Thursday, January 13

Curzon Goes To Tashkent

It is time to leave Samarkand; we are headed next to Jizzakh through the Gates of Tamerlane (Pass of Jilanuti), then across the Hungry Steppe to Tashkent, the most Russified city in Central Asia. The same path was taken by George Nathaniel Curzon over a century ago.

In 1889, a 30-year-old Curzon (10 years away from becoming Viceroy of India, a capacity in which he notoriously instigated the Partition of Bengal) traveled to Central Asia with the ostensible purpose of finding the source of the Amu Darya (for which he was later given a Royal Geographic Society medal), but with the ulterior motive of studying the 20-year-old Tsarist Russian rule in these parts as well as the implications of an expansionist Russia for British India.

Even allowing for the times, Curzon is pompous. A rich but austere Earl (holding lands from 12th century Norman grants) for a father, and in lieu of mother a brutal governess (who made him frequently parade through the village wearing a dunce cap labeled Liar, Sneak or Coward) built in him an aloof stiff-upper-lip valued by Victorian aristocracy. While at Oxford, the following doggerel written about him was to stick for life:

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.

Curzon famously called the Registan of Samarkand the noblest public square in the world. A lifelong Restorer (as Viceroy he would try to restore the Taj Mahal), Curzon notes with approval Russians tearing down the old, eastern-style mohallas of Samarkand to make way for new, western-style boulevards. He writes in Russia Rule in Central Asia:

Even the native bazaar has been thoroughly transformed under Russian rule, large blocks of crooked alleys having been swept away to make place for broad boulevards converging from the different points of the compass upon the Righistan. In driving the latter in straight lines through the heart of the city, the Russians have been unconsciously following an example set them nearly 500 years ago by their great forerunner Tamerlane; for again we owe to the agreeable gossip of the Spanish Ambassador of King Henry III of Castile the knowledge that 'The lord (i.e. Timur) ordered a street to be made through the city, pulling down all houses that stood in the line."

(Above: The Chorsu Bazaar in Samarkand, pictured from Curzon's Russia in Central Asia.)

Eventually Curzon takes a chance to get out of Samarkand:

While at Samarkand the chance was presented to me of making under the best auspices a visit to Tashkent. Though the distance between the two cities is considerable—190 miles—and can only be covered by road, I eagerly grasped this opportunity of forming even a slight acquaintance with the capital of Russia in the East; being anxious to observe the visible effects of a dominion that has now lasted for over twenty years, to acquaint myself with the ideas that are rumoured to prevail in its military circles, and to contrast its Court life and etiquette with the analogous British regime at Calcutta. I also wished to form some opinion as to the feasibility of an extension of the Transcaspian hue from the Zerafshan province into Turkestan.

It was not till I was well on my way to Tashkent that I realised how great, from the most selfish and personal point of view, the advantages of that railway had been. The luckless traveller condemned to the amenities of a tarantass across the Golodnaya, or Famished Steppe, hankers after the second-class carriages of General Annenkoff as eagerly as did the Israelites in similar surroundings after the flesh-pots of Egypt. I know that it is the fashion of English writers to decry, just as it is of Russians to extol, the tarantass; but I must confess in this case to a full and honest share in the prejudices of my countrymen. A kind of ramshackle wooden boat, resting on long wooden poles, which themselves repose on the wooden axles of wooden wheels—this is the sorrowful and springless vehicle in which two of us were to travel 380 miles, and in which travellers have often covered thousands. There is one advantage in the fabrics being entirely of wood—namely, that if it breaks down en route, as sooner or later it is perfectly certain to do, its repair can be effected without much difficulty. Too nicely pieced a structure would indeed be unsuited to the conditions of Central Asian travel; for the vehicle is required to ford rivers and cross deserts, now buried in mud, now plunging heavily through sand, to resist concussions, and to emerge from mishaps that would dislocate any finer piece of workmanship. The Russians have reduced to a science the subjugation of the tarantass by means of straw and mattresses; but the less skilful Englishman, in the rough places where there is no road, is tossed about like a cork on tumbled water. Fortunately, the remaining difficulties usually associated with such a method of locomotion are here somewhat curtailed; for there is a postal service along the road between Samarkand and Tashkent, with relays of post-horses at the various stations, placed at distances of about fifteen miles apart. A Podorojna, or special order, must first be procured from the authorities. This entitles the traveller to a change of horses at each station; though, even so, he is far from safe, for the intimation that all the available horses are tired or unfed or still feeding, which occurs from time to time with mathematical regularity, may compel him either to wait half a day in a grim post-house in the middle of an odious desert, or to hire whatever animals he can procure from any well-disposed rustic possessing a stable in the neighbourhood. The horses are harnessed to the tarantass in a troika—i.e. three abreast; the middle horse between the shafts having its neck held tightly up by a bearing-rein attached to a high wooden arch rising above its head, while the outside horses are not even confined within traces, but gallop along in random fashion, with their heads, as a rule, looking inquisitively round the corner. A different driver, Tajik, or Uzbeg, or Kirghiz, each with unmistakable physiognomy, mounts the box at each posthouse, and at the end of his stage absorbs without either gratitude or protest a modest gratuity.

(The ruins of the Bibi Khanym in Curzon's time.)

The road to Tashkent is roughly divided into three sections by the mountain defile known as the Gates of Tamerlane and the main stream of the Syr Daria or Jaxartes; and the distances between its principal points are as follows :—

Samarkand to Jizak . . . 65 miles
Jizak to Tchinaz . . . 83 "
Tchinaz to Tashkent . . . 42 "
Total . . . 190 "

Our outward journey occupied thirty hours, including halts at the post-stations; the return journey, upon which we suffered from scarcity of horses, thirtysix. Russian officers, travelling at the maximum rate of speed, have covered it in twenty-four and even in twenty-two hours.

Leaving Samarkand on the north-east, we skirt the hill Tchupan-Ata—once crowned by the great observatory of Ulug Beg, but now by the whitewashed tomb of a local saint—and pass at no great distance from the mass of crumbling tumuli and mounds that mark the site of an ancient city, associated with the legendary hero Afrasiab, and supposed to have been the predecessor of the Maracanda of the Greeks. Heaps of rubbish and the accumulations of centuries cover an immense extent, not unlike the ruins of Fostat or Old Cairo. Excavations have been pursued in a half-hearted and disjointed fashion by the Russians, but no deliberate or scientific effort has been made to explore whatever secrets of the past—and they must be manifold and important—the ruins of Kaleh-i-Afrasiab can tell. This is one of the many chances of the future.

(Above: Shah-i-Zinda from Curzon's time.)

After traversing a succession of gardens and orchards, we come at the distance of a few miles from Samarkand to the fords of the main stream of the Zerafshan. It courses swiftly along over a very stony bed, and was divided at this season of the year into four or five channels, of which none were over a foot and a half in depth. The space between its banks is, however, several hundred yards in width; and in summer, when the snows in the mountains melt, is for a short time filled by a raging torrent. Hard by are the ruins of two stupendous arches, meeting at an obtuse angle, which are called Shadman Melik by the natives, and which tower magnificently above the attenuated volume of the autumnal stream. Nothing is known of the authorship or date of these huge remains; but it is conjectured that, placed as they are close to the spot where the Zerafshan divides into two main streams— the Ak Daria or White River, and the Kara Daria or Black River — they originally bridged the two channels at the angle of bifurcation. Near the Zerafshan in this quarter are several hundreds of acres that have been planted as a nursery garden by the Russians, and where are grown vines (of which there are no less than sixteen varieties in the country), acacias, and ilanthus.

Upon the other side of the river vegetation dwindles and finally disappears, and for many miles we proceed between the low hills of the Pass of Jilanuti, culminating at the northern end in a rocky portal where many a bloody conflict has been waged for the possession of the Zerafshan valley. The boastful record of two ancient conquerors is deeply incised on the smoothed face of the rock—of Ulug Beg, victorious in 1425, and of Abdullah Khan of Bokhara, Anthony Jenkinson's host, in 1571, when the inscription records that he slew 400,000 of the enemy, so that blood ran for a month in the river of Jizak. Very like in character, and not unlike, though less rugged in surroundings, are these sculptured trophies to the celebrated inscription of Trajan above the Iron Gates of the Danube in Europe. In spite of the deeds and names it commemorates, the Central Asian defile, in characteristic deference to the overpowering prestige of a single name, is known as the Gates of Tamerlane.

Not many miles beyond is the extensive but straggling town of Jizak, with a population of 4,000, the mouldering walls of whose former citadel serve as a forlorn reminder of the Russian victory of 1866. Then ensues the Waste of Hunger, very properly so called, for a more starved and sorry-looking region it would be difficult to conceive; and as the tarantass goes bumping along, with the bells hung in the high wooden arch over the central horse's head jingling a wild discord, and the dust rolling up in suffocating volumes, the traveller too is very hungry for the end to arrive. He can draw but little repose or consolation from his halts at the post-houses, where a bare waiting-room with wooden tables and uncovered settees is placed at his disposal, and whose culinary resources do not rise above the meagre level of a cup of tea and a boiled egg. Any other or more extravagant rations he must bring with him.

At length we reach the Syr Daria, or Jaxartes, approach the second great river of Central Asia, terminating at present, like its greater brother the Oxus, in the Aral Sea. The channel here appeared to be over a quarter of a mile wide, and flowed along with a very rapid ochreous current. Our vehicle was driven bodily on to a big ferry boat, worked by the stream, and attached to a chain, the ferry being commanded by a fort on the northern bank. Here is the Eussian town of Tchinaz, at a distance of three miles from the old native Tchinaz, which was taken in 1865. Then ensues another spell of dusty rutworn desert; and our vehicle selects this opportune moment to discard one of its wheels. But patience is at length rewarded; tall snow-capped mountains, which mean water, which in its turn means verdure, rise into view; we enter the valley of the Tchirtchik and its affluents, twentyfive miles in width; and amid the sound of running water, and under the shade of broad avenues of trees, forty miles after leaving the Syr Daria we approach the suburbs of the capital of Turkestan.

By the suburbs of Tashkent I need not refer to the environs only; for in reality the Russian town is one vast suburb, in which the houses stand apart amid trees and gardens interspersed with open spaces. The meaning of the name is 'city of stone,' a
lucus a non lucendo title as far as either the Russian, or the native town, is concerned, though whether it applies more strictly to the ruins of old Tashkent, twenty miles away, I cannot say. The size and height of the trees, principally poplar, acacia, and willow, with which the streets of the new town are planted in double and even in quadruple rows, and which are of course only twenty years old, give a fair indication of what irrigation and this superb climate when in partnership can do. A shoot has simply to be stuck into the ground, and the rest may safely be left to nature.

(Above: The new Russian Cathedral in Tashkent pictured from Curzon's book.)

Tashkent is a very large city, for it covers an area as extensive as Paris, though with a population, not of 2,500,000, but of 120,000, of which 100,000 are congregated in the native or Sart quarter. The Russian civil and military population are computed at the same figure, 10,000 each, and so large are the enclosures or gardens in which the houses stand apart that the majority of the residents would seem to have attained the ideal of Arcadian bliss expressed elsewhere in the historical phrase,' Three acres and a cow.' A valley bisects the two portions of the town, native and European, which are as separate in every particular as are the lives of the double element in the population, neither interfering nor appearing to hold communication with the other. In the capitals of India, at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, there is far greater fusion, both in private and in public life —the Parsees at Bombay, the resident princes and noblemen at Calcutta, and the most influential native merchants in all three, mingling habitually in Anglo-Indian society, and taking a prominent part, in some cases in government, in others in the management of public institutions. In Tashkent, on the other hand, several obstacles preclude a similar amalgamation— the purely military character of the administration, the dearth of any wealthy or capable men among the natives, and the recency of the Russian conquest. I remember once reading the remark that 'In Russia the discipline of the camp is substituted for the order of the city; martial law is the normal condition of life ;' and of no Russian city that I have seen did this strike me as more true than of Tashkent. Uniforms are everywhere, parade-grounds and barracks abound, the extensive entourage associated with a great administrative centre is military and not civil in character. It is hardly surprising that under such a system practical or far-seeing projects for commercial and industrial development should not be forthcoming; that the fiscal balance should be habitually on the wrong side of the budget; or that Chauvinistic and aggressive ideas should prevail. Where the ruling class is entirely military, and where promotion is slow, it would be strange if war, the sole available avenue to distinction, were not popular.

In light of the above, our journey through Jizzakh covers familiar territory -- bumpy roads, military presence, and the Syr Darya. (The Greek name Jaxartes for the Syr Darya is derived from Yaksha Arta, or Great Pearly River. Oxus for Amu Darya derives from Vakhsu, which may in turn derive from the ancient name for the Aryan goddess Sarasvati -- Vachas; for its water flows like speech. Ancient sarasvati is a common noun for anything that flows.)

Mountain-people come down by the road to sell wild apples, and honey.


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