Fear of Disappointment

By Rob Packer

It’s taken fifteen years for me to reach Samarkand. If you’ve been dreaming of visiting somewhere for this long, you really hope it’s going to live up to all those expectations, especially if the version of you that first hatched the plan is a demanding 12-year-old.

I’ve written before that what drove me to learn Russian is my Romanian heritage. While I have no doubts that this was the main driving factor behind my decision, I’ve only started to realise recently that what sealed the decision was a BBC television documentary from 1994. It seems that the BBC runs an update on their Great Railway Journeys of the World every decade or so, and the second series of the early 90s was, like me at the time, filled with optimism for our new free world in a reunited Europe, although with the fickle memory of a 12-year-old I’m not sure that I saw more than one episode of the series. The episode that I saw was presented by Natalia Makarova, a ballet dancer and Soviet defector, who was followed by a camera crew on her first trip back to Russia after the fall of the USSR, and the first trip for her son who was born abroad. They travelled from St Petersburg to Tashkent via Moscow, Volgograd, Astrakhan and then Central Asia. My memory of the sections of the programme in Petersburg and Moscow is mixed up with news coverage of the time, but my visual memory of the post-Moscow part includes views of the statue of Mother Russia in Volgograd, collecting caviar from a sturgeon in Astrakhan and a trip to Samarkand’s Registan. It was the view of Samarkand that sealed my fate: I was obsessed and had to go there one day. Learning Russian would be my first step.

The Registan. When I first saw a film of here 15 years ago, it was sunny, but the madrasahs are impressive rain or shine.

As time went on and the promise of an open and democratic CIS faded, my enthusiasm for Russian faded too and I ended up concentrating on German and Italian at university, and a new world of possibility opened when I learnt Spanish during a trip to Mexico in my third year of Cambridge. This, and the reputation of Uzbekistan as being a very hard place to get a visa for, put my dream of going to Uzbekistan well on the backburner and I think I ended up thinking of Samarkand as a mythical or imaginary place that I would never visit.

The Ulugbek madrasah. The first madrasah on the Registan built by Ulugbek, an astronomer ruler of Samarkand. The other madrasahs in the trio were built as copies of this one.

On the right, the Sher Dor, or Lion, Madrasah

Thinking of Samarkand as a mythical place tallied with my colleagues’ opinion that an Uzbek visa is hard to come by, and almost managed to convince me that Tashkent would say no to my visa application. And as I woke up early in Tashkent to catch my train to Samarkand, my brain started to come up with reasons why I might not make it: oversleeping, an unexpected encounter with a policeman on the Tashkent metro, or a cancelled train. And after all this, the last thing I expected to feel as I stood in front of Samarkand’s Registan was fear: the fear of disappointment. People in Bishkek were always surprised that it’s a childhood dream of mine to visit Samarkand: what if it wasn’t even worth the short trip from Bishkek? Even worse, I could feel rain imminent in the air; it wasn’t supposed to be like this, rain was the last thing I expected on visiting Samarkand. Maybe it would make more sense to wait for better weather and come back tomorrow? In the end I went in.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can agree that the Registan is one of the most amazing Islamic buildings I’ve ever seen (the others are in Istanbul and Andalucía). The scale of the three madrassahs surrounding the square seems beyond all comprehension, and they never lose this no matter how much you look at them, even though the real square is not enormous. And like with so much Islamic art and architecture, I was blown away by the intricacy of the carving and tile work of the buildings, and was even more fascinated when I used my basic understanding of written Arabic to work out that what I thought were geometric patterns on the minarets are actually a very angular form of the written language and spell Allahu akbar (God is great) across the buildings’ facades. In the end, all that disappointed me was the rain.

Learning to read Arabic piece by piece: the dark blue writing on the left says Allahu akbar. I'm much less sure about what it says on the pillar.

The idea of Samarkand has played a part in the decisions I’ve made in life: who can say if I’d even be in Central Asia if I hadn’t seen that documentary in 1994? Now I’m glad to say that I did because it’s made me come here to Samarkand. Two Uzbeks I met today told me about their dreams of where they want to visit, and I find it ironic that a nurse, who I met in a taxi, dreams of going to London and a displaced Celtic fan has a dream to visit his team’s home ground in Glasgow. I hope they both end up making it.

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