Number 2 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan
My 2018 trip to Uzbekistan with travel buddy Hamish was absolutely superb.
You may already have read about the Turkmenistan leg of the trip (Darvaza Gas Crater was iconic travel moment number 4).
Uzbekistan just about edged it for me, and even then it was a pretty close call between Bukhara & Samarkand for top billing in Central Asia.
I really loved Bukhara, the Silk Road city that was our first port of call after crossing the border from Turkmenistan.
The Kalon Mosque and Minaret were my favourite – a place we lingered for hours with the place virtually to ourselves.
There were several other mosques as well as the Ark of Bukhara that were also fabulous, but I had to plump for Samarkand on account of its multiple wow sights.
We arrived from Bukhara on the super-fast Afrosiyob train to spend four nights in the mesmerising Silk Road city.
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!
We arrived at the Timur mausoleum names Gur-e-Amir after dark and found the structure to be most beguiling under its floodlights.
Gur-e Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King”. This architectural complex with its azure dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane (Timur), his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan.
Also honoured with a place in the tomb is Timur’s teacher Sayyid Baraka.
The construction of the mausoleum itself began in 1403 after the sudden death of Muhammad Sultan, Timur’s heir apparent and his beloved grandson, for whom the new mausoleum was intended.
Timur had built himself a smaller tomb in his birthplace Shahrisabz, near his Ak-Saray palace. However, when Timur himself died in 1405 whilst on his military expedition to China, the passes to Shahrisabz were snowed in, so he was buried here in Samarkand instead.
Ulugh Beg, another grandson of Tamerlane, completed the work. During Ulugh’s reign the mausoleum became the family crypt of the Timurid Dynasty.
There were some official looking guards around, but they did not seem to care that Hamish & I just wandered in ticketless. We were on our own and uneasily felt we could be locked inside at any moment.
If the exterior was wonderful, the interior was absolutely stunning, especially the main mausoleum room of the Timurid Dynasty.
The clanking of a large set of heavy iron keys told us that it was time to depart. We had been spellbound by the grandeur of the place.
Gur-e Amir occupies an important place in the history of Persian-Mongolian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, including the Gardens of Babur in Kabul, Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, which was built by Timur’s Persianised descendants, the ruling Mughal dynasty of the Indian Subcontinent.
We went to bed very happy that night, delighted with what we had just seen and also looking forward to finally visiting the Registan the next morning, our third day.
Meaning sandy place in Persian, the Registon was the ceremonial centre point of the Timurid dynasty from the 15th Century.
The square acted as the main focal point where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis . It was also a place of public executions.
Then as it is today, the square is framed by three huge madrasahs of stunning Islamic architecture.
We were to spend eight hours there, aside from a break for lunch and a chance to visit the nearby statue of Timur the Great.
We would have stayed longer too, except that there is now a need to purchase a second ticket to visit after dark. As we had already wandered much of the sight under lights, we decided that we had more than had our money’s worth (a bargain $8 in fact).
We had managed to avoid a peek at the magnificent site for two whole days, so approached with a great deal of anticipation. We visited on a lovely September day and were delighted that the crowds were threadbare.
Indeed, after lunch they were virtually non-existent as all the tour groups departed for other sites.
The three imposing madrasahs are Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420), Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619–1636) and Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646–1660).
Not only are the exteriors amazing, but the interiors are something to behold too. Words are unnecessary, I will just let the pictures do the talking……
As you would expect for such a glorious location, it is a catalyst for wedding parties too.
Coming Next – Number One, South East Asia