USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991


The day here in Samarkand has been enjoyable and useful.  For anyone who heard the name Samarkand, evocative images are quickly stirred as the ancient (2,500 years old) city of trade and learning that was a key point on the ancient Silk Road that joined Europe to China.  Samarkand’s charm largely lies in its past, with its spectacular, blue-domed mosques, mausoleums and madrasahs (Koranic schools), as well as the exotic traditional dress worn by many of the local people.  On the other hand, the new city is less attractive, with dusty concrete buildings, cars that spew a mixture of dirty exhaust fumes and more than a little unburnt petrol, and dangerous drivers who (how can I express this?) drive like they dance.

My day began with an hour and a half walk before breakfast.  I had expected Samarkand to be quite hot, but I had to wear a pullover as well as a jacket in the cool morning air – and they stayed on me all day.  My pre-breakfast walk took me to a nearby tomb and then through some back lanes (and then the main road) to Registan Square.

Wow!  What a brilliant sight.  Registan square is the huge complex of three madrasahs which are used to illustrate Samarkand in every travel brochure ever produced for the city.  They look spectacular in the brochures, but absolutely brilliant in reality.  It really is one of the world’s most spectacular sights because of the combination of its sheer enormity and its intricate blue-and-gold tiled mosaic patterning.

In the morning sunlight it looked stunning – when the buildings were new (in the 13th to 15th centuries) they must have looked even better and brighter.  I was chased both at Registan Square and earlier at the tomb by security officers who were concerned that as a foreigner I had come too early – in other words, before the cash office opened.

We only had tours organised for this morning, and there were three stops.  The first was Observatory Hill, where astronomers from Samarkand estimated the length of the year accurately to within 58 seconds back in the early 1400s using a large sextant.  While I was there a group of boys came up to me wanting chewing gum, pens, or anything really.  One gestured to look through my camera, which I allowed, and he proceeded to take a photo.  The other members of my group were similarly approached, but she became quite concerned when one undid her bag while another was looking at the camera.

Our second stop was the Shah-i-Zinda complex of mausoleums (or mausolea to be more grammatically correct) where Mohammed’s cousin, Qutham ibn Abbas, is buried.  It was a fascinating architectural collection and a fantastic experience to be there among all the local people with their colourful dress, walking along the “avenue of the dead” that connects the vaults.  Like other old structures in Samarkand, Shah-i-Zinda was topped with bright azure cupolas and intricate tiled patterns on the walls.

Our thid stop was Tamerlane’s mausoleum.  Tamerlane (also referred to as Timur the Great) was the founder of Samarkand, and as the first ruler of the Timurid Dynasty, conqueror of vast areas of Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan.  His mausoleum is said to have the most beautiful cupola in all central Asia, and it is certainly very impressive.  We took the time to go inside to see the intricate interiors – all in all, very impressive indeed.

After lunch, we had free time, but Galina (our national guide) kindly agreed to escort us to the markets and to Registan Square, which everyone apart from me had only driven past.  The markets, as would be expected in central Asia, were colourful and bustling.  Most of the stalls, which were covered, were selling fruit and vegetables in the shade of a ruined mosque, and like the mausolea, most of the people were in very colourful Uzbek national clothing as their everyday dress.

We returned to the hotel via Registan Square, and this time I was able to go inside (it hadn’t been accessible when I called by this morning).  What a great experience!  The buildings are so large and magnificent (although leaning a bit in places) that one is humbled by the grandeur of the surroundings.  The three madrasahs each have a huge courtyard behind their fabulous facades, with little doorways going off into rooms which used to be learning rooms, libraries, dormitories, and so on.

This will be a late night, centred around our arrangements for an 11:30pm departure for the four-hour flight to Moscow – the first leg of our long journey home.  This amazing experience is nearing its conclusion.

Day 14

Samarkand, Uzbekistan, USSR


11 October 1991