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Published: April 11th 2019
It is already our last day in Samarkand. I was hoping to step into a desert scene, complete with camel caravans, colorfully wrapped traders, and a bustling marketplace. We found two out of three. Mostly what Samarkand is today is a large and vibrantly modern city. The population in these cities in Uzbekistan is slowly growing; as it was in Turkmenistan, new construction is everywhere. So many cars, fine restaurants, young students, beautiful city parks with fresh green grass and flowering trees can be seen, but also old blocklike USSR buildings dot the streets; all this is Samarkand today.
But one can also see domes, mosques, tombs, mausoleums and minarets in Samarkand; it is an ancient city that, like Bukhara, was totally destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, and rebuilt to become the capital of the famous - or infamous - tyrant emperor Tamerlane/Amir Timur's vast empire. Alexander the Great walked here, and we followed in his footsteps as we explored the beautiful Shaki-Zinda Mausoleum complex, counting the steps to the top. If one's count climbing up is the same as the count going down, then it is believed that the person will be blessed; if the numbers differ, then trouble lies ahead. At first I didn't want to count the steps (many choose not to do that), just in case my numbers came out differently. But joy: they were the same. (How could they not be?) No one is to tell what his/her number count is; I am not sure why, but that is part of the superstition.
Since today was our last full day in Samarkand we visited as many sights (and sites) as could be crammed in to a group's travel day. The Ulugbek observatory was especially interesting to me as I am so fond of studying and enjoying the night skies. Sadly, the observatory had been destroyed by religious fanatics in 1449, but the museum here is very fine. We learned that by using the tools at this observatory in 1437 the exact number of days in a year was accurately calculated to within one minute! And even though the invention of a sextant had been credited much earlier to a Persian, Fazari, they were also improved upon at Ulugbek. One sextant made here that we were able to admire was an astonishing eleven meters long, the largest in the world at that time, built underground to protect it from frequent earthquakes. Other important inventions also appeared here, and some of the writings of those great thinkers of that time have been preserved, and are housed in this surprising little museum.
There is much history here, spanning not only centuries but millennia. This part of the world has been filled with stunningly beautiful art; for me the elaborate designs with dark blues and white on tilework are the most compelling. A Persian influence is apparent in these tiles. They draw me in, and, wherever possible, I touch the ancient walls (this is still allowed), wanting to somehow connect with and feel what life was like in the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries here. What is difficult to reconcile is the modern parts of these cities with the romantic mental pictures I still have of camel caravans walking in single file across the desert, laden with colorful goods to trade, well behaved animals who don't spit or kick or refuse to move if they don't want to, and dusty but basically happy traders walking alongside, all quietly sleeping warmly wrapped up in their gorgeous handwoven and embroidered thick rugs under the cold, starry skies. This was never reality; it is a child's dream. Our elementary geography books did us a disservice. But they were a lovely fiction and perhaps at the root of the reason I chose to travel so far, to see all this for myself.
On the last day in March we again rode the bullet train, this time from Samarkand to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. It was night when we arrived, so we missed watching the countryside flash by. Tashkent is another very modern city; we had only one day to explore here but that seemed just about enough. Many modern cities can be very similar, interchangeable; I preferred walking in the old inner towns of Khiva, Bukhara, and parts of Samarkand where history can be felt just by being there. That is what I will remember, not the modern city landscapes, but the old walled towns, the smiling people dressed in traditional clothing, the domed bazaar and marketplaces with all their intricately beautiful handmade crafts, the ancient artwork. But even though I have travelled through Silk Road lands now, I still carry the fictional images of colorful camel caravans crossing the vast desert in my persistently imaginative mind's eye. Perhaps this is to be expected. And enjoyed.
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