Where A Seasoned Traveler
Can Get Happily Lost
By Sean-Paul Kelley
Imagine a city as old as Paris with the sites to match. Imagine a place where the locals are gracious, hospitable and kind. Now imagine a place where a dollar gets you a taxi ride anywhere in town, the shopping is cheap and the food is good.
Sound like a fantasy? It’s not. It’s Samarkand and because it is located in the vastness of Central Asia it has the virtue of being both unexplored and utterly devoid of tourists: a traveler’s dream.
As Uzbekistan’s second city, Samarkand is home to some of the world’s finest Islamic architecture, some of its most exotic bazaars and many of its friendliest people. It’s a city of blue domes, slender minarets and intoxicating smells. It’s just the kind of place where a seasoned traveler will get happily lost in and spend the rest of her life wishing to return to.
A City Of Architecture
Samarkand’s historical role as a crossroads of the Silk Road has had a marked effect on its architecture.
The city is littered with monuments that span a thousand years of history, and that is all within the city center. The city's four principal monuments are all within close proximity and walking distance to each other. And the entrance to each is less than $3.
The Bibi Khanoum sits on the north end of the city center, just above Samarkand’s bazaar. Little remains of this huge mosque commissioned in honor of Timur the Lame’s Chinese wife. It was built between 1399-1404.
At one point the main portal stood more than 110 feet high and was decorated with Samarkand’s signature color: turquoise. It is still one of the tallest mosques in the world. What remains of the Bibi Khanoum is currently being restored.
Not far from the imposing Bibi Khanoum is the Shah-I-Zinda, or the ‘Living Prince,’ a strange and eerie collection of tombs and mausoleums that climb up one of ancient Samarkand’s holiest hills. In 1989 a Franco-Uzbek archeological team unearthed a pre-Islamic temple to the goddess Nana here. You can wander about uninterrupted and marvel at the intricate Islamic ornamentation and geometric designs. Admission is free.
Traveling north through the city center across the street from the Afrosiab Palace Hotel is the Gur Emir. The Gur Emir is widely considered one of the finest pieces of Timurid architecture still standing.
Here you can gaze up at the large fluted onion shaped dome and wander inside Timur’s Mausoleum. The Gur Emir is the final resting place of Timur’s male descendants. If you arrive at the Mausoleum on a good day be sure to ask the groundskeeper to admit you into Timur’s crypt and see where the Emir himself rests. Admittance: $2.50
All Roads Lead to the Registran
Finally, no matter where you are in Samarkand all roads lead towards the Registan. There is no question that this triple ensemble is easily the most recognizable monument in all of Central Asia. Each Madrasa, or Islamic College, is unique. The Ulughbek, the oldest of the three, is adorned with intricate geometric patterns which mimic the stars. It was named after one of Islam’s finest astronomers. The Shir-dor, or Lion Bearing, is unique in the Islamic world by depicting a pair of opposing lions who happily chase a pair of small white gazelles. Finally, the Tilla Kari, or Adorned with Gold, sits stoically between the Shir-dor and the Ulughbek. Admission: $3.50
Museums and History
Before they settled in the cities of the Zerafshan, Ferghana and Amu Darya valleys the Uzbek’s lived in yurts (big round felt tents) so architecture is not the only thing that’s happening in Samarkand. And a yurt that is exactly what you will find in the entrance foyer of the museum sitting directly across the street from the Registan.
Devoted to all 2,500 years of Samarkand’s history, Buddhist wall paintings, pre-Mongolian pottery and a few Persian miniatures fill in the museum. It’s most precious attractions are the bright and colorful Soghdian frescoes dating back almost 2,000 years.
If you like archeology you will not want to miss Afrosiab. Here sat the ancient Soghdian city of Samarkand that Alexander the Great visited in 329 B.C. It’s also the same city that Genghis Khan razed in 1220. (The current version of Samarkand is that which Timur created after his conquests in the late 14th century.)
At least three distinct levels of civilization have been uncovered here: pre-Hellenic Soghdian, Helleno-Buddhist and pre-Mongol Arab. It is one of Samarkand’s most interesting and fascinating sites. Archaeological excavation is intermittent but the park is open year round. Admission is $1.50.
In 1908, not far from the site of Afrosiab, another important excavation was made: the Ulughbek Observatory and Astrolabe. Here in the 15th century, at a time before Copernicus theorized on the heavenly bodies, the grandson of Timur the Lame, Ulughbek was making extremely precise astronomical measurements. So precise were they that in the first half of the 17th century the first Royal British Astronomer made extensive use of Ulughbek’s tables. These measurements would not be surpassed until the 18th century. The site does require a bit of imagination but the dimensions of the astrolabe (30m) are still visible and worth a visit. Admission is less than a dollar.
Day Trips around Samarkand
If you do find yourself in Samarkand there are two day-trips which must be taken, if at all possible. The first is to the Shrine of Al-Bukhari. Born Muhammad ibn Ismail, al-Bukhari’s writings “rank second only to the Koran in influence among Muslims.” His shrine (a short fifteen-minute taxi ride from the city center, pay no more than $5) has been recently restored. It is a peaceful and very spiritual place. Of much interest are the restored palisades of Khivan woodcarvings circling the interior courtyard. The Khivan style paintings on the ceiling, incorporating Buddhist and Islamic elements, are worth seeing as well. Admission is less than a dollar.
Finally, 45 minutes from Samarkand, over a small range of the Pamirs is the city of Shahrisabz. Here in 1336 the Emir Timur was born into the Barlas Clan. Timur wished for Shahrisabz to be his capital. Unfortunately, the city was too far from the main Silk Road trade routes and suffered a quick decline after Timur’s passing. What is left of the city is indeed worth a visit, especially the Ak-Saray. This building, in the worlds of one authority, “was even more ambitious than the Samarkand Mosque (the Bibi Khanoum).”
Sadly, only the two 165 feet high entrance towers remain. It doesn’t take much imagination, however, to understand quite how megalomaniacal Timur was. While in Shahrisabz you should not miss the Kok Gumbaz ensemble, a quiet and ornate collection of mausoleums in the back streets of Shahrisabz. To get to Shahrisabz find a taxi at the bus stop adjacent to the Registan. Negotiation is obligatory. Do not pay more than $25 roundtrip.
Eating and Shopping
Labi Ghor is by far the best place to eat in Samarkand. They serve up the best plov--pilaf, shashlik--shish kebab and pilmeni--dumplings in town. They have a Western menu and the place is very Western friendly. The food is great but the location is better, right across the street from the Registan. The prices here range from $1 for a small meal and $3 for a large meal. Western style soft drinks, however, usually double the price.
For the truly adventurous traveler you can wander around in the Old City (northwest of the Registan) and wait to be invited in for dinner by one of the locals. Of course, you are obligated to pay for your meal but the price is usually around $2 for an extensive meal consisting of salad, lamb chops, plov (pilauf) and lavash, a sesame topped flat-bread that is absolutely delicious. Bring a translator or a Russian dictionary.
You’ll be sure to spend lots of time (but little money) in the main bazaar situated beneath the Bibi Khanoum. It doesn’t quite match up to the Sunday Kashgar Bazaar in Western China but it is a close second. All of the colors, smells, sights and sounds one would imagine from a bazaar can be found here every Saturday and Sunday.
Where to Stay
The Afrosiab Palace Hotel, as previously mentioned, sits across the street from the Gur Emir Mausoleum. The tall orange and white edifice stands out awkwardly against the Samarkand skyline. The hotel has all the amenities the upscale traveler would expect and the prices to match. There are 150 rooms, starting at $110 a night, with air-conditioning, a swimming pool, exchange office, restaurants and bars. If you are arriving to Samarkand from Khiva and Bukhara the Afrosiab might well be worth the splurge.
Within walking distance of the Afrosiab Palace is the Hotel Samarkand. It is uninspiring, unattractive and overpriced. Avoid it and the exchange desk inside, especially after hours. Instead try one of two newest hotels in town. First, the ‘Hotel Zarina’ in the Old City has 15 rooms costing between $35-$45 a night. Second, the very pleasant ‘Malika’ maintains 26 spotless rooms starting at $35. Vigorous negotiations result in lower prices.
The ideal option for the independent and frugal traveler is Furkat’s: without a doubt the most charming place in Samarkand. Located slightly to the north of the Registan in a dense warren of mostly Tajik homes, Furkat’s doesn’t look nice from the outside. Once you step into the courtyard, however, and hear the soft cooing of doves, the funny chatter of chukars all the while sipping tea under a canopy of ancient mulberry trees you realize you are home. Prices vary according to bargaining skills, but don’t pay more than $30 a night. Laundry can be arranged cheaply here.
Websites for more information on Samarkand:
The Uzbek Embassy's website is often down but here is the address: uzbekistan.org/ . Because it is always down, not kidding here, I use the New York Consulate, instead: uzbekconsulny.org/ . They give you better service anyway.
Websites for visas help: sambuh.com/how/visa/, these guys are decent. But traveldocumentsystems.com/ , ask for Rob, is the best. On the expensive side but very reliable.
Also always a necessity traveling in Central Asia is the US Embassy in Tashkent and its website: usembassy.uz/home/index.aspx .
Helpful sites on Uzbekistan, current history and tourism: Eurasianet has an excellent summary of the country here, as well as current news: eurasianet.org/resource/uzbekistan/index.shtml
Sean-Paul Kelley is a freelance writer in San Antonio, Texas. He is currently writing a memoir of his travels in Central Asia and you can read his writing at The Silk Road Journal silkroadjournal.com.