August 31, 2021: The Heart of the Silk Road
Legendary Samarkand is Uzbekistan´s most famous tourist attraction. The city is ancient but is best known for being the epicenter of the Silk Road. The city reached its height of prominence during the late 1300´ and early 1400´s when Timur (also known as Tamerlane), founded an empire known as the Timurid Empire. Timur´s empire stretched from India to Russia to Turkey with Samarkand as its capital. Timur and his son Ulugbek constructed vast monumental complexes in Samarkand that are grander than anything in this part of the world. During this brief period, known as the Timurid Renaissance, Samarkand became the world´s epicenter of scientific discovery, literature, Islamic learning, embroidery, and weaving.
The city lost its political autonomy in the 1500´s but has since developed an almost mythical reputation for its importance in trade, literature and Central Asian culture. Today, Samarkand is Uzbekistan´s second largest city (after Tashkent).
Paul and I arrived in Samarkand on the Sharq train from Bukhara. At 140 km/hr, this Soviet train is slow by Uzbek standards but is still faster than any passenger train in the United States.
At the train station, we negotiated with an taxi driver for a 30,000 som (just under $3 USD) ride to the city center. During the ride, he aggressively tried to sell us a tour of the city. He was so annoying that I almost ended the cab ride early.
Samarkand is a real city with nearly 1 million residents in the metro area. There are tall buildings, shopping malls, and a fully developed modern section of the city. This is quite different from sleepy Khiva and the mid-sized yet compact Bukhara.
We got dropped off at the Registan, the famous square in Samarkand. As we admired the sunset, I contemplated the many traders who have visited this square throughout history. Now the square was swarmed with local Uzbeks. I learned that this is because of the 3-day work holiday to celebrate Uzbekistan´s 30thbirthday.
The Registan is home to three madrassas (schools). While they all look very similar, the one on the left was acutally built 200 years earlier. Except for the middle madrassa´s main dome (Uzbekistan´s best?), the insides of the madrassas are not impressive.
Our hotel was just 5 minutes from the Registan. Along the way we passed by a statue of Uzbekistan´s first president, Islam Karimov, who was from Samarkand.
The hotel recommended a restaurant called Samarkand Restaurant in the new city. Samarkand is weirdly laid out. All the ancient sites, parks, gift shops (oh so many) and hotels are in one part of town and all the apartments, homes, restaurants, banks/ATMs and shops are in the other side of the city. Therefore, to eat at a decent restaurant, you have to take a taxi for at least 3 kilometers.
The restaurant turned out to be the most outrageous place. The first floor was a full-on banquet hall that looked like a wedding venue. A DJ was spinning Uzbek tunes. The second floor was farmhouse themed and contained an animatronic goat.
September 1, 2021: The Sights of Samarkand
This was our big day for sightseeing in Samarkand. Even though the city has so many grand monuments, you can reportedly see nearly everything in a day.
The first stop was the Bibi Khanym mosque. This is by far the largest monument I have seen in Uzbekistan. The mosque was said to be built by Timur´s wife as a surprise present while he was away conquering the world. The architect fell deeply in love with her and said he would only complete the mosque if he could kiss her. She reluctantly agreed and the architect gave the Khanym a very passionate kiss. The kiss left a red mark on her face so Timur found out. As a result of this incident, Timur not only killed the architect, but also forced all women to wear veils.
The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries and was only recently restored. The restoration job is…okay. It isn´t great, but also not terrible. Its probably worth the entrance fee, but there are better places to see.
Across the street is Bibi Kanym´s tomb. The interior is quite plain and there is no reason to pay the entry fee.
Next, we visited a more modern attraction, the Hazrat Khizr Mosque. This complex contains the tomb of Uzbekistan´s first president, Islam Karimov. Karimov was as dictator and the cult of personality surrounding him is quite real. The tomb contains a very nationalistic plaque and there are tons of cameras watching you. Photos are not allowed, but this was not really enforced- probably because the tomb is outside.
Nearby is the Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis (complex of tombs) that hints at the grandeur of Timur´s empire. An entire street is filled with mausoleums of family members and generals of Timur. Even the wet nurse, the woman who delivered Timur´s children, had a spectacular blue mausoleum.
At the end of the street is the largest and most spectacular tomb. It belongs to Qutham ibn Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad. It was Qutham who reportedly brought Islam to Uzbekistan.
After a long walk, we reached the tomb of the Biblical Prophet Daniel. The story of Daniel takes place in Iran, but Timur apparently had his body moved for good luck. The casket, draped in a black cloth with an Islamic prayer, is exceedingly long. This is because the body of Daniel reportedly grows by 1 centimeter each year. Nobody has ever opened the tomb to check on the body and there is also a tomb of Daniel in Iran so who knows if any of this is real. But it still makes for a fun story.
Our final pre-lunch stop is the Afrosiab Museum. Afrosiab is the name of the ancient 3,000-year old city that existed before Timur arrived. The ruins are in terrible shape, but the museum has plenty of interesting artifacts. The most interesting ones are elongated skulls belonging to high-ranking Zoroastrians. The shape comes from forcing babies to wear a contraption on their heads for 30 days. They did this to look different and therefore convey their status to the community. The guide claimed that this did not damage the brains of the children…
After the museum, we struggled to find a taxi to take us to lunch. Instead, the museum director offered to take us in his car. We paid him the normal taxi fare. I am still amazed by the hospitality in Uzbekistan. He ended up dropping us off at the best plov place in all of Samarkand (and one of the best in Uzbekistan). There we ate a huge meal. The entire thing cost $8 for the 2 of us.
Next we explored the tomb of Timur. He originally was planning to be buried in his hometown of Shahrisabz, but he died unexpectedly in the winter. Since the pass between Samarkand and Shahrisabz was closed, they buried him in Samarkand instead. The tomb itself is stunning – especially the dome.
We saved the best for last. It was finally time to go back to the Registan. The square was still packed. I loved seeing the Uzbek influencers here taking pictures.
Samarkand is an extremely impressive city. The monuments are dizzying. One day is enough to see the main highlights, but you could probably stretch it to 2.
September 2, 2021: Shahrisabz
Shahrisabz is Timur´s hometown and is a 2-hour drive south of Samarkand. It is a popular day trip from Samarkand. Shahrisabz is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Because of the distance and lack of public transport, I decided to hire a guide who was recommended by a friend. Unfortunately, the guide had to cancel on me at 9pm the night before. As a replacement, he sent his friend.
The new guide and driver picked us up at 10am. Then we drove 2-hours south through the Zerafshan mountains. These were the foothills of the Fann mountains that I had visited early in my time in Tajikistan. The mountains were far less impressive.
At noon, we arrived in the birthplace of Timur. Timur had built a humongous palace here. Unfortunately, everything has been destroyed except for part of the entrance gate. Still, you can clearly feel the ghost of something huge.
The palace remnants used to house a historic neighborhood. However, the Uzbek government decided to bulldoze the neighborhood to create a park with an enormous statue of Timur. They want to make Timur a national symbol of Uzbek pride and having a giant park was part of that plan. By destroying the neighborhood, the Uzbek government destroyed all the charm of Shahrisabz. This action nearly cost the city its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Further along there are a few mausoleums and madrassas, but nothing like in Samarkand or Bukhara. There is one museum about Timur. Like most museums in Uzbekstan, there are no explanations- it is up to guides to tell you what you are seeing. Unfortunately, our guide was incompetent and did not know anything about Timur. He merely described the objects to us. For example, when we saw a painting of Mongols, he said “This is picture of Mongol horsemen.” No shit, Sherlock!
The mausloleusm were also in terrible shape. Many of them were renovated from 2014-2016, but the paint is already peeling!
Our final stop was the original tomb of Timur that was not used because he died suddenly. The tomb was very small and far less impressive than his actual tomb. I wonder why a man who has built so many miraculous buildings would choose to be buried in such a simple setting.
It was now 3pm and we were very hungry. On the way back, we stopped for bbq meat at a popular roadside restaurant. We ordered jiz (an unfortunately named grilled beef) and a kebab.
For the rest of the trip back, we jammed out to local music before returning to Samarkand for one final chill night before heading to Tashkent.
Samarkand is amazing and lives up to the hype. The Registan and other monuments are the most spectacular in Uzbekistan. If you can only visit one place in Uzbekistan, this is it.
The city of Samarkand is a weird place. It feels fake. All the monuments and hotels and gift shops are next to each other, but the restaurants and people are far away. This creates an empty feeling. Also it forces the tourists to take some unnecessarily long trips for basic services such as getting food or visiting the ATM. I would highly encourage the Uzbek government to add more amenitites near the Reigistan.
Shahrisabz was a huge disappointment and is in the running for worst preservation job in the world. The Uzbek government ruined the city by bulldozing the neighborhood to create a park. Additionally, the buildings that are standing were redone cheaply. The city is not worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is not worthy of your visit. Spend another full day in Samarkand if you must.