June 19, 2022 – Samarkand: Shah-i-Zinda

Afternoon light enters silently through the gaps of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand and transforms the whole necropolis into a prismatic vision that makes one understand why this place has earned illustrious names throughout the ages, and why it is most widely known as “The Mirror of the World”.

But as I sat there mesmerized, I became more inclined to believe that it mirrored constellations and galaxies… and that so much of what we find beautiful are mirrors of our joys, sorrows, and the distinct libraries of music and thoughts stored in our beings.

It probably was not the first time that a girl stood under its hypnotic gaze and made her contemplate on beauty and celestial realms; and I’d like to think that those reflective beings who came before me must have also gravitated towards its lesser-known epithet — “Garden of the Soul.”

© 2022 MDR
Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

June 25, 2022 – Uzbekistan Beyond Book Pages

My last few days in Uzbekistan were supposed to be spent in Termez, a place bordering Afghanistan where Alexander (considered not so great in these parts of the world) founded a town. But after learning about the tragic earthquake in Afghanistan, and for the peace of mind of those I love (not that I’ve given them so much of that), I decided to be practical (yes, I can be, sometimes) and come back to Tashkent to be closer to the airport. Termez will have to wait; and perhaps, it is a romantic idea to leave something to come back for.

It is risky to travel these days, and it is crazy how the fate of some dreams and travel plans hang in the balance between two words — Positive or Negative. And when I asked my niece who works in a bank to change some currency for me, she reported that the bank declined upon learning of my destination, “Kay duol sa na-ay gyera.” (It is close to areas of conflict.) She had to go out of her way to another money changer. If one looks at the map, the bank is not wrong.

But here I am. Because when something feels right, it feels right. I booked my ticket with so much faith, and the itinerary that has been ready since 2020 finally came in useful.

“But I thought you wanted to go to Iran?” friends asked. I am in what used to be part of Persia. “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “place of”. This is the place of the Uzbeks that was once of Persia. When the Achaemenids expanded their empire, they sought not to Persianize whomsoever they conquered but allowed different peoples and cultures to thrive — as long as they paid tribute, of course. And since we know borders are all but manmade, I am in the region of which I have been reading and dreaming for a long time… and it is intoxicating, and beautiful, and enriching.

The books I have been reading did not end on their last pages. The best books never do. They only give the reader a deeper yearning to continue the journey and the learning beyond the pages. They give one an urgency to live.

June 19, 2022 – Samarkand Mornings and Minarets

“A city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse.” This line by Elif Batuman, who wrote briefly about the height of the Timurid Renaissance, came back to me so clearly as I took my last look at Samarkand.

I can only commit these soft mornings in Samarkand to memory, as another gem in the Silk Route beckons…

June 17, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Tamerlane

When Soviet archaeologists exhumed this tomb in 1941, they allegedly found this inscription inside: “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble. Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”

In a matter of hours, Hitler’s men invaded Russia resulting in millions of deaths. Stalin ordered the remains to be reinterred in 1942, and soon after, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Coincidence or not, it is a remarkable story.

Two years ago, I listened to a series of podcasts about this man for whom this mausoleum was built. I found him frightening and intriguing! There aren’t enough books written about him, and eurocentric history merely dedicates one or two measly paragraphs to him!

This man, known in the West as Tamerlane, is Amir Timur, “iron” in their language. It was he who freed his people from the yoke of the Mongols and proceeded to establish the Timurid Empire in 1370 and conquered lands spanning parts of Russia, and north western India to Syria.

During his reign, he and his armies decimated 5 percent of the world’s population! On his Persian conquest, they massacred and constructed towers out of the bodies. He was as brutal as the Mongol Khans, but unlike them, he spared the intellectuals, the architects, the writers, the rug makers, the craftsmen, the artistic and the educated, and brought them to Samarkand. And thus began the flourishing of Timurid arts and architecture, well exhibited in this very mausoleum up to this day.

Where I am staying in Samarkand is a wall away from this mausoleum.

The moon was still up when I walked over this morning and the muezzin’s call to prayer accompanied my quiet footfalls.

I sat on the steps with a book thinking it would still be off limits at such an early hour, but the caretaker noticed me and offered to let me in and left me on my own!

Heart pounding and knees slightly trembling, I entered and thought I heard throat singing along with the muezzin’s call…

 © 2022 MDR
Amir Timur Mausoleum, Samarkand

June 16, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan

What is it about the rhythmic and harmonic counterpoints between a lone stringed instrument, a drum, and throat singing that fire up the blood and make you want to conquer the world? This must have been the music that ran through the veins of the formidable khans and Tamerlane. As if my heart was not already drumming wildly, the perfect soundtrack for how I felt greeted me through the train speakers — music so visceral, so empowering and liberating.

It was a day that started with a huge bowl of yogurt and honey, crisped walnuts that I did not expect to be so flavorful, plump dried apricots, raisins that had retained their blue, all these topped with crumbled cottage cheese; and a cup of coffee to further fuel an excitement that I had not felt in a long time.

I left for the train station amidst a glorious Tashkent sunrise while half of me was still in disbelief that I was finally going to a land that had achieved mythical status in my mind, a land I thought I would only be able to visit through books.

But today I walked into a poem. I found myself welcomed to a courtyard with a garden framed in abundant grapevines. My wonder must have been apparent that the owner of the guest house started pointing at each fruit-bearing tree and incanted, “Fig, apricot, orange, apple, quince, plum, persimmon, pear, peach, walnut, cherry, mulberry…”

“Mulberry? What the silkworms eat?” I asked.

“Yes.” She rummaged through the renowned leaves of silk history and held out gems of a deep magenta towards me.

As the mulberries burst into color and flavor in my mouth, I realized how perfectly symbolic this initiation was to a place that was once known to the Greeks as Maracanda — metropolis of the Sogdians, the wealthiest and most successful merchants of the silk roads.

What a most beautiful thing to finally be able to write in my journal, that today I arrived in Samarkand, the heart of the Silk Route.

June 14, 2022 – Tashkent, Uzbekistan

© 2022 MDR
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

In which city did Alexander Solzhenitsyn miraculously heal from a stomach tumor that he chose the place to be the setting of Cancer Ward? Where did Mikhail Bulgakov’s widow hide the manuscript of Master and Margarita before it was published? To where did Anna Akhmatova evacuate during the Leningrad siege? For which city did Vronsky refuse an assignment significant to his military career in favor of Anna Karenina? In which city is the oldest Quran kept? Tashkent.

It has played important roles in literary history, and literary history seems to be woven along the threads of daily life here. Three of Tashkent’s Metro Stations that I was able to pass through today are dedicated to writers: Alisher Navoi, the greatest writer in Chagatai history; Abdulla Qodiriy, the nonfictional character of the novel, The Devil’s Dance, which I read earlier this year, and writer of what is considered the first Uzbek novel; and Alexander Pushkin!

A baffled immigration officer at our international airport asked me, “Why Uzbekistan?”

This post is the first of a series of answers. 🤍