PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 1994, 12:00am

THE summer heat has not yet arrived, but winter's cold has gone and most tea houses have already substituted green tea for the dark, body-warming variety. In Central Asia, tea is not drunk merely to quench one's thirst, a few cups to be quaffed duringthe afternoon break before returning to work. Drinking tea is an institution, an occupation in itself. Business is conducted in the breaks between tea drinking.

In Uzbekistan, alcohol is not widely available and rarely drunk. Tea is the social drink. I order another pot of the warm, weak brew and return to my seat in Lab-i-Hauz Square in the heart of Bukhara. It is not a real seat, but a big bed with a table in the centre, under the shade of the towering trees. About 30 people are lounging on beds around a small pool; some are engaged in animated conversation while others tuck into pilaf - the local fried rice - and sashlik, a barbecued roll of minced mutton or goat meat.

Two days earlier, as the train pulled out of Moscow, an old, white-bearded Uzbek man - one of three sharing my compartment - spread a small carpet on his bed and began to pray. It was a first taste of Muslim Samarkand, 80 hours from Moscow at the other end of the line.

Ever since the Arabs conquered this part of the world in the eighth century, Islam has been an integral part of life and many of the most ornate and beautiful buildings are mosques and medressehs, or Muslim seminaries. When the communists took power in 1924, many religious buildings were closed. Now, religion is making a comeback with old mosques being reopened and new ones built.

Both Samarkand and Bukhara have active Jewish communities, and Jews and Muslims live side by side in peace. Veiled women are nowhere to be seen, and when I was invited to eat with local families - hospitality is second nature in Central Asia - often the whole family, including the women, ate together.

'Everything I heard about the beauty of Maracanda is true,' Alexander the Great wrote, 'except that it is more beautiful than I could imagine'. But the Samarkand of those days has long since disappeared. Other rulers made their appearance and Genghis Khanleft the city in ruins before Tamerlane, the most famous name to be associated with Samarkand, rose to power.

In 1369, Tamerlane's territory included parts of Turkey, Russia, India and Xinjiang in China. When he captured Samarkand he planned to make it the capital of the world. To emphasise the importance of the city - which was filled with gracious buildings andbooty from Tamerlane's plundering raids - small villages nearby were given the names of other great capitals: Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

Samarkand remains a beautiful city. From the train, it is an overwhelming vision in blue. Azure tiles decorate every monument, wall, mosque, medresseh and mausoleum. It is as though ancient architects tried to capture the brilliance of the sky, to recreate the heavens on earth.

With its soaring blue dome, the Bibi Khanum Mosque is the biggest of Samarkand's landmarks. Filling the narrow streets below is Samarkand's central market. The air is filled with the sharp smells of drying herbs, roots and leaves, heaped haphazardly in large cotton sacks or spread to dry on trestle tables.

Coarse rounds of freshly baked bread, speckled with garlic and onion, are burnished with a scrap of cotton until their crusts gleam, and stacked in great shiny piles. Dried apricots and raisins from the surrounding countryside can be bought for a few roubles. Women with strong faces and brilliant skirts offer small glass tubes guarding precious strands of saffron, and leather stalls sell traditional Uzbek boots - black, high-top, soft-soled leather, with matching rubber overshoes for outdoor wear.

Outside the ubiquitous tea houses people sit and sip in the sun, feasting on spicy kebabs garnished with spring onion and lightly spiked with vinegar.

Away from the hustle of the market is the quiet, shaded Shakhi-Zindi, lined with blue-tiled tombs of ancient royalty and spanned by ceremonial arches which glitter with aqua chips.

In the cool of the early morning, Uzbek and Tajik shepherds lead their flocks out of the city to the encircling pastures. There, as the day warms, the men doze in the sun, content to smoke and swap tales, squinting at their charges, small fluffy specks against the purple-blue haze of distant, snow-capped mountains.

From Samarkand it is a short bus ride to the smaller, less flamboyant town of Bukhara. It is said that when Genghis Khan entered Bukhara and reached the centre of the city, he stopped his horse in front of the Kalan Minaret and gazed for a long time at the slender column. Then he ordered the city to be razed - with the exception of the minaret. I have always wanted to see the one structure that was capable of averting the Mongol's rage.

The minaret is imposing. Built in 1127, it was, and still is, the tallest structure in the region. According to legend, its foundations were made from an exotic concoction of clay, camel's milk, eggs and bull's blood, which was left to harden for two years before construction began.

Until the mid-19th century, criminals were thrown from the 46.5 metre-high minaret, and in September 1920, the establishment of Soviet power was declared from its top.

Bukhara has much more of an old town atmosphere than Samarkand. It is a rabbit warren of dusty, narrow streets lined with mud houses. Ancient wooden doorways frame inner courtyards and the sudden brilliant green of trailing vines. The triumphant colours of Samarkand's monuments are muted here, and the subdued, sand-coloured hues seem to have a mellowing effect on the pace of life. Nobody is in a hurry. In the late afternoon, people sit in front of their homes, exchanging views and relaxing in the cool evening breeze.

Religion plays a major part in people's lives, and Bukhara's Mir-i-Arab medresseh is one of the few in Central Asia that serves its intended purpose. Closed in 1925, the school was reopened in 1944, some say as a reward for the part Islam took in the Soviet war effort, others say to support the people in demanding times. Here, 270 students from all over the region are training to be imam (priests).

The students live at the medresseh - four boys sharing a small room for seven years. In the courtyard, surrounded by two storeys of arched cloisters, groups of students wash clothes, chat or boil water for tea on a wood stove. Every now and then a boy will go up to the roof to find a quiet place to study.

In the market-place, elderly Uzbek men wear medals and badges displaying the Soviet hammer and sickle - veterans of the war against fascism - and I was surprised to meet an old Uzbek man who spoke a bit of broken German.

It cannot be denied that here, as in all former Soviet republics, life has changed drastically over the past year. Old securities have vanished and are being replaced by growing uncertainties. Prices are rising and everything is in a state of flux. Yet the scene in Lab-i-Hauz Square has not changed much since independence, and as long as there is tea to be sipped and shared with friends in the dusky cool beneath the trees, the world seems a less hostile place.