2012
05.14

DAY 12 – SAMARKAND

SYNOPSIS: ROAMING SAMARKAND FROM MORNING ‘TIL NIGHT. MORE PISHTAKS, MORE COURTYARDS, MORE MINARETS AND A HUGE NECROPOLIS, AN ANCIENT OBSERVATORY, AND MORE.  ABOUT BREAD, HANDICRAFTS AND THE TOURIST INDUSTRY.

16 hours of rest plus a whole morning of staring at the yurt ceiling in the desert before that do wonders; rocky rides notwithstanding. By 9 AM the next day, I was ready for a big breakfast. Thanks, Bhaishayaguru for not making me really sick. In fact, I walked around for two days pain-free! Perhaps, a day off my feet was just what I had to be forced into for my own sake. I am telling you: things just always work out if you go with the flow. It’s the wisdom of Dao and the best advice for any traveler.

I won’t bore you with all the names and histories of the spectacular buildings scattered around Samarkand like jewels in a sand box. Much more reliable information can be found online. But for two days, I walked, trying to see everything I could preferably twice; both in the morning and the evening sun. Since I had a “late” start the first day, I was out the door before anyone even blinked in the hotel, by sunrise at about 5:45 AM on the second. I was rewarded with the soft morning light and an almost empty town until about 8 AM. I stayed out as long as there was light to photograph and kept going for almost 10 hours the first and 14 hours on the second day. And that was not enough. To see some of the sites outside the center, I would have needed a car and a third day. But I am not complaining. Now I know a little bit about Samarkand.

I wondered why Bukhara and Samarkand had been part of my subconscious for such a long time. Was it from a childhood story in 1001 Nights? Was it one of those names, my father had made fun of on some of our family walks to keep pace? Patrice Lumumba was one of the names he loved to say, just for fun. I had no idea who that was until much later. Mao Tse Tung was another one. And if you combine those two names, and if you are a German kid of about 10, these are very sounds to hop and jump along to. Bukhara and Samarkand seems to have been yet another pair of rhythms he created, if I remember right. I hardly knew anything about it (probably neither did he), but it had that ring of a faraway mystery.

You need your imagination and have to fill in a lot of blanks as you actually walk through Samarkand today to conjure up that mystery. It is smelly cars today, not camels. It is whistling policemen, not turbaned slave traders.

Turning left from my hotel is the beginning of the Soviet town. Big apartment blocks and four-lane roads radiate from a central square, which now is towered over by a huge sculpture of Timur. I hear it used to be Lenin until 20 years ago, and who knows who before that.

What is it about Timur everywhere, anyhow?! From all I can tell, he was a horrible tyrant; a ruthless killer and conqueror. You would never know from the reverence he is getting everywhere from street names to statues in the middle of nowhere. Yes, he was an Uzbek. His birth town is only 80 km from here (my destination on the last day in this region) and yes, his capital was Samarkand. But it is one thing to have him as a part of local history; it’s another to glorify him so enthusiastically and without hesitation. The Timur Legends I heard the tour guides tell in his mausoleum (which, btw, was right outside of my hotel), made you wonder! Nostradamus seemed second to Timur when it comes to prophecies and King Tut was certainly second to Timur when it came to curses starting from the breakout of World War II to people mysteriously dying. Timur’s powers are active and alive in the minds of the population. So much for 70 years of communism.

Turning right from my hotel, leads you into the old town. But that got a face lift, too. Slick shopping streets line the road between the sites. You have to step through big metal gates, which on the surface look like part of the shopping mall, to get behind the scenes to the actual old town, to the winding old streets without traffic, to the mud-baked homes and the old trees. It is bizarre. If you don’t make an effort, you will miss the residential old town completely. I roamed it on both days in search of yet another synagogue. Finally, on the second day I found it. But it was closed.

On the day I was out so early I stopped at the bazaar around 10 AM with a grumbling stomach. It was hustling and bustling with people offering as little as a pound of sunflowers or as much as dozens of sacks of potatoes. There was a whole row of bread sellers. Bread in Samarkand (and really Uzbekistan) is something quite unique. Round breads are baked with varying ingredients, like spices or herbs. Each woman seems to have her own special recipe. And to underscore the variety of bread, there are bread stamps. Each baker will have their own. The center of the bread is “marked” with the stamp, and the dough in that part is pounded down. This creates a soft outer and a crispy inner ring for each bread.

People selling and people buying transport their wares in two-wheeled carts and if those are not at hand, a rusty old baby carriage will do just the same. Of course, as I strolled through the market, all eyes turned. I smiled left and right and greeted just about as many people as I could with a cheerful “Salaam Aleikum”, the Islamic greeting which has been adopted as the Uzbek greeting as well. Did that continue during the Soviet era; I wonder? I bought one of those delicious-looking round breads and would you believe it – it was still warm! The women keep the bread wrapped in blankets and expose only a few for show.  So, even hours after they must have piled up the bread, I still got it warm. I was deeply impressed. There is nothing more primal and wonderful than warm bread and water. That’s what I had that day. And it was heavenly.

The tourist industry is definitely alive and well around here. Every building you want to enter (even as small as a single square mausoleum you can practically see in full when peeking through the door) will cost you. There is a two-tiered system. I am not opposed to that, even though it really added up over time for me: locals typically pay 500 Sum (the local currency). That equates to about 25 cents. Foreigners pay 5000 (or $2.50). If you have a camera dangling around your neck, 3000 Sum (or $1.50) will be added. $4 total entrance fee for a world-famous monument may not sound too bad, but by the end of the day you may have spent a good $40 just to get into places. And in some cases, this is a real rip-off as there is little to see. Worst of all, the ticket is only good for one day and I often needed it on the second day as well to get different light conditions…

I cheated a bit here and there as I discovered far off side-doors on day one through which I sneaked in again the next day. But picture me: I do stand out not only as a single tourist, but with my very distinctive head-scarves of varying colors. Ticket-people do know if I passed them that day or not. In two cases, I shocked and confused them as I had sneaked in through a side door but exited – fully aware of the risk – through the main door. Promptly, I was stopped for my ticket. In both cases, I had one (from the day before). But as they were not dated, the ticket people could not force me to pay for another one, since I was already in, but had to let me go shaking their heads in disbelief about where I had surfaced. That was particularly funny as on my early day, I must have sneaked into the cemetery way before the gatekeeper even opened the door. He must have wondered if I slept there! Of course, I had not.

But by the end of these two days I was ready to sleep like never before. Thank goodness for ear plugs. In my little B&B (Dilshoda) rooms are, as always, arranged around a courtyard. I live next to four Russian business men. Every night they sit outside my window on our balcony overlooking the court to smoke and play games. And they get excited and a bit loud. But with my ear plugs and the sufficient exhaustion from the day’s excursions, I sleep very well until sunrise.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. It is quite interesting what people with different culture have to say about my hometown. I always enjoy reading blogs of that kind. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts of the city. It is interesting and true.

  2. Stunning mosaics. I’m perusing your blog months after your return and enjoying it still.

  3. Great pictures – and I am sure your Dad is smiling over happy memories of you as a child.

  4. Such beautiful architectural detail…lovely colors. Reminds me in a way of a Tiffany window. I am very partial to blue, so the pictures you posted are very pleasing to my eye…indeed as you say like jewels in a sandbox.
    All the time you spent wandering…eating warm bread…playing “hide and seek” with the ticket people…sounds like you had a lot of fun!!!
    What came to my mind was what the Buddha said about imagining that you are a pebble settling in a swiftly flowing stream…letting the current take you and being aware of every single nuance of the water and where its flow takes you.
    Lovely. Refreshing.