Fabled Cities

Samarkand. Even the sound of the name conjures up all sorts of wonderful imaginings in me. Standing in the main square of the Registan among the enormous stunning medrassas (schools of Islamic learning) is truly breathtaking.

They are some of the oldest on earth, and the Ulugbek Medressa is thought to be the largest and most important centre of mathematics and astronomy in the world during the 15th Century. Glowing in the late afternoon light, the facades and minarets of an enormous tiled mosque to the right of this medrassa, are azure and yellow.

After escaping any sickness in India, we are surprised to be briefly struck by gastro in Uzbekistan. The result of this ends up all over me, thanks to Paloma, as we sweat it out in an old Russian train from Samarkand to Bukhara. When enquiring as to why the air con wasn’t on despite the 30-degree heat inside the carriage and locked windows, we are simply told ‘It is turned on in May’. Rules and regulations govern the peoples of this country to the point of incomprehensibility. There are policemen on every corner, even when the streets are practically deserted. No wonder people here seem slow to smile. These are simple reminders to never take for granted even the smallest freedoms we have in Australia.

The further west we go the more desolate the countryside becomes. Rural life here is evidently very hard. The earth is dry after a particularly bitter winter and many farmers are toiling under the sun to ready the fields for planting. It’s a joy finally reaching the city of Bukhara, the centre of which is free from cars and pollution. The town is small enough for us to walk everywhere and we take to the back streets for a glimpse of local life.

Relaxing under the mulberry trees by the pretty Lyabi-Hauz pool, Paloma is entertained by stray cats and crazy Scottish gents studying Islamic architecture who beg us to let them babysit her. Paloma rides on Mullah Nasruddin’s donkey as he imparts his ‘wise fool’ Sufi wisdom to her.

Bukhara is home to many beautifully preserved mosques, minaret’s and medressas, and a maze of mud-brick alleyways to get happily lost in. Dome-covered bazaars display beautiful suzanis, the hand-embroidered silk textiles that were once bride’s dowrie pieces. They are usually made by several women at a time and take months to finish depending on the size. I am quite obsessed by them, and search for the older vintage pieces. Many of the antique suzanis sourced here are sold for thousands of dollars overseas, pushing up prices here to something ridiculous. We still leave with some bargains for our collection.

The fastest and only way to get from Bukhara to Khiva is by taxi. Driven at high speeds across a road pocked with pot holes, slippery with sand drifts and nothingness stretching to the horizon on either side of you. Stocked with a few provisions, drawing books, and an ipod full of the ABC’s children’s traveling songs, we launch into the 8-hour drive. Travel is in Paloma’s blood now and she loves to look out the window with me for hours into the dusty desertscape, thrown out like a dirty table cloth before us, trying to spot a lone bird or donkey. Out on the horizon, the billowing black fires of burning crops bloom randomly against the sky.