The final leg of the ICAF (India Central Asia Foundation) car rally takes us through some of the stunning cities of Uzbekistan – Samarqand, Bukhara and Khiva and through the unending expanse of the Kizylkum desert. Gazli, is a desert town in the midst of the wilderness sports a signpost for a gas compressor station which shimmers in the noon haze somewhere in the horizon. The much talked about pipeline through which Turkmen gas flows into Xinjiang region of China goes through this desert.
Earlier, the rally had moved from fertile Ferghana valley to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. With its tree-lined avenues, trendy cafes and twinkling fairly lights, Tashkent can rival any European town in beauty and grace. That, however, is the Russian face of Tashkent. Native Tashkent is to be found in Chorsu bazaar and its environs where friendly Uzbek men in long coats and caps sit in front of burlap bags bursting with dry fruits and nuts. Women in sequinned satin dresses are more interested in knowing our nationality than making a sale. Bollywood forms an effortless bridge to make us feel at home.
Besides Bollywood, Tashkent is also known for its Shastri connection. On 2 October, the birth anniversary of both the Mahatma and former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, we assemble at Shastri Park to offer our homage to a beloved Statesman whose memory is ineluctably, if tragically linked to this town where he breathed his last. School children from Shastri School and the small Indian community in Tashkent have all made it a point to attend the function organised by the Indian embassy.
At the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, we are greeted with speeches delivered in chaste Hindi. Mir Kasimov, former Uzbek Ambassador to India and A.N. Shamatov, Chairman of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Indology, wax eloquent in Hindi nostalgically remembering their days in ‘Hindustan’. At the Alberuni Institute, we are treated to a treasure of more than 40000 manuscripts of Arabic and Persian works, most of them yet to be deciphered.
Samarqand is easily reached from Tashkent in three hours. It is a modern city like Delhi with a sprinkling of monuments almost all of them in turquoise. Samarqand is an ode to Amur Timur who put this region on the global map. The Registan Square with its ornate blue tiles, is perhaps the most beautiful city square in the world. From Samarqand, the ICAF rally moves to the sepia shaded Bukhara, a desert capital with its stunning brown minarets and mosques.
Karakolpakistan, the autonomous province of Uzbekistan, populated by Kazakh people lies on the road from Bukhara to Urgench, the main town in the Khorazem province. The Amu Dharya and Syr Dharya, mighty enough as they start their course from the highlands of Tajikistan, have dwindled to mere streams as they have reached almost the end of their journey. In fact, these two rivers form the life-line of Uzbekistan and have been diverted through many canals to lands that might otherwise have remained barren, but now are laden with fruits, wheat and cotton.
At the Mamun Institute in Khvia, originally set up by Al Beruni himself more than 1500 years ago, there is museum that gives us a crash course on Uzbek history from prehistoric times to the present. Al Khorezi, the father of algebra occupies pride of place in the museum along side Ibn Sina who came all the way from Africa to heal and care for the sick. At Urgench State University, the ICAF delegation is briefed about the concerns of the region, mainly climate change. The Aral Sea, not far from here, is drying up, heightening the salinity of the already unyielding land. The population here is dependent mostly on agriculture and if this trend continues, the people of this region may have to move to cities to find other employment. Upstream states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic have been building dams and hydel projects, hastening the demise of Aral Sea.
The ICAF Rally through three countries of Central Asia, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan successfully terminated at Urgench, after covering a distance of 4500 kilometers in twenty days. It has been a memorable journey, one that gave the delegates a first hand glimpse of the life and times of Central Asia in the early part of the 21 Century.