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"Where the heck is Uzbeki-
stan and why would you want
to go there?" asked more than
one friend. The first question was
easy to answer: it is a country
bigger than California with 28
million people, next to Afghan-
istan. Its location was why we
were headed there: it was the
center of the 7000-mile-long
Silk Road of the Middle Ages,
where goods were exchanged
between east and west, caus-
to western Turkey. He was to
have a profound effect on sub-
sequent history.
His defeat of a sultan delayed
the Ottoman conquest of Con-
stantinople by 50 years, allow-
ing time for books about ancient
Greeks and Romans to reach
Europe and spark the Renais-
sance. Tamarlane's great-great-
great grandson, Babur, would
found the Mogul dynasty of In-
It's always wise to do some
homework in advance, rather
than expecting the tour guide
to give you the complete back-
ground in world history you will
need to fully appreciate a desti-
nation. We read the best book
on the subject, Uzbekistan: The
Golden Road to Samarkand by
Calum Macleod and Bradley
Mayhew (also helpful was the
DVD "The Silk Road: Music,
Art, and Poetry" www.silkroad But no mat-
ter how much we thought we
knew, we did not know this
would turn out to be the trip of
a lifetime.
We signed up for a Bestway
Tours and Safaris' 10-day "The
Splendours of Uzbekistan" See: We were joined
by three adventurous and jovial
Canadians, who had just come
from Iran: Rob (a retired engi-
neer), Kathy (a mental health
administrator), and Sue (in pass-
port control; she had been to 57
countries). One of the joys of
travel is being able to share over
meals everything from tales from
the road to favorite movies.
The biggest surprise, for any-
one who might have gotten the
wrong impression from Borat's
movie about neighboring Khaz-
akhstan, is that Uzbekistan isn't
third world. Its sparklingly-clean
capital, Tashkent, has 2.3 million
people and a modern subway.
Provided you stick with the tour's
hotels and restaurants, there is
no reason to be concerned about
food (although bottled water is
always smart). There is little
crime and the Islamic extremists
would have a hard time getting a
foothold: we never heard a call
to prayer the entire time we were
there and the security forces are
Not that this country is en-
tirely ready for prime time: roads
outside Tashkent can sometimes
be bad and passport control at
the entry and exit is understaffed
The Paradise
of Islamic Art
Article & Photo by Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells
Khodja Minaret in Khiva.
and confusing. Fortunately, Best-
way provided a driver, Shafkat,
who was a genius at avoiding
potholes, and our guide, Zamira,
not only knew everything of in-
terest about her country, but was
an excellent negotiator.
Our first destination was the
most remote city of the Silk
Road, Khiva, where the inner
city, Ichan Kala, has been pre-
served largely as it was in the
Middle Ages, with walls dating
from the 5th century A.D. and
fortified in the 17th. The homes
are adobe and the people on
the street in colorful robes and
scarves aren't dressing up for
tourists: traditional clothing is
worn widely, especially in ru-
ral areas (the flash of gold when
they smile is due to its prefer-
ence for fixing decayed teeth).
At the entry to Ichan Kala is a
statue of Al-Khorezmi, a math-
ematician who was born here in
780 and whose name lives on
in our words algebra and algo-
rithm. He established the use of
the zero and decimal notation
and was among many great Arab
scientists of the time.
What stands out immediate-
ly in Khiva is Islam Khoja Mina-
ret, built in 1910, the last of the
great monuments built by Cen-
tral Asia's khans, before the re-
gion fell under Russian control.
It is 146 feet tall, designed for
the call to prayer to be heard
throughout the city, and this
was our first close-up look at
the gorgeous tile work Uzbeki-
stan is world famous for (it gets
1.5 million visitors a year, but
virtually no Americans).
Khiva is filled with little mu-
seums on specialty subjects,
ranging from Zorastrianism (the
important "fire worshipping"
religion was believed to have
begun in the area) to tradition-
al musical instruments.
The inner city has numerous
sites of historic, religious, and
cultural importance, including
the Juma Mosque (with has 213
elaborately-carved wooden pil-
lars) and the Pakhlavan Mah-
moud Mausoleum (12th century
poet, wrestler, and saint), where
wedding parties gather to drink
from a well for good luck.
UNESCO runs a few handi-
craft workshops, including one
for beautiful handmade silk car-
(Continued on page 38)
ing the area to flourish for many
Its rulers left behind impres-
sive art and architecture, pre-
served at four UNESCO World
Heritage sites, which tourists are
just starting to discover.
Uzbekistan reached its height
as the center of the empire of
Timur the Lame, or Tamarlane, in
the 14th century, which stretched
from northern India to southern
Russia, and from western China