On our Uzbekistan Airways flight from Delhi to Tashkent, with hands clenched in prayer, the lady in the aisle opposite murmurs under her breath and occasionally turns to the priest sitting on my right wearing a questioning look. He nods with closed eyes. The old Uzbek gypsy ladies continue shuffling their goods from aisle to overhead locker as we take-off. The couple in front of me have their seats in the recline position. After hellish turbulence for the duration of the flight and steep left and right banks much like a fighter jet, the plane suddenly lands without any announcement or other warning or instruction for people to return to their seats. Even Ben looks pale.
White spring blossom trees sway in the empty streets of Tashkent at six am. Gentle rain casts a grey sky over the avenues of post-Soviet housing blocks. The scene is a stark contrast to the noise, colour and vibrancy of India. But with the scent of a new land and adventure in our minds, we set off to Chorsu Bazzar in search of fox fur jackets and traditional Uzbek food.
Chorsu Bazaar is covered by a huge blue-tiled dome, the trading aisles filled with every type of nut, raisin, spice, herb and, of all things, the hugely popular cheese ball. In fact, there are aisles and aisles of cheese balls. Ladies swish about in Evita fashions of old; double breasted suits and skirts. Vendors call to us from all sides offering free samples. Handmade kitchen utensils, breadbaskets, brooms, wooden babies cradles are stacked up neatly on the ground. Everything seems to be on offer here.
Escaping the last of winter’s chill, we speed across the country in a Euro Star-style fast train towards the city of Samarkand. Rolling green hills are dotted with flocks of wooly sheep feeding on the grassy slopes. Shepherds sit on their haunches under bare trees looking on, cracking sunflower nuts between their teeth. Towards the east, snow peaked mountains followed our train.
Ben and I have long been fascinated by the ancient Silk Route, once populated by traders and travelers and conquerors from the 6th Century until the 13th Century. To roam the roads carved across Central Asia towards China, India and Persia has always been a dream of ours. Some days I think I was born in the wrong century and the wish to venture across these desert lands in a slow caravan of camels, collecting stories and fabulous finds along the way in a traditional manner will one day be realized, although I’m aware of just how hard travel in those days truly was. We are lucky our own little family caravan can travel vast distances in the comfort of taxis, trains and planes, no matter how unsettling the latter in Uzbekistan really is. Despite these luxuries, we still insist on the occasional camel.