x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The golden journey

A trip through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan offers the perfect combination of adventure and culture.

One of the hospitable people the author met in Tajikistan.
One of the hospitable people the author met in Tajikistan.

Apart from the unfazed diplomat fast asleep in the seat next to me, all the other passengers on board the tiny Antonov An-28 aeroplane were very much awake. After a screaming take-off we were in the air, flying between Dushanbe and Khorog in Tajikistan with 7,000m-high mountains visible in every window. The two-engine turboprop plane flies through these peaks, rather than over them, meaning that at some points the wings are only metres away from the sharp mountainsides of the Hindu Kush massif. There was silence in the aircraft as we all gazed at views of vast turquoise lakes and the rolling brown hills of Afghanistan below.

It is well known that in Soviet days, this was the only route for which Aeroflot paid its pilots danger money. Yet only one plane has ever crashed, but not through pilot error - it was brought down by rocket fire from Afghanistan. I had spent a couple days exploring Dushanbe, the sleepy Tajik capital, admiring the classical pastel-coloured buildings, spending hot afternoons in cool gardens, watching women in national dress sweep along the pavements in velvet gowns and eating at the excellent Georgia Cafe. Taking the favourable weather into consideration I decided to go into the wild for a week and arranged the flight - Tajikistan is 93 per cent mountains and the nearby cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in neighbouring Uzbekistan were calling.

Tajikistan is still one of the least-visited destinations on Earth and many people couldn't find it on a map. For others, the proximity of Afghanistan, the civil war (from 1992 to 1997) and its economic woes make it a less appealing destination than other former Soviet countries. Yet I had met several adventurous travellers who had assured me that, while not an easy country to cross, it was worth the effort.

After the short flight to Khorog my adventure began in earnest with a three-day trek in the Geisev Valley, while staying with a local family in their homestay. This had been arranged with an Aga Khan funded initiative, PECTA (the Pamirs Eco-tourism Association; www.pamirs.org) which can organise tailor-made trips into Pamiri villages with guides and drivers. With two travelling companions from London, and Tatik, our driver and guide, we screeched along hairpin bends and past lakes to a large suspension bridge where our walking began. The Russian jeep proved tough on the potholed roads, but we had spotted several large Chinese lorries, hundreds of fat-bottomed sheep, heavy-laden donkeys and goats, a few Lada cars and even a couple of cyclists along the way.

Up at 3,200m we left the jeep and the walking was manageable. We ambled along, conquering a few steep paths, but not passing another soul. Roughly two hours later we arrived at a small bundle of mud-walled buildings surrounded by apricot trees and animal skins drying in the hot midday sun. The Lola Homestay was where we were to sleep and eat for two nights and three days. I asked Tatik how many guests the owners could accommodate over the short summer months. "Two or three a week, this brings money to buy medicine. Otherwise the family relies on selling their apricots and animals." Tourism is clearly in its infancy here but the little money tourists do bring in is obviously helping. Mealtimes were simple and meant mountains of survival food: bread, jam, buckwheat, dried chickpeas, fried eggs, spring onions and fried potatoes. We ate together sitting crossed-legged on goatskin rugs.

As night fell, constellations lit up the sky. Our star gazing was only interrupted by our own bad attempts at night photography. With a deckchair I could have stayed looking skywards for hours. There was no light pollution and we saw shooting stars soaring across the valley at regular intervals. Early the next morning, after a breakfast of cold semolina, we walked between villages, stopping occasionally for green tea, numerous photo opportunities and to communicate with villagers in sign language. The following day we tried a different route with tired legs scrambling over scree and pathways. I had discovered suzma in Dushanbe, and I was carrying a small bag of these marble-sized balls as trail snacks. Made of unpasteurised goat's milk, they are deliciously salty and chalky in texture, and make ideal mountain nibbles.

The lakes, mountains and kind hospitality of the people of the Pamirs had been a great introduction to the region, but after three days of no showers and sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor, I was looking forward to a couple of nights at the Serena Inn in Khorog. This charming six-room inn, built in the style of a traditional Pamiri house, was constructed to accommodate His Highness the Aga Khan on a visit and now provides accommodation to weary travellers. Double rooms cost from US$100 (Dh367). Sitting in the shaded gardens, I enjoyed the stunning views of Afghanistan across the River Panj.

This remarkably remote corner of Central Asia has a wide appeal. Walkers, trekkers, Silk Road buffs, crafts enthusiasts, world music fans, photographers and the admirers of Soviet dereliction architecture will all find satisfaction here. But this is not a place for foodies or those who enjoy luxurious surroundings. Travel is also tough, long and quite costly. For me, the legends of Alexander the Great and the Great Game and some of the most scenic and breathtaking mountain roads in the world kept me going when I was tired and often hungry.

The primarily Tajik cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were still elusive - between me and these gems of Central Asia was a long car journey via the Fan Mountains and a supposedly hostile border crossing. Staying overnight in the old Sogdian city of Penjikent, I experienced a trouble-free crossing and found myself in the magical and fabled city of Samarkand. The city is a photographers' dream and it is clearly benefiting from tourism. I was initially surprised by the sheer number of tour buses and other travellers, but the Uzbeks I spoke with all reported that tourist numbers were slightly down, a consequence of the worldwide economic downturn. Year to year, however, tourism is steadily on the rise.

Samarkand deserves a few days to explore as it boasts several major sights. I began with the Shah-i-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums which houses the Tomb of the Living King. This refers to the grave of Qusum ibn-Abbas, a cousin to the Prophet Mohammed who is said to have brought Islam to the area in the seventh century. The avenue was resplendent in the early morning light, and managing to overlook the overzealous restoration work, I found myself alone apart from a few men reclining on a large tapchan, or tea bed. Huge turquoise domes fringed the avenue which was lined with tiny carved wooden doors leading to cool burial chambers. The visit was moving and memorable and was made all the more special by the low hum of morning prayers.

The second must-see is the often-photographed Registan. This symmetric ensemble of madrasas is spread over a large square, and is the primary tourist attraction in Central Asia. To appreciate the craftsmanship of the architects' work, I visited at different times in the day - the light on the Sher-Dor madrasa is beautiful at sunset. The large edifices are among the world's oldest; anything older was destroyed by Genghis Khan around the turn of the 13th century. Since then, earthquakes and seasonal temperature extremes have also damaged the Registan and some significant restoration work has taken place. Close to the main attractions there are shops selling suzanis, or needlework embroideries, and other crafts to tourists, which allow for some gentle bartering.

The one major downside to Samarkand is the restaurants on offer. The choice is extremely limited and there are no high-end eateries. It would seem likely that this will change given the continuous growth of tourism in the region, but for now it makes the city slightly less pleasurable and mealtimes can be problematic, especially for vegetarians. I did, however, find the cafe I had been searching for in Bukhara. Silk Road Spices (www.silkroadspices.org) is a perfect place to relax. The menu offers a wide choice of tea, coffee and sweets as well as plov, the national dish. Stirring nabat sugar into my china cup of Iranian saffron tea, I chatted with the manager, Mirfayz Ubaydov, who explained that his family has been in the spice business for more than 600 years. I asked him if tourism was growing. "Tourists have only been coming in the past 14 years, but now we can really see the change. People come from all over the world."

Bukhara is Central Asia's holiest city and contains a plethora of cultural heritage. I explored feverishly on my last few days, happily vanishing through blind alleyways, courtyards and narrow streets. I shopped in covered bazaars, sipped green tea and bartered with busy merchants in striped cloaks. At night I slept in a simple 19th-century caravanserai. I didn't want to miss a thing, partly because Bukhara was the last stop on my adventure, but also it was here that I felt I was in the Central Asian city I had always dreamt of.

Romantic, magical and so far untouched by mass tourism, Bukhara left me with a warm heart and the feeling that Central Asia will not remain undiscovered for long. travel@thenational.ae