Road report: Temur's gate and other sights of the Dzhizak region (Uzbekistan)
Temur's Gate is the ancient and most frequently visited sight of Uzbekistan. Everybody travelling from Tashkent to Samarkand and back - no matter how many times he or she already passed this way - will pull over approximately midway, near the settlement of Bakhmal situated 10 kilometers to the west of Dzhizak.
Highway and railroad here run along the banks of the Sangzar, a mountainous river rushing between the almost vertical slopes of Nuratau and Malguzar. The gorge is 150 meters wide. A cool wind blows here any time of the day or the year. Apple orchards and steppes all around.
These steppes were negotiated by the armies of Alexander the Great, Arab conquerors, and Jenghis-Khan. Temur had an outpost of his enormous empire here. Even Ulugbek left a reminder somewhere around here. Russian engineers building the first railroad installed a plate with the biheaded eagle on Tsar Nicholas II's order in 1886.
Addressing voters of the Dzhizak region on December 9, 1999, President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov suggested an official name to the area.
Karimov: Dzhizak is a holy place where our great ancestors walked. There are lots of sacred locations in the region associated with their names. Even the inscription Mirzo Ulugbek left in the stone of the gate is a testimony of our great past. I'm taking about the gate named after the great Amir Temur... This is what I wanted to discuss with you. This place has been known as Temur's Gate since time out of mind. If you do not mind, I have a suggestion. What do you say if we give the place an official name, write "Gate of Sakhibkiran Amir Temur" in golden letters, erect a monument, and transform this place into a shrine? ... I'd say that it will be correct from the point of view of our history and our mentality. It will make the spirit of the great sakhibkiran (great leader) happy."
The monument has not been erected yet...
It is difficult nowadays to see vestiges of the distant past right away. The rocks are covered with layers of colored graffiti almost to the pinnacles. Local kids sell chewing gum, seeds, cigarettes, and mineral water at the entrance to the cave. The locals lining the road offer apples, mountainous honey (sugar cooked in copper pots more often than not), melons and watermelons, mushrooms, and even alabai pups (Central Asian wolfhounds). There are chaikhana (tea houses) with aivans (terraces), mutton barbecue, and samsa (meat cakes) baked in tandyrs (clay ovens).
This is not where foreign tourists chose to stay... The place is 200 kilometers from 3- and 5-star hotels of Tashkent and Samarkand. Guides point out Temur's Gate right from the windows of the posh Mercedes coaches whispering by. Local coaches on runs between cities pull over here for an hour or so to enable their passengers to stretch their legs and have a bite.
Motel Sangzar offers cottages with clean sheets, conveniences, and running water for $4 a customer. Sans hot water, of course. There is no gas in Bakhmal. No coal or timber either. Like centuries before, the locals use cow dung in their hearths. At the same time, there are some dish antennae sticking out of the roofs of pise-walled buildings.
An archa (juniper) whose trunk is over 3 meters thick can be found in the environs of the settlement of Madzhrum, on one of the slopes of Nuratau. Even the locals do not know how old this monster of a tree is. Perhaps, over 1,000 years old.
"There is the legend that it was planted on the grave of one of Alexander the Great's commanders," said an official of the Nuratau reserve and adds, "It is customary around here to associate every relic with the time of Alexander the Great..."
Coniferous woods here began disappearing even before Jesus Christ. Not only because of the changing climate. Archa charcoal gives off so much heat that it was used by miners who mined gold here for the palaces of the first rulers of Sigdiana. The relic survived by a miracle. Its gargantuan roots create a cave sufficient to accommodate 2 or 3 men. The locals say that the cave was used either as a khanaka (living abode and shrine) of Sufi hermits or a village school in the first years of the Soviet power. Only the tree itself knows what it was. It is supposed to be included in the roster of natural assets of the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biospheric Reservation created within the framework of the project initiated by the Global Ecological Foundation and the government of Uzbekistan.
When the sun settles in the gorge between the slopes in the evening, silence descends on the Sangzar basin - primal silence that can only be encountered in Central Asia.