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...

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...


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