The Big Issue : Edition 509
26 THEBIGISSUE8–21APR2016 SETTING OUT FROM Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on a Soviet-era train, we were soon escaping the heat in the bar. I ordered a beer and tried to chat with some of the other passengers, including an Uzbek who had clearly got to the bar some hours before us. He had learned yoga in Tibet. To prove it, he put his beer down, put his hands on the ground and did a wobbly headstand as the train lumbered along. We were headed for Bukhara, a famed city on the old Silk Road trading route. More than 2000 years old, it has seen empires come and go – Iranians, Muslim Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Timurids, Uzbeks and Russians have ruled this country, which now comprises 31 million people; many of them warm, generous and sporting surprising mouthfuls of gold teeth. Yet in my travels, I did not meet one Uzbek who would talk about the government, led by Islam Karimov since the nation’s post-Soviet birth LEFTPROOFTHATIT’SPOSSIBLETODOAHANDSTANDINTHEBARONAMOVINGTRAIN–BUTNOTADVISABLE. in 1991. Then again, he does have a reputation for boiling political opponents to death. After wandering the quiet streets of the old city, passing the 500-year-old Jewish cemetery, we navigated from the back streets back to the bustling Lyab-i Hauz Park. Uzbek families and Russian tourists ate at an outdoors restaurant, until the restaurant’s DJ started. Tables were deserted and the pavement became a dance floor. We departed Bukhara by train for the small city of Navoiy – which we left with bags full of suzani, an intricately embroidered textile – and then it was on to Samarkand. Located in a river valley, Samarkand is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Central Asia, and was the capital of the empire founded by the warlord Timur, also known as Tamerlane. Every visitor goes to Registan Square, a striking homage to the Timurid Empire, made up of three awe-inspiring madrassahs. As the afternoon faded, a policeman asked if we wanted to climb the turret (for a fee). Tempted by small- scale corruption, we agreed on a price, climbed the countless stairs in darkness and were rewarded by an incredible view over the city. Next we journeyed to Khiva, whose inner city, Itchan Kala, is a maze of mudbrick buildings. As the sun sank into the Karakum desert, the city’s hay-coloured buildings began to take a golden glow. We wandered under the cover of a spectacular set of stars and found ourselves sitting under the 57-metre Islam-Khodja minaret. Finally, it was time to go back to the heat and colour of Tashkent. And so the heavy Soviet doors slid closed behind us, as we made our last train trip back to where we started. by Conor Ashleigh » For more about Conor Ashleigh’s work, visit conorashleigh.com.