SILK ROAD JUNCTION
Andrew Bain explores the remote and fabled Uzbek city of Samarkand
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.peregrineadventures.com www.gov.uz
Honouring the dead: Elaborately decorated mausoleums characterise Shahr-i-Zindah, Samarkand’s holiest site