Intraurban Adventure

Magical Samarkand – A fairy tale from the Arabian Nights

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Experience oriental flair in Uzbekistan

Anybody who passes through Uzbekistan along the traditional Silk Road should definitely not fail to visit one place: Samarkand. The capital of the province (veloyat) of the same name fascinates visitors with its mixture of oriental magic, breathtakingly magnificent buildings and (post)-Soviet architecture. We take you on a journey to one of the oldest cities in Central Asia.

Uzbek cities such as Samarkand were important trading centres along the Silk Road before the sea route to India and China was discovered and they attracted many rulers such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Amir Timur (Tamerlane). Russian troops made their way into Central Asia in the 19th century and Uzbekistan has only been an independent republic since 1991. You can experience the splendour of past ages and the influence exerted by each conqueror first-hand at many places in Samarkand.

All roads lead to the Registan

Samarkand – the name alone conjures up fairy tales and adventures. And it does not promise too much. Seeing the Registan, Samarkand’s landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site, causes visitors to hold their breath in amazement. Flanked by three monumental madrasahs decorated with mosaics, the square inspires people to dream – at any time of the day or night. The former religious schools, however, are now used more as bazaars and museums.

The Registan at night: Madrasahs ablaze with different colours

If you follow the endless Tashkent Road from the Registan, you arrive at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which was one of the largest and most magnificent cathedral mosques in Central Asia in the 15th century. Its turquoise-blue dome glistens in the dazzling sunlight. Magnificent buildings from the so-called four ‘M’s automatically cast a spell on visitors time and again: the mosques, madrasahs, minarets and mausoleums.

Numerous legends have evolved in connection with Bibi-Khanym. For example, Bibi, the favourite wife of Central Asian ruler Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane), is supposed to have ordered that the mosque be built as a gift for him. The master builder is said to have kissed Bibi’s cheek, and after this flew to the mosque’s minaret, built himself wings and flew to Persia. Whatever the truth may be, it is worth visiting the splendid complex, which is one of the most elaborately decorated mosques in Central Asia.

Colourful activities at the Siyob Bazaar

Delightful smells waft from the bustling Siyob Bazaar with its numerous stands full of culinary delights such as fresh bread, pastries, fruit, nuts and spices just behind the mosque. As soon as visitors look in any direction, they are handed something small to eat or a cup of tea. Traders exchanged their goods here during the ancient Silk Road period too.

If you follow the street, you reach the ancient site of Afrosiyob over a hill. The Sogdian capital, the predecessor of Samarkand, was located on the high plateau where archaeological excavations repeatedly take place. When Genghis Khan levelled the town, the new city of Samarkand was built on the adjacent plain.

You should definitely not miss these tourist sights!

The Registan

The Registan: the undisputed highlight and landmark of Samarkand. The viewing platform in front of the square provides the best view of the ensemble of the three madrasahs – Ulugh Beg, Tillya-Kari and Schirdor.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

According to traditions, the ‘ancient ruler’ Bibi Khanym was supposed to have been able to hold her drink and was stunningly beautiful. However, the building named after her, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, visibly declined soon after it was completed in 1404. A large number of attempts at restoring the structure continue to this day.

Gur-i Amir Mausoleum

The Gur-i Amir Mausoleum is the burial place of Tamerlane and some of his supporters and it was constructed at the beginning of the 15th century. The ribbed, melon-shaped dome is like the eternal firmament, in which the whole earth is reflected, according to the words of the poet, Alisher Navoi.

Shah-i Zinda necropolis ensemble

The Timurid architecture of the Shah-i Zinda necropolis ensemble particularly creates an awe-inspiring sight at sunset. You enter the lower necropolis through a magnificent portal and steps take you to the upper area. The decorations consisting of Majolika mosaics on the façades and the artistically arranged tiles make the graves a magnificent sight.

Siyob Bazaar

The Siyob Bazaar is the city’s largest market. Huge quantities of fruit, fresh vegetables, spices, nuts and sweets are offered for sale here. And you are allowed to taste them!

Mirza Ulugh Beg

Mirza Ulugh Beg was the grandchild of Tamerlane and ruled over Samarkand in the 15th century. He was celebrated not only for his scientific successes as an astronomer in the Arab world. You can still visit the remains of the observatory with its 40-metre-long sextant and the museum next door to this day.

Meros paper factory

Visitors can experience how paper is made from the bark of mulberry trees in the Meros paper factory located on the outskirts of Samarkand. This process ranges from peeling to pounding, dipping out and smoothing and even selling the material.

Afrosiyob

Chair – goodbye, Samarkand! There is still a great deal more to discover in the most populous country in Central Asia. The Afrosiyob high-speed trains enable people to travel not only quickly, but also in comfort. The journey to Tashkent takes about two hours. If the train is fully booked, you can complete the journey on the Shark express train.

Shah-i Zinda, a place of sublime rest

The Shah-i Zinda necropolis is located south of the Afrosiyob plateau and it is possible to view about half the graves there. Climbing up the steps to the middle group of mausoleums provides you with a view of Samarkand on one side and particularly attractive glazed pottery from the Timurid period on the other.

The Ulugh Beg Observatory is located a little further to the north-east. Astronomer and Timurid prince Ulugh Beg attracted the most knowledgeable scientists of his day to the city. Working together, they managed to measure almost 1,000 stars. The most important measuring tool for the astronomic observations was a sextant hewn in stone.

The Russian influence in the new city

However, Samarkand is a fascinating city not only on account of its oriental buildings, but also because of its mixture of styles. If you have a little time to spare, you can experience this by taking a tour of the Russian new city and discover Russian Orthodox churches, colonial buildings and the Alisher Navoi Park, which is really worth visiting. You’ll need several days to discover Samarkand and sense the city’s special atmosphere. Many visitors are also interested in making an excursion to Shahrisabz, which is about 100 kilometres away and was the birthplace of Tamerlane. The trip across the mountain pass is also extremely impressive.

The Silk Road yesterday and today: A trading route that keeps the world moving

The ancient Silk Road was the most important trading route in the world for centuries and Uzbekistan lay at the heart of it. The days when caravans on camels made their way through the desert may well be over. But wagons drawn by donkeys used to move good around can still sometimes be seen on the streets of Samarkand.

Goods are primarily transported by truck or by train over fairly long distances. Alongside Liechtenstein, Uzbekistan is the only landlocked country that is exclusively bordered by other landlocked countries. About 80 per cent of the country also consists of desert or steppes. It is therefore only possible to use maritime transport to a limited degree. Many new trading routes have developed as part of the New Silk Road, also through Uzbekistan. The country benefits from investments in its infrastructure, e.g. in tunnels and motorways. This is also necessary. Samarkand alone has more than half a million residents – and the urban development department believes that this figure will double by 2040.

In addition, Samarkand has its own international airport, offering flights to Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Tashkent. However, the best way to travel inside the country is by train. The Afrosiyob service, which connects Samarkand with the capital and Buchara, is particularly comfortable and fast.

The magic table: Culinary delicacies from Uzbek cuisine

Meat is a very important element in Uzbek cuisine. Lamb is often the first choice. However, people also enjoy eating dumplings and soups. Bread is an essential part of any meal too. Different types of fruit are served for dessert. You can look forward to mulberries, melons, apricots, pomegranates, grapes and figs – depending on the time of year that you visit the country. By the way: Samarkand is also famous for its sweet cherries.

Plov

If we have to die one day anyway, then why not from eating too much plov, as the Uzbeks call it. This delicious national dish consists of rice, onions, carrots, herbs, raisins, egg and usually mutton.

Bread

You can find fresh bread (naan) everywhere: at bazaars, at the roadside or in restaurants. It is baked in clay ovens – and the raw dough is stuck to the inside of the oven.

Little yoghurt balls

The small balls, which are usually light in colour, are really something special. The balls formed from a dried yoghurt mass are often very salty. They are sometimes seasoned with herbs or red pepper powder. You can buy them at markets as a small snack.

Manti and somsa

You can find them on almost any menu: manti, steamed dumplings, which are usually filled with meat and onions, and their baked variety, somsa. They considered a delicacy are consumed at the Oriental Sweets Caravan Sarai in Samarkand, among other places.

Choy (tea)

Uzbeks love tea. It is drunk from what is known as a piala, a decorated cup without a handle. Before people can enjoy it, the tea is poured into the piala and back into the pot three times, according to the local ceremony. You can partake of tea in Samarkand at the Bibi Khanum and Choyxona tearooms, for example.

Delightful sounds: melodies of the Orient

Uzbekistan has many typical national musical instruments: the wind instruments, karnai and sarnai, the hand drums, doira, and the plucked instruments, dutar and gijak. Music forms an important part of Uzbek culture; oriental dances and traditional songs are deeply engrained in people’s hearts. The biennial Sharq Taronalari (Melodies of the Orient) international folklore festival has been held in Samarkand at the end of August for more than 20 years and the largest concerts naturally take place at the Registan.

Tasteful souvenirs from Uzbekistan

There is no need for junk souvenirs here: anybody who visits Uzbekistan will find it easy to discover tasteful souvenirs for personal use or as gifts for people they love. The number of market stalls and bazaars is simply infinite. They offer textile goods, ceramic items, wall carpets, ironwork and engraved items, carved wood articles, calligraphy, paintings and the list continues. It is also possible to purchase long-lasting food items such as spice mixtures, dried fruits, pistachios or almonds.

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Travelling along the Silk Road

One of our editorial members of staff, Astrid, explored Uzbekistan by plane, fast train, minibus and camel with a small group in the autumn of 2021. The group quickly struck up conversations with many local residents: craftspeople, cotton pickers, harvest workers and imams. The openness, cheerfulness and interest of the local people have left a lasting impression on them.

Have you already visited Uzbekistan or other exciting places along the Silk Road? Tell us what you particularly liked!

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