Two Days in Samarkand: What not to miss (Part Two)
I had the opportunity to fulfill a big dream, thanks to an unexpected week off work and the end of the Uzbek visa rule in March. And I had to act fast before this gift of extra time was to be booked up. Quickly I found a reasonably cheap flight. Flying on Aeroflot to Samarkand, it was possible to visit to the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara in such a short time.
When you have little time, you want to prepare a bit so that you don’t miss anything important, but you don’t want to be stressed out either from too much sightseeing.
Here is my itinerary for two days in Samarkand, seeing the most important sights.
A two-city Central Asia trip in just four days?
In between my two days in Samarkand, I squeezed in two days in Bukhara. This is easy, because the Afrosiyob high-speed train runs twice daily and takes just under two hours. You can buy tickets on Advantour or the Uzbekistan Railways website, but neither is ideal. Advantour tickets are a lot more more expensive, and the Uzbekistan Railways Website is a curious Mishmash of English and Russian where I failed to input the station properly. With both companies, tickets can only be delivered within Uzbekistan (i.e. to your hotel). I have written a more practical post about travel in Uzbekistan including purchase of train tickets. I stayed in two different accommodations in different locations to maximise sightseeing.
My first day in Samarkand is in a separate post, visiting the sites that can easily be reached on foot.
Day Two in Samarkand
Now somewhat acclimatised to the ancient beauty of Samarkand, I arrived off the Afrosiyob train from Bukhara at 6am.
I took a taxi to the Antica B&B* in a leafy neighbourhood next to Gur-Emir Mausoleum and slept for an hour until breakfast time.
Two days is in no way enough to do Samarkand justice, so I had to choose carefully and decided to visit the furthest away sight first. The Ulugbek Observatory is located far out in the suburbs and a bit of a long slog up a road with heavy traffic. Walking there is no fun, so I took a cab. None of the cabs in Samarkand are metered, and it’s advisable to negotiate a price for the fare beforehand. I paid about 15.000 Sum for the 5km. For shorter trips, like back down the busy road to Shah-i-Zinda, you pay a lot less, especially if the driver has a chance to pick up another fare on the way – it seems quite common here, and why not?
The observatory was not busy in the morning, just one tour group and a few individuals. There is a small and really well executed museum on ancient and medieval astronomy. The part of the observatory actually visible is part of a massive sextant once attached to three-storey brick building, built around 1430 for Ulugbek, a grandson of Timur and an accomplished mathematician and astronomer. Although the existence of the observatory was known, it was unearthed by a Russian archaeologist only 100 years ago.
Well. There isn’t too much see, but coming here to see a fragment of this 15th Century astronomy grand accomplishment of is well worth the trip alone.
Dining Tip: If you like plow, try the Osh Markazi 500m downhill from the observatory. It’s low-key and hogh quality. If you’re a vegetarian like me, you might as well give it a miss.
I hailed another taxi to take me to Shah-i-Zinda, the Necropolis built into a hill of cemeteries on the outskirts of Old Samarkand. It was Friday and quite busy, but mostly with local pilgrims. Although the Uzbeks are fairly liberal when it comes to attire, this is a place where conservative clothes should be worn – a head covering is not absolutely necessary, but most people wear one. You’ll see lots of people praying inside and outside the mausolea, and there is a mosque or two as well.
Looking at older photographs, it appears Shah-i-Zinda was largely untouched until the early 2000s, then it was heavily, and some say, heavy-handedly restored. The colours are now, bright, almost too much, and the new work is crumbling and peeling in places. Despite this, it is an amazing ensemble of Timurid small scale architecture – well, compared to the Registan. While Timur and his immediate family are buried in the Gur-e-Emir Mausoleum, Shah-i-Zinda is the final resting place for family and court members. The site became a pilgrimage site when a cousin of Mohammed, Qusam ibn Abbas, allegedly arrived in Samarkand in the 7th Century, said to have brought the religion with him, was buried here, centuries before it became a burial place for the Timurids, who started building a mausoleum over the saints supposed burial site in 1331. Many people will come specifically for the tomb of Qusam Ibn Abbas, pray here, then take extensive selfies… because why not, before proceeding to pray in the mosque at the entrance to the complex. There is also a small 18th century madrassah opposite the mosque.
I’ll probably do a bit more research on the different mausoleums. There are between fifteen and twenty, along with a mosque, and most can be visited. Here are just a few impressions of the impressive Islamic architecture from the Timurid era, ca. 1370-1500, with the additions of a mosque and madrassah in matching style as late as 1910.
After this long and intense visit, it became very hot and sunny and I got hungry, so I walked back to the Siyob Bazar – there is a pleasant walkway taking you past the 19th Century Hazrat-Hisr Mosque (and the tomb of former president Karimov, which may explain the plethora of photographs for sale there) to pedestrianised Tashkent Road, the bazaar and Bibi-Khanym.
I love the bazaar, even though it was mostly preserves for sale in March, a long with a few winter vegetables, spices and lots of bread. Samarkand bread is the best! I really recommend you try a fresh one. I also visited a few of the souvenir shops and a hardware shop. Yes, a hardware shop selling a lot of kitchenware and fabrics. I found it in the brick building on the part of the market closest to Hazrat-Hisr and the pedestrian bridge. I was in my element! Prices were fixed, and incredibly cheap. I bought a few metres of cheap but decent looking cotton fabric with traditional pattern, perfect for summer dresses, and a cotton-flower tea set.
After eyeing up the wares in the market tea house I decided to go back to the Bibi-Khanym teahouse, because I knew they would have some vegetarian food there. And ended up sitting in their pleasant courtyard for nearly two hours to let the worst heat of the day pass. Laden with stuff, I went back to buy more fabric and dried fruit, then took a random bus which took me through some yet unseen part of town to the “Bulvar” bus stop near Rukhobod Mausoleum (most buses stop there, its always worth asking the conductor) from where I dragged my wares back to the guesthouse, where I promptly fell asleep.
So much, ambitious sightseeing plans! I also figured neither internet nor electricity were working in my room, leading to an upgrade to another room. In summer, the garden of the guesthouse must be lovely to sit in, but in March, everything was still bare and a bit untidy. At least, there was plenty of time to visit the Gur-Emir Museum next door, and it was nice I went late, because it as pretty deserted.
The Gur-Emir Mausoleum ist just an early masterpiece of Timurid-dynasty building, having been built around 1405, earlier than all the grand Registan buildings, but around the same time as Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Its relatively clean simple lines are topped with a harmonious azure tiled cupola. The real surprise came inside – similar to Shah-e-Zinda, the mausoleum is covered in ornate ghanch plasterwork and, higher up, gilded paper-mache.
I left it a bit to late to visit the nearby Rukhobod Mausoleum, built roughly 120 years earlier, and said to contain a hair of the Prophet Mohammed. . It is much simpler in style and sparingly uses the newly developed polychrome tile mosaics, instead employing clean lines and undecorated bricks. It’s an easy 5-minute walk through the park, or, if coming by bus, it is almost right next to the “Bulvar” bus stop.
When I left, it was dusky and upon closing someone turned the flood lighting on, and the scenery became almost magical. I shot a few pictures and almost ran to the Registan, hoping to find a similar flood-lit scene but it laid in darkness, with mostly locals strolling along the cordons. I was unable to shake off the attention from three young men, and knowing that little hassle ever came from the locals, I was quite willing to chat, and they really just wanted to speak a bit of English. We ended sitting on the stairs and discuss the mundanities of life as a student in Uzbekistan, age someone get married in the country (young!) and the state of the healthcare and tax system in Germany (really).
By then, my appetite sent me along Tashkent Road, which I knew pretty well by now, just checking that I wouldn’t miss the Bibi-Khanym Mosque lit up. It might be different in high season, but it was pretty dark, shops and restaurants were shut, but my favourite by now, the tea house, didn’t fail me. I think at that point I must have eaten my way through the vegetarian options on the menu, but it was a balmy night, the atmosphere lovely and fitting for my last evening in Samarkand and Uzbekistan.
What I wish I’d done, too
With all this shopping, eating, and siesta time, I missed a few things I had tentatively put on my schedule. Had I had another day, I would have visited these promising-looking places, but well, I think it’s good to keep something to visit later?
Ishrat-Khana is nowadays more like Indiana-Jones meets Blair Witch, an eerie-looking ruin of a mausoleum for women and children of the Timurids. It was built around 1460 and was said to have been one of the finest decorated buildings of Central Asia once, but was gradually destroyed over the centuries. It may not be easy to access though there should be a caretaker around, and tentative attempts have been made to slow deterioration and even to restore the interior in places.
Mausoleum of Hoja Abdi-Birun
Next to Ishrat-Khana, this is a pretty small-scale 17th Century Complex of a mausoleum dedicated to Hoja Abdi-Birun , mosque and stone pool. Hoja Abdi-Birun was, along with Kusam ibn Abbas, one of the first Islamic preachers in Samarkand.
19th Century Russian Samarkand
Roughly between University Boulevard and Mirzo Ulugbek Street, this part of town is full of 19th Century Russian buildings, cafes and restaurants centered around two parks. There are also non-tourist shops, a few cinemas and the Samarkand State University
Looking for Soviet Architecture
This isn’t entirely obvious, although there are a few pretty introductions in the historical area such as this mural on an apartment building:
For anything else, you will probably need to leave the comfort zone of central Samarkand. If you are more interested in Soviet architecture, Tashkent altogether may be a better bet, due to extensive building activity in the 1960s following a devastating earthquake. I didn’t go look, and I haven’t found much online – but if and when I do, I will update you.
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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.
Their most 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.
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.
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.