Silk Road: Samarkand, Uzbekistan – October 2019

We would like to dedicate this section of the blog to those that live and have lived by the Ode below. thank you for your service to our country.
The Golden Road to Samarkand [1913])
“The Master of the Caravan said:
But who are ye in rags and rotten shoes,
You – dirty bearded, blocking the way?
The Pilgrim answered:
We are the Pilgrims, Master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand”

Saturday 12 October 2019: Roger

We departed Bukhara at around nine. Heading east the city went on for a long time. We crossed a large rail freight area and went through industrial areas. There is construction of new buildings going on everywhere.

In about 40 minutes we hit the desert – a little different that the last one as there was more growth and it only went on for 50 or so kilometres. Then we would hit an oasis type area where water was present with fields full of cotton, corn and other crops, then back to desert again for a short time etc.  We stopped for a brew at one point not too far into the journey and across the road was a massive oil refinery.

Continuing on we passed through several large towns including Koson Qarshi. Interestingly, since the formation of Uzbekistan, the country has developed its own cotton mills producing fabric. Prior to that only the raw cotton was exported. We passed flour mills and lots of other industry as the population concentration became denser as we went further east. Kids headed home from Saturday morning schooling in their nice uniforms. As we had seen often before there were towns with rows of houses all the same.

There are lots of police check points along the way but as yet we have not been stopped. Produce stalls on the roadsides are common and there are large hot houses and covered horticultural areas, many recently or still under construction.

During the Soviet rule there was no vehicle production in Uzbekistan, now over 200,000 vehicles are produced a year with a large GM plant and some others employing over 7000 people. Exports go to Russia and other CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) countries. Cars here are expensive with the average Chev SUV costing around $30,000 USD while the average income Is only about 7500 USD. Cars are mainly white because of the dust. You can however still buy a trusty Lada from around 10k.

We arrived at Shahrisabz just after noon, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant, after which we headed to the Ak-Saray Palace (White Palace), originally constructed by Tamerlane or Timur in 1380. Timur was once the most powerful man in Islam, driving the Mongolians out of the area. He lead military campaigns across western, southern and central Asia, the Caucasus and southern Russia, and was said to have been responsible for the deaths of around 17 Million people, roughly 5% of the worlds population at the time. He referred to himself as the ‘Sword of Islam’. Today he is recognised here as a hero. His palace and the large grounds and mosques are in the process of being restored.

We walked the two plus kms to the end of the grounds and back, checking out the mostly rebuilt rather than restored buildings. Some have had wallpaper made to replicate what would have been interior tiled walls and domes.  Along the side of the grounds are apartments, shops and restaurants. I stopped to photograph a wedding party taking place and a bunch of young men raced out asking me to join in. I politely declined knowing that my dance moves were never going to be as slick as theirs.

That over we headed north into the foothills of the Pamir mountain range. Climbing from 600m to the top of the pass at 1400m. We stopped at a lookout to enjoy the view back down the valley. Even in the hills there are blocks of state type houses.

Arriving at the top of the pass we were greeted by a massive outdoor produce market selling an amazing selection of herbs, seeds, nuts and cheeses. I did try a ball of goat cheese which tasted more like acid than cheese. We had arrived in the Samarkand Province.

Heading down into the valley there was a prominence of purple-roofed, new buildings, which continued into the city, either a passion or there is a real good deal around here on purple paint. The other fun thing here is to see how people get the best out of their vehicles, loading them up to the max. You will note on the truck under the deck are a number of red gas bottles. Many of the diesel trucks run on both diesel and compressed natural gas.


Sunday October 13, 2019: Sylvia

We headed off at about 10 this morning to explore Samarkand. Our first stop, after driving past another huge statue of Tamerlane, was the Gur Emir Mausoleum, his tomb. He was supposed to have been buried in Shakrisabz, where we visited yesterday, but winter storms when he died prevented him being taken there so he was buried here, in the city he made his capital. The tomb he had initially prepared for his favourite grandson, Jahan Gir, who died during battle and is also buried here, as is another of his grandsons, Ulugh Beg.

We next headed to the magnificent Registan, or main square. This was once the centre of the trade world and is bordered on three sides by huge Madrassahs. It is awe inspiring to look at and I wanted to sit and drink it all in as photos cannot do it justice.

The Ulugh Beg Madrassah is on the left and was the first we explored. Today it is full of little shops with the keepers plying their wares and trying to drape me in scarves as I walked past. In truth the people here are very gentle and nowhere near as pushy as I have experienced in other parts of the world. We were able to go inside and see the little rooms where 3-4 students would live and study (upstairs for living and downstairs for studying). Madrassahs are not like universities today – there were no lectures or group teaching but students were expected to do their studying and contemplation on their own. On the second storey more little rooms and more little stalls offered great views over the ornately decorated courtyard interior.

The second Madrassah we entered (at the rear when entering the square) is the Tilla Kari Mardassah, this one only single-storeyed  but still beautifully decorated. It has a beautiful turquoise dome, which is decorated with gold and cobalt on the interior. There were a number of old black and white photographs inside showing the state of the ruins over the years before they were restored to their current state.

The third and final Madrassah is the Tilla Kari Madrassah, which has mosaics of tigers on its facade, unique in the Muslim world as generally it is forbidden to have pictures of living beings displayed. This is the only Madrassah we have been in that does not have trees in the inner courtyard so it was easier to get some photos of the interior.

I left the Registan reluctantly and we wandered down towards the Bibi Khanym mosque, which was built in the early 1400’s for Tamerlane’s favourite wife. Along the way we passed a statue of the first President of Uzbekistan and numerous wedding parties. Apparently Bibi Khanym was a great diplomat and would often stand in for Tamerlane while he as off conquering the world. Although the exterior of her mosque has been renovated like all the other buildings we have visited, it was refreshing to visit inside and find it still in semi-ruined state. We also visited the surprisingly simple tomb of Bibi Kahnym just across the street from her Mosque.


At this point we decided to give Nazira the rest of the day off, and after stopping for lunch we headed off to explore the Siyob bazaar, which has been operating for some 600 years. It is a bustling place full of people selling a wide array of dried fruits, nuts, spices, cheeses etc. It was fun to watch the locals haggling while being encouraged to try all the different things on offer.

We then wandered past the impressive tomb of the first president of Uzbekistan to the fascinating and slightly macabre Shahr-i-Zindar monuments, rows of incredibly decorated tombs build in the 15th century.

We headed through the remarkable clean back streets of the old town to the Hammam. Roger was keen to repeat his experience from Bukhara. Unfortunately it was closed so we were out of luck. We opted to walk back to the hotel getting a better sense of this city and it’s eclectic architecture on foot.

Monday 14 October 2019: Roger

After a cold shower and a typical breakfast we departed the Dilimar “Premium Luxury” Hotel – quite new with its composite look-alike marble and lots of bling they just haven’t got it quite right.

Our first stop was the Samarkand Paper Factory on the banks of the Siab river. This place with its teapot waterwheels was very nice. First they took us through the very old way of making paper. This art was copied from China around the 8th century. Small branches are cut and stored for several months then soaked in water for a few days. The soft inner later of the wood is then stripped from the bark by a lady with a sharp knife. This is then boiled for several hours before being pulverised in a vessel by a large water driven piston. The mashed pulp is then mixed with water and scooped up with a kind of flat sieve. From there it was stacked in layers separated by cotton sheets. Weighted with a large rock the stack of sheets are then separated and laid on a board to dry. A final polish with a smooth rock and one was ready to write home. Many products such as dolls, masks and clothing are also made from this paper and sold to tourists.

Through the garden a bit we found another waterwheel, this one driving a mill, which was being used to extract oil from grains.

Next stop was the observatory museum dedicated to Ulugh Beg. This guy built a kind of sextant in a large building in the late 1300’s. With a hole in one place he could mark where the light from the sun, moon and some stars struck the rail-like device inside. From this one of the things he worked out was the length of the year, accurate to within 25 seconds of what we know today. Only forty years after building the observatory he upset some of the religious zealots and lost his head. His device was rediscovered in the 60s and partially restored and a museum has now been built in his honour.

Not far down the road is where The prophet Daniel is laid to rest in a tomb 16-meters long. There is a bit of a story behind this bloke. Apparently when Timur was expanding his empire he came across a city called Sousa, in Iran, which in spit of being seiged for several months with water and food supplies cut off refused to capitulate. Timur was informed that it was because Daniel was buried there that the city would never run out of food or water. He then cut a deal with Sousa, they gave him the hand of Daniel and he left them alone. The hand was brought back to Samarkand and entombed on this spot in such a large tomb as apparently it grows a little every year. Holy water now still flows from a spring at the bottom of the hill.

We headed to a restaurant for a long relaxed lunch after which Sylvia headed back to the Registan while I sampled a nice drop Of local beer at a bar across the road.

Last stop for the day was the House museum of D. L. Filatov, a large winery. Founded by Filatov, a smooth looking Russian, in the 1880’s it still survives today. I was somewhat sceptical as having sampled some of the local wine over the last few days has been a less that pleasant experience.

After a tour of a display room showing the history and the many medals won in the region, we were lead into the large tasting room with its grand table. Ten glasses were lined up on a nice wooden tray, each with a small quantity of mainly wine except the last 3 being cognacs.

Probably the best was to describe this experience is that I didn’t consume one full sample of any on offer. The cognac was like nothing have ever tasted. Maybe we just have different ways of appreciating taste but I would not recommend coming to this part of the world on a wine tour. The polite young Japanese man and his girlfriend across the table did consume the lot and he took notes.

Tasting over Sylvia and I were lead down the garden path to the cellar. This part was impressive with several rows of 6000 litre barrels, which originally came from Russia in the 1920s.Down the back of the cellar room we came to a small door that lead to a dirty tasting room. The story goes that when Filatov fled to Europe in 1918, when the Russians occupied the area, he bricked up his cellar and tasting room with the intention of coming back one day. He never returned. In the 60’s a guy turned up at the vineyard and told the staff of the, by then Russian administered, winery that his father had told him how he had built a cellar in the back of the winery. The bricks were removed, and in the cellar on the table was a book detailing every one of the 3600-plus bottles of wine stored there. We sat in the dingy space surrounded by mould clad wine bottles and sampled some more wine, this time the first, a 1997 Torquay, was drinkable. The 91 and 68 not so good. In spite of that it was an interesting and enjoyable experience with our friendly host keen to impart through Nazira as much information as we wanted. Interestingly during Gorbachev’s reign as Russian leader in the late 80s he banned all the production of wine, vodka and other spirit+based drinks, hence all the grapes were pulled out. It is since independence that the industry has started again.

It was then time to head to the station and catch the fast train for the approximately  300km, 2-hour journey to Tashkent, a surprisingly smooth and comfortable trip.





One thought on “Silk Road: Samarkand, Uzbekistan – October 2019

  1. Hi Roger, good to meet you at the dinner at the Canterbury Club last week, sorry we didn’t get to talk very much. I was duty driver. Maybe catch you at the Auckland event?

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