Uzbekistan 2000 – Samarkand



Samarkand – Friday, September 8

I started my sightseeing early the next morning: first I stopped at the bazaar to take some more pictures. The best one was of a line of women selling handmade brooms. In the background loomed the huge blue-domes of the Bibi-Khanym mosque which sits on the south edge of the bazaar.

After that I walked over to see the mausoleums at Sharr-I-Zindah. I got a little mixed up and ended up walking through a cemetery on the way. In Uzbekistan it’s common for photo-quality pictures of the deceased to be carved on the tombstones – they were so realistic it felt like they were watching me as I walked along.

I continued on to the Bibi-Khanym mosque, one of the many monuments built in Samarkand by Timur (also know as Tamerlane) who ruled in the 14th century.

As I walked in a lady ran out of the ticket office and demanded 600 Sum. That was way too much, so I said, “No thanks.” I headed back toward the door but she called after me, “Mister, special price today, 400 Sum.” That was still high but I decided to pay it. As I handed her the money, she asked for 200 more – a fee to use my camera. I told her that I wasn’t going to take any pictures. Then she pointed at my pocket and asked for my pen. I won’t tell you what I thought but I said, “Forget it, lady.” She sure didn’t let up.

The mosque was huge, the kind of monumental project that Timur seemed to favor. On a platform in the middle of the courtyard was an enormous marble Koran stand – so big that kids were crawling under it. At one end of the courtyard was a huge portal leading to the main mosque and to the left and right were slightly smaller mosques. On the opposite side was the entrance portal, now covered with scaffolding. I sat in the shade of a tree and enjoyed the quiet. A couple of vendors came over and tried to sell me picture books of Samarkand. I said no and they went away.

Finally, I got restless and walked down the pedestrian mall that leads to the Registan, Samarkand’s (and probably Central Asia’s) premiere tourist attraction. It’s a grouping of three enormous medressas that face each other from three sides of an open square. Inside of each there were more little shops in the student cells. Some tourists object to these shops but, I find they bring life to the buildings – it’s better than leaving the medressas empty. I found a shady spot in the square and sat admiring the buildings. I had come a long way to visit them.

Years ago when I lived in California I had a friend who worked in a retirement community called Samarkand. The name intrigued me: all I knew for sure was that Samarkand was a city in Central Asia, but it kindled an interest in me. The more I read about Samarkand the more I wanted to go there. The area was then a part of the Soviet Union and closed to travelers. Later when Uzbekistan became independent I saw my chance – and now I had finally made it.

After sitting for a while, I decided to go have lunch and afterwards I took a nap. Since my room wasn’t air-conditioned I had to leave the balcony door open. While I wouldn’t describe Samarkand as cool, it certainly wasn’t as hot as Bukhara.

In the afternoon I walked over to Guri-Amir. It’s another of the monumental buildings commissioned by Timur – it’s used as his mausoleum. The dome is a striking ribbed design covered in blue tile. Inside I visited Timur’s tomb and those of some of his family members.

For those who don’t know Timur, he was a pretty brutal guy. He belonged to the Ghengis Khan school of conquer-and-destroy, but added his own particular nasty twist by piling the heads of the vanquished into giant pyramids. Anyway, this guy, with his resume cleaned up, is now the national hero of Uzbekistan – they see him as a hometown boy who made good.

In the afternoon I took a walk in the commercial part of Samarkand west of my hotel. As I walked I passed a tourist agency and stopped in to see how much they wanted for a car and driver to Shakhrisabz. I wanted to visit this nearby city because it had more of Timur’s monuments. My hotel wanted $50, so when the agency offered me a driver and a Mercedes for $40, I took it. After having spent a day in that miniscule Daewoo, I jumped at the chance to ride in a real car.

It was about 6:00 and I decided to go see if I could find Laura or the Japanese couple from Bukhara. They were both staying at the same hotel, the Furkat, near the Registan. I found a taxi and was dropped at the opening of a dusty lane – I walked down to the hotel. When I opened the door, I saw Laura sitting in the courtyard putting on her shoes. She was getting ready to go out, she told me. As we sat there I noticed the Japanese couple was on the other side of the courtyard.

The four of us sat taking for awhile. I told them I had rented a car to Shakhrisabz and asked if they wanted to come along – they said ok. Then I suggested we go have something to eat. Laura recommended a nearby restaurant, “The raptor place.” She meant a restaurant near the Registan that had vultures and hawks tied up or in cages in front. It was quite an interesting place. It was two stories high and had a wide veranda on two sides. The kitchen – and the birds – were down on the sidewalk in front.

When we got there it was just getting dark and the air was starting to cool off. We sat on one of the chaikhanas (table/beds) on the second floor. A waiter came over but I had trouble understanding him and walked down to the kitchen for a look. The waiter stayed on the second floor, leaning over the railing, and took my order from there. I had laghmam, a kind of soup and (what else!) kebabs. We drank tea and beer.

We sat eating and talking about our travels – we had a grand time. Laura had had the foresight to buy a melon from a street vendor and after we finished eating we had it for dessert. It was nice to eat one of the melons after having seen so many of them in all the market – it was delicious.

The next morning a black Mercedes pulled up in front of my hotel and a few minutes later Laura and the Japanese couple arrived by taxi. We all piled in and were off.

We headed south and soon after leaving Samarkand, we entered some hills. The higher we climbed the cooler it got. Near the top the driver pulled off at a lookout point. We got out and stood, enjoying the refreshing breeze.

After another 45 minutes we entered Shakhrisabz. It was a pleasantly spacious town. Our first stop was at a hotel to get Laura a room – she wouldn’t be returning with us. The hotel was right next to one of the sights we had come to see, so when Laura was done we walked over. It was a huge gate – all that was left of the Ak-Saray palace – another of Timur’s monumental projects. We climbed the stairs to the top where there was a great view of the town and surrounding countryside. It was a really pleasant day and not too hot.

Back on the ground we pushed on to Khazrati-Imam mosque. There a local man showed us around, stealing Laura’s thunder – she was used to being our guide. Behind the mosque was a crypt that was intended for Timor, but somehow he had ended up in Samarkand instead.

There was one more place to visit and it was just a short ways away. As we walked, the Mercedes followed along behind us. The Kok-Gumbaz mosque was smaller than most of the mosques I had visited in Samarkand. The smaller scale gave it a more intimate feeling – it was quite lovely. After taking a few pictures, we dropped Laura off at her hotel and headed back to Samarkand.

I was a little anxious to get back. I was flying back to Tashkent in the morning and still didn’t have my ticket. My travel agent in Tashkent has promised to have it delivered to my hotel but, it hadn’t arrived. I wanted to get back and see if I could track it down.

Back at the hotel the ticket still hadn’t arrived, so I asked where I could call Tashkent from – there was no phone in my room. The desk clerk told me I would need to see the “international” operator, who was out right then. “But I only want to call Tashkent,” I protested. Well, apparently you need the international operator to call anywhere outside Samarkand. Instead of waiting around, I walked to a nearby hotel and made the call from there.

When I got the agent, he gave me the name of the person in Samarkand who had my ticket. Next, I called that person but, got some kid who didn’t speak very good English. If I understood him correctly he said his dad had my ticket and would deliver it in five minutes. That couldn’t be right, could it, five minutes? Oh, language problems. Not wanting to take a chance on missing him, I ran back to my hotel. Just as I got there I saw a young boy getting out of a car with something that looked like a ticket in his hand. “Hey,” I yelled, “Is that a ticket for Doug Burnett?”

I took the rest of the day off and read a book. In the evening I went up to the bar on the roof of the hotel and had a beer. There was a great view of the city from there.

The next morning I headed back to the bazaar. I stood out in front of the hotel like I always did and waved down a taxi. An old, beat-up one pulled over – the driver looked like he had some miles on him too. I leaned on the window and told him I wanted to go to the bazaar. He said, “Registan?” I said, “No no, bazaar. Understand?” He seemed to and we talked about price – we settled on 200 Sum. As I got in, I said again, “Bazaar, ok?” He took off.

The old taxi rattled and wheezed as it crept down the road. We drove directly to the Registan and stopped. I looked at the driver and said, again, “Bazaar.” He looked confused and moved the car slowly down the road until he stopped next to a policeman. The driver called him over and they started talking. I thought, “This isn’t worth it – I can walk the rest of the way to the bazaar,” so I gave the driver some money and got out. He looked a little hurt, like he really had been trying to understand what I wanted. I left him talking to the policeman.

I walked around the bazaar taking pictures and talking to the vendors – my favorite pastime. Actually it was rare to find anyone in Uzbekistan who spoke anymore than basic English. That said I had many interesting conversations where that’s all that we needed.

Later I took a taxi to the Khodja Akrar mosque. We had passed it on the way to Shakhrisabz yesterday. It was interesting for the beautiful mosaic of a lion chasing a deer on the portal. That’s very unusual: Islamic art rarely depict living creatures. Most of the decoration is either Arabic script or geometric designs.

In the afternoon I took another walk in the modern Soviet-built part of the city. The streets were wide and tree-lined and it was a pleasant place to walk. I stopped in shops along the way and was surprised by the lack of consumer goods. It wasn’t that the stores were empty, just that there wasn’t much variety. Coming from the west where we have 20 brands of soap and 15 kinds of toilet paper, the shelves here looked a little bare.

On the other hand, the people were well dressed and the streets were clean. There were very few beggars, mostly old people. I suspected they were pensioners who had been lost in the shuffle while moving from communism to capitalism. All and all the Uzbeki’s looked happy, prosperous and well fed.

That night there was yet another wedding reception at the café in front of my hotel. There had been two the day before – one in the afternoon and another in the evening. I was glad I was staying on the opposite side of the hotel because the music was very loud.

I retired early – I had a flight back to Tashkent in the morning and from there I was heading to Turkestan in Kazkhstan by road.

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