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krisek Samarkand - A travel report by Krys
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Samarkand,  Uzbekistan - flag Uzbekistan -  Samarqand
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krisek's travel reports

Great Silk Road. Uzbekistan. Grand Samarkand.

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Samarkand has grown considerably overshadowing its remarkable monuments, many of which still require serious repairs after decades of neglect. What was restored stands proud and dazzles.

Sher-Dor Madrassah
Sher-Dor Madrassah
Samarkand's history spans over 2,750 years. Its monuments dating back to the Temurids Dynasty rival those of ancient Greece in Europe, Egypt in Africa as well as India and China. They just need to be brought back to their former glory. The process is well underway.

Samarkand had been the capital city of several empires. This had been achieved by few cities on this planet. Normally, the emperors moved their capitals from one city to another.

I arrived and left Samarkand by train. I took the Shark Express from Bukhara ($5, 2nd class), which took 3.5 hours. It had aircraft style seats in a clean, carpeted air-con carriage. The TV in the second class carriage blasted local pop music. It was impossible to have a kip. But it was a good way to travel. I always liked trains. That was until I discovered the air travel.

Samarkand is one of world's most remarkable cities. UNESCO listed it in 2001. This is what the reasons were: "The historic town of Samarkand is a crossroad and melting pot of the world's cultures. Founded in the 7th century B.C. as ancient Afrasiab, Samarkand had its most significant development in the Timurid period from the 14th to the 15th centuries. The major monuments include the Registan Mosque and madrasas, Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shakhi-Zinda compound and the Gur-Emir ensemble, as well as Ulugh-Beg's Observatory. The historic town of Samarkand illustrates in its art, architecture, and urban structure the most important stages of Central Asian cultural and political history from the 13th century to the present day."

The Registan Express to Tashkent ($8, 2nd class) was even more civilised. It had carriages with spotless compartments seating six in both first and second classes and nice carpets throughout. The first class had TVs in the compartments and that was the only difference (better or worse?). It was initially very hot, but when the air-con kicked in, it was actually pleasant.

Favourite spots:
The Registan
The Registan
The complex of Registan could easily become the Samarkand's favourite spot. The small piazza is flanked from three sides by incomparable edifices of Islamic schools, including universities, perfectly decorated with colourful tiles that make the spot dazzling. This place alone makes Samarkand famous. But I think that my favourite spot was the Afrosiab's Shah-i-Zinda Complex. It was packed with nice little houses and memorials built by the Emperor Temur or his wife. Its gates and the narrow alley looked like they were taken from a fairytale about Sindbad, Ali-Baba's knights and the treasury that was opening at a spoken password. Constructed along a narrow alley, the edifices were decorated with deep blue tales with colourful painted patterns on them. The alley was ending with a tiny square, after a white gate. The square was surrounded with iwan-like facades glittering in deep navy blue and gold as the yellow floral patters reflected the sun. It was so magical!

What's really great:
The Juma Mosque (inside the inner courtyard)
The Juma Mosque (inside the inner courtyard)
The Juma (Jameh, Friday) Mosque, the main one in Medieval Samarkand, had huge gateways (iwans), amongst the largest I have seen. The frontals were so massive that they made a human being so insignificant. Not only were they tall but also exceptionally wide. They were built to be incomparable. For centuries, this mosque was one of the grandest in the world. The second iwan, at the opposite side, was astonishingly decorated with colourful floral tiles from all sides, not like most mosques, whose back sides had bricks left uncovered, no plaster, no tiles. The structure had fallen into disrepair in the 17th century. Restoration, which had begun in the last quarter of the last century, has been bringing the mosque to its former glory. Results were already clearly visible when I visited (7 Aug 2008). Actually, restoration of the majority of the historic sites had been necessary and what's great that it continued and looked promising. The Soviets had not been interested in keeping them up.

Afrosiab's Shah-i-Zinda Complex
Afrosiab's Shah-i-Zinda Complex
The old town with its mosques and museums overgrown by a modern city could not keep a demanding traveller busy for much longer than a day. The main attractions of the historic centre were: Ak-Saray, Gur-Emir, Rukhobod, and Bibi-Khanym Mausolea; Ulugbek, Tillya-Kori, Sher-Dor Madrassahs; Bibi-Khanym and Khazrat-Khizr Mosques; Imam Al-Bukhari, Khoja Abdi Darum and Shakh-i-Zinda Complexes; and Ishrat Khana. Most were seven minutes walking distance from each other. And three or four required longer hike or a short taxi ride. Even by taking a siesta break at mid day to escape being melted by 45C temperatures, most of the sites could be visited twice in a day, excluding a few museums.

This is not a complaint, but rather an appreciation of how convenient that was. All sights were marvelous and matchless. So it's about quality and not quantity! And if weather gets in the way, it is great to sit down at the many cafes and sip tea or a cold drink. Chill, gather strength and then go on...

Kamila Hotel
Kamila Hotel
Kamila Hotel ($40) near the Registan was a lovely traditional hotel. If I was a complainer, I'd say it was slightly out of town for my liking - 20 minutes walk towards the Registan along very busy road. And the room (#2) was smaller than a prison cell. It was obvious that the toilet cabin and the shower cabin were added after the architect of the building and the director of the construction died some years previously. But the room did have air conditioning, which for 42C weather was almost life saving. Free coffee and tea with no limit and an excellent breakfast included in the price made a fairly good value, actually. And the setting of a traditional house and the tea served in a very traditional way were bound to leave great memories, no doubt. There was also a small pool.

Other options near or in the old town were: Malika B&B ($35), and the more expensive hotels - Registan, Zarafshan, Central Samarkand, Afrosiab Palace and President Palace.

Cafe near the Registan
Cafe near the Registan
How do I report on Samarkand's nightlife without potentially upsetting the Samarkanders... Well, honestly from a secular society one would expect a relatively positive and practical attitude towards partying, clubbing, etc. Yet again Samarkand had lovely Muslim traditions and therefore heavy partying had been kept at a very low profile. I failed to learn about any discos or clubs.

For the teatotallers however, there was this delightful circular open-air tea house serving black and green teas, coffees and pastries. It was located just by the Registan in a park with giant trees, including pines and ... leafy ones, no idea about their names, but I'm sure one of them were plantanus. From the frequent attendance by locals I deducted it was a very popular meeting spot for catching up, chatting, gossiping, chirping, and sipping teas from small bowls, which in Europe had been replaced by cups, mugs or glasses.

Samarkand's favourite dome style
Samarkand's favourite dome style
Almost opposite the Registan, the Labi G'or cafe had two levels. Ground level, which was semi open-air and a terrace upstairs. Its sister kitchen on the pavement was specializing in grilling shashliks. Their draft beer, Pulsar, was nicely chilled and the pint of it was just 900 sum ($0.68). The main kitchen served traditional dishes. I tried pielmieni. The portion was huge and the dumplings were nice, slightly better than adequate. But they were served with sour milk on a side, which was a bonus! I did have better pielmeni in Bukhara, so I was not getting too excited about those and the draft beer served downstairs was not available on the terrace upstairs.

The fountain park along the Umarov street (I think) leading from the Registan to the Rukhobod Mausoleum had a few places to sit and relax. When the fountains were on, the gentle spray was a wonderful bliss!

Samarkand was big enough to offer a few other secret places to sit down and reflect on the world and its history...

Labi G'or Restaurant
Labi G'or Restaurant
I eventually ended up at the Labi G'or Restaurant & Cafe. I had manty with meat, which were large and great, and a small mutton shashlik, which was less than average. I loved the huge wooden terrace allowing plenty of breeze to pass through messing with haircuts and cooling foreheads and necks. Tables were wooden, their colourful cloths were protected by soft plastic films. They also had several Asian tables, i.e. raised sturdy wooden platforms with colourful cushions and coffee tables on top and in the middle of them, dressed with silk-like cloths.

I heard that the Karimbek Restaurant and the Regina Restaurant were also good. I tried to have lunch in the Marco Polo Restaurant, opposite the Afrosiab Palace Hotel, but it was closed.

Samarkand did not shy from offering Russian dishes over any of the Uzbek traditional fares, which were kept low profile and served at the save havens of family houses. Rather than in the public restaurants. That was my impression.

Other recommendations:
Shakhrisabz's Ak-Saray Palace's Arch (part)
Shakhrisabz's Ak-Saray Palace's Arch (part)
About an hour drive from Samarkand, over the mountains, there was a small town, which UNESCO also listed as a World Heritage Site separately. It was Tamerlane's hometown, where virtually everything is related to his name, in one way or another, as someone said. His father Emir Taragay and spiritual teacher, Shamseddin Kulol, as well as his elder sons Djakhangir and Omar Sheikh had been buried there.

The remains of the once grand Ak-Saray Palace included the largest in Central Asia arch. It had collapsed 200 years ago but the large portions of the two pylons still standing were truly amazing. It was possible to climb one of them when I visited.

Also, on that day, 08-08-08, it seemed that millions and millions of couples decided to get married, despite being probably too young, and congregated at the large statue of Emir Timur, near the arch. They had their photographs taken there and young guys were playing traditional music on drums and huge brass (?) trumpets. Is number 8 lucky?

Published on Monday September 29th, 2008

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Fri, Oct 03 2008 - 05:11 PM rating by rangutan

A great architectural adventure into new territory...

Tue, Sep 30 2008 - 08:41 AM rating by eirekay

Krys, thank you so much for sharing both this report and your amazing photos. This is not a place I would have thought to travel to but you made sure it is on my list!

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