Samarkand – Astounding architecture and history

The Afrosiyab from Tashkent departed in the evening and rolled into Samarkand around 9 pm, 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 it gave the impression of a fairly dead and broken city. Probably the rain didn’t help its cause.

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

We had reached the hotel only around 10 and their kitchen was closed. 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 it might have been a hungry evening. It was very quiet outside when we walked back, but it seemed very safe.

There is 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 population at the time is locally considered a benevolent king and a national hero. His smiling statues and pictures can be seen around the city. He was known to create piles of decapitated heads once he conquered a city but he died of a meek illness while waging war against the Chinese. It wasn’t planned that he would be laid to rest in Samarkand but such was his fate. The mausoleum itself befits the king it houses. It is architecturally beautiful and showcases the blue ceramic arts in 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 believed to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, centuries later – though the inspired is far grander than the inspiration.

Just behind Gur-e-amir is the Aksaray mausoleum. It is well hidden away but is easy to find if you are looking for it. It has a very simple facade but some stunning gold decor inside. It is easily worth the two-minute walk from the back gate of Gur-e-amir.

A 15-minute stroll from Gur-e-amir led to the highlight of the trip – the unbelievable Registon Square (pronounced more like ‘registaan’ – desert, in Urdu). The square formed by three madrasas defies imagination in terms of scale, architecture, and level of detail in the designs all around. The madrasas were built at different times, spanning some 200 years, but to the untrained eye would seem part of a well-laid plan. Each of the madrasas has more to show off inside with some amazing courtyards and roof inlay work. The true charisma of the square though was visible when we came back in the evening. As the sunset, the structures stood out even more, and then at 8 pm, 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 of the world.

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 Khanum 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 gives 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.

We got some rest in the afternoon before coming back in the evening to 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.

The next day started with breakfast followed by a trip to 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 not worth the stop. The Afrosiyab area is a large mount with several 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.

A good Shashlik lunch followed – 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 the 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. Each of the structures is a work of art and most could be an attraction by themselves.

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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