The potholed road to Samarkand…

The potholed road to Samarkand…

Or: same, same but different!

Actually the road between Tashkent and Samarkand was pretty good (as far as I recall- it seems like ages ago now..) but it would be remiss (if boringly obvious) to talk about this almost mythical city without shoehorning in a reference to James Elroy Flicker’s  evocative words:

Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand, And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

There you go, I’ve mentioned them 🙂

Samarkand surprised me in a good way [yes even without electricity…] – after nearly not going there at all, immediately on arriving I decided to stay a couple of nights rather than having a quick whizz round the obvious bits and making a speedy getaway the next morning like I had initially thought. The iconic Registan (above) is probably the most recognisable image of Uzbekistan and possibly of the whole of central Asia (it’s either that or a craggy faced man standing next to a yurt..)

You’ve almost certainly seen a picture of it even if you didn’t realise that’s what you were looking at. It looked pretty good in the late afternoon light when I arrived and spectacular when lit up at night (it would seem that all the electricity in Samarkand is being used for that purpose!). Apart from the 3 buildings that make up the Registan ensemble, there are various other sights in and around the city, however in contrast to Khiva and Bukhara they are dotted around with chunks of modern city in between.

There’s a section of old city remaining just south of the Registan which is where I stayed (in the lovely Jahongir B&B – despite the torchlit interlude they were doing their best in the challenging circumstances – a highly recommended place).

not everything in Samarkand is quite as grandiose as the Registan..

There’s the Shah-I-Zinda (another of the major sights- a street of mausoleums with the oldest buildings dating from the 9th century)– nice location by a busy road!!

And the Hazrat-I- Khidr mosque: peach coloured domes making a novel contrast to the hundreds of blue domes and tiled features that you will otherwise see!

I’m not actually sure what this one is but I was amused/baffled by the little street scene that had been assembled:

I’m not sure if this building (sorry, also don’t know what it is) is completely unrestored or just crumbling a bit since a soviet era restoration:


As far as central Asian historical figures go, Amir Timur is the main man (known in the West as Tamerlane). Born in Transoxiana (which includes part of modern day Uzbekistan) in the 14th century, he did a bit (a lot) of conquering and apparently fancied himself as a latter day Genghis Khan, one of whose sons was ruling the Samarkand khanate when Timur snaffled it from him. This was the beginning of the Timurid empire, known for the vast number of casualties incurred in its creation (estimated at 5% of the global population at that time – wtaf?), and err, its  pretty buildings, which is what can now be seen in Samarkand. (His architectural legacy reached down to the Mughal empire who also had a nice line in good buildings: you might be familiar with some of them, eg a little known place called the Taj Mahal). In fact Timur’s first major architectural work was the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkistan (Kazakhstan) which I visited in 2011:

(It was undergoing restoration so the full effect couldn’t quite be appreciated).

Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg was a noted astronomer and constructed an observatory in Samarkand.

Nowadays it seems to be mainly used as a backdrop for wedding photoshoots – I saw at least 10 separate bridal parties:

Apparently  weddings (or at least taking pictures of the participants) are one of the main forms of recreation in Uzbekistan – I saw them everywhere. The couples invariably look young, the women amazingly glamorous and the men proud but overwhelmed.

Long before Timur, Samarkand had been the location of a citadel, the Afrosiyab site (until the Mongols destroyed it). It’s still an active excavation but you can visit the site museum to get some idea about it.

Apparently Samarkand is a predominantly Tajik region, and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not get along. I did wonder if that was a contributing factor to Samarkand being disproportionately affected by the energy crisis  – it’s a problem across the entire country but that was the only place I knowingly experienced power outages (although there’s barely any working street lighting anywhere in the country apart  from a few main roads in each settlement ).

But despite this the city had a pleasant feel with, alongside its many ancient historical sights, a more coherent centre (pre-soviet Russian) than some other Uzbek cities and though the monuments are mostly heavily restored, they do look good nonetheless. (Whether Samarkand has been vastly over restored, and the principles of archaeological restoration/conservation in general, is a whole discipline in its own right…).


Leaving on Tuesday morning [25th Oct], I had two possible options: head for the Oybek border crossing and then to Khojand  in northern Tajikistan, or go south east from Samarkand to the crossing just past Denau, and then east into the Taj capital Dushanbe. I asked the friendly guy at Jahongir for some travel advice as he looked massively Tajik to my ignorant mind (strawberry blonde and pale skin and eyes) and he basically backed up what I’d read online: getting to Oybek would be difficult; getting to Denau still difficult but preferable though I’d probably have to hire a whole taxi to myself. (online info hadn’t been massively helpful to me as it was all apparently written by people who had self- driven, or cycled (the majority). In the end I easily got a shared taxi but paid what I think was the rate for the whole car ($30). I didn’t feel like arguing though as it was still a better outcome than what I had feared, the drive was very scenic and the driver wasn’t psychotic (he spoke some English and had a son in the US).
With a lunch stop and inevitable faffing before and during the journey, I was at the border by 6pmish. As expected, the (female) border guard checked all my hotel registration slips, went through my luggage (not especially intensively) and checked photos on my phone and tablet (and also a document where I was keeping random cryptic notes to myself many of which weren’t too complimentary about Uz). Though she seemed young and hardly traditional, she asked me why I was travelling alone. I told her it was quite normal in my country, exaggerating massively but at least back home people are polite enough to attempt to conceal their pity for the obviously friend/familyless solo traveller – whereas here it’s an invitation for intrusive questions and impertinent comments…
Not too sorry to be leaving Uzbekistan [though my opinion will probably soften with time], I crossed into Tajikistan and found that the border guard was well aware of the reputation of his country’s border staff as being rip-off merchant see you next Tuesdays and determined to live up to it. I had no choice but to accept his $25 taxi ride arrangement to Dushanbe (he would have ripped up my needed immigration card otherwise). It was dark by that time and I didn’t know what, if any, shared taxis would be around when I cleared the border area (I think there were some as it happens). The driver put his foot down (of course) and on the smooth, fast and well lit road we were in Dushanbe 45 minutes later; after another 45 minutes of searching we eventually found the Green House hostel (I didn’t have the address and he wasn’t familiar with it) so he earnt his money really.


2 thoughts on “The potholed road to Samarkand…

  1. Yes…most C Asian Islam is much more moderate in that respect (and others). But also in Uzbekistan Karimov basically tried to secularise it so even less visible than on the rest of the region..


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