SAMARKAND (Reuters) - I had a smile on my face as I strode across the tarmac of Samarkand airport, for I had arrived at last in the city I had toiled for four years to recreate as a novelist.
My expectations of seeing everything I had researched about one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world - it was founded in 700 B.C. by the greatest traders of the old Silk Road, the Sogdians - could hardly have been higher.
Samarkand was once one of the greatest cities of Central Asia, the “Rome of the East”. I was travelling in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Marco Polo and Tamerlane. Now the second city of Uzbekistan after its capital, Tashkent, the mantle of history lies heavy on Samarkand.
I was making this trip in the height of comfort and convenience, travelling by private jet and chartered train as guest lecturer with a luxury tour company.
Of all the cities of the Silk Road, Samarkand is without doubt the most evocative. To 19th century orientalists such as James Elroy Flecker, who wrote “The Golden Road to Samarkand”, it was the home of all the romance and poetry in the East.
For 2,500 years Samarkand maintained its position as the richest and most populous metropolis on the Central Asian section of the Silk Road - the series of routes on which goods, people, philosophies and culture flowed back and forth from China to the Mediterranean and all points in between.
I was attracted to Samarkand as the primary location for my novel, especially when I learned that an equally legendary and despotic ruler made it his capital city in medieval times.
Timur the Lame - better known to us in the West as Tamerlane or Tamburlaine the Great, constructed at a furious pace all the beautiful mosques, madrasas (Islamic religious schools), gardens and squares of this amazing city.
But to the astonishment of me and my fellow passengers, it is nothing like the Silk Road city we expected - no winding alleyways, romantic ruins or local markets selling silks, spices and foodstuffs of every variety.
The markets exist but are now in clean, modern, open-air retail spaces that would not be out of place in Europe.
Samarkand and Bukhara, about 250 km (155 miles) to the west, are impressively modern and clean, with wide boulevards and obvious signs of Soviet style. The mosques, madrasas, mausoleums and temples have all been restored to perfection.
If this reconstruction had not been done, these historic buildings would have disappeared by now, given the advanced state of dilapidation most were in by the turn of the last century.
In this sense, the purists’ howls of protest against what they regard as over-enthusiastic renovation is missing the point. These buildings would not be here otherwise.
Uzbekistan has shed its 70 years of Soviet rule very quickly since independence in 1991, reasserting its own identity and adopting Timur as its national hero.
The emancipation of women is another astonishing legacy of the Soviet era and all the more surprising to witness it in an Asian and predominantly Muslim country.
Shopping in these places, there is the inevitable haggling and determination by the merchants not to let you go. We took this in the spirit of the Silk Road as the tradition of buying, selling, bartering, exchanging and haggling is hardwired into the history of these great cities of ancient times.
The main plaza in Samarkand is Registan Square and it is big - about the size of two football fields, with imposing madrasa entry arches flanking three sides. It has all been restored from the dilapidated ruins of a century ago.
While the quality of the restoration work is variable, as a rule the Soviet-era renovation is meticulously well done. For example, Timur’s mausoleum has been lovingly returned to its former grandeur in all its intricate detail.
The tomb itself is marked by a two-meter (six-foot) block of black jade, the biggest in the world then and now. Legend has it that Timur’s howls of rage - at being, finally, dead and buried - could be heard for weeks after his internment.
The tour pushed on to Bukhara, at the crossroads of the Silk Road’s east-west and north-south trade routes. By 500 B.C. it was already an important centre.
Defended by 13 km (8 miles) of ramparts and gates as part of a formidable citadel, much of it has been restored as part of its 2,500th anniversary celebration in 1997. It was the last city to fall to the Bolsheviks when the Emir of Bukhara, the last of his line, fled to Afghanistan in 1920.
There are now more than 140 restored and protected buildings in Bukhara, including a reconstruction - to 30 percent of its former size - of the Ark, a fortified palace dating to the 5th century.
The main entrance gates have been fully restored along with the surrounding citadel walls, making it a very impressive representation of an ancient Silk Road town - and quite unlike Samarkand. The first sight of the Ark is breathtaking, especially when you realize you are not looking at a film set.
When you’re travelling in this part of the world, take the time to savor Uzbek cuisine. It is one of the most diverse in Central Asia and even the names of the most popular national dishes make the mouth water: plov, manti, shurpa, shashlik, lagman, samsa. They smell divine too.
Most of the classic Uzbek dishes have a culinary history going back centuries. Mix in some Turkic, Kazakh, Uighur, Tajik, Tatar and Mongolian influences and you end up with a diversity that is astonishing.
This diversity is reflected in a typical Uzbeki meal of many different courses. Be warned!
At the beginning the table is laden with sweetmeats and fruit, followed by vegetables and salads. Then it is the turn of soups - savory shurpa and thick mastava, to name just two.
If you’re full already, you’ve badly miscalculated as now come the main dishes - manti, lagman, shashlik and plov.
Plov was my favourite. A hearty one-pot rice dish cooked with lamb, onions, raisins and carrots, it has a delightfully sweet background taste.
Any good restaurant in Samarkand or Bukhara should do it well but make sure you try the Caravan Restaurant in M. Ikbol Street 12 in Bukhara, an open-yard and traditional eatery that serves a wondrously tasty plov.
Along with the extensive restoration in Silk Road cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara, there is evidence of creeping “tourist-isation” with signs in multiple languages for Silk Road tearooms and the like.
But this does not mean they are simply museum pieces.
Traditional skills and local crafts are very much alive, as I witnessed wandering into a carpet shop to watch the weaving by a row of women crouching on the floor at their looms.
From Bukhara we went to Khiva (pronounced “Heeva”), which was another important east-west crossroads city. Like Bukhara’s Ark citadel, Khiva has also been renovated to the point of reconstruction.
The effect is that it looks almost too good to be true - almost. The city walls tower formidably and you enter the “old town” through a massive pair of fortified gates, just as you would have done in Khiva’s ancient heyday.
But this is no film set. People actually live and work in the old fortified town. As we went to look at the harem living quarters - occupied right up until the last emir fled in 1920 - the thunderous hammer blows from a blacksmith’s shop rang out.
That added an authentic working feeling to the usual hubbub of hawkers and shopkeepers enticing us to look at, feel or try on their assortment of beautiful fur hats, multicolored silks and rugs.
Khiva was the last of our Silk Road destinations.
In just nine days we had seen a significant section of the western Chinese end and Central Asian part of the Silk Road, starting at Kashgar.
From Kashgar we went to Samarkand, a distance of 775 km (480 miles). Samarkand to Bukhara is a short hop by plane and the journey from Bukhara to Khiva is about 385 km (240 miles).
The total distance was 1,375 km (855 miles) but travelling by plane meant the sense of wonder at visiting these iconic destinations was tempered by getting very little idea of the distances involved.
What we had covered in just nine days would have taken the ancient Silk Road traveler eight to 10 weeks at a good “caravan pace” of 24 km (15 miles) per day.
Can the reconstruction genie ever be returned to its bottle to conjure up the Silk Road of Flecker’s imagination?
“And softly through the silence beat the bells/Along the golden road to Samarkand,” he wrote.
Samarkand as the home of all the romance and poetry in the East lives on. But perhaps all the time it really was just in our imaginations.
(The author is a Reuters contributor. His novel “Dragon Horse”, set on the ancient Silk Road, was published in 2008.)
Editing by John O'Callaghan