Historically due to its climate, geography and distance from the sea Central Asia’s arid landscape has never been conducive to agriculture. As a result the nomadic inhabitants had little to trade and in return few major cities developed in the area.
The Mongol invasion in the early 13th century led to utter destruction of the few settlements and a near complete massacre of the civilian population. As a result of Genghis Khan’s foray and its nomadic history most of Central Asia is lacking sites of historical interest.
After the historical overload of Turkey, Georgia and Armenia this lack of sites left us wandering what there was to see in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With one exception in Kazakhstan it wasn’t until we reached southern Uzbekistan that we encountered any buildings of historical significance.
The Registan in the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand was build between 1417 – 1660; traditionally a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and watch public executions. The square is flanked by 3 Madrasahs which are stunning examples of Arabic architecture. Unfortunately it was closed for the week when we visited due to a music festival.
Further south and located on the Silk Road is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bukhara with over 140 buildings of historical importance. In 1920 during the Russian Civil War many of the buildings, including the Ark, were destroyed or damaged, many have been restored.
The Kalân Minaret, also known as ‘The Tower of Death’ due to criminals being executed by being thrown to their death from the top is probably one of the most impressive. With 10 metre foundations, including stacked reeds as primitive earthquake proofing, the tower reaches skyward for an impressive 45½ metres, an impressive feat of engineering for 1127. Genghis Khan was so thunderstruck by it’s enormity that he spared it from destruction.
Kalân Mosque at the base of the tower is able to accommodate 12 thousand people, reinforcing the importance and size of the city. During Soviet times the building was used as a warehouse, it reopened as a place of worship in 1991.
The picturesque Char Minor is hidden away down a maze of backstreets. Some believe this modest sized building was the gatehouse to a larger and long-gone Madrasah.
The massive Ark of Bukhara is the oldest structure in town, occupied from the 5th century right through to the Red Army invasion of 1920. About 20% remains intact and operates as a tourist attraction housing several museums. During Genghis Khan’s rampage of Central Asia the inhabitants of the city found refuge behind the impressive 20m tall exterior walls, much of which still exists today, until they smashed through the defences and ransacked the fortress.
Having a claustrophobic fear of road tunnels I was filled with dread at the prospect of having to drive through the notorious ‘Tunnel of Death’. Unfortunately the tunnel stood in-between us and a chain of seven serene mountain lakes in the Hisar Tizmasi range.
Cutting through roughly 3-miles of mountain underneath the Anzob Pass the tunnel has become infamous amongst overlanders. The tunnel is not nicknamed lightly; its lack of ventilation claims several lives each year. Carbon Monoxide poisoning is not the only danger; the tunnel floor is often reported to be under 60cm’s of water hiding a labyrinth of potholes, internal rock falls are common, abandoned tunnel machinery is strewn across the narrow one and a half lanes and to top it off the traffic is not regulated from either end.
We’d heard stories of 4-hour traffic jams and prevailing anarchy whilst you sit in the darkness, your headlights struggling to cut through the fumes of belching trucks as traffic from either direction refuses to give way.
Unfortunately the only alternative is to drive over the 3,372 metre Anzob Pass which is closed for most of the year due to the weather. The pass itself is classed as one of the most treacherous in Central Asia; avalanches are frequent, there is no safety barrier and the final 12 miles are a 7-8% gradient. In 1997 an avalanche so big it took 2 weeks for rescuers to reach the 15 buried trucks and cars killed 36 people.
With great trepidation we watched the GPS closely, mentally preparing for our next challenge, as we approached the mountain. Either route was less than desirable, but thankfully we were forced to take the lesser of two evils, the tunnel was closed due to flooding. Hoorah!
The pass was actually not as treacherous as we’d heard and offered some stunning views back down the valley we’d just travelled. Like the Pamir Highway the Anzob Tunnel is a right of passage for many overlanders travelling in Central Asia, for us it is one we can live without.