Continuing our journey through Uzbekistan, we’ve left Bukhara behind, and caught the Spanish-made Afrosiyab fast train to Samarkand. Andrew has cleverly discovered biznes class tickets are a mere 2 – 3 extra €/£/$. We decide to splurge.

Bye bye, Bukhara

For most of the 2hr-journey, we hang out in the bar wagon. Time whizzes by.

Have to say, I regret not asking for a vodka instead of wine when I see the bartender attacks the bottle with a knife! Luckily, it isn’t his first rodeo; all goes well.

Samarkand of stories

When I was about 12 years old, I read 1001 Nights, the story of Shahryar, King of Kings, who, after catching his wife in flagrante delicto, loses all faith in womenkind, then decides to marry a new virgin every day, and have her beheaded in the morning. Good reason not to stay the night, if you ask me. (If you haven’t read 1001 Nights, do! I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say clever Scheherazade switches things up.)

Now, Shahryar has a brother, Shah Zaman, Sultan of Samarkand. His wife also cheats, with the cook. After Shah Zaman slices them both in half, he goes on to emulate his brother. Marry, kill, marry, kill… As one does.

What stuck most in my tween mind, though, was not all this murderous marry-ment, but the name Samarkand. Intriguing! Just like Bagdad, Kashgar, Kathmandu, Mandalay, Kashmir, Zanzibar, Empty Quarter, Kandahar, Muscat, Teneré, Timbouctou, Kiribati, Alexandria, Isfahan… the list goes on.

So when we decided to combine our journey to hard-to-get-to Turkmenistan with easy-as-pie Uzbekistan across the border, I said

Samarkand! I must see Samarkand! I don’t even care where else we go.

Although… as I’m forever on a World Heritage quest, I would really like to see Khiva and Bukhara, too. And then there’s Karakalpakstan, with the sadly dwindling Aral Sea… and we should see the capital, Tashkent.

But one doesn’t want to be too demanding.

Samarkand today

Or, to be correct, Samarkand in the summer of 2019.

2019! Feels like another dimension, doesn’t it! These 20s have been anything but roaring. So far they’ve been more about reminiscing. The Retrospective Twenties.

The occasional mini road trip notwithstanding (Greece 2020, Poland 2021), this is hard, folks. I’ve had to take up weird hobbies to stop from keeling over from total tedium, like walking the streets of home over and over (got boring), a little Ramadan-style fasting (surprisingly easy, even in the light Nordic summer), growing avocados (not going so well), cooking (getting there, sort of), and I’m on level 962 of Ball Sort Puzzle, and haven’t improved my game much. Just sayin’.

But I digress. Thinking back to Samarkand, I remember the stunning structures that is the Registan, the cool Blues Cafe, a bird rescued from brutal captivity, and not least, an unusual hotel and the lovely folks who run it. Read on for all of it.

The magnificent monuments of Samarkand

As cultural world heritage sites go, Samarkand cannot be beat. Fact!

Samarkand is probably the most famous city on the Silk Road, and a delight to see. It was founded nearly 3000 years ago, at the crossroad of ancient trade routes between China and the Mediterranean.

During the 14th century, conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) made Samarkand capital of his empire, and he commissioned the best artists in Central Asia to build the mosques, mausolea (tombs) and madrasas (schools) still here today. We can only imagine what Samarkand would have looked like, say 400 years ago.

But construction didn’t stop with that. The city is filled with stunning architecture from the Timurid Era up until the present. In addition to the Registan of myths, we visited the Shakhi Zinda Necropolis, the Bibi-Khanum compound, the Gur-Emir ensemble, and Islam Karimov’s mausoleum from 2018.

Registan

We’ve travelled from little Khiva (90 000 residents) to Bukhara (about 250 000) to Samarkand (ca 600 000), and the difference is palpable. Samarkand has that big city feel. Wandering about the Russian town (the new town), we are in the 21st century as much as anywhere. At the Registan, however, we are transported back through the centuries.

But what is this Registan?

A public square, the heart of the ancient city, where people would gather to trade, to hear proclamations and to watch executions, not unlike the Registan in Bukhara. Visually, those two Registans differ greatly. While the one in Bukhara is plain, in mud brick, the colour of desert sand, the one here in Samarkand is exquisite. It’s also made of mud brick, but decorated in gorgeous ceramic tiles, in every imaginable shade of blue.

When I close my eyes, I see traders through the centuries, unloading their camels: spices, porcelain, silk. It’s as if I can see the dust being shaken off the wares after the long journey from the Mediterranean, from Iran and Afghanistan, from China. All ready for bartering, haggling. But it wasn’t all about conducting business. They’d also find time for food and fun. I’m picturing slightly drunk merchants staggering about the square here as night falls. Probably a bit of shouting and off-key singing, too, I like to think.

Registan is surrounded by 3 madrasas, all with grand facades and gardens:

Madrasas from left to right: Ulug-Beg, Tilya-Kori and Sher-Dor.

The Registan was founded by Ulug-Beg (grandson of Timur) during his reign (1409 – 1449). All that remains of his constructions is the Ulug-Beg madrasa. Later, the two other madrasas were added: the Sher-Dor in the early 1600s, and the Tilya-Kori as late as 1660.

Remember the madrasa by the pond in Bukhara that was adorned by birds and a Zoroastrian sun? It was unusual, even illegal, to portray living beings on Islamic buildings. Yet here they are again: tigers (or are they lions? The jury’s out) and Zoroastrian suns.

Spot the tigers?

Madrasa courtyards

The madrasas were the universities of the time. Here at the Registan, students read theology, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. Inspiring surroundings, don’t you think? The Ulug-Beg madrasa had four domed lecture halls and 50 cells that served as student halls.

I mentioned myths. Here’s one involving Ulug-Beg himself:

A new rector of the madrasa was needed – a new university president. Requirement: fluency in all the sciences taught here. The proclamation was heard by Maulana Havafi, a tramp wearing rags, hanging about on the ground outside. Ulug-Beg did an impromptu interview with him, and as it turned out, the tramp knew his stuff. Come on, said Ulug-Beg, let’s get you cleaned up, then you can give a lecture. Well, Maulana’s very first lecture was so complicated none of the students understood a thing. Only Ulug-Beg, keen astronomer that he was, did.

I’m guessing pedagogy – or even basic teacher communication – weren’t essential requirements back then. Soft skills. Pah!

Most of the student halls are now souvenir shops:

Morland charming the local ladies

But that’s not all you can see inside. The Tilya-Kori madrasa (meaning gold work) is the loveliest.

Inside, the Tilya-Kori is gorgeously, gloriously golden.

Optical illusion: The ceiling is flat, but painted to appear as a dome.

In the Tilya-Kori, you can also see an evocative black-and-white photo gallery of early 20th century Registan. Before being restored by the Soviets, the buildings were practically in ruins.

Shakhi Zinda Necropolis

Another Samarkand not-to-be-missed is the mysterious Shakhi Zinda necropolis, with 11 elaborate tombs along an ancient avenue. These blue shrines of nobles and royals were built in the 14th and 15th centuries. Most notable is the grave of Kusam ibn Abbas, reputed to be a cousin of the Prophet Mohammad himself.

According to legend, Kusam arrived in Samarkand in 640, preaching Islam. Then one day, 13 years later, mid-prayer, he was beheaded by Zoroastrians. But Kusam didn’t give in to death just like that. He picked up his head and went into a deep well to live. Guy’s still there.

Appropriately, Shakhi Zinda means the living king in Persian. Not surprisingly, this is a place of pilgrimage. Also not surprisingly, the water has healing properties.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

One of Timur’s most ambitious projects, the huge Bibi-Khanym Mosque is just steps from Shakhi Zinda.

Facade 1

And is there any stories? Why, of course there is.

This one has it, it wasn’t Timur that built Bibi-Khanym, but one of his 43 wives and concubines, named – you guessed it – Bibi-Khanym. She wanted to surprise her husband and had a mosque built for him while he was off on one of his conquering missions. However, she had chosen a #MeToo type architect. If I don’t get a kiss, he said, I won’t finish the mosque. (Do you, like me, have an urge to jump into history and slap him upside the head?)

Not only did he kiss Bibi, he also left a telltale mark.

You’d think Timur would appreciate his wife’s generous gesture and not worry so much about a little hickie – but nooo. Enraged, he killed the architect (meh… dude had it coming) – and insisted women from now on should be veiled to avoid tempting men. Victim blaming: nothing new.

Facade 2

On another note, Man United is universal.

Souvenir shop in the Bibi-Khanym mosque

Gur-e-Amir – a family crypt

Gur-Emir – Tomb of the King – contains the grave of Timur himself, as well as those of his sons and grandsons and his favourite teacher. Now, Timur had other plans for himself, namely to be buried in the town where he was born, Shahrisabz, about 80 km south of Samarkand. But then he didn’t plan on dying when he did: en route to take on the Ming Dynasty and invade China. On a February day in 1405, on the far side of the Syr Daria River in Kazakhstan, pneumonia got the better of him. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, his body

was embalmed with musk and rose water, wrapped in linen, laid in an ebony coffin and sent to Samarkand, where it was buried

Why Samarkand? Because the mountain pass to Shahrisabz was snowed in. And so Gur-e-Amir became the final resting place of the fearsome warrior.

Is there a legend here? Oh yes! A curse, no less. A curse reversed. And a watershed moment in world history. Here it is:

Rumour has it, Timur’s tomb comes with a warning:

Whosoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible than I.

When Soviet archaeologists began excavating Timur’s grave, locals warned them of a curse. Being scientists, they would have none of that nonsense, of course (though I’m guessing Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon might have advised less haughty attitudes to local wisdom). The grave was opened in 1941 – on 20 June. Two days later, Operation Barbarossa began, aka the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the largest and bloodiest military operation in the history of, well, military operations.

Now, scientists might not believe in curses, but Stalin may have. He insisted Timur be put back in his grave, and so he was – with a full-on Moslem burial. And sure enough, a month later, the Red Army defeated Adolf at Stalingrad, the battle generally considered to be the major reason we’re not all speaking German. I bet Josef S., that most infamous of Georgians, was pleased he had gone with better safe than sorry.

On a more pragmatic note, Timur’s descendants used Gur-e-Amir as a model for other Mughal graves, including Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and, most famously, the magical Taj Mahal.

Islam Karimov’s Mausoleum Complex

Finally, from a more recent era, the mausoleum of Islam Karimov, the founding father of modern-day, post-Soviet Uzbekistan, was opened in 2018 – and is kept in style with the ancient monuments from the Silk Road era.

Local women paying their respects at Islam Karimov’s grave

This is a sacred and eternal place where the first president of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the great statesman and politician, the respectable and honorable son of Uzbek people Islom Karimov rests

Special Ops Samarkand: bird rescue

Back in the present,

– wandering along the streets of Samarkand,

– just past an ‘I heart Samarkand’-sign, a group of people – kids and grown-ups – have gathered in this little park.

Nearby, I spot a bird caught in a bush. Or so it seems. A closer look reveals it is tied up with a piece of plastic around one leg. I’m thinking one of the kids must have done it – as a sick joke. And that perhaps the grown-ups haven’t noticed?

The bird is flittering about, quivering, frightened. Can’t leave it like that. I hesitate. Stressed birds scare me a little: sharp claws, sharp beaks. As I’m standing there, taking deep breaths, working up the courage, Tom has seen what is happening – and what is needed. He resolutely goes over and takes care of it. It’s not easy, fiddling with plastic knots and a panicky bird, but finally the mistreated creature is free.

Or so we think. But it’s not out of the woods yet. The kids are none too pleased, and one of the boys, nimble-fingered, catches it anew. To play with? To torture? To eat? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Agitated birds might intimidate me, but people rarely do. I give them a hard talk, telling them to free that bird. Immediately! At first they laugh. I realise they probably don’t understand my words, but my facial expressions and body language is unmistakably rage. In the end, persistence pays off.  I imagine they must have been thinking there’s only one way to get rid of that crazy, angry bitch. One of the men turns to the boy holding the bird; they start arguing. The boy doesn’t give in easily, but eventually he sets it free. Another shot at life. Hopefully far away from that abusive crowd.

Many would have said it’s just a bird, it’s none of our business, we don’t want to get into a fight, they outnumber us, let’s just walk away, move on. I’m thankful to the point of tears that these travel mates of mine are not like that. And Tom: the flapping, frightened bird could easily have hurt him, but he helped it anyway. That’s a glimpse of humanity at its best right there. Just then Brothwell, you were all superheroes rolled into one. Every.single.one.

And finally – Samarkand Safar

I promised to tell you about an unusual hotel, and here it is. We arrive in Samarkand in early evening, to a practically empty hotel in a residential part of town. We’re greeted by a young, rather quiet boy, who hands us keys and shows us upstairs. That’s it. A bit nondescript, is our first impression. Will this be the boring hotel of this journey, we wonder? Little do we know!

Informal kind of place this

The next morning, we’re served breakfast by an elderly man. We learn his name is Farhhod. He speaks French and Uzbek. I roam around the back of my brains and find some slightly rusty French. Tom has lived in Quebec, and is on top of the lingo.

Back after a thorough look at the Silk Road monuments, we amble about the garden and explore the unusual house-turned-hotel. I spot a piano, and ask if it’s OK to play for a bit. It is, and I do. Farhhod, ever the unobtrusive, is in a chair with eyes closed, smiling, listening. His wife plays, he says. She is currently in hospital, but is expected home soon.

At night, we head to Blues Cafe, a small, cosy bar with dimmed lights, friendly folks, great music and a very good cheese board to accompany drinks. Cool, relaxed vibe and a fun night out. Stop by when you’re in town!

Last day in Samarkand: a family feast

We’re taking the train to Tashkent in the afternoon, but we want to visit Hovrenko Wine Factory first to try the wares. It turns out to be a rather odd affair, and the tasting never materialises. Wish I could tell you what to expect, but… still not sure what that was all about. Probably best to book a tour here.

Returning to Samarkand Safar, we stumble upon a party in full swing. Farhhod’s wife, Nodira, has returned from hospital, and a celebration is in order. Family is important in Uzbek culture, and gracious hospitality knows no end. Farhhod and Nodira insist we join them for lunch, a veritable feast! For an afternoon, the three of us – strangers – become part of the family, as if that was the most natural thing in the world.

Love these unexpected, spontaneous experiences that pop up in life.

Nodira: Would you like beer, wine or Fanta? Ah, you shall have all three!

Fun for all ages!

Nodira and Farhhod are generous, funny and just delightful. We don’t really want to say goodbye to them, nor to Samarkand. But the Afrosiyob waits for no one. After a lengthy goodbye photo-shoot on the front porch, we head for the railway station.

Onwards to Tashkent!

To be continued. Maybe.

Photos by Andrew Morland, Tom Brothwell, myself, and the occasional enlisted innocent bystander.

 

unesco logoSamarkand – Crossroad of Cultures is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.