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Journey to Kiva.

"NO OTHER QUARTER of the world attracted me half as much as the old khanates of Turkestan which lie between the Caspian and China", explains the author early on in this strange, idiosyncratic travel book. "What child has not responded to those names, Bokhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and their images of cupolas and courts and shadows in the sand...."

Any reader who expects here a vivid picture of contemporary Uzbekistan, fascinating in all its complexity, will be disappointed. Philip Glazebrook's Central Asia is the land of "the Great Game", the rivalry for influence and control over Asia between Russia and Britain in the last century.

"The country gentleman is a race peculiar to England," quotes the author. Indeed it is, Philip Glazebrook, an English travel writer and novelist living in Dorset, seems to see the present only through the past. His earlier travel book, Journey to Kars, was widely praised as an eloquent evocation of the wilder regions of Turkey stretching to the borders of the Caucasus. Here, though, this middle-aged writer reveals himself as a crotchety, often querulous tourist to Central Asia. Naturally, he preferred to travel much of the way overland, by train from England as far as Moscow, then, against his better judgement, by airplane to Tashkent.

Glazebrook's bad experiences of Moscow seem to have soured him for the rest of this journey, undertaken in the summer of 1990. He spends more time with Russians in Uzbekistan than with Muslims, not necessarily his own fault but certainly not an advantage. This book is dominated anyway not by the living but by characters who are for the most part dead men, European officers and bloodthirsty emirs along with other historical figures.

The author's own fascination with the nineteenth century British adventurers in "Russian Turkestan", officers, travellers and writers, colours everything. It is their accounts which Glazebrook quotes from at length, indeed at every opportunity. His central heroes are Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, two British army officers who were detained as suspected spies, kept in a miserable prison and eventually killed in Bokhara. Their only consolation was to become heroes of Victorian England.

This approach risks being too anachronistic to carry along the reader. It must be questioned whether the past is always a good guide to the present. Glazebrook registers disappointment at seeing the over-restored monuments of the historical cities of Central Asia, even the Registan in Samarkand. The writer likes ruins to be left untouched. "A taste for ruin and decay, and for the powerful sense of continuing with past times which they evoke, is hard to satisfy where the hand of Russia has either destroyed or restored."

The big capital city Tashkent, largely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1966, has too much concrete and too many highrise buildings to attract such a visitor. But he describes with pleasure some of the timeless or simple things: drinking tea in the shade of an Uzbek garden, or the panoramas of snow-covered mountain ranges from the highway near Samarkand.

As for Khiva, the dream city of the book's title, it is judged merely a museum, with little to offer. That certainly is a fair judgement, for this once-famous little city has far less to stir the imagination than either Samarkand or Bukhara. But even so, he does find some solace at last in a river scene close to Khaiva, on the banks of the Amu Darya, where the light and colour and crowds of people came together at last, somehow dramatising for him the idea of Central Asia.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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