Uzbekistan: A Mission to High Asia
“On a June morning in 1842, in the Central Asian town of Bokhara, two ragged figures could be seen kneeling in the dust in the great square before the Emir’s palace. Their arms were tied tightly behind their backs, and they were in a pitiful condition. Filthy and half-starved, their bodies were covered with sores, their hair, beards and clothes alive with lice. Not too far away were two freshly dug graves. Looking on in silence was a small crowd of Bokharans. Normally, executions attracted little attention in this remote, and still medieval, caravan town, for under the Emir’s vicious and despotic rule they were all too frequent. But this one was different. The two men kneeling in the blazing midday sun were British officers.”
It was Dubai airport in 2006 when I first read this, the opening paragraph of The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk’s astonishing history of Russian and British imperial adventures in High Asia.
I had actually been enjoying an Alan Whicker biography on the flight from Glasgow but, perhaps developing a form of wanderlust, it remained on the plane as I rushed to make my connecting flight to Mumbai. Realising my loss, I dashed to the bookshop. I had no time to browse. Hopkirk was just there on the shelf, right in front of me. Fitzroy Maclean and Patrick Leigh Fermor had given it the thumbs-up, so that was that. I paid, left, and became instantly absorbed by a story so extraordinary, so vivid that it triggered a lifelong fascination with Central Asian history.
Our unfortunate heroes left kneeling in the dust – Arthur Connolly and James Stoddart – were there ostensibly to secure trade deals with the Emir but were in fact spies, players in the earliest stages of what would be a long struggle for political and commercial supremacy in the deserts and ancient caravan cities that lay north of British India and east of Russia’s approaching empire. A precursor to the Cold War, this is what Kipling in his truly great book, Kim, named The Great Game.
They were assassinated, of course, engaged as they were in high-stakes espionage; mapping enemy territory, developing military strategy, frequently (and rather preposterously) disguised as Persian holy men or Hindu traders. A threat to the fiercely independent rulers of the various Khanates of the region, they lie to this day in rough graves under the main square in Bokhara, the ancient Silk Route town which lies in modern-day Uzbekistan.
Rather them than me, I mused as my visa was being processed at the Embassy of Uzbekistan in Holland Park in early May.
I had been invited by the His Excellency, the Ambassador, to meet various business and governmental organisations across the country and was, frankly, beside myself with excitement at the thought of perhaps seeing for myself the landscape, architecture and great cities I’d read so much about through the years.
Let me tell you – it is an astonishingly beautiful place.
Modern-day Uzbekistan was once the axis around which the world’s cultural and commercial life revolved, as you will see in its incredibly beautiful architecture. Bokhara, Khiva, Samarkand were central to many of the great advances in knowledge and progress in trade, religion, science and the arts of the ancient world, although later histories, with a focus on The Enlightenment and then Portuguese, Spanish, British, and latterly American expansion, often obscures this fact.
But what has all this got to do with business?
Well, Uzbekistan again finds itself at a crossroads. Its President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was appointed in 2016, has set out an ambitious pro-business model for economic development and is busy deregulating its economy in preparation for increased cooperation with foreign companies and investors. The liberalisation of the banking sector and transition to a system of free currency conversion are key ingredients for Uzbekistan’s progress which clear the way for a far simpler business environment for both Uzbek and foreign entrepreneurs.
Externally, to the east, China has placed Uzbekistan at the heart of its plans for enabling the free movement of people and freight across the vast Eurasian landmass, consciously invoking the old Silk Routes where East once met West. Its Belt and Road initiative envisages a direct rail route from China to Europe, via Uzbekistan, which will help establish new commercial networks whilst also re-establishing old and virtually forgotten cultural linkages.
So, in an age where East and West are learning to forget what has historically divided them, Uzbekistan, with its great tradition of trade and commerce, and from its perfect strategic location at the crossroads of the great Eurasian trade routes, is looking outwards once again, proud of its history but eager to move on, ready to succeed and very much open for business.
It’s fair to say that Connolly and Stoddart didn’t have much luck on their ill-fated mission to Bokhara. But the old potentates are firmly in the past now, and what I found on my own (admittedly less dramatic) mission was a warm welcome from people who I’m now proud to call friends as well as business partners.
If you would like to discuss doing business in Uzbekistan in the areas of tourism, retailing, real estate, garment manufacturing, or exporting farm produce (or even if you just want to chew the fat about spies, the Silk Roads, Kipling, The Great Game, or anything else) then please drop me a line.