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Last Emir's Summer palace by Colin Thubron

My ramblings in the outskirts next morning led me through a multi-coloured gateway like the entrance to a funfair, and into the summer palace of the last emir. The building was completed in 1912: a bauble confected of East and West. Across its facades the pediments and pilasters were jungled in Turkic plasterwork, which wriggled fatly over every space. Arab arches sat in Chinese porticoes. Burmese domes swooped up from mongrel pavilions.

When I peered inside, I saw that every surface had been tortured into a surreal brilliance. Tiers of niches cascaded down whole walls, while others bloomed into muralled flowers which reared from their vases in spatular sprays. I dawdled down glittering aisles of mirrors and stained glass. Gilded ceilings spun overhead, and Dutch delft ovens loomed out of corners. Sometimes I felt I was sauntering through pure carnival, and sometimes through a playful, jaded refinement: the last niceties of Central Asia sinking under a ton of trivia.

The Hall of Ceremony and the Chamber of Ministers fell behind me in a concoction of delicate plasterwork and looking-glass kitsch. From the bedraggled parklands outside arose the crazed scream of a peacock. Here, under Russian tutelage, the last emir Mahomet Alim had governed the rump of his state in tinsel pomp. His lavishly framed photographs bestrode several tables. Even in dress he was the bastard of two worlds. Fabulously sashed and turbaned like his ancestors, he was weighed down with epaulettes and fatuous czarist honours: a stout little sensualist, whose tax-collectors had terrorised the country.

His palace betrays him. It is an intricate, proportionless toy. I wandered about it in shameless pleasure. Outlandish kiosks appeared to have dropped off its body: follies of dazing ingenuity and lavatorial tiles, where cuddly stone lions looked as if they might mew.

I went down through orchards to a stone-flagged pond, where an outsize belvedere hovered on gangling stilts. It was reached by stairs in a fanciful tin minaret, and overhung the green pool. From the loggia nearby, it is said, the emir would watch his harem splashing in the waters, and would toss an apple to the beauty of his choice. Or perhaps he wouldn't. He was, it appears, an inveterate voyeur - his palace is riddled with peepholes and hidden stairs - and he seems to have preferred boys.

Yet he found a moment of power between the collapse of imperial Russia and the advance of Bolshevism. In 1918 he repulsed the Red invaders from his city in a welter of treachery and fanaticism which saw the murder of hundreds of Russian civilians. Two years later, before the advance of General Frunze, he abandoned Bukhara and his 400-strong harem to the Red Army, and eventually fled over the Amu Dariya into Afghanistan, shedding behind him a trail of choice dancing-boys.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron