Thursday, 21 February 2019

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Samarkand, often affectionately referred as "Rome of the East" is not only an UNESCO World Heritage site of Uzbekistan, but one of the oldest cities in the world which has gallantly preserved centuries-old history of human civilization since 742 BC. Like a phoenix, this ancient city of Samarkand has suffered repeated knockouts, and after each fall it has rebuilt itself from the ashes, appearing more majestic and appealing than before! We took a guided day trip to Samarkand from Tashkent on the fourth day of our itinerary, and I feel blessed to have taken such a right decision. If you read my post on 7 days of ideal Uzbekistan itinerary, you'll get to know that exploring Samarkand is not feasible unless you halt overnight there. But, at least we got a glimpse of the beautiful historical city, which was chronologically capital of various empires, starting from Sogdia in 4th century BC, to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 20th century AD. More importantly, Samarkand remodeled our perspective on Uzbekistan which our subconscious mind had archived after exploring Tashkent in first two days.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Samarkand Railway Station from outside.
Yesterday, I received a complaint from one of my readers that individual blogs on Uzbekistan trip are getting too lengthy of late. To tell you the truth, I have only a handful of them. Penning down a long, informative and visually rich article definitely elevates my mood. But, if someone is investing his precious time on my write-up, it is my prime obligation to take his feedback seriously. Message me whenever you feel anything needs to be changed in this blog. However mechanical it might sound, your opinions are valuable to the growth and development of Poetry of Roads. I promise to keep my overenthusiastic narration on Uzbekistan crisp and concise. Now, let's get back to the historical city of Samarkand where postcard perfect turquoise domes, decorated minarets of mammoth medieval mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs fuse harmoniously with a modern urban canvas. In its heyday, this city occupied the central position on the map of great Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China and the Mediterranean.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.
Unless you're flying from Russia, boarding a train is your best option to reach Samarkand, whether you're traveling from Tashkent, or Bukhara. Being a tourist you wouldn't probably want to waste your time in slower railway carriages when faster 'Afrosiyob' trains are available from either side. Fleet of these high-speed trains are fast, punctual and practically quite affordable. 'Afrosiyob' sounds pleasingly interesting to your ears, right? Well, Afrosiyob is the oldest part of the ancient city of Samarkand. We boarded the first train in the morning. I had an economic carriage ticket, and guess what, the train compartment turned out to be at par with expensive executive chair-car options of premium trains in India. The journey of 344 km took little north of 2 hours, while the large window by my side kept me engaged rural Uzbek landscapes. If you're a vegetarian, be careful while accepting the complimentary snack along with green tea on board. A delicious beef sandwich might not fit your taste.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Trams running in Samarkand city.
Samarkand railway station, with its wide pillars, vividly painted arches, stained glass works and gorgeous chandeliers is imposing enough to be considered as one of the tourist attractions of the city. As we exited the railway complex, we got the first glimpse of tramway in Uzbekistan. Trams running in Samarkand are air-conditioned, less noisy and faster than those we find in Kolkata. As of now, tramway doesn't penetrate the city extensively and useful only to local commuters. Our tourist guide, Dil was waiting for us outside the station. Our first halt was the giant statue of Amir Timur watchfully sitting on a throne, surrounded by fast moving traffic from all sides, close to the garden that leads to  Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. Yes, Timur is omnipresent in Uzbekistan. The statue must have been sculpted by highly dedicated artisans. Vigilant eyes and the commanding sitting posture of the statue is bound to delude you that Timur is keeping a real time track of what is happening in the old city!

It won't be a mistake to conclude that Timur is omnipresent in Uzbekistan.
Gur-e-Amir is the burial vault of Amir Timur, his sons and also his grandsons. This mausoleum is an excellent testimony of oriental art, with interiors irradiating hues of blue and gold, exciting the imagination of its visitors not only by its sheer visual grandeur but also by its legends. Its incredible vaults had been crafted with lapis lazuli and gold, while its headstones were built with marble and jade! There is an inscription on the tombstone of Amir Timur in the old Persian language- "Let the most terrible punishment come to that person who will disturb the ashes of ancestors." Although, today it does not matter whether due to that circumstances or the ancient sorcery of the mystical Sufis that diced this curse, it might give you goosebumps to know, when a grave was opened in 1941, the Hitler armies had ruthlessly invaded the territory of the Soviet Union, flagging off one of the most destructive episodes of history-the  Great Patriotic War.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Registan is the heart of ancient Samarkand.
If you're halting overnight in Samarkand, which I highly recommend, do visit the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum after dark when the chamber turns magical as the huge chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the dome reflects the sparkling gilt overhead. Even if you are too late to enter, photographing its exterior from all three sides is worthy enough for any travel photographer. Remember, entrance requires a small fee, just like most other famous monuments of Uzbekistan, which typically ranges from 1-4 USD. The main square, 'Registan' is the heart of ancient Samarkand, the heritage of eastern architecture, which is also a proud member of UNESCO World Heritage list. Every visitor to this magnificent square touches a magical book of the history of mankind and perceives the breath of bygone glory, as if the wind and the sun whisper into their ears several intriguing tales of rise and fall.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Those chocolate bars are damn yummy!
Registan is a huge monumental complex where you can spend an entire day praising its beauty. At the center of it, stand three madrasahs- Ulugbek, Sherdor and Tilya-Kori, which are colossal and exquisitely ornamented architectures in themselves, facing one another in form of 'U'. Since 1997, a grand cultural event- the International Music Festival "Sharq Taronalari" is organised in Registan square every 2 years which continues for 7 days, attracting participants, i.e. talented singers, musicians and dancers from all over the globe. Outside most of the prominent historical landmarks of Samarkand, you'll find locals selling home-made bread, chocolates and dry-fruits in small vans. I can't vouch for other stuffs, but those chocolate bars are damn yummy. Don't know if it was my untrimmed beard that played the trick, many young locals approached me with smile, curious to know if I hailed from Pakistan.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Bibi-Khanyam Mosque.
At a walking distance from Registan, adjacent to the Siyob Bazaar, you'll find another imposing structure- Bibi-Khanyam Mosque, which was once the largest architecture in the entire Islamic world, with highest minarets! Unfortunately it took bad blow of cryptic time and got badly ruined. During the Soviet era and also after the independence, Bibi-Khanyam Mosque was extensively renovated and largely rebuilt, regaining a part of its erstwhile grandeur, presenting the artistic ideals and architectural solutions of Timur's time. There's Bibi-Khanyam Mausoleum on the other side of the road which is much tinier, but treasures its old-world charm. Then we entered the Siyob market in search of few souvenirs. You can buy high quality dried fruits and handicrafts. As a thumb rule, bargain 10-20% less than what the shopkeepers quote you. If you have got terribly bored by the apparently unpalatable green tea widely available in Uzbekistan, I would say, try tea from the cafeteria inside Siyob Bazaar.

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
Bibi-Khanyam Mausoleum.
The mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari is one of the most significant monuments for Muslims. Imam al-Bukhari was a great theologian, scientist, and a hadith scholar who wrote the second most important book after the Holy Quran- "Al-Jomii al-Saheeh". He had worked relentlessly for 16 years on that book, collecting information about the actions and preaching of Prophet Muhammad. The suburb of Afrosiab is a place full of peace and faith. For many centuries, thousands of pilgrims of the three religions- Christians, Muslims and Jews have been visiting there to worship the holy prophet Daniel, the descendant of the great King David and Solomon. According to legend, the bones of Saint Daniel continue to grow till date. Hazrat Daud Cave is one of the legendary holy places of Uzbekistan, located 40 km from Samarkand, in the Mirankul mountain region, highly regarded by Christians, Muslims and Jewish worldwide. In early evening, we had a train to catch for Tashkent. Alas we missed so much of Samarkand!

Glimpses of Uzbekistan - exploring Samarkand
You can procure high quality dried fruits and handicrafts from Siyob Bazaar.
Time for some food talk before concluding this post. While exploring Samarkand, try the Samarkand pilaf. Pilaf surely is a traditional meal of Uzbekistan, but it should be kept in mind that pilaf is prepared differently in each region. Try the Nohat-shurpa soup which will captivate your gustatory faculty with its pieces of meat, carrots, yellow turnip, local peas, nuts, bright red tomatoes, fresh herbs and oriental spices. You'll find it hard to believe if I tell you that Samarkand flat bread doesn't stale for 3 damn years! In my Tashkent diary I had mentioned about Shashlik. Do try that wherever you get some in Uzbekistan. Next day I went for a brief day trip to Bukhara, the city I liked most. I wish I could have blogged about my brief visit to Bukhara soon, This weekend I'm flying to Sri Lanka for two-weeks of backpacking. I'll finish my Uzbekistan tale after I return. Of course, I'll talk about Sri Lanka too. It'll be my third visit to that pearl of Indian Ocean!      

1 comment:

  1. Looks quite charming! It seems Samarkand has a mystical appeal about it.

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