Of all the places I planned on visiting during the Mongol Rally, nowhere held me as captive with anticipation as Uzbekistan. For travellers of all types, words like Kieva, Bukhara, and Samarkand evoke imagery unparalleled elsewhere on this Earth.
After towing a broken down rally car 150km from Nukus to Urgench, we made our way to Kieva late in the evening last Saturday. How novel it was to descend upon the town with nary a road sign or street lamp in sight! After being pointed down a road and told to drive for half an hour, the citadel of Kieva abruptly emerged before us from the darkness of the night like a sand castle in the desert. It was not unlike how Silk Road caravans must have come across the city centuries before (minus the bus part). After a morning of site seeing, we continued east to Bukhara for two days and after that to Samarkand.
The beauty of the monuments in these cities is undeniable. The 12th century mass of Kieva’s Arc, the vibrant blue domes of Kalon Mosque and Mir-i-Arab Medressa, and the imposing beauty of the Registan ensemble in Samarkand have been forever seared into my memory as some of the most striking artifacts I have come across in my travels.
In Khiva and Samarkand especially, the problem is just this. These monuments exist as nothing more than just artifacts.
The Registan, once a flourishing bazaar is now a barricaded monument to the past. The main square has long since been paved over and the halls of the three madrassas remain empty – like classrooms on a perpetual summer holiday. The complex itself may only be visited between the hours of noon – 3PM, though I was able to give a security guard $10 to let me in at dawn. The entirety of the Registan is surrounded by metal barricades to ensure that each entry fee is collected. It is isolated physically and metaphorically from the city around it and the walls make it look like a crime scene. The entirety of Khiva exists only to be gawked at. Like a Central Asian Colonial Williamsburg, the “town” is populated by two types of people – tourists, and people whose livelihood is based on extracting money from tourists. As soon as I began to feel the magnitude of the city, I would turn a corner to find a souvenir shop or a woman demanding an extra $2 because I had inadvertently entered a “special” room that was not included in my entry fee. Tourists trample through mosques clad in footwear completely oblivious to their surroundings. The government smiles, so long as tourism revenues continue to increase. That the tallest minaret in town has become a popular place for local youth to meet their lovers undercover further perpetuates the ironies of this place.
The question in my mind quickly arose – what are our goals for preserving the past? Surely we are better off with physical relics to remind us of our past, right? But there must be a limit to this. “Preservationists” hacking away at 15th century mosaics in a Samarkand mosque only to have them replaced with more colorful reproductions would certainly cross this invisible boundary of maintaining the past. At what point are we just Disney-fying our histories?
In the mid 2000s, the entirety of the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum complex was controversially overhauled and refurbished. The grave stones themselves were resuscitated while the bodies inside continued to fade into oblivion. Is this the best course of action? Like the bodies inside, perhaps we are better off appreciating them while they are with us but not trying to prop them up artificially for all eternity. Maintain the mausoleums? Of course. But strip down the tile and tack up reproductions? I think not.
Buhkara, upon first impressions, struck me as a more functioning city. Naqshbandi’s mausoleum, while certainly photogenic, is still a functioning sanctuary and holy site. I mingled with pilgrims, Sufi and Sunni alike, who provided vindication for the sites very existence. It was the first place I visited in Uzbekistan that had any blood pumping through its veins. Similarly, the madrassas in town were filled each evening with Uzbeks and tourists alike, sitting among the same mulberry trees that their ancestors sat around 500 years ago. One tree in particular was dated 1411.
I certainly don’t know the answers to the questions I posed to myself. While I maintain that certain refurbishments, a la tearing down original tiling in Samarkand mosques, is detrimental the broader goal of maintaining a historical narrative, I admit that I too enjoy the ease and accessibility of seeing historic artifacts as they were intended, regardless of whether or not all the paint and mosaic work is original.
We also face the broader dilemma of what is and is not “real” or “authentic.” Is there any actual value in being able to say “this is original craftsmanship.”? Is this just the colonial romantic in me that takes pleasure in hearing this? Should I be ashamed? I would love to talk to Gehry or Wright about how they would want their monuments to society preserved half a millennia from now.
Suffice it is to say that I left Uzbekistan with a lot of questions in my head. I arrived expecting to be taken aback by the depth of beauty the cities offered, but left feeling that the beauty was superficial. It is uninspiring to see a city survive on the coattails of its past. Life feel stagnant when all energy is used to project the past and little to no thought is put to the question “but what is Khiva today?” or “what will Samarkand be tomorrow?”
Heading towads Tashkent onto Kazakhstan on Wednesday, I asked myself if I will still dream of Samarkand like I used to. I think that the answer is yes, though it will be of a Samarkand that is long gone, not of the one that exists today.
P.S. Uzbekistan is also an autocratic police state which is totally lame!!!