...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 11, 2010




By now I was hungry for more information on Tamerlane, I really needed historical background, but bookshops had nothing in English, and Intourist had no brochures.

 I asked the girls on the counter, where was he born, what happened to Tamerlane: What of his grandson Uluq Beq, the renowned astronomer mathematician who once governed Samarkand.

Timur was born in Shakhrisabz, they told me, 160 km away on the old Silk Road,  a few hours by car.  I couldn't hire a car by myself, they said, I would have to take a driver as well.  To get the car and the driver I would have to take an English speaking guide.  In a moment of weakness, I agreed.

The car was a small but comfortable Opel, the driver a thirtyish Uzbek in a loose fitting grey suit and brown suede shoes, and my guide was the icy, blue eyed  blonde Lara.

Lara was suffering from a cold and it was obvious she thought the trip to Shakhrisabz a bore.  We were barely into the traffic on Registanskaya, than she started a monotonous spiel....’the city of Samarkand and its' suburb’s has been inhabited since prehistoric times...’

Her nasally voice droned on, reminding me why I usually avoid organised tours, somehow I would have to break into her inner core and tap whatever made her tick;  otherwise I would be in for a rugged few hours. I let her waffle on for a few more miles, then her voice became quite husky and I suggested she sit back and relax.  I would ask her when I needed information.

We passed through dry grazing land and started to climb gentle hills that changed into steep inclines with tiny villages perched on rocky outcrops.  Small children watched over black faced sheep.  Lara suddenly came to life and said she nearly had to spend two years of her life in one of these rough little hamlets. This wasn't part of her script and I waited to hear more.

‘I trained to be a teacher, when the authorities decided all student teachers must spend two years working in a country village.  We had to go where they sent us, there was no choice.’

From the tone of her voice I could tell this was a fate worse even than guiding me to Shakhrisabz.

‘Life is terrible in these villages...and women are worthless,’ she sniffed, I dug out a box of tissues. ‘My father was very worried for my safety, what you call it...my welfare... so he went to a friend in the party and this friend said, why not get your daughter into language school?’

Of course the party referred to was the then all powerful, all dominating Communist party.

She returned the tissues and I waved them back to her.

‘So instead of becoming a teacher I learned English, and now I work for Intourist.’

This road we were on was part of the Great Silk Road, the ancient trade route that crossed China and India and linked the East with Europe.  Alexander of Macedonia had travelled this way in the 4th century BC, Marco Polo in the 13th century, Omar Khayyam, Genghis Khan, so many had passed into history on this same road....and ahead was the town of Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of the local boy who had made his name by being particularly evil...Tamerlane.
The Silk Road from Samarkand to Shakhrisabz

 The driver pulled over at the top of the pass to allow me to take photographs and give him a chance to puff on a cigarette.  The road down twisted and turned through giant rounded boulders, stretching like a long white ribbon into the distance.  There were no other vehicles in sight, ours was the only car, and yet in ancient times this road would have been thronged by merchants, caravans of swaying camels, travelers from every part of the old world.

‘Have you traveled out of the country?’ I asked Lara as we resumed our journey.

‘Yes, to India, many times.’

I asked what nationality she was...Russian mother, Uzbek father, she replied.  Naturally I asked what was, by now, the million dollar question...was she single?

‘I am engaged to be married,’ she said in a flat, cheerless tone that promised another ‘tragedy of the heart’ story... and I wasn't disappointed.

 In the course of her many business trips to India, Lara had fallen in love with an Indian, a member she said, of the extended Gandhi family.  In a novel twist, his parents had objected to the match and forbidden him to see her again.  Now at age 27, Lara's father had arranged her marriage to a Tajik engineer.  She doesn't particularly like him, but was going ahead with the wedding to escape from her parent’s control.

‘But surely that is just escaping one prison for another?’

‘Perhaps,’ she shrugged, ‘but at my age I have still to ask my father’s permission to leave the house at night.  It is very difficult.’

‘What makes you think your husband will be different?’

‘I know he will not be, already he says I must give up my work.’

‘Then why get married at all?’  The girl must be crazy.

‘For me, is a very simple choice, stay at home and obey my father, or marry and set up my own home.’

We drove into Shakhrisabz, a small, dusty disappointment, and Lara slipped back to her spiel. 

We are now in Tajikistan, she tells me; many Tajiks believe Samarkand belongs to them.  In the past this area has been invaded by three great warriors...Alexander, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane.  Of the three, she says Alexander was the most brutal.  When he conquered a city, he left behind some of his men to ensure control, but to make sure they remained  he cut off a leg or an arm.

We passed a funeral party of men outside a house, Lara pointed to a Mullah wearing a blue turban to indicate he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.  I asked if she thought the Moslem religion would again become dominant.

‘Of course, it is only a matter of time now.’

‘Would that mean women would have to wear the veil?’

She nodded.  I asked would her husband want her to wear the veil.

She nodded again.   I could only imagine what that would mean to a woman like Lara; only part Uzbek, highly educated, with attitudes to life more in keeping with the west.

Tamerlane’s birthplace was in ruins, only outer walls and portal supports still stood. I was surprised it had been allowed to sink into such decay.

Lara - the ruins of Tamerlane's birth place
‘The party has decreed that before reconstruction can take place, historic buildings must have at least 20 percent of the original in place.’ We were standing beneath the towering ruins, on my part blithely ignorant this was a major earthquake region.  ‘We know from history that this part of the palace was three storys high, and on the top floor was a swimming pool for the harem.’

Lara asked if I was hungry because, she said, the hotel food in Shakhrisabz was not good.  Could I wait a few hours until we got back to Samarkand? I could and produced packets of Smarties for each of us.  She and the driver took them eagerly and had an animated discussion about their colour and content.

It was a fast, silent trip back with Lara munching sweeties and replying only when I had a query.

Back in Samarkand I invited Lara to join me at lunch; I thought this would be a good opportunity to investigate the menu.  No such luck, only chicken stew was available and it didn't look too appetising.  Lara shrugged at the mess on the plate, but there was nothing we could do but eat it.


Just as we finished the meal a beautiful, vibrant woman swept up to our table and began speaking in rapid fire Uzbek or maybe it was Russian.  She was obviously Uzbek with black sparkling eyes; dark hair cut in a fashionable bob and dressed in a shell pink linen suit that must have cost a mint.  With eyes flashing and hands moving expressively, she was including me in the conversation.

Lara broke in when the woman took a breather and quickly interpreted what had been said up to that point.  Our companion turned to me in astonishment and in English asked was I not one of them?

‘Please forgive me,’ the woman extended a well manicured hand, ‘I saw you and Lara chatting away like old friends and thought you must be a new interpreter on the staff.’

During all this the head waiter had conferred and departed to the kitchen.  He returned with a plate, placing it in front of the woman with a deference reserved for royalty. Lara and I looked down at the gourmet meal in astonishment, exchanged glances and burst out laughing.  It put our messy stew to shame.

Miriam, that isn't her real name, held a high position in the Uzbek Government and, because of her affiliation to the former Communist Party, was walking a political tightrope. She was a charming diplomat and spoke hopefully about her country’s future. 

We discussed fashion, the suit she was wearing was run up by a local dressmaker, but the material had been purchased on an overseas trip.  From fashion the topic led to Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa.  Surprisingly, both women were derisive, with Lara describing her as a cold snake.

‘You know,’ Miriam changed the subject, ‘my favourite author is a countrywoman of yours'....her book ‘The Thorn Birds’ was brilliant.  You know her, perhaps?’

I explained I didn't know the lady though I had once met her, but she seemed very jolly.

‘I have seen ‘Thorn Birds’ on television, it was very good, very sad, but I did not think he was right for the part, the man who played Meggie’s husband.’

‘You didn't?’ I was surprised. ‘The actress who played Meggie liked him so much she married him.’

Miriam raised her eyebrows, then leaned across the table, her mood suddenly sombre.

‘If only I had read this book when I was younger,’ she hinted, ‘my life would have been changed forever.’

However much I flash forwarded the book in my mind, I couldn't imagine which part would so affect a woman in Uzbekistan. ‘You know what I mean,’ Miriam said to Lara who nodded in return.

‘Oh well,’ she sighed, ‘obviously it was not meant to be.’  Miriam shook herself out of her apathy, looked at her watch, exclaimed she had to go, and with waves and smiles to me and Lara and the hovering waiters she left.  Everyone’s eyes followed her; she had that kind of effect.

‘Dear Miriam,’ sniffed Lara ‘for her too, life has not been easy.  She lives at home still with her parents.’

Her cold was no better and I hoped she wouldn't pass it on to me.  I dug into my bag for another mini packet of tissues, I had plenty.

‘Would you believe Miriam is 50 years old and still a virgin?’

Frankly, nothing in this country surprised me anymore.  But these women certainly must have indulged in deep heart to hearts.

‘But what was the significance of the ‘The Thorn Birds’....surely she didn't have an affair with a priest?’

Lara nodded. ‘It happened a long time ago, her parents wanted her to marry someone else but she vowed never to marry.’

‘Couldn't she, or for that matter couldn't you convince ...' Lara stopped me in mid sentence.

‘Defy my parents?’ she looked astonished, ‘No...never.’

Mina, Mustoora, Lara and now Miriam; all intelligent, highly educated women, all torn between the influence of the Communist Party, freedom of a European lifestyle and the persuasive pull of strong ethnic backgrounds.


©Robyn Mortimer 2010

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