As a former student of Russian kept at bay by the Iron Curtain, I had for long harboured a desire to travel in Central Asia; and last year I managed it. I had read all the travel books from Marco Polo to Colin Thubron but none of them had prepared me for a heart-stopping moment in Uzbekistan.
I was leading a small group of friends on an itinerary I had devised which took us off the usual beaten track of the Silk Route to Samarkand. My objective was to head northeast of Bukhara to explore the area around Nurata, inhabited to a large extent by Kazakh nomads. Here, I believed, we might see something of their colourful way of life and, in particular, their hunting hound, the Tazy.
Before reaching Nurata, I thought we might first venture up the Sarmysh gorge, which is famous for the thousands of petroglyphs pecked into its dark shale walls over millennia. Our minibus driver took us deep into the gorge but when we reached a ford, where a stream cut across the road, he said he could go no further without damaging his vehicle. At this point we set of walking to see if we could spot the petroglyphs.
After a while I found myself walking alone along a narrow sandy track through the quite dense undergrowth, stopping from time to time to take shots with my camera and its 300 mm telephoto lens of the animals and human figures etched into the rocky sides. The thought did cross my mind that if there were snakes in Uzbekistan, this would be the place to find them, but then I imagined they could not possibly survive the bitter cold of winter there. At that moment I was brought up sharp by a loud hiss and there not more than a metre in front of me was the unmistakable hooded, swaying shape of a Cobra! It was so totally unexpected that my first reaction was disbelief rather than fear. I took a step back, raised my camera, as I thought no one would believe me without a picture, but the Cobra was too near for my lens to focus on it and it kept zooming in and out. The snake clearly did not like the whirring noise for it gave another loud hiss and slid slowly away into the undergrowth. At that point fear did kick in and I fled the scene with thoughts of what might have happened if it had struck in that lonely place a long way from a clinic and anti-venom serum. I rejoined my companions at the minibus and told them and our guide what I had seen. He confirmed that venomous snakes most certainly could survive the cold in Uzbekistan; and I later identified this particular one as a Caspian Cobra, the bite of which was usually fatal within 40 minutes if not treated with the appropriate antidote. Whew!
We continued to Nurata where, while the others went to see the colourful local handicrafts, the guide took me to see a Tazy. When I was arranging the trip at the outset, he had not been too sure what a Tazy looked like but I had described it as a medium-size slender hunting hound with long silky ears and tail. As we walked, he explained that the Kazakh shepherds and their hounds were too far away for us to see in their encampments but he had found locally just what I wanted. We went to a typical Kazakh courtyard house and as I stepped through the doorway a dark shape came flying towards me. I collapsed – with laughter! It was a Cocker Spaniel! My guide was mortified, as he had gone to so much trouble to find a Tazy for me and reproached me, saying: “You did say it had long silky ears!” At least for a while my amusement banished all thoughts of the Cobra; and the owner told me that she did have a Tazy but it had died along with other livestock the previous long winter when it was -25degrees C for a month. But I could not help wondering afterwards how it was then that that Cobra had survived.