Quiet flows the Amu Darya

Published: November 3, 2009 - 14:16 Updated: November 3, 2009 - 14:53

The excitement that morning was different from those spent earlier at other oasis cities along the Great Silk Road. We were on our way to Khiva, the last stop before returning home after three weeks of travel in Uzbekistan. Besides, the drive south west from Bukhara towards Khiva was along the Amu Darya, the earth's mightiest river! Dilshodbek, our 27-year-old Uzbek guide and driver, was excited for reasons of his own. After being on the road for so long, he looked forward to family in Khiva where he lived with his father, stepmother and Munira, his wife, and three children.

It was tragedy to have to leave behind the breeze in Samarqand and now to let go of the trees, ponds and fountains of Bukhara, too. But the anticipation of beholding the Amu Darya was no less intense. The Amu Darya was the good river to the Persians, Oxus to the Greeks and Jeihun or one of the four rivers of paradise to the Arabs. For the next 400 km or so, the ride to Khiva snaked in between honey coloured wastelands of the Kizilkum, and the dark sand dunes of the Karakum deserts on the way to the ancient Khorezm kingdom.

The Khorezmian oasis, of which Khiva is the capital, had nestled in my subconscious from the times of the powerful Kushan kings who had ruled from here to northern India over a thousand years ago.

The naked, flat landscape in front was turned glassy translucent by the scorching sun outside and provided a perfect screen to play out fantasies from within the comfort of an air-conditioned car, often rocketing in the heat at 80 km an hour. Flashes from a little more than 300 years before the birth of Christ revealed Alexander the Great arriving here all the way from Athens to marry a Samarqand princess. The long march to India and into the wasteland of central Asia by the islander was basically to establish better access to trade links on the Great Silk Road.

Accompanying Alexander was a 60,000 strong army and soldiers were dying of thirst under the desert sun. Water came to Alexander in a helmet from the Amu Darya but the commander-in-chief refused to drink it till his soldiers quenched their thirst. It took five days for the Greek army to cross the Amu Darya on inflated sheep skins. The Mongols crossed the same river that divided the ancient Persian world from the Turkic but from the other side to thunder down from the north into the more fertile lands of the south.

And, the majestic river had floated in tranquil pace towards the Aral Sea through the hushed Khorezm waste, past Urgench through beds of sand and matted rushy isles, forgetting here its ferocious beginning in the high mountains of the Pamir, more than 2,000 km away. According to the 11th century Persian poet Ferdausi, it is here that the battle between Rustum and Sohrab was decided in the Shahnameh, the Zoroastrian legend.

Father Rustum slays Sohrab, his son without wanting to. So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead and the great Rustum drew his horseman's cloak 'Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son' - wrote Matthew Arnold in the 19th century poem, Sohrab and Rustum.

"There it is," pointed out Dilshodbek to cries of "Where, where, where...?" But all I could spy on the horizon was a long strip of deep turquoise in between a sky painted gold by the afternoon sun, and the sand. Dilshod swerved soon enough into a dirt road that led as close as it was possible to the river. Where is the bank that was once the home of the tiger, wild boar, panther and wild fowl? Is the river dying?

Colin Thubron warns in The Lost Heart of Asia that the Amu Darya is now bullied by dams and bled by hundreds of pumps sucking its water away into cotton fields.

The river is so full of silt that a poet told Thubron that God gave the Amu Darya to the Uzbeks when he loved them. When God ceased to love them, he sent Russian engineers to the river, now depleted by irrigation and turned into a trickle.

Standing on a black sand dune, it was impossible to touch the water, so low was the shore below. The desolation was not easy to bear. I returned to the car that was soon rolling over the bridge across the Amu Darya.

It may no longer be as mighty as it may have looked to the eyes of Alexander but it is still magnificent as last seen from the back window of the car clouded over in many grains of sand.


This story is from print issue of HardNews