Arriving in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
There are certain names that conjure images of exotic travel to far flung magical destinations. Timbuktu, Port Said, Tangiers, Damascus, Jaipur, The Caspian Sea, Lake Titicaca, Saigon.
Samarkand is one of those places and is a location that very much lives up to expectations. It is undoubtedly the Crown Jewels of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and arguably the whole of Muslim civilisation.
This is the city of the great warrior Timor (also known as Tamerlane – 1336 to 1405) and his heirs, most notably his grandson Ulugbek.
No expense was spared in making Samarkand the iconic capital of their great empire. Such was the beauty of the place that even Genghis Khan, notorious for sacking everything in his path, spared the city from ruin so beguiled was he by its majesty.
We arrived on the superfast Afrosiyob train from Bukhara, which has a top speed of 250 kmh. It is actually a Spanish TALGO train liveried for Uzbekistan Railways.
We were staying three nights plus a further day as we were due to catch an overnight train north to Khiva, that would depart after midnight. We therefore needed to plan our visits carefully.
I suspect the vast majority of visitors make a beeline for the Registan, Samarkand’s prime site amongst all the piles of must sees. We however made the unusual decision to leave it until last, even averting our eyes when we passed anywhere near it in a taxi.
We were staying in the Malika Classic some 30 minutes walk from the thick of it. Coupled with my rock hard bed we were not best pleased with our new residence having been so spoiled in Bukhara, but grew to like it thanks to the great staff there.
The tremendous advantage of having plenty of time to visit places is that you get to linger in the main attractions and also get to lounge about for long recuperation periods drinking tea, reading, writing and chatting, all against tremendous backdrops under glorious clear blue skies.
Note to self who usually charges about packing in as much as possible!!
Day 1 – Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shahi Zinda Mausoleum Complex
Day 1 saw us take in two stunning complexes and drink enough tea to detoxify Homer Simpson.
First up was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, erected by the order of Timur in 1399-1405. From the outside the main mosque & madrasa were fabulous to look at with their mighty blue domes, towering patterned minarets, artistically decorated porticoes and secluded courtyards.
It was inside however that took the proverbial biscuit with jaw dropping tile-work and artistry of the highest standard. I got a stiff neck just gazing upwards, an affliction I was to encounter many times over before leaving the country.
An artisan sat painting likenesses of the glories we had just witnessed. The first souvenirs of the trip were duly purchased.
After a good hour plonked on a tapchan sofa (a covered sea/table with plush cushions & colourful textiles typical of Uzbek teahouses) at an adjacent cafe, it was time for our next absolute treat.
We first made a quick detour to the recently built Primov Mausoleum. Primov was the founding president of the newly independent Uzbek nation, separated from the USSR in 1991. He had passed away in 2016 and now lay in a simple tomb in a brightly coloured and rather gaudy building that I first took to be a tacky hotel or restaurant.
No photos we allowed, so we just filed past his grave to pay our respects along with everybody else. In a bizarre twist we sat on some marble benches alongside the tomb, benches that soon filled with around 100 Uzbeks.
We had gatecrashed a prayer session unbeknown to us. Verses were read over the tannoy as everybody prayed. We stayed frozen in respect to the ceremony, unable to move for 15 quite surreal minutes.
As soon as the tannoy cut off we were out of there with everybody else. It was Saturday and we realised that everybody was in their finest clothes. Brightly coloured dresses, golden sandals, smart suits, highly polished shoes. The teeth of the women glinted with gold in the sunlight, a must have fashion statement in these parts it seemed.
I felt more conspicuous in my scruffy western traveller’s garb than perhaps I had ever done before!
Shahi Zinda Mausoleum Complex
We then sauntered down to a site so fabulous and unique (to me) that it made me slightly tearful and struck me dumb.
The Shahi Zinda (translated as Living King) is a series of mausoleums constructed for the great and the good of the 9-14th and 19th centuries. They line both sides of a twisting avenue built high up on a rocky outcrop. Each building was decorated absolutely beautifully, befitting of the standing of the sitting tenant.
Each domed building was reached by climbing a few stone steps up to its kaleidoscope entrance revealing its gorgeous inner sanctum.
The colours, patterns and designs were exquisite, each one very different, perhaps at the request of the incumbents concerned.
This place was not for rushing. It had cost us all of $2 to gain admittance and we certainly got our money’s worth. Remarkably we seemed to be the only foreigners there.
After staying for a marvelous 90 minutes we had seen the whole awesome site. Time for tea!
Uzbekistan Dark Beer
That evening we headed for the brewery bar connected to the Pulsar Brewery. We had read that it served dark beer, a welcome change from the gassy fare that we had been ‘forced’ to drink up until then.
The beer was indeed delicious. Less so the food. We asked to see them menu and I was beckoned to follow the beer waiter. He took me to a large chest refrigerator and pointed out, “here menu.”
The fridge was choc full of nine different types of sausage and skewers of steak slices. Hamish is a vegetarian and I as usual had joined him in being meat free for the trip. Oh well, best make the most of it – cue skewers with roasted onions, tomatoes & potatoes.
Coming Next – Day 2, Markets & Tamerlane’s Birthplace