Even before the train from Tashkent could start, a young gentleman approached me and asked if i would like better seats and didn’t mind some conversation. Well, who’d say no. So I got upgraded to the 1st class and was off to the adjacent coach under the ‘oh what just happened’ stares of all those around. The girl sitting next to me mouthed with jealousy, ‘me too’.
Ali was a Tashkent resident whose English sounded like that of Ken Watanabe from the last samurai. My hunger and his incessant talking lasted till Samarkand. The country welcomed with a free upgrade!
Yes, I said Samarkand twice. First out of awe when my eyes fell on the Registan as the taxi zoomed past. Second, because I had picked a hostel that was right next to it. So I walk out, look to the right and voila, Registan!
Top Things to see/do in samarkand
The gur e amir:
And here lies the great Amir Timur. Not as flamboyant as you would expect. A simple structure that has undergone a fair dose of restoration. The 22k ticket to see the resting place of one of the greatest conquerers of history is well worth it. Buried alongside his wives and key ministers, the tomb is a more than a resting place to the ‘wonders’ he left behind. Gold inlay work with extensive retouching makes one wonder what the original may have looked like. If you are wondering indeed, perhaps Iran would have the answers.
Bibi khanym mosque:
I turned right and headed towards bibi khanym mosque. I didn’t expect it to be so grandiose. The mosque has an entrance that could put the largest gates to shame. Once inside after the regular 22k pay, you are greeted with a garden in the centre and two small mosques to each side and the main one ahead. The complex isn’t very big but has been utilised well. A striking feature of the mosque is that the dome sits behind the facade and is completely hidden. It’s only visible from the sides. The restoration work is quite obvious as the mosque looks barely a 100 years old but i must say that the quality of work is extraordinary. The inside of the mosque however was shut and undergoing restoration.
Registan, day evening and night: Needless to say, the Registan ensemble has become the poster boy of Uzbekistan. Just google the country and scores of photos would appear showing the 3 buildings captured in different moods. The Ulug Begh madrassah, Sher dor madrassah and Tilla kori mosque make up the trio of buildings that withstood time and conquest. Today, they are restored buildings which perhaps are meant to look like what they must have been when built. Rummage through old photos in the nearby shops and info centres, you will understand what they went through. The ideal time to visit is in the evenings after 7, when the weather is better and people first get on to the viewing platform for some good shots. Then settle on the wide steps right below it leading to the ensemble. The entrance costs 30K soms. You can also climb up the minarets but I chose to skip and do that in Khiva
A necropolis not too far from Registan (walkable) where the greats are buried. It translates in persian to ‘Living King’. The group of mausoleums house the remains of key royals between 9-14th centuries. Most of them were Timur’s relatives and generals. About 20 minutes of walk from the Registan leads to the complex. Pay 12k and enter. The place has a mystic vibe to it. Once you climb up the broad steps, a pathway greets you lined by mausoleums on either side with glazed terracotta tiles, typical Persian style. One after the other you see tombs housing a wife or a minister or a sibling. The insides are mostly plain and the tombstone painted white. Some good shots here and you can be off.
A town about 90 minutes from Samarkand that was the birthplace of Amir Timur. For 20k a way i got a wonderful ride through the mountains where the breeze turned cooler after every bend. Shahrisabz is amongst the oldest cities in the country and is known as the birthplace of amir temur. The whole ride takes about 60-90 minutes depending on the driver. Mine had his foot on the gas, so 60. I arrived in the scorching heat of the noon at 1. As the taxi kept rolling into the town i was looking out for the massive gates of the aq sarai. And yes, the 65m tall began to appear in the skyline. Convinced that i am in the right direction, i turned my attention to hunting places to eat. With barber shops, automobile repair stores and what nots, i saw everything but a place to eat. By then the taxi slowed down, the driver pointed east and said aq saray and i got off, it all happened like a well scripted movie. I turned around and walked the other way in pursuit of food and Fortunately, not even a 100 metres away was a cafe where i had vegetable soup with some animals in it. I politely had them transported to another plate where they wouldn’t intrude. I set off right after and was trudging through the heat to where Temur stood tall. By the time i reached there, which wasn’t even a few minutes away, i took another break, ice cream this time and the waiter took the opportunity to try and have his iPhone update fixed, didn’t work. Having loitered enough i chose to click some pictures of the statue and headed to the other end where the kok gumbaz or the Friday mosque sat, built by ulug begh. The long walk sans shade had my skin tingling by the time i reached the mosque. 7k entry and i had a quick 20 minute nap in the cool mosque. Nothing spectacular but good to visit. It was now 4 and i headed towards the statue behind which stood the gates of the palace. Their size would make one wonder how big the palace would have been. Massive would be an understatement. The mosaics were in decent condition and had some interesting geometric patterns
Art gallery inside the tilla kori mosque:
Head into the mosque and the first thing you notice is the golden works inside the dome, mesmerizing. Click pics and come out, right opposite the entrance to the prayer hall is a small door which can have a 4 ft tall man walk through with ease. This tiny door leads to a room full of paintings and miniatures, which is a shop run by little old Shavkat. He speaks no english but will ensure you are comfortable with Russian. My interest in art had him explain and talk about almost every painting in the room which werent all his works. I ended up getting a miniature painted on samarkand paper for 10 usd. A good deal
Sit in the promenade in the evenings with ice cream.
Near the emsemble is the promenade planned like it was Europe. The evenings would have locals and kids renting cycles and playing about. Trust me, you can spend hours here just people watching. And of course, be open to locals chatting up, that is the highlight. And oh, you get ice cream for a few cents and there’s nothing better to eat during summers…
Try plov or soup at the Bibi Khanym café:
this is a lovely traditional restaurant that easily serves one of the most amazing food in Samarkand at affordable rates. The soup and plov are priced near about 1.5-2 USD and make for an amazing meal anytime of the day. The waiters are friendly fellows who’d go out of their way to make you comfortable.
How long: 2 days would be perfect. 3 days is what I’d recommend
Stay: B&B Bahodir. Dorms at 8 usd. They are not too spacious but functional. Run by a lovely family who’d do anything to make life good. And the location of course, is amazing. Right next to the Registan
- Plov or Mastava at the Bibi Khanum café right next to the mosque with the same name.
- Samarkand Paper: Known for the unique paper making style, only 1 factory remains that makes paper in the traditional method. However, if you are lucky, you can get hold of some vintage miniature paintings done on this kind of paper. Should cost about 10 usd
The good: the monuments, the people
The bad: None
The ugly: None
Safety: 10 on 10
Tout level: 0. People don’t care, too nice to cheat
Language: Learn some Russian, really
Internal Transport: Walking