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October 16, 2014 / oneworld82

The Center of the Timurid Empire: Samarkand

For most people, Uzbekistan equals Samarkand. And with good reason. This was the capital of the Timurid Empire, the most recognizable incarnation of Central Asian military might in history. Amir Temur (known in the West as Tamerlane, meaning “Lame Timur” given that he was missing a couple of fingers on his right hand due to youthful adventures) was the terror and the might of this part of the World in the late part of the XIV century CE. From a simple bandit he became the founder of an Empire whose heirs included Babur, the founder of the Mughal dinasty in India.

Registan Square

Registan Square

Thankfully for Samarkand, Timur decided to seat the capital of his empire here. While he was born in Shakrisabz (90 km south of Samarkand), nothing much remains there (except a colossal tomb that was being constructed for Timur, but never finished). Samarkand is striking. Most people are familiar with its most majestic sight, the Registan Square. But the city has much more to offer, as I will try to illustrate.

I must say that Samarkand is the city that I got to know in deeper detail compared to the other ones. This happened thanks to my friend and guide Shoira, an amazing young woman that made me explore sides of the city that most tourists would miss. I am so grateful to Shoira for all her help, and deeply indebted to her for having shown me this splendid city in detail (her aim was to make me like Samarkand more than Bukhara. I suppose she succeeded!).

I will start with my little, comfortable B&B in the heart of the old city: Jahogjir B&B. This traditional Uzbek house (a two stories building with a inner courtyard) was run by the most affable and polite of families. The yard was covered in vines (lots of tasty grapes and cantaloupes in this part of the World), giving the whole building a very charming and welcoming look.

I had a room on the second floor. I must say: the mattress wasn’t all that comfortable, and the internet slow; but it was clean, and 5 minutes walk from Registan Square. A real winner (Uzbekistan lacks luxury or international chain hotels – the only exception being the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tashkent. Hence, B&B’s are the way to go here. Tripadvisor has very accurate reviews, as always).

The night rate included breakfast, that just like in Bukhara was a feast! Amazing bread, jam, fruit, cold cuts, cheese… Enough to fill you for the entire day! Also, the place sold beer. At 5,000CYM per half-litre bottle ($1.66), it was a great bargain.

Like I said, Jahogjir is literally 5 minutes away from Registan Square. Walking to the main platform (viewpoint) on Registanskaya is relatively hassle free; the view from the viewpoint is, well, astonishing (for lack of a more hyperbolic adjective).

Registan Square is bordered by three, monumental madrassas: Sher Dor (Lion) on the right, Tilla-Kari in the middle; Ulugbek on the left. Sher Dor is the least interesting of the three, as its interiors are rather bare. The Ulugbek Madrassa showcases lecture halls and a neat mosque; the Tilla-Kari (gold-covered) madrassa boasts a great courtyard and a fantastic mosque covered in gold, to symbolize the city’s power at the time (this madrassa was finished in 1660).

Amir Timur

Amir Timur

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The whole ensemble is stunning, and you really come to appreciate the incredible restoration works carried out by the Soviet Union when you see pictures showing the square in the first half of the XX century inside the museum in the Ulugbek Madrassa.Β he Soviet government made an incredible effort to restore these buildings to an impeccable state – kudos to them for that.

Walking down Registanskaya you end up at the Amir Timur statue and, not far from there, you will find the Gur-e-Amir and Ak-Saray Mausoleums. In the former, Amir Timur is buried. A cenotaph of the King is diplayed there, with other tombs on the sides including Timur’s teacher, Sheikh Seyid Umar. The whole complex is beautiful, monumental, and very photogenic.

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Last but not least in the old town is Tashkent Rd, a pedestrian street flanking Registan Square and leading to three amazing sights in Samarkand: the Bibi-Khanim Mosque, the bazaar, and the Shah-i-Zinda complex.The Bibi-Khanim mosque is monumental to say the least. This was supposed to be the crown jewel of Timur’s architectural bonanza, but he died right before its completion.

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The bazaar is huge, and very lively. You can buy here literally everything, including halva, the traditional Uzbek sweet. Vendors are very nice and eager to make tourists try their delicious treats. Waslking through the market you really get a good feeling of how modern Uzbeks shop.

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But the most impressive of the three sights is surely Shah-i-Zinda, the “Avenue of Mausoleums”. Here a series of tombs lie next to each other, each decorated in different fashion. Each mausoleum is impressive, and the majolica decorations are beautiful. This is a place of pilgrimage, and people come here to pay respect to Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the profet Mohammed said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century (Shah-i-Zinda means “Tomb of the Living King”, and it refers to him).

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There is a long staircase leading to the tombs. According to my guide Shoira, if you count the steps on the way up and on the way down, and if the number of steps counted coincide, then your wishes will come true. Try to believe πŸ™‚

But Samarkand doesn’t end here. This is a city that was originally founded at the time of Alexander the Great, by the Bactrians that took over this area after the fall of the Macedonian Empire. A few kilometers outside the main city lies Afrosiab, the ancient Samarkand. Here recent excavations uncovered a complex town with some al fresco paintings that show how advanced that post-Greek culture was. The museum is quite interesting to visit, and workers are very busy trying to salvage some murals and paintings from the walls.

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Mirzo Ulugbeg

Mirza Ulugbeg



Also, nearby Afrosiab seats one of the great wonders of Samarkand: Uzulbeg’s observatory. Uzulbeg – grandson of Timur – wasn’t much of a politician, but he was an acclaimed mathematician and astronomer. He built a still-standing structure that’s an amazing engineering feat for the time. Part of the mechanism to observe the sky is still there, and it allows for a neat insight into how advanced Samarkand was in the XV century CE when most of Europe was still embattled in the Middle Age.

Ulugbeg Observatory

Ulugbeg Observatory


Afrosyob Museum

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Ancient Afrosyob

Ancient Afrosyob

With Shoira as a guide, we proceeded then to explore the newest part of town. Samarkand – just like Tashkent – is filled with tree-lined boulevards and well-kept buildings. It’s funny, but I never felt like I was in a poor country, given how everything looks and given how good the infrastructures are. Shoira took me to a canteen where she goes eat with friends for lunch. Here I had the most amazing plov (for $1.33) and samsa (for $0.50). Samsa is prepared in a tandoor oven, which originally comes from this part of the World and was later brought to India. Samsa – bread pockets filled with chicken or beef – are sensational, just as most of Uzbek food (which deserves a post of its own).




Pizza cones!

Pizza cones!




Tandoor cooking samsa

Tandoor cooking samsa


Canteen - amazing food!

Canteen – amazing food!

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Also, Uzbeks (just like Kazakhs) are fond of vodka. Like I said, they are very relaxed Muslims πŸ™‚ I figured that I should visit a distillery if I had the chance to, and so I asked Shoira whether there were any vodka-related place we could visit in town. Unfortunately, no production facility is located in town, but one of the companies producing vodka – Xovrenko – has a showroom and museum right in the city center. While the museum was closed, the teenager guarding the building was more than happy to let us in visiting the little showroom area with photos describing the history of the company – completed by various awards won in competitions around the World. Then we were shown a sort of showroom (with a guy sleeping on a bench), and there all the company’s products were rightfully on display! Of course, I picked up a bottle and I brought it back home with me πŸ™‚



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After going back to the B&B to pick up my luggage I headed to the train station to catch my high-speed Afrosyob train to Tashkent, which would cover 294km in about 2 hours – pretty impressive. I was very curious to see how this train would fare, and I must say I was not disappointed. I had an economy class ticket, with pre-assigned carriage and seat. Each wagon was manned by an attendant, and the train ended up being pretty packed. The train itself and the interiors looked very modern and new, in excellent state. The seat was comfortable, and the trip passed by quickly. A complimentary snack and juice was offered to each passenger, and a cart with other snacks and beverages for sale came by twice in two hours. Overall, this was an excellent and very comfortable way to travel!

Tashkent train station

Tashkent train station

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