Sebastian Modak

“You’re one of very few travelers to have a chance to enjoy this beauty,” Mr. Narimov told me, as we made our way to the field. “You will be the only foreigner among thousands who will be there.”

And that I was. I didn’t go unnoticed: My presence was quickly announced over the loudspeaker and at one point I was given the microphone. Instead of discomfort in the spotlight, I felt an overwhelming sense of welcome. People smiled and waved, encouraging me to get closer to the action. At least 15 people approached me throughout the day to tell me that their cousin, their sister, or another relative lived in New York City — actually, “Brooklyn.” They’d show me their phone number, with the area code +1. At first I thought it was proof, but I quickly realized they wanted me to jot down the number to call once I was home.

One young man, despite not speaking a word of English, devoted his day to looking out for me, more than once pulling me by the shirt collar in the split second before the herd of horses changed directions and came barreling toward where we stood.

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My own introduction to that history came as a child, hunched over the glowing screen of my computer for hours at a time, playing the 1996 strategy nerd-fest, “Civilization II.” Finally seeing the famed cities of Samarkand and Bukhara — so richly elaborated in my own imagination — was like walking through a dream. I wandered the narrow lanes, from mausoleum to madrasa, mosque to palace complex, with wide-eyed astonishment. Seeing the Registan of Samarkand for the first time, a town square boxed in by three towering madrasas blanketed in turquoise tiles, I imagined the past, when those blue domes filled the horizon and polyglot crowds — Jewish merchants, Persian Zoroastrians, Muslim students of astronomy — gathered in the Registan to watch public proclamations and executions.

Within Uzbekistan there has been a recent push to reclaim the country’s history after years of suppression under Soviet ideology. In some ways, the facts of that history — that the Silk Road wasn’t the single China-to-Rome route many assumed it to be, but rather an interconnected trading network more resembling a cracked windshield than a straight line; that Timur (known in English as Tamerlane), who once ruled an empire out of Samarkand, was as much a butcher as a tactical genius — matter less to people here than the pride of having it to tell.

Traveling from Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara (and I do recommend that order), my feeling of amazement only intensified. In Bukhara, I found even older vestiges of the past. The Samanid Mausoleum, a structure made of intricately carved brick, dates back more than 1,000 years. It was only spared by Genghis Khan and his army of Mongol horsemen, infamous for flattening entire cities, because it had been inundated in mud from floods.

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Elsewhere in the city, the Kalyan Minaret, part of a mosque complex that is covered with Uzbekistan’s signature green-and-blue mosaics, was also spared by the Mongols. Legend has it — and the history of this region is buried under many layers of legend — that it was so tall that when Genghis Khan looked up at it, his helmet fell off. Bending down to pick it up, his troops thought he was genuflecting at the holy structure and so it was spared as the rest of the city was burned to the ground.

Whatever the facts, this land was a precursor to globalization as we know it today, a place where multiple currencies, languages and religious traditions were exchanged freely. You can trace this history in people’s faces. The shape of a woman’s eye might suggest a distant Mongolian ancestor, but her irises could match the light blue Arabic script that snakes up and around the towers of Timur’s burial place in Samarkand. The next passer-by wouldn’t be out of place in Tehran. To build an identity out of a melting pot takes endurance.

Uzbekistan was on the 52 Places list for 2019 because of its renewed openness after years of isolation. I think the kindness and enthusiasm I found are tied to where the country finds itself. English isn’t widely spoken, but everyone who knew even a few passing words was eager to practice, as if they sensed they’d be using them more in the years to come.

Painting Uzbekistan as “exotic” is all too easy a trap. This is history, lived in. Most of the “attractions” I visited are holy places for Muslims and were packed with far more pilgrims from across the country than Instagramming foreigners. In the shadow of Bukhara’s Kalyan Mosque, a group of children fresh out of school played a game of pick-up soccer, shouting nicknames at each other — “Messi,” “Suarez,” “Ronaldo” — as they used the centuries-old stone wall as a bouncing board.

The rush of the now in Uzbekistan is as strong as anywhere else, even as it tangles with history: Tashkent is a modern, strikingly clean and green capital with a metro system that doubles as an art gallery, each station more beautiful than the last. It’s heart though is Amir Timur Square, featuring a statue of the ruler and, just behind it, the big block of concrete that is the Soviet-era Hotel Uzbekistan.

On the kopkari pitch, about two hours into the game, Mr. Narimov suggested that as a “special guest” I should contribute something significant to the winnings pot. My handing over a $100 bill elicited applause from the thousands of attendees. I shook hands with the winner and offered him my bottle of water. In between shallow, exhausted breaths, he drained the bottle and then climbed from his sweat-covered horse directly onto a fresh mount. Then he turned and galloped back into the fray.


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