The steppe that lies, in effect, between Europe and Asia, is peopled most heavily in those places where its vast flatness is punctured by mountains. Along its perforated edges, the steppe is watered and tended…the desert sprouts green strands of well-watered orchards and gardens that skirt the mountains and beckon settlement. The nomadic herders ranged in the rocky plains beyond the mountains, preferring the anonymity of the impenetrable vastness to the conflict that came with the plenty of the aquifers and forests. But, over time, cities grew. One of these mountain-bound cities was Tashkent.
The first place to see large-scale settlement between the ancient settlements of Iran and China, still two thousand miles off to the East, was the lands known today as Uzbekistan. It was in Uzbekistan that Alexander the Great found his Sogdian princess, Roxanne, and here, as well, that the Avars and the Huns first began the long trail towards Europe. In later times, the Mongols swept across the land, leaving the ancestral lines that would shape the Indian subcontinent. Uzbekistan sent its transient warriors as conquerors to other empire but was itself only ever a loosely governed patchwork of cities and oases.
The old desert outposts that dot the landscape were once princely states whose walls were the desert vastness that surrounded them. Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand are still strangely autonomous, detached from center of the rather haphazard state of and speaking a mix of native and imperial tongues. But my first stop was the more recognizably Uzbek city of Tashkent, the capital. Tashkent is on a spit of land tucked deep into the southern flank of Kazakhstan. It was once the capital of the expansive Russian frontier of Turkestan and keeps its vaguely colonial character in places. The brickwork is reminiscent of Moscow, and the long tree-lined streets would not be out of place in Kiev. The city is walkable, but I jumped in one of the unchanging line of small cars (all built on the same chassis and pained the same color) and headed to the bazaar in search of plov.