Samarkand is probably the most famous city in Uzbekistan – maybe even the most famous city in the whole of Central Asia. It was a famous Silk Road trading stop; the home place of Amir Temur; and remains the site of some of the best preserved ancient mosques and madrasah in the country. As of 2016 it is also the home of Islam Karimov’s grave, and even months after his death there are still regular services to commemorate the president’s passing. It gets quite emotional.
I arrived into Samarkand at 2am on 29th November, and made my way towards the inevitable taxi rank that would be waiting outside the station. I found a friendly middle aged driver who nodded confidently when I told him I wanted to go to Sim-Sim Hostel, a location that Maxime had found and messaged me about earlier that day. This confident nod, it seemed, was purely there to reassure me, as he still went to discuss with his friends as to where Sim Sim Hostel might be. Fortunately, I had my Maps app, and could direct us towards the place, a fact he seemed to appreciate for the first five to ten minutes of the drive.
However after those first eight or so minutes he decided that it was time for him to go his own way. I trusted that we were simply taking speedy taxi routes, as we seemed to be circling the city at a ridiculous pace, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs. In a remarkably short amount of time we were just one road away from my hostel, and I called out ‘Napravo!’ to let him know a right turn was coming up. I marvelled at how straight forward this journey had been.
Of course, this was where my straight forward journey was to take an unwanted bend, for it turned out that my driver had decided that I didn’t want to go to Sim Sim Hostel, and in fact would like to stay in a nearby 5* hotel instead. He ignored my clear and perfectly pronounced ‘Napravo!’, and drove on, eventually stopping the car outside a building that looked to be something between a modern mansion and an ancient palace.
‘Hotel!’ he announced proudly. I told him that this was not my hotel. I wanted to go to Sim Sim Hostel.
He looked at me, nodded, then drove on down a small snowy road to a hostel called Erlan Hostel. I told him once again, that no, this was not my hostel. I was staying at Sim Sim Hostel.
This conversation took a surprising amount of time and many a hurt look, but eventually I managed to get him to take me to the road my hostel was on. I got out swiftly, paying my money as I did so. I then turned to where my app told me hostel would be. There was nothing there.
I turned to see my taxi driving away. I don’t think my pride would have let me call him back anyway.
Maxime had told me that the hostel was a little tricky to find and that the door was slightly recessed. But there were many doors, and in fact it seemed there were three houses at one address. It was 2.30am, so not the best time for shouting, but I did it anyway. In an apologetic voice. No one replied.
For half an hour I traipsed up and down this road looking for a sign, until finally finding a bar called Déjà vu that had a couple of drunks and a pair playing a traditional Central Asian board game called Narde. Imagine backgammon but with strange rules. Using my broken Russian I managed to enlist their help in finding me somewhere to sleep, and teamwork got me the phone number of Sim Sim Hostel. From there it was simply a case of asking the man to come out of the hostel at 3am and wander the streets looking for me.
To my surprise, he was willing to do that. Two minutes later I walked out of Déjà vu and saw the hostel manager waving his arms wildly at me. He showed me the door that I should have gone to – it was two metres away from the one that I had knocked at, but apparently part of an entirely different building. Without asking any questions he showed me to a dorm room, where Maxime was already asleep, and left me there for the night.
I woke up the next day at 8am by the manager informing us that breakfast was nearly ready. This was common in every hostel in Central Asia that I’d been to; breakfast was always included, and 90% of the time it was fried eggs, potentially with hotdog sausages. I’ve never really been big on breakfast, and don’t massively like eggs or hotdog sausages, so I’d got into the habit of declining it at every place I stayed at. This always ended up being more difficult than expected; the idea that someone might just not want breakfast comes across as insanity to the Central Asian’s ear. Did I not know it was included in the price? Was it that I wanted different food? Perhaps I would just prefer to eat it later?
Maxime went out to eat his breakfast with the message that I wouldn’t be having any. He came back fifteen minutes later to tell me that my breakfast had already been served and was waiting for me. I hate being rude, so I went out and forced it down.
The yoghurt drink they had was actually quite nice, but everything else was as expected. I hid one of the sausages in a napkin to give to a stray dog later.
While I was sat down with the manager I asked him about his thoughts on the upcoming, unprecedented Uzbek election. You see, I had entered Uzbekistan during an event that hadn’t happened since the fall of the Soviet Union; for the first time ever, Uzbekistan was guaranteed to have a new president.
Of course, under Karimov there had been elections, but he somehow managed to win them all with over 85% of the vote each time; sometimes he got over 90%. Opposing parties were either ran out of the country or forced to publicly support Karimov. In referendums regarding extending his presidency people who didn’t vote got counted as a vote in support of the incumbent. The last major protests against him ended in a 500-person massacre, and solo dissenters could end up in prison, or being tortured to death. He was Parade Magazine’s choice for Worst Dictator for several years running. He wasn’t exactly a top guy.
But Karimov died in September 2016, and so a new president had to be elected. I had arrived into Uzbekistan during the election period; throughout the city you could find wordy posters describing the policies of the four candidates. On the surface it was to be a fair election, but news sites were already reporting that the man currently working as temporary president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was likely to win. He was a close colleague of Karimov, and had most likely learnt the tricks to getting an 85% majority win in an election.
Hell, he’d already managed to grab the stand-in president job when many people had said it would be illegal for him to do so. But what’s the point in being president if you have to follow the law?
So I thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of an Uzbek on the matter. Unfortunately I had, as per usual, overestimated my ability to discuss anything beyond my having a wife in Russian. I managed to ask whether the manager was going to vote, and he told me yes, but on the 4th December. Not now, no voting now. I asked him what he thought about Karimov. He told me that yes, Karimov used to be president.
‘Da, ya znaiyo, no, Karimov, kerashure?/ Yes, I know, but Karimov, good?’ I asked.
‘Da, Karimov, president, kerashure!’
Well, that hadn’t gotten me anywhere. I gave up and finished my unhidden hotdog sausage.
Time to explore.
The most famous set of monuments in Samarkand is in a small square called Registon or Registan. It’s made up of three madrasah, one of which also functions as a mosque. It looks like this:
To get in you have to pay 12,000 Som, or just under $2. Or you have to duck under the tape barrier, but as a responsible tourist I recommend just paying the money. You can also try and pretend to be Uzbek and therefore only pay a quarter of the price, but they just looked at me like I was stupid when I tried that, and charged me the full amount.
When Maxime and I entered the square we had a woman come up to us and offer to be our guide for a mere 50,000 Som, or $7. Maxime said he was good without, but I had had enough of staring at buildings and monuments without having any idea of what I was looking at, so I made the relatively large investment, and started on my tour of the square.
I learnt that Registan meant ‘Land of Sand’, -stan meaning ‘land’ or ‘place’, which explained all of the countries I had been visiting I guess, and ‘Regi’ meaning sand. It had been named that because it was indeed built on sand; someone back six hundred years ago had seen a patch of shifting desert and thought ‘My goodness, what a great place to build a load of schools.’
Because of that interesting decision Registan was slowly sinking into the ground. If any of those minarets look wonky to you, that because they are. They’re slowly being submerged into the ground at slightly different rates, and therefore are getting a lean on them that will soon put the tower at Pisa to shame. In the late 20th century Russian engineers tried to fix the problem by detaching the minaret at its base, and then rotating it 180 degrees. This solved the problem temporarily, but as you can probably see, it’s becoming a problem again.
I was taken around the madrasah. These are ancient Muslim schools where men used to come and stay in residence at where they could learn about God and science. They weren’t allowed to marry, and had to stay at the madrasa they had joined until their studies finished. I was shown around all the little rooms that used to be classrooms. They’re now shops where you can buy anything from samsas to pillow cases.
I was then taken to the Golden Mosque, which is no longer real gold because gold was needed for the war effort back in Soviet Union times. It’s gold leaf instead. Still, pretty shiny.
The third madrasa was much the same, but I noticed that the mosaic on the outside of it was the same as the drawing on the 200 Som note.
I was told that this was a depiction of a liger; a combination of a lion and tiger. This was done because it was blasphemous in Islamic culture to represent any human or animal, because they were creations of God. To get around this the designers of the madrasa had made up an animal; a tiger-lion hybrid. No sacred rules against that; that’d show God.
I imagine they were mightily pissed off when ligers were actually bred, a few hundred years later. I’m sure God will forgive them.
Here’s a real picture of a liger for comparison. I didn’t take this one, I found it on the internet. To be fair, the madrasah builders didn’t do a great job getting the look right.
I then paid another 20,000 Som to go up into one of the wonky minarets. The minarets are two of the tallest buildings in Samarkand I believe, so the view was pretty phenomenal.
This also allowed me to go up onto the first floor of one of the madrasah, which wasn’t quite as exciting, but still pretty interesting.
After that we had pretty much seen Registan. We headed out to look at what else Samarkand had to offer.
That first day we didn’t find much else; the main draw of Samarkand is Registan. We wandered to the bazaar, bought some bread (Samarkand is famous for its bread), and then went in search of the Old Town. We didn’t find it, but we did find an absolutely huge graveyard that took a good twenty minutes to walk through. It was the first graveyard in Uzbekistan I’d seen, but it turned out not to be the last. What was strange about it was the headstones.
Every headstone in the graveyard had a picture of the deceased.
At first I was a little unnerved, walking through and looking at the faces of those who had died at between 2015 and 1970. There were soldiers, the elderly, and even children, staring out from tombstones for eternity. Heartbreakingly there were sometimes even families, all sharing the same date of death.
But after a few minutes of walking through I started changing my mind about the concept. How many times have you walked through a graveyard and wondered about the people buried there? In those tombs dating back hundreds of years, under the gravestones now covered in moss or lichen.
Maybe not many. Walking through graveyards isn’t my hobby either. But even if you’ve only done it once, you’re left with a feeling of mystery. Those people are gone, slowly disappearing from living memory. But this stops that. You may not know the person you’re looking at, but their face is still there. For a second maybe, you know them. They’re remembered again.
Maybe I got a little philosophical about it. Maybe I was being a bit sentimental and a bit full of crap. Who knows. You can have your own opinion. Let me know, if you feel like chatting about it.
After leaving the graveyard we looped back on ourselves and found ourselves at a mosque. We were invited in and then pointed to a raised stage. Upon this stage was a huge mound, covered in white roses, and on either side of this were three rows of chairs. It seemed that one side was for women and one was for men.
Not keen to get involved in some sort of prayer service that I couldn’t escape from, I watched from a distance as an imam started singing. There were about seven guys there and maybe four women, all of whom were praying as the song was sung. In Central Asia (and maybe just in Islam, I don’t know) they pray by holding their hands up as if pretending to read a book, before burying their face in them.
I backed away halfway through and mentioned the service to Maxime. He went and spoke to the man who had pointed us in that direction.
It turned out that this was where Islam Karimov was buried. There was a service being held every fifteen to thirty minutes to commemorate the dead president, with varying degrees of attendance, and varying degrees of emotion coming from the attendees.
I considered sitting down for one of the services, but didn’t think it would be appropriate. Instead I went inside the mosque for a look around. Compared to the Golden Mosque from earlier it didn’t seem that impressive, but I had a good conversation with the imam inside about whether I had a wife and kids. I also showed him one of the photospheres I’d taken, which he liked so much that he ran outside to show his colleagues. I had always known I was a fantastic photographer, but this was the proof.
Finally we headed back to the hostel, going via a collection of mausoleums near to Karimov’s grave and mosque. These mausoleums were beautifully decorated buildings with above ground coffins, well preserved to this day, hundreds of years after being constructed. They were the memorials to those close to Amir Temur, affectionately known as Tamerlame, the lame general that had called Samarkand home as he conquered country after country around Uzbekistan.
Back at the hostel we relaxed for a few hours. Learning about history is pretty heavy going, especially since most of the mausoleums and madrasah we’d visited didn’t come with much explanation. We had to guess the history ourselves.
I looked up a place for dinner; a jazz themed restaurant called Blues, just a few hundred metres from our hostel. There I had a pizza, Maxime had fajitas, and we both ordered Uzbek cognac because it was 3000 Som for 50ml and how can you argue with that? Cognac gave me the confidence to try out my French again, although I quickly remembered that it wasn’t actually very good. Comparing it to Maxime’s English made me feel rather inferior.
We decided that the following day would be our last; for people keeping track, that meant that Wednesday would be our last full day, and we would move on to Bukhara on Thursday. Today we had plans to visit Amir Temur’s mausoleum and the Ulugh Beg Observatory.
Amir Temur was a conqueror in the 14th century, and founder of the Timurid Dynasty. He was lame in one foot, leading to the nickname Tamerlane, or Timur The Lame. I’m sure he loved it.
The Samarkandese think Timur was the best thing since sliced bread (which they don’t have, because they all eat Central Asian Naan bread), and therefore most of the city and monuments were focused around him, his achievements, and his family. The madrasah in Registan were funded and founded by his grandson Ulugh Beg, and all were filled with stories about both grandson and grandfather.
Amir Temur’s mausoleum was the best looking mausoleum I’d seen in Samarkand, and in fact the best mausoleum I’d seen full stop. I don’t claim to be a mausoleum aficionado however, and considering the word Mausoleum actually comes from the first guy to have one (Mausolus), I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve seen the original.
Then we went on to the observatory. This was the second main reason to come to Samarkand. The observatory, at the time of being built, was incredibly advanced, and led to Ulugh Beg becoming world renowned as an astronomer. It allowed him to track the movement of stars and planets, using tools and structures that, I’ll be honest, I didn’t properly understand. It led to Samarkand being famous as a place of learning, for science and the heavens.
Then Ulugh Beg was stabbed and held as a heathenous blasphemous traitor, and the country got on with fighting each other and suppressing scientific development again. Who really needs it anyway?
We arrived after a thirty minute walk from the Mausoleum, and shortly found ourselves in a crowd. But why?
Oh, it’s a wedding. But all these people for just one wedding?
No, actually it’s two weddings.
Wait, there’s more up the steps.
Five. There were five newlyweds all wandering around the observatory and Ulugh Beg memorial. Each one was surrounded by supporters, a professional cameraman, and the Uzbek equivalent of a head bridesmaid. All of them were walking slowly, very slowly around, as the cameraman either walked backwards in front of them, or circled round to get the perfect shot.
A few of the wedding supporters saw us, and decided that we were more interesting than the wedding. They insisted that we had photos with them, and asked whether I liked Wayne Rooney.
We tried to avoid the crowds after that. Wandering around the observatory was both interesting and disappointing. There were some good views, and the history was nice to read about, but it turned out that the observatory had been mostly destroyed. After they’d killed Ulugh Beg they didn’t want any of his fancy learning being passed down and ruining young minds.
As we left another married couple arrived. We saw one more walking around Registan on our way back to the hostel. I realised that these couples probably hadn’t got married today, but had just been waiting for a good day to get a photoshoot. Maybe it was just a standard weekend activity.
Although this was a Wednesday, so goodness knows why they weren’t at work.
That night we ate at the restaurant three doors down from our hostel. I ordered a beef steak, that turned out to be very similar to my Perfume of Love meal in Khorogh. By which I mean the meat was unidentifiable, covered in cheese, and had tomatoes in it somewhere as well. With chips.
The owner wanted me to pay by card, which I said yes to as it was a bit of a novelty to use my debit card here, until I realised that paying by card would effectively double the price; all banks worked with the official exchange rate, and not the market one. It was a bit bizarre, as the restaurant owner wouldn’t profit in anyway by me paying more; the only person who would lose out was me.
I told him I’d changed my mind and paid in Som. Shortly after we left, and for our last evening in Samarkand, we had an early night. Our next stop awaited. Bukhara; ancient Silk Road trading stop, capital of the old Bokharan Khanate, and pivotal town in the Great Game.
Which I will ramble on about next, because I’ve just started reading about it and it is fascinating, I promise