‘For Lust Of Knowing What Should Not Be Known, We Take The Golden Road To Samarkand’- James Elroy Flecker.
The Silk Road city of Samarkand has long lured travellers and conquerors in search of wealth and the exotic in Central Asia.
In 1913 British poet James Elroy Flecker wrote of taking ‘…The Golden Road To Samarkand’, idealizing the ancient city and giving travel writers who followed him a perfectly lyrical quote with which to start their blog posts. Flecker never actually visited Samarkand, yet his romanticising of this distant, eastern city helped to maintain its mystical appeal in the West, building on the enduring legend of a city that has transfixed travellers for centuries.
It was the lust of knowing what should not be known that had drawn me to Uzbekistan, to see what all the fuss with Samarkand was really about.
The road to Samarkand was anything but golden.
It was roughly potholed and full of mad Uzbek drivers swerving over the crude surfaces. Uzbek drivers have the tendency to drive on the wrong side of the road to avoid the vast holes in the tarmac that litter the highways. They drive straight towards you, before pulling over to the right side at the last possible moment. Well, no one wants a pot hole damaged vehicle, do they?
I’d bartered a ride from Samarkand’s train station to the centre with Sergei the taxi driver, paying less than a dollar for the 20 minute journey. Sergei the Russian was brash and loud, but he knew a little English, a rarity in the former USSR. Samarkand was beautiful he said, and he could show me all the sights, for a good price of course.
Sergei said he was Uzbek, but not really. He had an Uzbek passport, but really he was Russian. One of the few left in Samarkand since the Soviet Union collapsed and Uzbekistan declared independence. He said the Uzbeks didn’t really like him much, but this was his home. He’d never even seen Russia.
Along the way Sergei the Russian stopped to pick up another passenger, a young Russian girl. Hedrove her not far around the corner and when she was out of the taxi Sergei started laughing hysterically. ‘Haha! 6000 Som for only 1 kilometre!’ This was more than I was paying for the longer journey all the way into Samarkand. Sergei was pleased with this deal. She wasn’t from around here he said. Neither was I, but my excessive haggling seemed to have earned his trust somehow. At least he was honest about ripping his passengers off. Nothing in Uzbekistan has a set price, but maybe the real reason the Uzbeks didn’t like Sergei wasn’t just because he was Russian.
Near the city centre the roads became cleaner, well kept, and almost new. The wide avenues were lined with trees and the monuments were polished to glint in the sun.
Sergei dropped me by what was left of the old city.
Samarkand, with its legendary aura in the West, is promoted as the jewel on Uzbekistan’s tourist trail, and much of the centre is newly renovated and immaculately well looked after to keep the visitors visiting, while the rest city itself has expanded massively in recent years and is undeniably modern.
This means that there’s actually little left of the old city, and in places, the old mosques and buildings- painstakingly restored- can look artificial, almost too new when you consider how far back the history of the city stretches. Just as I found in Khiva and Bukhara- Uzbekistan’s other famous Silk Road cities- Samarkand was also at the mercy of reconstruction efforts and expansion, struggling to find a balance between history and modernity, as it modernizes and tries to not lose hold of the very essence of itself, its past. Times change, history moves on and I mean, had I really expected to find golden streets filled with camel trains and brightly garbed merchants?
The Tomb Of The King.
Sergei the Russian hung around trying to entice me onto his sight seeing tour. He’d dropped me by one of Samarkand’s most famous monuments. While Sergei shouted increasingly lower prices at me from the wound down window of his taxi, I found myself enthralled by my first real taste of Golden Samarkand, as I marvelled at the Gur-e-Amir, The Tomb of the King.
Samarkand today draws visitors from across the world, and throughout its history it has always attracted travellers, kings and conquerors. The list of historical characters who’ve passed through this city just adds to its legend.
Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand, as did the Persians, Genghis Khan, Imperial Russia and the Soviets. Uzbekistan’s late President Islam Karimov even grew up and lived here.
Perhaps the most infamous character to conquer and rule Samarkand though, was Timur– a man known to the West as Tamerlane. He made Samarkand the capital of his vast Asian Empire in the 14th Century, and he made the city what it is today. Wherever you travel in Uzbekistan, you can’t escape this man. Where there once stood statues and monuments to Lenin or Stalin, there now stands statues of Timur. He’s the nation’s national hero, a man as bloodthirsty as he was artistic.
And the Gur-e-Amir is his mausoleum, his tomb.
Timur and his descendants, with Samarkand as their capital, forged one of the largest empire’s in history, stretching from China to Turkey. He was brutal in his ambition, and as Genghis Khan did before him, he mercilessly slaughtered anyone who dared to oppose him.
Millions died during his conquests.
Death and brutality are inseparable from the Silk Road. Timur was merciless, yet he was also an Empire builder. To Samarkand he brought the finest artists, engineers, scholars and scientists from across his conquered lands.
And with this expertise he turned Samarkand into his golden capital.
Many of the historic monuments, mosques and madrassahs that today make Samarkand famous were built by Timur or his heirs. His tomb would ultimately even be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal, which itself was built by a descendent who went on to found the Mughal Empire in northern India. He’s a man who truly left his mark on history, and a man who made Samarkand famous the world over.
With Sergei the taxi man driving slowly behind me, still trying to entice me onto his city tour, I walked away from the Gur-e-Amir and onto the tree lined boulevard that leads into the city centre. Things here were clean, really clean, the trees perfectly pruned and the streets shimmering clinically in the sunlight.
I was looking for the Registan, a public square surrounded by three Islamic madrassahs, and the single most iconic place not just in Samarkand but along the whole length of the Silk Road. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Uzbekistan, chances are you saw the Registan.
The square is busy when I arrive, there’s even a short queue for entrance- something I’d never seen at any other tourist attraction in the country, even after two weeks of travelling through Uzbekistan.
I had to pay for entrance, I guess the insane amount of restoration work that has been done on the Registan doesn’t come cheap, but being a foreigner I was told I had to pay more than the locals. The ticket seller seemed to just pull a number out of nowhere, and with weary suspicion, I handed over the required sum.
In Bukhara and Khiva, I’d been left to wander the streets and madrassahs of my own accord, with few tourists and even less touts or vendors. As soon as I stood in the square I was approached by ‘guides’ trying to sell me their services, and persistently too. I just wanted to wander, so I politely refused guide after guide and headed into the madrassahs by myself.
Inside, every spare room and archway had been turned into souvenir shops and stalls selling mementos of Samarkand. Every enterprising local was trying to cash in on the Registan. And why not I suppose- I would do the same in the spirit of entrepreneurship- but with the over the top restorations and tacky souvenirs it had the obvious effect of turning this historic sight into a Silk Road playground.
The People of Samarkand.
The Registan had looked golden, mythical and legendary when I stood before it. This was what I had travelled thousands of miles to see, the exotic Silk Road at its finest. But the reality inside was not so golden. I left fairly shortly afterwards, deciding that this was a monument best viewed from a distance. But perhaps nowhere can ever really live up to its legend, or at least, not in the way you might first hope it too.
I left the square, and was soon approached by a few young Samarkand guys who started speaking to me in English. At first suspicious after my run in with the ‘guides’ in the Registan, I soon realised my judgements were harsh, these guys were just students looking to practice their English on a rare Western tourist. They took me for tea and ice cream and chatted not about history or Samarkand but One Direction and Europe. It was a refreshing change from the Silk Road monuments I’d been exploring all day, even if I was’t the biggest 1D fan.
The three students were all looking to study in Europe, and they wanted to know as much about everything as I could tell them. Where had I been? Where had I studied? What were the parties like? This was the new generation of Uzbeks. They spoke not Russian, but were learning English, and they wanted to travel outside of Uzbekistan. They practised as much English as they could in Samarkand, to make that ambition a reality.
The Bibi-Khanym Mosque.
The guys hospitably showed me to a few sights nearby, ones not as crowded as the Registan and free from the ‘guides’ and vendors.
The Bibi-Khanym Mosque is another icon of Samarkand. Once the largest mosque on the Silk Road, it was built by Timur and completed in 1404, not long before the ruler died and was interred in the nearby Gur-e-Amir.
The entrance is vast and imposing, intended to be that way by Timur I’m sure. The mosque is crumbling in places now, not having been as renovated as the Registan- yet anyway- and a more authentic glimpse of Silk Road architecture.
Next to the mosque is Samarkand’s main bazaar, a good place to go if you’re looking to get away from the historic sights. The city was always a crossroad for trade, and this tradition continues in the market. The guys showed me around, making me try all the local fruits and snacks on offer across the hundreds of stalls.
Ulugh Beg’s Observatory.
Then they took me to a little known place in Samarkand, away from the city centre, on the outskirts of the city.
Built in the 1420’s by Ulugh Beg, a grandson of Timur, the observatory was an unprecedented astronomic success at the time of its construction, with Beg and his scientists making accurate charts and measurements with their instruments.
The Timur dynasty wasn’t all about killing and conquering.
But after Ulugh Beg was assassinated, the observatory was destroyed and lost for centuries, until it was unearthed again in 1908.
The students soon insisted they take me for dinner to try some traditional Lagman, a delicious noodle dish, all the while asking me questions about life back in England. On the way back to the city centre they pointed out a bland school building, School 41, where Uzbekistan’s last President, Islam Karimov, a native of Samarkand, had been a student. They were proud of the fact they came from the same city as their leader, a controversial figure in the West, but a man supposedly admired by all the Uzbeks I spoke too.
Tourism in Samarkand.
When I returned to my guest house later that evening, two local guides who were hanging out with their tour group in the courtyard insisted on buying me beers when they heard that I’d worked in tourism and travel myself. Azamat and Abdul Aziz had started their own small company in Samarkand, and brought groups over from Kazakhstan to see the city and to be immersed in Uzbek culture.
Over a few Pulsars- the local beer of choice- and the odd glass of Samarkand whisky, they interrogated me on how to get more tourists from the West into Uzbekistan. Although numbers are up, the country doesn’t see all that many visitors. It’s a relatively unknown destination, despite its incredible history.
I suggested that if the visa situation were more liberal- Uzbek visas are notoriously annoying to secure, thanks to the stringent bureaucracy involved- then travellers might be more inclined to visit. They were adamant that the harsh visa requirements were necessary for state security, and I got nowhere along these lines. The conversation inevitably turned soon to football instead.
Samarkand has a legendary reputation in the annals of Central Asian history to live up to though, and with a wealth of beautiful cities, Uzbekistan will eventually regain its place on the Silk Road as a beacon for travellers.
Samarkand is leading the way already, but still struggling to find a balance between showcasing its past and turning the city into a glittering theme park.
The Golden Road To Samarkand.
The road to Samarkand was never going to be as golden as I’d idealistically envisaged after reading too much travel literature. Samarkand undoubtedly has a remarkable allure, but the modern city will never be the city the old poets romanticised and never was.
Samarkand is a place that needs to be delved into to really understand it. I left the city, wanting to return, but not for the mosques and monuments. No, for the people I’d met there. From mad, money hungry Russian taxi drivers to beer downing tour guides and inquisitive students. These were just a few of the incredible people who make Samarkand such an hospitable and friendly place.
That’s the real legend behind this Silk Road city, not architecture and tales of tyrants, but the people who for centuries have welcomed travellers to Samarkand.