Even if you’re not sure where, or how, you’ve heard the name of Samarkand before, most probably in reference to the Silk Road. If there is a jaw-dropping glitzy blue in Central Asia, a lot of it would be concentrated here, in one of the oldest cities in the region, the third largest city in the country, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its layered history is colored by such personas as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur, and others, evoking a sense of grandeur, beauty, culture, and definitely the weight of time. Hence, a visit here is a must.
It’s also a really easy and comfortable high-speed train ride from Tashkent (the capital), taking only about 2-3 hours total. A little nap or a good book, and you’re there. Better so, a chatty neighbor, and time will fly by. But this trip would not have been as fun and amazing without my dear Uzbek friend who took me around these places, and was patiently waiting on me while I oo-ed and aw-ed, and took hundreds of photos of one ceiling.If you’re thinking of doing the “classic” trip of Tashkent-Samarkand–Bukhara–Khiva, I would say each of those places is unique and different from the next. So if you have the time (and money), I would definitely advise you to visit at least these four cities. I visited the cities “on a string” in the spring, and the weather was pretty much perfect. The memories and impressions – even better. We spent only about 2 full days and 1 night in Samarkand, and even though a lot can be covered, you can stay longer as well.
Once we arrived in Samarkand, I’d say the biggest surprise for me was the mix of the Soviet buildings and general layout with the turquoise domes, grandiose squares, medressas and mausoleums all in one place. I had wrongly presumed it to be a town where one lands, and is fully swollen up by another time and space, untouched by any other historical events. And of course, in many ways you will undeniably forget for a moment or two where you are. But here and there time and histories clash, in a strange and exciting way, leading one to search with impatient thirst for more of that blue, and more of that gold among the “khrushchyovka’s” shying away from the rest. What a fun way to observe history and witness some things change, and some things remain the same. Here is a sample:
Another notable thing I noticed quite a bit in Uzbekistan is the many (usually) ladies who sweep the streets. And it seems to take place all day every day – pretty impressive. Samarkand wasn’t an exception. Hence, the very clean towns and cities of the country.This allowed us to enjoy the broad streets and strolling families under the beautiful cloudless sky.
On one such stroll, we stumbled upon this very understated samsa place that was probably one of the best I ever had in Uzbekistan, ‘green samsa’ (aka no meat). Mind you this is coming from a big meat eater. I can still smell the fresh crusty bread, with the juicy interior of the greens inside. I wish I could remember where we found it, but I’d say that’s what makes these discoveries magical – you get to find, lose, and rediscover these again.The hotel we stayed at was called Hotel Royal Palace. It had sizable rooms and hallways, golden motives, and very friendly hosts who spoke to us in English, despite me being Kazakh and my friend Uzbek. We went along with it, as we assumed they just wanted to practice their English, which was already pretty good. The hotel also conveniently had a mini market within the same building, so we became frequent guests there as well. For me, drinking pomegranate juice, eating “syrniki” and “plombir” immediately equates to happiness. So that led us across the aisles of the shop, and to a few fun chats with the green-eyed locals. Apparently, the Samarkand wine (or as some call it, Samarkand Cahor or Kagor) should be really good (due to the grapes that grow here), so give it a try!
In general, it’s quite easy to walk from one site to the other. But for a few visits you’d need to catch a taxi, unless you have a lot of time on your hands. No need for uber or grabtaxi or anything fancy. Most of the time, you can find taxi drivers anywhere. Just raise your arm, and a car that’s going in that direction will stop and ask where you’re headed. Agree on the price, and off you go.
The taxi drivers are usually pretty hilarious, and you can learn a lot about their lives without asking a single question (that’s the charm of it), and they never fail to make me laugh. They can also act as a great source of information coming from a “local” if you listen carefully and do ask questions. And you will never leave the car without having a great or hilarious story to tell to your friends/family. They will try to impress you with their choice of music, or tell you about their wives’ most amazing plov (never came across a female taxi driver in Uzbekistan), or make sure you’re convinced of his passion for the city, or show a new restaurant he just opened and how it all started in 1992. If you tell them which country you’re from (and they will certainly ask), they might try to practice their French, English, or German and tell you whatever facts or stories that are related to your country. For me, I usually get stories about their relatives or friends living in Kazakhstan, which is really interesting, and without a doubt, they will always talk to me about “besbarmak” (which of course only makes us all hungry). And that’s what I love about each and every taxi ride: embracing the experience, and enjoying the ride!
Now to the meat of our trip!
- First stop: Gur Emir Mausoleum, or the tomb place of the great ruler, Amir Timur, as well as his family, and where most of the Timurids were eventually buried, dating to the 1400’s.
But you haven’t seen nothing yet, until you glance into the Gur Emir interior. I’m convinced the room echoes “wow’s” all day long, as it is absolutely gorgeous, intricate, and solemn.
2. Next: Registan (which translates as ‘Sandy Place’ from Tajik)! If you’re thinking which place to prioritize, is worth hiring a tour guide for, and spending the most time at, I’d say it would be here, without a doubt. It is a sensory overload and an epic introduction to the medieval commercial centre that was once here, including the many and beautiful medressas and the gorgeous domes.
Ulugh Beg (who had a much longer real name) was the grandson of Amir Timur, and an astronomer, mathematician and sultan who aimed to transform Samarkand into a cultural and educational center in Central Asia. He began and finished the construction of the Medressa in the 1400’s.
Inside, there are many workshops with vendors and artisans to visit (so buying an item or two would be almost unavoidable), but the best part for me was absorbing the general atmosphere, studying the intricate mosaics, imagining what took place here hundreds of years ago, and enjoying a sunny day.
If you choose to spend some time shopping, make sure to check out a few vendors first, as you’ll quickly find out that most places sell very similar things. That will give you some leeway to bargain, and a feel of the prices for each item. Bargaining is part of the trade, and pretty much the norm, so don’t be shy, and give it a go (especially if you can learn numbers in Uzbek or Russian)! Many vendors may also take dollars, but make sure to agree on the rate. Keep in mind that if you forgot to buy something, a lot of the same or similar items can be purchased at the Chorsu Bazaar (one of my favorite places to wander around in Tashkent), but potentially with less choices for certain pieces.
This Medressa was originally constructed to be a complete reflection of the Ulugh Beg Medressa, however ended up just a bit shorter. Note that the lions are a very unique feature to be so prominently gazing at every visitor from atop of a Sunni construction, as it is not allowed to depict any sort of faces of animals or humans as part of religious art. However, it is said that Shiites from Iran built this mosque, and therefore added these faces, as there is no such rule in the Shiite faith. Again, what a great depiction of the mix of cultures and religious views.
3. Ulugh Beg Observatory (not the Medressa)
To complement the Ulugh Beg Medressa that was the centre for learning and astronomical studies, Ulugh Beg built the observatory in the 1420’s, which was considered to be one of the top observatories in the Islamic world at the time. Destroyed 29 years later, it was only rediscovered at the beginning of the 1900’s by a local archaeologist.
You can visit the Ulugh Beg Museum right at the site. We also got to witness a wedding. Like in many post-Soviet countries, the bride and the groom visit the popular sites of the city after they are officially married, and take photos.
4. Shah-i-Zinda necropolis (‘Tomb of the Living King’)
This is another site that I would recommend prioritizing along with Registan. Its stunning alleyways of blue and gold would undoubtedly consume you, with an ocean of intricate and endless mosaics and tilework spreading over more than 20 buildings, consisting of the lower, middle, and upper groups of sites. The entire place transports you far away, and doesn’t let you out easily, where you find yourself hypnotized by the beauty and the magic all around. It is also an important place for pilgrimage, so many families and older people visit to pray and pay homage.
5. Siob Bazaar
Next to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque (under #7) is the Siob Bazaar that has a fun atmosphere, especially for people watching and taking photos. It seemed this wasn’t just where people came to get food, but also to chat, and catch up on the latest news.
Some of the food sold here that everyone must try: halva or lavz (sweet confection), Samarkand non (bread), grapes and raisins. And when you’ll see the prices, you’ll definitely try two rounds of each!
6. Samarkand plov pause
One of my life obsessions is plov. I can eat it for breakfast, and as a midnight snack. And there is nothing better than freshly cooked plov, I tell you. Do note that plov is pretty much not served for dinner outside of Tashkent, so your only chance is for lunch, and to get it at the right time! So around 12 pm, head to the nearest plovnitsa, and enjoy! In this case, I was determined to try the Samarkand plov, as it is served by adding a new ingredient with each layer. So the base would consist of the rice, then the carrots and chick peas, and on top goes the meat. It was yummy!
I read somewhere that Makhmudov’s cafe is supposed to have the best plov (never tried it myself). Should be located at No. 1 Tashkent Street, on the road to Ulugh Beg’s Observatory. Want to give it a try the next time I’m there.
7. Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Built in the 14th-15th century for Amir Timur’s favorite wife, the famous conqueror apparently brought in architects from India and Iran to tile it from top to bottom. It might not be obvious now, but apparently the mosque had been badly damaged in an earthquake at the end of the 19th century, and thankfully rebuilt in the 1970’s. The country has done an incredible job at restoring and taking care of these sites.
There are many different legends surrounding the site, but the most common one is that Bibi-Khanym wanted the mosque built to surprise Timur, but the architect refused to finish the construction, unless she gave him a kiss. (Love, I guess). The kiss apparently left a mark, which led to the architect’s demise, aka being executed. But here we are at the beautiful Mosque after all!
My favorite part about visiting any place is to walk around the local neighborhoods, and pretty much people watch. This was really interesting and enjoyable to do in Uzbekistan as well, as most houses are organized in ‘mahallas’, aka communities or neighborhoods. They used to actually function as self-governing communities with informal leaders, usually comprised of families and relatives. Moreover, various rituals, ceremonies, activities and holidays would take place here.
After 2 days, our time in Samarkand came to a quick end. I wish I’d taken photos of the sites at night: so for the more adventurous and tireless souls, I think it might be an interesting venture to snap some shots of the lit Samarkand treasures that might look even mightier under the night sky.
If interested, I highly advise to look at the photos taken by Prokudin-Gorsky (19th-20th century Russian photographer) through the three-color principle of Samarkand here.
Next stop: Bukhara!