I didn’t realise that I’d missed the wild places so much. To get up every day and have coffee looking up at the great faces of the Carneddau makes things right. That’s what had been missing for the last two weeks. All this historical architectural greatness is special, but it was the hills that were missing. Yes I know what I said several scribbles back, but they are “all of life to me”.
When I rolled into Samarkand on Sunday after the Bukhara Belly episode my host suggested a day trip. A camel ride was mentioned. After the last episode in Morocco the last thing I need is a repeat of that. We talked about the possibility of a walk, a picnic with a family and a market. Once the digestifs settled, that’s what I booked.
I woke just before 7:00am to hear rain. Not being sure of the type of road we were on I wondered if there would be a cancellation. Avazbek (my driver, guide and local college teacher of archeology) collected me at 8:30 and we headed off on wet tarmac roads although these occasionally turned to gravel. The rain continued as we headed south, and the air was fresh and clear. The pothole and truck-dodging was measured, and in occasional India-like moments cows were avoided. There are still a few donkeys being ridden here. The rain gradually eased although puddles of water remained to make the sun polished tarmac slippery.
As we moved from the agricultural plains, passing fields of tobacco crops, great rounded rock formations started to appear and sharp mountain ridges headed away from us. These were the foothills of the Pamirs, heading away to the southeast towards Tajikistan.
We stopped at the side of the road and walked down a short path to a collection of houses in a garden on a small riverbank. We had tea with Avazbek’s parents before heading to an old Soviet summer camp in a wooded valley. To the left were Accacia, Corsican Firs, Oaks, Cherries, Walnut and Maple trees, all planted here when Emperor Nicolai 2nd had established the camp around the end of the 19th century. To the right was normal scrub hillside. It was a noticeable contrast. Avazbek told me that when the Russians came they had chased the local people off into the hills killing as many men, women and children as they could. The old buildings of the camp are still visible, although many now derelict.
We arrived at Lion’s Cave, a name derived from the shape of the rock around the mouth of the cave. Apparently there was a better shape before a Russian archaeologist had decided to dynamite it to see if there were any Neolithic remains inside. The narrow entrance opened into a small chamber and then subsequent bigger chambers leading to a pool of clear, fresh water with a colony of beetles enjoying their environment. Tiny straws of stalactites were forming on the roof and evidence of much bigger features showing the age of the place were all around. Avazbek told me that when he was young he had gone through the smaller openings to a much bigger chamber further on. We agreed we were much too well fed to try that now!
Back into the sunlight we headed further up the hill passing cows enjoying the stands of wild mint to look at the avalanche debris from last winter’s snows. The roads close between about December and March with over two metres of snow laying. In the debris, several boulders had split to show the blue marble used to build Amir Temur’s mausoleum.
We snacked on wild cherries and the honey in accacia seed pods on the way back and talked of the ‘old’ knowledge. Avazbek knew the names of each plant and whether it was a food or a medicine; I could name the common European species and compare and contrast the differences of smells and tastes. He laughed as he told me of four English youngsters who could not even identify the common wild dog rose.
We arrived back at the house for lunch, which was to be Uzbek borscht with salad, green tea and local honey. The teapot appeared with a cover. “Universal Uzbek thermos” said my host. “A tea cosy” was my reply! Afterwards I sat in the garden for a while and watched birds feeding young, listened to the breeze in the trees and the sound of the river wandering behind me. For a rare moment, everything stopped, was calm and the clutter of my mind stilled. Why I have to go thousands of miles from home to get these brief, fragile windows of sanity I have no idea.
We made a leisurely departure, collected somebody’s kids and headed up the road towards the top of the pass. The road was known locally as ‘The Kings’ Road’ and had been the route used by both Alexander the Great and Amir Temur (Timurlane) on their great crusades and conquests of Afghanistan and India. At the top of the hill (about 2500m) was the local farmers’ market with rows of dried fruits, herbs, nuts and sweet things that looked like marshmallows. There were some fairly villainous-looking dried rhubarb as well. Just time for views over Shahrisabz towards the plains of Afghanistan before the run back to drop the kids off and head for Samarkand.
It was the day I needed; the rat has been fed and now the soul has been watered too.