Two Days in Samarkand – what not to miss (Part One)

Two Days in Samarkand – what not to miss (Part One)

My impromptu Silk Road trip to Samarkand and Bukhara lasted six days, including two long flights, and time was a bit of an issue. What to do if you have limited time, want to see everything, but don’t want to spend a ton of money or tire yourself out?

Do a bit of reading, choose your accommodation wisely, and travel in spring or autumn when temperatures are moderate and crowds small. Here is my account on two days in Samarkand, travelling solo on a self-organised trip. I have put together a more practically minded post, if you wish to know about transport, visa, money, and generally what it’l like to travel low-season Uzbekistan in 2019.

Day One in Samarkand

I arrived around 9am on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow, currently the only international flight there is to Samarkand. There is a daily flight from Tashkent, but you won’t be spending much more time by taking the high-speed Afrosiyob train .

Landing in Samarkand
Landing in Samarkand. Samarkand is the second largest city of Uzbekistan, and has over half a million inhabitants

Despite having had a row of seats to myself, some turbulence meant no sleep and I was pretty knackered, so after a friendly check-in with tea and bisquits at the Hotel Rahmon*, I went to sleep until children exercising in a nearby school yard woke me around noon. I have written a separate post on the Hotel Rahmon, and I highly recommend it if you want to stay somewhere close to the historical centre on a budget.

First meal in Uzbekistan – I would go back to the Hotel Rahmon for that jam alone

Travelling in early March meant  moderate temperatures of around 25 degrees Celsius, so I hopped out of bed, and went to explore. Staying at the Hotel Rahmon  meant easy pedestrian access to the Registan, BibiKhanym Mosque,  the bazaar and Shah-i-Zinda. I  set off along the modern and somewhat featureless pedestrian section Tashkent Road. It was full of souvenir shops and some good value cafes and restaurants, but nowhere to change money.

My hosts had mentioned that there is a money changer in the bazaar, so I entered it, bleary eyed, passing huge nan breads, sheeps heads and mounts of dried fruit, but no money changer. I asked a policeman. There were rather a lot of police around, and Uzbekistan employs a special tourist police, so of all people I thought he might know. He didn’t, and he didn’t even speak Russian, not to mention English. “Oh, great start” I thought. I had 40 US Dollars in my pocket, which would serve as my emergency money (worked well on my taxi ride) but finally managed to find what looked lie the only Bureau de Change on the bazaar, and excidtedly headed to the Bibi Khanym Mosque, looming over the bazaar.

Bibi Khanym Mosque

As a foreigner, you will pay  a higher entry fee than locals, but they’re still on the moderate side: about 25.000 sum (2.75EURO) for the Bibi Khanym, 40.000 (4.50EURO) for the Registan ensemble. No one really seemed to bother with the Bibi Khanym Mosque, seeing there “isn’t much inside”. What you can see today are three domes prayer halls and monumental entry gate enclosing a large courtyard intended for open air prayer. It was once surrounded by prayer halls shaded with 400 domes, which have gone, .

This rather ambitious project was completed in the early 1400s, but soon falling into disrepair due to poor planning and hasty construction. An 1897 earthquake almost completely destroyed it, but the  then Uzbek Socialist Soviet Republic   started reconstruction in 1974, which is still ongoing. It was peaceful and filled with blossoming trees,  a wonderful place for a quiet wander.

The four large halls of the Bibi-Khanym were once connected by domed prayer halls – an architectural style you can still see in the Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara

 

Intricate tile work everywhere

 

The Mosque was hastily built in its day, to a previously untried scale, and is under ongoing restoration

 

In March, you can get lucky with the weather in Uzbekistan

 

Magnificent dome of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque

 

My first introduction to Persian style tile work was a good one

Practical Considerations

It was now early afternoon, and I started to get quite hungry. I stuck to tourist food to begin with, in the hope of finding something vegetarian. The Bibi Khanym tea house really fit the bill – friendly, had some vegetarian dishes, nice outside terrace, and European coffee that wasn’t too expensive. It became my to-go place for healthy inexpensive food.

Manty – one of the few things you can safely eat as a vegetarian in Uzbekistan, accompanied by the ubiquitous (and tasty) green tea

Then I wandered down Tashkent Road. It really is full to the brim with souvenir shops. Given the number of tourists, I wonder who would d buy all the souvenirs?

Tashkent Road, Samarkand
Tashkent Road – a bit sanitised touristy street. Maybe there is more going on in main season?

In terms of useful stuff, it did have a few pharmacies and some fast food outlets, though. On the corner to the Registan, I decided to buy my train ticket to Bukhara first, and waited for the 73 Bus. The modern train station is actually further out of town than the airport, but the cheap bus ride takes you past the Rukhobod Mausoleum and the central “Bulvar” Bus Stop, then modern and tourist-free Samarkand with its buzzing streets and neo-baroque housing.

Buying train tickets was easy – they are sold in a separate office to the right of the station, as the station is eerily empty – completely unlike in Europe.

Samarkand Train station. You actually cannot enter without a ticket…. the r=ticket office is on the right outside the building

I met a German speaking local, who quickly bought the tickets for me, it took two minutes – about 14 EURO for a return ticket on the Afrosiyab train to Bukhara, paid in cash. I took the bus back, and had an overpriced coffee at the Lyabi Gor tea house. Usually the best bet when looking for a bathroom in Uzbekistan is the nearest restaurant – and I wouldn’t recommend this place (or anywhere near the Registan) for anything else. Then I was ready for some hardcore sightseeing.

The Registan

Perhaps one of the most evocative images of Central Asia and Silk Road travel – the Registan. I once read a book about a trip to the Uzbek SSR by Richard Christ (famous in Eastern Germany, actually his childrens books are really nice) and wanted to visit. So, when I finally had my ticket and entered the square, where some kind of military show marching was going on. The square itself served as a market, for military parades, and executions.

First glimpse of the Registan – fast to become one of my favourite views ever

I started with  the Ulugbek Madrassah. It is the one to the right as you stand looking at the square, its oldest and some say finest. It was completed in 1422 by Ulugbek, a grandson of Timur. The massive entry portal (pishtaq) is decorated with fine geometric tile mosaics  depicting flowers, stars and kufic inscriptions.

Samarkand Registan
Ulugbek Madrassah. Don’t ask who the exercising guys were – tourist police showing off I think

 

The Ulugbek Madrassah is said to have the finest tile work of the three Registan Madrassahs, and is the oldest of the ensemble

 

The fine work continues inside. You can see the ground floor student cells – they are all souvenir shops. The upstairs appeared inaccessible

 

Beautiful Kufic insriptions and stylised flowers

I took so many pictures of the beautiful tile work, I may have become confused which madrassah is which… so, I am not sure with the following! The Ulugbek was more about fineley tuned azure and turquoise shades with ochre, the Shir-Dor and Tilla-Kari madrassah were much less subtle in their colour scheme, with added green and yellow. All three were restored during Soviet times, and often they overdid it a bit on the colours.

The stalactite or squinch vaults (mukarnas) are typical of pre-Islamic and Islamic Uzbek architecture and are purely decorative
Typical domed entranceway (iwan)
Former Student cells of Ulugbek Madrassah
Souvenirs, anyone?
Colourful ceramics were introduced with the rise of Islam, and Samarkand and Tashkent were important sites of production
Polychrome tiles were introduced in the Timurid Era of the 14th/15th Century

 

It is said the Ulugbek Madrassah has required comparably little restoration over the years as the build was of such high quality

Opposite, you could think the Sher-Dor Madrassah is a mirror image, but it was completed almost 200 years later and, unusually for Islamic art, depicts hunting Aral tigers with a rising sun with human features on their back. Some say there are ancient Zoroastrian elements in its architecture, but that is a matter of debate. The execution of the Sher-Dor was a bit more crude, and it is said more restorative work on it has been required over the years. Its pishtaq faces the qibla, the direction that should be faced in Muslim prayer,  so they didn’t bother with a mosque in the courtyard, and made smaller prayer rooms in the front corner rooms.

Both the Ulugbek and the Sher-Dor madrassahs appear not to be active mosques now, but they are still worth seeing from the inside, where smaller blocks of student cells continue with the intricate tile theme. The former student cells on the ground floor are now overtaken by souvenir shops, the courtyards peaceful places to sit and rest.

The well known front motif of tigers carrying a human-faced sun, defying Islamic principles of aniconism

 

Minarets were introduced during the Umayyad period in the 8th Century. The Registan minarets are all leaning a fair bit

 

The monumental portal of the Shir-Dor Madrassah seen from its courtyard. As it faces the qibla, the domed rooms are prayer rooms

 

The hunting tigers of the Shir-Dor madrassah seen through a brick lattice

 

Impressive for 15th Century work, isn’t it?

 

One of numerous iwans decorated with polychrome tiles

Last on the square is the Tilla-Kari Madrassah and Mosque (the middle one as you stand facing the square). Don’t miss entering this one! After the Bibi-Khanym had become somewhat unusable and derelict as early as hundred years after completion, Samarkand needed a main mosque, and the Tilla-kari was built and opened in 1660 to harmonise with the two existing madrassahs on the square.

What sets this one apart is a large mosque dripping with gold. It was used as a mosque until the early 20th Century, while the Soviets continued to preserve the building and liberally added bits, like the blue dome and some minarets. And, moving on from all the gold, there are extensive rooms dedicated to some good looking (and pricey) souvenirs. This would be a recurring theme – I think 70% of all religious buildings I saw in old Bukhara and Samarkand were now scenic souvenir shops.

Detail of the Tilla-Kari Mosque with added Soviet dome

 

Tilla-kari Mosque facade
The facade of the Till-kari Mosque – less restrained in its range of colours

 

Tilla-Kari has a more simple courtyard, with a qibla-facing grand mosque on one side

 

Tilla-Kari courtyard

 

Where there’s a student cell, there’s a souvenir shop

 

Those tiles – where do you start, where do you finish?

 

Tilla-Kari Mosque
Don’t forget to visit the mosque… the pictures don’t do it justice

And that was me templed out…

Seeing the Registan ensemble slowly took the best part of two hours, and by now it was getting a little cooler, and I was getting hungry again. I bought a few snacks in a Western style supermarket on the corner of the Registan, and got tempted by the beautiful, shiny nan breads sold from pushcarts outside.  I bought one and headed back to my guesthouse, where some other member of the owner family was waiting with a pot of tea and more bisquits in the large communal dining room.

The only other person there who spoke English was a Japanese guy whose slurred speech and a half-finished bottle of vodka indicated he was lacking the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme. He was beyond any polite conversation, so I bade my farewells, but not before offering to help drag the pissed guy back to his room before he fell over, but they waved me off with looks like “this is man’s work, dear” and I went to relax in my room, ate the entire nan (it was so tasty) and made plans for my two days in Bukhara, starting the next day…

I returned to Samarkand for another full day before flying back to Berlin, but I’ll report on that (and the things that perhaps I should have seen and done) in Part Two.

Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links, which are marked with an asterisk (*). I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth.  More details on my affiliate link policy are here

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I book my hotels either directly or I use Booking.com for their flexible reservation policies, easy-to-navigate website and good customer service.

Further Reading on Samarkand

I used an older Central Asia Lonely Planet guidebook, which was sufficient while on the road – except that a lot of practical information had changed. This recent one is from 2018 and perhaps more useful. If you want a book on Uzbekistan alone, there is a Bradt Guide, though its last edition is 2016. I find Bradt guides a bit hit- and-miss, excellent for Africa, but a bit useless in Israel. Generally, they are good on history and culture and slim on practical info. But when it comes to background info and the arts, nothing beats the Dumont Kunstreisefuehrer – unfortunately available in German only. I bought a secondhand 2006 edition, because art history doesn’t change, right,  and had a good laugh at the completely useless practical section apparantly geared at moneyed group travellers. If you don’t speak German, this Odysseus Guide comes close on detail.

Samarkand Practicalities

I flew on Aeroflot from Berlin to Samarkand via Sheremetyevo. Flying in was lovely, coming back was  quite messy. Read more on my experience with Aeroflot here.

I stayed at the Hotel Rahmon, a very simple yet really friendly guesthouse close to the Registan. You can read my detailed review here. I spend another night at the Antica B&B, a more established guesthouse in a differnet part of town close to the Gur-e-Emir Mausoleum – review to follow! To be honest, paying three times as much as I paid at Hotel Rahmon wasn’t worth the extra expense in my eyes.

Most practical content on my trip to Samarkand and Bukhara can be found in this separate post. If you would like to know anything else, feel free to ask.

 



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