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Bukhara’s silk road glory days


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


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


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


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


“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...

When Central Asia changed the world


Kalta Minor Minaret Europe wasn’t always the centre of world culture.  In the Early Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the continent was a pestilential backwater of ignorance, declining trade, squabbling princes and corrupt priests. If high culture and learning was what you wanted, you would have been wise to hitch your ox cart for Central Asia — the centre of the commercial...

The cruel khans of Khiva


The East Gate of Khiva “They looked like lambs in the hands of their executioners,” wrote Arminius Vámbéry in his 1864 book Travels in Central Asia.  “Whilst several were led to the gallows or the block, I saw how, at the sign from the executioner, eight aged men placed themselves down on their backs upon the earth. They were then bound hand and foot, and the executioner gouged out their...

Time-lag tired in Tashkent


Amir Temur Square It feels awfully nice to type 2,000,000 into an ATM and have a big stack of money come out. The good news: my card worked. The bad news: 2,000,000 som is only around €145. The only time I’ve held more cash in my hands was after changing $50 USD on the street in Rangoon in 2002. I took it back to my cockroach infested hotel and physically rolled in it. But there would be none of...

The Best Books I Read in 2023


It’s that time of year when I tempt you to obliterate what remains of your savings. In my defence, it could be worse. At least you’re not spending it on commemorative spoons. I’ve got some great books to recommend this year. As usual, I read and re-read a lot of travel literature to prepare for Personal Landscapes podcast conversations.  I also have a few essential history reads to share...

Sarah Anderson: Founding The Travel Bookshop


Sarah Anderson (Photo by Sebastian Latala) Many readers think of owning a bookshop as some sort of dream job. Sarah Anderson founded the iconic Travel Bookshop in 1979. You might be familiar with this place even if you’ve never been to London. It was the inspiration for the bookshop in the 1998 Hugh Grant / Julia Roberts film Notting Hill.  But that’s not our concern here. I’ve never seen...


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