2012
05.16

DAY 14 – SHAHRISABZ

SYNOPSIS: AN EXCURSION TO THE BIRTH TOWN OF TIMUR WITH A SHARE TAXI – MORE PISHTAKS AND THE USUAL, AND A REUNION WITH THE GERMANS FROM THE DESERT. HOW I GOT A DINNER DATE…

There would have been enough to do in Samarkand for a third day, but there was also Shahrisabz. It is on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, and how could I pass this up… Since it is only 80km away and small, I figured I could afford the delay caused by public transportation and I chanced it.

Following my guide book, I found the little side street in which supposedly the share-taxis were gathering, going in that direction. Imagine anything like this in Europe or America: There are just guys standing around 3-4 cars and they are taking along anyone for a fixed price which presumably allows the driver to pay for gas and make a small profit. Thankfully, I was the last person needed to fill up a load and I was on my way within minutes. I shared the back seat with a woman and a man who had obviously neither showered nor brushed his teeth that morning… And I sat next to a window which did not open… And the day had started at 26 degrees Celsius (that must be in the 80’s)… Those are the challenges you face, but there are worse things in life.

If Shahrisabz did not knock me off my feet, the whole trip was worth it just to experience a full change of scenery. As we turned south-east, we crossed the fertile valley around Samarkand and approached a mountain range in the distance. The hills were overgrown with grass, gently sloping, like velvet mounds. Gorgeous villages were tucked into the valleys, herds of cows, sheep and goats were grazing. It was like a landscape painting from the Romantic period. We crossed the mountains, which lost their grass cover in the higher regions and got a lot rougher and sparser up there. But on the other side, the pastoral scenes continued. What a contrast to the dusty, salt-infested deserts of Nukus, or the sandy dunes around Nurata. Sabz in Farsi is green. No wonder, that this town was named after its lush surroundings, the green…

Shahrisabz can easily be done on foot in about 4 hours. I started at the Northern tip with yet another gigantic Timur sculpture which was cleverly framed by the ruined stumps of his once sumptuous Ak Sarai, or “White Palace”. The beauty of this site is that it gives you a likely idea of the ruined state of some of the monuments in Bukhara and Samarkand. But horror of horror… there were workmen, building an entire building next to it from scratch in spanking new bricks… Was this going to be another fake Timur building to be enjoyed in the future? I could not imagine anything else. Why?!

A few unimpressive mud city walls are left standing behind the palace, but most interesting was an encounter with another artist. He told me that his master diploma was based on these ruins. In painstaking research and work, he recreated the likely look of the palace pishtak in a 1×2-meter replica. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the real thing, which is on display at a hotel gallery. But he gave me a photograph of his work and signed it for me. He was quite an accomplished artist and I just can’t help it… I had to buy yet more art!

Several old mosques and madrassas were tucked away in the residential neighborhoods. And there is another charming aspect of Shahrisabz: It was never “Sovietized”. It was just a little village and without Timur would hardly be noticed today. The three surviving monumental buildings associated with him, in fact, seem quite disproportionate. A bustling bazaar was in the center of town filled with stuff of interest almost only to locals: Plastic kitchen articles, food, clothing, slippers, ropes, and the like. There is little to nothing touristy about it. A most curious item I have not seen anywhere else is a handmade wooden cradle. You can rock it with your foot. They were sold full size and as toys with very kitschy see-through fabrics attached to them. I think I had something like that to play with when I grew up.

I bought some of those bread stamps which I mentioned yesterday. These were rough and utilitarian; not like the ones I had seen in Khiva and elsewhere which were beautifully finished to become a souvenir item. And as I got thirsty, I went to one of the barrels full of juice which line the street here and there to get a drink. I had an apricot drink once before on the road. But as I watched the woman rinse out the glass used by dozens of people before me that day, I began to question the wisdom of my decision. This was tap water and as far as the FDA would be concerned, completely unacceptable… But I decided to chance it and so far so good. I got a very refreshing dark red-brown juice of which I could not determine the fruit. Something between a cherry and a plum perhaps, or a mix?

Later, I had a soft ice-cream cone out of a machine rather than a packaged and manufactured bar. Another thing you should not do when traveling is to eat bulk ice cream. It just occurred to me then and there that I had ignored that rule and gotten away with it all along. I certainly have much more trust in the water here than I had anywhere from Egypt to Syria. I have eaten fresh vegetables – something none of the Germans did, for example. I have also brushed my teeth with tap water. No problem. But I still would not drink it in large quantities or out of a well as the locals do.

The culminating buildings at the Southern tip of Shahrisabz are a mosque complex built around two notable shrines, the Dolut Tilovat, which translates into Seat of Respect and Consideration. Wow. Timur originally had wanted to be buried in his hometown – which strictly speaking is a tiny village yet another 20 km away. But instead he ended up in one of the most ostentatious shrines in Samarkand. But a Sufi Sheikh and some notable contemporaries are buried here.

And next to that complex, part of the Dorus Siadat, or Seat of Power and Might survives; including a mosque and a shrine dedicated to two of Timur’s sons. The once mighty shrines can only be imagined based on the knee-high foundations that remain. Around the shrine again, tables full of handicraft suzani (embroidery) were on display. Just like Bukhara or Samarkand, Shahrisabz has its own distinct style and symbols. There is definitely too much supply and not enough demand of these pieces. Some of the work which obviously would have taken hours to complete is offered to you for just a couple of dollars if you bargain. But then there are the larger pieces, worth hundreds of dollars. Most of our houses in the States are not big enough to even display anything like this. Even $300 does not do justice to 8-10 months of work a woman has to put in to produce such a thing, but that, in some cases is the asking price!

And guess, what?! As I walk into one of the shrines at the Dolut Tiluvat, who is there, but half of the German group! I knew I would run into them again sooner or later. It was a happy reunion, with a quick exchange of travel details. Most of them were not aware why I had left so hastily, but they seemed to know immediately, who was behind the two “no” votes. And then, Alibek, the group leader, invited me to dinner! Wow, I don’t get one of those invitations every day. It was quite funny how he called out across the courtyard when they left: “I will wait for you tonight!” That almost sounded romantic.

This time, I did not even ask if I could catch a ride, even though the German bus was half empty. I took one of the little micro-buses to the next village which had one of those unofficial corners again where cars just gather to take people back to Samarkand. This time, I was the first in the car and had to wait another 45 minutes for three more people to show up. But what’s that in the scope of time?

It turned out that it was I, who had to wait for Alibek and that the place he had chosen for dinner was the same he had recommended to his entire group. So, don’t get any ideas! It was fun to hear his story and to find out a bit more about life in Uzbekistan. I got so envious! After a career as an astrophysicist with the Uzbek army, he was able to retire at the age of 43. Since he had chosen to learn German, he now works to supplement his pension, just for fun, as a German tour guide. What a life! I have to figure out something like this. But I missed out on the army part already, darn!

Alibek not only paid for dinner and provided me with a fun social evening; he even called a taxi which took me home safely. I wonder if I will see any of them again in Tashkent?

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Was nice to read the detailed report about travel around Uzbekistan, my native land! Written with love and respect!

  2. You are having waaaaay too much fun!!! lol

  3. Great day for you! Wonderful to hear your travels are working out! Have a great day!