Tuesday, 13 May 2014

all the king's men (and women)

We abandon Gabor early in the morning.  The skies are clear, the sun is hot.  It's 7.10am  About 65kms away lies Samarkand.  The road is, frankly, shit.  When we ride off like cowboys in a comedy rodeo, Gabor is still loading his bicycle.  We won't see him again until late afternoon.  After an hour of bouncing and weaving from one side of the road to the other, playing chicken with the shared taxis that ply this road in both directions, we finally pause by a huge concrete cow under shady trees.  We are waved over by some blokes who point out a water fountain and then invite us to sit down to drink ayran (a salty yoghurt drink) and take a bowl of something like yoghurt cheese.  Both are cold and deliciously refreshing.  We chat a bit (England. Manchester. No, City.) before they disappear on a bus, having paid for us.

We belt along as soon as there's real tarmac again and the road gradually flattens out from the rolling countryside.  Soon we are at the city's edge, but still have 10 km through the city before reaching the tourist heartland based around the magnificent Registan.  This was Tamerlane's capital and the Registan is a large open square with three large portals fronting mosques.  The style is very similar to the brick and tilework of the great Persian buildings in Esfahan, although earthquakes and neglect over time show their cost.  The Russians attempted some restoration and preservation and today a new makeover of the grounds is being carried out at a feverish pace in order to be ready for a conference hosted by the President.  Old Big Head (as he is known affectionately by all Uzbeks) wants to impress.  There is a small army of women washing and scrubbing the pedestrian walkway next to the Registan every day for the next five days.  Short straw brushes are used to sweep up - these are a common sight, possibly invented by someone who wanted to inflict severe back-pain on those obliged to use them.  Meanwhile tile cutters and stonemasons are setting white marble on the staircases and relaying the whole courtyard area. It's chaos. I wonder if Mao's China would have looked like this.  Every whim and fancy is entertained with the herculean and possibly futile efforts of the peasants.  A single man with a street cleaning machine could do what all the women are doing.  It's strange.

just another fine mosque portal...

Old Big Head does not quite match Tamerlane's reputation.  I'm not sure what historians make of the man who claimed to be Genghis' descendant and set about trying to create another large empire through mass slaughter, inspiring fear and dread wherever he and his armies went.  At some point he went all mystic and turned to Islam, calmed down, wrote a few childrens' books and was about to organise a sporting tournament against the Chinese when he popped his clogs.  He is buried here in a mausoleum built for his teachers and sons.  It seems he should have been interred in Sharisabz, his birthplace, but it was wintertime and no-one could be bothered with the journey so they bunged him in with the others.  Last time we didn't visit his mausoleum, partly to avoid paying more entrance fees, a decision I later regretted.  On our first day walking around we come to the edifice just as a coachload of elderly Germans alight at the entrance.  I float along with them past the ticket counter and get a free guided tour, aber ich verstehe nur immer Bahnof. Never mind, the interior of the mausoleum is breathtaking.  A square domed room covered in gilded calligraphy and geometric patterns.  I think 40 kg was mentioned.  The effect is mesmerising.  
Tamerlane's mausoleum - even better on the inside

At our guesthouse we meet up with Daniel, the fast German cyclist.  After he leaves, Robert, an English cyclist, turns up.  Then there's Thomas and Thomas just leaving from the 'sister' guesthouse as Valentin and Min turn up from Bukhara.  It's the Central Asia Summer Cycling Circus.  There's a worrying unevenness on the welded joint of the cheap rim we got for Gayle's bike in Tehran.  The young guy in the guesthouse offers to take us to a local bike shop.  Judging by the wobble and scraping sound from his back wheel it does not promise much.  Sure enough, the shops are selling cheap Chinese bikes.  There's a bike mechanic in a tiny shop - the Bike Master - who has a quick look and says it's fine.  But now we're worrying/panicking about our onward route over the Pamir Highway - a long rough road across desolate high mountains.  So we order a new rim on-line to be posted to Dushanbe.  Our response might not be a well thought out one: the nearest good bike shop is in Kashgar or Almaty which also means the nearest good bike mechanic is probably that far away too.

souvenir suzani - maybe our last sight of it?
The city has two faces when you walk around - there's the old dusty town with crumbling streets now hidden by walls and new buildings to hide this 'unsightly' part of town from the tourists.  Uzbek men are generally dressed in the generic clothes of the world, although you still see the embroidered square box cap worn by some and a few old fellas with wispy grey beards in long dressing-gowns.  The women here wear fabulous (sort of) shalwar kameez made from outrageous 1970's style curtain material, often topped with a flowery headscarf.  Ikat patterns are also popular.  Over in the leafy green 'new' town, built by the Russians in the 1890's, things are slightly more modern and westernised.  After a few day's rest and sight-seeing we say goodbye to Gabor who is heading to Tashkent before going to Tajikistan.  We are heading southwards to the other border-crossing.  As we pedal out of the city centre the men and women of Samarkand are still brushing/scrubbing/washing/trimming...... The grass is green, the pavements spotless, the roads faultless.  This lasts for about three hundred metres.  As we get further away from the Registan the road deteriorates to nothing more than a dry riverbed, the houses all look shabby and neglected, the pavements non-existent....We can hear the whirr of Tamerlane spinning in his mausoleum.

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