Wednesday – a day in Samarkand

We left the hotel at 9.00 and piled into Penelope to get ‘down town’ where the main historical sites are. We had not gone far when we passed several large trucks with bedding – sleeping mats and blankets – piled high in the back. There were large numbers of young people milling about and a few parents. Scattered among them were some police. We moved slowly forward again and then stopped. Rustom, our guide, got out to see what was going on and shortly afterwards we were again moving forward. The hold up was caused by the official gathering up of students who all have to spend a certain amount of time picking cotton. They were being rounded up to be taken to the cotton fields.

We moved on to our first port of call, the tomb of Timor and a few of his relatives. Like most things in Samarkand, it has been restored, but nevertheless it was a very impressive sight. First a huge gateway, covered with blue tiles and shining in the light, with the dome of the mausoleum behind it. The patterning on the tiles soared above us as we went through the portal to the area behind with the mausoleum ahead of us. Built by Timor for his favourite nephew, he was to end up being buried there himself after dying suddenly and unable to be put in the place he had identified for himself. The best laid plans……..

The interior of the mausoleum itself was just incredible, gold and blue glazed tiles shimmered all around us and high up into the inner dome which was gold. On the ground were the tombs. All were huge slabs of marble and jade.

The unusual thing for us was the number of other western tourists. For so long we have been travelling to places where we have been either the only visitors or formed part of a smattering. In Timor’s tomb we found ourselves surrounded by the languages of France, Italy, holland and Germany. It was a bit of a jolt.

We left the marine light of the mausoleum’s interior to emerge into the bright sunlight again. Blinking against the light we wondered the grounds and found the back and unrestored part of the building. Although not so colourful, it’s lines were none the less impressive. Everything to do with Timor is on the grand scale!

Our next stop was the Registan. This was originally the big square and commercial centre of Samarkand, where all the traders met and would have been a riot of colour and activity. It is also where people would have been put to death. Today it is a pristine, enormous paved area in front of three magnificent buildings – two madrassahs. and a mosque – that line the three sides of square. Although the term ‘madrassah’ now has the bad press associated with religious extremism, in the past it was just a place of teaching. Each ‘madrassa’ taught a different subject.

The first building we entered was the madrassa of Ulug Beg, the man who built the Observatory on the outskirts of Samarkand. He was another nephew of Timor and sounds a generally good egg. He believed that everyone was entitled to an education and opened the school for teaching mathematics and astronomy. Once again the building has been renovated by the Russians and later restoration took place as a UNESCO site, but nothing could detract from the beauty of the place. Once again a large portal on the square opened into an inner courtyard with two tiers of ‘classrooms’ surrounding the courtyard. The ground floor rooms are now shops. It would be nice to think that the stall holders who previously filled the square outside made up the shopkeeping population, but sadly this is not the case. The shops were very upmarket, the shopkeepers very well dressed and very different to how one imagines the stall holders of old to be.

We visited each of the buildings in turn. Each had been renovated, but there were some areas still being tinkered with. Outside of the Registan was a domed building where the Silk Road traders of old would change their money to the local currency to enable them to trade. This is now an art gallery.

We moved on to the Grand Mosque. Another huge portal entry into the mosque grounds. In the centre of the area in front of the mosque itself was an enormous Koran stand made of stone. The mosque complex was not so highly patterned and there was much more sandstone to be seen. For some reason the building had to be completed very quickly (folklore provides various stories about this) which resulted in it deteriorating more quickly because it’s foundation were not robust enough to hold it up. Although it has been subject to renovation, this was not as all encompassing as other buildings we have seen and in fact it’s interior had not been touched. It is no longer used.

After a wonderful morning of sightseeing of the most amazing kind, it had taken place in fierce sun and heat, so we adjourned for lunch on the balcony
of one of the artisan shops that line the pristine walkway between the Registan and the mosque. We had wonderful Greek salads and shredded carrot with a yummy but mysterious dressing and cold drinks. Accompanied by a yoghurt dip and the local bread, it is our favourite lunch.

The dangerous bit was the shop – and I succumbed! Keith bought the wonderful jacket I found for my birthday! What a lucky girl, but what hard work to make a purchase! The shop had no card machine, no-one uses banks (all money changing takes place on the street) and no ATM in Samarkand. We eventually cobbled the money – which as you can imagine as I was involved was not inconsiderable (!) – by borrowing from one of our travel chums.

After the retail excitement we took a step through a wall that had been built to separate the up market shops from the local residential area and were in a different world – narrow roadways, traditional single storey dwellings and jolly local people. There was a wedding taking place and beautiful young women giggled and chatted. Sadly we did not see the bride. After our local wondering, Keith and I meandered back to the hotel to prepare for the evening’s entertainment. We were to form part of a small, but beautifully formed group who had signed up for a Uzbekistan wine tasting session.

It was quite a trek to the wine ‘factory’. The lady who led the proceedings was great fun although I was a bit shocked to learn we are the same age……. However – to move quickly on – there was no hiding place on this tasting – no spitting out. Madame insisted that every drop should be drunk! We moved through white and red wines and eventually brandy that were of varying degrees of acceptability until the last which was absolutely awful. We were told it had won awards and was know as the ‘Elixir of Life’. It was not grape based but instead a concoction of herbs and spices in liquid form. I was not sure whether it was to be rubbed on or drunk! A fun evening, but I don’t think the Uzbekistan vineyard is one to look out for!!!

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