I must say Uzbekistan Railways have come on a bit since I last travelled with them nearly 20 years ago. With minutes to spare I caught the overnight Amu-Darya Express to Samarkand. It left on the dot, and as we bowled across the vast emptiness of the Kyzylkum Desert I reflected smugly that I was going at least five times faster than George Curzon, the bumptious British gentleman-spy who complained in 1889 that his train on this then newly-built line kept being overtaken by men on horseback.
So it was the iron road, rather than the golden road, that I took to Samarkand and its breathtaking centrepiece the Registan, the 15th-century brainchild of Tamerlane the Great. During Soviet times the towering madrassas or theological schools here were used as warehouses, but since my last visit both they and a wide area around them have been given a makeover and are now squeaky clean and tourist-friendly. Sadly this seems to have involved removing not only the teachers who used to give informal and in Soviet days clandestine public lectures on the Koran, but also several hundred unfortunate families whose houses were deemed a blot on the historic landscape. Everyone I spoke to said the displaced folk were happy in their new suburban apartments, but I’m not so sure. Planners, eh?
But for me the highlight of Samarkand lies on a hilltop three miles away, where in 1908 Russian archaeologists unearthed the remains of an extraordinary 15th-century observatory built by Tamerlane’s grandson Ulugbek. Where Tamerlane was a warrior and conqueror, Ulugbek was an altogether more peaceful and likeable character who devoted much of his life to astronomy. He made the first accurate star survey, calculated the exact length of the year, published trigonometrical tables correct to five decimal places, and anticipated some of the discoveries of famous later scientists such as Galileo. He achieved all this with the help of a giant, partly underground sextant housed in an exquisite circular building complete with rooftop telescope. I imagine he also spent very long evenings doing sums.
In one of their regular tiffs with the Tajiks, Uzbekistan had closed the border east of Samarkand, so after a tedious three-day diversion almost down to the Afghan border I reached my first hilly bit since the Caucasus, the Fansky Gory or Fan Mountains.
As a prelude to the Pamirs I couldnt have asked for anything better. Stark and haunting, the Fan range doesnt seem capable of supporting life, but is actually home to tens of thousands of people, who in winter divert the rushing rivers to irrigate their barley and potato crops and in summer wander the high slopes with their sheep and goats. Their cosy stone houses are shaded by apricot and mulberry trees, and their hospitality to travellers is legendary.
I spent an exciting week exploring the passes and lakes. It was a wonderful escape from the desert heat and reminded me how much I love the routine of cooking and sleeping in my tent. Just as well, because I’ll be doing a lot more of this after crossing over into Afghanistan this weekend.
Marco Polo called the Pamirs “a desert without habitation or any green thing, ... so lofty and cold that you cannot even see birds flying.” It took him 12 days to ride across it, and it’ll take me about the same time to walk/ride as far as the source of the Amu-Darya or Oxus River. I’m writing this in Khorog on the Afghan border, my hands still shaking a bit from the bumpy 18-hour journey from the Tajik capital Dushanbe. The valley is a blissful green oasis in the endless bare mountains: it even has a botanical garden. I’m making the most of these pleasures, because if Mr Polo is to be believed, they may be the last I enjoy for some time.