On the Kyrgyz side of the Turgurt Pass, Chinese trucks are lined up for more than 4 miles. The border has been closed for the harvest festival and now there is a backlog. The truckers do not line up quite as neatly as Chinese officials would have people line up, and are splayed unevenly over two lanes which means we cannot get through - there is a hint of ravine on our side that our bus, even with the talented Alexander at the wheel, cannot negotiate. Eventually some trucks get through the customs and immigration formalities, the line opens up and we squeeze between the queue of trucks, arriving in Naryn with enough time for a walk before dinner.
The road to Bishkek is a thousand times better than before - the Chinese are building a new road between Bishkek and China, but the money for the road is a loan which nobody knows how will be repaid, because the country has few natural resources and no industry. The government is reluctant to invest in long-term plans because ministers know they are unlikely to be in power long enough to see such projects completed.
Corruption is a major problem and a classic Kyrgyz joke goes something like this; a Kyrgyz goes to visit his Kazakh friend who lives in a huge mansion in the former capital of Almaty. "How were you able to afford this amazing house? he asks his friend. "Ah, you see the new road you drove on to get to my house? Well, it is half a meter narrower on each side than it should have been and the money saved went into my pocket." The Kyrgyz absorbs this new information. A year or so later his Kazakh friend visiting him in Bishkek is astonished to find him in a house that is even larger and more luxurious than his own and asks his friend how his fortunes changed so fast. His friend taking him by the shoulder points to a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, "Do you see that road that crosses the mountains, my friend?" "What road?" asks his friend. "Exactly," says the Kyrgyz.
But back to the real new road - the traffic all goes one way, Chinese trucks drive from China laden and go back empty. They bring Chinese goods to Doloby, the largest mart in Central Asia, just outside of Bishkek, where they are sold on to traders from Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, India and others. It is the 21st century Silk Road, of which China is a large part.
Bishkek has one of the few remaining statues of Lenin in the former Soviet Union. He stands on his plinth, greatcoat flowing, pointing at what used to be the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Kirghiz SSR and is now the American University of Central Asia - this upsets the remaining communists in the country who see it as a historical building and want the American University to go somewhere else. And now that Kyrgyzstan has adopted the parliamentary system in lieu of the Presidential system, unfortunately Lenin is now facing the wrong way and has his back to parliament - or perhaps that is as it should be. Incidentally, in keeping with the Middle East and other parts of the planet, the student body of the American university of Central Asia is 70% female.
The Kyrgyz are legendarily descended from 40 tribes, but what is more based in fact is that they came from the Yenisei area of Siberia, and were originally tall and fair. After seeing off the Uighurs to the south, they fell under the sway of the nomadic Scythians, and by the 9th century Kyrgyzstan formed a part of various Muslim khanates, followed in the 13th century by the arrival of the Mongols, who stayed. Over time the genetic make-up changed, so that now most Kyrgyz are east-Asiatic in appearance.
In the 19th century the Russians arrived and as they were anxious to people the territory, they offered potential Russian settlers to Kyrgyzstan free land and exemption from military service and taxes, which tens of thousands accepted. Many noble families opposed to the Bolsheviks settled here, as did Russian and East European Jews. The Russians intermarried with locals which over the years changed the appearance of the Kyrgyz again. Stalin added to the mix by forcing many German-Russians from the Volga and Crimea to Kyrgyzstan during the WWII years to ensure they would not be a fifth column, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 most Russians went back to Russia - every family was given 250,000 rubles (approx $7890), to return - and many Germans went to a newly-unified Germany. Russian is still the most common spoken language in the capital, and many schools use Russian as the language of education with the result that many Russian Kyrgyz are not fluent in Kyrgyz, a Turkic language and the country's official language. Signs in and around the capital are written in both Cyrillic and Latin script.
Russian Kyrgyz are Russian Orthodox but the Kyrgyz are mainly Muslim, which they wear lightly, with influences from their previous shamanism. Cemeteries are ornate; stele are topped with stars or Islam's crescent moon while other markers are in the shape of yurts with an eagle or a yak's tail indicating their tribal affiliation from millennia ago. Kyrgyz babies wear amulets to protect them from the evil eye and in rural areas parents may still bestow ugly names on boys in the belief that death not liking the sound of their names, will leave them to live.
By 644AD, only 12 years after the death of the Prophet, Islam had conquered North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Persia. By the 8th century Islamic conquerors had reached as far east as the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. After the Muslim defeat of China in 751AD, papermakers, metalworkers and silk weavers were captured and taken back to Baghdad. By the 12th century, papermaking had spread from Baghdad to Spain and France, while the art of silk breeding and weaving went first to Syria and then to Spain and Sicily - both then under Arab control - and from there to Italy, and France where the city of Lyons became the most important silk center in the west.
By the 10th century the Islamic empire, with its center in Baghdad, reigned supreme from Morocco to Kyrgyzstan and Muslim traders within this multinational network supplied the western Christian world with all the products from the east. Unlike the Christian world, Islam was a religion that embraced trade - Mohammed after all had been a merchant and Mecca was a trade and religious center. Merchants were often translators, dragomen (the word comes from the Arabic tergeman meaning translator), couriers, guides and informers, with all the advantages that the shared values of the Islamic world provided, a community that stretched from Fez to Ferghana.
Samarkand has always held a magical sound for me because I am convinced that wanderlust was awakened after I saw a picture of one of the city's famous turquoise domes, when I was very young. I now know it was the domes of the Bibi Khanum mosque, which fell to bits because the domes were much too heavy; within days of it being open for business people praying in the mosque were bonked on the head by lumps of falling tile. Tamerlane was to blame - he forced his architects and builders to build at breakneck speed perhaps because he was anxious to be off on his next conquest. But he died in 1405, less than a year after its completion, in Otrar in present-day Kazakhstan.
Curiously, it was in Otrar in 1218 that a trade caravan sent by Genghis Khan was robbed on the orders of the Khwarezmian Shah Mohammed II, who thought it contained spies. Genghis Khan sent envoys to the Shah demanding retributution but not only was that not forthcoming, but Mohammed shaved the heads of two and lopped off the head of the third, sending the whole grisly tableau back to Genghis Khan. It was a fatal mistake that not only destroyed Otrar and the Khwarezmian empire including Samarkand, Bukhara and its capital at Konye-Urgench, but cost the lives of millions, changed the face of Central Asia and the history of the world.
Samarkand recovered from Genghis Khan's onslaught under Tamerlane, who made it his glittering capital. After his death, he was brought back to Samarkand and buried in the mausoleum originally built for his grandson, where he lies in the crypt, under a marker of dark green jade in the tomb.
Leaving the glories of Samarkand we drove to Bukhara on what must be some of the worst roads on earth, and which get worse with every year that passes. The Uzbeks clearly need the services of the Chinese (and not Kyrgyz) road builders, although Bukhara is worth the bumpy ride, a peaceful place with a charm that belies its bloody history.
Although the arg dates back to around the 5th century BC what exists today is largely based on the 18th century building. The arg housed the living and administrative quarters of the rulers as well as being a stronghold. It was here that the unfortunate 'Great Game' army men, Conolly and Stoddart, met their grisly end at the hands of Nasrullah Khan in 1842 when, after the resounding British military defeat in Afghanistan that same year, the psychotic khan decided that the British were not as much to be feared as he had thought. Badly damaged by the Bolsheviks in 1920, it was partially destroyed again in 1944 by the departing khan who, after looting the treasury, blew it up.
The Russians eventually conquered the Bukharan Khanate in 1868 mainly because the trio of khanates, Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand, lived in a state of perennial dispute. They used the excuse of the khans' annoying habit of enslaving Russians as the reason for conquest, although it was rather more about extending territory to keep the rival British Empire out. But the khans were brutal and details of their cruelties are well-documented. Prisoners were tortured and killed on a whim and runaways slaves often had the soles of their feet cut and filled with salt, as a punishment. After the Russian takeover the khans were allowed to rule nominally, but in 1920 the Bolsheviks launched an attack largely at the request of reformers within the khanate, and Bukhara became a Soviet Republic.
Fortunately Bukharans are much more welcoming of foreigners these days and the most attention you will receive will be from carpet sellers. It is worth noting that the famous Bukhara carpets are not in fact made in Bukhara but in neighboring Turkmenistan, but because the carpets were sent to Bukhara for sale, the name stuck.
Although Uzbek is a Turkic language, Bukhara was for long in the sphere of Persian control and many Bukharans still speak Tajik, or Persian. Most older people also still speak Russian. Bukhara had an important Jewish community and although most have since emigrated, there are still at least two working synagogues. We had lunch in a house that formerly belonged to a Jewish merchant, where the current owner, a collector of Uzbek textiles and objets, made plov, the national dish, of rice, carrots, onions, chicken and spices, which was outstandingly good (it isn't always), and thus fortified we got back on the bus for the next bumpy ride to the border with Turkmenistan.