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U3A Writing: The Golden Road To Samarkand

Jim Moore travels the Silk Route to Samarkand.

"For the lust of knowing what should be known, we take the Golden Road to Samarkand."

With these words from the famous poem by J. Elroy Flecker, recalled from our primary school days, we started to plan our journey on the old Silk Route. It would take us through China, central Asia and on to Russia - the adventure of a lifetime.

After several days cruising the swollen Yangtse River, we disembarked in the city of Chungquin.

We hired a student to show us around, and she did a good job, looking after us carefully on a warm day.

The next day we flew to Xian, site of the famous Terracotta Warriors. It is amazing to think that a leader should be so powerful as to have possibly thousands of slaves spend months, or was it years, creating life-sized figures of his army, complete with horses and chariots, to be buried in this great hall, and it was not even to be his tomb!

We left Xian on the Khazakhan Railway. This is a new line from Beijing to St Petersburg, through central Asia along the old Silk Route. The rail is all welded, with concrete sleepers, and nearly all electrified.

Top class. Two nights on the train, then two or three days in one of the cities. Over three weeks allowed us time to look at all the local icons and hear the legends associated with them. The cylindrical towerwhich the ruler had required to be built, only to have his architect walk away after the footings had been dug. The ruler was furious, but no amount of searching turned up the architect. Twelve months later he reappeared, prepared to finish the job. Three hundred years later, it still stands.

Legend holds that it was used for executions. One morning when a young bride who had misbehaved, was due to be pushed off the top, she asked her executioner if she might die in her wedding dress. This was considered to be acceptable, so a courier was despatched to her house for her dress. He couldn't decide which dress, so brought all twelve. The lady donned the lot, and survived the fall, so she was pardoned. Tradition now requires all bridegrooms to provide twelve dresses for the bride.

The architecture is spectacular. Mostly in an earthquake area, all modern buildings are low rise, but many of the ancient buildings rise to thirty metres or more, all tiled in brilliant shades, blue predominating.

A mosque to hold ten thousand people, a forty metre high tower which has withstood numerous earthquakes, and always open space. Someone knew about earthquake proofing buildings before Frank Lloyd Wright. The tourists haven't yet discovered this area.

It was wonderful to be able to stand back to photograph a monument and find only six people in the frame.
From Almaty, to where Lenin was exiled as far as possible from the power base at Moscow. A very green city. Years ago the powers that ruled decided that anyone who owned land had to plant two rows of trees.

Tashkent, gateway to Afghanistan and the East, the spy capital of past centuries.

Samarkand, the glorious image stems partly from its physical beauty, but probably more important in the formation of its reputation is its sheer inaccessibility. The romantic myth of a bejewelled Eastern capital eternally beyond the Western grasp.

Hawkers on the train, selling any number of varieties of bread, soft goods and large glass vases, fish and yabbies. I love yabbies, but how long have these been cooked? Yesterday, last week, last month?

Thousand of melons loaded at Tashkent. They actually filled the train. It would have been impossible to walk along the corridor. Within an hour they were all carefully stowed in every available space in every compartment and sold on subsequent stations, with the price going up as we got closer to Moscow.

The desert so like central Australia, but with snow covered Kunlun mountains, the northern fringe of Tibet in the background to the south.

In spite of having no knowledge of the languages, we always got help from the locals, sometimes sign language, sometimes just a little English, but always adequate.

It was wonderful to be back in Australia, but as the thrill of travel to strange lands lingers, we contemplate our next adventure.


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