Samarkand! No name is as reminiscent and evokes the romance of the Silk Road as much as this glorious town in Uzbekistan. For many people, it has a mythical resonance, anchored in the imagination by scores of poets and writers. When planning our journey, there were few places which I had really dreamed of seeing, and Samarkand was one of these. The risk of building up your imagination about a place is always that the reality then disappoints you – not so with Samarkand's larger than life monuments! Standing in front of the Registan, the city's centerpiece, with its three majestic and slightly tilting medressas covered in an ocean of azure-golden mosaics around a vast square, I felt in awe and somehow stuck to this sight. I was sitting here for an hour, just looking from left to right and back, marveling at its magnificence. How could someone even conceive and then build such architecture at a time when in Europe most people where living in mud huts?
It is day 55 of our journey from Africa to Brazil and during this last week I immersed myself in the history and splendor of the Silk Road, a network of shifting intercontinental trade routes across Asia's towering mountains and harsh deserts which from the 2nd century AD connected the civilizations of the East and West between China and the Mediterranean. Travelling along the Silk Road is like walking through history as countless empires came and disappeared in this part of the world but left some legacy. Next to Samarkand, I particularly enjoyed exploring the maze of the old town of Bukhara, Central Asia's holiest city, with more than 100! Historic medressas scattered throughout town.
After the demise of the Soviet Union and their sudden independence, many Central Asian countries seem to struggle with finding their identity. The starkest manifestation of this is Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital, which looks like a mix of Las Vegas and Pyongyang – a sea of striking and pompous but soul less marble towers whose ongoing construction keep the world marble industry afloat and which are testimony to the megalomania of its post-Soviet rulers. The city is littered with golden statues of its first post-independence president Niyazov who had the audacity of flaunting the country's constitution by declaring himself president for life. In spite of nominally being a democracy, Turkmenistan feels like a feudal state, with the president smiling from the front page of each day's newspaper and a parliament where MP's frantically scribble along during his speeches which makes them look like school children. Ashgabat has a "Big Brother" feel and a control-everything mania, with policemen standing guard every couple hundred meters on the main roads day and night to ensure that people cross the street only at the zebra crossings and don't take pictures of government and any other buildings that are deemed sensitive. One evening, I walked through the city center which felt like a ghost town as it was completely deserted except for this army of policemen who eyed me suspiciously and whenever I faintly appeared to have the intention of taking a photo of the beautifully lit marble buildings and fountains, they would shout at me and gesture that I should move on. Some even walked up to me and demanded to look at my camera to ensure that I hadn't taken any pictures – this is the only country on our journey so far where I did not feel welcome as a traveller.
While Ashgabat has wide boulevards which are even heated to melt snow and ice during winter, Turkmenistan's roads outside its capital are pathetic, the worst roads on our entire journey since Moyale. With its vast energy resources and wealth, I can't understand why the main highway through the country is pothole riddled – this illustrates its leadership's focus on self glorification through building a pretentious capital instead of developing the country's infrastructure – for once, I felt that Kenya's leaders are actually doing not such a bad job.
Border crossings in Central Asia are a particular delight – they all have mysterious processes, each different but similar in their inefficiency. The border crossing from Iran to Turkmenistan stands out in terms of pointless bureaucracy – in spite of not having any animals, I even had to visit a veterinary's office for his approval of me entering the country and on both sides of the border I was asked to completely unload Pele and border guards opened and screened every single bag which made me silently swear at myself for taking so much luggage on this journey!
It took me 5 hours to cross the border and would have taken considerably longer if my pre-arranged guide hadn't waited for me to help me through the labyrinth of border procedures and the countless forms in Cyrillic alphabet. After finally heading on, he told me quite openly that he would prefer if a company driver would steer the car instead of me. He clearly didn't trust my driving skills and faithfully pointed out every speed limitation along the way - and there are many of these in Turkmenistan! However, it was only in the evening when during dinner he asked whether it is ok for him to take a shot of vodka that I realized that being in a car driven by me had scared him almost to death.
As so often, the interactions with local people have been the most charming moments of this last week. The manager of a garage where I had brought Pele's to have some electrics fixed spontaneously took me on a tour of Samarkand – among other places, we had lunch at a Soviet-era restaurant with the charm and temperatures of a refrigerator and afterwards warmed up at one of the city's hammams, traditional bath houses which are still used regularly by the local people who don't have a shower at their home. My most hilarious memories of the Silk Road are those of two artists who invited me for breakfast in a local tea house in Bukhara – breakfast here meant a cup of tea and a bottle of vodka! I went back to the tea house in the late afternoon and still found them sitting on the same spot, with vodka bottle No 7 in front of them! They persuaded me to join them for a couple of drinks but I was able to excuse myself just as vodka bottle No 8 was making its way to their table…