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‘Stone Fortress’: Uzbekistan’s modern capital

Uzbekistan day one


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Tashkent

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Khast Imam Square, Tashkent

There has been a city here for over 2,000 years, its position on a junction of the Silk Road, advantageous geographical location and favourable climate making it a centre for trade from ancient times. Tashkent (the name means ‘stone fortress’) became a Muslim city in the 8th century AD, was part of Ghenghis Khan’s empire in the 13th century, an important commercial centre during the Middle Ages and from the mid 19th century part of the Russian empire.

Today it is a largely modern city, thanks mainly to the devastation caused by a huge earthquake in 1966. It is often overlooked for this reason, and certainly doesn’t have the wealth of attractions of the Silk Road cities, but there are some monuments and other sights worth visiting.

Flying to Tashkent

Tashkent’s airport is located only 7 km from the city centre, and handles both international and domestic flights. We arrived here at 3.30 AM after a long journey, having had to change from a direct Uzbekistan Airlines flight to an Aeroflot one via Moscow only a few weeks before our holiday. This was apparently because the European Union refused to renew Uzbekistan Airlines’ license on safety grounds – a decision which after our domestic flight with them to Khiva I fully understood!

The flight was fine – new planes for both legs, punctual, but with unappetising catering and a too-long wait at Moscow Airport. But landing at that time of day after a long flight is never fun, and we found the customs and security procedures particularly tiresome as well as tiring. I decided that the quality you need most in dealing with these is patience, followed closely by sharp elbows! Once through passport control (which we found slow but not unreasonably so), we had to collect our bags from the conveyer belt, and even though we had arrived in the middle of the night on what appeared to be the only flight, we had to wait some time.

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Tashkent Airport
~ photos were strictly forbidden, but I only found that out
after taking this one while we waited
for our fellow passengers in the transfer bus!

Our next task was to fill in the customs declaration form in duplicate. A number of small tables were provided for this purpose at the airport, with racks of the forms on each. Most of the forms were in Russian but were a few in English and grabbing these made our task much easier.

When we’d completed the forms, we could proceed to the customs queue. I say ‘queue’ but in practice we found a crowd of people all pushing forwards to get through a narrow gap! Many of these were evidently locals who’d been shopping for electrical and other goods in Moscow (where we’d had to change planes) and therefore had a large number of bags and boxes. All baggage was scanned at this point, so progress was slow. I’m afraid at five in the morning after a long journey we weren’t feeling too charitable, but we eventually got to the front by dint of joining up with our fellow tourist passengers to form a wider barrier to prevent queue-jumping!

We eventually made it through and outside almost an hour and a half after landing. Luckily the airport is very close to the city centre and as we were travelling with a group we were met by our local guide Marat, who was to prove an excellent host, and were whisked to our hotel where we finally made it to bed at 5.45 AM.

That late arrival meant that we didn’t really get the best out of our visit to Tashkent. We only had one day here, and not getting to bed the previous day until 5.45 AM was not the best preparation for a day’s sightseeing! Add to that our first taste of the hot Uzbek summer sun, and you can see why I managed not to take so many pictures as usual nor visit as many sights as I would have liked.

One consolation is that Tashkent was certainly the least interesting of our four stops on the Silk Road, although it had its charms, including the best meal we had on this trip (also as it happens our first, so it set high expectations that were sadly never fulfilled!)

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Traditional teapot and bowl on display at our Tashkent hotel

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a bit about our hotel (not that we saw that much of it!) We stayed in the Grand Raddus, which was fine for our needs but which I see these days gets very poor reviews. On VT I wrote:

‘This is a comfortable small three star hotel in a good location to the south of the city centre. It’s particularly convenient for the airport – a big plus when your flight arrives at 3.30 in the morning, and you need to check in for the departure to Urgench at 6.00 AM the next day! The staff speak some English and are friendly and helpful. There is a pleasant courtyard with a small pool (which we didn’t find the time to try).

Our room wasn’t large but was clean and nicely decorated, although I smiled to see the painting of the sea above the bed in this double land-locked country. We had a TV (didn’t try that either!), safe and should apparently have had a minibar, but unfortunately ours seemed have been removed for repair, which was a shame as it meant we also didn’t get the promised complimentary bottled water. The bathroom was also nice, and well-provided with large (for a 3* hotel) towels, but less so with toiletries, and the shower cubicle would have given anyone larger than us some difficulties as the entrance was very narrow.

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Breakfast room

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Pool

The included buffet breakfast is served in a dining room with plasma screen TV showing Uzbek MUTV (thankfully with no sound!) or if you’re lucky a news channel. We had bread, cheese, cold meats, sausage, eggs, porridge, refreshing apple juice (had to ask for this on the second day as none had been put out), watermelon, dried fruits and nuts, plus instant coffee.

The hotel is just off the main road in a quiet and very safe-feeling residential neighbourhood. We went for a short walk to explore and were greeted with friendly smiles. It was good to get a sense of the styles of housing and way of life here. We also felt very safe walking back from the Caravan Restaurant in the evening, even after dark.’

So that’s all good – but it must have gone seriously downhill since then from all I read, as recent reviews are poor.

After breakfast we set off on our included tour of the city, which took us to several of the main sights, and despite my tiredness from the previous day’s journey I managed to enjoy the tour a lot.

Earthquake Memorial: the Monument of Courage

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The Earthquake Memorial

As I mentioned above, Tashkent was struck by a huge earthquake (7.5 on the Richter scale) on 26th April 1966. Casualties were relatively low for such a catastrophe – the weather was already hot and many people were sleeping in their gardens rather than inside the old houses which were easily destroyed by the force of the quake. But the city itself was devastated – 300,000 were left homeless, and many traditional old buildings, both humble and grand, were destroyed. A massive re-building programme was initiated by the Soviet government, which explains the heavy use of concrete and grandiose style of architecture in much of the city (some old houses do though still remain in the western part).

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The Earthquake Memorial
~ you can see the crack on the left, while Chris, on the right, provides a sense of the scale

This memorial commemorates the bravery of the ordinary people of the city. A granite cube displays the exact time of the first tremor, 5.22 AM, and a dramatic crack runs across the paving to illustrate its effect. Above the crack a man, considerably larger than life, holds up a hand as if to protect his wife and child cowering behind him. Around the area of the monument names commemorating those who died are carved on the wall.

This is a popular place for wedding photos – we arrived just too late to include a wedding party in our pictures (we spotted them leaving), but the bouquet had been left, rather poignantly, on the granite cube.

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The granite cube with the bride's bouquet

Khast Imam Square

On the edge of the old town lies a group of religious buildings, several of them dating originally from the 16th century, though much restored. The complex acts as the religious headquarters for Islam in Uzbekistan and the on-going restoration work when we were here symbolised the country’s revival of interest in and commitment to its faith, though the number of actively practising Muslims was (and I believe still is) quite low.

On the western side is the Barak Khan Madrassah, founded by a descendent of Tamerlaine and decorated with blue mosaic and inscriptions from the Koran. This was our first introduction to the style of architecture that was to dominate our journey along the Silk Road, and although not as impressive as the sights of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, it is still a striking building. It is the administrative centre for the mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of Islam, and as such cannot usually be visited by tourists (although our city guide did ask, and told us that occasionally she is granted permission).

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Curious children in Khast Imam Square
~ the Barak Khan Madrassah is in the background

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Reconstruction work at the Barak Khan Madrassah

Facing the madrassah across the large open space is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, from the same period, which now acts as the city’s Juma (Friday) mosque. The mosque itself is also out of bounds to tourists.

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The Tellya Sheikh Mosque

The remaining buildings are the Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi Mausoleum, which was built over the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet, and on the southern side of the square the former Namazgokh Mosque, a more recent 19th century addition to the complex which now houses the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute.

Muyi Muborak Library and the Osman Koran

This library, part of the Khast Imam Square complex, houses an important collection of Islamic texts. Muyi Muborak means sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair which is said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook at the time, only male tourists were allowed in to the collection, but to my delight we found that information to be out of date, at least in respect of the star attraction. A room has recently been specially restored to display this, the Osman Koran, which is considered to be the oldest extant Koran in the world, written on deerskin.

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The replica of the Osman Koran
in Bukhara Ark

Said to date from 655 (although this has been challenged by experts who put it as more likely from the 8th or 9th century) and stained with the blood of murdered caliph Osman, it was brought by Tamerlaine to Samarkand and displayed on the huge stone lectern in the Bibi Khanum Mosque there (which we were to visit later in the trip). It was seized by the Russians and taken to Saint Petersburg but returned to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution and since 1989 has been housed in this library. It now takes centre stage in this small room, displayed in a glass cabinet on a raised platform. To view it you must remove your shoes, and photography is strictly forbidden. But there is a replica in the Ark in Bukhara, which we also saw later in the trip.

The imam/librarian told us (through our guide as translator) that the Koran had been restored with assistance from experts at the British Library, and that his daughter is now in London studying these techniques. The photography ban supposedly extends to the whole room, so when Chris asked for, and was given, permission to take a picture of the imam he gestured to the door, planning to photograph him in the entrance. However the man was adamant that the picture should be taken inside and with the Koran in its case in the background, as you can see.

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The imam and our guide Natasha in front of the Koran
[taken by Chris]

The imam asked if we could get in touch with his daughter to give her a copy of the photo; I later made email contact with her, hoping to meet up with her in London, but unfortunately she never responded. However, the experience of seeing this wonderful old document was really enhanced for me by meeting and talking to this man so committed to the collection in his care.

Abdul Khasim Madrassah

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Young Koran stand carver at the Abdul Khasim Madrassah

This 19th century madrassah, greatly restored, was founded by a man famous for his ability to recite all of the Koran by heart, Abulkasym Eshon. He was a significant figure in Tashkent’s history, one of a group of prominent people of the city who gathered here in his madrassah to sign a Tashkent-Russian peace agreement in 1865. He funded the education of 150 pupils here every year, was respected as a wise and enlightened man to whom many came for advice.

I’m not sure what such a religious man would make of his seminary’s conversion to a crafts centre and souvenir-shopping destination. But if it’s any consolation to him, many of the objects on sale here are beautiful and the peaceful atmosphere of the courtyard has been retained.

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Painted box

As we were to see later in the trip at the Registan in Samarkand, each of the hajira (students’ cells) houses a different shop, but here the shops mostly double as workshops, so we could enjoy watching the craftsmen at work and could see the skill and techniques that went into creating the objects on sale.

We particularly admired the detailed miniature painting on the small papier maché boxes and bought a couple as gifts for family. They cost $11 for the pair, after haggling (starting price $7 each) – we may have got them even cheaper with more effort but we were very tired from our long journey, and in any case less than £6 for two beautifully hand-painted was enough of a bargain.

Other possibilities here are the traditional carved wooden Koran stands, walking sticks, wooden boxes, embroideries and rugs, musical instruments and silver knives.

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Artist's work-space

Applied Arts Museum

This is a lovely small museum, both for its collections and perhaps even more so for the building that houses it. This was built for a Russian diplomat, Alexandrovich Polovtsev, who so admired the architecture of the region that he had the best craftsmen from all over the country to build his residence.

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Main room and ceramics display at the Applied Arts Museum

The main hall has a decorative mihrab which points in the opposite direction to Mecca as Polovtsev was aiming for decorative, not functioning, Islam. Quotes from Omar Khayyam frame two doorways:
‘The world is a great caravanserai with two doors: one entrance and one exit. Every day new guests come to the caravanserai.’

The hall also has a central pool, while the courtyard has traditional verandas complete with colourful painted and carved columns.

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Courtyard, Applied Arts Museum

The highlights of the collection for me were the beautifully embroidered suzanni which we saw in the first room we entered.

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Suzanni

There is also an extensive collection of ceramics from different parts of the country; this is a good place to appreciate the varied styles and use of colours from each town, though you’ll need a guide to interpret this for you unless you speak sufficient Russian to read the various labels. I also liked the pottery water vessels – many of these get around the Islamic prohibition on living animal images by depicting evidently mythical beasts, or indicating that the animal is dead through slashes to its throat etc.

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Dragon water bottle

I had paid extra to take photos inside, which I found worthwhile. Other people in our group hadn’t bothered to pay and I think a few regretted it.

There were a couple of very good shops here, selling superior local crafts. I bought a beautiful purple silk scarf – dearer than those sold on the street stalls but of superior quality I felt. I am still wearing it regularly twelve years later!

After this it was back to the hotel for a short and much-needed rest.

Caravan Arts Café

This restaurant had been recommended to me by a friend, so I was pleased to discover that it was only about 15 minutes walk away from our hotel. The recommendation turned out to be spot-on (thanks Tom!) and we were very pleased with our evening out, despite being very tired after our long flight the day/night before and our first day’s sightseeing in the Uzbek heat.

We were joined by two others from our group, Sue and Georgina, having got friendly already during the long journey from London (it is these two group members with whom I am still in touch). On arrival we had a choice of sitting inside or out and chose a table in the pretty courtyard. We’d come early, about 6.00 PM (because we were planning on a much-needed early night) – later arrivals who hadn’t reserved a table had to sit inside as the courtyard ones were all taken. The first requirement was for cold beers all round, and we were quickly supplied with glasses of Shimkent, a pleasant-tasting beer from Kazakhstan. Our friendly waiter was very patient as we tried to decide what to eat – this was our first encounter with Uzbek food and despite some research before we went we weren’t at all sure what to order. Eventually we settled on sharing some samsas to start with (small pasties filled with meat or vegetables). Chris then chose a plate of manty (soft pasta-style dumplings filled with mutton and onions, often likened to ravioli but to me more like Chinese dim sum). I went for the stuffed peppers, Sue a Greek salad and Georgina a vegetable curry.

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With Georgina at the Caravan Arts Cafe [taken by Sue]

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Manty

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Vegetable curry

Just one small thing marred our otherwise very pleasant evening, albeit only slightly: our waiter had perhaps been too busy trying to please us with his helpfulness, and had forgotten to write down my order for the peppers, so I ended up eating my main course after the others had finished. Not to worry though – another beer helped pass the time, and when I’d caught up we ordered some desserts. My ‘Eastern sweets’ turned out to be a selection of dried fruits and nuts; we ate a few then packed up the rest to take out (they proved to be just what we needed a few days later on a long drive through the desert).

We walked back through the quiet streets to the hotel, ready for that early night. Tomorrow’s alarm was set for 5.00 AM as we had another plane to catch!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:01 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged food architecture mosque restaurant monument history hotel flight airport shopping city museum crafts uzbekistan tashkent silk_road Comments (13)

The beauty of the spirit

Uzbekistan day four


View Uzbekistan 2007 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A traditional saying tells us that:
‘Samarkand is the beauty of the earth, but Bukhara is the beauty of the spirit’
and another that:
‘In all other parts of the globe light descends upon the earth, from holy Bukhara it ascends’

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

Certainly, this is where Uzbekistan really came to life for me. In the ancient streets of Bukhara history weaves itself effortlessly around the present-day lives of its people. Here you get a real sense of continuity – the world of the Silk Road caravans isn’t preserved in the aspic of Khiva, nor tucked into islands among the modern-day bustle of Samarkand, but is an ever-present backdrop to daily life. To walk these streets, duck through the low arches of the caravanserai and trading domes, sit for a while over green tea by the pool of Lyab-i-Huaz; this is what people of this city have done for centuries.

We had a very full day here, sightseeing mainly with our group but also exploring a little bit on our own. I would have welcomed a second day, in order to go back to some of the most interesting sights and also simply to wander the streets or sit for a while in a Lyab-i-Hauz chaikhana to absorb the special atmosphere which for me was one of the main highlights of Bukhara.

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The breakfast room at the Hotel Mosque Baland

Our day started with breakfast which was served in the same lovely room where we had enjoyed tea and cake the previous evening. Unfortunately, I was suffering a little with ‘Uzbek tummy’, although not as badly as some travelling companions had done or were doing. I was very careful about what I ate and felt well enough to go out on the tour. In fact, my stomach settled pretty quickly once we were out and about, and I snacked on some bread saved from breakfast an hour or so later!

Ismael Samani Mausoleum

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The Ishmail Somani Mausoleum from Pioneer Park

The first stop on our tour was at this striking small mausoleum set in a park to the west of the old town – striking because of its simplicity and perfect symmetry. Built at the beginning of the tenth century, it is the first known example of the use of fired bricks in Central Asia. And these bricks are used to stunning advantage, to produce eighteen different types of decorative effect. The patterns of light and shade thus created are the building’s only adornment – there is no sign here of the rich colourful tile-work seen elsewhere in the country.

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The Ismael Samani Mausoleum

The design of the mausoleum is strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism, a religion which was practiced in this part of the world before the days of Islam, and also by the mathematical discoveries of al-Khorezmi, whose story is told in my Khiva entry. Its almost two-metre thick walls form a 10.8 metre cube with identical sides, topped by a small dome. The cube is considered to symbolise the earth, and the dome heaven.

The mausoleum was built originally for Ismail Samani’s father but was used also for Samani himself and thus bears his name. A legend tells that he ruled for more than 40 years even after his death, and that even after his death he would still come to the aid of his people when they needed justice. They would come to his mausoleum, pray and put their statements on his tomb. The next day they would receive the answer and their problems would be solved. It seems some people must still believe this legend, because I saw several notes left on the tomb with a small sum of money.

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Inside the Ishmail Somani Mausoleum

Pioneer Park

The Ismael Samani Mausoleum lies in a small park, which we were told was the Pioneer Park but which present-day maps name as Samonids Recreation Park. We had a little time to wander around here. It was still quite early in the day, but it struck me that this is a good place to come if you want to see Bukharans at play.

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Boating in Pioneer Park

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The lake with city walls beyond

There were some slightly scruffy looking children’s fairground rides, which I thought unlikely to have passed a health and safety examination here in the UK! Beyond these was the lake, popular with families and couples already out enjoying the peddle boats, and beyond that we saw a short stretch of the old city walls of Bukhara, dating from the 16th century and now in a poor state of repair though they once stood 10 metres high and 5 metres thick. We were told that the reason for their dilapidated state was that the clay of which they were built was much prized for the medicinal qualities of some of the chemicals it contains.

Bolo Hauz

From the Pioneer Park we drove the short distance to Bolo Hauz, after which our tour would be on foot for the rest of the morning.

Bolo Hauz, the ‘mosque near the pool’, is Bukhara’s Friday mosque and is again being used as such after the years of Soviet rule when it served as a workers’ club and a warehouse, having been restored to its former (1712) glory.

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Bolo Hauz Mosque

The exterior is adorned with a beautiful 12 metre high iwan, one of the highest in Central Asia. The shape of this echoes that of the mosque in the Ark which we were headed to after this, and was designed to form a beautiful reflection in the pool opposite, though on our visit this was sadly too murky to produce the desired effect. The colours are vibrant, and the many wooden pillars are all different, as is usual in Islamic architecture – only God is allowed the perfection that would be created by making them all alike.

The interior is relatively simple, as is usual in Suni mosques, with only the mihrab showing rich colours. Incidentally, the upper part of this mihrab is original. I loved the relative simplicity of the cobweb-like design on the ceiling.

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Inside Bolo Hauz Mosque

I was surprised, but pleased, to find that in Uzbekistan there seem to be no restrictions on entering practising mosques, providing you show respect and remove your shoes. Unlike in other Muslim countries there is no requirement to be especially modest in your dress, and in most places photography is allowed. In return for this welcome, we left a small donation – the state here recognises Islam and allows its practice but doesn’t support it financially, so tourist contributions are important.

The man who had shown us around was keen to pose for us, as was the imam outside as we left.

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In Bolo Hauz Mosque

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Imam outside Bolo Hauz Mosque

The Ark

The Ark or fortress of Bukhara lies immediately east of Bolo Hauz. There has been a fortress on this site for as long as the city of Bukhara has existed, though the one we see now dates largely from the 16th century. It was considerably destroyed in 1920 – at first when attacked during the conquest of Bukhara by the Red Army, under Mikhail Vasilyevich Frunze, and then by fire, burned either by the attacking forces or by the retreating emir. Today, therefore, it consists of a mixture of old elements from various periods and other parts that have been restored fairly recently. At its height it would have housed the emir, his family and servants, and over 3,000 other inhabitants in its palace, harem, treasury, barracks, dungeon and slave quarters.

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Entrance to the Ark

We ascended a stone ramp, which climbs from the empty expanse of the Registan square, and entered through the western gateway, which dates from 1742. From here the dolom, a winding passageway tall enough to allow a man on horseback to enter without dismounting, leads past a row of prison cells and torture chambers, and today’s inevitable tourist souvenir stalls. Climbing up here I found it easy, despite these modern-day trappings, to imagine how hard this fortress would have been to attack, and how this sombre entrance might have struck terror in those who had reason to fear the emir’s power.

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The mosque in the Ark

We emerged by the Ark’s only remaining mosque built at the end 18th century. Although partly ruined, the pillars of rare sycamore are impressive and its shape echoes that of the Bolo Hauz Mosque opposite. It now houses an interesting display of calligraphy. In Tashkent we had seen the ancient Koran displayed in the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, so I was pleased to find here its replica which (unlike the original) can be photographed. On my Tashkent page you can read the story of how Chris came to photograph the original!

A little further into the complex we came to the Throne Room, the kurinesh khana. This is largely ruined, due to the 1920 fire, but you can still see the iwan where coronations took place and the remnants of the impressive tilework on the gate.

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The throne room

A number of museums are to be found in the different buildings that still stand within the Ark, including a good local history museum and a very unremarkable (unless you like moth-eaten stuffed animals!) natural history one. In the main courtyard were stables for the horses – apparently when the horses and their stalls were washed down each day the dirty water was swept down the slope of the courtyard and down into the prison cells directly below. Also off this courtyard is the viewing platform that the women of the emir’s court would use to look out over the Registan below without themselves being seen.

And why would they want to look out over the Registan? This once-great square which surrounded the Ark was the heart and soul of Bukhara. pokes led out from the Registan to the four corners of the globe and a seething mass of hawkers, barbers, beggars, butchers, bakers, dervishes and courtiers thronged the bustling square.

In this vast square, under the emir’s reign, tortures and executions would be carried out, and, under the Soviets, mass rallies took place. In those earlier days of executions and flogging the Registan would have looked more like that in Samarkand, surrounded by madrassahs and mosques. All these were cleared away by the Soviets to create the wide-open space we see now, where until 1992 a statue of Lenin took pride of place.

My guidebook described the present-day Registan as ‘leafy’ and an ‘island of green’ but what we saw was anything but – an empty paved expanse baking in the hot sun and crossed swiftly by women shaded by colourful parasols and tourists eager to reach the shade of the Ark’s great gateway.

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The walls of the Ark from the Registan

This is a place though in which to pause and remember all those who were tortured and executed – the dark side to Bukhara’s beauty. The British pair of Connolly and Stoddart for instance, whose lack of deference (as exhibited by not dismounting in his presence and offering too few expensive gifts) offended the emir. After years of suffering in the nearby gaol, the Zindan, they were finally beheaded in this square, but not before they had been forced to dig their own graves.

Up to this point on our tour I had been suffering a little with the after-effects of my earlier attack of ‘Uzbek tummy’ which maybe explains why I took fewer photos than I would normally do. But as I started to feel better I also started to feel hungry, and as we stood in the shade of the Ark listening to our guide I ate the bread salvaged from breakfast. Revitalised by this I started to take in my surroundings more thoroughly and the spell of Bukhara captivated me.

Just as well, as we had a lot more to see, starting with the nearby Poi Kalon complex

Poi Kalon

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Poi Kalon complex

In terms of scale at least, the Poi Kalon complex is probably the most impressive of Bukhara’s sights. A great Friday mosque and working madrassah face each other across the square, both dwarfed, in height at least, by the elegant 48 metre high minaret.

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The Kalon Minaret

This has stood here since 1127, having survived an onslaught on the city by Ghengis Khan (who was so awed by the minaret he spared it from destruction), attack by a Soviet shell in 1920 and an earthquake in 1976. One reason for its durability is the care that went into its construction: its foundations go down to a depth of 13 metres and the architect devised a special mortar mixed from camel’s milk, egg yolk and bull’s blood!

In addition to its main purpose, namely the call to Friday prayer at the great Kalon Mosque, the minaret has served as a lookout tower in times of war and as a beacon – a ‘lighthouse’ for those ships of the desert, the camel trains. Its darkest purpose though was to serve as a ‘Tower of Death’, when the city’s worst criminals would be led up the 105 steps to the top, tied up in a sack and thrown to their deaths – a form of punishment that persisted here until the mid 19th century and, like the tortures that took place in the Registan square, a graphic reminder that Bukhara, for all its charm, has been for much of its existence a desperate place.

Today the minaret has been restored (the aforementioned Soviet shell had clipped one corner) and stands almost as a symbol of the city. It is decorated quite simply but beautifully in bands of patterned brickwork. Near the top a ring of turquoise tiles is thought to be probably the first use of coloured majolica tilework in the region. It is possible to climb the tower on payment of a small fee inside the mosque, and I rather regret that we didn’t have time to do this (like so many other things in Bukhara), although the heat would have made it a daunting climb perhaps.

Kalon Mosque

This is the largest mosque in Uzbekistan, and the second largest in central Asia with a capacity in its huge courtyard for up to 12,000 worshippers. Unlike its minaret, the 8th century original was destroyed by Ghengis Khan on his invasion of Bukhara in 1219, when he stood on this spot to order that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the whole of Bukhara (with the exception only of the Kalon Minar) be destroyed.

This present-day building then dates ‘only’ from 1514. When completed it could hold 10,000 worshippers, the entire male population of the city at the time. Although it is a working mosque, visitors are welcome, for a small charge (and an additional fee if you wish to take photos which you will!)

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Entrance to the Poi Kalon courtyard

We entered through the magnificent portal, passed through a cool lobby area and emerged into the bright light and heat of the huge central courtyard.

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The courtyard

On the four sides of the courtyard are colonnades of arches and in the centre of each a further portal allows entry to the cool stone interior with its rows of stone columns and vaulted ceilings that reminded us of a western cathedral. As in Khiva’s mosque, a sense of tranquillity and isolation from the bustle of the city pervades these walls.

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In the mosque
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Looking out from the colonnades

Back in the courtyard, our guide pointed out the central octagonal pavilion, a 19th century addition designed to improve the acoustics and amplify the voice of the Imam as he delivers his Friday sermon.

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Octagonal pavilion, with entrance to courtyard beyond

Above the mihrab in the western section is the beautiful turquoise dome, the Kok Gumbaz. An inscription around its base reads ‘Immortality belongs to Allah’.

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The dome of the mosque

Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

Immediately opposite the Kalon Mosque, and with it and its minaret forming the complex known collectively as Poi Kalon or ‘Pedestal of the Great’, lies a madrassah. This was then (2007), and is still as far as I know, one of only three working madrassah in the country – a religious seminary in a country only just rediscovering its Islamic roots after years of Soviet secularism.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

The building dates from the mid 16th century and has been in use for most of that time, only closing from 1925-1946 under the Soviets, who in the later part of their rule reopened it as a concession to the region. Today roughly 125 students live and study here, so the madrassah is firmly closed to tourists. You are however permitted to step just inside the impressive portal and may catch a glimpse of the working life of the seminary as we did; my photo shows students in the courtyard who appeared to be taking time off from their studies to clean rugs spread out on the paving stones.

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Peeking into Mir-i-Arab Madrassah

But even if this peek inside is denied you, the madrassah repays your visit with its beautiful façade (best seen in the late afternoon so my morning photo doesn’t really do it justice) and the rich jade of its twin domes.

Carpet weaving shop

Crossing the road from the Poi Kalon complex we visited this UNESCO-sponsored carpet weaving shop. Although we weren’t interested in buying, I found this a worthwhile visit. We were welcomed with green tea and given an explanation of the techniques used in creating the beautiful silk carpets and also the traditional suzanni made and sold here. We were told how a girl would include different motifs in the design of her embroideries to give prospective suitors an indication of her character, such as a snake for cleverness.

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Carpet weaver

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Weaving technique

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Silks for carpet making

No one minded us taking photos, and as a bonus there were clean toilets for visitors’ use – not something to be taken for granted in Uzbekistan!

Ulug Beg Madrassah

Bukhara has two sets of what are known as kosh madrassah, a facing pair of madrassahs (kosh means double). The pair we visited was that on the northern edge of the old town (the other is in the west near the Ismael Samani Mausoleum) where they face each other across Khodja Nurobod Street.

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The Ulug Beg Madrassah

On the north side of the street is the Ulug Beg Madrassah, the older of the two by over 200 years. It is a Sunni madrassah (unlike its Shia companion) and was built in 1417, one of three in the country to be commissioned by Ulug Beg (the others are at the Registan in Samarkand and in Gijduvan to the east of Bukhara). The rich blue of its tilework, although incomplete, includes a scattering of stars to reflect the ruler’s passion for astronomy, and a beautiful twisted rope design framing the arch.

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At the Ulug Beg Madrassah

Inside, in the mosque to the right of the entrance, is a small museum devoted to the story of restoration work in Bukhara. I was interested to see some old photos showing the Kalon Minaret before restoration, with its top damaged by the Soviet shell, as well as several good examples of original tilework.

Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah on the south side of the road is the newer Abdul Aziz Madrassah (built in 1652). Unfortunately (perhaps because of the poor light) I don’t appear to have taken any photos of its exterior, which is unrestored but shows clearly the use of different colours in addition to the usual blues and greens, such as yellows introduced to this region by the Iranians.

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Ceiling of the mosque in Abdul Aziz Madrassah

Another departure from the usual practice is the use of floral motifs, especially in the mosque, as my photo of its ceiling shows. This is a Shia madrassah and the ban on images of living creatures was not so strictly observed as it would usually be in a Sunni building. This mosque, on the right-hand side as you enter, is the chief attraction here as its decoration is quite breath-taking, but you can also visit a first floor room on the far right-hand side of the courtyard which shows more intricate floral patterns and the traditional Uzbek niche decorations.

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Detail of frieze in a first floor room, Abdul Aziz Madrassah

The trading domes

More than any other sight or historical building, it was seeing and learning about the trading domes that brought ancient Bukhara to life for me. At the height of its powers as a centre of trade, Bukhara had five great bazaars or toks. These vaulted stone buildings straddled the intersections of the various trading routes that converged on the city. Their great arched entrances were high enough to allow a laden pack camel to enter, and each was devoted to a particular trade.

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The Tok-i-Zargaron

The Tok-i-Zargaron, or Jewellers’ Trading Dome, is the largest and most northerly of the three that remain. The building dates from 1570 and was the centre for the trade in gold and other precious metals, gems and coral. Nowadays, like the other two bazaars to the south, it houses a number of stalls selling tourist souvenirs; nevertheless it isn’t difficult to imagine it in the days when merchants haggled here and deals were struck, while camels and donkeys waited patiently as their heavy bundles were unloaded.

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The domes of the Tok-i-Zargaron

Seen from a distance you can appreciate the complexity of the arrangement of domes that makes up this building, with the large central one surrounded by many smaller ones, as though they had been breeding!

Among the souvenir stalls we found a wonderful stall selling spices and herbs. The smell that wafted towards us as we approached was truly enticing, and the display a photographer’s, and cook’s, delight! We were offered what the owner, Mirfayz, described as ‘magic tea’ to taste, and it was so delicious we bought some – two large bags in fact. The tea was made from six spices: cardamom, cloves, oregano, star anise, mint, and cinnamon. When brewing it himself Mirfayz told us that he always adds a little saffron, as he had to ours. What a wonderful, reviving drink in that heat!

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Saffron at the Silk Road Spices stall in the Tok-i-Zargaron

To the south of the Tok-i-Zargaron lies the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon or Cap Makers’ Bazaar. This is of a more complex construction than the others as it straddles not a simple crossroads but a meeting of five routes. Its irregular corners and arches once sheltered stalls displaying the various styles of headgear favoured here – gold-embroidered hats, colourful skull caps, fur hats for the cold desert winters. Now like its neighbours to the north and south it houses craft and souvenir stalls.

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In the the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon

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Scissors shaped like a stork

There are also several blacksmiths’ workshops and stalls, selling the traditional Bukharan scissors in the shape of a stork. Not all are of the quality of those sold in the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, just to the south of the bazaar, but the prices are lower and haggling encouraged, so we returned later to buy a pair as a gift for Chris’s father who had set up a sort of mini-museum displaying various objects we had bought him or acquired on our travels. After my in-laws died these scissors were one of the objects we kept from their house and they now hang in our kitchen among many other souvenirs from all over the world.

Just north of the entrance to the bazaar was a smithy. The blacksmith was working outside on his anvil and happy to pose for photos.

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The blacksmith

The Tok-i-Sarrafon or Money Changers’ Bazaar, is the smallest and most southerly of the remaining great trading domes. We didn’t visit this on our tour, but Chris and I had seen and photographed it the previous evening without realising its significance. As the name suggests, this bazaar was home to the Punjabi money-changers, whose activities were critical to the trade of Bukhara. Here traders from many lands would exchange their money for the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that made up the currency in use here. Also here would have been the stalls of the money-lenders, no doubt no less essential to Bukhara’s success as a centre of trade.

Magok-i-Attari Mosque

Walking towards Lyab-i-Hauz we passed the Magok-i-Attari Mosque, which I had also photographed last night. There has been a place of worship on this site for 2,000 years. Today’s mosque was built in the 12th century on top of a Zoroastrian temple, which in turn had been built on a Buddhist monastery and that on a heathen shrine.

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Magok-i-Attari Mosque

My photo shows the main southern portal, rich in elaborate brickwork but with touches too of other decorative styles – carved turquoise tiles still cling to the arch and either side are panels of ornate ganch. This portal, still used as the main entrance, dates back to the original 12th century building, while the eastern façade was added in the 16th century and the two small domes restored in the 20th following their collapse in an earthquake a century earlier. Nowadays the mosque serves as a carpet museum, which we didn’t have time to visit unfortunately.

By the time we reached the pool it was lunch-time. It had been a long morning and we were ready for a break, as no doubt are you! So I will continue this tour on a separate page, after lunch ...

Posted by ToonSarah 18:11 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged buildings architecture mosque history fort market shopping city spices crafts bukhara Comments (22)

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)

Around Santa Fe

New Mexico day eight


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the courtyard of the Burro Alley Café

Although we had enjoyed yesterday’s breakfast at Café Pasqual’s, it was quite pricey, so we looked elsewhere today and found the Burro Alley Café, conveniently located a couple of blocks from our casita. Today it appears to have been turned into a burger restaurant, but back in 2011 it was a bakery and café, perfect for breakfast time. It had a really pretty courtyard opening onto the lane that gives it its name, with some small trees which would have given welcome shade in the heat of the day. This morning though we were happy to sit in the sun. The courtyard walls were adorned with brightly painted wooden shutters which were very photogenic and kept our cameras busy while we waited for our order.

The bakery produces excellent pastries served fresh for breakfast. Chris had a chocolate one while mine was a huge almond one, both served still slightly warm from the oven. With two glasses of orange juice, a cappuccino for Chris and a double espresso for me (hooray, real caffeine!) we paid roughly half the cost of previous day’s breakfast.

Bandelier National Monument

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Tsankawi, Bandelier National Monument

One reason for our planning to spend several days in Santa Fe was to do a day trip to Bandelier National Monument. I had read a lot about it on Virtual Tourist and elsewhere, and knew it was just the sort of place we would enjoy visiting. Then a few months before our visit a wildfire swept through the area, devastating over 146,000 acres, including about 60% of Bandelier’s area. Almost all of the monument was closed to visitors. But fortunately for us one small part remained open, and it sounded like one of the most interesting – Tsankawi. So that was our planned destination for today.

Getting to Tsankawi is impossible without a private vehicle. It lies twelve miles from the main section of Bandelier National Monument and isn’t the easiest place to find. The park’s website gives the following directions:
‘Coming from Santa Fe you'll turn from State Highway 502 to State Highway 4. Less than 1/4 of a mile past this turn Tsankawi will be located on the left hand side of the road. There are no signs for Tsankawi on Highway 4. If you get to the stoplight, you've gone too far. A large gravel parking area adjacent to the highway and a sign on the fence will indicate you've found the place.’

We followed these directions and had no problem finding the place, although even so we overshot the parking area and had to turn around.

There was an honour pay post in the little hut at the start of the trail, with a permit to be displayed in your car. The only two other cars parked there when we arrived didn’t appear to have bothered, perhaps feeling it was unnecessary with most of the monument closed, but we paid – they were going to need the funds to repair the fire’s damage, after all. We should also have been able to buy a 50c leaflet describing the trail at the honour pay post, with about 20 numbered points along it, but they had all gone, apart from a slightly tatty one which could be borrowed for free and returned to the leaflet holder after the walk. We took this, and were very pleased to have done so, as it was very informative and also helped to keep us on the right path at one point where it seemed to fork.

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Near the start of the trail

Armed with this leaflet we set out. The trail is advertised as being 1.5 miles in length, although it seemed a little longer than this to us. It is also advertised as easy, but that is a relative term, as while it isn’t strenuous I did find a few parts tricky going, mainly because you are, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of the ancient inhabitants of this land, in the deep grooves worn in the rocks over the centuries. In places that path is worn very deep (as much as 30 or more centimetres) and is only one foot wide, by which I mean the width of your foot, not the measurement! You have to put one foot directly in front of the other, and lift each one high so as to clear the side ‘wall’ of the path.

But if this trail demands any sort of effort, it is a worthwhile one, as the views and the sense of history amply repay you for taking the trouble to walk where the ancients once walked. And remember that they would have done so in sandals, or even with bare feet, and I am certain would have been far more sure-footed than any of us, even the best of walkers, on this rocky trail.

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Ancient stairway, and the first of several ladders

The first part of the trail led up the side of the mesa, with a ladder at one point. The leaflet pointed out the location of the first of several petroglyphs (rock carvings, as opposed to rock paintings which are known as pictographs).

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Petroglyph

We then followed the well-worn path of the ancient inhabitants of this land up to the mesa top. From here we had an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, including several mountain ranges. To the west lie the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos at their foot. To the east are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (named for the Blood of Christ) and the Rio Grande Valley. About 70 miles south are the Sandia Mountains, which dominate the skyline above Albuquerque.

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View from the mesa top

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Looking towards Los Alamos

Here the ancient Pueblo Indians (sometimes known as the Anasazi) built their village or pueblo: Tsankawi. They lived on the mesa top from some time in the 15th century until towards the end of the 16th. It is thought that the village may have been abandoned due to a severe drought in the region. The pueblo at San Ildefonso, eight miles away, have the tradition that their ancestors lived at Tsankawi, while other pueblos also claim ancestral links.

The village was built out of tuff stone plastered inside and out with mud. It was roughly rectangular in shape with about 350 rooms and an enclosed central courtyard or plaza. Today almost nothing visible remains, and there has been no archaeological excavation. Consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo has revealed that the people prefer that the homes and belongings of their ancestors remain untouched. Using new technology, a variety of information can be gathered from an archaeological site without ever uncovering it. That means however that to the uninitiated there seems to be little here, although the imaginative can discern the shape of the plaza as a clearing in the scrubby bushes that grow here. To imagine it properly though, it helps to have visited one of the still-inhabited pueblos in the area, so we were glad we had been to Acoma a couple of days previously. The village would have been a hive of activity: women cooking or grinding corn, or maybe making pottery, men carving tools from flint or skinning animals, children playing, dogs darting underfoot and so on.

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The site of the pueblo

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View from the pueblo

The people who lived in these houses would have descended each day to the valley floor below to farm their crops, following the same well-worn trails that brought us up here. On the way they would have passed the cavates where some of their fellow villagers lived, and that is where the trail now took us.

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Cavates

We had seen the cavates dotted along the face of the mesa quite early in our walk, but the trail at first had led us away from these to climb up to the village above. It is only when we descended from there that we got a close look at the other places the ancients called home.

The inhabitants dug these caves out of the soft rock, extending the walls where needed with stones and mortar, and adding timber roofs. These have of course long since disappeared, and the caves that remain look almost natural rather than man-made. But if you peer inside (there are no restrictions on access other than your own capacity to reach them, and as several are right by the trail it is easy to enter them) you will see the ceilings and walls of some blackened by the smoke of long-extinguished fires, evidence of the human impact on this apparently natural environment.

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Ladder down from the mesa (you can see the ancient staircase beside it), and looking our from a cave

It’s important to take care when exploring the caves not to touch any walls, as even light contact can cause damage. And of course you must never remove anything from a site as historic as this, nor from any national park or monument.

A few of the caves apparently have traces of paintings or petroglyphs inside, but we didn’t find any here, although we did spot some at several points along the trail.

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Petroglyphs

Many have been damaged by exposure to the elements over the centuries – and no doubt by exposure to people too.

The trail leaflet explained more about them:
‘Today through consultation with San Ildefonso Pueblo descendants, we know that these marks upon the rocks have deeper meanings than mere art. They may someday even be classified as a written language. The meanings of some petroglyphs are known to many present-day Pueblo people. The exact significance of others may have been lost through time.’

But not every petroglyph here was carved by the ancestral Pueblo people who once inhabited Tsankawi – some are later additions created by Spanish settlers. Their shepherds kept their herds in small pens built under the rock outcroppings here and are thought to have carved some of the shapes and symbols, such as arrows, during Colonial times (between the late 1800s to early 1900s). But just because the Spanish shepherds did so, there is absolutely no excuse for any of us to try to add to these carvings. As always on National Park land (or indeed anywhere else of historic or natural significance) the rule must be, ‘look but don’t touch’!

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Lone tree at Tsankawi

Towards the end of our walk, as we were on the final stretch back towards the parking lot (but with still maybe half a mile or so to go), clouds started to gather to the east of us, behind our backs, and they were clearly moving faster than we were – especially as we kept stopping to take photos. We remembered then the warnings we’d read about the dangers of being caught out in this exposed rocky landscape during a storm, so we quickened our pace to make sure we were safely back at the car before the clouds came directly overhead. In the event, no storm ensued, but we thought it better to be safe than sorry in this unforgiving environment.

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Storm clouds gathering

We ate a picnic lunch while planning where to go next. I realised that we were quite near Española and as I’d read about an interesting sight there, we drove over to check it out.

Chimayó Trading Post, Española

Española is an unprepossessing town a few miles north of Santa Fe, but is home to a little gem. To step inside the Chimayó Trading Post is to feel yourself transported back around a hundred years, when the pace of life was slower and nothing was ever thrown away, because it might just come in handy one day. And it seemed to me that many of those un-thrown away items have found their way here, to Española. The location of the Trading Post, marooned on a small triangle of land surrounded by busy roads, is somehow apt, because the place itself feels like a perfect slice of history marooned in the 21st century.

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The Chimayó Trading Post

And if you’re wondering why a trading post in Española should be named for a neighbouring town, well apparently the building was originally built in nearby Chimayó in 1926, but was moved to this location in the 1930s. Behind the store is the Trujillo House, dating from around the same time. Both it and the store have been in the Trujillo family ever since, as we were to find out when we met Leo Trujillo inside.

We parked our car next to the trading post – the only car in what was quite a large lot. After taking a few photos of the appealing exterior, we pushed open the door and entered. Immediately a wavering voice to our right announced, ‘This place is going to be in a book you know. But you’ve come too early; it won’t be out for a month.’

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Leo Trujillo

This was our introduction to Leo, the owner of the trading post. The trading post has, as I said, been in this location since the 1930s, and it seemed to us that Leo must have moved here then too, and possibly been sitting inside behind the counter where we met him ever since, as his age and that of many of the objects for sale here seemed about the same, and he seemed as much of a fixture as they did too. From old brass beds to china dogs, kachina dolls to copper kettles, wooden santos to porcelain tea-cups, National Geographic magazines from decades past to antique furniture – even a fairground horse! This place is a treasure trove / junk shop / total dump, depending on your perspective, and all three perspectives are valid in fact – it just depends what your eyes light on next. You could browse here for hours, if so inclined, or give it all a cursory glance and dismiss it as being too chaotic to face the search.

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Items for sale

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Our purchase

As we rootled around, and took our photos (having asked and been given permission), Leo continued to chat, even when we were more or less out of earshot. Mainly he talked about the objects, telling us to be sure to look in this corner or that. But he also mentioned that someone he referred to as ‘the girl’ had gone to buy his lunch, and that when she returned she would show us the house if we would like. We had no idea what that might involve but it sounded interesting, so we agreed.

Meanwhile we picked out a few (old) postcards, and as a memento of our visit I also chose one of the samplers of Native American weavings (they can be seen on the bed in my photo above, and ours now hangs in our kitchen). Leo carefully hand-wrote our receipt in lovely old copperplate, and threw in an extra postcard as a gift.

Just then ‘the girl’ returned with his lunch and agreed that she could indeed show us the house. So she led us to the back of the shop and through a half-open door into the house behind. This was Leo’s home, and had been so for many years. Our ‘tour guide’ explained as we went from room to room that Leo had worked as cabin crew for Pan Am, meeting his wife there, and settling down here in retirement. But before retiring their jobs had taken them all over the world, and wherever they went, they collected the things that most appealed to them, with the result that the house is as much a treasure trove of antiques as the trading post itself.

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Inside the house

So it was perhaps not surprising to see some things that would look more at home in an English country house or Chinese pagoda than in the western US. The kitchen too was fascinating, and more or less unchanged since the 1930s I suspect. We also enjoyed meeting Leo’s cat, named by his owner as Obama (because he’s ‘black and white, like the President’).

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Obama (taken by Chris)

Sadly I have learned from an interesting article I found online while updating my Virtual Tourist notes for this blog that Leo died in 2017 – his nephew Patrick now runs the store (see Chimayó Trading Post is Española landmark). So it seems that the house may well be very different these days (Patrick is planning to open it as an art centre where visitors can meet and buy directly from the artists) even though, thankfully, the store seems little changed.

Eventually we said our goodbyes to both ‘girl’ and Leo and left. Back outside we walked round to the side of the building to see the house’s exterior, and found that to be almost as fascinating a hotch-potch of items as the rooms inside – our eyes being particularly caught by an old street sign from Shoulder of Mutton Alley, a tiny side street in London’s docklands! We also learnt, from a sign on an outside wall, that this house, known as the Trujillo House, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

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The Trujillo House

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Outside the Chimayó Trading Post

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Trujillo House detail

If you are interested there are lots more pictures of the house (including some interiors) and store on the Historical Marker Database website http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=34205], as well as one of Leo taken in 2010, not long before we met him.

Abiquiu

From Española we then drove further north up Highway 84, keen to see something of the landscape that had inspired Georgia O’Keefe after our visit to the museum yesterday. Unfortunately the weather chose that moment to turn rather overcast (maybe the clouds we had spotted from Tsankawi had finally driven away the blue sky), but nevertheless the landscape was very impressive and well worth the drive.

Once beyond Española the drive was pleasant enough, but it was after we passed the small town of Chili that it started to get more dramatic. At first the drama came from the contrast between the lush green valley of the Rio Chama and the more barren hills on either side. Then as we neared Abiquiu the rocky outcrops got more eye-catching and the colours richer, with reds and whites predominating.

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Cerro Pedernal from near Abiquiu Lake

The village of Abiquiu, home to O’Keeffe for more than 40 years, tends to keep itself to itself, and visitors are not really encouraged, much as is the case with many of the pueblos. You can tour the O’Keeffe house, but only with a prior reservation. We hadn’t planned that far ahead, so decided to give the village a miss and instead headed for Abiquiu Lake a few miles further up the road. This is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the approach road is a little less scenic than you might hope, as you pass a small power station beside the road, but once beyond this you can park up by the Visitor Centre and stroll up the slope behind it to the point known as the Overlook.

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Abiquiu Lake panorama

Here we had a magnificent view of the lake, and beyond it the distinctive flat-topped of Cerro Pedernal, the mountain that found its way into so many of O’Keeffe’s works. It was rather windy on this somewhat exposed ridge overlooking the water, but in better weather it would be a marvellous place for a picnic. The path leads past labelled examples of local shrubs and flowers, and I was able to identify a couple that I had been admiring during our travels round the state.

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Rock formations at Abiquiu Lake

Because of the wind and rather dull skies we didn't linger long here, and instead headed back to Santa Fe to relax in our casita for a short while before dinner.

Back to the Shed

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Chris at the Marble Brewery

We had reserved a table for dinner at the Shed, having been impressed when we ate lunch there on our first day in the city. Beforehand though we went to a bar we had spotted on the previous day, the Marble Brewery, which had a terrace overlooking the Plaza I say ‘had’, because like several of the bars and restaurants we enjoyed on this trip it has sadly since closed down). There were a number of ‘house beers’ to choose from, all available in three sizes (pint, 10 oz or 5 oz), making it easy to try several different beers in one visit, and the waiting staff were also happy to bring a small taster if you wanted to try one before committing. Chris favoured the India Pale Ale while I rather liked the Marble Red which had loads of flavour.

Then it was on to the Shed for our 8.30 reservation. We actually arrived a little early, but got seated by 8.20 or so. Our table was inside, in one of the smaller rooms off the main one, which was very cosy with only a few tables and less noisy than the larger space where we’d had lunch the previous day.

Having rather bigger appetites than we had come with yesterday lunch-time, we were keen to try the New Mexican dishes for which they have such a good name. So we shared some chips and salsa to start with, which Chris followed with the ‘layered enchiladas’ – two blue corn tortillas layered with cheddar cheese, onion, covered with red chilli and baked – a sort of New Mexican lasagne! I had the taco plate, made with two soft blue corn tortillas filled with cheddar cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce and a choice of meats – I opted for chicken (I could also have had ground beef) and green chilli (I could naturally also have had red). These were served with pinto beans and rice.

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Salsa, chips and a 'Shed Red'

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Taco plate

Both meals were excellent, but mine especially so – one of the best I had on the whole trip! To drink I had a ‘Shed Red’, a margarita with pomegranate juice, which was very good, without reaching the dizzy heights of my green chilli version of the previous evening. Chris had a beer, we shared a cheesecake for dessert, and found the bill to be really reasonable. I can see why this restaurant is a favourite with Santa Fe locals – it would be a regular haunt for us too if we lived here!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:16 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes lakes people food road_trip restaurant culture history views shopping national_park new_mexico santa_fe Comments (4)

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