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The Golden Road to Samarkand

Writing a novel about Central Asia might not have been a good idea. It took almost ten years to write. Part of the problem was research, and part was the characters. The story revolved around five main characters, all of whom had complex pasts, unconventional career paths, and murky relationships with the truth and with each other.

Most of Café Maracanda takes place in Uzbekistan (Maracanda was the name of Samarkand in the ancient world), but the book begins and ends in Italy. A young American couple, Davey and Camilla, invite their colleagues Igor and Rachel to share a villa near Siena in the summer of 1990. The holiday starts out badly. The men are old friends, but the women can’t stand each other. The first day is fraught. But then Igor takes over. Igor is a Russian who defected from the Soviet Union. A journalist at Radio Liberty, where all of them work, he has a talent for smoothing things over. By the end of the month Rachel, the thrifty north-of-England bluestocking, is best friends with Camilla, the entitled WASP princess. Idling away the days in the lush Tuscan countryside, between talk and sex and wine and food, the four become very close. If anything is slightly amiss, they ignore the signs. It’s an enchanted summer they will always remember.


But when they return to Munich, the spell is broken. Igor vanishes. For a week they have no news. Rachel fears he is dead. And then he reappears in Moscow, gives a press conference on Soviet television, claims that his years in the West were a nightmare, and announces that Rachel is an enemy of the Soviet people, that Camilla works for American military intelligence, and that Davey is a CIA spy. Everyone is stunned. No one saw it coming – not even William Kavanagh, a Radio security officer who has been watching Igor for months. Igor’s friends are devastated. Rachel attempts to kill herself, and Davey begins to drink.

Fast forward seven years. The Soviet Union has collapsed and been replaced by fifteen independent republics. Radio Liberty has moved to Prague;  William Kavanagh has moved to Washington; Igor’s friends have not recovered from his betrayal. Davey was killed in an accident shortly after Igor left. Camilla, raising their son alone, is still wondering why her husband was so hard hit by Igor’s defection. Rachel has changed jobs and moved cities, but never got over Igor.

Only Igor has moved on. He has settled in Central Asia and opened a bar. Not just any bar. When Camilla marches into the Café Maracanda to demand an accounting, she finds Kavanagh there already, watching Igor in action. The Maracanda is a marketplace for biznesmeny, and Igor brokers the deals.

A word about Radio Liberty: During the Cold War, both East and West made extensive use of radio broadcasts. On the communist side, the “voices” included Radio Prague and Radio Moscow. On the Western side, stations such as the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Sweden attempted to explain the way of life and political positions of their sponsoring countries. Radio Liberty was different. It was an American station funded by the US Congress whose purpose was to act as a surrogate home service and provide Soviet listeners with news they could not obtain from their domestic media. This might seem less seditious than straight British or American propaganda, but from the Kremlin’s point of view, it was much worse. Radio Liberty was competing directly with state radio, supplying Soviet citizens with undesirable information about Aeroflot crashes, the General Secretary’s state of health, and the latest casualty figures in Afghanistan. RL was demonized in the Soviet press and heavily jammed.

The starting point for Igor was a real-life two-time defector who defected from the Soviet Union in 1965, got a job as a journalist at Radio Liberty, and re-defected in 1986. Back in Moscow, he gave a press conference accusing Radio Liberty of anti-Soviet activities, and the Audience Research department, where I worked, of spying against the Soviet Union. Thoughtfully he provided our office address, and the names of two of our staffers. The office was on the top floor of a Parisian residential building, reached by a creaky little lift, and bore a certain resemblance to the office in Three Days of the Condor, where everyone is wiped out by assassins in the first reel. For a while, we were rather nervous.


I first travelled to Samarkand courtesy of James Elroy Flecker and his famous poem: Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells,/When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,/And softly through the silence beat the bells/Along the Golden Road to Samarkand. I was at school when I encountered The Golden Journey to Samarkand, and years later, when I joined Radio Liberty and found myself dealing with Soviet Central Asia on a daily basis, it turned out that the romance of the desert had stayed with me. Central Asia fascinated me in a way I cannot explain: a vast landmass at the centre of the world – east of Europe, south of Russia, previously Muslim, nominally Soviet – made even more interesting by the fact that no one seemed to know much about it. A few would-be experts solemnly forecast an incipient wave of Islamic fundamentalism but it was never clear what their predictions were based on (especially as they never came to pass). Until 1990, I was unable to go and look for myself because employees of Radio Liberty were barred from visiting the Soviet Union. My first attempt to travel there when the ban was lifted fell through, but I finally hit the Golden Road with my husband in 1995.


Our first stop was Almaty, the capital of Kazakstan, where vast oilfields had aroused the interest of the West and engendered direct flights from Vienna and Frankfurt. Almaty was airy and green and spacious, but oddly lacking in focus. The Russians had built a fort there in 1854 and called it Verny, meaning Faithful. There was a pedestrian shopping precinct, previously Gorky Street, now re-baptized Silk Road Street. None of the Central Asian republics had been independent before, and they were all trying to find their feet.

The main tourist attraction in Almaty was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, painted pink and green, like a Little Gingerbread Church. Built without nails, it was the only building to survive a 1911 earthquake that flattened the rest of the city. Not far away was the Soviet War Memorial, a Gorgon-like sprawl of implausible bronze muscles. A school group listened intently to their teacher describing the heroic feats of the Panfilov Division, which had defended Moscow in 1941. In the park, an old man sat vacantly on one of the benches, and a middle-aged lady lay passed out on another. The air was yellowish-grey and tasted metallic. English-language hoardings advertised the Bank of Texas and Kazakhstan, and a giant Coca Cola sign sat atop the old Kazakhstanskaya pravda building.

We took a bus to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Crossing the steppe, we caught glimpses of miserable-looking villages, shepherds on horseback, and hilltop cemeteries with odd turreted railed-off graves. A leftover slogan by the side of the road said SLAVA TRUDU (Glory to Labour). When we got to the frontier, a bored police officer got on the bus and wandered up and down the aisle, requesting no passports and inspecting no luggage. The road ran straight ahead to the Tien Shan, the Mountains of Heaven.

Bishkek Lenin

Bishkek had the same grid layout as Almaty, the same greenery, the same anonymous buildings, but it was smaller and quieter. Traffic was sparse, people walked with a relaxed swing, the mountains were closer, and the air was clearer. There were fewer Russians than in Almaty, and practically no Westerners. More than once we were taken for Balts. The Soviet War Memorial sprawled across a vast empty square against a backdrop of mountains. A gigantic statue of Lenin urging on the masses was surrounded by a flock of little girls in black dresses and white aprons. It was class photo day.

“Is this really the capital of a country?” asked my husband sceptically. Half the town centre was taken up by a vast overgrown park where statues huddled unsuspected in the uncut grass, and girls lounging in idle groups waved and giggled. Shell suits outnumbered chic Western outfits on the streets, the airport was frequently closed for lack of kerosene, and there was something desperate about the way the market vendors called out their prices and tried to catch your eye.

Bishkek Statues

We had dinner in what the guidebook claimed was the best restaurant in Kyrgyzstan, the Son Kul. It had red carpets, white tablecloths and lacrymose Russian pop music. One floor was for Russian food, and one floor for Kyrgyz. We took the Kyrgyz floor, which was almost deserted. The food was excellent, and the waitress was patient when we got in a mess with the currency, which was called the som. Next morning, on the way back to the bus station, my husband bought a large wooden abacus from a man in an underpass.

Minarets of Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Thirty-six hours later we were in Samarkand. It was a cool, grey, rainy evening. Avoiding on principle the Hotel Samarkand, where all the tour groups went, we told the taxi to take us to the only privately-owned hotel in the city, the Zerafshan. Snobbery was our undoing. The outside of the building was newly painted and the lobby had a sub-harem decor with a lot of white lattice work, but the Arabian Nights charm went no further. The room we were offered was standard Soviet grunge, plus a a pile of cleaning materials on the floor, plus a strange man watching television on the bed. But it was late, and we were tired. We had spent most of the day in Tashkent airport, first persuading the immigration authorities to let us enter Uzbekistan without a visa, then convincing Inturist to book us on an onward flight. The Uzbeks did not approve of spontaneous travel.

The receptionist was annoyed by our failure to leave. She made us pay in advance. After a struggle with the unfamiliar currency (the third in five days: this one was called the sum), we finally emerged into the mythical city. The grave of the Emperor Tamerlane was just round the corner, at the end of a quiet street lined with mulberry trees. But it was after hours, and there was no one around. Should we come back next day? Suddenly a uniformed caretaker appeared. Otkuda? he demanded; where were we from? Frantsia, we told him. Dollari? he asked.

Gur Amir

We agreed that we had dollars, and he ushered us into the tomb. The mausoleum contained six white marble tombs and a huge slab of jade. The caretaker told us earnestly about the tombs and the architecture, and then abruptly put his finger to his lips, ushered us through a side door into the courtyard, took us round a corner, and unlocked a door. A flight of stone stairs led down to an underground crypt. This, he explained, was where the bodies of Tamerlane and his companions really lay. The jade upstairs was just for show.   Here was the last resting place of Timur the Lame, son of a minor tribal chieftain, spiritual heir of Genghis Khan, conqueror of Delhi, Baghdad, Moscow and Damascus. The man who rampaged over half of Asia, dead of a fever in 1405, lay disintegrating into dust beneath a plain slab of marble. We gave the caretaker a dollar bill, and stumbled off in search of dinner.

Samarkand turned out to be distressingly un-golden. Flecker, of course, had never been there. Neither had Goethe or Marlowe. After the demise of the Silk Road, it had fallen into ruin, and now it was a charmless socialist city. The ancient sites were spread out through the town and we had to plod through vast stretches of Soviet residential wasteland to get from one set of turquoise domes to another. Having worked our way through the Registan (three enormous madrasas looming round a vast courtyard), the Bibi Khanym mosque (named for Tamerlane’s favourite wife), and the Shah-i-Zinda (the royal burial ground), we pitched camp in a chai khana with loud Turkish music and a row of men in white coats grilling shashlyk, and watched the world go by. The contrast with the cities of the steppes was striking. This was another world. It might not be golden, but it was colourful. People in traditional costume marched purposefully past, heading for the market next to the Bibi Khanym. The women wore brightly-coloured dresses. Older men favoured embroidered skull caps, boots and baggy breeches. Younger ones went for Western-style trousers and shirts. Down here in the oasis there was a bustle and dynamism that we had not seen before.


It was a five-hour bus ride to Bukhara across a flat desert landscape. We lunched off lepeshka and apricots. The man across the aisle demanded to see our guidebook, asked if the man with me was my husband, and inquired where our group was. Bukhara was more atmospheric than Samarkand. It had no monuments on the scale of the Registan, but the old city was in better shape and there was more of it left. A maze of little alleys wound past earth-built walls, and there was a madrasa on every corner. In the tenth century, Bukhara the Noble was a centre of Islamic scholarship. It was still a holy city, you could feel it. Spirituality seeped out of the walls and hung in the dry desert air.   At breakfast in the hotel we met a German couple who had come to visit the mausoleum of Sheikh Bakhautdin. The man explained that they converted to Sufism after seeing Peter Brook’s The Conference of the Birds in London, and announced that this was a great experience for them. The lady wore a hijab and said nothing.

On the edge of the old city stood the Ark, a barbaric construction which was once the citadel of the Emirs of Bukhara. Above the eighteenth-century gatehouse, overlooking the square, was the euphemistically named “music pavilion,” where the royal family used to gather to watch public executions. Again we arrived at closing time, and this time we were rescued by a sixteen-year-old English-speaking Tajik boy called Ulugbeg. “Tomorrow we are closed,” he said, “but you come back and I show you round.” We accepted the offer, which was payable in dollars. All the Central Asian republics had their own currency, but no one seemed to want them.

Next day Ulugbeg showed us the fortress, the madrasas, and the prison, including the notorious Bug Pit where less fortunate criminals (including two emissaries of Queen Victoria) shared living quarters with rats, scorpions and sheep ticks. Then we took the bus out to the suburbs to visit the Emir’s Summer Palace. That was closed too, and all of Ulugbeg’s persuasiveness failed to get us in. He took the refusal as a personal insult: “This very bad man.” We strolled round the gardens, which were pleasantly cool after the heat and dust of the city. My husband invested in an embroidered camel bag.

Summer Palace

The best place in Bukhara was the chai khana at Lyab-i-Khauz. Wooden diwans were spread out on a flagged terrace overlooking the tree-shaded pool. Old men in traditional costume sat cross-legged on their diwans, with bowls of tea on small tables before them, gossiping, playing chess or backgammon, moving round the pool in the sun’s shadow. Workers dropped in for shashlyk or plov, a kind of Central Asian pilaff, which cooked all day long. It didn’t look as though much had changed since the last Emir fled the Bolsheviks in 1920.

We returned to Tashkent on the Transcaspian Railway, which ambled along at a leisurely pace. It had liux two-berth compartments, sheets and pillow-cases, free chai, and obligatory piped radio which dispensed news in Uzbek, followed by a little local night music. Tashkent was a pleasant surprise. It felt like a capital city ought to feel. It was a bustling modern city complete with yuppie restaurants, gleaming fountains, and a dazzling new metro. It hummed and buzzed. The air smelt of money. Much of the city was levelled in a 1966 earthquake, and the city was rebuilt by Republican First Secretary Sharaf Rashidov, an authentic Arabian Nights potentate whose private mansion was said to possess several underground storeys crammed with gold and jewels and prisoners and concubines. Rashidov’s wealth came from the Great Cotton Scam. Under pressure from Moscow to increase cotton production in the republic, he falsified figures to show that quotas were being fulfilled, pocketed money for cotton that was never produced, and allegedly netted the equivalent of some $2 billion for himself and his cronies.


On the strength of this trip, I began to plan Café Maracanda. Hubris, of course. To make up for my lack of first-hand experience, I read everything I could get my hands on. Most of it was written by academics discussing Central Asia from a Russian point of view, and it took me a while to realize that their vision was flawed. After making a second, somewhat longer, trip to Almaty and Tashkent, it became evident that what I was reading did not square with what I had seen. My book ground to a halt while I tried to figure out the social fabric of the new republics. One of the things I needed to know was the role played by local clans. I posted a query on a couple of Central Asian websites, and got some intriguing responses. All the Central Asians informed me firmly that clans no longer existed. All the Westerners begged me to pass on any information I obtained. Eventually a French expert on Afghanistan helped me get back on track.

Meanwhile I had discovered that Samarkand was the centre of a thriving drug trade, and I was planning Igor’s bar. The Café Maracanda serves fine Italian cuisine and the best margaritas in Central Asia. Tourists come to sample the charms of the old khanates in the fine tiled courtyard. Drug lords come to negotiate the price of heroin in the discreet inner rooms. Igor’s old KGB cronies drop in to chat. Arias from Italian opera (Igor’s favourite) drown out illicit conversations. Dormiro sol nel manto mio regal…. The café, of course, is straight out of Casablanca, but instead of letters of transit and appointments with Monsieur Renault, what is on offer is enriched uranium from Kazakstan, drugs from the Chu Valley, money for the Chechen rebels, and arms for the warring factions in Afghanistan.  Everyone goes to Igor’s.

I have always been drawn to ambivalent characters: wives who betray their husbands, dissidents who report to the KGB, men and women who appear to be what they aren’t, and don’t always know themselves what the truth is. Igor is no exception. For most of his career as KGB officer, radio journalist, and biznesmeny, he has managed to be all things to all men. In Italy, he was a sorceror, seducing Rachel with love, Davey with understanding, and Camilla with sex – all the while negotiating with his Soviet contacts to return to Moscow. In Samarkand, he is the rainmaker, introducing people who have things to sell to people who want to buy them. But now the past is catching up with him. He has made too many enemies. The Uzbeks have withdrawn their protection. The KGB has cut him loose. The CIA wants to close him down. Kavanagh is gathering evidence and enlisting allies. Igor knows what awaits him.  The game is nearly over, Rachel. My time is running out.  He has one last wish. Writing late at night in his diary, he admits the truth: Rachel, whom he abandoned in Munich, has always stayed in his mind. Rachel, without you, my life would have had no sense. You have never left me once in seven years. I don’t want to die without seeing you one last time.

Shah i Zinda

Some of my research into the Café Maracanda’s clients was done one evening in Tashkent in a place called the Vernisaj Kafé. Situated in the basement of the Union of Artists building, it was recommended by the guidebook as a cheap alternative to the ubiquitous plov and shashlyk. It was my second trip to Tashkent, two years after the first, and I was travelling with a friend who was based in Almaty. It was early when we got to the Vernisaj. The place was empty apart from three Westerners chatting at the bar, and a troop of very young Uzbek waitresses in short black skirts and tight red tops. There was a long row of tables next to the window with deep couches on either side. It seemed entirely civilized, though the prices had gone up since Lonely Planet was there. The waitresses avoided eye contact, which was a bit odd, but there was a vast choice of cocktails, and a perfectly edible menu of chicken, steak and salads.

About half-past seven, the place began to fill up. Apart from one Russian family group, the customers were men, mainly Uzbek, mainly in groups. They all wore dark suits. They moved from one table to the next, they waved, they exchanged greetings. On the surface it all seemed very convivial, but they did not look pleasant to know. Then all of a sudden the atmosphere got very strange. Nothing remotely threatening was happening, nobody was paying attention to us (though they looked us over), there were neither drugs nor weapons in evidence. The waitresses’ faces grew blanker with the strain of not overhearing people’s conversations. Their manner became more nervous and deferential. Time to leave. When Vasily, our driver, came to fetch us, the doorman followed us out and said something through the open car door. Vasily said, Ya priedu, I’ll come back, and drove off very fast and clearly annoyed. Neither of us caught the sense of the exchange. Vasily refused to tell us what had been said.

Café Maracanda was conceived as the third volume of a trilogy covering the fall and legacy of Soviet communism. Its predecessors were The Angels of Russia (set in 1986) and Music at the Garden House (set in 1990). I wanted to explore guilt and responsibility in societies whose citizens were not free to decide their own actions. How does the individual withstand coercion? How does he come to terms with the wrong he has done? How does he survive in a society which has turned morality on its head? I had no idea where I would end up. It was a fascinating journey.


At the end of the book, Igor gets his wish and is reunited with Rachel. But he cannot bring himself to admit to guilt for what he did, and Rachel will not forgive that.  We missed each other in time, Igor,” she says. “We never had a chance.”

Igor has one last chance to tell the truth.

“Don’t you see?” he asks her. “That was why I left. It was the only way to keep what we had. Yes, I regretted it, of course I did, but what is there to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear that matters.”





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