Samarkand (Day 2-4) – A lesson in History

The Afrosiyab from Tashkent departed in the evening and rolled into Samarkand around 9pm, right on schedule. The ride itself was quite comfortable and the modern Spanish train touched a cool 200 kmph. Once out of the train station, it took some deft negotiation with the cab drivers before we got going. The ride into Samarkand can be quite deceptive as at night if gave the impression of a fairly dead and broken city, maybe the rain didn’t help.

The L’Argamark hotel entrance was a big think Iron gate in a small dark alley. Once the gate opened, though, the world changed quickly. Place, the staff and the room was absolutely charming and we could see the dome of the Gur-e-Amir from our room windows. The breakfast next morning was a lovely set of local fare. The French influence showed in the room and a little bit in the staff too.

The walk to find dinner at 10:30 pm was interesting. Most of the places were closed but the hotel manager gave us directions to a cafe some 10-15 min walk away that served some good European fare. That place shut down around 11 too, so if we had been only a little bit late, might have been a hungry evening. It was quiet outside when we walked back, but it seemed very safe, to our relief.

There was really a lot to see around and some of the descriptions will make this sound like a history lesson, but then that is Samarkand. The other feature of Samarkand history is that every monument has an entry charge – a couple of dollars usually, but there are so many monuments that the fees did add up.

We started our day with a short walk to Gur-e-Amir or the mausoleum of the Amir – Timur himself. The man whose campaigns globally are believed to have killed about 5% of the world’s populations at the time is locally considered a benevolent king and a national hero. His smiling statues can pictures can be seen around the city. He was known to create piles of decapitated heads once he conquered a city but he himself died of an illness while waging war against the Chinese. It wasn’t planning for him to be buried in Samarkand but such was his fate. The mausoleum itself befits the king it houses. Its architecturally beautiful and showcases the blue ceramic arts of the area. Even the interior is ornately decorated where artificial graves rest in a magnificent golden and blue decorated room. The real graves are in a basement chamber that is off-bounds for visitors. This overall design is said to be the inspiration of the Taj Mahal, centuries later – though the inspired is far grander than the inspiree. The Aksaray mausoleum just behind Gur-e-amir has a simple facade but some stunning gold decor inside.

Gur-e-amir, the mausoleum of Timur
Gold layered interior of the mausoleum

A 15 minute stroll from Gur-e-amir was the highlight of the trip – the unbelievable Registon Square (pronounced more like registaan – desert, in Urdu). The square formed by 3 madarsas defies imagination in terms of scale, architecture and level of detail in the designs all around. The 3 madarsas were build at different times, spanning some 200 years, but to the untrained eye would seem part of a well laid plan. Each of the madarsa has more to show off inside with some amazing courtyards and roof inlay work. The true magic of the square though was visible when we came back in the evening. As the sun set, the structures stood out even more and then at 8pm, magic happened! The lights turned on and the crowd sitting on the stairs watching let out a small gasp, in unison. Some of the pictures do little justice to how the empty square looked in the night with some well planned lighting and deep blue sky. Built between the 15th and 17th centuries, the massive facades make their quiet case for being called a wonder.

The spectacular lighting
Sher-dur Madarsa

A small market across hold some nice places to eat and we ended up with one that had upstairs seating, really good shashlik kebabs, excellent salad and for a chance, some beer. Nicely satisfied, we took an electric cart from a road right next to the square to the famed Bibi Khanym Mosque. The structure is majestic and large and was built for the all powerful wife of Timur who is stated to wield tremendous power by being able to manipulate the views of Timur. The mosque is still under restoration and while the outside was done when I saw it, there was still almost no work done on the interiors. It give a view on how bad the condition of these monuments was and the reason why the restoration was debated – it was a very significant change to the condition of these buildings. Across from the mosque is the Bibi’s mausoleum and right next to it is a local market.

Gate to the Bibi Khanym Mosque

We got some rest in the afternoon before coming back in the evening to the Registon Square for the night view. It was a long day and a lot of monuments remained. We had managed to cover most of the big ones that were walkable and there was a full day car booked for the next day to enable us to reach the remaining.

We started the day with Mohammad-al-bukhari mausoleum which is the monument furthest outside the main city – about a 30 minute drive. This was the first place where some dress restrictions were posted – basically covered knees and shoulders – the usual. The main structure in the middle is quite ornate but I don’t think this one would stand its own against some of the other mausoleums here. Once back we stopped at the mausoleum of their last president, which was definitely not worth the stop. The Afrosiyab area is a large mount with number of historic excavations. Again, not much to see. We then ended up at Ulugh Beg’s observatory – the grandson of Timur and I believe, his favorite. Ulugh Beg was an astronomer and scientist. He did some pretty cool work to understand the structure of the universe and while only a part of the observatory is left, it is quite a cool sight and the museum next door gives some good insights.

The remains of the Ulugh Beg observatory – way ahead of his times

A good Shashlik lunch followed – really cheap and delicious. Then we were led to the most stunning monument for the day, the Shah-i-Zinda tombs – a necropolis of many built between 9th and 14th centuries. It is believed a cousin of the Prophet is buried here, giving the place a religious flavor. Some buildings were added in the 19th century. Today there are about 20 tombs in the necropolis, next to each other and each with a different set of spectacular interior and exterior ceramic designs.

Shah-i-zinda necropolis

In the evening we decided to experiment with some fancy food at the restaurant Platan – frequented by luxury seeking European tourists. The food was good and the service was average leaving us craving for just more Shashlik and Pulao. We did take a post dinner stroll to click the statue of Timur sitting on his throne at an intersection just outside our hotel.

The next day would be breakfast and a short drive to the train station to catch the Afrosiyab to Bukhara.

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