How on earth does Samarkand live up to ten centuries of hype? And yet here we all are, lapping it up: friendly gangs of gold-toothed Uzbeki grandmas taking all the opportunities a pilgrimage offers for a few days away from the kitchen; equivalent numbers of severe Uzbeki grandads comporting themselves importantly, prayer hats all firmly set – let it be understood they’re not here to have fun; multigenerational Uzbeki families with shell-shocked teenage brides clutching at their newborns – their talisman against mom-in-law, the usual imperious grandsons and experienced aunts smoothing things over with ice-cream. And every single one of them wants to be photographed either with me or by me.
The grandma gangs are all out for a good time.
Grandads take it all more seriously but can sometimes be persuaded to crack a smile. Uzbekis are always laughing. They rapidly sober up in the presence of a camera lens.
Where would we be without the aunt willing to give mom a break.
The more mobile green grandma comes hurtling across the path and insists I take their photographs, twice (the first one doesn’t pass muster). Unfortunately she doesn’t have an email address I can send it to.
Internationally, uptight Russians muttering bitterly to each other about how things were and could still be; a smattering of supercilious Turks – the women caked in makeup with elaborate couture hijabs; a few officious Pakistani mullahs having the way cleared; invisible Kazakhs, Tajiks, Armenians. Here and there an Italian or two, some Dutch, no English and certainly no Americans.
Samarkand handles us all so sensitively: The magnificent monuments are swathed in manicured parkland that takes care of the logistics of shuffling us from one to the next just beautifully. The odiferous old city has been tactfully walled away, and the modern city, where life is actually lived, is kept at a respectable distance behind the trees. It is all very relaxing but not at all redolent of centuries of romantic Silk Road history. In fact romance is the last thing on Samarkand’s mind, and it becomes clear how the purists’ lament of the blurred line between restoration and renovation is so much more complicated in such a place of active worship.
The three monuments of the Registan, note the scale.
Ulug Beg Medressa
No you weren’t imagining it, this is Uzbekistan’s answer to the leaning tower.
Tila Kari (Gold covered) Medressa
Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa
Shockingly the Sher Dor Medressa has pictures of both animals AND humans
Just a short parkland stroll away, the Bibi Khanym mosque.
And its domed roof seen through the trees.
The Mosque containing Timurlane’s tomb. Mullah for scale.
The way to the Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) goes through the cemetery. The faithful aren’t amused by the pictures plastered on the graves, and especially the pompous sculpture up top.
The stunning Shah-i-Zinda (Avenue of Mausoleums) note the ice cream.
The blurred line between restoration and renovation.
Samarkand is also key to Uzbek national pride; established by the local hero Timur Amir (Timurlane) as the original capital when he set the area to rights after the Mongol devastation, it holds a place in their hearts Tashkent, with its Soviet overtones, can only aspire to. The only non-religious monument is his grandson Ulug Beg’s. Ulug Beg, polymath and avid astronomer (the astrolabe he designed was later ripped off by the moguls in Rajahstan) and a star in his own right – calculated the exact length of a year with such admirable and unique precision his was the go-to text right up to the Age of Enlightenment. Its ruins and the usual incomprehensible museum are packed to the gills with an audience so bursting with pride and yet so flummoxed it is clear that the loss is not simply in translation.
Our local hero Ulug Beg in photocopy. There is some confusion about how a photograph works; many people evidently believing that it itself dates from the 15th century.
This $25 find – Antica B & B – is a particularly convivial caravanserai despite being run by a couple of irascible sisters who truck no nonsense from us mere guests. Its two houses are in the old style – rooms opening out onto a central courtyard. One is set up for us, the other – down the lane – houses the family and serves breakfast.
Spring is springing in our courtyard, from my room.
Dawdling in the courtyard, Portuguese brothers-in-law Luis and Jose – my age – who traveled everywhere in the 80s, another, Spanish, Luis, who traveled everywhere in the 00s, a couple of Belgians, who are traveling everywhere right now, and two delightful Iranians. Silk Road fanatics with forty years-worth of combined travel horror stories between us and we bond instantly. At the house dinner the others get the short straw (a bottle of the local wine) while me and the Portuguese go for quality over quantity and elect to share the single bottle of beer. The food is famously inedible so the sisters usually have no problem throwing their guests out at 10. No such luck! It is well after midnight and we still cannot agree on the best route to Kashgar.
Courtyard views at the Registan medressas. Students’ cells, none currently occupied by students.
Some particularly sumptuous interiors from the Gold Medressa.
The Bibi Khanym mosque is done up differently
But the prize for (unrestored) tile-work goes to the Avenue of Mausoleums.
Scenes from village life firmly walled away from more glamorous Samarkand. Our street, taken 3 minutes apart. Some of us are destined to do the bucket run, while others get dressed up to go to school.
The smell of gas coming from these particular installations (in yellow) was indescribable. Alarmingly I was the only one who could smell it.
All that is left of the Jewish community in Samarkand: The remains of the mezuzah on the shuttered synagogue door.
The bazaar: Nothing is going to make these end of season potatoes look good.
The cheese ladies making sure its really fresh. The lap incubation is key to flavor.
Opinions are being passed on the pomegranates
Really rocking that apron lady!
Comings and goings on the avenue. The stressed teenager on the left is the mom.
More ice cream
Timurlane’s tomb. After a suitably pugnacious life he ended up dying of pneumonia.
And from the outside, a full 100 steps (and through the gate in the wall) from my $25 a night B & B.