Soaking up Samarkand

Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Uzbekistan  ,
Friday, March 30, 2012

As we boarded the bus that would take us west from Tashkent to Samarkand, we were reminded of the relative luxury of Turkey's modern buses, with free drinks and cakes, reclining seats and air conditioning. The rusting wheel arches and flaking paint on the outside matched perfectly the grubby and decaying interior. There was no storage space below the bus, so we lugged our bags inside and were instructed by the driver to dump them in the aisle, much to the annoyance of the other passengers.

We were thrust into the limelight by this simple act, and for the rest of the journey, we felt eyes on us, as the exotic foreigners who were clogging up the bus with their bags. Although there is a tourism industry in Uzbekistan, the majority of tourists travel in the relative comfort of tour groups, with their own buses and pre-booked taxis and hotels. We had no such luxury, though the journey was not particularly uncomfortable.

Out of the window, a grim scene materialised, with tumbledown houses abutting little allotments in which women hacked at the seemingly barren earth with pick-axes. Everywhere was another sign of poor support for these rural communities – temporary plastic roofs, emaciated donkeys, makeshift repairs. The scene on this flat plain which connects Tashkent and Samarkand did not change for several hours, until farmland became sparser and gave way to a handful of rolling hills, before more farmland returned as before.

Our arrival at Samarkand's dusty Siob Bazaar was a confusing one, not knowing which direction to turn, and feeling hundreds of eyes watching us weighted down with our bags and wrestling with the map. Two stranded tourists were easy pickings for women and children begging at the peripheries of the bazaar, who stood over us as we tried to get our bearings. Minutes passed, and we headed decisively in a direction – any direction – in order to find a quiet place. Eventually turning down a side-street and finding a man resting on a trolley to send us in the right direction, we headed to Bahodir's guesthouse, which would be our home for the next few days.

Along with a German traveller we had met at the guesthouse, we set out across a neatly manicured park towards the famous Registan complex at the tail end of the dusk. As Samarkand grew in power and wealth as a centre of trading along a major trunk of the Silk Road, impressive religious and other buildings and monuments also sprung up. Arguably the most famous of these monuments is the Registan, a square on which three medressas enclose it on three sides.

We approached from one side, the long shadows casting dark across rear of one medressa. As we skirted the front of the Registan, an awe-inspiring sight reared up to us. The vast structures looked down on us, their intricate blue tiled façades gleaming in the warm glow of the last drops of sun. Suddenly our chatter stopped mid-sentence, and we looked up, dumbfounded. Quietly, we continued circling across the front of the square, and watched as the warm orange glow lay softly on the polished tilework, their huge brick frames moving in parallax in an opposite arc.

Skirting behind the Registan, we were approached by two teenage boys, who engaged us in conversation. They were smartly dressed and were looking to practice their English. In exchange, we suggested that they might like to show us some sights. They led us around the city, introducing us to the sights, sounds and tastes of Samarkand. As we walked, we discussed their aspirations for the future, and life in Uzbekistan. Blessed with good education and life in a relatively big city, they had high hopes, and looked to overseas as a source of opportunity and further learning. They relished the chance to spend time with European English-speakers, and we likewise relished the chance to hear about their life and culture. A couple of hours passed quickly, and we thanked them for their insights before returning to the guesthouse for a huge bowl of lagman, the traditional Uzbek soup, and a generous wedge of non to mop up the liquid.

The following morning, we promised ourselves we would return to the Registan for sunrise, and bleary-eyed we arrived at 6.30am, shortly after sunrise itself. If it was possible for it to be so, the place was all the more magical this time, just the two of us and a distant policeman sitting on the steps of the central medressa. To the right, two tigers reared up out of the tiles, each towering over trees and flowers splayed across the frontage of their medressa; to the left, an intricate geometric pattern of stars and zigzags spread itself across the monumental archway of another. However, the growing movement of people heading for work reminded us that we had been there for over an hour, and a return to bed was calling us.

After our nightmare trying to buy train tickets in Tashkent, we later decided to visit the station in Samarkand in order to book transport to Bukhara early. Samarkand's station was noticeably smaller than Tashkent's, and there were far fewer windows to choose from, and fewer people at each one. Using the Uzbek-style of 'queueing' made reaching the front of one queue a little less painful than previous efforts, but after waiting for some time we were promptly told to go to another window. Fearing a repeat of the Tashkent fiasco, we moved to the other queue, disheartened and frustrated.

“Hey, do you need some help?” asked a voice from a different queue. A young man with a stubbly beard and expensive-looking clothes looked back at us. He had lived in London a few years ago, and offered to help us buy our tickets. We told him that this would be really helpful, but this time, the woman behind the glass told us that there were no tickets remaining on the train. Seeing us so annoyed and dispirited, our new friend offered to take us back to his café for a drink.

Happily accepting his offer, he took us through town to Lucky Smile, his two year-old, rather chic café. Plying us with pide, soup and English tea with milk, he quickly returned some cheer to our faces as he empathised with us about the quirks of the Uzbek transport system. Thanking him profusely, we headed back towards the centre of the city with a little skip in our step. No matter how infuriating Uzbek public transport may be, and no matter how primal their 'queueing' may be, it was not possible to fault the remarkable generosity shown by people in our times of need.

Our return to the streets had a little spring to it, and we set off to explore the city in more depth. The ubiquitous statue of Amir Timur, an example of which one can find in most Uzbek towns and cities, sat at the junction of large boulevards, with Timur reclining in a vast throne as he overlooked the nearest major city to his home town of Shakhrisabz. Some nearby mausoleums stood in contrast to their modern surroundings, located in a peaceful park area. One of these buildings, the Guri Amir mausoleum which housed Timur himself, was particularly ornate, with a fluted azure dome and ornamental tilework that glimmered tantalisingly out of reach past a ticket office. Rumour had it that it was both free to enter and lit dramatically at night, and we vowed to return under the cover of darkness.

That evening, we made the return journey to the Guri Amir mausoleum with our German friend and two others. We stood and admired the gently up-lit mausoleum by night, its blue tiles now a dark purple tinged by an orangey glow. The relatively small resting place for such a revered leader as Timur was surprising. One of our fellow travellers was another German travelling with his Uzbek wife, and they lamented the changes that Samarkand had undergone since they were last here. Beside the mausoleum stood a high brick wall, circling three sides of it like a defensive fortification.

“On the other side of the wall,” he announced, “is a normal Uzbek neighbourhood. The government deemed it too ugly for the tourists.”

There was an element in me that liked the isolation from 'real' life, but it felt awkward being part of the reason the wall was built. In response, our return to our accommodation took a detour through precisely the streets that those in authority did not want tourists to experience. The dark, narrow streets led us along the uneven dirt road, where a handful of locals dotted along the roads saw us go by with an occasional friendly “Salam”.

The Shah-i-Zinda stands on a hill overlooking Samarkand's periphery. The avenue of ancient tiled mausoleums blends into the modern cemetery next to them. We walked through the modern graves, past hundreds of faces etched eerily into the gravestones, climbing up and down along the ridge of the hill and past a team of female grave-diggers at work. The Shah-i-Zinda came into view quite by surprise from around a corner – a flash of turquoise tiling sparkling back at us through the sea of granite headstones.

The narrow path led us between high mausoleums, past intricate tilework and cool, dark, peaceful chambers. On one side, a low door led us along a whitewashed corridor to an important place of Islamic pilgrimage in this area. Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammed brought Islam to this area in the 7th Century, where he spread the religion among the populace. His mausoleum was small and dark, but the intricacy of the tiles and wood carving were the most impressive we had seen so far. Vines and branches entangled flowers and leaves in a delicate embrace, and geometric lines converged perfectly at minute points on the walls.

A man sat silently in the corner of the room, and led prayers with individuals and groups of pilgrims who entered. We left when prayers began, and returned to the warm sun outside. Continuing along the little lane, we continued downhill until a monumental gate hailed the exit towards the bustling Siob bazaar where we first arrived in the city.

At this time of day, the bazaar was busy with the buying and selling of produce on a two-level site. At the higher level, a cleaner, more orderly market had more evidence of a tourist trade, with carefully arranged produce and gift platters of dried fruit and nuts as souvenirs. Lower down, a more boisterous market catered largely to local trade. We wandered the lower level, and rather than flinching, many people who saw Helen's camera posed for her and enjoyed the novelty, especially the children. People came up to us and made conversation for the sake of it – indication again that perhaps we were more exotic and interesting to them than they were to us.

We returned to our accommodation and prepared for the morning bus to Bukhara. That morning, a massive thunder storm hit Samarkand, crashing sheets of water from the sky, and roaring as it pummelled the city with lightning. We thanked our lucky stars that it had passed and hoped that the following morning might be a little less unpleasant.
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