Andrew Bain ex­plores the re­mote and fa­bled Uzbek city of Sa­markand

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Perfect Day -

SA­MARKAND’S rep­u­ta­tion might be bound in silk but the city is made of stur­dier things. This most fa­mous stop on the Silk Road is a place where Asia, the Mid­dle East and Rus­sia qui­etly in­ter­sect be­neath the tow­er­ing madrasahs, cen­tres of Is­lamic learn­ing, the crum­bling mosques and town hall-sized mau­soleums that com­prise Cen­tral Asia’s most strik­ing mon­u­ments.

As old as Rome and Is­tan­bul — Sa­markand cel­e­brated its 2750th an­niver­sary in 2007 — the Uzbek­istan city has been ad­mired for cen­turies, and as I approach across the desert, bump­ing along roads as grey and patchy as the land, I share Alexan­der the Great’s joy at ar­riv­ing more than 2000 years ago: Ev­ery­thing I have heard about Marakanda (Sa­markand) is true, ex­cept that it’s more beau­ti­ful than I ever imag­ined,’’ he said, ac­cord­ing to a dis­play I later spot in the state mu­seum.

Best fo­cus: Sa­markand’s nu­cleus is Regis­tan Square, with its horse­shoe of three or­nately tiled madrasahs, built in the 15th and 17th cen­turies. The madrasahs are both art and ar­chi­tec­ture, though they have be­come more like malls than schools, with al­most all for­mer stu­dents’ cells con­verted into sou­venir stalls.

The tourist tat inside two of th­ese build­ings, Ulugh­bek and Sher Dor, holds lit­tle ap­peal for me, but the aptly named Tilla-Kari (gold­cov­ered) madrasah is am­ple com­pen­sa­tion. The in­te­rior of its domed mosque is gilded and ringed with Ara­bic script, while an ad­join­ing wing has gal­leries of black-and-white pho­to­graphs show­ing the Regis­tan in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair through its his­tory.

Best view: My day be­gins be­fore dawn in the pre-rush si­lence of the Regis­tan, where guards sur­rep­ti­tiously of­fer vis­i­tors the chance to climb one of the minarets of Ulugh­bek madrasah for wrap­around sun­rise views.

I wind up a dark and in­creas­ingly nar­row stair­case un­til I pop through a hole in the tin that cov­ers the minaret’s top. From here, the Sa­markand sky­line is dom­i­nated by the blue domes of Guri Amir Mau­soleum and Bibi Khanym Mosque, which was once the largest mosque in Cen­tral Asia but now looks ready to fall at the small­est tremor.

There’s room for only one per­son at the top but that doesn’t stop the guards send­ing peo­ple up be­hind me, mak­ing get­ting around each other seem like a game of Twister.

Best bazaar: Scented with a pro­fu­sion of spices and herbs, Sa­markand’s main bazaar is un­ex­pect­edly or­derly, with neat rows of sweets, spices, legumes, fruit and veg­eta­bles, all seg­mented like guilds, as well as the oc­ca­sional wan­der­ing hashish sales­man.

It’s a vi­brant fruit salad of dried apri­cots, ba­nanas, man­goes and tiny mel­ons that re­sem­ble cricket balls, while spices are laid out like coloured sands and pis­ta­chios and al­monds stacked into moun­tains in scenes as colour­ful as a madrasah mo­saic.

I’m stopped by stall­hold­ers of­fer­ing sam­ples; I could eas­ily break­fast here on give­aways alone. At week­ends the bazaar is the busiest place in town.

Best bread: In a coun­try ob­sessed with bread, Sa­markand is re­put­edly its finest bak­ery. Out­side the butch­ers’ pavil­ion in the bazaar (next to the dis­carded goats’ heads in a wash­ing bas­ket at the door), there are ta­bles of crusty naan-style bread, fresh-baked and warm, for the equiv­a­lent of about 30c.

Best art: At the Chorsu Art Gallery, back be­side Sher Dor madrasah, six wings hung with art­works ra­di­ate out from be­neath a cen­tral dome. Paint­ings on dis­play, from pure land­scapes and dense oils to ab­stracts, of­fer a good sur­vey of the past cen­tury of Uzbek art. The finest art­work, how­ever, is the build­ing, a 15th-cen­tury hexag­o­nal struc­ture in the shadow of the Regis­tan.

Best buy: Sa­markand is the nat­u­ral place to in­dulge in a spot of silk shop­ping. The city’s finest mas­ter­pieces are wo­ven by Sa­markandBukhara Silk Car­pets, which has a show­room inside Sher Dor. Us­ing nat­u­ral dyes from such sources as wal­nut shells, pomegranates and indigo im­ported from In­dia, their looms pro­duce elab­o­rate de­signs that can take two women up to eight months to com­plete (and pur­chasers about $2000 to buy).

For smaller bud­gets, silk scarfs are ubiq­ui­tous. The gift shops in Ho­tel Pres­i­dent and Ho­tel Afrosiab Palace have dozens of de­signs, from about $US12 ($13.50), while scarfs at the many Regis­tan sou­venir stalls can be eas­ily hag­gled down to $US7-8.

Best death I: Much of Sa­markand’s ar­chi­tec­tural glory is in­debted to lo­cal lad and 14th­cen­tury ma­rauder Tam­burlaine (Timur the Lame) so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that the ribbed blue dome of his hulk­ing Guri Amir Mau­soleum has be­come the adopted sym­bol of the city. Inside the mau­soleum, be­neath gild­ing as fab­u­lous as that in Tilla-Kari madrasah, Tam­burlaine takes cen­tre stage, with his jade crypt sur­rounded by the white onyx tombs of his spir­i­tual teacher and favoured fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing his grand­son, Ulugh­bek, a noted as­tronomer re­spon­si­ble for the con­struc­tion of the first Regis­tan madrasah.

In June 1941, soviet sci­en­tists opened Tam­burlaine’s crypt, an act Uzbeks be­lieved cer­tain to bring ill for­tune; the next day Rus­sia was in­vaded by Ger­many.

Best death II: Across town at Shahr-iZin­dah, I find the fam­ily mem­bers who didn’t make the grade at Guri Amir.

An av­enue of brightly tiled mau­soleums on a dusty hill­side of graves, th­ese man­sions for the dead hon­our the fa­mous and the forgotten, in­clud­ing Tam­burlaine’s sis­ter, his niece and one of his wives. The pity for the great ad­ven­turer is that this, and not Guri Amir, is Sa­markand’s holi­est site, with a cousin of the prophet Mo­hammed re­put­edly buried here.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal su­per­sti­tion, climbers should count the num­ber of steps on their way to the en­trance; any dis­crep­ancy on the way back down rep­re­sents the num­ber of grave sins they’ve com­mit­ted. I lose count of the steps and hope it’s not a bad omen.

Best lunch: Cafe Labi G’or, on Regis­tan­skaya ul­itsa, across the road from the Regis­tan, has the best po­si­tion in town, with its columned fa­cade sup­port­ing an el­e­vated ter­race over­look­ing the minarets of the Regis­tan, which from here look much like colour­ful Corinthian col­umns.

Typ­i­cally Uzbek, the restau­rant has no menu but of­fers a variety of re­gional dishes: plov, dumplings, shaslick or the noo­dle-and­soup com­bi­na­tion, lagh­man. This place is pop­u­lar with tour groups but also visit­ing Uzbeks, and there’s of­ten a game of backgam­mon or chess be­ing played among the lo­cal grey­beards at the out­side ta­bles.

Best Ko­ran: Sa­markand once pos­sessed the world’s old­est Ko­ran (it is now held in a small pur­pose-built li­brary in Khast Imom in Tashkent’s old city), now, amid the rather desul­tory dis­plays in the state cul­tural his­tory mu­seum be­hind Sher Dor, there’s a room ded­i­cated to Is­lamic texts. With manuscripts dat­ing to the 16th cen­tury, it’s a neat col­lec­tion dom­i­nated by an enor­mous Ko­ran com­mis­sioned by the Emir of Bukhara in 1854. Pasted on wooden boards, its 32 pages are 156cm by 104cm. With its golden de­signs and colour­ful pat­terns, it’s a bib­lio­phile’s ul­ti­mate trea­sure.

Mean­while, soviet habits die hard, and I’m tailed through the mu­seum by a guard mak­ing cer­tain I don’t ab­scond with any­thing.

Best shop­ping: Ig­nor­ing the per­sis­tent ven­dors in the Regis­tan, I head for the quiet court­yard at Rukho­bod Mau­soleum, where a cou­ple of dozen lo­cal ar­ti­sans are work­ing on a range of tra­di­tional Uzbek crafts, from car­pets and suzanes — em­broi­dered tex­tiles, usu­ally bought as wall hang­ings — to ce­ram­ics, minia­ture paint­ings and skull caps. Prices vary widely ac­cord­ing to qual­ity, size and bar­ter­ing skills, but as a guide, car­pets can reach $US2000 from about $US50; paint­ings, tiles and caps can be as lit­tle as $US2.

Inside this mau­soleum, which is one of the city’s old­est build­ings, one trader dis­plays his car­pets strewn across the tombs.

Best soviet throw­back: Along trendy Alisher Navoiy Street, I duck through an al­ley to the ugly con­crete build­ing that houses the GUM de­part­ment store. Once the flag­ship soviet shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence, there’s enough here to kin­dle some nos­tal­gia. Goods are still com­part­men­talised be­hind coun­ters and sales as­sis­tants con­tinue to look bored. What has changed is what’s on sale, all some­what fresher if heavy on kitsch; fi­bre-op­tic lamps and lu­mi­nous prints of wa­ter­falls abound.

Best din­ner: In a coun­try where meat can be a eu­phemism for gris­tle, the al­fresco Cafe Sayyor, across the road from the Tu­maris Ho­tel in the cen­tre of the new city, is a find. It of­fers a se­lec­tion of ten­der chicken, lamb, beef and even (in this Mus­lim coun­try) pork shaslicks. Per­sian car­pets dec­o­rate the ceil­ing and the mir­ror ball, Uzbek mu­sic and flash­ing lights are a por­tent of the evening ahead. By 8pm many of the din­ers are danc­ing.

Best fes­ti­val: Ev­ery other year (the next is in Au­gust 2009), the Regis­tan be­comes the stage for the Sharq Taronalari — Melodies of the East — mu­sic fes­ti­val, draw­ing acts from about 50 coun­tries (and fa­mous vis­i­tors such as Kofi An­nan). Cen­tral Asian mu­sic is the fes­ti­val’s parochial cen­tre­piece. Bands play nightly but this is not Glas­ton­bury: per­for­mances only take place in the early evening. Andrew Bain was a guest of Pere­grine Ad­ven­tures. www.pere­grinead­ven­

Hon­our­ing the dead: Elab­o­rately dec­o­rated mau­soleums char­ac­terise Shahr-i-Zin­dah, Sa­markand’s holi­est site

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