Former student and one of the joint founders of MUSE itself, Sophie Rieckman, shares more thoughts on her extraordinary travels round the globe. At the end of her first year of study at LSE (International Relations), she shares her thoughts and impressions with us.
Probing, interested and enlightening, she is really extending real and metaphorical horizons.
After months of our delegation leader slaving over building a fantastic Grimshaw trip for us lucky few, it took 10 hours of flying, covering 6,250km, to reach our final destination. Uzbekistan is a relatively underappreciated and unexplored central Asian republic, surrounded by a host of other ‘stans’ which share a rich Soviet and Silk Road history. Few of us knew exactly what to expect. I, certainly, was further from home than I had ever been before, in more senses than one. General Uzbek’s friendliness and hospitality, a trade-mark of the country, did not disappoint! From meetings with lawyers, ministers and journalists, to entertaining and multilingual cultural exchanges with fellow train passengers, I took away a vast amount from the trip, with the added bonus that these insights might not be something that even a thorough google search could uncover.
Since Uzbekistan’s liberal ‘opening up’ in 2016 (after the death of Islam Karimov), its teething problems and growing pains are easy to see, but its vision for the future promises to usher in a new central Asian era: one of economic and political liberalisation, accompanied by international cooperation. This juxtaposition between pre-2016 and now was emphasised by everyone I met, along with the crucial element that Uzbekistan won’t align itself with one great actor or another (in this case, probably either Russia or China), but dares instead to navigate its way through its troublesome teenage-hood to an independent adulthood. Uzbekistan takes on this bold challenge with renewed vigour, but not without its insecurities. It aims to enter into competitive spheres in an already rather developed world, as evidenced by the ever-persistent questions fired at us even from politicians of ‘do you have any suggestions?’ Whichever path it chooses to pursue in the coming years, one thing is clear: like its somewhat confused culture, Uzbekistan needs to carve out its own niches on the global stage in order to thrive and reach its full potential.
But enough serious talk: what is Uzbekistan really like?
Weaving through wild, busy side streets lined by patchily-constructed houses with huge, heavy, ornate doors, we made our way from Tashkent International Airport by taxi, whilst dodging other vehicles, pedestrians and the odd donkey, and into Tashkent itself, a former seat of power for Abu Timur and a relic, as many of the central Asian cities are, of the Silk Road era and the spread of Islam. The strange mix of shanty buildings, soviet-era grand constructions, and modern developments give Tashkent a sort of raffish charm that is difficult to find elsewhere. Tashkent formed the first leg of the trip – the business leg – so, alas, I shall say little else on my time there for reasons of confidentiality.
Once business was done, our group hopped onto the high-speed Russian railway system and set off for our next destination. Situated to the south of Tashkent, heading towards Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, are two major Silk Road cities: Samarkand to the south west and Bukhara to the south east. As anyone who has been to Uzbekistan will tell you, these two cities, along with Tashkent and Khiva, should definitely form part of your travel itinerary. Seeped in history, the architecture in both is absolutely stunning. In Samarkand, roads are ordained with towering ornate tombs, mosques, madrasas and other religious buildings. Very old meets very new in each. Samarkand’s Registan mosque is simply breathtaking, whilst the tombs for Abu Timur and his relatives are almost perfectly preserved, centuries on. For foodies, Samarkand has its own plov (or pilaf), a dish native to Uzbekistan, and any local will ensure that you don’t leave until you’ve tried it!
Don’t be fooled by the inconspicuous nature of the house facades in Bukhara. This city boasts the most history of all, particularly when it comes to religion. With a notable historic Jewish population, a Jewish quarter and a wonderfully-preserved 14th century synagogue, zoroastrian architecture and mosques aplenty (not to mention a fortress!), this patchwork of cultures and peoples out towards the Uzbek desert is distinct in a region of the world that has always grappled with identity and heterogeneity. The residential streets of Bukhara have a rather Biblical feel to them. One night, a group of us got lost in the labyrinth of mortar houses and knocked on an inn door to get directions, an experience which I instantly equated to my fantasy of what Bethlehem is actually like. Behind those mortar facades lie gems to be discovered, but you need a certain local know-how to find them. The beauty of this city is only magnified by the warmness of its people and its rich tradition of exceptional hospitality shown towards travellers and pilgrims.
Hopefully this little snapshot of my travels, however brief it may be, convinces you to go out and explore central Asia for yourself. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.