Stunning Samarkand

After my surprisingly easy crossing from Tajikistan into Uzbekistan I located my driver and made our way to Tashkent. My first observation en route was the endless cotton fields in what is an arid area – a surprising choice of crop given its thirst for water!

The rural countryside of Uzbekistan immediately felt more friendly and affluent than its neighbours and there were no oversized images of their President.

My driver dropped me at the Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent and I proceeded to reception only to discover that my tour group weren’t scheduled to arrive until the following day… which was strange as I’d exchanged Whatsapp messages about meeting them at the hotel that evening.

After triple checking with the hotel, I became convinced I’d made an error and ended up forking out $70 for a room for the extra night. Exhausted from a long few days on the road, I headed to my overpriced broom closet of a room and fell asleep.

After my nap I headed out to see the sights, the Independence Square, Parliament, the National Theatre and the History Museum. Like every capital city in the region, the pavements were pristine clean and the many parks impeccably manicured.

Back at the hotel I bumped into our guide Diana who informed me that the group had arrived as scheduled but due to an admin era the hotel reservation was wrong and everyone had been moved to another hotel. Having settled and unpacked in the current room I opted to see everyone the following day rather than change hotel simply to change back a few hours later.

It was good see Jackie and Chris, Brian and Josephine again – the rest were all newbies including my 71yo roommate David from Mansfield. Thankfully there was no snoring or shuffling around at 4am!

The new group seemed cool and I hit it off straight away with Oli from west London who was 3 months into a two year trip. After dinner a small group of us headed out to a live music bar where we were deafened by Tashkents finest cover bands, whilst enjoying several pints of Uzbekistans finest laager.

I woke up for our 6am bus ride to Samarkand feeling under the weather – apart from an upset stomach I felt exhausted and spent much of the nine hour bus ride in various uncomfortable positions trying to sleep. Along the route we stopped at a number of rather questionable public toilets and small convenience stores – but by an large the scenery between cities in Uzbekistan is fairly dull.

After our marathon bus ride we arrived in Samarkand – while the group went for a night walk around Registan Square and for dinner, I opted for an early night in an attempt to sleep off my illness.

Thankfully I didn’t miss anything that wouldn’t be repeated the following day. Our city tour of Samarkand started off at the beautiful Amir Temur mausoleum which was built between the 14th-15th centuries.

From the the mausoleum we headed to the magnificent Registan Square which in its hey day had served as a massive market and public meeting place where royal proclamations were made. The open Square is flanked by three spectacular madrasah, each with imposing entrance gates and domes.

A fifteen minute walk from Registan Square we arrived at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built in the 15th century it was one of the largest and most important mosques in the Islamic world, before falling into disrepair and collapsing during an earthquake in 1897. Like all of Samarkands main sights it has now been restored to its former glory – albeit looks shiny new.

Not far from Bibi Khanum mosque is the highlight of Samarkand, the architecturally Shakhi Zinda mausoleum complex which consists of narrow passage ways and rows of tombs, beautifully encrusted in aqua marine mosaics. We spent an age wandering the passages, trying to get the perfect photo – minus tourists in shot!

After exiting the mausoleum we decided to visit the neighbouring cemetery to get a view of Shakhi Zinda from a raised vantage point. As we climbed the steep vantage point we were surprised to discover the whole cemetery had been burnt and desecrated – now resembling a battlefield. We preserved to the top of the hill to get our photos before heading on with our stroll through Samarkand.

As Oli is Jewish and it was approaching the holy day of Yom Kippur we next decided to join him in visiting the local Gombuez synagogue which was well hidden down the back streets of Samarkand Jewish Quarter. A quick call to a number scribbled on the door frame and we were greeted by an old lady who was the care taker. Oli turned translator as he used his rusty Hebrew to explain the history of the synagogue and the beautiful wood carved interior – and how the final 50 Jewish families from the region had all now moved to Israel.

With the sun starting to set we decided we’d had enough exploring for one day and headed the 4km back to the hotel – retracing our path and stopping at all the main sights which were now tourist free.

Back at the hotel, and clocking up a 20km walk it was time for dinner and an early night – but not before a quick unscheduled stop back at the Amir Temur mausoleum for some nightime photos. 

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