Day One in The Romantic and Fascinating Samarkand

Trip Start May 14, 2009
Trip End Jun 15, 2009

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Where I stayed
Hotel President Palace

Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Monday, May 25, 2009

Our First Day In Samarkand

Alan woke the next day to find that he too was suffering from Bukhara Belly. In fact he was so sick that I actually felt pretty good when I looked at him. Naim was keen to cancel our proposed stay in a yurt camp at Nurata in the Kyzylkum Desert and I hastily agreed. A night in a yurt camp in the middle of the boiling hot desert without proper toilets or access to any medical help sounded horrendous. I think Alan was too sick to even take in our decision.

Our trip from Bukhara to Samarkand was long and tedious. Alan was lying in the back seat of the car, almost delirious and only surfacing when we had to scream to a stop to let him out to be sick on the side of the road.

We now often joke that like Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, Alan left his DNA all along the Silk Road. It was not a case of rape and plunder but rather that of belch and chunder. It is amusing now but it certainly wasn't then.

On the way to Samarkand we stopped off at a ceramics workshop where we met up with a number of people who were part of two large bus tours, an English tour and oddly to us in an Islamic country, an Israeli tour. We were to find that a number of people on their tours had gone down with similar stomach problems. One of the tour guides gave Naim a name of some medicine that "only worked for Uzbekistan stomach infections". We duly bought heaps of this stuff from a local “dorixona” or drug store. Fortunately for us, you can buy prescription drugs over the counter in Uzbekistan.

We finally reached Samarkand and were delighted with our new modern and comfortable Hotel President. Four nights here in absolute comfort was certainly appreciated. Once again we were on bread and Viola cheese for dinner.

At the Hotel President we once again caught up with some of our English and Israeli friends who were part of the bus tours. Unlike a German bus tour group we met in Khiva, they were very happy with their tours and a pleasant group to be with. At this stage we were beginning to think more about our coming trip to Pakistan. There were awful reports on the television about more bombings by the Taliban, the Pakistan government’s attempts to purge the insurgents and the evacuation of 1.5 million people from Swat Valley.

It was very hard to get information from our Pakistan travel agent. We had no phone and the Internet was prohibitively slow – it took me exactly 60 minutes to send one email to our Pakistan agent – and without a phone that actually worked, our trip there was beginning to concern us, err - me. But how lucky could I be? At breakfast one morning I noticed a large group of (obviously) Pakistani businessmen at the hotel. Well, of course it didn’t really help us when I asked about current safety issues in northern Pakistan. One group said it was “quite safe” in the Northern Areas, the other group looks grim and sadly shook their heads. Alan said it served me right – we were going there anyway…..

The next day Alan was still sick and I was still queasy. I could not believe that he downed two fried eggs for breakfast though…..

We found the food in Uzbekistan for us to be pretty ordinary. It was heavy and oily, with a lot of mutton, oily soups, processed meats and cheeses. On the other hand the fruit was lovely and included fresh strawberries, mulberries and cherries. And the local baked Emir’s bread was out of this world.

Breakfast, however was a real challenge. Plates of cold pancakes, sweet stale bread, dried out splitting slices of processed cheese, sliced cucumber, chunks of fatty salamis and incubating ponds of floating frankfurters were enough to frighten the boldest appetites. No wonder Alan stuck to the eggs.

The ubiquitous Plov is the national dish for Uzbekistan. It really is a rice pilau that includes cubes of mutton, vegetables, spices and lamb fat or oil - and heaps of it. How it could be regarded as an aphrodisiac was beyond us. Other staples are the ubiquitous shashlyk, usually fatty mutton, and all varieties of laghman - soupy meat flavoured noodles that are quite tasty until you get to the large lump of congealed mutton fat in the bottom of the bowl.  

Alan survived the fried eggs and we spent a very sedate day. Our hotel was near the university grounds of Samarkand and was surrounded by leafy wide roads and large parks. We spent a leisurely morning strolling down University Road, a serene street lined with enormous ancient plane trees and red and white mulberry trees. Cherry trees were also in abundance. Watering the parks was by flood irrigation. There was certainly seemed to be no shortage of water.

University students approached us on many occasions, interested to find out what country we were from and using their conversations to practice their English skills. They were genuinely friendly and a delight to talk with. 

The architecture of the local government buildings was interesting. It was quite European, dignified and very attractive with pastel coloured buildings, white pillars and ornate white trimmings.

Our walk that afternoon was that of a walk with a mission. We were obviously feeling better and were more so when Alan found a shop selling beer. And cold beer too. Furthermore, we found a number of restaurants that looked pleasant and were only a couple of kilometers from our hotel.

That evening we ventured out for our first real meal in days and thoroughly enjoyed a meal at the lovely restaurant Staraya Arba. The next night we tried Platan and the following night the Venezia. We agree that the first and last restaurants were our favourite places to eat, with great atmosphere and fine food.

We understood that it is difficult to negotiate a taxi in Uzbekistan so we opted to walk there and back to these restaurants. After, we had been walking all day and another four or five kilometers or so would do us no harm. What we didn’t realise was that electricity is rationed at night time and so there are no street lights. And as no-one eats until at least 9.00 pm in summer, we faced long and very dark walks home along the tree lined footpaths flanking the large Samarkand parks. While we encountered no problems at all, it was very threatening to be walking alone in such dark and lonely areas. And it was probably pretty stupid to do so too. 
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