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Khan's palace by Colin Thubron

Here, in the last century, the tyrant khans had reigned in grisly operetta. Even in summer they wore sheepskin caps and boots stuffed with linen rags. Their luxuries were carpets and a few sofas and carved chests. They executed their subjects on whim. The Russian envoy Muraviev, arriving in 1819, described how among the crowds gawping at his entry were throngs of Russian slaves, who whispered to him piteously for help he could not give. The previous intruder Bekovich, he learnt, had been flayed alive and his skin stretched over a drum.

I pushed through a door into the open throne-room. On one side its ceramic dais engulfed the court in a tidal wave of dazzling blue. On the other a brick mound had once supported a felt-lined tent — the herders' yurt - into whose snug fetor the half-savage khans had retired in winter.

It was at this court, in 1863, that the Hungarian traveller Arminius Vambery, disguised as a dervish, must have received his audience with the khan Sayyid Mahomet. As the curtain rolled back from the dais, the ruler was revealed reclining on a silk-velvet cushion, clutching a short gold sceptre. The sight of his degenerate face with its imbecile chin and white lips, and the tremble of his effeminate voice, were to haunt Vambery for years afterwards. The slightest mistake would have cost his life.

Later, passing through a public square, he stumbled with horror on a party of horsemen dragging whole families of prisoners-of-war behind them. Out of the sacks that they opened tumbled human heads, which an accountant kicked into piles before rewarding each horseman with a four-head, twenty-head or forty-head silk robe. Soon afterwards Vambery watched the routine execution of some 300 captives. Most were strung up or decapitated. But the eight grey-haired leaders lay down to be manacled, then the executioner knelt on their chests and gouged out their eyes, wiping his bloodstained knife on their beards. They tried to rise to their feet, but knocked blindly against one another, or beat the ground in their agony. Even Vambery, whose nerves were of steel, shuddered at these memories into his old age.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron