The following is one of a nine part Silk Road series of travel by train that will appear on Ted’s blog next month. A condensed version of the series is expected to be published in the travel section of a major newspaper later in the year. (All photos by the author; see here for his previous piece on walking the Yagyu Kaido..)
The rain kept up, heavier this time, as we awoke at dawn in a small station in Kamashi, not far from the Uzbek/Afghan border. While the war across that imaginary line hadn’t touched this mountainous region, the roads certainly looked as they had. We bumped and bounced along in a mini-bus, like in the spin cycle of a washing machine, what with the rain drenched windows. We turned off onto a series of smaller and smaller roads, which surprised in getting better the further out we got. It was near smooth sailing into the village of Langar Ata, where a local family was awaiting our visit. The dozens of people there attested more to an extended family, spanning many generations. The paradox of a visit to a local family or tribe is that you are generally visiting with a headman or a home with great wealth, which are by no means the average citizen of a place. As it was, they entertained us with songs of welcome and demonstrations of their traditional ways, though the sight of the older women tying a young child to a wooden plank bed while affixing a sort of catheter to prevent bedwetting was a hair shy of child abuse to many of us. Happier children could be found at a school up the valley, where we broke into small groups to eavesdrop on a few classes, the kids as interested in us as we were in them. I felt a bit sorry for those in PE, running and running in circles around the gym as the cameras flashed.
Lunch was had back on the train, probably so as not to burden the family with feeding 70 plus guests. Outside the windows the sky was beginning to lift. A herd of camels passed by for ten minutes or so, hundreds and hundreds of them. A guy on a donkey talked happily on his mobile. Later, from far off, I saw a pair of pillars stuck into the sand. Upon approach, I realized that they were men walking to who knows where. Their shadows were the tallest things on the landscape.
Late afternoon and the train arrived at Shahrisabz, a name too for us complicated to remember, so LYL and I simply used Shishkabab. Riding though the outskirts of town, I pondered the infinite number of shapes that broken concrete could take. (This game can be played almost anywhere in Asia.)
Shahrisabz is the birthplace and supposed burial site for Timur, who in his day buried up to 17 million others, or 5% of the world population at the time. A massive statue of the man stood on the site of the old city, of a scale quite befitting history’s biggest mass murderer. The body density and epic-hero tough guy posturing seemed modeled on Steve Reeves, circa Hercules. Timur unchained roamed the length and breath of central Asia, from Turkey to north India. But it was his rambling nature that was his demise, and he died during an ill-advised winter campaign against China, bought down by a common cold. He had requested to be buried here in his birthplace, but as bringing his body through the snow-covered mountains proved impossible, his tomb was instead in Samarkand on the opposite side.
The town had once been heavily fortified, and only the walls and the main gate remained. The latter was quite magnificent in scale, despite the broken arch being half of what it had once been. No doubt it would have been an imposing sight when seen on approach from horseback. Known as Ak-Saray, its 65-meter height was now a towering ruin of stone and broken tile, despite the warning written upon it: “If you challenge our power – look at our buildings!”
Outside the town’s walls were follies of a more recent vintage, in the form of comfortable and expensive looking flats. The ground level housed shops of various sorts, but the apartments above looked empty. It all had an admittedly lovely uniform beauty, their rows ringing the walls as if an outer layer to the once great city that had stood here. But these were as equally empty and unpopulated and hollow. A blatant abuse of UNESCO funds, though the organization has since threatened to revoke World Heritage status should the construction continue.
A far better use had been the mosque, and its attendant courtyards. With its pond and small, covered pavilions, it was much as I imagined the gardens of ancient Islam to look. I could picture men walking in conversation, debating the Koran as they strolled the broad walkways beneath the trees. Had they known of the tombs beneath? In later years, a number of houses had once been built upon the crumbling walls themselves, and one day a young girl had gone crashing through. Dazed, but unhurt, she found herself looking at a number of stone sarcophagi. Inscriptions showed that it had originally been intended for Timur, but instead was the slumbering place for two unknown corpses, who sleep on to this day. And in the new homes just beyond, built from foreign plunder befitting the spirit of Timur, no one sleeps at all.