The observatory of Ulugbek Samarkand

Uzbekistan - The Golden Road - Samarkand and Bukhara - Grand Asian Tour 8

Author: Sue
Date: 15th September 2014
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A Diversion From The Golden Road, Uzbekistan

My tour group has been through Tashkent and The Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar, heading east on the Silk Road. Now we're back in Uzbekistan picking up the Silk Road in the other direction, where it's become The Golden Road to Samarkand, or so I thought. But apparently, there's a lake diversion first. And, I also have to conclude that I have picked up a bug. I trot off to the chemist, down a lethal looking cocktail and return to bed. I contemplate passing on our unexpected diversion to the reservoir, at Charvik, but decide it would cause more aggravation than I could cope with, both explaining and signing off the trip.

It's baking hot and hazy. We are skirting the edge of the desert so the hills are arid, baked brown, whilst the rivers trickling alongside the roads are a dazzling turquoise. Yet another example of nature painting the perfect palette. The stalls pointing the way are festooned with plastic swimming rings; clearly there is a seaside in Uzbekistan too.

Except that we don't get to experience it. The glacier blue reservoir is revealed in tantalising glimpses, as we climb the mountain roads above the huge dam, but our hotel has been changed at the last moment. We are in the mountains still, now five kilometres from the lake. The guest house is pleasant (especially when benchmarked against recent experiences), except for the shared bathrooms, but I don't understand the logic of driving out from Tashkent - surely there are hotels there with swimming pools? I'm very lethargic, but it's impossible to sleep with the incessant stream of English muzak that is belted out. Ironic, when no one here speaks the language.

Charvak, Uzbekistan

We detour to Charvak proper, by group request ,on the way back to Tashkent. I'm happily feeling better, but opt for a sleep on a shady bench, rather than joining the masses doing their thing on the uncomfortable looking concrete and rock perches by the water. There is every type of water sport imaginable on offer and more music churning out, over the funfair.

Others in the group are looking a bit green around the gills too. No one is anticipating our trip on the train to Bukhara tonight with any great enthusiasm, except Australian Margaret. She is one of these larger than life women whose opinion is the only one that counts. However, she is very positive and everything (it seems to me) is graded on a four point scale (good, lovely, beautiful or sensational).

Train to Bukhara

The wooden four berth compartment on our train is stifling and there are some evil smells wafting around. Drifting through the window or emanating from suffering fellow passengers? I'm unsure and I'm not going to ask. Both the window and the door have to remain open or the heat is unbearable.

I was wrong about having got rid of my bug. Either it metamorphosed or I picked up another one. I am sleeping reasonably well, but I just about fall out of my top bunk, at 3 a.m, in a rush to get to the toilet, before disaster strikes. I monopolise that part of the train for the next two hours. Enough detail on that I think, except to say that I am once again tired and spaced out. We seem to be in the habit of grading things lately so I need also to mention that the heat here is at incinerator level.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Other than that, things are looking up. I'm now at the western most point of my Silk Road journey. The hotel is clean and prettily arranged round a courtyard, in traditional style. Bukhara, a city that's over two thousand years old, is definitely worth seeing. My Lonely Planet Bible describes it as enchanting and I'm not going to argue with that. It's like being on a different planet.

Tiny alleys tip you out onto squares, with cool cafés arranged around little green lakes with fountains. Atmospheric caravanserai pop up round every corner, stuffed with trinkets. Suddenly, every bazaar caters for tourists, beautiful embroidery flutters everywhere, tastefully bright bags abound, silver earrings beckon invitingly and hats of every description proliferate; a different style for every day of the year, let alone enough to supply a party. I'm drawn to the jaunty silk numbers with tassels. Every oriental cliché from Aladdin to Ali Baba, to Sherezade to Omar Kayam is utilised. We've also gone considerably up market. Nothing is cheap and everything is priced in dollars.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan and the Five Ms 

Today it's only sizzling  again, which is helpful as we have a tour of the five Moslem Ms: minarets, mosques, mausoleums, madrassahs (courtyard schools and no-one is quite sure how to spell the word in English) and museums. Bukhara contains literally hundreds of them. dating largely from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries. As well as bazaars and caravanserais, if we want to add ABC. People have inhabited the region around Bukhara for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for half that time. Bukhara is, in the main, beautifully kept, if over restored. (The Bolshevik army had a field day here demolishing buildings.)

Ensembles of Bukhara

The Ms are arranged in a variety of appealing combinations. The more complex arrangements are known as ensembles, the ubiquitous blue tiles and soaring gates, surmounted by turquoise domes. Probably the most visited is the Po-i-Kalyan Complex. Here there's also a minaret which towers over the city in such an incredible fashion that Ghengis decided to spare it, when he came conquering. It's a shame the same can't be said for the Russians, but at least it's been rebuilt.

The legend attached to this tower (46 metres high) says that convicted criminals were executed by being thrown from the top. So, it's also known as The Tower of Death. The amazing tower also causes problems for my Margaret Scale. When she sees it she says 'Aw it's awesome', so now I will have to expedite a revision. The Kalân Mosque (around 1540) can hold twelve thousand people. The Mir-i Arab Madrassah (1535–1536) here was built by more than three thousand Persian captives.

The Lab-i Hauz (By the Pool) Complex, unsurprisingly stands by a tiled pond surrounding one of the few remaining hauz, or pond, in the city of Bukhara. The sixteenth-century Kukeldash Madrasah here, is the largest in the city. Then, there's the Bahoutdin Architectural Complex, which is a necropolis. There's so much to see, I'm already giddy.

Madrassahs of Bukhara

The surprisingly quiet Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah, has glittering muqarnas and small tiled cells for the students to study. Opposite, the earlier and therefore differently styled, more subdued, Ulugh beg Madrassah. I need to stress I'm only picking out a few of the many notable buildings here....

Mausoleums of Bukhara

The key mausoleums are in and around the park, which has a lake and boats decorated like swans. The most esteemed is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. The intricately carved and domed cuboid is the burial place of Ismail Samani, the founder of the Samanid dynasty. It's ninth century, so one of the oldest monuments in the area. It was here when Genghis Khan' invaded and spared from destruction, as it had been buried in mud, after flooding.

The other important mausoleum, close by, is Chashma-Ayub, or Job's Spring. This is where the biblical prophet Job (Ayub in the Koran) is said to have produced a spring, by striking the ground with his staff. The current edifice dates to the reign of Timur, and features an uncommon (in the region) conical dome. Curiously, I can't find any information telling me who is actually buried here.

Mosques of Bukhara

Of course, Bukhara has many mosques. My favourite, the Chor Minor, with four towers, is not easy to locate. It's a distance away from the town centre. in a residential area. I tracked it down, after I saw it on the cover of my Lonely Planet Bible (LPB).

On the esplanade to the right from Char-Minar is a pool, likely of the same age as the rest of the building complex. Char Minar is now surrounded mainly by small houses and shops along its perimeter.

The other mosque I'm going to mention is the main Friday mosque, the Bolo Haouz, built in 1712. Plenty more intricately carved vaulting, many pillars and a curved green pool.

Museums of Bukhara

The Bolo Haouz Mosque faces the Bukhara Citadel, known as The Ark. This massive earthen fortress was initially built in the fifth century. It defended Bukhara, until it fell to Russia in 1920. In the interim it was home to many citizens, as well as the Royal Family. Today, it's an important part of the tourist circuit. It houses the throne room, the reception and coronation court, the court mosque and two museums: archaeological and historical.

A cultural show in the evening, which means folk dancing and a poor dinner. Then there is a power cut. It's not easy finding your way back to the hotel in pitch black alleys. I try not go think about who or what might be lurking in the shadows.

The Golden Road, Uzbekistan

AAAARGH the lurgy has returned yet again. Today I've been throwing up. Well, at least there is variety in the way these bugs make themselves known. And we're on our way to Samarkand. Flecker's Golden Road to Samarkand is a misnomer. The road is dirty brown semi desert with tufts of grass that are yellow or green. Though, to be fair, it does get more yellow as Samarkand approaches and the land becomes even drier. These are much poorer areas, with the usual flocks of goats and sheep, mud brick farmhouses and little wells.

The hay that can be scratched from the scraps of pasture stands in little green stooks. Patient donkeys (when not tugging huge carts) find ingenious ways, stretching leashes, and standing on three legs, to reach the most succulent remaining leaves and blades of grass. Any gaps with fertile soil are plugged with cotton fields; the Soviets turned the country into the world's fourth biggest producer. Rocky mountain ranges create a backdrop to the tableau.


We don't go straight to Samarkand, but make a diversion to the great Emir Timur (Tamerlane)'s home town of Shahrisabz. Here, the fifteenth century palaces and mausoleums are still in ruins. LPB says they give an authentic flavour of what Samarkand was like, before the restoration mob moved in. Unfortunately, the mob are already in town and vast swathes of shops and houses have been bulldozed, in readiness for the tourist hordes. They haven't yet got round to rebuilding most of the monuments. At one point, I am advised to move, to avoid tiles falling on my head.

Life in Uzbekistan

Although Uzbekistan is virtually a totalitarian state, the people on the whole seem content with Islam Karimov's rule. Or so they say. It's a Moslem country, but not a Moslem state, so whilst the people tend to dress conservatively, there are very few burkas or face coverings in evidence. The fashion is for more colourful garb and tied scarf headdresses. In the evening, and for formal occasions, both men and women opt for the golden edged pork pie hats. They look very elegant in these, matched with flowing gowns. In this region, the everyday dresses are usually matched with long pantaloons. Equality between the sexes, as we know it, is embryonic. Women are expected to be obedient to their husbands and most wives take on the role of cook-housekeeper within the extended family. The vast majority of marriages are still arranged.

Our current Russian driver isn't doing very well today. We have been stopped by policemen angling for a premium on their salary. Later, everyone complains to guide Surat about the quality of the ride itself. The driver has been specialising in white knuckle rides. The roads in the south of the country aren't great anyway and there are huge ruts. Coupled with this, the minivan of the moment doesn't seem to have much in the way of suspension, so it's like being on a bucking bronco. Surat passes the comments on to the driver, whilst we are sightseeing, but possibly not in the most tactful way. We spend the next two hours motoring at exactly 45 kph, so doubling the time of our journey.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Our hotel for the last part of our trip, in Samarkand, appears incredibly ostentatious. It's a vast package tourist establishment that we assume has been included to try and persuade us to forget previous tribulations. As always, first impressions are deceiving. It's The Hotel in the Land That Time Forgot. There's no food on offer, no one knows when the swimming pool will open or how to get to it, (ask the swimming pool manager), there's no hot water until 6pm and the lights operate according to their own whim. More mysteriously, it does not appear to have a name. There are no information documents available and no embroidered tags on linen. So I go outside to try and solve the puzzle. The sign on top says simply 'Hotel'.

I've decided to drown my bugs with vodka. Only time will tell if this is a good idea.

All the food here gets served at room temperature, whether it's ostensibly a hot dish or a cold one. If you're not here when the breakfast buffet is set out out, then you get your eggs  at room temperature. Few of the shops, especially in the villages and small towns, have fridges, and drinks too are served at room temperature, which is pretty high, as the day wears on.

Samarkand - a Beautiful Lady with Make Up

Samarkand is the advertised jewel in the crown of Uzbekistan, Timur's capital. The locals say if Bukhara is a beautiful woman, then Samarkand is a beautiful lady with make up. Samarkand's certainly much bigger, with the sights more spread out than in Bukhara. Modern Samarkand is divided into two parts: the old city, and the new city, which was developed during the days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. I can see all this from from my sixth floor balcony, where there is a great view of the fabled Registan ensemble of three madrassas. This hotel does have its redeeming features. No terrace seats provided, but I drag the desk chair outside to stand on and take photos.

Off to visit the 5 Ms of Samarkand. They have indeed had a great deal of make up plastered on, but are undoubtedly impressive. The same style as seen previously, but grander and more opulent; the turquoise domes are now patterned rather than plain, for example. Much of the city has been rebuilt. Some of the new bazaars resemble Bond Street, rather than having an oriental flavour and souvenirs are expensive. There are ceramics, with gorgeous intricate arts and crafts patterns.

The Registan

The Registan is the main draw in Samarkand. It was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, - and a place of public executions. It is framed by three beautifully wrought madrassas. I'm worried that if the Registan lives up to its billing close up I may well have to revise my Margaret Scale once more. However, she declares that she is lost for words, so all is well.

Gur-e Amir Complex

The next must see in Samarkand, to the south of the Registan, is the Gur-e Amir (Tomb of the King) complex. This gorgeously tiled turquoise dome covers the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. There's even space for Timur's teacher Sayyid Baraka.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

There's yet another amazing blue domed complex, north of the Registan, at Tamerlane's Mosque, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Afrosiob - Ancient Samarkand

Samarkand ladies seem to be keen on striped ankle socks with bear motifs. They are especially common on the older women.

Today, the really ancient Samarkand, known as Afrosiob (or Marikanda depending on which guide you believe). There are earthworks and reconstructed frescoes. In this area are also the fifteenth century observatory of Ulugbek (picture up top) with some long astronomical tunnels, and the tomb of Daniel (he of lion fame). Daniel has tombs in other parts of the world too, most notably Iran. One story says that his body keeps growing so they have to keep enlarging the already very large sarcophagus. Another, that only his arm is buried here. No-one can check, as Islam forbids the opening of tombs. The finale is the sublime Avenue of Mausoleums, a whole stepped street of (heavily renovated) richly tiled tombs of assorted designs from the Tamerlane era.

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