Life’s tough these days if you’re a Tajik.
You trace your roots back through the great ancient civilisations of the Bactrians, Sogdians and Parthians. You build arguably the two finest spots along the Rhubarb Rhoute/Silk Road in Samarkand and Bukhara, and stack them full of glittering blue domes, citadels, gold-leafed mosques and grand medressas. The Tajiks were the scholars, the academics, the administrators and nobles of the Persian empire, and inhabited huge tracts of Central Asia, in “the crown of the world”.
Then the Soviet Union fell apart and they were rewarded with the back end of the Pamir Mountains. They are an island of Persians in a sea of Turkic people, and nowadays their most obvious assets appear to be atrocious roads, bitter winters and inedible cuisine.
Tajik is still the language of the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara (photos to come on this last one, don’t rush me people) but they lie slap bang in the middle of the deserts of Uzbekistan. Another triumph in drawing lines on the map, Mr Stalin.
Individually the cities are breathtaking, but together – and bear in mind they are only a few day’s camel ride away (or 3 hours on the train) – they can only hint at the riches this part of the world must have seen one thousand years ago.
In many ways, hardly anything has changed in Bukhara’s old town. Ok, so there are a few more guesthouses and a sole internet cafe, but men in felt hats still crouch in doorways, poring over games of backgammon, taking a break from the fierce midday sun and selling handmade knives, jewellery and carpets.
The synangogues, caravanserai and mosques are still standing (albeit thanks to a spot of refurbishment here and there – earthquakes, Genghis & Co and the Red Army have all ravaged the place at some point or other) and one does get the feeling time ticks by ever-so-slowly in the dusty streets. Great stuff.
What to do when you’re in a time warp? Why, stay another day, I say. To the Hammam for a thorough soak and ‘men-only’ wash tomorrow morning (oo-er). Another cold beer by the Lyabi Hauz, Central Asia’s answer to the Plaza de Armas, and then we’ll see about moving on again.