From Uzbekistan’s newest jewel – its high speed Afrosiyab train from the capital, Tashkent – to one of its oldest and most famous, Samarkand. Samarkand is Silk Road personified, and excuse the cribbing from the Lonely Planet book here, but these lines from James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’ really set the scene for exploring this historic city:
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand
Take in the grandeur
The city is as captivating as these words. Its piece de resistance, the Registan, sums up everything we were looking for in Uzbekistan, representing in one place its past, present, future, people, customs, nation, everything. It is time stoppingly, throat catchingly, tear inducingly stunning, with its seemingly bejewelled, 180 degree facade shining defiantly against the oppressive heat, like a mirage against the dusty desert sky. It is even more stunning and regal by night.
You can imagine the Silk Road caravans not believing their eyes when they pulled up here and wondering if they’d reached the gates of heaven. There are artworks in the Chorsu Gallery down the road that help you crystallise this visual of the bustling local life that revolved around the Registan in Silk Road times.
The individual medressas are now home to souvenir and clothing stores but are no less worth the wander. Look beyond the tour groups and keep an eye out for the men who toil painstakingly at the perpetual task of maintaining the ornate artwork. In the courtyard, men on ladders carefully replace the decorated tiles row by row, and inside they use tiny paintbrushes and make silent steady strokes.
You will get the hard sell from the stallholders but some are worth taking a chance on, like the embroidery seller, who points out the features of the old study that is now his shop and gives a short talk about the history and significance of the embroidery.
Reminiscent of Rome and its ruins, Samarkand’s sights are laid out for the taking, up and down the Registan and around the town. There are too many to list and you can find them all in a guide book or on a map (Jahongir Inn provides a handy detailed map).
However it’s worth paying a special mention to the spectacular Bibi-Khanym mosque which at night is a stunning to place to come after dinner and just sit and take it all in. But unlike the Trevi fountain, you’ll have it pretty much to yourself bar the security guards and the odd local going for an evening stroll.
Experience local life in the old town
Some may bemoan the beautification of Samarkand’s tourist areas, with one traveller we met likening the controlled atmosphere to the Louvre and taking away any cultural authenticity. But the locals strolling up and down the leafy boulevards, eating ice creams in front of technicolor fountains, look proud of their city.
Yes, walls have been built, some ugly and some artistic, all to separate the old town from the sights. If you feel this makes your experience less authentic then there’s only one thing for it – stay in the old town so you don’t just see daily neighbourhood life, but become part of it. Down an old town street near the Registon, Jahongir Inn B and B is the perfect place to stay, with its shady courtyard, authentically adorned rooms, changing daily breakfast and friendly English speaking staff. From here you can wander the neighbourhood and sneak a peek behind individual gates to get a glimpse of paddling pools, gardens and day loungers, even boys carrying whole goats home for dinner and pink Ladas parked unashamedly in the street.
Then you become more than a camera toting tourist, walking up and down the same streets each day, passing the same houses and stalls, the same kids playing snap on the street, the same old men playing backgammon in front of the barber shop or cooling off in front of the fountain.
They begin to nod at you in recognition instead of suspicion, except for when you get to the stalls at the end of the street where the row of scarf clad gossiping women all try to sell you shiny round wheels of bread, and the men try to sell you taxi rides and mountain tours.
Samarkand by night
By day we subsist on shazhlyk and soup from the simply named neighbourhood hangout National Food (pictured below), and flaky, meaty samsa fresh from the tandoor at our hole in the wall street joint, but by night there’s one place you must go.
Glitzy restaurant Samarkand, in the new town, with its chandeliers and fake exposed brickwork is a fun night out. Outside, a trio plays traditional music, while inside, loud pop music and strobe lights turn the front of the dining room into a school disco style dance floor. Women old and young dance in circles around enthusiastic young boys and clapping toddlers, with the odd guy joining in for some uncomfortable dad dancing.
Samarkand sets the bar high for our next stops in Uzbekistan. Bukhara and Khiva here we come!