Designer Jane Daniels explores the hidden riches in ancient Uzbekistan

Travel: Following the Silk Road

Berni to Uzbekistan 1880The date was 21 Septem­ber, sig­ni­fic­ant only in that I had landed at Tashkent Inter­na­tion­al Airport.

I was now in the centre of an ancient and fabled empire that had inspired many to take this same route. Unlike them, how­ever, I was not forced to take the long jour­ney through hos­tile lands where attack by maraud­ing ban­dits was a real possibility.

I was about to retrace a por­tion of the legendary Silk Road, a series of routes through which silk, gold, pre­cious stones, paper, glass, spices — all the most glam­or­ous things you can ima­gine — plus ideas and know­ledge of arith­met­ic and astro­logy were traded between East and West. I would also be cov­er­ing some of the same desert and moun­tain­ous ter­rain and cross­ing rivers that these ancient traders had to nego­ti­ate, but gladly with a private driver in an air-con­di­tioned four-wheel drive organ­ized for me by the Ancient King­doms Hol­i­day pro­gramme run by New Zealand’s Innov­at­ive Travel Company.

Jane Daniels-whiteSMLAs a fash­ion design­er, I am inter­ested in col­our and its uses in tex­tiles, cos­tume, objects and archi­tec­ture. I travel to Europe twice a year to buy the best fab­rics and have these dyed to my own col­our palette. My jour­ney along the Silk Road provided rich inspir­a­tion. My trav­el­ling com­pan­ion and part­ner Bren­don is a bespoke tail­or and also fas­cin­ated by these things.

A great start­ing point for us was the Museum of Applied Arts, a tra­di­tion­al Rus­si­an home dis­play­ing Suz­ani embroid­ery work, cos­tumes, ceram­ics, jew­ellery and wood­work. Tashkent itself is a mod­ern city rebuilt in the Rus­si­an style, all square grey build­ings and long, wide tree-lined boulevards.

Samarkand, a four-hour drive away, has always con­jured up magic­al images of shim­mer­ing tur­quoise domes. It is just like this. Stand­ing in the Registan square was aston­ish­ing, sur­roun­ded by three enorm­ous madrasa (schools), each covered in glit­ter­ing tiles. The oth­er major jew­el of Samarkand is the Shah-i-Zinda, a street of mauso­leums covered in mosa­ic and majol­ica of the richest blues, tur­quoises and saf­fron yel­low, and arranged in a pro­fu­sion of pat­terns: plants, vines, geo­metry and swirl­ing arabesques. It’s a sac­red place, busy with pil­grims who are eager to meet fel­low trav­el­lers and always friendly.

A day trip to Shakris­abz, the birth­place of the great 14th-cen­tury war­ri­or ruler Timur the lame (Tam­er­lane) afforded a sump­tu­ous pic­nic on divans and some spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain scenery.

As we headed to Bukhara we trekked up the gorge of Sarmy­sh. With spe­cial per­mis­sion we were able to see the styl­ish and ima­gin­at­ive Bronze Age rock drawings.

Bukhara, des­pite a bloodthirsty his­tory, became a great trad­ing centre. It still has its ancient domed trad­ing domes, with gate­ways tall enough to allow the camel trains through, and beneath which are now found inter­est­ing stalls selling han­di­crafts in silk, wool, wood metals and ceram­ics, and mar­kets for agri­cul­tur­al produce.

A day’s drive through the desert brings you to Khiva. From the out­side it looks like a giant child’s sand­castle, with 8m-thick walls pro­tect­ing its spec­tac­u­lar medi­ev­al city. Inside the walls are palaces and madrasa, tiled in ornate tur­quoise and blue. In its ghastly past, Khiva was a hub for slavery. A walk into the slave quar­ters reminds you of this sad fact. This aside, Khiva is a small, walk­able ped­es­tri­an-only town with a vari­ety of artis­an craft, includ­ing the car­pet work­shop estab­lished by Chris Aslan Alex­an­der and fea­tured in his 2009 book A Car­pet Ride to Khiva.

Samarkand Tile Shah I Zhinda4

Fur­ther into the desert, past the few thou­sand-year-old remains of the castles in the Khorezm, we came to Nukus. The 2010 film The Desert of For­bid­den Art tells the story of how Igor Savit­sky saved thou­sands of works of art from Stalin’s cul­tur­al purge and had them driv­en through the desert to Nukus. There he cre­ated a museum that now houses a stag­ger­ing 90,000 works.

From Nukus we flew to Tashkent and then drove into the lush Fer­gana Val­ley. This is the most pop­u­lated part of Uzbek­istan, provid­ing industry and agri­cul­ture. All aspects of silk pro­duc­tion, fab­ric dye­ing, embroid­ery, car­pet weav­ing and ceram­ic pro­duc­tion take place here. Our arrival coin­cided with the cot­ton har­vest. An impromptu stop in the cot­ton fields to watch the har­vest res­ul­ted in a shared meal of water­mel­on with an all-woman har­vest­ing crew, one of whom was an Eng­lish teach­er who was able to trans­late for the whole group. This was a high­light for us and a won­der­ful way to fin­ish our fant­ast­ic jour­ney through Uzbek­istan and this allur­ing part of the Silk Road.

JD_morocco_mosaic

About Jane Daniels

Jane is a fash­ion design­er and dis­cern­ing trav­el­ler: she travels to Par­is, Lon­don and Italy twice a year to buy fab­rics for her busi­ness. An avid read­er of his­tory, bio­graphy ad travel lit­er­at­ure, she holds a fas­cin­a­tion for the ancient cul­tures of the Medi­ter­ranean and the Near and the Middle East. vis­its to the Alham­bra in Granada and to Venice furthered her interest in Islam­ic and Byz­antine archi­tec­ture. For the last six years, Daniels has been the brand ambas­sad­or for the Innov­at­ive Travel com­pany, with whom she has vis­ited Jordan, Tur­key, Syr­ia, Egypt, Iran and Rajasthan.

About Jane Daniels

Jane is a fashion designer and discerning traveller: she travels to Paris, London and Italy twice a year to buy fabrics for her business. An avid reader of history, biography ad travel literature, she holds a fascination for the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near and the Middle East. visits to the Alhambra in Granada and to Venice furthered her interest in Islamic and Byzantine architecture. For the last six years, Daniels has been the brand ambassador for the Innovative Travel company, with whom she has visited Jordan, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Rajasthan.

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