Samarkand is a majestic city
Samarkand, a majestic city with a central location on the silk road between China from one side and the Middle East and Europe from another side, a city with a history of over 2,000 years. The city had its golden age during the Timurid Empire era when Timur made Samarkand the capital of his empire. Simply put, It’s hard to find the right words to describe the beauty of Samarkand.
When Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand in 329 BC, he said “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true – except that it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined”. When Marco Polo visited Samarkand in the 13th century he said “Samarkand is noble and great city, where there are many of gardens with fruits in abundance. Muslims and Christians live side-by-side and they are religiously tolerant to each other”. When the famous Muslim scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta visited Samarkand in the 14th century, he said “one of the greatest and finest of cities, and most perfect of them in beauty”. Three major figures in history said something in common when they described the city; it’s the beauty of it.
In this blog, I will be sharing with you my impressions about my 1-night stay in a place I always wanted to visit; A city like no other that was once a crossroad of civilizations and that is still, after so many years, unique and beautiful.
The train from Tashkent to Samarkand
In the early morning, I packed and left my Airbnb apartment in Tashkent. I ordered a Yandex taxi to the main train station in Tashkent where high-speed trains leave Tashkent every morning all the way to Bukhara with a stop in Samarkand. There’s another train station in Tashkent called “Tashkent Yuzhniy” which literally translates into “Tashkent South”. It could be a bit confusing so make sure to check your ticket to see from which station your train leaves.
A journey from Tashkent to Samarkand on the high-speed train takes 2 hour 8 minutes. If you decide to take the older train, that is still an option but the journey will take you around 4 hours. The high-speed train is fantastic; it’s on time, modern, and very clean. I highly recommend that you buy your ticket in advance as tickets get sold out quickly. To buy a ticket, the best way is to use Uzbek railways official website here: https://railway.uz/en/
Tickets from Tashkent to Samarkand on the high-speed train start from 100,000 Uzbek Som ($9.12 USD) for the economy class ticket, 137,000 Uzbek Som ($12.6 USD) for the business class ticket, and 199,000 Uzbek Som ($18.3 USD) for VIP. I got myself a business class ticket and as you can see from the photo below, the seat is outstanding. Train attendants serve business class passengers coffee or tea and a simple breakfast in a box and that’s included in the price (what a deal, right?). However, if you want to order something fancy such as cappuccino, you may do that but you will have to pay a little bit extra. I love how affordable Uzbekistan is. Not only affordable but also high quality. I wish to have such a great high-speed train service between Toronto and Montreal instead of the outdated, slow, and overpriced trains we currently have.
Arriving in Samarkand
After a comfortable train ride on this great high-speed train, I arrived in Samarkand train station. It’s another beautiful and modern train station and right after I have left the platform and as I was heading outside the station, a swarm of taxi drivers and their brokers approached me to ask me if I want a taxi. Luckily, I learned my lesson after my previous experience in Tashkent airport a few days ago and I managed to order a Yandex taxi myself. Hence, the Yandex taxi driver was waiting for me right outside the station. The taxi ride from the station to the guest house took around 10 minutes.
I arrived at my guest house which is called “Guest House Firuza”. The place has very good reviews on booking.com and I’m so glad I made a decision to stay there. My room had 2 single beds and a bathroom and shower attached to it. It’s similar to a hotel room but it’s a guest house with some tables and seats in the common area outside the rooms for travellers to socialize (if they wish) or to eat or drink something. My stay there for one night cost me $24 USD only including breakfast. I will tell you more about the great breakfast I had in this guesthouse later in the blog. The guesthouse didn’t accept credit cards(the machine was out of service – you’re going to hear that a lot in Uzbekistan) so bring a lot of cash with you and don’t depend on credit cards, especially if you’re outside the capital, Tashkent.
I showered and then took a nap for about an hour. It was hot outside and in the summer-time, people in Uzbekistan go out at night so there weren’t many people outside when I went out to explore the city at around 1 pm. First, I had to find an ATM to get some cash as it seemed to be impossible to walk around with credit cards and without any cash. The first 2 ATMs I found were out of service. Luckily, the 3rd one was working. I found a restaurant next to it called Bibikhanum Teahouse; I ended up having lunch there and then dinner later in the evening with my 2 new friends from Spain.
I had a great meal in this restaurant. I would say, it’s probably the best meal I had in Uzbekistan since I arrived in that country; It was a mixed grill dish of shashlik and grilled chicken and they were both juicy and very tasty. Before the arrival of the main course, I had a tasty salad and a huge piece of bread fresh from the oven and of course, a Soviet lemonade drink. It was a very warm, even a hot welcome to Samarkand!
Right next to the restaurant was the Bibi-Khanum mosque, the first site I wanted to visit in Samarkand. It was once the largest mosque in the world and it’s a masterpiece of the Timurid Renaissance. The mosque was called after Timur’s favourite wife. Over the years, due to a lack of restoration and earthquakes, the mosque’s status started to deteriorate until the mosque was extensively restored by the Soviets in the second half of the 20th century.
If I remember correctly, I paid 30,000 Uzbek Som (around $2.8 USD) to enter the mosque. The site is magnificent and peaceful even though there were some people there but all I heard was birds tweeting. I spent time there admiring the pleasing details of the beautiful Arabic calligraphy of verses from the holy Quran decorating walls and the gates of the mosque. I must admit that it was a bit challenging to read the Arabic script because of the very complex level of Arabic calligraphy. I was able to read most of the scripts but not all of them. The one which struck me the most was the words of the prophet who said “Give glad tidings to those who walk to the mosque in darkness of perfect light on the Day of Resurrection“
Outside the mosque, I met a very interesting couple from Spain whom I immediately connected with and we ended up spending the next 2 days in Samarkand and Bukhara together. The guy is an anthropologist from Barcelona who actually wants to be a journalist and the girl is from Basque County and planning to live in India next year. They travelled to so many places and I was surprised to find out that they are lovers of former Soviet Union countries. As I said, we immediately connected and had non-stop conversations about history, politics, religions, human relations, and many other things that are considered taboo in North America these days without the fear of being offensive or getting offended (like how things here in North America). We even played the guess the flag game and for the first time ever, someone defeated me in that game. Not only this, he was able to locate on the map some islands I’d never heard of in the Caribbean and Oceania. We had an amazing time and some great meals in between.
Siyob Bazaar is the largest in Samarkand where all daily necessities in addition to gifts and souvenirs are sold. It’s another massive Bazaar but honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time there as I already visited a huge bazaar in Tashkent 2 days ago. However, the place is definitely worth a visit as you may experience a glimpse of the silk road there; many sellers are direct descendants of the silk road merchants centuries ago so trade is in their DNA.
I agreed with the Spanish couple to meet them again in Registan at 17.00. It was time to return back to my guesthouse to shower again (it was so hot) and rest before going out again to visit the major highlight of the Samarkand trip; Registan.
While walking, I took some photos of the alleys between residential houses and another photo of the Bibi-Khanum mosque from the outside. The roads reminded me of the Middle East; maybe some old parts of Kuwait, there were some similarities or at least, that’s what I felt.
Amir Timur Mausoleum; A site I didn’t visit
I only spent 1 day in Samarkand (I know, I should have added an extra day) but I didn’t plan that. As a result, I couldn’t visit some of the sites such as Gur-e-Amir which is Persian and it means “Tomb of the King”. Speaking of Persian, you can easily hear the Persian language spoken everywhere in Samarkand even though it’s not exactly Persian but it’s the Tajik language which is identical to Persian. I don’t speak any Persian but I am good at recognizing languages so I could tell that people in Samarkand don’t only speak Uzbek but Persian (Tajik) too.
About Amir Timur Mausoleum, it has been heavily restored during the Soviet time. In 1941, Soviet scientists wanted to open Timur’s tomb to reconstruct Timur’s facial features from his skull, and it was also confirmed that he was 172 cm in height and would have walked with a pronounced limp (That’s why he was known as Timur Lenk). The tomb is inscribed with a warning that read “Whosoever Disturbs My Tomb Will Unleash an Invader More Terrible than I”. Two days after the tomb was opened, the Nazi army invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. Stalin believed in the curse and ordered Timur to be reburied. Timur was reburied with full Islamic burial rites on December 20, 1942, about one month before the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.
Why not hunt for some Soviet mosaic?
While walking towards Registan, I thought about going for a hunt for Soviet Mosaic. I found an article about Soviet mosaic in Samarkand and luckily, I was able to find it and I was so happy to see it. It’s a bit strange to find a Soviet mosaic in a city that doesn’t look Soviet at all but that also tells you something about how massive the Soviet Union was.
The incredible Registan
The Registan is the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and is certainly the most iconic site in the city. The name Registan means “Sandy place” in Persian. Back in the day, Registan was a public square where people gathered to hear royal proclamations and a place of public executions. The site contains three massive madrasahs (religious schools) of distinctive Islamic architecture. The square was regarded as the hub of the Timurid Renaissance. The ticket to enter Registan costs 40,000 Uzbek Som ($3.7 USD)
We spent hours inside this magnificent site wondering about the beauty of its architecture. Actually, the word magnificent isn’t enough to describe its beauty. It’s massive and inside the site, there are three madrasas (schools) which are also huge. We ended up spending a few hours there and while being there, we were interviewed by a group of local students and their English teacher; they asked us questions about how we learned English. Luckily, the three of us are non-native English speakers so we were able to share with them a lot about how we ended up learning English. There were some merchants who politely invited us to visit their stores to sell us souvenirs but they were extremely polite and they didn’t push at all. The kindness of the people there was something I will never forget.
Before sunset, we sat at a nice cafeteria right outside Registan and drank some soft drinks to quench our thirst as it was hot and dry that day and ate tasty ice cream or as they call it in Russian “мороженое”. We later went to another cafe for some drinks and then returned back to Registan in the evening to watch the light show. I hope the photos below can describe a bit of the beauty of this site.
Delicious dinner but no cash
Later in the evening, it was time for dinner and I suggested to my new friends to have dinner at the same place where I had my lunch which is the Bibikhanum teahouse. The friendly waiter who works there immediately recognized me and I told him that I brought two more people with me this time. I ordered Uzbek Manti (dumplings) and it was excellent. My new friends also ordered a Manti dish and a Plov and they loved them both. It was time to pay and I wanted to cover them since they already covered me at another place but to my surprise, I didn’t have enough cash in my pocket and the credit card machine was out of order (as usual). I had to leave them to search for an ATM but after checking 3 already, they were all of out of service. It was an embarrassing situation for me as I’d just met these guys. Anyhow, they paid and covered me but we agreed to meet the next day in another city (Bukhara) as we were heading there the next day so I paid them back later. Imagine if I was on my own with no cash, my credit card isn’t working, and ATM machines were all out of service?
I walked back to my guest house later at night, it was probably around 10.30 pm and I was walking between houses and it was pitch dark. It was so dark that I had to use the flashlight on my phone but I was feeling completely safe even though I was in a strange city. While walking in the darkness, I remembered the words of the prophet which I read today “Give glad tidings to those who walk to the mosque in the darkness of perfect light on the Day of Resurrection“. Sadly, I was walking to the guest house, not to the mosque but I wish to walk to a mosque in the darkness someday, I am sure I am going to have a special feeling when this happens.
What a great breakfast!
The next day, I woke up very early to look for an ATM that is WORKING. I finally found one after roaming the center of the city for about 30 minutes. While walking toward that ATM, I spotted Islam Karimov’s statue (he was the president of Uzbekistan from 1991 until he died in 2016). I also had the chance to see Registan for the last time before leaving for Bukhara by train at 10.46 am.
Before leaving the guesthouse to the station, I had my breakfast there which was included in the price. To my surprise, it was an outstanding breakfast. So many different small dishes and everything tasted real and fresh in addition to coffee and tea and even fried eggs. It was a spectacular gesture from the owners and workers of the guest house and it says a lot about the hospitality, generosity, and kindness of the people of Uzbekistan. Even though it’s a poor country but people there are hospitable and generous and there was always a lot of food wherever you go. Unlike how things are in the West, where would charge you for one piece of apple or banana, sadly. Note that the photo of breakfast below isn’t complete as I didn’t take a photo of the fried eggs, tea, and coffee which arrived later.
As I said above, Samarkand is a magical place and a must-visit for anyone who travels to Uzbekistan. When I arrived in Samarkand, I felt that the real trip to Uzbekistan across the silk road had started. I didn’t have the same feeling in Tashkent as it was just another big city even though it has its own charm but it’s nowhere near anything I saw in Samarkand.
I should have spent at least two nights there in Samarkand instead of one night. Because of my short stay there, I ended up being in a rush and I couldn’t explore everything I wanted to explore. It was still a great time and I felt energetic during the entire trip so I didn’t feel tired or anything even though it was hot (It got even hotter later when I visited Bukhara and Khiva) and will talk about that in a later blog.
Being there felt like having a beautiful dream. I enjoyed every minute there that I even managed to write a long blog about it even though my stay there was for one night only. Thus, it was quality time.
After the delicious breakfast, I ordered a taxi to the station to catch my high-speed train to the next city on this silk road trip, to the city of Bukhara, another major city on the famous silk road and once upon a time a center of science and culture in the Muslim world.
That’s all I can say about my visit to Samarkand for now. I hope it’s a pleasant read. In the next blog, I will be sharing with you my impressions of the city of Bukhara so stay tuned.