Samarkand is “the” place to go for anyone visiting Uzbekistan. I’m happy that we first to Bukhara first before going to Samarkand because the scale of everything went up dramatically.
From the train station, the roads were ladden with potholes. The taxi kept swerving to avoid damaging his car. Based on first impressions, Samarkand wasn’t doing so well.
Then, I saw this:
We also met up with Michael, who we met in Bukhara, one last time before he heads off to India.
Michael told us that Samarkand’s main attractions are beautiful yet expensive. In Bukhara, we generally paid a low fee (maybe 6,000UZS) for entry. In Samarkand, fees started at 17,000UZS. But Michael also told us there was always a way around paying the fee.
We entered the back of the Registan and had no issues until we started to walk in the middle of all three medressas. A security guard asked to see our tickets. We said we didn’t have any, then he pointed to the ticket office. Then he asked if we wanted to go up one of the minarets for $10USD. (Technically, going up the minaret in the Registan is off-limits to all visitors.) We told him we’ll think about it and left.
Another instance when Robb and I went back to the Registan just to look from afar, another security guard asked if we had tickets. We said no. Then, he said he could get us the tickets for 15,000UZS instead of the regular 25,000UZS foreigner ticket fee. We declined, then asked if we could go to the minaret. He said it’ll cost maybe $5USD, but he would have to talk to his boss first.
Amir Timur was a conquerer who made Samarkand his capital. Everywhere you look in Samarkand, there’s some reference to him.
We expected this mausoleum to be elaborate considering how big of an empire Timur had created. We even paid for a ticket at 17,000UZB ($5USD using the official exchange rate). But we felt a bit underwhelmed. Simple with lots of gold.
Apparently, when Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov opened the crypts of this mausoleum in 1941, he found an inscription on Timur’s grave which went something like:
Whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I.
The day after, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.
My favorite story about Timur stems from his Chinese (and favorite) wife, Bibi-Khanym. While Timur was away, she ordered a mosque to be built as a surprise. She wanted it to be big. The architect of the project fell deeply in love with Bibi-Khanym and demanded a kiss or else he wouldn’t finish his job. She gave in. That kiss left a visible mark. Timur saw the mark and ordered the execution of the architect. Poor guy!
We didn’t go inside because the ticket was 17,000UZB ($5USD using the official exchange rate). But we walked around it. Unlike the other buildings we had been to, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque was in need of repairs. Lots of missing tiles, but in a way it adds to the charm of the place.
Next door to Bibi-Khanym Mosque is the Siyob Bazaar, a chaotic open-air market filled with locals buying groceries.
We were chatted up by several sellers, all speaking to us in Russian selling things we really couldn’t take with us like bird seeds, vegetable seeds and pickled salads. But it was fun to talk to them.
After a night of thunderstorms and hail that left us hostel-bound, the next day was sunny and dry.
We went to Shah-i-Zinda or “tomb of the living king”. Walking to the site, we wandered through a cemetery for modern day Uzbeks.
I oddly find visiting cemeteries in other countries a bit fascinating. From the gravestones to the inscriptions and how old did each person live, it commentates a completed life cycle.
Eventually, the footpath of the ordinary cemetery led to the exit of the Shah-i-Zinda.
These mausoleums were dedicated to Timur’s family and loyal subjects. Some had unadorned walls with unidentifiable remains inside. Others were more elaborate. Shirin Beka Oka was one of Timur’s sisters. I guess he liked her the best because her tomb was very different and very beautiful.
We ended up at the main entrance as we bypassed a floor of tour groups and left the premise. (Didn’t pay but completely unintentional.)
We spent the rest of the wandering past the Registan and sitting in the park while enjoying the fountains and the lack of surround honking sounds.
We arrived at the train station early because we had nothing else to do and waiting at our hostel’s outdoor courtyard at 5 degs C wasn’t very pleasant.
At the station, I noticed this:
Bread is a religion in Samarkand. Every Uzbek who entered the station had their plastic bags of Samarkand bread pass through the security conveyer belt.
In the city, we couldn’t get past a block before someone tried to sell us bread.
We were curious for the bread and finally got a chance to sample this beloved non (bread). They say that real Samarkand bread can remain eatable within three years. Baked in a tandoor oven, it’s characterized by its high, soft edges, sprinkled with sesame seeds and glazed.
Perhaps, we weren’t so lucky with the bread. The two times we had it, let’s just say I hurt my teeth chewing it.
We left Samarkand with a ridiculous amount of pictures of the Registan and no Samarkand bread to give.
- Accommodation: B&B Bahodir. If you can ignore the old, musty smell of well-used rugs and furniture, then this is definitely a great place. Located literally within a 2 minute walk from the Registan, it’s very easy to get to places in Samarkand. And the free-floating tea…
- Eating: Karimbek is a fancy shashlik restaurant with affordable prices… And a disco after 21:00. Cafe Magistr has pretty good pizza for a change of place. Just ignore the weird graduation themed bit of the restaurant. Lucky Cafe is a cafeteria style restaurant that’s dirt cheap and has free WiFi! Very popular with locals during their lunch break.
- Coffee: We actually didn’t get any coffee in Samarkand! Instead, we did our people-watching from a chaikhana (teahouse). The Bibikhanum Teahouse served Turkish coffee and offers shaded seating area next door to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.