke and fire that could have come straight out of Dante’s Inferno. We pitched our tent a couple of hundred yards from the rim of the crater and all night listened to the roar of the flames. But the most vivid memory I took away, as we finally boarded the plane in Urgench to fly back to Tashkent and then home, was the view of the top of Kalta Minor Minaret. The great city of Khiva with its many mosques and palaces lay before us. And on all sides, the mud-brown walls of the homes and buildings blended into the surrounding desert.


Stanley Johnson’s book Where the Wild Things Were: Travels of a Conservationist is published by Stacey International

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Stanley Johnson was a guest of Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968,wildfrontiers.co.uk) which has 14-day land-only tours in May and September from £2,350 in groups of up to 12 people, including full board. Flights can be arranged for an additional £600pp.