“Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true – except it is more beautiful than I could have imagined”. So said Alexander the Great in 329BC and 2,300 years later it was no less glittering ….
“It’s good to be back. I’m standing at the foot of the awe-inspiring Sher Dor Madrassah in the bejewelled city of Samarkand. This crossroad city lies at the heart of the legendary Silk Route – the ancient trade route for silk and spices which stretched from Shanghai to Rome. The phrase was coined in the 19th century by the German explorer and geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, to describe the ‘silk roads’ linking China, India, and the Mediterranean world across Central Asia. I rather prefer the legend of the Chinese princess who, upon leaving her family to live in the West, carried silk worms in her hair, hence the term ‘silk road’ or ‘silk route’.
I digress. With the warm October sunshine on my back, I stroll about the world renowned Registan Square – marvelling at the colossal scale of the three imposing structures richly decorated with intricate patterned tiles and mosaic inscriptions. Weaving in and out of the tiny stalls within there’s a huge array of craftsmen plying their wares and it’s hard to leave empty-handed. Bibi Khanum’s Tomb; the Gur Emir, burial place of the mighty 13th century warrior Tamerlane; Shah I Zinda necropolis – these extraordinary monuments come thick and fast and I’m anxious to see them all.
My journey started in the modern capital Tashkent but I was keen to hasten on to one of my favourite places in Uzbekistan – the ancient city of Bukhara. Here the infamous Ark Fortress, brooding seat of the wilful and terrible Emir of Bukhara, struck terror into the hearts of many a traveller. In the summer of 1842 two British officers made the fatal mistake of riding into the fortress instead of entering meekly on foot as they should have done, and paid for it with their lives. They were flung into the notorious vermin pits before being unceremoniously beheaded in the great square.
My favourite spot is the bustling Lyab-i-hauz – a glorious square dominated by a cool pond and gracious madrassah, with lively stalls and tiny streets leading off left and right to the Jewish quarter. When the busy streets are too much, you can head for the Sitora I Mohlikhosa, the summer palace of the emirs outside the city, where elegant Russian-style rooms with ceramic stove heaters and delicately painted walls are crammed with 19th century furniture. The vine-covered walkways lead you to the large pool overlooked by the Emir’s vertiginous throne. Rumour has it that he used to sit up there and watch his 200 concubines taking their daily bath!
I end my visit in Khiva – a UNESCO protected walled city with a full 26 hectares of monuments – where the minarets seem taller, harems more richly decorated and Madrassahs even more numerous than elsewhere.
But Uzbekistan is not all about monuments – the covered markets of Tipuk Faroshan are awash with carpets, pottery and intricate Suzana wall hangings whilst Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar offers every conceivable fresh fruit and vegetable as well as the delicious dried apricots and almonds for which Central Asia is so renowned. And there are unique collections of ancient textiles, embroideries and ladies’ fashions throughout the country, if you know where to look. For culture and the arts, you can see opera and ballet at the elegant Navoi Theatre (a miniature Bolshoi) as well as master potters and world-renowned collections, whilst in Samarkand the El Miros Theatre stages an extraordinary performance of dance and costume through the ages.
Much has changed since my last visit – extensive renovations, cleaner streets, many more hotels and a gleaming new high speed train linking Samarkand and Bukhara. Gone are the days of cockroach-infested Intourist hotels with upper floors guarded fiercely by scary Russian madams. Today’s modern hotels have wi-fi and piano bars, efficient staff and a friendly welcome which will smooth the path for most travellers to this previously tough-to-visit destination. There is still plenty of magic to be found in the monuments and glimpses of the Old Silk Route in the maze of back streets and caravanserais humming with activity.
Coming back only makes me want to pull out my faded copy of Hopkirk’s ‘The Great Game’ and pore over dusty maps of the ‘stans’ for future trips. As I leave this magical region I’m already yearning for my next steaming dish of plov, sizzling shashlik kebabs, soft flat breads and plump soft walnut-stuffed apricots washed down with delicate bowls of green tea.
Genghis Khan swept through this area in 13th century BC with his golden horde with murderous intent. I’d like to bring more of my own hordes here, though certainly for more pleasurable reasons!”