Travel: Myths and legends that enliven Uzbekistan’s countryside

Urgut is a small town at the foothill of the Zeravshan Range, at an elevation of 1,000 m above sea level, close to the border with Kashkadarya province

By Anjaly Thomas

Published: Thu 2 Mar 2023, 7:39 PM

A bumpy road leads out of Samarkand (Uzbekistan) to Urgut, fifty kilometres away. We pass cows and sheep wandering the streets and people riding donkeys. Women with fruits and vegetables sit by the streets, calling out their wares. “A typical day in the lives of the Uzbeks,” the driver tells me in faultless English. “But from Urgut, you will see the real country.”

As we get closer to Urgut, modern attire gives way to more traditional wear and I begin to stick out like a sore thumb.

Urgut is a small town at the foothill of the Zeravshan Range, at an elevation of 1,000 m above sea level, close to the border with Kashkadarya province. This town is renowned for its beautiful handicrafts, pottery and a bustling market and the biggest mosque in the region of Samarkand.

But that alone isn’t the reason for me to be here.

The garden of plane trees

Three kilometres from the Urgut market is a garden not likely to find the top spot on a traveller’s list, visited mostly by locals and die-hard wanderers. This garden is named ‘Chor Chinor’ (meaning four plane trees) and consists of 50 or more ancient plane trees watered by a spring.

A place of magic and mystique.

The trees of Chor Chinor are ancient — the oldest of the lot being over 1,160 years old. The youngest is 600 years old.

And as with mystical gardens, this garden too is steeped in legends — not surprising, considering its ascetism and respectability among the locals. My driver, who has followed me into the garden leads me to the spring and launches into a story. “The founder of the garden, a mighty batir (hero in Tajik), stole a magic stone from the evil spirits and brought it here. As soon as he placed the cobble stone, which resembled a millstone, spring waters came gushing forth.”

The batir then decided to plant four cuttings of sycamore tree that were believed to be brought to him by four beautiful birds. These trees thrived and soon turned the valley into a sacred grove.

Another legend has it that a team of geologists decided to study the source of underground springs, but when they arrived the next morning to investigate, they found that the pond had dried out overnight and only filled up again after they left the garden, never to return.

For many, Chor Chinor is far more than a garden: it is a place for meditation and spiritual healing. Revered as a holy place, Chor Chinor shelters a small, blue-domed mosque dating from the early 20th century, a memorial pavilion, and several tombs, a big draw for domestic pilgrims.

The spring has expanded to a picturesque pond and small brook where I sit for a while and withdraw into solitude, occasionally mulling over the information pinned to the tree about its age and circumference, and wondering what other secrets they hold.

Like thousands before me, I drink to my heart’s content and fill up a plastic bottle of spring water.

The school in a tree

The highlight of the park is a school inside the tree, a real titan, 16m in girth. Locals believe this tree to be a miracle of nature. The tree trunk, which formerly served as a gathering place for students of Sufism and a haunting place for few generations of the dervish, can accommodate up to 10 people at a time, as evidenced by old photographs. The door to this school (which usually is left open) is carved. Nevertheless, the sycamore is alive and continues to grow. The base of the tree forms the ceiling, and the whole space of the cave is situated under the ground. In some parts, the walls are reinforced with brickwork. People come here with their problems, searching for peace and wisdom.

Fortunately, while I was here, the place was empty and like the ancient Sufis, I found myself in seclusion inside this tree school — the best way to experience the magic and aura of this sacred site.

And hear the sycamores.

Hazrat Daud and the hand of David

Cleansed, I proceed to my next site — the cave of Hazrat Daud, which is 30 minutes’ drive away in the village of Aksai.

Somewhere up in the mountains (followed by a sharp descent) is the cave, my driver tells me reverently. “There are 1,303 steps to the top and if you climb it, you will be blessed.”

I am not sure that I can summon energy for this. The sun is strong and from where I stand, the mountain seems taller than it is. Seeing my hesitation, my driver suggests riding a horse. The idea is fraught with dangers, but considering the lack of options, I pick a grey horse led by a lean and wiry young man, who shows no fear or fatigue despite the steep and sharp climb. I am the only rider that afternoon. We begin the slow climb and soon fear and discomfort give way to awe and amazement, and suddenly skirting narrow paths plunging hundreds of metres into the valley seems like a matter of routine.

From where I get off, a new challenge awaits — a 300 steps descent into the cave. I do the math — 300 steps down and the same number back up — that suddenly seems like a little too much when suddenly a bunch of local kids and their parents grab my hands and pull me along.

Slowly, into the heart of the valley, we descend, enjoying the scenery and the cool breeze and just like that we arrive at a rockface and stop abruptly.

We stare at the cave entrance reachable via a dozen widely placed stone steps, wondering the same thing ­— why was it so difficult? Shaking my head, I ascend, stiff from the downhill walk and disappear into the dark. From somewhere above, tiny drops of water land on my head, making me jump sharply. Nothing is straighforward about this pilgrimage.

I slip into the narrow cave that eventually opens out into a slightly wider space. No photography is allowed. A pale, yellow light flickers somewhere inside, only enough to calm your nerves. I hear the trickle of water somewhere and head towards it when a man appears from the darkness and says, “Come, I will show you the Hand of David.”

The man leads me towards the end of the narrow cave. He then turns on his mobile phone and shines light on what he says is the handprint of David.

“If you touch it, all your wishes will come true.”

I eagerly place my tiny hands on the larger-than-life handprint, hoping for just one thing — that my horseman will be waiting for me when I return.

He is.

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