After backtracking on that fantastic high speed train, we arrived in Samarkand, which is about twice the size of Bukhara, in the early evening. Ashraf quickly and effectively bartered for a taxi, and after the driver gave us the usual lengthy spiel about ‘knowing a better hotel’, we arrived at our next guesthouse, this one much more like a hostel than our previous accommodations. After a nice dinner at a local restaurant, we wandered over to Registan, the heart of the ancient part of the city, a public square surrounded by 3 former madrasahs (Islamic schools). These were beautifully lit up.
Not long after we arrived, a light & music show began, which was absolutely fantastic. The lights were timed with the music, and really created an enjoyable atmosphere.
As the square and madrasahs themselves were cordoned off the previous evening, when we returned the next morning, we were really able to start exploring. These buildings were magnificent!
We paid the equivalent of a few bucks extra to climb to the top of a minaret on one of the madrasahs. The view was well worth the price. Tight quarters though!
Tillya Kori Madrasah, one of the three that make up Registan, contains a room covered in absolutely magnificent bright blue and gold. The ceiling of this room was the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook that initially caught Janan’s attention the previous Christmas, and a main instigator for us joining up for this trip. Seeing it in person was truly remarkable. Photographs do not do it justice. It was especially enjoyable as it wasn’t;t completely overwhelmed with tourists. We were able to really spend our time taking in the beauty of it all without being overly disturbed. I just kept thinking to myself that if this was in Europe, it would be an absolute zoo!
After thoroughly exploring Registan, we wandered off to checkout a local market. The heat of the day and intensity of the sun soon demanded a lunch break. A restaurant right next to the market had decent food and a rather babushka-looking waitress with surprisingly fantastic English. She also wielded one of the most impressive and massive bottle openers I’d ever seen. Quite memorable!
Continuing on with exploring Samarkand after lunch, we headed off towards the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. Getting there involved making our way through a huge cemetery, containing many large headstones featuring highly detailed images of the dearly departed. This seemed to be very much the popular local custom, and I found it rather interesting.
After meandering through the cemetery, we finally found Shah-i-Zinda. This necropolis houses over twenty mausoleums, built over the course of the 11th to 19th centuries. The incredible detail of the tile work on the structures was amazing, and we spent considerable time examining the intricate patterns of blue, turquoise, and aquamarine tile. These seem to be the colours of choice for most of the historic Uzbek buildings. The amount of work required to complete some of these designs is a bit hard to comprehend.
After a very successful day of exploring, we headed down to an outdoor restaurant popular with the university crowd. 40¢ drinks and huge menu of kebabs and other BBQ’d meats at extremely affordable prices meant we had a very filling smorgasbord of a feast for a mere pittance. Combined with a water feature and pumping electronic music, it created an atmosphere that I’ll not soon forget!
The next day, our short time in Uzbekistan had come to a close and it was time to head to the border and off to Tajikistan. As cross-border travel can be somewhat complicated in this part of the world, we had arranged for a cab to drop us off near the border, but we would have to make the actual crossing on foot. On the way we passed dozens of old Soviet era trucks piled high with more bales than I would’ve ever thought possible. These guys are operating on the next level … and without any effective safety oversight I would wager …
As many countries in this part of the world maintain closed currencies that cannot be exchanged officially, we would also have to utilize the services of an unofficial money changer just before the border to unload our remaining bills. Operating out of the back of their minivan, Ashraf secured us what seemed like a pretty reasonable rate considering the serious lack of alternatives, and on we went.
Leaving Uzbekistan, the border guard was very keen to chat with us, so keen in fact that he waved aside an entire line of people in front of us to give us priority! He asked us if we’d enjoyed ourselves and thanked us for coming. We told him we’d be sure to recommend Uzbekistan to any adventurous friends, and that I surely do! With that, we walked the few hundred metres comprising the border and entered Tajikistan to begin the next leg of our journey!