We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the road to Samarkand.
From James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Journey to Samarkand (1913)
This was it! The long awaited Samarkand – the epitome of a Silk Road City!
Having spent so long in Bukhara we had only 2 nights to spare. We arrived as the sun was setting and headed for the Bibi Khanum Hotel. This was our view from the breakfast terrace. Need I say more.
We were up early and ready for a day of sightseeing. We wandered to the Registan, an impossing trio of Madresssas with stunning blue, yellow and turquoise designs. We managed to miss the ticket office and so got accosted by a smiling security guard who took us to pay. We were charged 25 times the price of a local ticket. Next stop was the Rukhobod Mausoleum, a small, understated, pure white building and the oldest monument in Samarkand. It was built in 1380 over the grave of Sheikh Burhaneddin Sagaradzhi the Islamic Theologian and contains tomb stones of the theologian, his wife and children. A short stroll away stands the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, the exquisitly opulent resting place of Amir Timur. (More guilding than you can imagine). The monument houses the graves of some of Timur’s family members and Sheikh Seyid Umar, Timur’s teacher and rumoured decedent of the Prophet Mohamed. Our final stop was the Bibi Khanum Mosque, once the largest mosque in the Islamic world. Whilst boasting a magnificent facade it is significantly dilapidated and would benefit from a lick of paint and some heavy duty under pinning. This however does not detract from the sense of peace this site exudes. A colossal marble Quran stand is positioned in the centre of the court yard. Legend suggests that a woman who crawls under the Quran will be excessively fertile. Needless to say Kat and I gave it a wide birth.
We were now running out of dollars. It’s worth mentioning that the exchange rate for Uzbekistan Som from a bank or ATM is horrendous. You get the most bang for your buck by exchanging dollars into Som on the black market. Finding a black market trader is easy. Finding dollars is impossible. At least three of our precious Samarkand hours were spend chasing this elusive currency from hole in the wall, to bank, to posh hotel foyer and back again. Finally with Som in hand we jumped in a taxi and headed for Plantan (Samarkand’s best restaurant -Llonely Planet 2013 ) where we were treated to delicious food and intellectual conversation about the fall of the Uzbek som and the black market from the gorgeous waiter. One R’n’B heavy taxi ride back, where the 9 year old driver demonstrated his distinct lack of any Knowledge, our hectic day ended.
Samarkand had moments of astonishing beauty and grandure but the city itself lacked charm having been concreted over by the Soviets. ‘Registan’ translates to ‘sandy place’ and yet not a grain of sand can be seen. The monuments have be preserved clinically, without reference to the history and mystique of the City – Flecker’s portrayal of Samarkand. To be blunt I was disappointed, but perhaps I should have been more imaginative.