Travel: Uzbekistan, land of myth and honey

Ark Fortress, Bukhara
Ark Fortress, Bukhara
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WE’RE not the first Britons to stand on this lonely spot, in the shadow of the imposing Ark fortress in Bukhara.

In June 1842, under the blazing Uzbekistan sun, two British army officers watched, hands tied behind their backs, as their graves were dug. The pair were then summarily butchered – throats slit, heads hacked off with cleavers.

Colonel Charles Stoddart’s and Captain Arthur Conolly’s crime had been to displease the evil Emir Nasrullah Khan. Something to do with not bringing him nice presents and a letter from the Queen. They had already spent, between them, several years in the so-called bug pit, a 20ft dungeon in the grim depths of the Ark, filled with rats and other vermin. But when their graves were eventually dug up years later, our guide Tahir informs us, there was no trace of remains. Not a rotten tooth or a chipped femur to be found.

Myth. Mystery. Magic. Uzbekistan is a land awash with tales of cruel sultans, learned emirs and beautiful Persian princesses. We gaze in wonder at the Kalyan minaret, a construction so impressive that when Genghis Khan destroyed Bukhara in 1220, he ordered this one building to be spared. Built in 1127, its foundations are rumoured to contain a murdered imam’s head, and it reaches more than 47m into a sky as clear and blue as the tiles that adorn the city’s domes and mosques.

From here, criminals – or those who had simply put the emir’s nose out of joint – were thrown to their deaths. One woman, it is said, was saved by her full skirts, which caught the wind and eased her gently to the ground. By this stage she was thought to have suffered enough, so her crime was forgiven and she was sent on her way. Limping a little, one would imagine.

Incredibly, this practice of tossing wrongdoers from the tower continued until as recently as the 1920s, when the Soviets ordered the final dynasty of emirs to stop all that nonsense. However, the minaret still dominates the skyline of a stunning city that was described by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, as “the most interesting in the world”.

Another of Bukhara’s monuments that managed to escape Genghis Khan’s trail of destruction is the Samani mausoleum – but only because he couldn’t find it, hidden amid lush trees and partially buried by sand. Considered the world’s finest brick building, the walls are more than 6ft thick and constructed from honey, egg yolk and camels’ milk; apt, perhaps, as this ancient tomb – more than 1,000 years old – looks temptingly like a biscuit tin: a confection of party rings, fig rolls and custard creams.

Maybe I’m delirious. On a trip that follows the Silk Road from Tashkent to Samarkand, Bukhara to Khiva, our heads buzz with mythology, romance and unbearable cruelty. After a seven-hour flight and a full day’s tour of Tashkent – much of which was rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1966 – we are ready to drop when we find ourselves welcomed into the home and studio of ceramic artist Akbar Rakhimov. He pours green tea and serves up delicacies prepared by his grandchildren – meringues, crescent pastries, sweet treats studded with walnuts and almonds – as he casts a spell over our jet-lagged imaginations. He talks of history and art, how each region of Uzbekistan is known for a different colour of pottery, or shape of hat, how the taste of the bread differs depending on where you are ...

With great passion – and no small amount of gesticulation – he talks of a woman so beautiful, so enticing, people tried to wrap her up in fabric to keep her for themselves. But when the fabric fell away the woman was gone and ever since they have searched for her beauty in the Suzani – a fabric exquisitely embroidered with colourful silk thread. It’s an ancient craft whose motifs are bound up in local folklore and custom, the skills handed down through villages and families. Under the Soviets, indigenous handicrafts were banned, but they are now enjoying a resurgence as Uzbeks embrace their history and their identity.

In few places is this more obvious than Amir Temur Maydoni, the vast square at the heart of Tashkent, where there once stood a statue of Marx. In his place now is the likeness of Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame, a Mongol conqueror who ruled between 1370 and 1405. Ruthless and ambitious, his empire at its height stretched from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia, as he murdered entire cities and pillaged their wealth. He is considered quite the hero round these parts, and his mausoleum in Samarkand, the Gur Emir, is an impressive sight, lined in 4kg of gold leaf within, elaborate tiling outside glinting in the winter sunlight. A steady stream of Uzbeks arrive to pray and pay their respects.

Even more impressive is the enormous madrasa complex at the city’s Registan Square. Built by Tamerlane in honour of one of his wives, it was beyond construction techniques at the time and began to crumble on completion. Now largely restored, its sheer size, delicate tilework and ornate carving make it one of central Asia’s most magnificent architectural sights. When dining out, we often eat in people’s homes; a mix of salad, noodle soup, kofta-style lamb, and plov, a hearty rice and lamb dish that’s a gastronomic hit – we’re advised to steer clear of raw vegetables, as they have probably been washed in water unsuitable for drinking, and vegetarianism is a mystery to Uzbeks.

Wherever we go, someone is getting married. We see at least three weddings a day: sober-faced, meringue-frocked brides and shiny-suited grooms parading through the streets with friends. At one village, we’re invited to share in the celebrations. Our host’s son is to be hitched, so we join them to pray for the happy couple, and to take some food and tea.

In the next house, another new bride is four months’ pregnant. We’re invited to try on her wedding garments – 12 in all, worn over three days of partying. Tahir translates as they tell their own love story: how man had dialled a wrong number. She was about to hang up but he kept her talking. After 27 days they met, and he proposed marriage soon after. They beam on the doorstep as we take photographs. And so their story joins the many others, part of Uzbekistan’s magical folklore with, one hopes, a happier ending than Stoddart and Conolly.

• Ruth Walker travelled with Cox & Kings (0845 154 8941, which has a 12-day/ten-night tour of Uzbekistan priced from £1,495 per person including flights, transfers, excursions and accommodation with breakfast daily. Flights from Edinburgh to London Heathrow with British Airways can be arranged from £110 per person return.