In Tamerlane's cruel kingdom
THERE are three great goals in a traveller's life: Mandalay, Timbuktu and Samarkand. You never really expect to see any of them.
Samarkand, the 14th century capital of the brilliant and barbaric Turkic conqueror, Tamerlane, was famous even before Christ. The jewel in the Silk Road, it became the most important cultural and economic centre in Central Asia, ''the eye and star of the Earth'', boasted Tamerlane. There are few places whose names conjure up more exotic romance.
Not surprisingly, first impressions of today's Samarkand can be disappointing. Ever since this region became part of the Russian empire at the end of the 19th century, forming the province of Uzbekistan, the Silk Road cities have been developed into modern industrial centres.
Samarkand is no exception, with a new town as ugly as most modern cities in the former Soviet Union. But much of the old town to the east still exists, dominated by the treasures of Tamerlane's time and above all by Registan Square.
This was where camel caravans from China would congregate, laden with fine silks and satins and other Eastern exotica.
Only later were the three religious colleges (called madrasahs) built around the square, the first by Tamerlane's grandson, Ulug Beg, in 1420. Recently restored, the madrasahs are masterpieces of Islamic art with laboriously tiled portals, gleaming domesand mosaics of fantastic design.
Groups of Uzbeks and Tadjiks visiting the square provide their own brilliant sweeps of colour: the men in traditional khalats, long striped cotton coats, and the women in dresses and pantaloons of rainbow-coloured silk.
But the best place for people-watching in these Central Asian oases is, of course, the bazaar. Samarkand's is only a few minutes' walk from Registan Square, in the shadow of the looming ruins of Bibi Khanum Mosque, once one of the largest in the Muslim world.
A sand storm slowly gathered when I first arrived: it wasn't long before the dusty scene took on the tone of Silk Road days, the sand sweeping round mounds of melons where Uzbek men sat drinking tea, pulling their coats of many colours around them.
At the bread stalls, women polished each elaborately-stamped naan loaf so that they shone like pewter plates, while the herb sellers cried out ''Saffron! Saffron!'' when they saw my foreign face.
In quiet sandy lanes behind the market I found ancient summer mosques and women selling snuff under the shade of trees.
The houses were hidden behind high adobe walls: whenever a gate opened, I caught a glimpse of a well-swept yard, a jug of water, and children playing ball games, kicking up dust.
The restored monuments have largely lost this atmosphere. Even the beautiful fluted-domed mausoleum of Gur Emir, the ''grave of the king'' where Tamerlane is buried, seems cold and isolated.
Only Shaki-Zinda comes close. This complex of mosques and mausoleums of Tamerlane's family unfolds slowly along a narrow lane, emblazoned with brilliant mosaics and majolica, with graceful Persian script flowing through all in golden ink.
But Samarkand isn't the only exotic city in Uzbekistan. Some 270 kilometres to the west is Bukhara, once a vitally important centre of Islam, with over a hundred madrasahs and 360 mosques.
It was a prosperous trading centre, too: a caravan highway linked it with Samarkand across the treacherous Kara-Kum Desert. So lucrative was this route it came to be called the Golden Road.
Unlike in Samarkand, most of Bukhara's historical and religious monuments - evidence of its thousand years of importance - are found within one area of the city.
The extensive restoration work and creation of pedestrian-only streets have created the formal atmosphere of an open-air museum: only on the fringes do you find the pulse of the old town still beating.
One such place is Lab-i-Hauz. Once a major trading centre, now a popular rest stop for local Uzbeks, its central feature is the hauz, or pool of water, one of five that remain from over 80 pools that once supplied water to the city.
A typical chaikhana or teahouse spreads itself around the pool, under the shade of ancient mulberry trees. Overlooking it all are some of the city's finest buildings, including the beautiful Divan-Begi Madrasah.
Here I would rest at the end of the day, watching white-bearded Uzbeks play chess and dominoes, their stockinged feet curled up under their coloured coats as they sat on the chaikhana's bed-sized chairs, while birds rustled in the trees above. It must have been much like this long ago.
Or maybe not. Alexander ''Bukhara'' Burns would have told us differently, no doubt. He was one of the few ''heathens'' who managed to visit Bukhara in 1830 without being thrown in a pit of vermin and reptiles by the Emir of the time.
Worse treatment was reserved for criminals and adulterous wives who were thrown from a 12th century minaret. This charming construction still stands: the only monument Genghis Khan ordered to be saved when he sacked the city in the 13th century.
Most of old Bukhara's other monuments date from its ''renaissance'' era of the 15th and 16th centuries when it became an important regional capital.
The dozens of restored madrasahs and mosques have none of Samarkand's sparkle and brilliance: they're decorated in softer hues, with subtler mosaics and designs.
But it's easier here than in Samarkand to see how the city once functioned: at the crossroads between the madrasahs, medieval cupola-covered trading centres still do business, though the trade has changed from gold and caps and money-changers to souvenirs and tailors.
But of Central Asia's fabled Silk Road cities, none gives a clearer idea of a complete city than Khiva, at one time the holiest of them all. About 320 kilometres north of Bukhara, Khiva was an important caravanserai for a thousand years or more.
It flourished in the 16th century, its fame as a slave market matched by its repute as a centre of Islam, with some 94 mosques and 63 madrasahs.
The easiest way to reach Khiva is from Urgench, a half-hour taxi ride away, past endless fields of cotton.
My driver was an ebullient Uzbek, eager to chat. ''I have 10 children, all son! Yes, yes, it's true. Who needs daughters? Now we're going for the 11th. That's nothing. My mother had 22.'' He drew up with a flourish at Khiva's old walled inner city, called Ichan-Kala, now officially protected as a ''town reserve''.
''Khiva OK!'' he grinned, and roared off in a cloud of dust, leaving me standing at the foot of Khiva's most bizarre monument: the colossal base of the unfinished Kalta Minaret.
About 50 metres high and decorated with ribbons of blue tiles, it is so massive in scale it dominates the main cobbled street of Ichan-Kala, even though there are minarets taller and finer nearby.
Like old Bukhara, this walled town has been restored to function as an open-air museum for tourists. But unlike anywhere else on today's Silk Road tail, Khiva also draws real devotees, pilgrims to the mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmud, a 14th century poet-philosopher turned saint.
It is Khiva's saving grace: an aura of reverence that lingers long after the tour groups have gone.
I found it often as I walked round the complex, meeting groups of pilgrims deep in prayer at the tops of minarets or in the shadows of old mosques. At the blue-tiled tomb of Pakhlavan-Mahmud, streams of wedding parties came for blessing: a kernel of devotion in this city of empty courtyards and abandoned madrasahs.
On the fringes of Ichan-Kala, where the newly-cobbled streets give way to mud-baked lanes, a few villagers still live in old adobe houses, their back yards the home of goats and cows, their hay drying on flat rooftops.
It was here, on these half-forgotten outskirts, that I stumbled on little Bagbanli Mosque, half-sunk in the ground and locked behind a carved wooden door. Peering through a chink, I saw a dishevelled farmyard and a child chasing a cotton flower.
It was the last image I had of Tamerlane's land, an enigmatic end to the Golden Road. At dusk I walked out of the city's gate and into another journey.