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Published: April 23rd 2016
The RegistanDay 89 Saturday 16th April 2016 – Tashkent to Samarkand
Moving city today and we are both excited about this one because we are going by train. Both love train travel and we take this option every time we can, so both were looking forward to Uzbekistan because we can get so much of it. Up at 6, for an early breakfast and a check out and then a taxi to the train station. Uzbekistan has a superfast train called the “Afrosoiyob” which travels at 250km/h between Tashkent and Samarkand. Contemplated getting tickets for it but they were more expensive and although they would get us to Samarkand earlier we couldn’t book into our hotel earlier, so it wasn’t going to help us. Personally I think the “Afrosoiyob” train would have to be the ugliest piece of machinery ever to move on the face of the earth, even far uglier than a Lada.
Today we are travelling on the train called “the Sharq”, which is the second fastest train on this route. We breezed through the security check points without any dramas, but once inside the terminal there was no board to tell
Inside with the burial markers
us which platform to go to. Stood around looking like two dazed tourist (a look we have mastered) till someone came up to us and told us to go to platform 3. We are travelling “first class” today and the carriage was compartmented with our seats being two of six in our compartment. Shelley doesn’t like traveling backwards and so thankfully our seat allocation gave us a seat facing both ways. She decided to ask the conductor which way the train was going to travel to work out which way to face. Her pantomime of a train could have easily been interpreted as “which way to the nearest disco”.
There wasn’t a lot of room for luggage, but thankfully enough for us and the other 3 passengers that joined us in our compartment. The train left at 8.25am and we were soon whizzing through the Uzbek countryside. The trip was uneventful except the seats were uncomfortable and the carriage was extremely hot and stuffy. Got to Samarkand at 11.40 and within seconds we had a taxi to our hotel. Staying at the Ideal Hotel in what is described as the “new town”, which in a city that
Alexander the great has visited could mean anything that was built after Marco Polo walked through here. Straight away I liked the hotel because the complimentary drink we got was a beer. It was by this stage just after midday and it was a hot day and a hot journey so the coldest beer we have got in Central Asia went down a treat. Our room is great except the décor is a bit strange as we have a huge mural of a waterfall on the wall above the bed. Glad it doesn’t come with a sound track as we would probably be waking up and going to the toilet all night.
Here for 3 days so no need to rush the sites and so did a nice long walk around the local area and ended up at a restaurant in a park for an early dinner around 5.30. Next to no English once again but pictures in the menu got us through, although Shelley’s meal looked nothing like the picture but still nice. The sky was filling with dark angry clouds all afternoon and just before we finished dinner a wind storm hit that covered us
Leaning Minaret and walls of the Ulugbek Mosque
and the last of our meal in dust and debris. Paid our bills and made the long dash for home hoping we wouldn’t get wet before the storm hit but unfortunately didn’t quite make it. Day 90 Sunday 17th April 2016 – Samarkand
Rained on and off all night but we awoke to some sunshine, although dark clouds and scattered showers dogged us all day. Before heading out reception loaned us an umbrella which was a nice touch for a budget hotel. Today we went for a long walk to the city bazaar in an effort to find a black market money changer so we could pick up more currency. Along the way we passed all the major sites but we have opted to visit them tomorrow but we at least had a small look at them. Just near the bazaar a guy literally jumped out of a bush and offered us “money change” but we fobbed him off thinking “who deals with a man in a shrub”, but he was to be our only offer today. The Samarkand bazaar is mostly a new concrete structure and is just so
The Blue domes of the Registan
incredibly sterile and perhaps one of the most boring markets we have ever been to. Wandered around mainly looking for someone to change cash for us but mainly saw police. Not sure if the police have scared them away or we are going to have real trouble trying to change money. After an hour wandering around trying to find someone that looked dodgier than us we gave up and decided to walk further along the road and visit some other far flung sites.
Adjoining the bazaar area is Afrosiab or Ancient Samarkand a 2.2km square area of undulating mud hills that is all that is left of the town that was once called Marakanda. This was the city that Alexander the Great visited in 329BC and that Genghis Khan would destroy in 1220 AD. In between these two hugely influential warrior visits, the town would flourish as a key city on the Silk Road. Today nothing shows of its glory other than what you can see in the little museum next to the site. Couldn’t really recommend the museum to anyone as it is just filled with broken pottery and is more just a tourist trap with
Foundations of some long gone buildings out the front
attendants trying to sell you handbags and souvenirs than showing you history. The centerpiece of the museum is a 7th
century fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman that is housed in a room that has next to no lighting so you hard pressed to see anything. I actually thought we may be looking at images of Bart Simpson drawn by children from the local school and wouldn’t know. Such an incredible history in this town and so we were both really disappointed in what this museum housed and the attitude of the people running it.
Pushed on to yet another site “the tomb of the Prophet Daniel” Another 700 metres down the road we came to a lovely park next to an ugly water canal and inside the park a mausoleum built into a hill was the supposed remains of the Prophet Daniel. Apparently his body was stolen off the Iranians by the warlord Timur centuries ago, and bought to this town where his remains continue to grow. His sarcophagus has to be lengthened all the time as he grows half an inch a year and is now 18 metres long. Quick mathematics tells me his body
Inside with Timur being the black stone in the middle
is 2400 years old x 12mm a year so therefore he should be 28.8m long – sounds like someone has got their sums wrong or could it all be bullshit? I may be cynical but there were plenty of believers, and as I always say “that is what faith is all about”. We were going to visit “big Dan” but it costs money and we could see the locals only had to pay 1000 som to drop in but when we went to pay it was going to cost us 11000 som, and sort of got the feeling the guy selling the tickets just made up a price. There was a huge crowd of locals going into pay their respects to the tallest Dan in the world and we decided that it may all be a bit too tight standing around his last resting place and as much as would have loved to paid for the ticket sellers taxi home we opted to give it a miss. Daniel’s Tomb was 5 kilometres from our hotel so we were lucky the rain hadn’t been too bad today nor too hot.
Stopped off at the café we had dinner
at last night for a couple of beers on the way through and then a couple more beers at our hotel when we finally made it. Been a bit of a hard slog today and looking forward to some better site seeing tomorrow. Day 91 Monday 18th April 2016 – Samarkand
We had a strong wind storm overnight and showers in the morning but by the time we finished breakfast the weather had cleared a bit. Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum is the first site visit today and this is where the warrior leader Timur (Tamerlane) crypt is, along with his grandson Ulugbek (Ulugh Beg) famous not only being a leader but also an astronomer. There are also two sons and another grandson Mohammed Sultan who Timur built this structure for but because Timur died unexpectedly he was put here as they couldn’t get him back to the tomb he built for himself in another city. When we first walked in we were alone except for 2 women in the corner and the place was initially tranquil but as I sat silently there seemed to be an uneasy undercurrent. This feeling maybe my
subconscious working knowing in a crypt under my feet lies Timur a man who is considered either a military genius or a butcher, he lead armies that killed 17 million people (5% of the world’s population at that time). We know that he is really in there because the Soviets exhumed his body and confirmed it before reinterring him. There are statues of Timur all over Uzbekistan and in particular his capital city Samarkand, and I am fairly certain Uzbeks are the only people to revere him as he spilt blood from Constantinople to Moscow to Delhi.
The building itself is beautiful but it also has had the Soviet touch as it was in a bad way and the restoration is quite aggressive. As we were wandering around the outside I (Shelley) was approached by a group of older ladies who were smiling and saying hello and before I knew one of the ladies was hugging and kissing me, welcoming me to Uzbekistan. Till this point we had thought that the Uzbeks were very reserved but that certainly changed today.
Looked around the area before moving onto the jewel in the crown “The Registan”,
Overview from a distance
we had passed here yesterday but the Sunday crowds were so full on we kept walking but today it is really quiet. This site is made up of three distinct building with a central plaza. The first building we entered was Ulugbek Medressa which was finished in 1420 and where it is claimed Ulugh Beg taught. Of course the building is full of souvenir shops but it was not as pushy as other places. The next building we entered was Tilla-Kari Medressa completed in 1660, inside are more shops but also old black and white pictures of the area. From these pictures you can see how heavy restored (rebuilt) the structures are and continuing to be as in the case of the third building Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa finished in 1636. As we entered the courtyard of Sher Dor Medressa there was some substantial work being done on the back wall but I guess the most interesting part of this building is the edifice. Above the front portal it is decorated with the strangest looking lions that look like a cross between a tiger and a weasel, maybe there had been a language problem between the master and the artists.
If you look closely at our photographs, you may think your eyes are playing tricks on you as the minarets and walls seem to be leaning – it’s not your eyes, everything is as wonky as Willy Wonker. Saw an old photograph of the restoration and how they tried to straighten one of the minarets but have only managed to bend it like a banana. You would not want to be here in an earthquake, as shiny and beautiful as it looks from a distance the place would come down like a pack of cards if you blew on it.
It is an amazing site but some of the restoration works although beautiful it does feel a bit too “new” but we are happy to finally see it. On the way out a group of young men asked us for a photo with them and before we knew it we were besieged by flocks of young women. We once again felt like rock stars as no sooner had we finished with one group, then another would want photos. The site’s ticket seller thought it was so amusing he tried to photo bomb the shots but the women
Cracks inside the mosque
pushed him away.
There are more sites to see here but did not want to overload the senses so will see more tomorrow. Stopped at a café for a late lunch and reflection on what we had seen. Later had success with the money exchange our hotel helped out with a reasonable rate. Day 92 Tuesday 19th April 2016 – Samarkand
A large tourist group moved into the hotel yesterday afternoon so the breakfast room was full this morning, if there are any single men between 50-70 looking for love maybe a tour to Samarkand is for you as this one was 95%!l(MISSING)adies. For us it meant we had to use the elbows to get anywhere near the food.
Off to see Bibi-Khanym Mosque which construction started in 1399 by Timur and was the World’s largest mosque when it was completed but unfortunately once you look behind the inner façade it is in a bad way. Timur made various changes to the design whilst it was under construction, which affected the structural integrity and he ignored the builders, apparently a few years later
Overview with the Sunday Crowds
bricks were already starting to fall out of the dome. It has had a hard life with earthquakes, humans scavenging materials for other buildings and time. The mosque was renovated in 1974 while the Soviets were still in town, which included a lot of rebuilding to the top of the façade and minarets. While we were looking over the site we saw some locals slip under red tape blocking entrance to the main building, so as we always say “do as the locals do”. Of course this venture is enter at your own risk, the dome is a rebuild on a rebuild on a rebuild and ultimately the initial design was flawed. We have never seen cracks like these in a building that is still standing and this is after the restoration. Standing there under the 40 metre high dome it is scary and there has been a recent rumble that has fallen from the ceiling arch at the side entrance, we guess that is why it is cordoned off. It is amazing to be standing here because it possibly may not be here much longer especially if something serious is not done soon I don’t think it would survive
Sher Dor Medressa
even a mild earth tremor. There is work going on to one of the side buildings but none on the main dome maybe it has been put in the too hard basket. We sat in the courtyard looking at it for a while, people watching and getting our photo taken with an Uzbek family. There must be all these scary photos of us all over this country, I wonder if in a few years the family photos will be pulled out and everyone will look at each other and say “Who the hell are they”?
Went to the markets next door and looked around but did not see anything to buy, there are lovely ceramic platters but not sure if the super glue would be strong enough to put them back together when we got home. Walked back to the Registan along the new line of souvenir shops that form a wall blocking the view of the living breathing parts of the city making it very sterile, it is a shame that Uzbekistan is on a major quest to gentrify all its sites. Had one more walk around the Registan before walking back to the hotel.
The Ulugbek Medressa
The sites in Samarkand are sublime, the scale and beauty of the buildings are incredible especially when you are standing in front of the Registan, this is one of the greatest historic sights in the world. However if you see what the place looked like before they started rebuilding you do start to wonder, what is “original” and how much is just rebuilt to look like something the tourists want to see. The place can feel a bit sterile and a bit too commercialized, but the tourist hordes were nowhere near as bad as we expected and the local tourists out-numbered the international tourists 10 to 1. Sunday was utter pandemonium at the Registan but Monday was easy and calm. Tomorrow we are off to Bukhara which is meant to be more “genuine” and less “touristy”, something Michele is craving for.
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