Samarkand. One of the most famous cities on the Silk Road between China and Europe. The city has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era, reaching prominence under the Timurid Dynasty founded by Timur. It wasn’t until I visited Samarkand that I realized the Mughal Dynasty was founded by one of Timur’s heirs. Similar to the Mughal Dynasty, the Timurid dynasty sprouted a patronage of the arts and architecture which have left some beautiful Islamic architecture examples around Uzbekistan, especially Samarkand. However, like the Mughals, the history is one of controversy, with major atrocities against local populations.
Being an Independent Tourist in Samarkand
Samarkand, for being Central Asia’s biggest tourist draw, was shockingly not that touristy. Frankly, once you step a minute away from the famous mosques and mausoleums, there is a good chance you won’t have a clue you are in such a famous historic site – just a large, arid town. I would describe Samarkand as having the same tourism base as places like Lalibela or Victoria Falls – mostly groups of affluent, retired Europeans.
Logistics – Accomodation
The choice of hotels is extremely limited, and in early October, the only decent places (none which are big hotels) were already booked up, so I ended up at Hotel Diyora, what I would describe as your typical “tourist” hotel in a country where tourism hasn’t really developed. Drab, not really great at being anything, and trying to take care of every need badly (I cracked up that my room was next to the gift shop). I would have far preferred a boutique place like Bibikhanum Hotel.
Logistics – Dining Out
One big part of not being touristy an not having much of a restaurant culture is that the restaurant selection is very, very limited, and frankly, pretty crappy. Uzbekistan dining consists of the national dish of Plov, similar to many other meat cooked in rice dishes from other cultures, along with rods of meat of metal skewers. Frankly, I was sick of it after a week! I did pick a couple of random dining spots, but also a couple of ones that are pretty decent. One is Besh Chinor, a pretty long walk on Bustonsaroy away from the main attractions. You pick the meats you want from the case, pick the salads you want from the trays they bring out, and pay next to nothing by Western standards.
Closer to the action is Bibikhanum Teahouse. It almost feels like the only restaurant around, and has the same selection of skewered meat and salads. Why it’s called a tea house? I have no clue, since they have the same standard green or black tea in a bowl you get anywhere else.
Plov, the Uzbek national dish, is greasy, greasy, greasy, and I know some people don’t care for it, but I think it is just delicious! There is plov on the menu at most restaurants, but I suggest taking a trip to one of the dedicated Plov restaurants early during the lunch and watch the Plov being prepared in huge drums, before sitting down to a plate of succulent greasy rice, meat, carrots and raisins. It was only embarrassment that kept me from getting another portion.
Logistics – Transportation
What’s wonderful about Uzbekistan? The rail system hosts medium to fast trains which can zip you around the entire country in a matter of hours, making my trip super efficient. Only two hours brings you from Tashkent to Samarkand by train. The view is nothing to really mention, but the ride was comfortable and snacks and beverages were available for sale on carts brought through the train.
If you are in good physical shape, walking around the entire town won’t be much of a problem. Most of the main sites in Samarkand are within 30 minutes walk of each other. Considering the hot, arid climate during the main season, I’d stay hydrated and be wary of the sun during mid-day.
Exploring Samarkand – A Quick Guide
Registan, the Square of Dreams
The famous square build by the Timurid dynasty holds three madrasahs – the Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori. While Ulugh Beg and Sher-Dor, on the sides of the square, are merely accessible for their courtyards, where old classrooms have been converted to handicraft shops, it is the inside of Tilya-Kori that is truly magical. Blue and gold decorates the stunning hall of the main mosque.
On my first approach to the Registan, I made it through without actually buying a ticket (unintentionally, since there are basically no signs anywhere). If I didn’t hover around the ropes in confusion, I don’t even think the security guards would have noticed.
You can climb the stairs up to the top of one of the minarets. You’ll see security guards discreetly offering to let you go up there for a little cash. Don’t expect some sort of viewing deck. Once you reach the top, you literally pop right out of the top of the minaret.
I highly recommend walking back to the Registan at night to see it lit up. I am aware there are light shows, but why corrupt the beautiful architecture when some basic white light is all it takes to make this magical? Again, security officers came up to me with offers of letting me go wandering. There is only one word to describe Registan both day and night: magical.
Gur-e-Amir – A Tribute to Timur
Walking 15-20 minutes away from Registan is the Mausoleum of Timur. Inside, I found a mix of casual visitors and those who came to pray. Timur is still a severely respected figure, and the main room with Timur’s tomb features some incredibly detailed work, just right behind Tilya Kori.
Shah-i-Zinda – The Splendour of Mausoleums
Walking past the Bibikhanum Mosque and Siab Bazaar for a while is the series of mausoleums known as Shah-i-Zinda. Among those buried inside this complex is Timur’s own sister. Local belief has it that the Prophet’s Mohammed is buried here, and gives the place particular spiritual importance.
Bibi-Khanym Mosque – A Labor of Love
I might consider this India’s own Taj Mahal, a labor of love of Timur for his wife. Bibi-Khanym is enormous. Against the advice of his architects, the project was rushed, leading to a sloppy, unstable structure which began to fall apart right away, and was eventually left to decay, until restoration projects were commenced during the Soviet era, and these continue to this day.
If the newly restored paintings on the left building give one a sense of how much this mosque has changed, a walk past the ropes into the ruins of the middle structure reveals the beautiful decay inside. It gave me a feeling of piece to spend just 10 or 15 minutes inside here.
Contrast this with this seemingly freshly painted dome to the left
As you approach Bib-Khanym, you can walk along a quiet street known in English as Tashkent Road. This street was bizarre because while I did not see any handicrafts/souvenir shops while walking around town, Tashkent Road has a never-ending supply of them. While a lot of us say most souvenir/handicraft shops look alike, in this case, they are literally identical white buildings with the same exact merchandise set up practically in the same exact way, one after another down the street. It was almost creepy.
Among the Timurid rulers was Ulugh Beg (A moniker, not his real name), who was not only a ruler, but an astronomer. He commissioned an observatory which is just a marvel to see.
I love markets. Sightseeing is great and the history and design of the monuments in Samarkand are amazing, but one of my favorite experiences was at the Siab Bazaar, where I spent a couple of hours wandering around and just watching life go by…everything from pre-shredded carrots for Plov to fresh baked breads for sale.