By hotter winds : the road to Samarkand

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

We decided to go to Samarkand. Why Samarkand? No-one was certain, but it sounded exotic, and that was good enough for the four of us. We packed up our lives in London, bought a hardy vehicle, learnt some Russian, obtained letters of invitation from ministries of the interior, and set off. Along the way we ran into some trouble: treason in Croatia; psychosis in Serbia; sedition in Azerbaijan; starvation on the Caspian. And we weren’t even in Central Asia yet. We still had to negotiate desert roads and traverse the Pamir Highway, second-highest in the world. Before reaching Samarkand we’d have lost ten kilogrammes each, seen a hundred busts of Lenin and been harried by a thousand officious border guards and ex-KGB policemen. We discovered a region that is as beautiful as it is mystifying. Stranded ideologically between the Kremlin and the Koran, Central Asia is a baffling league of rival states. Held together loosely by the accident of geography and a common hatred for Russia, the alliance goes no further than that. Turkmen oil and gas merchants, Uzbek nationalists, Kyrgyz mountain folk and Tajik peasants all live in close and unfriendly proximity. Stalin pencilled in their borders on a whim, and with the fall of communism in 1989, many were left stranded, minorities under foreign rule. This is the world of Robert Byron, Colin Thubron, Fitzroy MacLean and Marco Polo; the Samarkand of Omar Khayyam, Timur the Lame, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan; the fantasy of Christopher Marlowe, Edgar Allan Poe, Wole Soyinka and James Elroy Flecker. We wanted to see the land and its people through their eyes, but also through our own. Our journey took us through a land of extremes: over the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush and through the parched Karakum Desert; across the ancient Amu- and Syr-Darya Rivers, known in the West as the Oxus and Jaxaertes; and ultimately to our destination – the great Silk Road capitals of Bukhara and Samarkand. The last, sad caravanserai had made their final journeys from the turquoise gates many years ago. What would the cities be like now? When the journey was over, and I’d experienced the road to Samarkand for myself, I put my version of it in writing. By Hotter Winds captures the exhilaration and tedium of travel and the shared experience of a journey by car. At the same time it offers narrow glimpses into the history of the faded Silk Road, its cities and its people.

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