Mosques, Minarets, Mausoleums, Mosaics and Medrassas
After a long period in the emptiness of Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, it was time for a dose of culture. The ancient cities of Uzbekistan were at the heart of the Silk Roads of ancient times. Most people have heard of Samarkand because of this connection, which was to be our first stop. Samarkand is located in the Zarafshon Valley and is only 50-60km west of Penjakent in Tajikistan, located in the same valley. But due to the unfriendly relation between the 2 countries, the border was closed for all traffic in November 2010 and remains closed up until this day, a wall has even been built where the border facilities once were. This meant a 2 day drive for us to get from the Fan Mountains to Samarkand instead of a 2 hour drive, via the border near Khojand further north.
Another novelty for Uzbekistan was the necessity to stay in hotels. The country is still holding on to the red tape of Soviet times, requiring foreigners to register every night. Each hotel gives you a little registration slip, without which we would encounter trouble on exiting the country, something we preferred to avoid. It is possible to obtain those pesky bits of paper for a small fee for any nights you might have ‘missed’, or you can try to argue at the border that you don’t need to register if you stayed somewhere shorter than 3 days. We used a combination of both, allowing us to camp occasionally.
Arriving in Samarkand in the late afternoon we bumped into no less than 18 Land Rovers, parked just outside the hotel we were planning to stay. They were all from the Hong Kong Land Rover Owners club and were racing across Central Asia in 3 weeks, unbelievable. Our enthusiastic chatting was cut short as they were leaving, so we agreed we’d try to hook up with them in Bukhara a couple of days later. We ended up joining them for dinner there and talked all evening about our trips, and of course Land Rovers. The club has arranged an annual trip like this for the last fifteen years! Their 2 official Land Rover mechanics had a quick look at Lara and told Jon the small leak we had noticed was from the intercooler and tightening a hose would solve the issue. This saved us a trip to another garage.
We had explored the ancient mosques, mausoleums, medrassas and minarets with the blue mosaics of Samarkand on our trusty (and a bit rusty) bikes, loving the ability to zoom effortlessly from one site to the next which are spread all over the city. The bikes were holding up remarkably well, although the dust does make the brakes rather squeaky. There must be a shortage of bikes in central Asia as we generally receive 2-3 offers to buy them daily.
We soaked up the history whilst admiring the blue mosaic tiles of the stunning Registan, Tamerlane’s mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda (a spectacular alley full of mausoleums) and numerous other mausoleums, mosques and medrassas. The majority of Samarkand’s monuments date from 600 – 700 years ago, and have endured several earthquakes since. They are all in fantastic condition, thanks to Russian led restoration efforts.
As we had hit mass tourism here (although in October there are hardly any tourists left), we were even able to buy postcards, something we hadn’t seen for many weeks and countries. We also enjoyed the creature comforts of wifi in the hotel, daily hot showers, getting our laundry done (we were running out of clean knickers) and the sensational breakfast of hotel Antica in Samarkand.
Every morning was a surprise, and we were staggered by the number of plates brought out to us each breakfast. A whole range of fruit, porridge, eggs, deep-fried things, cheeses, yoghurts, jams and other undefined goodies were delivered to our groaning table. What a treat. But unfortunately the edible-ness of the food of Uzbekistan stops there. We struggled to find a decent meal in Samarkand, Buchara, Khiva and Nukus. Our dinners ranged from appalling to barely edible with one exception. We ordered dinner in the same Hotel Antica one night and were led into the neighbour’s living room together with a few other tourists. There we enjoyed the only decent dinner in Uzbekistan (washed down with quite-drinkable Uzbek red wine), the conventional restaurants didn’t even come close.
On the other hand, juices continue to pleasantly surprise us and we try new flavours all the time, or fall back to some of our favourites: cherry or grapefruit juice. Delicious.
Whilst staying in Samarkand, one of the neighbours’ daughters was getting married and we just happened to be at the hotel when the groom arrived. His arrival was announced by lots of clapping and drums being played. We were gently pushed into the courtyard and the adjacent room where some ceremonial rituals were taking place. They looked at each other for the ‘first time’ with the help of a mirror, gave each other a watch to symbolise the time they will spent together and a candle was passed over the threshold several times to ward off any evil spirits. Instead of the bride tossing her bouquet of flowers to determine who gets married next, the groom passes on the traditional coat he was wearing to a friend. He’ll be next. Her new outfits and household necessities were displayed in the room, bought by the groom’s parents. And a lot more presents were given to the 17-old bride right after the ceremony. All very extravagant.
For us the next stops were Bukhara and Khiva. These cities were particularly enjoyable to stroll around as the sights were concentrated in the old town, connected by alleys lined with tea houses and carpet shops. It seems each Emir would try to outdo the others, resulting in 50m tall minarets with earthquake proof foundations dating from 1000 years ago. Quite a sight. We spent many hours walking around, reading about the history and the people living here many years ago, enjoying more blue tiles and sensational buildings. Especially memorable were sundowners on a roof terrace in Khiva watching the sunset over the beautiful old town surrounded by mud walls.
We saw lots more mud walls in Uzbekistan as there are many forts too, dating back more than 2000 years, easily pre-dating the Silk Road cities. Incredibly they are still standing, or at least some of their walls remain silent testaments of the passing time. If only walls could speak! We even climbed an ancient Zoroastrian dahma, or tower of silence from 100 BC, where the fire worshipping people used to leave their dead to be picked clean by the vultures.
The depth of history in Uzbekistan is impressive, and the people friendly. If they could just work on the cuisine…