Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The Registan

Back in Samarkand after our day in Shahrisabz, our first stop continued the Timur theme of the day before with a visit to his mausoleum. Our guide, Amin, was stuck in traffic, so driver Umid got our tickets and told us to wander on our own inside and that Amin would find us when he arrived. We didn’t mind the time alone as we knew about the site already both from the audiobook on Timur I’d been listening to and from what we’d learned the day before. During his lifetime, Emir Timur planned his tomb to be Shahrisabz. He died in 1405 on an aborted invasion of China. The mountain passes to Shahrisabz were closed due to snow at the time and Timur was buried in Samarkand in this mausoleum, originally intended by him for his grandson and heir who predeceased him.

The Timur Mausoleum and its 64-ribbed dome

A fluted dome, boasting 64 ribs representing the age to which Mohammed lived (63, by western counting, plus 9 months of gestation) tops the octagonal mausoleum. In the ornate central chamber decorated with kilograms of gold, a dark green jade headstone marks the burial site of Timur which is actually located in a crypt directly underneath the main chamber. The jade stone had formerly been an altar in the Chinese emperor’s palace and then the throne of Duwa, a descendant of Genghis Khan. It is surrounded by tombstones of Timur’s younger two sons and two of his grandsons as well as Timur’s spiritual teacher.

The gold encrusted chamber that houses the Timur’s tombstone

When Amin arrived, he told us that a Soviet archaeologist opened the tomb and removed Timur’s remains for analysis in 1941, two days before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Word spread that the tomb was cursed, and a legend arose about cryptic warnings supposedly inscribed on the tomb and inside the sarcophagus cursing anyone who disturbed the ruler’s rest. Stalin either believed in the curse, or at least wasn’t taking any chances, and ordered Timur be reburied. Emir Timur was reburied with full Islamic burial rites in December 1942, about a month before the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. In the 1970’s the Soviets began restoration of the greatly deteriorated mausoleum, apparently intending to keep on the good side of the dead Emir.

Another interesting bit of history is displayed in the courtyard of the Timur Mausoleum: a large stone vat used by Timur’s soldiers. Before heading off on one of their almost constant military campaigns, the vat was filled with pomegranate juice. Each soldier would then drink a cup of juice. On the army’s return, each soldier would again drink a cup of juice from the refilled vat. The number of casualties would then be calculated based on the difference in the amount of juice left in the vat. The more juice left by the returning troops, the more men had been lost in battle.

Our next stop was the heart of ancient Samarkand, a gorgeous, sweeping public square known as The Registan. [lead photo above] The Registan is bracketed by three former madrassas each with distinctive Islamic architecture and design. The buildings now house a museum, shops and small tea houses, and a mausoleum. Interestingly, a tombstone in the plaza itself is not that of a ruler or imam, but of a butcher. A wealthy butcher agreed to supply meat to the builders of The Registan asking only that he be allowed to be buried there, probably not expecting it would take nine years. He kept his end of the bargain, though, and got his promised reward.

Amin suggest we come back to The Registan in the evening around 9pm for a sound and light show. We made it our last night in Samarkand. After several false starts, we were treated to some frenetic lights and a gaudy light show. We didn’t stay till the end. In my personal opinion, The Registan looked much lovelier in its normal nighttime lights before the show began. Nevertheless, the show was undoubtedly popular.

I prefer the regular nighttime lights on the Registan.

Our hotel in Samarkand, Zilol Baxt, stands among high-end international boutiques at the head of a long narrow park occupying the center of wide University Boulevard. A large seated statue of Timur commands the opposite end of the boulevard park. Fountains lit at night and scattered statues ornament the tree-lined path in between. University buildings flank this narrow park. There are newer, posher hotels now in Samarkand including large international chains, but Zilol Baxt was clearly something special in its day and it still retains a bit of period swank and boasts an attentive staff with someone always ready to swing open the wide front door.

I’d asked Zokir* to book a nicer restaurant with “local flair” for our first night in Samarkand for my birthday dinner. Not only did he book a restaurant, Samarkand Restaurant, but he commandeered Umid to drive us there which meant Umid had to leave his own family on his younger daughter’s birthday to drive back into the city. I felt terrible about that and we sent him back home after he dropped us off since a Google Maps search showed our hotel was only a 20 minute walk away. Samarkand Restaurant turned out not to be at all what I’d imagined. [*I worked with Zokir at Silk Road Destinations to plan and organize this trip. For details see my first Uzbekistan post.]

We entered into an ornate marble-floored entryway with a soaring ceiling and crystal chandeliers, through a large, equally elegant dining area packed with wedding celebrants in elaborate dress eating and dancing under colored lights to blaring music. (Big glitzy wedding venues, bridal couples posing for photos, and wedding dress shops abound in Samarkand where weddings are clearly big business.) From the flashy wedding party room, we climbed stairs to discover a kitschy rustic Russian dining room with wooden beams, log cabin walls and an eclectic decor featuring old radios. Hmm.

Groups of locals and tourists sat at mostly larger tables, but we were led to a 4-top and presented with a menu of Uzbek and Russian dishes (happily containing photographs since there was no English). When we asked for a bill, we learned our meal was paid for, a final birthday surprise from Zokir and Silk Road Destinations.

On another night in Samarkand, we decided to try something other than Uzbek food of which we’d had a lot. I’d spotted a photo on Tripadvisor of a plate full of grilled vegetables and sliced chicken breast and the idea of a lighter meal was irresistible. This led us to La Esmeralda a short distance from our hotel. La Esmeralda focuses on fancy coffee (with edible personalized selfie photos in the foam) and pastries which it touted on a television screen near our table, entertaining if a little out of place in the upscale dining area. The owner is clearly ambitious about expanding and very into self-promotion, appearing frequently on the television loop and in a painting hung prominently in the restaurant. Our fancy western dinner for two came out to a whopping-for-Uzbekistan 160,000 sum (a little over $13US). The food was good, not great, but still an enjoyable change of pace from our beef/lamb/plov/samsa/bread/tomato-and-cucumber salad diet of the previous week.

A fascinating stop in Samarkand is the Ulugbek Observatory founded by Timur’s grandson Ulugbek, a brilliant astronomer and mathematician. The observatory was destroyed long ago in an earthquake, but a portion of it was excavated giving a glimpse at what was once a huge sextant. A circular terrace marks the outline of the former observatory. Using the observatory, Ulug Bek and his scientists were able to calculate many astronomical events with amazing precision. A small museum also sits on the property as well as a large statue of Ulugbek.

Remains of a giant sextant at the Ulugbek Observatory

Konigil village with its ancient paper factory and other handicrafts turned out to be beautiful and more than we anticipated. A stream ran through a lush green property with scattered wooden buildings, turning waterwheels that powered wood pulping machines and a large grinding device that extracted cotton and other oils. Craftsmen and women demonstrated their skills and answered our questions via Amin. Paper goods went beyond the expected to include colorful paper clothing, purses, wallets and more.

Konigil Village: paper making, paper clothes, ceramic figurines and oil press

We enjoyed the Siab Bazaar, the oldest continuously-operating bazaar in Samarkand, where a dazzling variety of goods was on offer: produce, spices, clothes, nuts, live plants, ornate knives and more. We bought pomegranate juice, pressed for us as we watched, and saffron from a friendly vendor who spoke surprisingly good English.

The enormous Shahi Zinda Complex of mausoleums and ritual buildings stands next to the bazaar. The complex was begun in the 11th century and was built over eight centuries. Legend says a cousin of Mohammed was buried there hundreds of years before construction of the current complex began.

Samarkand has so much to see that our time there flew by. We had a final lunch with Amin and Umid at a favorite spot of Umid’s where we lounged on a topchan enjoying Uzbek staples while a man sang.

Enjoying the music while we wait to order lunch

After lunch, we visited the Afrosaib Museum which displays artifacts including wonderful wall paintings from an ancient settlement of the same name. The excavated ruins of Afrosaid sprawl across a hill beside the museum and date from 9-8 B.C. to 7-8 A.D. We had time for a stop at the tomb of Saint Daniel (or at least part of him, as Timur brought back spoils of war which included a portion of relics said to belong to the saint). After a surprisingly full day, Umid dropped us off in the afternoon at the modern Samarkand train station. We had to pass through security, which included a luggage scan, before entering the stylish station. Our high-speed train arrived promptly for the 2h 10m ride to our last stop in Uzbekistan, the capital, Tashkent.

Samarkand Train Station and the very nice high-speed train

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