The title of this post comes from a poem by Canadian poet Dennis Lee called “Homage to Moose Factory, Ont.” which was almost certainly the first time I ever heard the name Samarkand.
We had first class train tickets on our trip to Samarkand which, perversely, meant that it was less comfortable. Six rather cramped seats in a little cabin playing loud Russian pop music videos instead of a pair of seats with a nice big table in front and relative quiet.
But it got us there one way or another, so we were in Samarkand before noon. Our old guidebook meant that we had little idea where we might sleep, nor how to get there even if we did. Which meant we found ourselves kind of at the mercy of taxi drivers, which is never a position I like to be in.
But it seemed accommodation was centred around the city’s main tourist attraction, the Registan, and sharp eyed Sarah saw a city bus with “Registon” printed on the front, so this seemed a good bet.
When we arrived we did our best to avoid seeing to much of the famous Registan square, wanting our first real look to be a more thorough one when it was at its best. So Sarah sat down in our park with our bags while I went to scout out hotel options.
They weren’t quite as pretty as those in Bukhara, but Samarkand’s hotels were tremendously good value. Which is a good thing, because we had several days in the city and thus spent most days from about noon until four sitting in our air conditioned rooms or in the hotel courtyard escaping from the sizzling desert heat.
Five hundred year old mausoleums in the Shahi Zinda complex
As in Bukhara, we spent our first afternoon in Samarkand (or Samarqand if you prefer. I’m not sure which I like better) wandering around the less spectacular, non-monumental parts of town. We checked out a small produce bazaar (intriguingly, virtually every produce bazaar in Uzbekistan has the same space truss roof design), bought some gummies to feed Sarah’s addiction, and watched swimmers in the fountain-filled lagoon near to the Registan. We sat on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, overlooking the Registan and waiting for the sun to set so our day’s fast would end and we could dig into our usual Uzbek meal of watermelon, bread and tomatoes.
All through central Asia cities were filled with beautiful mosaics that seemed to be the major public art form of the Soviet era. This one is subtler than most, but even the ones that are a riot of colours manage to avoid being over the top
I was tempted to go for a dip myself!
Our sightseeing began in earnest the second day. Samarkand was the capital of Amir Timur (known more commonly as Tamerlane in the west.) At his height in the 14th century he was likely the most powerful man in the world, having restored central Asia to Turkic rule and reviving its fortunes of the silk road glory days which had been cut so viciously short by the Mongol conquest. Not that Timur was a gentle fellow himself… He often had walls or towers built from the skulls of his army’s victims. But this hasn’t stopped him becoming something of a national hero in Uzbekistan. Which you can certainly understand when you see the architectural marvels that he and his immediate lineage left behind in Samarkand.
We set out on foot on Tashkent Street, and almost immediately passed the huge Bibi Khaynam mosque. This one actually WASN’T built by Timur. Instead it was built by his wife when we was away on campaign, intended to be a surprise for him when he arrived home. According to legend the unfortunate architect fell in love with her during construction. When Timur came home he was beheaded for his efforts and women were instructed to wear veils to avoid tempting men who they weren’t their husbands. The street leading to Bibi Khaynam was neatly paved with
Bibi Khaynam mosque from across the street
Our destination for the morning was the most distant of the city’s popular sight sites, the Ulekbeg observatory. Ulekbeg was a Shah, but has actually probably been better remembered by history for his scholarship as an astronomer. He had a huge astrolabe built on the outskirts of town. All that remained was the track that it rotated around, but we soon realized that even this had been enclosed in a museum. Given our experience of Uzbek museums so far we decided to give it a miss and limit our observatory sightseeing to a photo of Sarah with the Ulekbeg statue out front.
Sarah with Ulekbeg. Note the scroll of stars he holds, just like Al Fargoni, the famous astronomer whose statue we’d seen in Fergana
Heading back into town was much more fun altogether. We chatted with several shop attendants (sitting out front of their establishments in the shade), wandered through a neighbourhood with a surprisingly pretty canal running through it and cattle grazing in between the houses. AND we stumbled upon Shahi Zinda. The Registan complex is certainly the largest attraction in Samarkand (both figuratively and literally.) But I think Shahi Zinda is the most beautiful. So beautiful in fact that we returned two more times after our first visit: once in the late afternoon of the same day to take some more photos as our camera battery died while we were there, and again the following morning because we figured (correctly) that it would be at its prettiest in the morning sun.
Shahi Zinda is an avenue of tombs, many with lofty domes, many others with brilliant blue and turquoise facades, still others with both. It is clearly a tourist attraction now, but it was interesting to see how the place was still revered by locals. There were plenty of foreign tourists there, but compared to the Uzbek tourists/pilgrims and the Samarkand residents they were by far the minority. In the archway before the end of the avenue (and the three grandest tombs) old men would sit and pray, everyone else pausing to listen respectfully and give them small donations afterwards. It was fascinating that people still felt such a connection to the place, despite most of the entombed not being religious figures of any sort, and the fact that none of the tombs was newer than about 400 years old.
Looking up the avenue of mausoleums in Shahi Zinda
Some of the mausoleums had simple whitewash as their only interior decoration. In others the incredible tilework from the exterior continued inside. This one found a pretty middle ground in the decoration spectrum
Late afternoon sun shines in the hexagonal paned window onto an elaborate tiled interior
Detailed tilework around the portal at the entrance to one of the mausoleums
Three spectacularly decorated Uzbek ladies on holiday posing in front of a spectacularly decorated tomb
A door to one of the mausoleums
The “blue room.” A group of three spectacularly tiled mausoleums and one equally beautiful portal archway that sit at the end of the Shahi Zinda avenue. All of them are tiled in dark blue with turquoise accent. The close quarters mean that photography is difficult and the faces are never all sunlit at the same time, but the effect of the place is tremendous
Looking back down the avenue of tombs from the “blue room” in the late afternoon
I know this is a lot of photos of Shahi Zinda, but it was a really beautiful place
Hodja Nisbaddor mosque. Newer than most of the classic mosques and medressas in Samarkand, but its wooden columns and pastel colours are an interesting change
Though the grand tombs of Shahi Zinda themselves were ancient, the cemetery behind the avenue was still in very active use. Burials carried on there, and even the old gravesites were carefully tended and regularly upgraded. Which explains the laser etched photo on the tombstone for a woman who died in 1953. Indeed, these laser etched photos were the norm on tombstones there. On their own I’ve always thought they looked a bit odd and slightly tacky, but when you’re surrounded by thousands of them the effect is quite different. It’s as though you’re surrounded by a whole other city. The Samarkand of the past, the faces of its residents all staring back out at you. It was interesting to note that most of the photos were taken shortly before the death of the subjects. I suppose the deceased isn’t there to give his or her input, but I reckon I might like to be remembered as my 25 or so year old self when I die…
The cemetery behind Shahi Zinda. It was entirely possible to enter the complex this way and avoid the entrance fee. We were happy to pay for our first visit, but I must admit we came in and out this way for the subsequent two
The following day after our early morning visit to Shahi Zinda, we headed out of Samarkand to some of the surrounding region. We had only a very vague idea of where we were headed, but the town of Urgut, where we ended up, was a quite pleasant and a fascinating change from the dry, hot sun and well organized tourist industry of Samarkand. We’d gone in search of the town’s famous bazaar, but as in Margilon we somehow missed it. But the regular old bazaar in the centre of town was great anyway. A bit more chaotic and “Asian” than any of the others we’d yet seen in Uzbekistan. And with surprising early 20th century architecture as well. Lots of semi-rough stone, domes and arches. I hadn’t expected much of Soviet era buildings except for the bit monumental neoclassical ones like we’d seen in some of the Central Asian capitals, but these were really quite nice.
Me with an absolutely huge cantaloupe type melon that was for sale at the bazaar. Similarly oversized watermelons were in the next pile over
Lovely old chaikhana in Urugut
Urgut’s ladies in pink
Even better was the Chor Chinor complex a thirty minute walk up the stream that ran through the town. As we followed the water, the townspeople would constantly gesture further upstream, suggesting there was something up there they thought we might like to see (or, I suppose, that they were planning to kidnap and eat us once we got lost in the hills above the town or something, but they seemed friendlier than that…)
The complex consisted of an early 20th century mosque surrounded by far older tombs and a far, far older grove of plane trees (over 1100 years old in fact.) Through all of this ran a crystal clear spring whose source was at the far end of the glade.
We bought our tickets (500 Som or NZ$0.22, which makes one wonder why they bother with them) from a little girl sitting at a desk under the shade of one of the giant trees near the entrance. Moments later her father (I think he was her father) found us and gave us a tour around the grounds. He spoke only the tiniest bits of English, French and German, but he was obviously passionate about the place and took great pride in showing us around and explaining all he could about it.
We sat around enjoying the cool and the shade for as long as we felt we could without risking being unable to return to Samarkand for the night.
The original tomb of Hodja Abdu Talib, who planted the plane trees. It was a small chamber built right into the huge root bulb of one of the plane trees. Complete with a door leading into it, it looked like it ought to be a house in Bag End
The outlet to the spring fed pool at the top of the complex. So clear was the water and so smooth the flow that it formed a lens giving a perfect refracted image of the stone it flowed over. Though locals say that what you’re actually seeing is an image of the Kabba in Mecca
When we did get back we had our first real dinner out in Uzbekistan (the only other one had been at a fast food restaurant which doesn’t really count.) Not entirely surprisingly, the food was shashlik (kebabs), bread and salad. But it was very GOOD shashlik, bread and salad. And we got to sit and enjoy our meal with Corrine, Olivier, Charlotte and Leo, a lovely French family who we’d met at breakfast that morning. The owner of the restaurant was quite a character, who did his best to get Leo excited and let him turn the outdoor courtyard where we ate into his own personal playground. Also at our table were a couple from Belgium (or Turkey, or Morocco, depending on your exact view of things) so most of the conversation was conducted in French. Which made an utter mess of the already overtaxed speech centre of my brain, which was already having to contend with English, Uzbek, Russian and Tajik. But it was a great night. We all returned to our hotel together through the very busy park alongside the registan (the locals were sensible enough to use it mostly at night when it was LESS than 40C out.) Then we finished by breaking out the bottle of Uzbek wine that Sarah and I had picked up just to give it a try. It was quite a surprise. If you’d been expecting a French style dry red you’d be very sadly disappointed. But at 3400 Som (not much over a dollar) it was the cheapest pseudo-port I’d ever tried (not that I’m a big connoisseur of port. Or pseudo port for that matter.)
Leo and I at dinner
Our final day in Samarkand was the Registan day. We’d been putting off our visit there until we could see it at its best. Which meant a visit in the early morning (which I’d been to lazy to do) or late afternoon (which we just never seemed to manage for one reason or another.) On that day we did both.
Shortly after sunrise I joined Sarah for a run (a habit she’d started up again when she’d gone running with our couchsurfing host Parvina in Khujand, Tajikistan a couple of weeks before.) I was going more to take photos than to get exercise, so after a while I lost sight of Sarah but, confident that I’d see her on her next lap around the Registan, I sat down in the courtyard to wait for her.
Samarkand residents on their way to work as the moon sets behind the Registan
The first rays of the sun on the back of the Sher Dor Medressa
The Registan was the main square of old Samarkand, and is formed in the space between three spectacular medrassas. The medressas were constructed over 220 years, from 1420 to 1660, so weren’t actually designed as an ensemble as such, but they certainly perform well together. The square is about 150m on a side. The blue tiled portals and minarets of two of the medressas tower over it on the left and right, a brilliant turqoise dome sits at the end, offset a bit to the left from the central axis of the square flanked by two more lofty minarets. Virtually all of it is decorated in beautiful glazed tiles. And the parts of it that are just bare sandy coloured brick seem to have been left unornamented only to accent the parts that are.
These were the very height of Timurid architecture, and it’s for good reason that they are the biggest tourist attractions in Uzbekistan which is, itself, the most touristed of the central Asian nations by a long way (despite the fact that it’s a pain in the butt to get a visa…)
As I sat in the cool morning I got chatting to one of the policemen who guard the square overnight. Despite the fact that it hadn’t officially opened to visitors yet, I guess it was SO far from opening that they didn’t really mind our being there. As we sat and talked, an older man hobbled up to us and joined the conversation. He spoke a bit of English, so we could get along a bit further (but only a bit) than when it was just the cop and I. After a bit the older man produced his mobile phone, dialled and handed it to me. I was expecting that it was just the man wanting to introduce me to one of his English speaking relatives and maybe have a few more complex questions translated. Instead, I got a clear, only lightly accented voice on the other end asking if I’d like to go up one of the Registan minarets. This was a tempting proposition. They’re officially closed to visitors, and I was sure the view would be fabulous. Just then Sarah reappeared, so we discussed briefly between the two of us, bargained a bit with the man on the other end over the price of the visit (he originally asked $30, but in the end we settled on $10.) And a few minutes later the old hobbling man opened the gate of the left medressa for us. He took us through a door out of the public section into a much rougher section whose rough brick and wood framing was lit by bare incandescent bulbs. He pointed out another staircase and up we went, taking maybe three or four minutes to reach the top of the spiral stairs.
“Our” minaret. It was only after we got down that we realized it was the rather wonky one that we’d climbed
Out one of the narrow slit windows on the way up the minaret
We poked our heads up out a gap in the sheet metal roof of the minaret (obviously not original The view from the top WAS tremendous, as was the cool breeze, since even at 07:15 it was already starting to warm up. I was kind of nervous about being spotted, but it really can’t have been an issue, since the police guarding the place were obviously in on it. Despite this, I was still kind of nervous when we climbed back down and let ourselves out. The old man was nowhere to be seen, nor was the policeman I’d spoken with. It was unclear exactly who I was supposed to pay the $10 to. That part of the conversation had been a bit vague, but I supposed as the guy on the other end of the phone knew where we were staying, he’d come and find us (and hopefully not extort further money from us.) In the end I went back to the hotel, picked up a $10 bill and returned to the square. My policeman was back to I sat and chatted with him for a bit, and a few minutes later I saw a young man walking purposefully towards us. When he said hello I clearly recognized his voice from the phone. After a few more minutes of chatting he asked if I’d like to come and see his shop. We wandered off in that direction, I handed him the bill and that was that. The whole thing was probably much less sinister than it actually felt at the time
The view out over Tilla Kari Medressa from the top
Ulek Beg Medressa a bit later in the morning
We spent much of the rest of the day lounging in our hotel chatting with the other guests who came in and out. Then finally around 17:00 we headed back to the Registan to take a look inside in the late afternoon light.
The interior of the medressas was no less impressive than the outside. Except perhaps the profusion of souvenir shops that lines the walls of the courtyards inside each of them. But even these really didn’t detract terribly from the experience. The salespeople weren’t pushy, and one very friendly guy offered to give us a look inside his shop (which was a former teacher’s quarters) and a brief lesson on symbolism in Uzbek embroidery. He did this with not even the smallest hint of salesmanship, and so effective was his soft sell approach that I almost wished we could buy one of the beautiful big embroidered sheets to take home with us.
Portal and minaret of Sher Dor Medressa in the afternoon. The facades are absolutely crammed with detail, to the point that what at first look like abstract geometric designs on the minaret and edge of the portal are actually sylized arabic calligraphy
The rear wall of Sher Dor Medressa with all of its classrooms and student quarters on display
Detail of decoration in the portal of Sher Dor Medressa
Sher Dor Medressa seen through the front window of Ulek Beg medressa across the square
The interior of Tilla Kari medressa. It bore a surprisingly striking resemblance to Notre Dame cathedral in Montreal
Our final hours in Samarkand were great as well. We collected our bags and took them back to our shashlik restaurant of the night before where we met the whole crowd from our hotel and had a delightful talkative dinner with them all.
From there we caught the last bus out to the train station where we joined the crowds from the surrounding neighbourhood who came to sit and talk and watch their kids play around the fountain at the centre of the park in front of the railway station.
The interior of Samarkand Voksol (station)
A couple of hours of this and it was time to go. We followed the crowd onto our train and somehow or other found our bunks in the dark. We stowed our bags and, after the long day we’d had, were asleep in no time.
Coming up next: the final and most remote of the classic silk road cities trio: Khiva.
Late afternoon sun on Sher Dor medressa
A young man making a morning bread delivery to the bazaar on his bicycle, complete with PAIN-iers. Believe it or not, that was actually Sarah’s joke. I think she must have been spending too much time around me.
I’m not quite sure where this guy came from. He was walking down the sidewalk on a street of retail shopfronts one day
Timur’s tomb. We didn’t actually go inside this one, as the entrance fee was not insignificant and you could get a very nice view of it from the outside. Which is to the credit of tourism authorities in Samarkand… Had this been in China bamboo would have been planted or tall fences erected to prevent non-paying customers from looking at it. In Samarkand there WERE actually fences around all of the major sights, but these worked the other way around: they were meant to keep visitors from looking at the “ugly” residential neighbourhoods nearby. It was a bit disappointing that the grand old mosques and medressas were presented in such a sterile fashion (I’d kind of imagined the living bustling city pushing right up to their front gates) but you can’t really begrudge Samarkand’s residents their lovely new parks. Especially when they’re actually put to good use in the evenings.
Tags: Chor Chinor, Llew Bardecki, Registan, Samarkand, Samarqand, Shahi Zinda, Travel, Urgut, Uzbekistan