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Group photos with random strangers

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I’ve never been approached by so many people for group photos. People in Uzbekistan were incredibly friendly, and very curious. So many approached me because they were learning English and wanted to talk. But just as many spoke only Uzbek and Russian. They stopped me randomly on the street because they wanted to take a photo.  That’s happened to me once or twice on other trips. But in...

Justin Marozzi: Tamerlane and Samarkand

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Justin Marozzi I’d always thought of Temur as a cut-rate Genghis Khan who burst out of the Asian steppe, conquered a sizeable chunk of territory, and then failed to hold his empire together. It was only when researching a trip to Uzbekistan that I discovered Temur — or Tamerlane, as he was known in the West — was one of the world’s greatest conquerors. He was a strategist on a par with Alexander...

Gilded days in Samarkand

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Gūr-i Amīr Mausoleum My interest in Bukhara and Khiva centred on the Great Game. Samarkand is all about Timur. The great Central Asian conqueror is known as Tamerlane in the West but he’s hardly a household name like Genghis Khan or Alexander. I’ll have more to say about him next week. Today I’d like to tell you about the rich architectural legacy he left behind. Timur was born near Samarkand in...

Alex Kerr on Finding Hidden Japan

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Alex Kerr I’ve often thought of Japan as one of the world’s most misunderstood countries, not because it is uniquely inscrutable but because it’s so beset by stereotypes.  The casual visitor rarely sees beyond their image of geisha, Buddhist temples, hyper-modern electronics and anime. This exotic projection seems especially prevalent here in Germany and in France. The truth is more...

New Year’s Eve in Samarkand

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The next afternoon we took the golden road to Samarkand. It wasn’t golden and it wasn’t a road. It was steel, and they were rails.  We rode the Afrosiyob, Uzbekistan’s high speed showcase, built by the Spanish company Talgo and capable of flinging us across the desert at up to 250 km/h. It wasn’t as smooth as a Japanese shinkansen but it provided a level of comfort and speed I hadn’t expected in...

Bukhara’s silk road glory days

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Toqi Zargaron trading dome bazaar complex (ca.1569) Bukhara felt more lived in than Khiva’s heavily restored old town centre, with regular homes in a winding maze of medieval streets, and unrestored madrassa in various stages of dereliction. Backstreets of Bukhara Backstreets of Bukhara The sheer number of these schools serves as a reminder of a time when Bukhara wasn’t a byword for cruelty under...

Tossed in the pit in Bukhara

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Entrance of the Ark, Bukhara I went to Uzbekistan because I read a book twenty years ago that has always stayed in my mind. The Great Game is a 19th century tale of espionage and exploration in the high mountain passes and deserts of Central Asia during a period of rivalry between Tsarist Russia and imperial Britain.  The Russians were spreading their influence south, and the British knew...

Wandering abandoned desert cities

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Kyzylkum Desert views from Toprak Kala A great civilization existed in Khorezm from the 7th century BC to 1230 AD. Its people farmed and traded in a broad river delta south of the Aral Sea, thriving for nearly 2,000 years between the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts until Genghis Khan’s human storm swept in and put them all to the sword. Today this desert is scattered with the ruins of more than 300...

Barnaby Rogerson on the making of the Middle East

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Barnaby Rogerson (Photo by Tom Bunning, October 2014) The Arab conquest was a decisive event in the history of the Mediterranean, but it is also one of the least understood. Today this region is plagued by endless conflicts and proxy wars between nations that can look more similar than different to the outside observer. Its greatest internal fault line is the split between Sunni and Shia Islam —...

The night two million in cash went missing

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“I’ll just stop by that ATM and get some cash.” We’d been wandering Khiva’s old town all day, poking into forgotten madrassas, and I was running low on som. I’d seen both locals and foreigners use the West Gate machine, so I knew it accepted foreign plastic. I slid in my Visa card, entered my PIN, and asked for 2,000,000 in cash.  I heard an agonized whirring from deep inside. It went on for...

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