An early start for us as the train to Samarkand leaves at 8 am and we’d been advised to be at the station an hour in advance to get through security. The station is about 20 minutes drive from the guesthouse – the old Silk Road cities distrusted the Trans-Caspian railway, built by the Russian general Mikhail Annenkov in the 1880s to supply the imperial Army and so stations are often some way out of town. In the event, getting through security was very quick and easy but we were glad to be there early as the train left half an hour earlier than scheduled – not sure how were supposed to have known that in advance.
The Afrosiab express trains are just what they say they are and spacious and clean to boot – more like the space and service you’d expect in first class on a UK train. We are brought tea and chocolate cake after setting off, which makes up for our rushed early breakfast and I while away the two and a half hour journey reading what Colin Thubron and our guide book have to say about Samarkand.
The landscape for some distance around Tashkent is pancake flat – mainly large arable fields but with smaller ones around the houses. It’s too early in the season to work out what’s being grown, for the most part. I don’t know how much of the cotton which the Russians imposed as a cash crop is still cultivated in today’s freer market.
Around Dhzizak we see the first small hills of the trip to our north – mounds of contorted sediments, where we see the rocks exposed. However these pale into insignificance when we see the snow covered Hisor mountains in Tajikistan, just to the south.
Despite arriving half an hour earlier than expected, the taxi driver from Antica guest house is waiting to give us our first trip in a lovingly-maintained, antique Lada. The guest house turns out to be a real gem – a number of rooms set around two linked courtyard gardens with a friendly family of owners. The location is amazing – we pass Timur’s mausoleum, Gur-i Amir, just before arriving at the house.
We have the lovely balcony room in the older house and arrange to eat in the guest house this evening – they cook dinner every couple of days.
Though we are too early to get into our room, Aziza feeds us home made pakora and pancakes for breakfast number three which augur well for tonight and we leave our bags to go off and explore Gur-i Amir and the nearby Rukhobod Mausoleum.
It’s clear that Samarkand is going to be a step up in terms of tourist density from Tashkent – there are several tour buses pulled up outside the mausoleums and I feel sorry for the Uzbek women trying to pray inside Gur-i Amir. Timur built the mausoleum in 1404 for a favourite grandson, tearing down a madrassa which had previously occupied the site, if our guidebook is right – Colin Thubron put the destruction down to earthquake damage. You can still see parts of the earlier building to the back and side of the mausoleum.
The ornately-tiled portico and walls around the courtyard date from the period when the site was a madrassa. These mosaics are made of tiny individual tiles rather than painted, like some we saw in Tashkent – an amazing amount of work for all the artisans Timur kidnapped from around his immense empire.
Some local children are clearly no respecters of age – I spotted some freelance decorating of tiles with stickers!
The delicate blue, white and gold fresco work inside the arch over the original entrance to the mausoleum particularly catches my eye.
Timur’s tomb itself is quite austere – a huge block of dark green jade, supposed to be the largest in the world. What the tombs lack in bling, the décor of the room more than makes up for. The walls and inside of the dome glisten with gold.
Timur’s tomb lies with those of two of his sons and two of his grandsons – Muhammad Sultan, for whom he built the mausoleum, and Ulug Beg who used his observatory to calculate Earth’s tilt, as accurately as we can today, in the 1440s. Colin Thubron, in The Lost Heart of Asia, describes an atmospheric visit to the crypt below the mausoleum where Timur’s body actually lies.
The main event of the day is our visit to the Registan – it’s hard to imagine today’s square full of visitors was once the bustling meeting point of all roads passing through the city and connected directly with Timur’s fortress when Samarkand was the centre of his Empire in the late 14th Century.
Three Madrassas form the edges of the square – Ulug Beg Madrassa on the left of the picture above, Tilla Kari in Madrassa in the centre and Sher Dor Madrassa on the right. There were plenty of visitors in the square, both Uzbeks and foreigners like ourselves, but the scale is so vast that it rarely feels crowded.
Ulug Beg’s Madrassa is the oldest, built between 1417 and 1420, and we visit it first. Fittingly, the façade has a celestial theme. The madrassas are so large that it’s often difficult to take photos without an odd perspective but the right hand minaret is very definitely leaning rather than the product of dodgy camera work! Earthquake damage over the centuries means many of the buildings do have a distinct list. We notice ties holding many of the arches together.
Ulug Beg Madrassa
Ulug Beg’s madrassa was unusual in that the students were learning science and mathematics rather than studying the Qu’ran. Up to 100 would have lived and studied here, at its peak. Now most of the cells are full of people selling crafts – pottery, embroidery and woodwork, in particular.
How to maintain and restore these buildings, when necessary, is a hot topic in Samarkand. Whilst the mosaic work looks fantastic from a distance, up close there are often pieces missing or crude painting has replaced the tile work. I guess it’s inevitable when you don’t have an army of slaves to call upon!
Restored tile work in the courtyard of Ulug Beg Madrassa
I’m distressed to find that my camera has run out of battery as we head towards Tilla Kari Madrassa but fortunately Martyn has a camera too and it’s actually quite liberating to focus more on looking and less on photographing.
Tilla Kari Madrassa
Tilla Kari is a combined mosque and madrassa complex built in the mid 17th Century when the city’s older, Bibi Khanym, mosque was falling into disrepair. It has particularly dramatic and colourful tiling – more yellow than is common.
Inside, the dome has an amazing gold ceiling.
Our final visit is to the Sher Dor Madrassa, also built in the 17th Century. No-one seems quite to know how it ended up with the bizarre Tiger-Lion hybrid animals decorating the portico, not to mention the deer and the human faces – all would normally be forbidden by Islam.
Mythical beasts decorating Sher Dor Madrassa
It’s quieter inside the courtyard here, with fewer tradespeople, despite the fact that this madrassa houses the raison d’etre for the Registan – the tomb of 9th Century saint Imam Muhammad ibn Djafar.
We chill out in the park by the Registan with tea and ice cream and decide we have energy for one more site. We head off in search of Khoda Abdi Darun’s Shrine, south-east of the Registan. The curse of the inadequate map strikes again, though, and we give up after walking around in a large circle and ending up back at the Registan.
Dinner at the guest house is delicious – plov, but also vegetable soup and tasty salads, and we have very good company and a passable bottle of Uzbek red wine. Our dinner companions are a Pakistani couple, an Iranian woman living in Tashkent and a woman from Kendal! It’s very interesting to talk to the Iranian lady, in particular – she teaches English in Tashkent and has Uzbek friends and says that many are very uneasy about the recent rise and rise of Timur as a national hero in a bid to fashion some sort of post-Soviet national identity.