The conquest of Samarkand
The historic Samarkand eluded a number of Moghul greats and today, it is home to superfast trains and tourists from the world over
Uzbekistan's association with India has been historic. It was here, in the country's capital at Tashkent, that India's second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri breathed his last after a triumph in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Then a part of USSR, Shastri was visiting at the Soviet Union's invitation to conduct peace talks with then Pakistan President Ayub Khan. Shastri's death remains a mystery and Tashkent a distant illusion.
India's Uzbek connection doesn't end here; Babur, the first Moghul, was a minor prince of Andijan, a principality in the Fargana Valley of Uzbekistan. Babur was captivated by the famed city of Samarkand that lies approximately 350 km south-west of Tashkent. Samarkand is famous, then as now, not only for its cool climes but more for its melons – not the red variety but the white coloured muskmelons – which the 14th-century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta has raved about in his writings.
Smitten both by Samarkand's salubrious climate and its melons, Babur attempted to conquer Samarkand but failed. Later, his great-great-grandson Shah Jahan attempted to annex Samarkand and sent his son, Prince Murad Baksh, at the head of a Mughal army to conquer that fabled city. All attempts proved futile and none of the reckoning Moghul emperors could ever set foot in Samarkand.
It was then a challenge for me to do what the Moghul emperors could not and enter Samarkand. A petty ambition, no doubt, but that was the second reason for my trip to Uzbekistan.
Like other Central Asian countries, they love Indians here. One of the first persons I met in Tashkent proudly told me that his name was Babur, when he understood that I was from India. He expected me to be thrilled with his name but I was not. It took me some time to realise that in Uzbekistan, Babur is a name much loved and adored; while here in India, we have demonised the name. Verily did the philosopher Socrates say long ago, 'There is nothing either good or bad, it is our thinking that makes it so'.
There is a high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand that completes the 344-km journey in two-and-a-half hours with an average speed of 140 kmph. But, though there are four services of the high-speed train between Tashkent and Samarkand every day, I could not get a ticket and had to
settle for a 'slow' train that completed the trip in four hours at 90 kmph. A bit of a shame that Indian Railways is still plodding at an average of 60 kmph, for its 'fast' express trains.
In Uzbekistan, you can discern a certain sliver of patronising in their love for Indians. There is an unstated pride that it was their bloodline that had brought glory and fame to India through the splendours of the Moghuls. There is nothing religious, Islamic or intolerant about that pride. It is similar to our attitude while visiting Indonesia or Thailand, and realise that it is our Indic and Sanskrit culture that bases the foundation of their being.
Some culinary delights that we love in India have come from Uzbekistan. The lamb pilaf, our mutton pulao, is one such delight which is also the king of Uzbeki national cuisine. Locally called the plov, it is cooked in a method that developed eons ago. It is a culinary masterpiece and in Uzbekistan, a newborn child and a departing soul are both greeting with traditional Uzbek pilaf. The shashlik too is similar – a specially spice-soaked succulent mutton kebab that drips with the aromas of local herbs, delectable mouth-watering meat and the goodness of the Uzbek heart.
I decided to try both the pilaf and the shaslik at a local restaurant. The place was not fancy but I chose it for a narrow brook with swift waters that ran rapidly beside it. Eating shaslik and mutton pilaf while listening to the continuous calming chatter of a babbling brook made for a surreal experience. I soon noticed a few steps that led down to the cool waters of the brook. I decided to wet my feet in its mountain waters.
As mentioned before, love for Indians in this part of the world is immense. But there are a few less than friendly overtures in Uzbekistan. For one, it is near impossible for a tourist – in that still largely socialist country – to get Uzbek money (Som) out from an ATM. Nor can you depend on your credit or debit cards. You must carry dollars with you and get them exchanged in banks. If not, you will have to first go to a bank's teller, hand over your debit card, using which the teller will withdraw money in dollars from your account. Then, you have to carry the dollars to an automatic foreign exchange currency converting machine and change the dollars into Som. A very vexing process that took me over an hour to complete.
The other hostile aspect of Tashkent was its temperature. I had left a hot Delhi to only land in a sweltering 43-degree Tashkent. For some reason, I had thought that Tashkent would be cool and for that, I had even carried a pullover. The heat that met me there was hostile and it followed me all the way in that non-airconditioned coach on my slow train to Samarkand.
Though that hot train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand took only four hours, by the time I had reached Samarkand at 10 pm, I was dehydrated. To add to my travel woes, something I had eaten that morning – not the pilaf nor the kebab that I had a couple of days earlier – had disagreed with me. With a running stomach and the heat dehydrating me, I was at a near collapse state when I deboarded my train at the Samarkand railway station. Nevertheless, I was elated. I had achieved what successive Moghul emperors had not – I had set foot in Samarkand. It was a pyrrhic victory, as I could hardly walk after I got down onto the platform.
With language standing as a considerable barrier, I was wondering what to do when a porter with an airport-like trolley – they have such trolleys in railway stations in Uzbekistan – approached me. Seeing my compromised condition, he hoisted my luggage onto
his trolley and took it gingerly down the underground passage and up onto the main station building on the other side of the tracks.
He took me to some waiting taxi drivers who began to bargain about the fare to my hotel, 4 km away. They started by asking me for 100,000 Som which is about Rs 750 – I offered 25,000 Som. I knew I would get nowhere with it. But quite beyond my imagination and despite the protests by a couple of other taxi drivers, one man stepped up and offered to take me to my hotel for that sum.
I was wary of the offer but accepted it nevertheless. I laid down in the back seat of his taxi, an old Lada car (the country is full of these Ladas that are a remnant of the Soviet days), scared, desperately ill, and prepared – at that late hour being driven in a strange city through deserted roads – to be robbed or worse. I decided that if he tried anything, I would just give in, for I was too weak to put up any resistance.
But the taxi driver took me straight to that small boutique hotel, called out to the manager, took my luggage to the reception and apprised the manager about my condition. Then he came up to my room with the manager, gave me a bottle of cold water to wash my face and drink – and together, they ensured that I was comfortably tucked in bed. He then said goodbye and left. I had to call him back to pay him his 25,000 Som.
(The author is a former Indian and UN Civil Servant, belonging to the 1978 batch of IAS. This is the third and last of a three-part series that describes the author's recent travels through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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