Rustom Samatoff, the 28-year-old driver of the grey Daewoo Nexia, knows all the love songs that play on FM radio. Hackneyed Russian or Uzbek lyrics, sometimes served in a soup of popular Bollywood tunes, spices up his job of driving people around Tashkent in his taxi. This Valentine’s Day, he learnt that Zahiruddin Mohammed Babur had turned 525. Between an overdose of love songs, the radio jockey kept announcing the birthday of the nation’s “greatest poet”.
Days later, Tashkent’s dull roads are opening up to the snowy vastness of bald cotton fields, Rustom breaks this piece of news, but not before breaking English down to ungrammatical shards: “In school, we read Babur great poet, Timur (the Lame) great king.” We are travelling— 375 km along the road the silk caravans had travelled hundreds of years ago —to Andijan, the birthplace of the man who changed the destiny of the Indian subcontinent.
After the death of his father, the local king, and hunted by relatives eager to kill the heir to the throne, the quiet 11-year-old Babur, tallish for his age, left his birthplace with a few trusted men and horses, night draped over them, shomol winds blowing with a thousand cold knives across Ferghana Valley and down the slopes of the Chatkal range.
On his deathbed in Agra, Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, would have reveries of melons from Andijan. A slice of home: the ripe, sticky nostalgia even the most ambitious of immigrants tend to carry. Five centuries later, Andijan’s armies have changed. Daewoo (now Chevrolet) sends two lakh cars a year from its Andijan factory, set up in 1996, to every corner of Uzbekistan accounting for about 70 per cent of the nation’s cars. On the way, we skip Almalyk. Babur’s shadowy troops would pitch tent here, now the site of the local Almalyk beer factory.
First stop Angren, a small coal town from Soviet times. The houses, as in most of urban Uzbekistan, are drab communist living blocks reminiscent of the panelaks of Prague. In his 1977 movie An Irony of Fate, Russian filmmaker Vladimir Voinovich lampooned these featureless concrete labyrinths, only to be banished from the Soviet Union.
Angren has a curious winter industry. Residents line up on the roadside with red and blue buckets, wave down vehicles, and use pools of melted snow to wash cars caked in slush. For 2,000 soums ($1.5), you can recognise your Daewoo Matiz or Lada Samara again. As we start our Chatkal mountain climb, the driver pulls up at a clutch of shops, which in summer would be a melon stop. In winter there are no melons, but mountain birds, shot clean in the head, hand upside down for people to take home and roast.
Turning the car heater up, it is hard to imagine the insanity which drove a teenager across such extreme weather, distance and landscape, kingdom after kingdom falling to his lean army, tribe after tribe gathering around him and his impelling speeches like an avalanche.
Till he reached the Khyber Pass, and was struck by the green thunder of a prosperous land that lay ahead. Like all wars, it was an idea against a formation. Babur’s army took on a formation four times its size at a scorched Panipat and trounced it. Rest is 500 years of history, and counting.
As the car passes a bridge on Sirr Darya and enters Ferghana valley, the region’s famous ‘heavenly horses’ come to mind. The Han emperors of China fancied them as winged and blood-sweating grand creatures and sent armies to get some back.
At Kokand, the 16-year-old waiter at an oshkhana (eatery) Abdur Rehman brings in green radish salad, lamb soup, local bread and kebabs hot from the skewers. Kokand was an important stopover on the Great Silk Road and retains its quaint charm of turquoise minarets and traditional houses.
As one enters Andijan on the Kyrgystan border, military presence thickens. On May 13, 2005, government troops clashed with an Islamist group. Molotov cocktails were lobbed, cars put on fire. Authorities regained the city, but not before 187 people were killed.
But Babur’s birthplace stands distant from the cauldron that modern Andijan is. The guide, we are told, left for home after lunch. A birdless silence yawns over the emperor’s grave. His dark, lean statue stands forlorn, holding a book, not a sword. There is hardly a tourist around. The story of the 12-year-old’s journey from Andijan has not been told well enough for tourists to take the journey, says local historian and an affable tour manager Zia-Ul-Haq.
After a while, a portly guard arrives. She opens the museum and shows wall paintings on Babur’s life, the copper bathtub in which he was bathed as a baby, the ornate jugs and utensils of his early household. Mubarak, the guard, regards Babur as a poet too.
Timur is the only shahenshah she knows of, besides of course Shah Rukh Khan, the 45-year-old admits, giggling. By then, the shadow of the dark statue has lengthened. Right beside his memorial, a Daewoo shop sells engine oil.
There isn’t much to see on the night ride back to Tashkent. This, anyway, is not a pretty postcard journey. The miles are mainly in the mind.