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More tales from Bukhara

Uzbekistan day four continued


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Carpet shop near Lyab-i-Hauz
- a reminder of Soviet times

I finished my previous post just as we arrived at the Lyab-i-Hauz during our tour of Bukhara. It was lunch-time, and as the meal wasn’t included in the tour, we split up to eat, or at least that was the plan. As it happened quite a few of us headed for the same restaurant, a chaikana on the north-western side of the pool. We found a table in the rather grandly decorated but cool interior, where air-conditioning providing welcome relief from the intense sun. We shared some salads, a basket full of great bread (both the flaky pastry and more usual varieties), sparkling water and Sprite.

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Our group in the restaurant

Khodja

We met up again with our guide by the statue of Khodja on the eastern side of the Lyab-i-Hauz. This bronze statue stands among the trees (so hard to photograph, or so I found) and depicts Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool who features in so many stories of this region, riding his donkey. The donkey’s ears are shiny where children have clutched them as they scramble up to ‘ride’ with Khodja.

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Statue of Khodja, Lyab-i-Hauz

Our guide Marat loved to tell us Khodja stories to while away the long bus journeys between the Silk Road cities. Here’s one I remember:

One day a man tried to steal Khodja’s donkey, but he threatened the thief: ‘If you steal my donkey, I’ll have to do what my father did when someone stole his.’ The thief was frightened and ran away. Some bystanders asked Khodja, ‘What did your father do when someone stole his donkey?’ And Khodja replied, ‘He walked home.’

And another:

Khodja borrowed a cauldron from his neighbour. When he didn't return it for a long time, the neighbour came to ask for its return. When Khodja handed him the cauldron, the neighbour noticed that there was a small pot in it. ‘What is this?’, he asked.

‘Congratulations neighbour, your cauldron gave birth to a baby pot,’ replied Khodja. The neighbour, incredulous but delighted, thanked Khodja and took his cauldron and the new little pot home. A few weeks later Khodja came to ask again if he might borrow the cauldron. The neighbour didn't hesitate to lend it, however, again Khodja failed to return it. The neighbour had no choice but to go asking for it again.

‘Khodja, have you finished with my cauldron?’

‘Ah neighbour,’ bemoaned Khodja, ‘I am afraid your cauldron is dead.’

‘But that's not possible, a cauldron cannot die!’, exclaimed the neighbour. But Khodja had his answer ready: ‘My friend, you can believe that a cauldron can give birth; why than can't you believe that it can also die?’

Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Last night Chris and I had seen the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha, which our guide now pointed out, telling us the story of the finance minister and his ungrateful wife. On the opposite side of Lyab-i-Hauz, a few years later, Nadir Divanbegi built a madrassah to complement the khanagha. Or so it appears, but our guide explained that this was not his original plan. This building was intended as a caravanserai, where trade would provide a good income for him. But soon after its completion the Khan was passing and commended the divanbegi on his great religious devotion, having taken it to be a madrassah. You didn’t argue with a khan, who was considered Allah’s representative, so the divanbegi had to change his plans and adjust the building to be used as a seminary, although without the usual accompanying mosque.

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Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

Perhaps this story explains the dramatic departure from Islamic tradition in the use of images of living creatures in the decoration on its portal. Admittedly these can be taken as mythological beasts – they certainly don’t resemble any real birds – but even so they are an unusual sight, as are the white does clasped in their claws (these are not pigs by the way, despite a slight resemblance, as this would certainly be unacceptable on an Islamic building of any sort, let alone a religious one).

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On the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

As in so many of Uzbekistan’s former religious buildings this one is now devoted to the sale of handicrafts and souvenirs. We didn’t go inside but I imagine that they are of a similar quality to elsewhere. The main attraction for me was this striking façade with its total and flamboyant break with tradition.

Chor Minor

For our last sights of the afternoon we were back in the bus. We stopped first at the Chor Minor, one of Bukhara’s best known and most idiosyncratic sights, tucked away in its back streets east of Lyab-i-Hauz. I have seen it described as resembling an upside-down chair thrust deep into the ground!

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The Chor Minor

Chor Minor means four minarets, but to use that term for the four small turrets at the corners of this one-time madrassah gatehouse is perhaps stretching things. None of them has a gallery and they wouldn’t have been used to call anyone to prayer, being mainly decorative. I loved the way that, at first glance, they seem all the same, only for a closer look to reveal a host of difference in the decoration of each.

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The Chor Minor's minarets

Today very little remains of the 1870 madrassah to which this would once have given entry, but if you look either side of the building you can see still some remains. My photos were taken from the south side which would have been the madrassah’s courtyard.

This must in its day have been quite a grand building, with a mosque and pool incorporated, and its seclusion in these sleepy back streets really emphasises how its fortunes have changed. It is unique among all the buildings of Uzbekistan, although it was possibly inspired by the Char Minar Mosque in Hyderabad, where its patron, the merchant Khalif Niyazkul, is thought to have travelled.

Sitorai Makhi Khosa

We drove north a little way out of the old town into a more rural area to visit our final sight. This palace, the Summer Residence of the Emir, was built by the last Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan, who had close links to Russia, making frequent visits to St Petersburg and living an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle. In some ways he epitomised this period of 20th century history in the region, as the modern world collided with the medieval and trying to balance the two worlds he straddled. The architectural style of his palace reflects this – a weird mix between traditional Islamic influences and the tastes he had acquired from his visits to the great cities of Russia. He employed Russian architects to design the facades and external structures, while local artisans decorated the inside. The fine line between art and kitsch was often blurred as these artists competed to present the best of their cultural traditions.

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The entrance to Sitorai Makhi Khosa

The first thing that struck me after being in Uzbekistan just for a couple of days, growing used to the favoured blues, turquoises and jade colours of the tile-work, was the shock of the deep red majolica on the entrance portal here. Passing through here we came to the courtyard of the main palace building.

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Main courtyard

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Traditional Uzbek cradle

Part of the palace houses a museum of applied art. This was very interesting to visit, both for the artefacts it houses and the building itself.

The former include an excellent example of the traditional Uzbek cradle. We were told that these are still in use and assured that they are both practical and cause no discomfort to the baby, but they seem strange to western eyes. The baby is tightly bound and carefully positioned above a hole in the cradle’s base, below which a small terracotta receptacle (differently shaped for a boy or a girl) catches what in the west a nappy would absorb.

The decoration of some of the rooms in palace is striking, to say the least, not least the ganch and mirror-encrusted White Hall. It is lit by a huge chandelier imported from Poland; the door locks and door handles came from England and most of the furniture from Russia. The mirrors are of Venetian glass and the tiles for fireplaces were brought from Germany.

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The White Hall

Another room had coloured skylights which lit it up almost like a disco.

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Coloured skylights

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Decoration in the guest quarters

Outside we had a short stroll in the grounds. On this hot summer’s day the temperature here was a welcome few degrees lower and there was more breeze than in the city, so it made a pleasant break.

We saw (but I mysteriously failed to photograph!) the harem, and by it a pool where the concubines would swim, naked of course. A nearby platform apparently allowed the emir to watch this spectacle, and to indicate which one he wished to have sent to his chambers by tossing her an apple. The chosen girl would then be washed in donkey’s milk (one of the emir’s eccentricities!) and delivered to his bedroom.

We also went into a small octagonal building, used to accommodate guests, which now houses a small collection of traditional costumes, with beautifully embroidered robes – one completely covered in gold, and another woman’s robe with the sleeves sewn together as a sign that she was married.

Silk Road Spices Café

The Sitorai Makhi Khosa was the last sight on our tour. It was now mid-afternoon and the bus turned back towards the city and our hotel. On this very hot day some siesta time would have made sense, but you know what they say about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’! We would be leaving Bukhara tomorrow and it seemed to me and Chris that we should make the most of our short time here, so we asked to be dropped off in the centre. My Virtual Tourist friend Ingrid, who had been in Bukhara the previous year, had recommended a café which I was keen to check out – the Silk Road Spices Café, run by the same family who own the spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron (Jewellers' Trading Dome) where we’d earlier bought the six-spice tea. We found it to be a real gem, which definitely lived up to the expectations Ingrid had raised!

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At the Silk Road Spices Café

As soon as we stepped into the cool shady courtyard we knew we were in for a treat. We sat on cushioned benches at one of the long wooden tables and immediately a friendly waitress came to ask if we’d like the fans turned on (‘yes please!!’) and give us the small menu. The choice of drinks wasn’t huge but everything was excellent. Chris had the cardamom coffee while I chose ginger tea. Our waitress explained that the latter is made with several spices, including star anise, black and white pepper, and would be quite hot – sounded good to me, and was! With our drinks we were served a selection of sweetmeats: halva, raisins and nuts.

The family who run the café have been involved in the spice trade for hundreds of years, so I couldn’t think of anywhere more appropriate to sample these drinks while on our Silk Road journey!

We had planned to walk around a bit more and take photos, but after a quick visit to the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon to buy a pair of the scissors we had seen earlier we walked slowly back to the hotel to relax in the shady courtyard and catch up with some of the others from our group over a cold drink.

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Relaxing in the courtyard of the Hotel Mosque Baland

Last evening in Bukhara

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In the courtyard of the
Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai

For dinner this evening we decided to return to the restaurant on the north-western side of the Lyab-i-Hauz, where we had eaten such a good lunch. On the way we stopped off at the Nadir Alim Khan Caravanserai near the Tok-i-Sarrafon, as we’d spotted a notice announcing that it was the centre for an organisation called the Development of Creative Photography. As keen photographers we couldn’t resist going inside to check it out and found it was well worth the visit. We met this local man in the courtyard who greeted us and agreed to pose for photos - even though he doesn't look super happy about it in this one!

Inside there was an interesting exhibition of images by local (I assume) photographers, most of a very high standard. It was wonderful to see Bukhara and the surrounding region through their eyes. Some of the best were of local people, reflecting what we had discovered for ourselves – a genuine sense of interest in others that pervades the culture here and an openness of expression echoing the openness of their welcome. I was also particularly fascinated by some photos of Bukhara in the snow – visiting in July’s red-hot temperatures it was hard, even faced with these images, to conceive of what the street outside would look and feel like under those conditions.

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My 'Special dish'

From there we continued our walk to Lyab-i-Hauz and secured a table right by the water’s edge. We chose a couple of salads from a selection brought to our table (so no need to worry about any language difficulties) and the same excellent bread we had enjoyed at lunch time. Chris followed this with a dish of noodles topped with a fried egg (a little odd but he liked it) and I had what was called the ‘special dish’ – layers of meat (mutton), potato, tomatoes and onions cooked and served in the one pot. This was quite tasty and very filling. We washed our meal down with the usual cold local beers and took our time, enjoying the setting and watching all the activity around the pool.

The bonus was a sweet little kitten who stopped by to say hello, climbing up on the next-door table to pose for me!

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Little cat at dinner

After our meal I took a few more night shots on the walk back to the hotel where again we settled on the dais in the courtyard to enjoy a night-cap with some of the others. There was a power-cut in this part of town but the family who ran the hotel were clearly used to these and were quick to bring candles so we could continue to enjoy our final drink in Bukhara.

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Bukhara by night

Posted by ToonSarah 11:41 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged night food architecture mosque history palace restaurants cats spices uzbekistan bukhara Comments (9)

From Bukhara to the desert

Uzbekistan day five


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

It was time to leave Bukhara, much as I would have liked to have stayed another day. After breakfast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel, the Mosque Baland, and farewells to our hosts there, we set off, driving east on the main road to Samarkand.

Gijduvan

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At the potter's wheel

Our first stop was in the town of Gijduvan (46 km north-east from Bukhara), famous throughout Uzbekistan for its distinctive pottery. The best place to see this is at the workshop of Abdullo and Alisher Narzullaev, just north of the main road. These brothers are the sixth generation of a family of famous potters, still practising the traditional skills passed down through the family.

The Gijduvan school of ceramics is unique. It is characterised by an overall brown colouring as a background, with yellow-green and blue hues as accents. The ornamentation of clay dishes and plates consists of mainly floral pattern, incorporating images of big flowers, leaves, and various rosettes, and some use of geometric patterns. Unlike other Uzbek ceramic styles, the lines of the patterns are slightly blurred, with a hazy effect created through the use of a dark glaze.

We were first shown around the museum of ceramics housed above their shop, which displays items from all over the country. Alisher described the different styles, and showed us some tiles made by his grandfather who had worked on the restoration of the Registan in Samarkand.

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In the ceramics museum

We were then taken to the workshop area where we saw his brother Abdullo at work at the potter’s wheel (see photo above), one of the daughters of the family painting some completed pots, and the different kilns.

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Painting the pottery

In the courtyard another of the girls was drawing designs for embroidery, a further family tradition.

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Preparing cotton for embroidery

Our tour finished, of course, in the shop where many examples of their work was for sale. There was really something for every pocket, with the smallest bowls starting at just $2, so most of us bought at least a small souvenir to thank them for the trouble they’d taken with our tour. But one of our group fell for, and bought, quite a large bowl; we were all anxious about whether she would be able to bring it safely home on the plane, which luckily she did.

Finally, we ended our visit with green tea and sweetmeats in their pleasant shady courtyard. Then it was back on the bus to continue our drive.

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Sweetmeats

Karmana

We made another short stop near the town of Karmana to see two ancient buildings which straddle the main road a few miles west of the town. On the north side of the road is the impressive portal of the Rabt-i-Malik, all that remains of a one-time royal caravanserai, where noble travellers would once have rested during their journeys across the steppe.

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The caravanserai portal

Almost opposite on the south side of the road a restored dome covers the well where the camels would have found refreshment. Now instead of caravans of camels, cars and trucks roar past these ancient relics, creating a microcosm of Uzbekistan’s ‘past meets present’ character.

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Restored well

In Karmana itself we stopped by a small park near the bazaar to see the Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum, built in the 11th century. Its ornamental brickwork, with inscriptions from the Koran set in it, reminded me of the Ishmael Samani Mausoleum in Bukhara, though this one is older and less elaborate than that more famous example.

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The Mir Said Bakhrom Mausoleum

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Detail of brickwork

Petroglyphs

Our final stop of the morning was to take a look at some petroglyphs near the roadside. Uzbekistan’s most famous site for petroglyphs is the Sarmysh Gorge, but we weren’t able to visit there unfortunately. However, we did stop to see this small group in the rocks right by the road that runs from Karmana to Nurata, near its highest point Black Crow Pass.

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The road over Black Crow Pass

A short scramble up the rocks brought us to several with these ancient markings, reasonably well-preserved considering their proximity to the road.

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Petroglyphs

Nurata

We arrived in Nurata, which lies some way north of the Bukhara-Samarkand road, around lunch time and had lunch in there in a house in a residential area not far from the main road. This was a real family home, and we ate in what was obviously their main sitting and dining room, with shelves of ornaments and family photos for decoration. We sat on cushions on the floor, as is the Uzbek way, either side of a long low table. As elsewhere in the country, I found this home cooking better than many of the meals we had in restaurants, and there was certainly plenty of it.

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Lunch at a family home

We started with the usual range of salads, accompanied by bread of course, and augmented by some tasty cream cheese. These were followed with a bowl of the typical simple Uzbek soup – a clear broth with potato, carrot and meat (for vegetarians the meat was, we suspected, simply removed before serving!) We were then served big platters of plov, the traditional Uzbek rice dish – very tasty, although I for one was a bit too full to do it justice. There was green tea and bottled water to drink, and watermelon to finish the meal.

One small downside was that, inevitably, the ladies of the house were keen embroiderers, and they were eager to show, and of course sell, us their work. I admired, but resisted the temptation to buy, although I believe one or two in the group did get something.

Most of us did however make use of the clean toilet at the foot of their pretty garden! And then it was time for some sightseeing. We drove the short distance to the cluster of sights on the south side of town, where we paid a small fee to the imam at the Friday mosque in order to visit, and take photos of, Nurata’s ancient citadel.

Alexander the Great’s Fortress

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Ruins of Alexander the Great’s Fortress

There is supposed to have been a fortress on this hill-top above the town even before the time of Alexander the Great, but it was his soldiers who strengthened it in 327 BC. Locals believe that Alexander gave the city its name, Nur, and credit him with building the kariz, a complex water system that brought drinking water several kilometres from a spring right into the centre of the citadel. This ancient town held a strategic position on the frontier between the cultivated lands and the steppe.

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Chris exploring the ruins

Alexander’s fort was constructed in the shape of the constellation of the Plough, and consisted of several parts, with an inner town, 500x500 meters in size, surrounded with a large wall and towers. Nurata was chosen as the site of a fortress because of its strategic setting at the border between an agricultural area and a wild steppe, making it a convenient point for gathering an army before attacking neighbouring lands.

Today the fortress is largely ruined, but by climbing the hill we got a good sense of its size and layout. The climb was very easy although it took a bit of energy in the hot Uzbek sun, and we were rewarded with a good view of the town and mosques below. The ground underfoot consists in places of adobe bricks, compacted by thousands of feet and by the elements over two millennia. As you climb you are walking in the footsteps of those who built the fort and who lived and worked here.

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View of the town
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Looking down at the mosques

At the top we found that people had tied small cloths to the bushes, probably reflecting Nurata’s significance as a place of pilgrimage.

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Prayer cloths

Visiting the mosques

At the foot of the hill on which perches the fortress of Alexander the Great are a pair of mosques, the town’s Friday mosque and ‘everyday’ mosque facing onto the same small square near the sacred Chasma Spring. Our guide Marat had intended that we only visit the older of the two mosques here, the everyday mosque, which was built originally for visiting pilgrims in the tenth century and which still retains its roof of 25 small domes. This is the mosque on the left of my photo taken from the hill-top fortress (above), and photo shows the interior of its main dome with a lacy effect created by the windows and central chandelier.

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Ceiling of the Pilgrim's Mosque

But the friendly imam insisted that some of us at least also visit the Friday mosque, which although newer and of less historic significance, was the more decorated inside. This probably explained his insistence that we see it, and as you can see he was also keen to pose inside in front of the ornately carved mihrab. This mosque also boasts one of the largest domes in Central Asia, more than 16 metres in diameter, which can be seen on the right of my photo of the mosques above.

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Outside the mosque

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Imam in the Friday Mosque

The Chasma Spring and fish pools

The Chasma Spring is the source of Nurata’s reputation as a holy city and place of pilgrimage. It is said to have been formed through a miracle, when Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, struck the ground here with his staff. The waters rise nowadays into a rectangular tank near the two mosques, and flow down into the town along a narrow canal which skirts the small market-place.

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Local sightseers at the Chasma Spring

The waters are teeming with fish, which are considered sacred and cannot therefore be caught or eaten. These fish are large and very lively (guided by Marat we threw a handful of clover leaves into the pool and watched them react!), and they obviously thrive in the mineral-rich water. This water is believed to have health-giving powers, so people come from miles around to anoint themselves with it, and large water-containers are sold in the nearby market to pilgrims who want to take some of the water away with them.

Nurata market

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At Nurata Market

We also had time to wander through the nearby market. It wasn’t very large but proved to be a good place to observe daily Uzbek life and, as everywhere in this friendly country, to meet some of the locals. I got talking to the lady on the right in my photo above, an Uzbek tourist from Tashkent, who was feeding the sacred fish in the canal and keen to practice her few words of English – as I was my even fewer words of Russian.

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In Nurata market

Meanwhile Chris was invited into the front yard of a house to take a photo of a group of card-players.

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Chris's photo of the card players

Soon though it was time to go back to the bus to continue to our base for the night, one of several yurt camps in the Kyzyl Kum desert in the area around Aidarkul Lake.

Yangikazgan

Our main tour bus was unsuitable for the rough roads (little more than tracks in the sand) leading to the camp, so it was parked in the village of Yangikazgan for the night where we transferred to an old Soviet bus to drive the final seven kilometres. This gave us an opportunity for a brief look at this small rural village, very different from the Uzbek cities where we spent most of this trip. I was grateful for the brief glimpse it afforded us of genuine Uzbek village life.

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The children of Yangigazgan

The village is a Soviet-built one, so the houses are functional concrete blocks, but as everywhere on our travels we were welcomed with friendly smiles that were much more photogenic than any building. I spent quite a few minutes photographing the children, naturally, and I think they were pleased to be given a couple of the postcards from home that we’d brought with us in return.

I also enjoyed seeing other aspects of life here – the women spinning in the shade of the trees and others with the far hotter job of firing bricks in a clay oven.

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Women and children in Yangigazgan

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Women firing bricks

Our old bus seemed from appearances to be a bit uncared for, but I think that was just on the surface, as it coped very well with the desert conditions. OK, it was pretty uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a long drive in it, but it certainly did the job and got us there!

One great little touch in the bus’s décor caught our eye. Chris and I are big fans of Newcastle United, so you can imagine our pleased surprise to find that this bus had a small sticker of a former Newcastle player (the gorgeous David Ginola) in the famous black and white strip above the door. I can’t imagine that there could be any connection between a French footballer and a remote village in Uzbekistan so I’m not sure how it came to be here. Maybe a French tourist gave it to the driver?

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Our old Soviet bus on arrival in camp

Desert yurt camp

We arrived in the camp and were welcomed with green tea and sweetmeats.

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First view of the camp

Then we were shown to our sleeping quarters. The yurts were constructed in the traditional style, with collapsible lattice frame walls, a roof of branches, and the whole covered in felt. As the weather was hot, the sides of ours were partially rolled back to allow the cool air to come in. The floor was covered with felt too, and from the roof hung colourful mobiles.

The yurts sleep four and we’d been warned in advance that we would have to share. Chris and I were allocated to one with the only other couple in our group, while those travelling alone or with friends shared with three or four others of the same gender.

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Our yurt, outside and in

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Yurt roof from inside

Of course, a yurt doesn’t come with an en-suite bathroom! The washing facilities at the camp consisted of two open-air basins and two basic shower cubicles, all fed with water from tanks perched above them, warmed by the sun. The two toilets were ‘long drop’ ones, situated on two dunes a short climb either side of the camp – fine in the daylight, a bit of a challenge to find at bedtime (we went in a small group with several torches between us) and a real concern to those of us (thankfully not me at that stage) who were suffering from the side-effects of Uzbek cuisine and needed to climb those dunes several times in the night.

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Desert camp washing and showering facilities

But I am getting ahead of myself, as we had a desert evening to enjoy first.

Camel ride

On arriving at the camp we had been asked if we wanted to go on an optional camel ride – an option that only six of our number took up, which surprised me. I personally rather like camels, despite their (probably deserved) reputation for surliness. Without doubt this was a great experience. We were led out into the dunes and took a circular route at some distance from the camp, so that for most of the ride we could quite easily imagine, just briefly, how it would have been to travel the desert in a caravan at the height of the Silk Road’s domination. And the late afternoon light on the dunes was really special, as I hope my photos indicate.

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Our group of Silk Road explorers!

As there were only six of us (so no need for the camel owners to do several trips) we got quite a bit longer than the promised hour, but I for one was still sorry to see the camp come back into sight and know that our ride was over and I had to say goodbye to Kumba, ‘my’ camel.

There was one incident which soured Chris’s pleasure at the ride, however, and he has never felt quite as keen on camel rides again since. He found himself riding alongside one of our travelling companions, Sally-Ann, who unfortunately had been allocated a camel who appeared to be suffering from the same digestive ailments as some of us, and with a lot less control! This at first only gave Chris a problem of smell, and distraction from the beauties of the desert, but then Sally-Ann’s camel decided he would like to walk much closer to Chris’s, and the result was a very unpleasant deposit on Chris’s leg!

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My view from camel-back
- Sally-Ann's camel, top right, is the culprit!

Luckily (?) Chris was wearing shorts rather than long trousers, so only he needed to be washed, not his clothing – and this is how Chris came to be the first in our group to try out the slightly primitive, but thankfully very effective, showers!!

A night in camp

Once Chris had showered it was time for dinner, and the meal we were served here this evening was one of the nicest we had on the trip, in my view. We ate at a long table set up under an awning near the caravan where the Kazaks who run the camp live and cook. First, bottles of water, vodka and port were placed along its length – the vodka very good (if you like strong spirits) but the port a little sweet for my taste, though others in the group enjoyed it more than the vodka. We could also buy beer and soft drinks at very reasonable prices considering that everything had to be brought out to the camp.

The meal started with a buffet table of bread and salads, as everywhere in Uzbekistan, but here there was a particularly good variety of salads, including aubergine, roast peppers, a carrot and cabbage dish, beetroot … After this we were served a tasty hot dish of beef, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onion, all cooked in the one pot (a bit like Lancashire Hot-Pot for the Brits among us!)

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Dinner in the camp

The meal ended with slices of very juicy watermelon, and then most of us drifted over to the campfire that had been lit a short distance away in the centre of the camp. Out in the desert of course, the display of stars overhead was amazing, and we had a great time spotting shooting stars and satellites and looking at distant galaxies through the binoculars of a keen amateur astronomer in our group, Lawrence, who was also happy to share his knowledge about what we were seeing. It was a lovely way to end the day, although it would have been even nicer if one of our travelling companions hadn’t though it a great idea to play his transistor radio – not popular with the rest of us, who wanted to enjoy the tranquillity of the desert uninterrupted by the noise of the 21st century!

Then it was time for bed. We made the climb up the dune to the drop toilets in groups before retiring for the night. We slept on mattresses on the ground, which I found a little thin, and were provided with a cotton sheet and coverlet. I used the latter to augment the mattress to give me a softer base – which is maybe why I became very aware of the cool breeze later in the night!

This was a very special part of our holiday, and I for one wouldn’t have missed it for anything! Sleeping here was a magical experience, especially when I awoke at about 4.00am to see a thin crescent moon through the lattice, and when I got up at 5.30 to find myself the only one awake in the camp. But that’s a story for my next entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:05 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes people children food architecture desert mosque road_trip history fort market village camp uzbekistan customs Comments (11)

We take the golden road to Samarkand *

Uzbekistan day six


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Desert sunrise

Today we were to travel to perhaps the most famed city of the Silk Road, Samarkand. Would it live up to expectations?

Morning in the yurt camp

The day certainly started on a high note. I had slept well at the desert camp at first, until the cool wind coming through the lattice frame of our yurt at about 4.30am woke me. I opened my eyes to see a thin but incredibly bright crescent moon hovering above the nearby sand dune. After dozing fitfully for some time, I decided, about an hour later, to give up and get up. Slipping into my shorts and reaching for my camera, I left my still-sleeping yurt-mates and stepped outside. I didn’t know what time the sun would rise but I figured it would be great to try to capture it on camera and much better than lying on the slightly hard ground trying unsuccessfully to sleep.

I had rather more of a wait than I had expected, but it was a lovely sensation to be, for a short while at least, the only person up in the camp. Gradually though a few others woke up and joined me outside, but still not so many that when the time for the sunrise came we couldn’t almost have a sand dune each to watch it from! Certainly I was alone on mine when the sun first climbed above the more distant dunes.

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Desert sunrise

Soon after this I headed back down into the camp where more people were by now up and about. In fact my one tiny criticism of the camp would be that, with breakfast not served until 8.00, and so many of us up before 7.00, they didn’t think to provide a pot of tea at that time. Nevertheless, this was a wonderful time to be in the desert, with sun growing in strength and warmth every minute and the dunes glowing in the early morning light.

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The camp from the dunes

And when breakfast was served it was very good: bread, pancakes, cheese, meat, jam and hard-boiled eggs, washed down with either green tea or decent (though instant) coffee. After this, and a short walk on the dunes with Chris, who had slept through the sunrise, it was time to leave the camp to the next visitors and head back to Yangikazgan to pick up our bus.

Lake Aidarkul

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Lake Aidarkul

We didn’t drive immediately to Samarkand but instead made a detour to Lake Aidarkul, which seems to be standard practice on all these tours. Opinions in our group about this were rather mixed, with some of us enjoying the interlude in the intensive sightseeing, and others regretting that it gave us less time in Samarkand. I think it depended on whether you found something there to appeal to you. If like me and a few others you were keen to swim it was great, and if like Chris you fancied a walk and a chance to see the desert scenery from somewhere other than out of the bus window, it was also good. But this isn’t really a place to come to simply relax – there is no shade, and although an awning was set up for us to sit under, it was rather small and everyone was rather on top of each other. Those who wanted peace and quiet to read, write up their journal or just unwind would have found the chatter of the others distracting.

For me, the highlight of our visit to Aidurkal Lake was the opportunity it afforded for a swim. After several days travelling, and some involving long bus journeys through the hot desert, I was glad of the chance to relax in its cooling waters.

There were no bushes for privacy behind which to change, so those of us wanting to swim went off to change in the bus. The edge of the lake was a little stony, so I kept my flip-flops on, but we didn’t have to wade too far for it to be deep enough to swim, though the odd sand bank beneath the surface meant that I did find my toes scraping the ground again at intervals. There was also no shade at all, so I had to resist the temptation to stay in the water too long, however lovely and cooling it was.

Meanwhile Chris, who is not so keen a swimmer, chose to climb a small hill near where we had parked to get some photos of the lake from above. Aidarkul is man-made, created during water supply projects in the area in the early 1970s (resulting in the Sirdarya river overflowing from the Chardarinskaya Reservoir). It is over 200 km long and in some places as much as 15 km wide – enough that you can’t see the far side. The bay where we swam was fairly uninteresting to look at, apart from the pretty green rushes captured in Chris’s photo below, but elsewhere I’ve read that it attracts a lot of birds such as cormorants, pelicans and herons – I would have liked to have visited that part. It’s also well-stocked with fish, and indeed fishing is the main industry in this region, apart from (increasingly) tourism as more and more travellers choose to spend a night (or more) in one of these yurt camps as part of their Uzbekistan experience.

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Photos taken by Chris from above the lake
- you can just make out the small group of swimmers, of whom I am one!

Our visit concluded with a picnic lunch that had been provided by the Kazaks at the yurt camp – salads, cold potatoes, bread, watermelon, with bottled water and green tea to drink. You can see how small our awning was in the photo below, as we all jostled for some shade in which to eat!

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Picnic at Aidarkul Lake

Then it was back into the bus for the long (over five hours) drive to Samarkand.

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On the (not very golden) road to Samarkand

Arrival in Samarkand

We arrived here late afternoon and checked into our accommodation at the family-run B&B Zarina. This rivalled the Hotel Mosque Baland in Bukhara as the friendliest we stayed in on our travels, and definitely took the prize for best location! It is situated only a few minutes’ walk from the Registan and set back from the main road in a quiet cul de sac. Our room wasn’t large, but it was clean, with an en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning (though the latter wasn’t as efficient as I’d have liked in that heat.)

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Our room at the Zarina B & B

The building itself was lovely. The courtyard was decorated with a large number of antique architectural objects such as old doors and the family were obviously keen collectors because the basement breakfast room had displays of old radios, musical instruments, a Russian adding machine and more! The columns supporting the front porch seemed to be antiques too.

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The hallway at the Zarina B & B

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In the courtyard

There wasn’t time left today for sightseeing so our thoughts turned instead to dinner. A small group of us decided to visit a restaurant just a short walk from our hotel, the Marco Polo. Marat, our guide, had told us that it was just recently opened so he had no reports about its quality, but he knew the chef who had a good reputation. Well, we had to conclude that it was the chef’s night off!

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At the Marco Polo restaurant
- Chris, me, Georgina, an Irish lady (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) and Sue
Thanks to Sally-Ann who took the photo

The setting was nice, with a large paved area screened from the main road with bright yellow and white awnings. Our group of six got a good table in the centre of this area. The waitress though spoke no English, and unlike everyone else we met in Uzbekistan, was not inclined to be helpful, although was not exactly unfriendly. We managed to decipher some of the options on the Russian menu, but everything we tried to order seemed to be unavailable – although one of her colleagues did eventually appear with the hoped-for cold beers.

Chris and I ended up ordering beef shashliks, which were OK but not what we’d wanted. Meanwhile Georgina, having been assured that the salad she’d ordered was vegetarian (and in fact their only vegetarian option), was quite surprised to find a small pile of meat on it – which the waitress ‘helpfully’ suggested could be pushed to one side to turn it into the vegetarian dish requested. This would have been less irritating had we not spotted, some minutes later, two local men eating a very obviously vegetarian aubergine dish.

Oh well, at least we had enjoyed the beer!

The Registan at night

Of course, we couldn’t be so close to the famous Registan and not take a first look. I will save all the history and detailed information for a later entry as for now all we wanted to do was see it!

Some evenings there is a son et lumiere show at the Registan, usually arranged especially for tour groups. I had read that this wasn’t of great quality – the sound poor and the commentary fairly dull. We didn’t bother even trying to get to a show during our stay, but there had been one on this first evening, and although it seemed now to have finished it meant that we got to see the magnificent buildings nicely illuminated.

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The Registan at night

Guards ensured that we didn’t get too close, as we hadn’t paid for the show, but no matter – we could see a fair bit from further back, and the edge of the fountains made a good rest for my camera. And what we saw certainly whetted our appetites for a more detailed look tomorrow.

* James Elroy Flecker

Posted by ToonSarah 10:35 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes night architecture desert restaurant hotel camp uzbekistan samarkand registan Comments (8)

The splendour of the Silk Road

Uzbekistan day seven


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The Shah-i-Zinda

Exploring Samarkand

We started our first full day in Samarkand with breakfast in the Zarina’s basement dining room, surrounded by all the objects collected by the family – old radios, musical instruments etc. Then it was time for our morning sightseeing tour.

After Khiva and Bukhara, Samarkand seemed big and full of bustle, but unlike Tashkent I felt that it retained more of its central Asian character, even in the more modern areas of the city. As an overall destination it didn’t move me in the way that Bukhara had, but some of the individual sights are among the most striking I have seen anywhere. The first impression of the Shah-i-Zinda will remain with me always, and naturally too the stunning Registan Square, though I was more prepared for that by images I’d seen before the trip.

The Shah-i-Zinda

If, as I’ve said elsewhere on these pages, Bukhara was my favourite of the Silk Road cities we visited, this was by far the most impressive and awe-inspiring individual sight. When our travelling companion Els exclaimed, ‘It’s too much for my eyes,’ I knew just what she meant!

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The Pishtak, Shah-i-Zinda

Entering through the grand entrance of Ulug Beg’s pishtak, which even on its own would be an impressive sight, we were greeted with a long line of mausoleums, many of them decorated in splendidly rich tile-work, mainly of blues but with touches of other colours too. As we climbed up through the complex more appeared, until I truly didn’t know where to look next, and indeed almost wanted the splendour to stop for a while so that I could take in all that I’d already seen.

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Shah-i-Zinda - the 'street'

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Plan of Shah-i-Zinda

This is the holiest site in Samarkand. According to legend, the prophet Elijah led Kussam-ibn-Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to the Afrosiab hill north east of Samarkand's current location. The legend tells how Kussam came to bring Islam to this Zoroastrian area, and was attacked and beheaded for his trouble. It was believed that despite this he continued to live, and indeed is alive still in an underground palace on this site, which now bears his name; ‘Shah-i-Zinda’ means ‘the Living King’.

Many people believed that the closer you were buried to a holy man, the easier your own route to Heaven would be; thus between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries some 30 tombs were built to form this necropolis centred upon Kussam's mausoleum. The earlier ones clustered around the top of the hill and later they were extended down the southern slope, forming the ‘street’ of mausoleums we see today. Tamerlaine buried many of his female family members here, and Ulug Beg built the grand pishtak as an entrance from the city to this holy place. In Soviet times, and even today, this belief about being buried close to holy men has persisted, so that the hill is now crowned by a cemetery.

For me the greatest impact of the Shah-i-Zinda was the sheer multitude of wonderful structures, many of them glowing so richly with the incredible tile-work, and also the sense of awe and sanctity it exudes. However, some parts and some individual buildings did stand out in particular, so I’ll try to do them justice. The numbers in bold in my text relate to the plan above so you can get some idea of the layout, but feel free to ignore them if you aren’t as obsessed by maps as I am!

After passing through Ulug Beg’s dramatic pishtak (18), the first structure on our left was a relatively recent (19th century) mosque (19), and beyond it a wooden iwan (25). Here an imam was greeting pilgrims and praying with them. In a courtyard on the right (23) a girl was butchering meat, a strangely prosaic sight in this holy place.

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Imam ...

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... and butcher

The mausoleums are arranged in three groups, separated by gateways known as chortaks, with steps connecting the lower and middle groups. These steps are known as the Staircase of Sinners and it is said that you should count them on your way up and your way back down. If the two numbers coincide you are sinless – mine did, which probably just proves the legend wrong

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The Staircase of Sinners

Halfway up the Staircase of Sinners is the Qasi Zadeh Rumi Mausoleum (17), dating from 1420-25 (17), the first of Shah-i-Zinda’s treasures. Its twin blue domes seem to soak up the colour of the sky and throw it out again even more intensely. This is the largest mausoleum in the complex, and perhaps surprisingly is the tomb not of a great ruler but of Tamerlaine’s wet nurse. A wet nurse was however considered as a second mother, and loved as dearly, which makes it a little less surprising.

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The Qazi Rumi Mausoleum

Passing through the next chortak we were assailed by the sheer scale and splendour of the complex. A complete street of mausoleums, many of them restored and gleaming with an intense blueness, stretched in front of us. The first four were immediately in front of us; two pairs facing each other across the ‘street’. These were the group that made the most powerful impression on me, because of their proximity to each other – they seemed almost to topple over us, an impression which I tried to capture in my photos.

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The Emir Zade and Emir Hussein Mausoleums

The first on the left is the Emir Zade Mausoleum, dating from 1386 (10), and on the right the Emir Hussein Mausoleum, 1376 (9).

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Emir Zade Mausoleum
- detail of tile-work

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The Emir Hussein Mausoleum

The next pair are the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum from 1372 (8) and Shirin Bika Aka from 1385 (14). Both of these house tombs of Tamerlaine’s sisters; the first has an inscription which reads ‘This is a tomb in which a precious pearl has been lost’.

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Ceiling of the Shadi Mulk Aka Mausoleum

Beyond this group and to the right is an unusual 15th century octagonal mausoleum (20). This is anonymous, as are the four unrestored ones on the left. This lack of restoration here came almost as a relief, as it allowed me time to recover my breath (figuratively speaking) and my senses, after the riches that had gone before.

As we continued up through the Shah-i-Zindah complex the ‘street’ widened and it was possible to stand back from the structures to get a different perspective. This photo shows two of the mausoleums in this group, Alim Nasafi (11) and Ulug Sultan Begum (12), both dating from around 1385.

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Alim Nasafi & Ulug Sultan Begum Mausoleums

Finally we reached the upper end of the complex, and a group of buildings including the Tuman Aka Mosque (16) and Mausoleum (15) which stand side by side, with the mainly 15th century Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque (21) opposite. The Tuman Aka buildings are dedicated to Tamerlaine’s favourite wife – the calligraphy above the entrance reads: ‘The tomb is a door and everybody enters it’.

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Dome of the Tuman Aka Mosque

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The Tuman Aka Mausoleum on the left, and looking out of the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque to the Tuman Aka Mosque on the right

I found the Kussam ibn Abbas Mosque one of the most interesting structures here. We entered along a corridor to find ourselves in a series of small rooms, including one with brightly coloured tile-work. The same room has a carved wooden frieze from the earlier 11th century mosque that once occupied this site. You can also peer through a wooden grille to see the four-tiered tomb of Kussam ibn Abbas himself, in the adjacent mausoleum, decorated with ornate majolica and the focus of every pilgrim’s visit.

The door of the mosque is of elm, its original elaborate ivory inlay lost but since restored (I have no idea whether ivory was used in the restoration or something else resembling it). An inscription reveals that the door was made in 1404-05 by the master Yusuf Shirazi.

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Locals at the Shah-i-Zinda

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By the time I reached this point in the complex my eyes were saturated with colour and splendour, and I certainly felt the truth of Els’s words: the Shah-i-Zinda is indeed almost too much for your eyes to take in. I took a break in the shade to sit for a while to contemplate the wonder of this place, and also the reverence with which these tombs were constructed. This was the spot where I decided finally that on balance the Soviet restoration of Uzbekistan’s wonders, which some consider to be over-done, was in fact justified; thanks to them we are able to see this place as its builders intended and marvel at their achievements.

The Ulug Beg Observatory

When all of us could finally tear ourselves away from the Shah-i-Zinda we went on to our next Samarkand sight which, while hardly on the same scale, was nevertheless fascinating.

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The Ulug Beg Observatory Museum

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The sextant

Ulug Beg, grandson of Tamerlaine, is often referred to as the ‘Astronomer King’, and here we found out why and learned more about this extraordinary ruler. As a young man he developed a love of learning; of mathematics, history, poetry and music – and especially of astronomy. Under his rule Samarkand became known as a cultured city, and here in 1424 Ulug Beg ordered the construction of this huge (for its time) observatory. And it was indeed ahead of its time. I have some very amateurish interest in astronomy myself and so was fascinated to hear about all his achievements.

Here Ulug Beg worked with other astronomers to record the co-ordinates of over 1,000 stars, to predict eclipses, and most impressive of all measured the solar year to within a minute of our modern, technology-assisted calculations.

The main structure of his Observatory has today almost completely disappeared, to be replaced by a Soviet-constructed series of blocks outlining where it would have been. But below ground you can still see the partial remains (11 metres of them) of his great sextant which was used in many of his observations and calculations. Incidentally it’s called a sextant because only 60 degrees of it were used, but it was actually a full 90 degree quadrant, the largest ever constructed at that time.

It was however only by studying the exhibits in the little museum that I was really able to make sense of what the sextant originally looked like and how it operated. There was also a mural showing Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and I rather enjoyed some of the paintings too – one of Ulug Beg’s birth and another of a design for a ballet called ‘The Legend of Samarkand’.

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Ulug Beg teaching astronomy, and his birth

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‘The Legend of Samarkand'

As I learned later from Wikipedia, he was rather less good at ruling than he was at science and astronomy. He lacked authority and he was overthrown and assassinated after only a short reign. But his scientific achievements live on – there is even a crater on the moon named after him.

The Gur Emir

Our final stop of the morning was at Tamerlaine’s mausoleum, the Gur Emir.

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The dome of the Gur Emir

Wherever you go in Uzbekistan it is impossible to avoid hearing the name of Tamerlaine. It seems every nation needs its heroes, and when the Soviets left the country and their heroic statues of Lenin and Marx were pulled down, it was Tamerlaine who took their places on plinths around the country and who came to symbolise for Uzbeks their new-found independence and freedom. Observers from outside might question his credentials as a hero – this is after all a man who, in attempting to conquer the world, left an estimated 17 million people dead in his wake. But in Samarkand in particular he left the legacy of great peace, prosperity and splendour.

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Detail of the dome

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The minaret

Naturally then his mausoleum is of a scale to impress. An unnamed poet is said to have exclaimed on seeing it, ‘Should the sky disappear, the dome will replace it’, and you can sort of see what he meant. Built originally for and by his grandson Mohammed Sultan who died in 1403, it became Tamerlaine’s own burial place also, and that of other descendants too, including Ulug Beg. Other buildings would previously have surrounded it (a madrassah and khanagha) but it now dominates its courtyard. Its octagonal shape is crowned by the immense ribbed dome, 32 metres high and covered in turquoise, yellow and green tiles.

We entered down a short passage which was added to the structure by Ulug Beg. Souvenir books and crafts were on sale here, seeming very out of place in this imposing space. From inside the dome is even more overwhelming, and is adorned with gilded calligraphy, as are the walls below.

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Inside the dome

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Gilded calligraphy

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Wall ornamentation

Beneath it lie the tombs, or rather marble cenotaphs marking the spots below which are the tombs themselves – of Tamerlaine, Ulug Beg and Mohammed Sultan, and also of Tamerlaine’s advisor Mir Sayid Barakah, and of several of his sons. A long pole crowned with a flourish of horsehair marks the grave of a holy man whose remains were found here when the mausoleum was built.

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Tombs in the Gur Emir

From here it was a very short drive back to the hotel. As we had two full days in Samarkand, our guided sightseeing was split over the two mornings, leaving us with free afternoons for some independent exploration. For Chris and me that meant, as a first priority, lunch.

Labi Gor Chaikhana

On the main road between the hotel and the Registan we found just what we were looking for. We though this probably the best of the restaurants we tried in Samarkand and was the perfect spot to unwind over a leisurely lunch after our morning’s sightseeing. Be warned though – that was back in 2007 and these days it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews!

The restaurant is quite large and arranged over two floors; the inside ground-floor space looked OK to us but the real delight was the first floor terrace with both traditional and western style seating, and glimpses of the Registan’s madrassah through the leaves of the surrounding trees. The friendly waiter spoke reasonable English and ran through the menu for us, so there was no need for us to worry about any language difficulties.

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At Labi Gor

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Manty

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Samarkand non

I ate some tasty manty (small mutton and onion stuffed dumplings, similar to Chinese dim sum, served with a dollop of yoghurt) while Chris had a large bowl of noodle soup. We shared a round of non, green tea and a big bottle of fizzy water, and found the bill of under £2 very reasonable given the location.

Sue arrived while we were eating and took this photo of the restaurant with us at our table with a view!

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In Labi Gor (taken by Sue)

The Registan

The Registan was on the agenda for tomorrow morning’s guided sightseeing tour, but we couldn’t be this close and not go and take a look, so after lunch we walked along to check it out. Our guidebook told us a bit about what we were seeing. The Registan is Samarkand’s (indeed, probably Uzbekistan’s) most famous sight, and with good reason.

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The Registan

The Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand. The name Registan means ‘sandy place’ in Persian and it was said that the sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held here until early in the 20th century. This is where Tamerlane stuck his victims’ heads on spikes, and where people gathered to hear royal proclamations. In his time this was the commercial centre of his capital city, where six roads met under a domed bazaar; it must have been similar to the Trading Domes of Bukhara. But his grandson Ulug Beg had grand plans for this space, and nowadays three madrasahs surround the large open space he created: the Ulug Beg Madrasah (1417-1420) which he had built, plus the later Shir Dor (1619-1636) and the Tillya Kari (1646-1660) Madrasahs. These stunning buildings are all constructed on a grand scale, dwarfing the people at their bases.

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Tillya Kari and Shir Dor Madrassahs
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Sculpture near the Registan

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Artists at the Registan


I’ll save more detailed information for my next entry, as that is when we had our more detailed look at the three madrassahs. For now we simply wandered around near the square and took a few photos from a distance, without paying for the tickets that would have given us a closer look, given that admission to the site would be included in our tour tomorrow.

The Bird of Happiness Gallery

In the streets just east of the Registan we stumbled across a cluster of upmarket shops in a small courtyard. I’d been searching for a gift for my mother, who liked scarves (which you can find in abundance in Uzbekistan) but preferred square ones (which you hardly see at all!) Then in this little gallery I found what I’d been looking for.

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Bird of Happiness gallery

The owner welcomed us with tea and sweets and answered (in limited English) our questions about the work for sale. It didn’t sell traditional Uzbek crafts but more modern ones, with a great range of paintings in various media, pottery and hand-painted silk scarves – including some square ones! The prices weren’t cheap - indeed by local standards they were high, and haggling wasn’t an option, but the items were of very good quality and worth what is asked for them, so I was very happy with my purchase.

Next door was another gallery displaying more paintings and very good photos of Uzbek scenery and Samarkand itself, so we enjoyed a browse there too but didn’t buy anything.

In the side street that led to the Zarina B & B were a couple of small local shops, where we had already discovered that we could buy bottled water at a lower price than that sold in the hotel. We stopped off here again this afternoon so that I could buy sweets to take home for work colleagues. This involved a fair amount of miming as I was keen to get a good mix of flavours but at the same time avoid chocolate which wouldn’t have survived in that heat. The shop-keeper was a little bemused at first but eventually we were able to understand each other and the resulting purchase gave me lots of satisfaction. The sweets were pretty tasty too!

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Local shop

Karimbek

Relaxing in the courtyard back at the hotel over a cold drink, we made dinner plans with some of the others from our group. Both Marat (our guide) and our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended the Karimbek restaurant, so we decided to give it a try.

We hailed a taxi on Registan Street and agreed a reasonable fare with the driver for the shortish ride to the restaurant. It was certainly a much better choice than the Marco Polo where we’d eaten the previous evening. There was plenty of choice, and an English-language menu of sorts – anyone for ‘Reach pleasure’, a ‘bird dich’ or 'Fred chicken'? Personally I prefer the meat I eat not to have a name! Note too that 'Payment for broken dishes is in accordance with the price list' - I wonder how many breakages they get if they feel the need to state this on the menu?!

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The menu at Karimbek

We chose a couple of salads to share to start with, one made with mushrooms and another called ‘charm’ which turned out to be a sort of coleslaw. We also had a hot appetiser of potato skins stuffed with cheese and mushrooms – very tasty. The main courses were less successful (my chicken was a bit dry, Chris’s pork chop rather salty) but the beer was good and the terrace where we sat very pleasant.

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Chicken 'Karimbek'

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The bill came to rather more than the other places where we ate in Samarkand but of course was cheap compared with eating out at home. It came on a tiny scrap of paper with just the figure scrawled on it, so we had no way of knowing if it was right or not! Look at the photo below which Sue took of Georgina – the bill is in her right hand, dwarfed by the bundle of cash needed to pay it!

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Georgina with the bill (taken by Sue)

What really made our evening was meeting the group of local ladies at the next table, who were there with their children for what was evidently a ‘girls’ night out’. They were having a great time, with lots of laughter (gold teeth much in evidence) and I’m sure some sips of vodka between the glasses of Fanta! Eventually one of them (the lady standing on the left of Chris’s photo of me with the group) plucked up the courage to come over to us, after several exchanges of smiles, to practice her little English: ‘Uzbekistan good?’ ‘Samarkand good good?’ – not much, but so much better than my Uzbek! A lovely encounter to end our evening.

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Me with our new friends!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:38 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged architecture mosque history shopping restaurants city blue tomb friends sculpture mausoleum science uzbekistan samarkand astronomy registan madrassah Comments (5)

‘The spine of the earth is about to crumble’

Uzbekistan day eight


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The great dome of the Bibi Khanum northern mosque

Today was our last day in Uzbekistan, and like yesterday we had a morning sightseeing tour with the afternoon free for independent exploration. So after breakfast at the Zarina it was into the bus for the short drive to our first stop.

Bibi Khanum Mosque

This is not one mosque, but three: two fairly normal in size, and the third on a truly grandiose scale. This is Tamerlaine’s great work, his attempt to build a mosque larger and more splendid than the Muslim world had ever seen. But his ambitions here overstretched the capabilities of his craftsmen, and the mosque was doomed almost from the start, though not from want of effort. He employed the very best slaves and workers, imported 95 elephants from India to haul the wagons and, when he judged the portal too low, had it pulled down and ordered it to be rebuilt. He himself superintended the work, coming to the site each day in his litter, and arranging for meat to be thrown down to the men digging the foundations rather than have them stop working for a moment.

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The entrance portal

The result was a mosque of never-before seen proportions – a portal over 35 metres tall leads to a huge courtyard, which was originally surrounded by a gallery of 400 cupolas supported by 400 marble columns. The main mosque on the eastern side has a portal of over 40 metres, and all was adorned with the most ornate tilework, carvings, gildings etc.

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In the main mosque

But this splendour wasn’t to last. Almost from the first day it was in use, the mosque began to crumble, putting worshippers in peril. No one seems to know for certain why this was – maybe the building was simply too ambitious for the technologies of the day. Whatever the reason, this is one ancient structure that has so far defied the attempts of modern builders to restore it properly. Thus when I went inside I was taken aback to see not the beautifully restored interior I’d come to expect by this point in our travels but a semi-ruin held together with great iron bolts. Weirdly though, this seemed to me to emphasise, even more than if it had been restored, the great scale of this monument to Tamerlaine’s ambitions.

Back outside in the courtyard we saw the huge marble Koran stand, designed to hold the Osman Koran we had seen on display in Tashkent.

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The Koran stand

An artist was painting quietly in the centre of the courtyard, his paintings arranged around the great marble Koran stand. These were mostly very detailed watercolours of some of the exquisite tilework on Samarkand’s mosques and other monuments. We watched him at work for a while, then checked out the paintings more carefully.

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Artist at work

The work was very fine, and the prices incredibly reasonable, so it was an easy decision to buy one, though a much harder one to choose which it should be. In the end we selected one that we liked, of an entrance surrounded by blue and green mosaic. For this original watercolour measuring about 15 by 20 cms we paid just $7 – what a bargain, and what a lovely souvenir of our visit to the mosque. It now hangs just by our front door and reminds me daily of the wonders of Uzbekistan’s architecture.

The Bazaar

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In Samarkand Bazaar

Next to the Bibi Khanum Mosque is a bazaar/market, and this provided us with complete contrast to, and respite from, Samarkand’s wealth of blue-tiled splendour. This isn’t, or at least wasn’t back in 2007, a tourist attraction (though tourists do visit) but a real slice of the daily life of this city. People flock here to sell and buy local produce of all kinds – fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat and more.

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, we saw bread in a huge variety of designs – even some decorated with coloured sweets, intended for celebrations and parties. Bread, known as non, holds a special place in Uzbek society. Every region, and indeed every baker, has its own distinctive style, from the flaky pastry-like offerings we had enjoyed in Bukhara to the elaborately decorated loaves in the market here. Patterns are created by stamping the unbaked loaves (you can buy the stamps in many souvenir shops in Bukhara for instance) and the bread is then baked in a traditional tandoor oven – the loaves are slapped onto the walls of the oven, and when they drop off they are ready to eat.

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Decorated non

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Rounds of non

The loaf commands great respect. It should never be served or placed upside down on the table, and if dropped on the ground should be picked up and kissed. Traditionally, when a son left home to fight or to seek his fortune, he would take a bite from a loaf that would then be kept, hung on display in the house, to await his safe return.

Also on sale in the market we saw brooms, caps and other necessities, but it was fresh produce that dominated. There was a separate area for the sale of each, so we walked past stall after stall selling nothing but onions, potatoes, or heaps of fresh herbs. In the spice section we encountered the most enticing smells while in the sections for bread or dried fruits we were offered tempting samples.

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On sale in the market

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Traditional brooms

And of course, as this is Uzbekistan, everywhere we wandered people were eager to greet us, to pose for photos and press treats upon us. In fact the willingness to pose became a bit of a problem – it made it hard for me to capture natural shots of people going about their daily business, not because they didn’t want me to, but because as soon as I raised the camera they would break off from their sale or their conversation to smile at me rather stiffly.

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Market traders

This is also a good place to observe local customs in dress and personal adornment. Gold teeth are very popular here – they are considered a sign of wealth and people will often have healthy teeth replaced if they can afford to, rather than wait for the teeth to go bad and give them problems later. Another striking difference from what we in the UK consider beautiful is the custom of the women of some ethnic groups to draw in the space between their eyebrows to create a single line, as the woman in my photograph on the left below has done.

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More market traders

For me it’s as much a part of travel to learn about these cultural differences as it is to see the great monuments, and a market is always a great place to start!

The Registan

But now it was time at last to properly explore the most famous sight in Samarkand (indeed, probably in Uzbekistan) – the Registan. So far we had simply looked at the three madrasahs which surround the square from the road, as it’s necessary to pay to enter the square, so today was our first close-up look.

Ulug Beg Madrassah

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

When Ulug Beg demolished the trading domes of his grandfather Tamerlane’s square, where previously public executions had taken place and royal decrees proclaimed, he changed the emphasis of the Registan from earthly power to heavenly. The first building erected here was the madrassah which bears his name. Built between 1417 and 1420, the Ulug Beg Madrassah has an ornate pishtak (portal) 35 metres high, which is decorated in rich blues and other colours – I found that there was more variety to the colours here in Samarkand than in the other cities on the Silk Road.

Above the main arch is a cluster of stars, reflecting its founder’s passion for astronomy. A Kulfic inscription reads:
This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens, and of such a weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble’.

Either side of this portal are minarets of roughly the same height and framing it perfectly.

The portal leads to a square courtyard lined with 50 hujira, the former students’ cells, which were (like the portal and minarets) largely restored in the mid 1990s and are decorated with the same rich colours – blue, green, gold. They are now, inevitably, devoted to craft and souvenir shops with products of varied quality. One sold cold drinks which were very welcome on this hot day.

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In the Ulug Beg Madrassah

In the NW corner of the courtyard an entrance passage lead us to a small mosque, now used as an art gallery. We enjoyed this – some of the items (both paintings and ceramics) were of a high quality and there was plenty of variety in the styles from traditional to very modern.

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Ulug Beg's classroom

A room opening off this one is known as Ulug Beg’s classroom. This apparently is where he would teach astronomy to the students of the madrassah, seated (unusually for that place and time) on a throne-like chair rather than the floor. The room was cordoned off, so we could peer inside but not enter (or so we were told – when we returned later we did see a small group in there but were prevented from entering ourselves – I suspect that money had changed hands!)

Shir Dor Madrassah

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The Shir Dor Madrassah

Two hundred years after the construction of the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the then ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, decided to complete the ensemble with two further buildings. The first of these to be completed was the Shir Dor Madrassah, which sits directly opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah and is almost a mirror image in terms of size and basic shape, though very different in its decoration.

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Dome and minaret, Shir Dor Madrassah

Interestingly, it obeys some of the rules of Islamic design, while flouting others. So despite being identical in size and shape to its older ‘reflection’, it follows Koranic law in avoiding symmetry. However, like the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara, this one deviates from normal Islamic practice in having representations of living creatures as part of its decoration. The two golden lions that give the madrassah its name (Shir Dor means ‘lion bearing’ chase two white does across the arch. Striped (and thus looking more like tigers), they each bear a sun on their backs, showing the influence of Zoroastrianism. For me this was one of my abiding images of Uzbekistan.

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Golden lions on the Shir Dor Madrassah

The inscription on this portal reads: ‘The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.’

Passing through it you find yourself in another hujira-lined courtyard, though less thoroughly restored than that in the Ulug Beg Madrassah. One of these cells houses a shop selling traditional Uzbek musical instruments where the owner had arranged a few rows of chairs in the small space. When enough visitors had gathered (and our group constituted ‘enough’) he gave a demonstration of the various traditional instruments in his collection. These ranged from some simple two stringed ones (which reminded me very much in sound and style of those we heard on a trip to China) to a banjo-style one, Uzbek tambourine and a flute.

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Traditional musical instrument demonstration

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Lute-style Uzbek instrument

Another cell was decorated as a typical Uzbek room with various pieces of furniture and some traditional costumes, supposedly in the style a newly-wed couple might adopt.

Tillya Kari Madrassah

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The Tillya Kari Madrassah

Ten years after the Shir Dor Madrassah was completed the third side of the Registan was filled in by the addition of the Tillya Kari Madrassah. This building is of a similar height but noticeably wider than its neighbours to either side; it was obviously thought more important to give the square harmony and balance than to follow normal practice in madrassah design. Thus the pishtak here is flanked by two-storied rows of hujira facing out onto the square in addition to the single story row which lines the interior courtyard.

Above the western side of this courtyard a stunningly turquoise dome announces the presence beneath it of the city’s main mosque (built to replace an already-ruined Bibi Khanum).

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The dome of the Tillya Kari Madrassah

The mosque has been restored and is full of the most ornate decoration, covered in the gold leaf that gives the madrassah its name (Tillya Kari = gilded). The ceiling is particularly striking – it is almost flat but the trompe l’oeil effect had me believing that I was looking up into a great dome. The mihrab is similarly gilded. A small museum set up in a side room of the mosque shows pieces of ceramic and terracotta from the restoration work and some fascinating ‘before and after’ photos.

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Inside the 'dome'

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The mihrab

Seeing more of the Registan

Our tour of the Registan brought to an end our official sightseeing in Samarkand. We were to leave this evening, but we had most of the afternoon free to explore a bit more, as well as fit in the somewhat less enjoyable task of packing to go home.

Our tickets for the Registan were good for the whole day so after popping back to Labi Gor for a spot of lunch we returned to revisit the Registan’s madrassahs and do a bit of souvenir shopping here.

But before we could start our shopping, we were approached by one of the security guards who offered (for a fee, naturally) to let us climb one of the minarets of the Ulug Beg Madrassah. I reluctantly decided that it would be more than I wanted to attempt in that heat, but Chris went ahead, paid the guard 3,000 som (with the transaction conducted in secret inside the building, as this was strictly speaking illegal) and made the climb. He told me it was dark and steep in places, but well worth the effort to get some great shots.

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A shot taken by Chris from the Ulug Beg minaret, and the minaret of the Shir Dor Madrassah, taken by me!

I waited in the square below, taking a few more photos. When Chris returned from his climb, we went back into the Ulug Beg Madrassah to browse the souvenir stalls in the hujira. While these can detract (and distract) considerably from the impact of the madrassah, we found them convenient we could browse several places before making our selections. We quickly found however that most of the items available were much the same from shop to shop, as were the prices. The standard items in almost every shop included suzanni (embroidery, usually wall-hangings or cushion covers), small pottery or ceramic pieces, silk scarves, knives, pictures, rugs, musical instruments, cheap beads etc.

We bought a small mosaic picture which reminded us of a typical Uzbek scene, a pre-restoration photo of the Tillya Kari Madrassah and a simple cushion cover for my mother-in-law, all of which we found in various hujira here.

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One of the shops, and the 'Museum of embroidery'

The best purchase for us though was another cushion cover which I found in a more substantial shop to the left of the entrance, which proclaimed itself a museum of embroidery. Here a young girl was working at a suzanne, and the quality of the work on display was very evidently superior to much that we’d seen elsewhere. Whereas the first cushion cover we bought had large areas of plain cotton unadorned by embroidery, the ones here were completely covered with beautifully worked silk stitches. You can see the one we chose in my photo below, still looking good all these years later on our sofa at home. Of course it wasn’t cheap, and unlike in the cells haggling was not really permitted, although when we asked if the price of $35 was negotiable (polite speak for ‘can we haggle’) we were told no – but he would let us have it for a discount at $30!

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Our cushion cover

A few more photos and it was time to go back to the hotel to pack. Our time in Samarkand, and in Uzbekistan, was coming to an end.

Dinner in a family home

As it was our last evening in Uzbekistan Marat had arranged for as many of us as wanted to (almost all of us) to have a final farewell dinner in a restaurant run in a family home in the city’s suburbs.

This was a lovely occasion. A long table was set for us on a raised balcony in the leafy courtyard of the house, laden with various salads, bread and fruit. After the salads we were served a selection of samsas, which are an Uzbek version of samosas, little pastries filled with meat or vegetables – I particularly liked the spinach one. These were followed by a soup with chickpeas and then a dish I hadn’t had elsewhere: a roll of a pasta-like dough filled with meat, a bit like a large manty. The meal ended with slices of juicy watermelon and cake. To drink we had bottled water and Uzbek wine – I chose some red but found it bizarrely sweet and not to my taste.

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Our group at dinner

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Me with Sue, Georgina and Els

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With Chris and Sue at dinner

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Farewell from our host

The one downside to this otherwise excellent meal was that we had to eat it rather quickly, as most of us had to leave on the long overnight drive to Tashkent to catch an early morning flight (which ironically was delayed!) But before we left Chris, who had somehow been nominated by the group, presented Marat with the tips we had collected for him, and gave a nice speech to thank him for being such an excellent guide and looking after us so well in his country and here in his home city.

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Farewell from Marat at Tashkent Airport

Dinner over we hurried to the bus which was waiting outside. Thanks to the last minute changes that had had to be made to our flights (from Uzbekistan Airways to Aeroflot) we faced an overnight drive to Tashkent for our 2.00 AM check-in. As it turned out, when we got to the airport our flight was delayed by some hours and for a while we weren’t even allowed to get off the bus as the terminal was crowded and check-in not yet open. Eventually however we were on our way on the first leg of the journey, to Moscow.

There the delay meant that we had only a very short time in which to make our transfer, so we were horrified to see the length of the queues to go through passport control (mandatory even though we weren’t actually entering the country!) Chris and I, with Sue and Georgina who were on the same flight to London, cajoled those in front of us into letting us jump the queue, only to find that our departure gate was the same one in which we had deplaned, and our plane the same one in which we had arrived from Tashkent! It was refuelling and there had been no chance therefore that we could have missed the flight despite those queues – if only someone had told us, or better still allowed us to simply wait in the lounge at the gate!

After this it was plain sailing (should that be ‘plane flying’?!) and we reached home safely, memory cards and brains overloaded with the rich blues of the architecture of the Silk Road.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:31 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged people food architecture mosque history market flight airport shopping museum music tour crafts uzbekistan samarkand madrassah Comments (8)

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