The Silk Road Marathon
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Uzbekistan local time  

The Silk Road Marathon

The international Silk Road Marathon was quite an event in the history of Uzbekistan’s travel industry. A group of sports tourism enthusiasts from France had the honor to open this significant happening which from now on is to be held annually. Among the marathon contestants there were oversea runners as well as runners from Uzbekistan.

Charms of City-Museum

The international marathon started in Khiva. Though it had been announced beforehand – in the mass media, with colorful posters and across street banners – the residents of the ancient town did not expected it to be so impressive. At 11 am, having run about 100 meters alongside the ancient fortress wall, a huge crowd of men and women of almost all ages rushed to the center of the town. Sports shirts with numbers, shorts of various colors, sneakers of well-known brands, cheers, delightful cries of children on the shoulders of their parents, flowers thrown to the feet of the  runners – these are what the local palaces, minarets and mosques had never witnessed before.  

After less than half an hour the leaders ran ahead of the compact mass of the runners; the crowd of runners became thinner and stretched for hundreds of meters. But the spectators had warm words of encouragement and wishes for success for everybody, including those running last. And it could not be otherwise: every runner showed perseverance, sports zest and the will to overcome difficulties. One of the runners, an elderly woman, lagged considerably behind the others in the middle of the track. The escort team offered to drive her but the lady categorically rejected the offer. ‘No, I’m going to struggle to the end!’ she said.  Exhausted, she still could cross the finishing line, and though she was the last to arrive, she was rewarded with the same storm of applause as had been the leaders.            
        
Sports tourism is already a long-term tradition in the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, South Africa, Russia and Scandinavian countries. According to the leading top-managers of the world’s travel industry, it is sports tourism that is going to play an important part in the development of the international tourism during the decades to come.
Uzbekistan has a good chance of becoming one of the centers of sports tourism. The country’s natural conditions, its terrain and climate, are good for successful development of such sports tourism activities as hiking, trekking, mountain climbing, horse and bicycle riding, sky-serfing  marathon running, rafting  and adventure sports activities such as heli-skiing and others – including those of high difficulty levels.

But let us get back to our marathon runners. Jean-Claude Le Cornec, their leader, said, ‘I wanted to lead the runners through the world’s most ancient towns, the pearls of Central Asia, along the famous Silk Road, which once was taken by such famous conquerors as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. But if our goal had been only the track, we would have missed unforgettable moments.’

Sports tourism is not only about sport. It is also about the history of the visited country, the culture of its people.

After taking part in the marathon, the runners had the opportunity to  see the sights of Khiva in all the details. And it became clear why this ancient town is called ‘a city-museum in the open’: Ichan-Kala, the historical center of Khiva, has a large number of amazing architectural monuments – all in one place.

Forming the appearance of the town, most of its monuments are of the Khiva Khanate architecture of the end of the 18th century – mid-19th century. Among numerous domes of mosques and minarets there stands out the Islam-Hajja minaret. Its elegant trunk, decorated with blue-and-white ceramic belts, soars 45 meters and dominates the town. Close by there is another minaret of an unusual form. It looks as if the top of it was cut off. It is Kalta-Minor minaret. Its massive trunk, exquisitely decorated with glazed brick belts, testifies to the fact that it was planned as a grand and huge structure, the main minaret of not only Khiva but also of  the whole Central Asia. But because of the death of the ruler who supported the construction of the minaret, it was left unfinished, and so they call it Kalta (‘short’). Next to Kalta-Minor minaret stands Amin-Khan Madrassah – the largest high Muslim school building that survived in Khiva. The sightseers could not help admiring the interior of Muhammad Rakhim-Khan Palace, the walls of which are decorated with painted gunch stucco carvings. There are lots of richly decorated halls, chambers and rooms in the palace. Another extremely beautiful monument in Khiva is Juma Mosque. Its 210 pillars, which support the roof, fascinate the visitors with their elegance and rich decorative carvings. Of special interest is Tash-Khauli palace, the main palace of Khiva khans. The architectural designs of its numerous chambers and the decorations of its interiors are unique: carvings in wood, majolica panels, cartouches… Another khan’s palace, Kurnysh-Khona, was used for grand-scale receptions. The designs of the building, its rich majolica tiles on the walls and intricate decorative patterns are an attraction for many tourists, too.                                     

The marathon runners expressed their delight unreservedly. ‘It’s really an Oriental fairytale!’ exclaimed one of them. Another said, ‘I had a wonderful feeling when I imagined that many centuries ago these narrow streets had been full of caravans and foreign merchants who had feasted their eyes on the minarets and palaces which we have taken delight in seeing today.’ A third added, ‘I’m so happy our “caravan’ is taking part in the revival of the Great Silk Road!’
The marathon runners were leaving the ‘city-museum in the open’ with satisfaction and gratitude. Ahead was the city of Bukhara.
 
The Silk Road Marathon is unlike traditional marathons. The Silk Road track in Uzbekistan is divided into a number of sections: 12 kilometers and 195 meters in Khiva, 15 kilometers in Bukahra, and 15 kilometers in Samarkand. The architectural monuments in these cities are so significant that UNESCO added them to its World Heritage List. So the Silk Road Marathon allowed its participants to both improve their sports results and visit the local world-famous architectural masterpieces.

Besides, while running their training races in the steppes, deserts and villages, the runners had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the unique local nature, the lifestyle and traditions of the rural population

What has the trip from Khiva to Bukhara imprinted on the travellers’ memory? It is comfortable coaches, wonderful sunset and dawn glare they could watch through the  bus windows; participation in cotton picking activity together with Uzbek farmers (afterwards everybody got a gift – a spray with open cotton balls looking like white roses, but warm and fluffy); feasts under the open sky; charming dances of beautiful Uzbek girls, exciting cockfights…

At the same time the memories of training races in the desert were far too commonplace: just sand – sand under the feet, sand on the teeth, sand under the jackets and shirts… It  suddenly got cooler that day, and only a steady jogging could keep the sportsmen warm. But at the finishing line, like a generous reward, there came pleasant realization of the fact that they had just covered the route of pilgrims of the past centuries, that they had withstood the severities of the desert. Perhaps, most of the runners would have felt the same as Gerard Auguste, who said, ‘It was a wonderful race! I had super-experiences of my life in the desert.’           

Unfading Beauty of Bukhara

At the break of dawn there appeared on the horizon the domes of ancient Bukhara. The marathon runners were met with sounds of music, with songs and dances. After the desert experiences the coziness and comforts of the hotel rooms, hot baths and restaurant breakfasts were something completely different… They found themselves in another Oriental fairytale.
In ancient times the city was referred to as Bukhara-i-Sharif (‘Noble Bukhara’), and even today it has all the rights to bear this name. There are over 140 architectural monuments in Bukhara. They keep centuries-old memories, unfading charm and unsolved mysteries. Bukhara cannot be portrayed without the Kalyan minaret. It was built in 1127 and was called Minori-Kalyan (‘Great Minaret’). It is a perfect work of civil engineering. The minaret soars 47 meters into the air and goes for many meters underground. And yet it has not subsided even a centimeter over 900 years. The minaret was built of baked bricks; bricks were also used to decorate the exterior of the structure: it has numerous decorative brickwork belts. On top the minaret has a rotunda lantern with 16 arched windows, from where muezzins used to call people over to praying services.                        

And here is the Samanids Mausoleum, an architectural monument of the 9th – 10th centuries. It was built by order of Emir Ismail, a powerful member of the Samanids dynasty. Buried in the mausoleum are the emir himself, his father and grandson. The mausoleum was one of first structures built of baked bricks. Its brickwork is so artistic that it looks like fine delicate lace. The form of the mausoleum is symbolic: its cubical part embodies the solid earth, the dome images the vault of heaven, whereas the harmonic combination of these two symbolizes the Universe.         

The sightseers noted the following feature of Bukhara architecture: there are several groups of monumental structures that stand across from each other with a street or a square between them. In the Middle Ages many architectural complexes had such a layout. In Poi-Kalyan Square the minaret is connected with an arched passage to the colossal Friday-prayer mosque Masjidi-Kalyan. In the same manner – standing opposite each other with a narrow street between them – were built the ensembles of  Ulughbek Madrassah and Abdulaziz-Khan Madrassah, Madari-Khan Madrassah and Abdulla-Khan Madrassah. These madrassahs, too, have elegant forms and rich decoration.

How beautiful are these centuries-old giants - the witnesses of the dramatic history of the ancient town,  its heyday, decline and revival! How mysterious are their names  – Chor-Bakr, Mokhi-Khosa!

The finishing line of the next section of the marathon was at Chor-Bakr Mausoleum. This track ran past endless fields with stretching to the far horizon white rows of cotton, with women cotton pickers in bright clothes, with lines of  thin and straight poplars and branchy mulberry trees… The local people gave the runners hot tea, aromatic freshly baked round loaves of bread,  pistachios, raisins, dried fruits… They wished them success, invited to be their guests.

The same was during Sitorai-Mokhi-Khosa section of the marathon (located in the outskirts of the city, Sitorai-Mokhi-Khosa is the palace of the last Bukhara emir): same sincere smiles, open doors of houses welcoming the visitors, cheering claps, bouquets of autumn flowers…  Interrupting each other, Roberta, Martine and Manuella, sportswomen from Switzerland, shared their impressions, ‘This part was a real delight! The local population receives the marathon so warmly! Bravo to the organizers of the marathon for the route of the track!’ Monikue Frechin from Geneva knew that she would not achieve high results because her old radiculitis began to trouble her again. But, according to her, “the reception of the local people was so warm and the cities we visited were so beautiful” that even the nineteenth place she won in the marathon could not spoil the extremely pleasant impression the stay in Uzbekistan made on her.

Under the Eternal Sky of Ulugbek

It must be admitted that a number of the marathon runners had not heard of Uzbekistan before. But Samarkand was on everybody’s lips and many participants of the event had been dreaming about visiting this city for years. Perhaps it is because 600 years ago European countries sent their envoys to the capital of great Temur to ask this powerful ruler of Maveraunnahr to protect them from the threat of the strengthening Ottoman Empire. When the envoys returned home, they communicated with admiration about the striking beauty of Samarkand, its unbelievably rich palaces, paradise-like gardens and parks. The accounts, travel notes and books written by these men were translated into many languages and spread over many countries. Thus Samarkand became a vivid symbol of the Orient - splendid and mysterious. That is why the marathoners were approaching this ancient Uzbek city with special excitement and interest.

And when it was announced that the start and finish of the main section of the marathon would be at Gur-Emir Mausoleum, where the great military leader and statesman was buried, all the marathoners rejoiced at the news. Then they were taken on a sightseeing tour round Samarkand and none of them left their cameras and notebooks unused – all of them wanted to record everything they heard and saw.

Samarkand is one of the world’s oldest cities, a contemporary with Rome, Athens and Babylon. The city enjoyed its heyday and grandeur during the times of great Amir Temur who made a considerable contribution to nationhood and state formation, the progress of science, enlightenment, and culture development, as well as monumental town planning. From his numerous military campaigns Amir Temur brought abundant trophies and many craftsmen – architects and builders, stonemasons, engravers and carvers… And one by one there sprang up, rivaling each other in beauty, palaces, madrassahs, mausoleums, and mosques. In springtime there flourished fantastic charbag gardens full of fruit and ornamental trees, flowerbeds, pools and fountains. The great monumental structures of the 14th – 15th centuries, built during the times of Amir Temur and his successors – among whom stands out the great astronomer Mirzo Ulughbek, Amir Temur’s grandson – earned Samarkand such epithets as: ‘Face of the Earth’, ‘Eden of the Orient’, ‘City Protected by Allah’… Among these structures the grand Registan Square with three colossal madrassahs decorated with precious mosaics comes first. No less impressive is the chain of Shakhi-Zinda mausoleums, like a blue necklace spreading over the slope of the ancient settlement Afrasiab and sparkling with multicolourd glaze. The portal and surviving parts of the huge Bibi-Khanim Mosque, which was built in honor of the beautiful wife of Amir Temur, fascinates by its grandeur. And of course, of special interest is Gur-Emir Mausoleum built in 1403 by order of Amir Temur in connection with the sudden death of his favorite grandson Muhammad Sultan. Under the turquoise dome of the mausoleum there lie Amir Temur himself, his sons and grandsons. The mausoleum has a monumental and plain form but its walls, arches and the dome are decorated with rich painted decorative patterns, mostly in blue and gold. The tombstone of Amir Temur is covered with dark green panels of jade.          

Squares, mausoleums, minarets, khanakas… Traditional Oriental bazaar… Ulughbek’s observatory and museum… The ancient Samarkand reveals its treasures. The dreams finally come true.

It was clear and sunny that autumn day. The runners were to cover the next section of the marathon – to the mountain village Tepakul, which is located at a distance of 20 kilometers from Samarkand. This time they had to overcome quite a hard ascent along mountain paths. But the beauty of the scenery was dazzling. Julie Revirand said, ‘It was excellent. For a short time I was alone in the mountains, and I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I offered a prayer to God.’ The local people cheerfully greeted the runners; the runners presented the local children with toys, crayons, badges…

After a short interval of rest the runners were invited to a dinner in a traditional Uzbek home in the outskirts of Samarkand. During the dinner they familiarized themselves with Uzbek cuisine, the interior of the traditional Uzbek dwelling house, the art of Uzbek musicians and dancers.

And finally, there came the last section of the marathon. This time the marathoners were to run in the mountainous Urgut. The weather took the runners by surprise: it began raining. But the marathon started according to the schedule. All the runners got wet through; some of them slipped and fell, and came to the finish all over in mud. But all of them were happy, since they had finally achieved their goal. Filippo Pagavino, the winner, probably expressed what every participant of the marathon felt, ‘It was a unique competition. After running along the ancient Silk Road, I felt I had joined eternity, immortality.’

In the evening of the same day there was held the closing ceremony of the International Silk Road Marathon. The three winners were awarded triumphal Cups of Victory; the rest runners got original keepsakes – decorative dishes showing sights of Uzbekistan ancient cities and symbols of the marathon, as well as handmade souvenirs…

Around 1000 runners took part in the marathon. Every day in the mass media of Uzbekistan and many other countries there appeared news releases about this large-scale event. The runners’ comments full of sincere gratitude testified to the fact that  the marathon was a great success and was full of unforgettable impressions. The participants thanked Uzbek guides, hotel managers, technical support team, health workers, restaurant workers, traffic police… And it should be noted that the ‘conductor’ of the event was the national company Uzbekturism, which ensured smooth coordination of all the necessary agencies, organizations and companies during the marathon.

The Silk Road marathoners ran along the roads of great conquerors, but they inscribed their names upon the chronicle of kindness, cooperation, peace and unity of mankind. For centuries the ancient Road of Life served for these values, and so does it now.