Our Tour of Samarkand

Trip Start May 14, 2009
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Trip End Jun 15, 2009


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Where I stayed
Hotel President Palace Hotel

Flag of Uzbekistan  , Samarqand,
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Modern Samarkand stretches over an enormous area and being mostly designed on a circular basis it was quite difficult to get our bearings. There were many times that we embarked on a long walk trying to find a landmark site, only to find that we ended up in quite a different direction to that planned.

And so it was not until our fourth and last day in Samarkand that we did a formal tour and were finally able to gain an appreciation of this extraordinary city. This was probably just as well as we were only starting to recover from our food poisoning and it was to be our longest tour on our program.

Larger than life was the lovely Lola, our guide for the day. With wild blond hair and an effervescent personality, the exotic Lola was a walking package of Ukrainian, Tajik, Uighur and Uzbek nationalities. She was an entertaining guide and like our other guides a wealth of knowledge about her home city of Samarkand. "I'm sooooo passionate about my city" she purred. And she was. Dressed in a stunning exotic outfit and with the highest heels, we wondered how our Lola was going to survive a day’s walking with us. Thankfully for Lola’s feet, a new set of shoes was soon purchased at the Siob local market. Which is just as well as our tour of Samarkand was some long nine hours.

It was difficult to imagine that there could be a city more fascinating or architecturally beautiful than what we had seen in Khiva and Bukhara, but Samarkand was truly indescribable. No wonder it is known as Uzbekistan’s most glorious city. As Lonely Planet states: “No place is so evocative of the Silk Road than Samarkand”.

Samarkand or Marakanda as it was once known (and also later as Afrosiab) is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is thought to have been founded in the 5th Century BC. Later in 329 BC Samarkand was taken by Alexander the Great who said “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined”. The city was once the capital of the powerful state of the Sogdians and then to numerous other empires, including the Samarid, Qarakhanid and Shaybanids. Later it became the centre of Tamerlame’s great empire. And the mighty Tamerlame is very much the ancient face of this city today.

In Samarkand Alan and I became truly addicted to the amazing history of Tamerlame and his grandson the gifted Ulugbek, the descendent ruler who was a brilliant astronomer, mathematician and general scholar, and probably best known for his former skills.

Our first visit on our tour was to the ancient remains of Afrosiab where we visited the excellent Afrosiab Museum and the remains of Ulugbek’s Observatory. The observatory was extraordinary. Built in the 1520’s it was the largest observatory in the east and was designed to observe the star positions. All that remains now is the bottom section of the huge quadrant with a radius of 40.2 m and a curved arc of some 63 m long. We were mind blown that although Ulugbek had none of the sophisticated astrological instruments of today, his astrological estimations were within the narrowist limits of those currently known. There is no doubt to us that Ulugbek was the renaissance man of his day; an era of great sophistication. Tragically the charismatic Ulugbek met a horrendous end, being beheaded by his own people.

The city of Samarkand is filled with the fabulously well preserved ancient architecture of a mind boggling array of medressas, mosques and mausoleums. We must have visited them all. But the highlights for us were the Ulugbek Observatory and the magnificent Registan. The Registan is the simply stunning centrepiece of the city and probably the most well known single site in all of Central Asia. It simply abounds with magnificent azure tiled medressas, tilting tall minarets and ornate fluted domed buildings.

And just as we thought we had seen most of the wonderful sites in the Registan, we were led to the knock your socks off huge Mosque of Bibi-Khanym. Constructed just before Tamerlame’s death it was named after his Chinese wife Bibi-Khanym and was one of the Islamic world’s largest mosque with its main gate being some 35 m tall. Sadly the original mosque was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897. Once again, it was impossible for us to comprehend how these massive buildings were constructed, given their time in history.

In a nearby museum we were absorbed by old photos of the ruins of the Bibi-Khanym. Since the earthquake serious reconstruction has taken place, as it has for many of the ancient buildings of Samarkand. We were aware that there has been a lot of criticism of the various reconstructions, with one school of thought being that the ruins should be left as they were. One look at the crumbling mass of the Bibi-Khanym’s former glory and it was not difficult for us to appreciate the reconstruction process. At least these buildings will now be around for many more years for people to appreciate and enjoy.

Just behind the Bibi-Khanym was the Siob bazaar. It was alive with various markets selling great quality fresh vegetables, dried fruit and nuts, traditional sweets, honey, dairy products and wonderful freshly baked bread. We spent quite some time wandering around these markets. I bought some fresh nougat which was to test my teeth out and we bought a beautiful suzani, or embroidery. The women market sellers wore brightly coloured long loose fitting gowns, some with head scarves but no-one seemed to be very much covered up and bare arms were very common. Similarly, men wore short sleeved shirts or t-shirts over trousers or jeans, some with traditional pointed caps. It all looked very casual.

Interestingly, we found that many of the local tourists did not bother to cover their heads when entering mosques and it was not uncommon to see women in body hugging jeans and revealing tops frequenting mosques where prayers were being undertaken.

From the Registan we walked some three or four kilometers through the back lanes of Samarkand, amongst the houses and living areas of the local Samarkanders. This was around six hours into our trip and we were feeling exhausted. It was however a great opportunity to see how people live and from the photos it can be seen that life is still pretty hard for the local Uzbekistan person. From what we were told and could observe, tourism in Uzbekistan is doing well and this was again confirmed by Lola as she pointed out the increasing number of guest houses that were being opened in this part of Samarkand.

Just as we were certain that the tour HAD to be close to finishing, Lola suggested that we visit her “very special” place the Shah-i-Zinda, a group of mausoleums and funeral mosques located on the southern slope of Afrosiab, the old Marakanda. The name Shah-i-Zinda means “Tomb of the Living King” and the mausoleum houses family members and favourites of Tamerlame and Ulugbek.

Despite our exhaustion, it was a hauntingly beautiful place with an atmosphere to match. Lola suggested that we should perhaps use this opportunity to “explore our spirituality”. By this time such a soul searching opportunity didn’t really appeal but we plodded obediently into one of the peaceful dark chambers. We were treating this seriously as we knew we would be quizzed when we came out. It was however somewhat disconcerting to hear the snoring and loud knuckle cracking of one of the watchmen who sat in the corner of our chamber. Try as we might it was impossible to meditate. How he managed to snore and simultaneously crack his knuckles we would never know.

And so our day ended some nine hours after we began. It was a wonderful tour but we were by then in a state of collapse!
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