We continue along the road along the edge of the Kizilkum Desert, which is dusty and yellowish, even if the various Turkish dialects define it as “red sands”.
muynaq and the Aral Sea they had been left behind. We anticipated the arduous path from Nukus to Khiva. Left to their own devices by the 1991 Soviet Union implosion, Uzbek politicians did not seem to see maintaining or improving the roads a priority.
The kilometers followed one another, bumpy and muffled, along the bed of the Amu Dária, the great river that crosses much of the country.
We felt we were grinding and fraying at the same speed as Ravshan was driving his Chevrolet, part of the successor fleet to the historic but decrepit armada of the nation's Ladas, Volgas, and UAZ(es).
We arrived mid-morning. The sun turns the car's plate into a grid and melts what was left of the asphalt. It is with relief that the driver announces, in German, a detour, that Nilufar, the young guide and translator, confirms that we are on the verge of the old fortress of Toprak Kala.
An Interlude by the Historic Roadside
All this expansion of almost oases, between the south of the dying Aral Sea and the deserts of Karakum and Kizilkum were once the domain of the Iranian Korasmian civilization and of a succession of kingdoms from which the mighty Persian Empire stood out.
For, as Nilufar prepares us for the place, Toprak Kala stood out from this civilization between the XNUMXst and XNUMXth centuries AD and remained its capital for at least the entire third century AD.
The ruins revealed in 1938 by Sergey Pavlovich Tolstov, an archaeologist from Saint Petersburg who dedicated a good part of his life to his study.
Today, the structures Tolstov unveiled are more accessible than ever. Even so, one of the frequent missteps of the irrigation channels removed from the Amu Dária, forces us to jump too long and to get our feet wet.
A hidden path leads to what was left of the adobe walls of the old fort. As we passed inside, we were amazed at the complexity of partitions and corridors built with mere local clay that, favored by the arid climate, had resisted millenary destruction and erosion.
The Uzbek Family visiting Toprak Kala
Two young European friends walk and investigate the complex from corner to corner. In addition to Ravshan and Nilufar, the visitors “from the house” were represented by a large family that we see approaching in single file from one of the walkways, ascending to the nook where we stood and climbing to its highest threshold to, from there admire the view around.
Two ladies wear long dresses. They are paired with fur sandals and scarves that they wear in pirate fashion. The three men and two children who accompanied them were wearing little or no traditional clothing, except for the duppi – the sort of cofió of Central Asia – with which the patriarch signaled his Muslim faith.
One by one, they pass us and greet us. Without realizing it, we photographed them contemplating the panorama from the edge of the Amu Dária. Without great fears, they invite us to align ourselves with them and, proud of their identity and small tourist community, they take photographs with us.
We didn't stay long. Ravshan worried about the distance we had to cover. And the inevitable discomfort that the atrocious road and the summer heat would continue to subject us to.
Another Fortress and a Lunch at the Retreat of a Great Yurta
We left the shore of the Amu Darya. We veer north from Beruni, with Ayaz Kala in sight. Ayaz Kala was another stronghold, which was once the Korásmian capital. It appeared to us on the top of an unexpected and arduous plateau, like Masada Uzbek. We contemplate it and its secular solitude, for a time, from a distant rocky cliff.
Nearby, the Ayaz ger camp promised us a well-deserved rest and a lunch to match.
There, Rano Yakubova, owner of the establishment, receives us with courtesy and a saturated blush that contrasted with the large white scarf in which she was sheltering.
Aware of the force, Rano hurriedly shows us around the camp and invites us to the largest of the gers, the one that used to function as a communal restaurant.
At that late hour, we were already the only guests. We sprawled on the floor covered with large red carpets, padded around a long table that displayed a delicacy worthy of a royal caravan.
Rano accompanies us for most of the meal. He interrupts the conversation with Ravshan and Nilufar only for strategic round trips to the kitchen tent where he used to renew some of the cold salads and the lepeshkas, the large flat loaves in the shape and tone of a solar disc that cannot be missing from an Uzbek table.
When the meal was over, the chatter vanished. We all shared the urge to land and let ourselves sleep there for the rest of the afternoon. And the same awareness of how far we needed to get to Khiva, tonight's destination.
Uzbek Desert Pets
Okay, we got up. We abandoned the ger's thermal truce. We soon found Talgat, a boy that Rano Yakubova explains to us is her husband's son, not hers. Talgat looked after Micha, a juvenile dromedary, one of the five camelids who served the camp.
With Central Asia reaching the height of its torrid summer, the camelids of the region shed the abundant fur that warmed them during the winter. For, in different parts of Micha, including under the long neck, on top of the back from which the large hump protruded, and in the upper section of the legs, the process was incomplete.
Talgat knew the inconvenience that this inconvenience caused the animal. Without much else to do, she kept pulling it out and petting the pet gratefully.
Rano, Ravshan and Nilufar emerge from the ger and join us. Talgat passes Rano a large ball of fur he has gathered. The stepmother holds, guards her from the wind and is absent for a moment. When she returns, she is free of the wool that was in the way.
He says goodbye to us with the desire to welcome us again during the winter or autumn when – he assures us – Kizilkum and its camp are much more welcoming and charming.
At six o'clock in the afternoon, we arrive at Khiva, another ancient korah capital of these parts, today one of the central historical cities of the Uzbequistan. There we spent two days in the delicious atmosphere of the Silk Road era, dazzled by the grandeur and architectural elegance with which its Khans and similar rulers endowed it.
From Bukhara, in turn, we point to Samarkand, another star in the constellation of fortresses steeped in history, walls, madrassas, mosques and imposing minarets that make the Uzbequistan an unmissable nation in Central Asia.
Part of the route, we complete it along the Estrada Real, which was used between the two former capitals. But instead of going straight to Samarkand, we scale in Nurata.
The enigmatic bride at the gates of Nurata
On the edge of town, a outdoor Soviet prophesies: "We grant a beautiful life to our citizens on the basis of freedom and the ability to trade and exchange ideas”. Even outsiders, we feel benefited by this civilizational privilege.
We stopped for another lunch at the home of a well-known Ravshan family. There we are presented with a young woman about to get married. Shy, obedient to tradition, the bride refuses to speak to us.
She doesn't even remove the long, pink veil that covers her from the top of her head to her arms, above a glossy yellow dress, full of multicolored sequins.
It is, in fact, rare to lift the face of the single and promised sobriety in which it should be maintained. Even so, as we say goodbye, we get permission to photograph her, in these same ways, together with her mother and another lady of the house, at her bedroom door.
We congratulate the ladies, give them a gift in Sums (Uzbek currency) and point to the center of Nurata.
In the Footsteps of Alexander. The big.
Rather than a khan of Mongol origin or descent, Nurata was founded, in 327 BC as Nur, by the adventurous Macedonian king Alexander the Great. To Nurata, Alexander the Great, bequeathed the military fortress from which, despite the many centuries that have passed, shapeless vestiges survive.
Today it is the religious complex of Chashma that we admire from the top of the ruins. Chasma summons the newcomers. Its mosque and crystalline spring full of trout that no one can fish, serve as a preamble to the sacred graves of believers.
At least for those who saw the (later sanctified) son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed hit the ground with his staff and caused a miraculous spring to flow.
We paid them our photographic tribute and tasted the pure water from the local aquarium fountain. Shortly thereafter, we returned to the car and departed for Yangikazkan.
Yangikazkan rises along the western edge of Lake Aydar, the largest in Uzbekistan at 250km by 15km. In recent times, new ecological ger camps have made these stops famous.
We installed ourselves in one of them. Until sunset, we cool off in the lake and ride a camel. During after dinner, around a campfire, we watched an exhibition of popular love songs, played by a picturesque Kazakh musician, under the overcrowded firmament of Central Asia.
The next day, still and always cooked by the Kizilkum brazier, washed down by the poor roads of Uzbekistan, we enter the mythical Samarkand.
More information about Uzbekistan on the respective page of Encyclopaedia Britannica.