In early August, I found myself at the Afrasiab Museum of Samarkand in Uzbekistan, located at the ancient historical site of Afrasiyab, which was razed to the ground by the Mongols in the 13th century.
On our final day in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, my travel buddy Jeremy and I went to the small two-storey building with little knowledge of its contents, essentially seeking a respite from the searing heat of the day. I took in the faded murals housed in a central room with little interest and wandered around for a bit.
Then I went to ask the receptionist for directions to what seemed a far more interesting site: the supposed Tomb of Daniel, the Old Testament prophet, which was located nearby. She responded with, "Angliski? (Russian for English). Wait 10 minutes, I will show you."
Something evidently got lost in translation – she ushered us into a dark room and played an informational video about the Afrasiab murals instead. I shrugged and settled in – then realised exactly what we had been looking at in the central room.
The fabled Afrasiab murals, sometimes called the Paintings of the Ambassadors, date back to 648 BCE. They depict envoys from the four major civilizations of the time: Chinese, Iranian, Indian and Turkic. Unearthed in 1965, the artwork is long faded, but it is a true archaeological treasure and a rare example of art by the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people.
It is almost a testament to China's modern-day superpower status: An entire wall of the murals is devoted to the Tang Dynasty, including a depiction of the Emperor Taizong riding a horse and the Empress on a boat. The murals are even apparently referenced in the ancient historical text Book of the Later Han.
Gazing upon the frescoes with new eyes, I reflected on this artifact from the ancient world and knew how fortunate I was to be standing before it.
Crossroads of the world
Uzbekistan may not be your typical tourist destination, but I was drawn by its ancient history and rich cultural heritage. I spent several days in the Uzbek capital Tashkent and Samarkand, sometimes called the jewel of Uzbekistan.
Situated in the heart of Central Asia and once a key part of the ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan has often been a pawn in the great game of conquest between the superpowers.
Alexander The Great, Genghis Khan and Timur all marched through Samarkand on their military campaigns. Then in the 19th century, the Russians seized the city, before Uzbekistan was later incorporated into the Soviet Union for about 70 years.
Samarkand was also a way station on the old Silk Road, which stretched 6,400 kilometres from Chang'an, China into Iran, Central Asia, Turkey and South Asia. The legacy of the invaders was present all around me, in the features and traditional costumes of the Uzbeks, the Russian that is widely spoken in the country and the monuments, mosques and architecture that are strikingly similar to those seen in Turkey and Iran.
Today, Uzbekistan is a secular country where most practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam. But as the Sufi thinker Idries Shah once said, "You will never reach Mecca, because you are on the road to Samarkand."
Food, glorious food
But it is not just about the history: Uzbek food is wonderful.
The markets of Samarkand are stuffed with local produce such as watermelons – the intense heat dehydrates the fruit, leaving the flesh particularly sweet – tomatoes and peaches. Stallholders also sell piles of non, the distinctly round, fluffy Uzbek bread that is often baked with intricate patterns.
And we mustn't forget the national dish plov: long-grained rice fried in sheep fat with carrots, onions, raisins and the ubiquitous lamb or beef, as well as quail eggs. There are delicious variations of it in every city, and a plate of it typically sets you back 20-30,000 som (P102-153).
But do spare a thought for your arteries, and indulge in plov sparingly. There are also plenty of other treats such as lagman, a noodle stew in a rich broth, as well as manti, steamed dumplings filled with ground lamb or beef.
Once you are done eating, check out the other monuments such as the Registan, a glittering 15th century complex of madrasahs built by Timur, and the Shah-i-Zinda, a gorgeous necropolis dating back to the 11th century.
By night, the Registan is lit up, and locals gather at the square in front of it amid a carnival atmosphere. There are picnics aplenty and vendors selling balloons and knick knacks, while others speed down the pavement in tandem bicycles.
The murals of the Tashkent subway
Earlier in my journey, I spent a day in the capital Tashkent. While it was hardly a Third World city, it was very much reminiscent of former Soviet states: grey and dour, with gruff security personnel all around and an apparent disdain for smiles.
Policemen were stationed at the entrance of every metro station, while many stations had a babushka (Russian for old woman) stationed in a glass box. I have yet to figure out their purpose, but there are similar installations on the Pyongyang subway.
A legacy of Soviet times, the 45-year-old Tashkent metro operates with Russian-made rolling stock trains, which range from the rickety to the relatively new. But its true beauty lies in the different themes in which each station is decorated.
For example, Kosmonavtlar has murals dedicated to the cosmonaut program, while Gafur Gulom, named after the celebrated Uzbek poet, is adorned with mosaics inspired by his poetry.
There were also few English speakers in Tashkent, which made communication a sometimes hilarious affair.
While having dinner, we placed our orders via Google Translate – with much effort – to a waiter who deserved an award just for effort. Halfway through the meal, he politely asked to use my smartphone, presumably to ask how we liked the food.
However, his question in Russian was somehow rendered by Google as "Do you like the flaws?" We burst into laughter before the confused waiter.
How might Alexander or Genghis have handled the language barrier all those centuries ago? In a far less genial manner, one suspects.
How to get there
Most flights to Central Asia pass through India. A return ticket from New Delhi to Tashkent cost me P21,000 on Uzbekistan Airways. Alternatively, you can also fly to Tashkent via Seoul, Dubai or Istanbul.
I stayed in the Hotel Uzbekistan (P3,114 a night), a Soviet-era hotel with a magnificent facade but decidedly poor amenities and service. Worth staying a night just to feel like you have gone back in time. In Samarkand, the Hotel Bibi Khanum (P3,900 a night) with a beautiful courtyard is located just next to the 15th century Bibi Khanum mosque.
The Tashkent subway sets you back just 1,400 som for one ride, while the Yandex app – Uzbekistan's Uber – is available across the country. A Yandex ride typically costs 20,000-30,000 som. The very comfortable high speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand costs 100,000 som.
Where to eat
In Tashkent, check out the Central Asian Plov Centre, where you can watch plov being cooked in massive pans, and National Food, an often packed restaurant that serves a variety of Uzbek food.