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September 13-15, 2016: After the Registan, the Gur Emir, the Shah-i-Zinde and Shakhrisabze, you might think that we would have the rest of our three days in Samarkand free to wander around at our leisure. But no, MIR found still more for us to do. Admittedly, the afternoon they scheduled the Bibi Khanum Mosque and the bazaar I decided it was just too hot for sightseeing and retired to our air-conditioned hotel, but I went back out to see them after it cooled off a bit.
The Bibi Khanum Mosque was intended by Timur to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world, and was built to honor his favorite wife. Elephants brought marble from India, and architects came from India and Persia. It is far from the largest today, and started to decay soon after it was completed, but the decoration is still worth seeing, although some is recent restoration/reconstruction. Walking distance from our hotel, it was also conveniently close to the bazaar.


Timur’s grandson, Ulug Beg, was not responsible only for the initial buildings of the Registan. Interested as much in astrology as governing, he built an observatory, of which part of a meridian arc still remains. I must confess to finding the associated museum, which contains copies of Ulug Beg’s careful calculations, more interesting.


Aside from the bazaar, we also made a couple of other modern stops. One was at a shop of musical instruments, several of which the proprietor played for us. The second was a paper making operation, which combined a demonstration with a shopping op. Since I am tone deaf, and since I have seen paper made by hand several times – one of my few souvenirs is a beautiful dragon on hand-made paper from Bhutan – I found these stops less than compelling.


Unfortunately, I was also disappointed by the “cultural program of music and dance” we attended one evening. I was expecting a demonstration by adults, and instead the dances were performed by young children. I suspect I was the only one disappointed, as there was a great dealing of oohing and aahing about how cute the kids were. Well, they were cute, but as a demonstration it fell short. Only two boys, shorter than the girls, participated, there was no information on the history or location of the dances, and several, notably one similar to a paso doble, were too sophisticated for the children. Since this was the same day as the paper factory visit, and dinner was in a big restaurant filled with other tour groups, I finished the day wishing I was traveling independently. Still, overall Samarkand was a wonderful destination.
(I apologize for the quality of the photos, conditions were not ideal.)

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Shakhrisabze


September 15, 2016: One reason I had chosen the MIR tour was because it included a day trip to Shakhrisabze, Timur’s birthplace. It was a decision I was to regret, for several reasons. Shakhrisabze was just 50 miles from Samarkand, provided one drove the straight route through the mountains. But, as we had found on the way to the Fergana Valley, coaches were no longer allowed to drive those roads. Instead of using cars this time, we detoured around the mountains. Three and a half hours to get there: three and a half hours to return. Not only was this a long day on the coach, through not exactly awe inspiring country, it meant we arrived in the middle of the day. The light was terrible for photographs, and the temperatures were in the high 90s.

Then, the sights just didn’t live up to their billing. No doubt Timur’s White Palace was magnificent in its day, but there was very little of it left – just the admittedly tall twin entrance towers. A lot of landscaping was underway in the vicinity of the towers, but meanwhile the only shade was in the shadows of the towers themselves. After the towers we did visit the Kok-Gumboz mosque, but by that time all I wanted was some relief from the heat.



Based on my photographs, we stopped on the way to visit a carpet weaving operation, aka shopping op. We also ate a heavy lunch before heading home. This was the day four of us saw the Registan illuminated on the way to one of our few independent meals. We all enjoyed the Cafe Labig’or, where we dined on the upper terrace, working our way through the entirety of the brief menu: lamb kebabs, beef kebabs, “fried” chicken, tomato salad and beer. Part way through the meal, a group of locals took over the next table, and one young woman, who had spent time in the US, came over to talk to us. The evening was a major improvement over the day.


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Sepulchre Street


September 14, 2016: This was a very full day, but the stand out sight, even competing with the Registan, was the Shah-i-Zinda, a street – or sometimes staircase – of stunning mausoleums. The original site of Samarkand was Afrosiab, northeast of the present city, and Shah-i-Zinda climbs towards it. The oldest burial, according to legend, was that of Kussam-ibn-Abbas, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who first brought Islam to the area, and who was murdered by the local Zoroastrians in 676 CE. Any surrounding structures were razed by the Mongols, but Timur and his descendants continued the tradition of burying important relatives close by.


Many of the 14th and 15th century buildings were controversially renovated in 2005, although not all. Plaques in front of each mausoleum give the date of construction and information on the burials, where known. My Odyssey guidebook to Uzbekistan devotes two and a half pages to similar information, but I don’t think it’s really necessary for an appreciation of the site, except perhaps for the Kussam-ibn-Abbas mosque with its room for pilgrimage and the grave chamber holding a 1380 four-tier tombstone.


At the top of the narrow, crowded street was a cemetery with some more modern burials. The contrast between the profusion of color and decoration lavished on the Islamic mausoleums, and the stark Soviet era grave markers, was extreme. Unfortunately, we visited in the late morning, right before lunch, so the light was not the best for photographs.


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September 13, 2017: If Samarkand was the “Center of the Universe” under Timur, the Registan was, and is, the center of the center. In Timur’s day it was a commercial center, with a covered bazaar, but his grandson, Ulug Beg, made it a religious and teaching center instead, with a madrassa to the west, a hospice for dervishes to the east, a caravanserai to the north and a mosque to the south. It is said that he taught astronomy in the madrassa, which had quarters for over 100 students.
Ulug Beg’s madrassa was built between 1417-1420, and two hundred years later it was the only one of the four buildings in good repair. The then governor of Samarkand, Yalangrush Bakhadur, removed the ruins and built two new madrassas on the west and north sides, Shir Dor and Tillya-Kori. The complex again fell into disrepair, with the buildings used to store grain, and was revived, surprisingly enough, by the Bolsheviks.



“Registan” means “sandy place”, and at one time it probably was. By the 2000s, however, photographs show a cleaned up square, although there are still bushes growing in front of the buildings. They had been removed by the time we visited, and nothing blocked the view of the facades, gleaming in the sunshine. In fact, there was rather too much sunshine when we visited as a group, and I went back later in the day for the evening light.


One might not guess, from all the photos of the facades, that once you enter the buildings you find interior courtyards ringed by more beautiful decoration. While souvenir sellers are scattered throughout all three buildings, they are not pushy, and don’t detract from the experience. We were fortunate that there were few other tourists sharing the place with us. Abdu said that the road to Samarkand was currently closed, perhaps because deceased President Karimov had recently been buried in town, and delegations were still visiting the tomb.


While I spent hours admiring the three madrassas, I could easily have spent days. I, along with three other people from the tour, did get an unexpected bonus two days later. It was a rare day when we were on our own for dinner. We had returned from a hot, exhausting, and not very satisfactory expedition to Shakhrisabz and Abdu’s suggestions for where to eat started with picking up snacks at a convenience store, moved on to eating in the hotel’s restaurant (which we had done the night before), and finished with calling out for pizza! When pressed he came up with a cafe that was about to close and a restaurant opposite the Registan.


After consulting Lonely Planet, I suggested another, more interesting sounding restaurant also opposite the Registan, and the four of us set off, passing the Registan on foot (the others wound up eating pizza as the hotel’s restaurant was closed). Now, Abdu had mentioned that the Registan was illuminated at night, but when we had passed it in the coach the lighting hadn’t looked very interesting. By sheer luck, we arrived just as the light show started, and it was absolutely magical. The fact the only four of us saw it is, in my mind, a big black mark against MIR. Since I wasn’t expecting to take photos I only had my smart phone with me, but I got a few shots even so. They don’t do it justice, but then the daylight shots don’t either. Like the Taj Mahal, this is a place that repays the effort of visiting in person.

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Timur’s Tomb


September 12, 2016: Timur, aka Tamerlane, the ferocious conqueror from my last post, was born in Shakhrisabze, 100 miles from Samarkand across an arm of the Pamir-Alai mountains, but he made Samarkand the center of his empire. Archaeologists date the founding of the city to the sixth century BCE, and it was already both famous and fabled when Alexander the Great took possession in 329 BCE, saying “Everything I have heard about the beauty of the city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined”. The city was to fall and rise again several times over the ensuing centuries, although in 630 CE the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuan Zang was as captivated as Alexander. (The scriptures he brought back from India were housed in the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xi’an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.) At that time the inhabitants were Zoroastrian, but Muslim Arabs took the city in 712. Again, the city would rise, and fall, and then be annihilated by the Mongols.
Timur revived the city, and started the building program that would be continued by his grandson, the astronomer king Ulug Beg. Although Timur planned to be buried in his birthplace, he built a magnificent mausoleum, the Gur Emir, in Samarkand for his favorite grandson, Mohammad Sultan, beside the madrassa and khanaga Mohammad had already built. When Timur died unexpectedly on the way to China, he was buried in the Gur Emir, where he remains, alongside his tutor and sons and grandsons including Ulug Beg.


Samarkand, in its various incarnations, was a destination to dream of, and to reach, if at all, through hardship and danger. Although at the junction of major trade routes – to Iran, India and China – the “Golden Road” crossed deserts and mountains. It almost seemed like cheating to arrive from Tashkent by rail, in considerable comfort. The detailed itinerary for the MIR tour still assumed that we would arrive by road, and with only time for a short introductory tour before dinner. Since we actually arrived in the middle of the morning, we had plenty of time for more, and started at the exceedingly impressive Gur Emir.


The actual bodies in a mausoleum like this are in the crypt below ground, and the apparent tombs are markers. Timur’s marker is a six-foot long block of jade from Mongolia. Originally intact, it was damaged during a Persian invasion in 1740, but is still a remarkable sight. But it is eclipsed by the mausoleum itself, the outer tiled dome covering an octagonal chamber decorated with onyx, marble and gilding.
Suitably impressed by this introduction to Samarkand, we ate lunch in an attractive restaurant before dedicating the afternoon the piece de resistance, the Registan.


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September 11-12, 2016: Early Sunday morning we got back in the cars for the return drive to Tashkent. With the sun now behind us, I found the trip much more enjoyable, although while I admired the mountains the cotton fields were monotonous. Abdu told us that we would not eat lunch until after we checked back into the Shoddy Palace, but I was relieved and appreciative that after I said that I didn’t think I could last that long we stopped on the road for borscht and kebabs. The next day we would take the new fast train to Samarkand, and I was looking forward to the experience. I was less pleased by the instruction to pack an overnight bag so that our big bags could go by coach. My day pack was not really big enough to double as an overnight case, and I had just spent a month managing my own luggage on trains in the UK. But I did as I was told.

This was the afternoon we should have visited the Applied Arts Museum, but since it was shut for the holiday we rode the metro instead. The metro stations are one of Tashkent’s tourist attractions, and the decorations were indeed worth seeing, although without the grandeur of Moscow’s. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed. Instead I took quite a few photos of the martial statue of Timur on horseback, situated near the Hotel Uzbekistan. The hotel had been designed by Soviet architects and I found the lattice work facade intriguing. I wondered how the interplay of light and shadow looked from the inside.


But back to Timur, aka Tamerlane, the real reason we were in Amur Timur Maydoni, a rather empty plaza, from which Tashkent’s main streets radiated in all directions. While best known as a remarkably brutal conqueror and despoiler of cities in the mold of Chinggis Khan, he was also responsible for the revival and beautification of Samarkand. Born in 1336 he had become ruler of Transoxiana by 1370, and subsequently fought from Damascus to Moscow to Delhi, and was headed for China when he died in 1405. His particular signature was a pyramid of skulls, and as many as 17 million people may owe their deaths to him. While he must have been an astute general, his empire did not long outlast him.


The next morning my alarm went off at 5:45, and I was not best pleased after we arrived at the station and were all on board by 7:30, given that the train would not leave until 8:00. Uzbekistan’s new high speed trains used Spanish Talgo rolling stock, and we were in business class, the equivalent of Spanish Preferente, which I had experienced the year before. The seats were just as comfortable, but we traveled more slowly, and certainly less smoothly. The ride was too bumpy for me to write. We arrived at 10:05, and immediately headed for the Gur-Emir mausoleum and Timur’s sarcophagus, followed by a remarkable street of tombs and mausoleums. The mausoleums were stunning and deserve their own post.

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September 11, 2014 (continued): after lunch we drove back to Margilan to visit a silk factory. The itinerary said we would visit the workshop of Master Turgunbay Mirzaakhmedov, and I assume that was where we went, but the place was closed, with just one caretaker on the premises. Since this visit had been high on my list of sights, I was particularly disappointed, the more so when I learned that it was closed because of a religious holiday, Eid al-Adha. Now it is true, that since Islamic holidays, like Christian Easter, are set according to the lunar calendar, they change every year, but they are still predictable. MIR would have known that we would visit during the holiday, and that some sights would be closed, but they did not change the dates of the tour. We would run into the same problem on our return to Tashkent the next day as the Museum of Applied Arts, also very high on my must-see list, would also be closed. Those of us staying a little longer in Tashkent at the end of the tour would see it, but three people would miss it, and we all missed a good tour of the silk factory.

The caretaker did explain the technique of extracting silk from the cocoons, but as with wheel-thrown pottery, I was already familiar with the process. His explanation of the technique that produced the warp ikat silk patterns for which the area was known was very hard to follow, and I had to research it later. The warp threads are resist dyed, but the weft threads are a solid color, producing a “blurry” pattern. Apparently, men are responsible for tying and dying the warp threads, but the actual weaving is done by women. Our visit to the silent looms was followed by an extended shopping op. I had thought I might buy a scarf, but nothing really caught my eye.


After a failed search for coffee in a neighboring park we returned to Fergana where an already long day finished with a dinner of plov at a private house. Unlike the other “house” restaurants on the tour, this one was in an actual private house, where we met the family and watched the preparation of the main dish. I suppose it is an exaggeration to say that the plov was a disappointment, as I hadn’t really expected to care for it. I don’t usually enjoy these staged visits, but the family were welcoming. I did feel that a rather precocious young boy was given too much encouragement to outshine his equally engaging sisters, and I suspect this was a sign of a patriarchal society.


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