On the Silk Road

{Pictures will follow when I have a faster connection.}

Only some Silk Road cities carry that thick incense of an exotic east, of camel trains spread out from caravanserai to trading dome to madrassa to mosque from Tashkent to Samarqand to Bukhara. Indeed, the Silk Road has become a unitary highway of our imagination, the direct, express lane that leads from Marco Polo’s China to Marco Polo’s Venice. But growing towns, shifting dunes, mountain passes gone impassable, streams vanishing into the sand, bandits, failed crops, new or forgotten ceramic techniques, a spike in the price of saffron, imperial conquests all contributed to a complex map of many roads, all silken, through many cities. You could leave Samarqand for Bukhara either by traveling southeast or northwest, a circle route that offered a dozen intermediate stops before begging a final decision: continue south for Persia or veer further north to skirt the Caspian Sea on the way to Russia.

Even now, the tortuous road from Tashkent to Samarqand retains the aroma of a boyhood romance; the greening steppes with their flocks of fat-tailed sheep and goats and donkeys and donkey carts rise to the further mountains past villages clustered like oasis havens, thick with apricot trees, walnuts, and runners of silk drying on the branches.

You can invent during these moments when all the world you see is ancient and strange. It is delectable; it is being seven and digging to China in the backyard while your grandmother, born in far off Georgia eons ago, draws on her cigarette and says nothing. Tashkent is further east than Georgia, closer to China and India, due north of Kabul. Grandma Fanny may have known all this as a girl on the Black Sea coast, but there is no silk road in her conversation.

And then you enter Samarqand, an Errol Flynn town, you hope, of curved cutlasses, dusty bazaars, and dangerous women. You find a lovely, green town of almost 300,000, with a vigorous university district, with yellow taxis, wedding dress shops, Snickers bars, with divine school children in uniform calling to you from the bus, “Hello. Hello, what is your name? My name is Furcat.” And in a moment you hadn’t expected, the passage from Wordsworth blunts your imagination:

 

Loth to believe what we so grieved to hear,

For still we had hopes that pointed to the clouds,

We questioned him again, and yet again;

But every word that from the peasant’s lips

Came in reply, translated by our feelings,

Ended in this,–‘that we had crossed the Alps’.

 

It should have been magnificent, that crossing, a mystical passage from one realm to another, a pulse of the romantic verve that precludes dull reality. Auden sees these two worlds this way: the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind against a tree. The commonplace shoulders out the remarkable, and the illusive Silk Road evaporates.

Uzbeks, we’re told, divide modern history into eras: the Stalin Era, the Khrushchev, the Brezhnev Era, and Independence. The romance of independence renames Lenin Square Independence Square. It replaces the statues of communist heroes with those of Uzbek literary characters. But in a village in the steppes, a broad-hipped grandmother emerges from the family yurt carrying an ornate box festooned with ribbons. Inside, she points out, is a document, a declaration honoring her, in the Brezhnev era, for having borne eleven children. A brass medal, pinned to a velvet cushion, attests to her fecundity. Soviet Socialist Realism, once a notion honoring the peasant in a Wordsworthian romance, fades, and the old silk road turns to Soviet dust.

Too harsh? Perhaps, but boyhood dies hard as one turns to face his eighth decade.

Still, the Silk Road towns put on their show. Remnants remain—the brilliant blue domes, the mosque walls spilling out majolica flowers and formal geometries, the incredible observatory of the sultan-astronomer Ulug-Bek who measured the length of the solar year to within 6 seconds, the fortress homes of Timur (or Tammerlane) who conquered the world but also provided a world of understanding for his grandson Ulug-Bek.

What was missing? The destinations were all in place; the monuments tell us who built or laid waste to what in the 4th, 9th, 16th centuries. We know that books traveled with all those spices, and many arrived safely. What we needed to complete our romance of the great road was a day trudging through the desert, searching the horizon for that 200 foot high minaret in Bukhara that announced that water was not so distant, feeling the blinding glint of sun off the desert and the sharp pang of sand in our sandals. Ah: real sand would have done the trick.

Fancy that.

 

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