Leafing through Uzbekistan: On the road with Aparna Piramal Raje
The author and public speaker recounts a recent trip with a difference – she travelled with a book club, reading about the country as they went.
There are many ways to tour a country – see the sights, shop, eat, drink, chat with local taxi drivers, take lots of pictures. Of course, we did all these. The difference, on a recent trip to Uzbekistan, was that we were travelling as a book club, reading about the country as we went.
We were four women in the group: three — family therapist Megha Mawandia, development-sector professional Aarti Wig and me — from the Bombay Feminist Book Club; and my sister Radhika Piramal, vice-chairperson of our family business, VIP Industries.
Uzbekistan in particular, and Central Asia in general, have been occupied by almost every major civilisation through history, including the Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Mongols and finally the Soviet Union. As a result, Uzbekistan is a fascinating blend of cultures.
We flew into the capital of Tashkent, and headed the following day to our first major stop: Khiva, a walled city of deserted monuments, from where one can begin a drive down what was once the Silk Road (and is now a desert highway).
At this point, Radhika was reading The Travels of Marco Polo, which was written in about 1295, after he had spent 24 years exploring the Silk Road. It is one of the first travel books ever written and in it, we saw what courage it took to travel in such a time, of no maps or common languages.
An eight-hour drive from Khiva is Bukhara, once a pearl of the Silk Road, and still a haven of well-preserved medieval bazaars and monuments.
Aarti was moved to be here as she read historian Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015), which seeks to examine the region’s history through a non-Western perspective. “The book showed me that Central Asia has borne witness to the rise and fall of great civilisations, reminding us that nothing is permanent, neither glory nor oblivion. And we have a shared history of architecture, language, food and handicrafts,” she says.
Through the trip, Megha and I read Sovietistan: A Journey Through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (2014), a remarkable travel memoir by Norwegian journalist Erika Fatland that examines the transition of these five countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Central Asia felt like an enigma and full of contradictions. I am not a history buff and this book was what I needed to enjoy and understand the region I was visiting,” Megha said.
I found Sovietistan thought-provoking, because it made me question the past and the present and took me off the tourist track. Fatland presents a layered narrative, showing how intellectual life has flourished alongside brutality here, for centuries. The same minarets whose artistry we admire were also used historically for public executions, she points out.
As we took a bullet train to Samarkand, once the capital of Timur Lenk, I recalled her passages on the 14th-century conqueror, described as an Uzbek hero by our guide. He was “every bit as brutal as Genghis Khan”, Fatland writes, responsible for innumerable deaths. Equally, she adds, he restored Central Asia’s cities to their glory and spared the lives of craftsmen, unlike Genghis Khan.
In her book, she also cites several examples of intellectuals at the time, from Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-850 CE) who is said to be the “father of algebra”, to local philosophers who frequented the teahouses to discuss Aristotle.
This narrative helped us to look at Uzbekistan differently. It is an ethnically diverse and inclusive nation that is fast-modernising. It is accessible, affordable and easy to navigate. The main cities are well-connected. It is safe for women. (We scrambled for currency, as it is a cash economy, but dollars are widely accepted.)
And everywhere we went, we were welcomed with warmth as travellers from “Hindustan”. In Samarkand, we came across an Uzbek businessman who spoke fluent Hindi. On the train back to Tashkent, there was a talent contest based on Madhuri Dixit, with young Uzbeks dancing to Hindi songs.
We left with great memories of the country, but even more than that, of the conversations we had as a group, based on the books we read. The books elevated our understanding of Uzbekistan and allowed us to see beyond the tour guide’s official script, seeping into our dinnertime conversations. Changed perspectives and narratives, isn’t that ultimately what travel is all about?
(Aparna Piramal Raje is an author, public speaker and educator. She lives in Mumbai)