Dusty Stretches Of Nothingness, Unbelievably Hospitable Locals & The Dazzling Islamic Architectural Showstoppers Of The Ancient Silk Road
The Registan, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. March 8, 2015
Uzbekistan (March 4-18 2015)
An exploration of the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, centre of the historic Silk Road, a country full of dust, unbelievably hospitable locals & even more unbelievably audacious Islamic architectural showstoppers.
Read all postings from the road in chronological order or jump to specific postings using the following links.
EARLY DAYS – Border Crossing, Currency Exchange, & Introduction To Uzbekistan
THE CAPITAL – Tashkent
DEPARTURE – A Central Asian Thumbs Up!
The Republic of Uzbekistan
With a population of 30 million, the Republic of Uzbekistan is by far the most populous state in Central Asia, home to nearly half of the region’s 65 million population. It has been the cradle of Central Asian culture for more than two millennia, gathering quite a rich history in the process: Samarkand, believed to have been founded as far back as the 5th century BC, was conquered in 329 BC by Alexander the Great; key Silk Road towns like Samarkand & Bukhara grew wealthy during the trade-heavy glory days from the 6th century onward; Islam was introduced into the region in Uzbekistan by the Arabs in the 8th & 9th century; Genghis Khan razed the country in the early 13th century; the most famous, & ruthless, Uzbek of them all Timur, a.k.a. Tamerlane, was born just south of Samarkand in 1336; the Russians conquered the country in the late 19th century & amid some resistance a socialist republic was set up in 1924; & Independence finally came in 1991 following the break up of the Soviet Union (compared to the other Central Asian states, Uzbekistan generally resisted Russification & emerged from under Soviet rule with a strong sense of identity & cultural heritage). These days the Republic of Uzbekistan is officially a democracy. However, the authoritarian government run a harshly policed state, one that has been overseen since independence by one man, President Islam Karimov. The country, seen as the most corrupt of the ‘stans (& that’s saying something given the competition), is wealthy in natural resources yet, and as one might expect, the wealth resides with only a select few meaning the majority of the country’s gold-teeth populace remain quite poor.
Archived Postings From The Uzbek Road (In Chronological Order)
EARLY DAYS - Border Crossing, Currency Exchange & Introduction To Uzbekistan
Well well well. Today was an eventful day, one of those long, tiring but memorable travel days. I crossed a border (& a time zone), made a new best friend & struck it rich, all the while travelling further than planned.
Having just crossed over the border I was in a dusty no man’s land searching out onward transport to the nearest big town, Andijon. It was around about then when my new Uzbek bestie appeared in his beat-up Chevy taxi like an apparition out of the haze.
Setting out this morning from Osh in Kyrgyzstan I had planned reaching Kokand in Uzbek’s Fergana Valley. En route I decided to push on for the capital, Tashkent, the largest city in Central Asia and my present location. As a result, today was a long day of travel but an eventful one. I’ll be here in Tashkent for a few days and will start my explorations of the city tomorrow. I gotta start eating into that wad of cash.
With all due respect to the architecture (both of the Soviet-era kind & of the new wacky 21st century kind), the snow-capped mountain vistas, & the general Russification that I have enjoyed in Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan before it, Uzbekistan is why I came to Central Asia. And the Big Uzbek Three of Samarkand, Bukhara & Khiva are the reason I came to Uzbekistan.
The long-time capital of Central Asian culture & an historical overload, the country is the birthplace of Timur (1336-1405), a.k.a. Tamerlane, & there’s barely a regional dictator who didn’t try his hand at grabbing this part of Asia – everyone from Alexander The Great to Genghis Khan to Stalin has left their mark here. Uzbekistan is also the centre of the fabled Silk Road boasting the aforementioned & well-known caravan-stop towns of Samarkand & Bukhara, both full of audacious, blue-domed & tile-heavy Islamic architectural gems that combine for what might just be the greatest Islamic architectural show on earth. Yep, on earth. OK, so the levels of Central Asian dust have ratcheted up quite a bit, it’s hard to find a good coffee, internet access is woeful, & dealing with fistfuls of Uzbek som to buy so much as a shashlik (lamb kebab) or a plate of plov (ubiquitous Central Asian dish of meat-based rice & the Uzbek national dish) is a pain. But all that said, Uzbekistan is an easy & safe place to travel, the people are genuinely warm & hospitable (not to mention immensely curious), accommodation standards are high, & chances are that each and every sight is going to be a showstopper.
Tashkent On Hold
I’m in Samarkand. I’ve just disembarked the train from Tashkent having spent the last 3 days & 3 nights, all my time thus far in Uzbekistan, in its sprawling capital. I kept busy in the city, Central Asia’s largest urban centre & a city that surprised me with its beauty, cleanliness & array of sights. I’d read about Tashkent beforehand and as a result wasn’t expecting much from it – few seem to speak highly of the city. But I liked it (the glorious weather & low 20C temperatures helped). Stella didn’t believe me when I told her that. She was the friendly Uzbek girl who sat beside me on the train drumming up foreigner/local conversation (her English was great). Everyone in my vicinity in the carriage was eyeing me with curiosity & suspicion, especially Stella when I told her I enjoyed my time in Tashkent; she thought I was just being polite, just saying so so as not to offend (even though she was a Bukhara girl who didn’t speak overly highly of her capital). The plan was to use the three hour and 30 minute train ride to script a Tashkent blog entry. Stella put pay to that idea as we compared Uzbek this & Ireland/Europe that, spoke of common hopes for the future, & swapped facebook details. I’ll be back in Tashkent next week (after 3 nights each in Samarkand, Bukhara & Khiva) so I’ll post more digital delights from the city then. But for now here’s one more capture from the last few days. Yes, and believe it or not Stella, it’s a big thumbs up from Tashkent.
THE BIG THREE - #1 - Samarkand
I’ve just spent three days & nights in Samarkand, Timur’s 14th century capital, the historic & ancient Uzbek city awash with epic, spellbinding Islamic architecture. Each of the three days were very different: day one was wet & dank; day 2 gloriously sunny & warm; & day 3 overcast and cold with a treat of snow that never quite came. But everyday was special.
Samarkand, in the heart of the ancient Silk Road & deeply infused with its fascinating history, gets top billing on many a Central Asia itinerary. The city, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, boasts some of the Islamic world’s most spectacular, surreal, & audacious architecture all rolled into one. Hyperbole aside, it really is an amazing place & I’ve spent my time here trying to adequately photograph the distinctive turquoise-blue domes & mind-boggling tilework of the city’s fabled larger-than-life monuments. Here’s some of what I captured accompanied, as usual, with my verbose insights. Destination photography & insights people, destination photography & insights.
– UNESCO commenting on ‘Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures’
Uzbekistan’s most famous & iconic sight, some say the three tilting medressas (Islamic schools) that comprise the Registan – Ulugbek Medressa (left, 1417-1420), Tilla-Kari Medressa (centre, 1646-1660), & Sher Dor Medressa (right, 1619-1636) – combine to produce what is probably the best single attraction in the whole of the Central Asian region.
Today, my departure day from Samarkand, & I woke to about a foot of snow. I hadn’t planned another visit to The Registan, but I hadn’t planned on it snowing either. So I did mosey on over seen as it was snowing and my B&B was just around the corner.
Right, enough from The Registan. There’s plenty more to dazzle you in Samarkand.
– ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’ by James Elroy Flecker, 1913
Day 2 sightseeing in Samarkand started by poking around the biggest & most famous of Samarkand’s many, many mosques, the massive Bibi-Khanym. It was overcast but as soon as I walked into the structure’s central courtyard the clouds parted and glorious sunlight illuminated the tilework on the mosque’s towering façade. The sun stayed out for the rest of the day, seemingly following me as I went.
It was still gloriously sunny when I got to Shan-i-Zinda, Samarkand’s Avenue of Mausoleums. Located in the corner of Samarkand’s main cemetery, this is 200- 300-metre long narrow avenue of towering, mausoleums is yet another (predominately blue) tilework overload.
Samarkand seems to know the value of the tourist dollar, and the powers that be seem intent on ‘beautifying’ the experience for tourists visiting the centuries old, tile-infused monuments of the city’s glorious past.
THE BIG THREE - #2 - Bukhara
Bukhara, historical Uzbek Silk Road outpost number 2 after Samarkand, hasn’t changed much in centuries & seemingly it’s the best place in the country to get a sampling pre-Russian Uzbekistan. In fairness to the Russians, & ignoring the fact that they bombed the city in finally taking control of it in 1920, they left it as they found it meaning today the so-called ‘city of museums’ is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site contains more than 140-odd protected historical architectural monuments stretching back to the Middle Ages, everything from medressas to mosques to minarets. There’s even a royal fortress. Take that, Samarkand.
– UNESCO commenting on the Historic Centre of Bukhara
After running the gamut of weather conditions for 3 days in Samarkand before it, in Bukhara things were a little less complicated meteorologically. For the last three days I’ve been treated to crystal clear blue skies and belting sunshine, meaning at either end of the 3 hour Samarkand-Bukhara train journey I went from wrapping up against the snow to shielding against the sun. The weather here has been bizarre.
Sizing Up Bukhara
I’ve spent my time here walking around the centre of Bukhara’s UNESCO-listed old town & poking around the inside & outside of its buildings, all the while soaking up the atmosphere, fighting the dust, & sizing up shots – the old town is small so I was able to scout & revisit locations more than once in a bid to do the city justice photographically.
Built in 1127, the 888-year-old city landmark Kalon Minaret was probably the only Bukhara structure to escape Genghis Khan’s wrath when he razed the city in 1220 – legend says he was so taken by it that he ordered it spared. Good call.
Face-To-Face || Kalon Mosque & Mir-i-Arab Medressa
The Kalon minaret is found in a sort of mini version of the Samarkand Registan, a brown space across which stand the two facing facades of Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque & the Mir-i-Arab Medressa. The interior of the former & the exterior of the latter are highlights of the old city.
According to the legend Bukhara was founded by King Siavash, a legendary Persian prince from the beginnings of the Persian Empire. It was Central Asia’s religious & cultural heart in the 9th & 10th centuries before being razed by Genghis Khan in 1220. It became the capital of the so-called Bukhara khanate in the 16th century and once again became a center of arts and literature, attracting skilled craftsmen, poets and theologians. At this time the city boasted over 100 medressas and three times as many mosques. The Russians arrived in 1868 & the city became a protectorate of the tsar with the emirs still nominally in charge. That cozy relationship came to an end in 1920 when the Russians invaded the city, causing widespread damage to some of its fabled structures in the process, & in 1924 Bukhara was absorbed into the new Uzbek SSR, now know as Uzbekistan following independence from the USSR in 1991.
The Bukhara Ark is a citadel, a walled city-within-a-city, the fortified residence of the emirs, the city’s rulers until the Russians put an end to all that self-rule malarkey in 1920.
The center of the old city of Bukhara is the leafy, shady plaza Laybi-Hauz. Built in 1620, the plaza’s main element is a pool, one of dozens in the city but easily the most famous.
The Bukhara Bust-up
I caused a fracas today, the day I left Bukhara for Khiva further north. Of course I didn’t mean to (cause the fraca) but that didn’t prevent two taxi drivers going at it over who would get to have me sit beside them for the 6+ hours it’d take them to cover the 450 kilometres from Bukhara to Khiva, my present location and last stop in Uzbekistan (& Central Asia). No punches were thrown but it got heated & among the tirades there was plenty of pushing & shoving going on (of course they were ‘debating’ over who was going to be the recipient of the 70,000som (€17.5) the trip would cost me). Down boys.
THE BIG THREE - #3 - Khiva
It wasn’t lost on me over the last few days as I explored the fantastically preserved mud-brick lanes & structures of UNESCO World Heritage listed Khiva that the dusty former slave outpost wasn’t even on my original itinerary. I almost missed out on seeing what is the best preserved medieval city in Central Asia, if not the Islamic world, an entire walled city of traditional mud-baked architecture frozen in time in the Uzbek Khorezm oasis.
Itchan Kala has a history that spans over two millennia. Originally a minor fort & side branch on the Silk Road, it became a state capital in 1592 while the town’s slave market would boom to become the largest in Central Asia. Although the settlement’s first dealings the Russians came in the early 18th century, it wasn’t sacked by the northerners until 1873, becoming a vassal of the tsar in the process. Just like Bukhara further south, Khiva was theoretically independent of the USSR & limped on under various despot emirs, ruling from the Itchan Kala Ark, before eventually being adsorbed fully into the Uzbek SSR in 1924.
– UNESCO commenting on Itchan Kala
City Walls & City Wall Gates
A 2.5 kilometre section of Khiva’s 18th century 10-metre high mud walls – from the West Gate right around to the East Gate – is accessible to the likes of me and ambling along them is a definite Khiva must-do.
A few other captures from my time in Khiva.
THE CAPITAL - Tashkent
I’m back in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent having arrived into the city this morning off the 19-hour overnight sleeper train from Urgench, a short taxi ride from Khiva. Arriving back here brought an end to my 10-night loop through the Uzbek Big Three of Samarkand, Bukhara & Khiva. And very shortly it’ll bring an end to my jaunt through the region as tonight is my last last night in the city, my last night in Uzbekistan, my last night in Central Asia.
Today, St Patrick’s Day, was a quiet day in Tashkent. I visited a few museums, including the House of Photography, a bucket list holdover from my first 3-night say in the city before setting out on my Big Three loop. There wasn’t much to photograph today (I didn’t even bring the ‘big’ camera with me), just the House of Photography & the metro system that I utilised to get there.
Of course I’d photographed Tashkent previously. So here are a few old pictures from the city, holdovers from my first visit & pictures taken at a time when all I knew of Uzbekistan was its surprisingly pretty capital, Central Asia’s largest urban centre with a population of some 2.2 million.
DEPARTURE – A Central Asian Thumbs Up!
A Central Asian Thumbs Up
It’s late on March 17th, St Patrick’s Day for 2015. It’s my last night in Central Asia. I’ve a stupid o’clock flight in the morning to Tbilisi, Georgia, that will bring an end to my 33-night odyssey in the region having crossed over into Kazakhstan from western China on February 12th last. It has been an amazing trip, the highlights of which have without doubt been the region’s warm & hospitable people & its diverse architecture, everything from the Soviet-era monstrosities that still dot (& some say blight) the region, to the futuristic creations spouting from the steppes in Kazakhstan, to the unique, audacious & crumbling Islamic showstoppers of Uzbekistan. The weather has, for the most part, been great too. Aside from a few dull days in Almaty & the -40C temperatures Astana, my first 2 stops in the region & both in Kazakhstan, it has been mild & gloriously bright meaning my backpack has been larger than it should have been carrying mostly surplus to requirement winter heavies. Yes, the disappointment of not getting to both Turkmenistan & Iran took a small bit of sheen off the whole trip but not overly so. I’ll eventually get around to pictorially summarising the trip (that’s going to be fun) but for now this is me signing off from, & giving a big thumbs up to, Central Asia.