Day 87: Timur's Kingdom
Samarkand Travel Blog› entry 122 of 260 › view all entries
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Tim & Wim (Belgium)
By getting up early I beat the sun in order to see most of the sights before the heat became unbearable. The advantage of Samarkand is that while it gets hot during the day, the hottest time of the day is around 2 PM, so you are able to see most of the city before it gets too warm if you set out early enough.
First stop was the historical building closest to my B&B: the mausoleum of Timur himself. Timur had intended the Guri Amir mausoleum for his grandson, however, he ended up being buried here himself after he died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan and his body could not be transported back to his birthplace Shakhrisabz.
The mausoleum is a stunning building, with richly decorated interiors and exteriors. Well, not unlike the mausoleums in Iran, really. When Timur rose to power this part of Uzbekistan was part of the Persian empire, so it is not unsurprising that the buildings built in that era were designed following Persian architecture. And surprisingly enough 70 years of Soviet rule have actually preserved the mausoleum. Had Uzbekistan not been under Soviet rule it could actually have followed Iran and Saudi Arabia and become an Islamic republic. And this mausoleum, holding the body of Uzbekistan's greatest leader, could have ended up like the Imam Reza mausoleum in Mashhad, i.e. one huge concrete mess.
Although, now I think of it. Imam Reza was a great spiritual leader. Or at least, he is seen as one these days.
Then I made my way to the World Heritage listed Registan. This is considered the single biggest architectural highlight in Central Asia. It is a collection of three medressas (Islamic theological schools) set around a plaza which, in medieval times, would probably have been one big bazaar. This is as Arabian Nights as you can get outside Arabia. It is the epitome of Silk Road travel and possibly the finest example of Islamic architecture I have ever seen.
OK, except for maybe Esfahan.
Well, let's say it ties with Esfahan, though Esfahan wins because there is more left of the historical city.
Beyond the Registan lies a Disney-land like boulevard, flanked with souvenir stores and restaurants. The buildings on both side of the street are in mock-historic Islamic style. The contrast with the concrete Soviet-era thoroughfares a few hundred metres away is striking. I don't know which I preferred, the drab, but functional Soviet grid to the south and east of the Registan, or the artificial Disneyland Main Street to the west.
Strangely enough, the artificial Disneyland walkway brings you to the most genuine part of Samarkand: the Siob Bazaar. Like all bazaars in Central Asia, it is like Middle East meets North. Or something. The Russian style or order mixed with Middle Eastern style chaos. I love these places.
I kept bumping into Tim and Wim throughout the day and after our third meeting we decided to go and have a drink together. After all, otherwise we would end up meeting again in the next place anyway. They had to get some work done on their car, so after a nice, extended, cup of tea in a chaikana at the bazaar we split up again.
I continued my way north and visited the Hazrat-Hizr mosque. In my opinion this is the most beautiful mosque in all of Uzbekistan and possibly the entire Islamic world.
By the time I got to this mosque I had had to pay so many entrance fees that I was getting a bit fed up with it. Foreigners have to pay about five times the price as locals and while it may not be as expensive as the sights in Turkey, Samarkand is almost as irritating for the fact that you have to pay an additional entrance fee for everything you like to see or do.
The historical sights of Samarkand all date from after the 13th century. Although Samarkand was a major trading centre on the Silk Road long before Timur rose to power, there is very little left of that era; courtesy of Jenghiz Khan, who obliterated any city he came across. The ancient predecessor of Samarkand, Marakanda or Afrosiab, lies a few kilometres north of the present city.
After hearing just how little is left of the ancient city, I decided to leave the ruins for what they were and confined my visit to the Afrosiab museum instead. Well, no, let me rephrase, I decided to skip the site after seeing the museum. If you could even call it a museum. There was hardly anything of interest on view here. I had hoped to learn more about the most important find at Afrosiab, an observatory used by the famous astronomer Ulugbek. The observatory itself is completely ruined, so there is hardly anything to see.
The second-oldest series of buildings and monuments are the early 14th century tombs of Shah-I-Zinda. This avenue of mausoleums was possibly even more impressive than the Registan. About a dozen richly decorated mausoleums standing side by side at both ends of a narrow alley. Most of Timur's and Ulugbek's relatives lie here, as does Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have brought Islam here in the 7th century.
The Shah-I-Zinda is very much a place of worship, with many pilgrims paying homage to the various dead who lie here.
And thus ended my lightning quick visit to Uzbekistan. I must say, this country has been one of the pleasant surprises on my trip so far. It was not at all what I had expected. I had expected an ex-Soviet country with some remnants of the old Silk Road. But in fact it is an ex-Silk Road country with some remnants of the Soviet era. The people are proud of their Silk Road heritage, and proudly display it.
If you ask me to describe Uzbekistan, I would say “like Iran, but with better food”. Like Iran, the people had been super-friendly, like Iran, the old Islamic architecture is stunning, and unlike Iran, the food doesn't get boring after a few days. If you do tire of the tasty shashlyks and kebabs they serve, there's always the adapted Russian cuisine to choose from.
While in general my experience in Uzbekistan had been very pleasant, I did not particularly its capital, Tashkent (again, like Iran...). And if I'm completely honest, I was a bit disappointed with Samarkand as well. Nothing to do with the sights, which I loved, but rather I didn't like what Samarkand is becoming. The people and government are working hard to make this the biggest tourist trap in the country.
Entrance to the sights costs around 20 cents for locals, but they charge between $2 and $7 for tourists. And you have to pay separately for each and every site. And then extra if you want to take pictures. After a while I stopped buying camera tickets, I just couldn't be bothered any more. The worst was the Bibi-Khanym mosque, where the lady charged me LESS than the official rate.
Then the area around Registan. What should have been a great lively square like Lyabi Hauze in Bukhara is a sterile, unpleasant area. Prices here are double that of what it costs elsewhere in town, from a bottle of water in the shops to Internet to bars and restaurants (with the pleasant exception of the Lyabi Gor chaikhana where I had lunch yesterday).
But on the whole, the country had a very pleasant experience for me. Sure, it is touristy and at times overpriced, but in general the people here are really friendly and welcoming. All the ladies who tried to sell me souvenirs did so in a good-natured way. And after Iran it was quite nice to have women talk to me again (one lady even tried to marry off her daughter).
So in conclusion, I could definitely recommend Uzbekistan to anyone looking for a short trip to an off-the-beaten-track destination (or as part of a longer trip). It is definitely an interesting place to spend a week or more. If only those damned visas weren't so hard to come by.