Wonders of the Silk Road: Uzbekistan
Introducing Uzbekistan - Central Asia's cradle of culture for more than two millennia, and home to a suite of architectural wonders and ancient cities that were once lynchpins on the Silk Road. The glorious cities of Samarkand and Bukhara inspire visions of caravans plodding along the Silk Road, bustling bazaars, Sultans, scholars, mazes of alleys walked by beggars and street rats, and a magic carpet or two if you have a good imagination.
The growing tourist trade in the major centres made for easier travel, but without compromise to local traditions and customs, and the overall cultural experience. Our slower pace in Uzbekistan meant we could take advantage of the comforts offered and truly relax and enjoy the experience.
When we set our route though Uzbekistan we simply selected the cities that we knew formed part of the Silk Road, and that fitted within our overall plan. Our research was limited as the country posed less of an administrative and technical challenge than its neighbours. This made the actual experience even more amazing as we hadn’t formed any expectations. Hopefully our story doesn’t set the bar too high for others intending to travel this awesome region.
Dushanbe (Tajikistan) to Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
A challenging day!
We said goodbye to Dushanbe early on the morning of the 3rd July but didn’t make it far. We all needed to withdraw US dollars to cover us for the next few weeks and in the process of trying Todd realised he'd left his bankcard in an ATM the previous evening. Amazingly, two hours later, and with a lot of luck, the bankcard was back in hand. During the wait Zane and Alex rode the city trying to find an ATM that would accept MasterCard. After numerous rejections Alex contacted Westpac to confirm no blocks or limits had been applied to his card - the bloke assisting had never even heard of Tajikistan. After some local advice we visited the Hyatt and with a cheer got some cash out.
The border crossing into Uzbekistan was not a great introduction to the country. A power outage meant we had to wait two hours in a layup area. We slept on the floor. When power was restored the guards proceeded to strip down every bike compartment, bag and sub-bag in a search for contraband. Our gear was scattered everywhere. All digital media was screened - laptop photos, movies, phones, iPads. Hilariously, the guards opened a random movie on Zane’s computer and enjoyed a few romantic scenes featuring Cameron Diaz.
With two thirds of the day gone, and the temperature hovering around 50 degrees we officially entered Uzbekistan and made tracks for Samarkand, some 450kms away. We skipped lunch and sweated out everything we drank. One stretch between Guzar and Kitab is desert and we really baked. It was so hot Alex's bike started misfiring and we believe the cause was fuel in line to the carburettor vaporising.
At 10:30pm Samarkand was in sight. We'd skipped dinner and we were just itching to arrive. Unexpectedly we had to cross a range before descending into Samarkand. Switchbacks at night, tired, howling wind - great combination! The kicker, Zano got a flat rear tyre (nail) that would not hold any pressure whatsoever. Limping into town wasn’t an option so we made the repairs on the side of the road. The local hoons burning past on the horn didn’t really help.
Arriving into Samarkand at 1am was surreal. The Garmin led us up a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys, over v-drains, up ramps, through construction sites. We ended up at a large ornate door. We didn't really need to sound the doorbell. Our exhausts had set off car alarms in the alley - what a racket. The door was opened by a sleepy woman. She welcomed us pleasantly and showed us our rooms. Desperate for food we inquired about any local food options. Our host then proceeded to wake another woman and make us a sit down meal. Beat that service!
Samarkand (3rd to 8th July)
The Old Town of Samarkand is a city within a city. We stayed in a traditional guesthouse within Old Town called Antica. We'd read that the State had commenced a program of walling off less sightly districts of Old Town and effectively blocking thoroughfares that have been walked for centuries. Despite this visual cleansing the character and charm of Samarkand is not completely lost. Outside the Old Town walls, and along the flashier tourist strip, arguably the greatest architectural sights in Central Asia stand relatively unchanged.
The Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum was one block from our Guesthouse. Under the trademark topaz fluted dome rests Amir Timur. Amir Timur was a Turco-Mongol conqueror, founder of the Timurid dynasty in Central Asia, and hero of Samarkand. The mosaics of complementary colours that cover the entire facade are impressive, and inside the traditional plastering (gypsum) is intricate and replicates natural stalactite formations. Amir must not have been a big bloke - his tomb is tiny.
The Registan, the cultural centre piece of Samarkand today, and the ancient commercial and educational centre of Central Asia, is a combination of three separate but equally grand buildings. The buildings surround three sides of a large square where in ancient times a massive bazaar would have been situated. The three buildings are all Madrassas, or educational institutions, both religious and secular. After paying a relatively hefty entry fee, we organised a guide and some hours exploring. The mosaic facades on each building definitely surpassed the decorations on Amir Timur’s Mausoleum. We discovered that each terracotta tile is not painted and fired, but rather each intricate piece of a square tile is filed to shape, painted, and the resulting jigsaw fixed with gypsum. Rather time consuming we thought. We visited the dorms that students once occupied. Unfortunately we had to push through pesky local souvenir sellers and their stalls to ascend to the residences second story. The highlight was most definitely the climb up one of the minarets. The minaret was out of plumb after an earthquake in the early 19th century and the internal staircase was tight. The view from the top was sensational. It was great to see the Registan, and the other sights nearby, from above.
Aside from sight seeing, a large portion of our time in Samarkand was spent relaxing in our Guesthouse. We highly recommend Antica. The breakfasts were a veritable feast. The courtyard, under the shade of trees and vines, made the perfect place to escape the heat of the day. We also met some interesting characters. Clara, a young French lass, who just finished her studies, is travelling the region solo and intends to ride a horse around the lakes in Kyrgyzstan to conclude her journey. Emma, a British girl, and a true free spirit, is riding a Vespa from London to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where she has a job lined up teaching art. She complained of a malfunctioning rear brake which we offered to adjust, but she never returned. She did mention that it wouldn’t be a problem in Tajikistan, and the Pamirs, as she would be going uphill. Lol!
Bukhara (8th to 11th July)
Our assumption that Bukhara would be similar to Samarkand was not true. Whilst Samarkand has a number of major attractions, the centre of Bukhara itself is the attraction. In place of a few grand structures separated along a flashy tourist strip, central Bukhara is a network of ancient roadways and alleys that connect some 150 world heritage listed buildings constructed between 12 - 16th century. Our B&B, Hovli Poyon Hotel, was nestled within this network.
After a few days of touring the highlights of Bukhara for us were The Ark and the Kalon Minaret. The spectacular-looking Ark, a royal castle within a town, is Bukhara’s oldest structure, occupied from 5th century up to early 1920 when it was bombed by the Russians. Our tour was interesting as we could only really understand the odd word/phrase from our "english speaking" guide. The Kalon Minaret is so impressive (50m high and ornately decorated) that it was spared by Genghis Khan.
These individual sights are not as spectacular as the sights of Samarkand, but because they are nestled amongst other beautifully maintained buildings of the same era the impression is greater. Walking around Bukhara it takes little imagination to comprehend what the ancient city was once like.