In April 2017, I was able to achieve a childhood goal and visit Iran. The attraction was not only to see the location of one of the world's great ancient civilisations – and the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, the religion which had an impact on Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but also to walk in the footsteps of Alexander of Macedon and see history's most vibrant trading route, the Silk Road. It's always lovely when something so eagerly anticipated excels all expectations, and I the experience was exhilarating. The Iranian people, far from the flag-burning fanatics irresponsibly portrayed by western media, made the experience one I wanted to expand on. The rest of the Silk Road, that snaking eastwards through ancient and colourful lands where cities steeped in vibrant history and rich and varied cultures called to me. Japan, in whose cities the Silk Road found its end after linking exotic locations now barely remembered by Europe – but which had important and significant impact upon its history, education, and science – was my home for many years.
While there, I often heard of Uzbekistan, located in central Asia and once part of the Soviet Union. There are strong links between the two countries, especially through JETRO, an organisation I had links to, which helps provide training and economic assistance to a wide variety of countries.
Fascinated by the travels of Alexander of Macedon, I was also very aware of the regions of Sogdiana, once a part of the Persian Empire, and the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, centres of advanced education and scientific discovery centuries before Europe's renaissance.
Once again, through Daylesford Travel I had the opportunity to go to places which for me held a magical aura and attraction. And once again I was not disappointed, but rather beguiled and bewitched by their splendour. It was like meeting a childhood hero only to discover them to be so much better in person – kind, generous, and welcoming. It is impossible to express how it feels to see the beauty and magnificence of Samarkand's Registan, and how Bukhara, a place of enormous religious importance and history, can cause even an atheist to be moved spiritually. Our group stood in the same places that the mighty Persian conqueror Cyrus, Alexander of Macedon, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlan, and even the Russian red and white armies had stood, among many, many others who left their mark upon history. The depth, length and breadth of this area's history is too much even for a self-proclaimed history connoisseur as myself, and it was impossible to absorb it all.
However, even the natural landscape seems to have incorporated the countless human dramas played out here, and the legacy of an endless stream of tribes and nations that passed through or settled is reflected in the faces of the people. This truly is a timeless land, and one which has managed to both look forward while resurrecting the past. The dazzling palaces, mosques, mausoleums, madrasas and other mighty buildings are being beautifully reconstructed and repaired, and ancient crafts brought back by masters happily and generously sharing their skills, knowledge and passion with a new generation of prospective masters. Simultaneously, the government is slowly turning the country from a grower of cotton, to a producer of cotton textiles. The country even has its own car industry, and there seems to be a housing construction boom.
Although the majority of the country's written history and records were destroyed during the Soviet era (except for an ancient and exquisite Quran), the oral tradition is strong, and the stories behind places and structures always mesmerising, if not historically true. The tales of heroic sufis so vivid that their monuments and tombs exude a mysterious power and aura.
There is still a sense of an untouched frontier about Uzbekistan, an exotic place, in a timezone of its own. However, KFC and McDonald’s have been given permission to enter, so my recommendation would be to visit this breathtaking land before the decay and rot of westernisation sets in.