One day I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I saw beautiful photos taken somewhere on the silk road route. I wished to see that stunning beauty with my own eyes. One year later and without any prior plans, I’m in Uzbekistan in a city called Samarkand, which is considered the heart of the Silk Road and a crossroad of world culture with an unbelievable history of more than two thousand years. I still cannot believe it.
Samarkand itinerary - sections
DREAMS COME TRUE
We have worked in Southeast Asia for five years, so I never dreamed we would work in Kazakhstan someday. By the end of March, we had short holidays and had to leave the country to renew our visas.
The cheapest flights were to the capital Tashkent, so the company sent us there. But Lee had once been there and wanted to go somewhere else. He wanted to go to Samarkand. I hadn’t heard of Samarkand then, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. I googled it a few days before our departure, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is the place I admired in the photos a few months back!
Lee set out two days earlier, as I still had to work. The day after, he messaged me to take the money with me and exchange it at the airport as no ATMs were working, banks refused to change his money, and he spent his last cash on dinner.
CHEERFUL JOURNEY TO SAMARKAND
On Friday morning, I got in a crazy taxi and went to the airport. The driver was busy showing me his ridiculous dance moves instead of focusing on driving. What an experience.
When I arrived in Tashkent, I tried to exchange a hundred dollar bill at the airport, which they refused to take because of a tiny ink dot! I scolded myself for not checking the bill when I exchanged it at Astana airport. Whatever. There were four ATMs at the airport. One was out of order, others didn’t work on any of my cards, and I had lots to choose from.
Fortunately, I had one VISA card that was accepted at one ATM. I got the money, but again in dollars. So I went back to try my luck at the exchange office. This time they accepted it. Phew. I still wanted to buy a sim card with data, but they had sold out. Until recently, the country had limited tourist access, and only locals could buy sim cards. However, on our second trip to Tashkent, we were able to buy one at the airport.
Taxi from the airport
Now I had to get a taxi and get to the main train station, buy a ticket, get another taxi, and go to another train station, where the train to Samarkand leaves from. I didn’t understand this logic and still don’t today. I was a bit anxious about finding a taxi and the right train station. I don’t like the situation when I have to argue with taxi drivers about the price. As they like to intentionally raise the price several times higher just because I’m a tourist.
Fortunately, while running among the airport’s ATMs, I noticed a guy with a big backpack that looked like a backpacker and heard that he was talking to someone about Samarkand. I asked him if he was heading there, too. Maybe we could go to the train station in the same taxi. He said he had already been there, and he was planning to hitchhike his way to Kazakhstan. We talked about our trips and plans for a while.
His name was Matvei; he was from Moldova and had been travelling the countries of the former Soviet Union and India for six months. In Uzbekistan, many people speak Russian, so he offered to help me get taxis and train tickets. The first taxi asked for 40 thousand sums. In the end, Matvei agreed with another driver for the sum of 15 thousand sums ($1.6). First, we went to the southern railway station to buy a ticket that cost 80 thousand sums ($8.5). Then we caught another taxi to the central station. In this unofficial taxi, we were accompanied by the driver’s wife, who was constantly on the phone. This taxi only cost us 8 thousand sums ($0.9). Matvei accompanied me to the waiting room, told the attendant something and said goodbye and left.
Train to Samarkand
The train was leaving in an hour, so I sat in the waiting room with other passengers. The platform gate was closed. It only opens when the train is in place, which I believe is a safety precaution. Many people were looking at me as I was among the few tourists there. I counted only about five tourists in total. When the train arrived, everyone stood up and flocked to the platform.
The attendant came to me and accompanied me with a smile all the way to my seat. I had a bunk bed for myself, like everyone else. I got a pillow, sheets for the mattress and a blanket. Great. One of the locals sat down opposite me. I guess he was about 35. Immediately he began to chat with me in broken English mixed with Russian. We talked quite a bit in those four hours on the train. He showed me pictures of his wife and daughter, his wedding, and his four brothers and sister. He brought me tea and a warm blanket, and I shared some cookies I got from Matvei with him.
When we arrived at the station in Samarkand, it rained. He asked where I was staying and offered to help me get a taxi so I wouldn’t pay a tourist surcharge. In the end, he agreed with one taxi driver on 20,000 sums ($2.2). I thanked him, we said goodbye, and he went home to his family.
Taxi to hotel
The taxi driver was an older gentleman of about 70 years and his car was probably from the 70s’. He smiled at me and began to speak Russian. I understood about every eighth word, but we talked and laughed. I arrived at Hotel Rahmon, where hungry Lee was waiting for me as he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. I gave him my sandwich and told him about all the friendly helpful people I had met that day. We watched a movie and went to bed.
In the Persian language, the name Shah-i-Zinda means “Living King,” and this ancient necropolis is associated with the legend of Kusam ibn Abbas, who is buried here. He is a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who came to Samarkand to preach Islam with an Arab invasion in the 7th century.
There was hardly anyone in the morning. We paid the entrance fee (15 thousand sums) and walked up the stairs. In total, there are 40 steps that represent the path of repentance and prayer. The locals count the stairs and believe they will be free of sins if the number of stairs matches both ways. I had no idea about this, so I remained a sinner.
Upstairs we walked down the aisle between the turquoise temples. Gradually, the locals came along with a few tourists. We met only about six of them. Most people came here from the nearby towns to pray at the Kusama Tomb on the weekend. For Muslims, the journey to this tomb is as spiritual as the journey to Mecca. This place is considered the Mecca of Central Asia. People were always smiling at us and constantly wanted to take pictures with us or practice their English. Here, the dream of being a celebrity comes true.
Our next stop was the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque, located on a hill above the Siob Market, with stunning views of the Bibi-Khanym and Shah-i-Zhindu Mosques.
The original mosque from the 8th century, which used to stand here, was burnt down in the 13th century by Chinggis (Genghis Khan). It was restored in the 1990s, and today it is the most beautiful mosque in Samarkand. Next to the mosque is a modest tomb of former President Islam Karimov, who died in 2016.
Admission to the complex is free, but there is one of the cunning locals who tricked us into a small part of the mosque, where we had to pay an entry fee (20,000 sums).
From the mosque, we headed for Bibi-Khanym, but on the way, we were lured into a local marketplace, or bazaar, as they call it here. The bazaar was full of dried fruits, nuts, Turkish delight, and especially halva! I have wanted to try halva since I saw the movie The Prophet for the first time. You can walk, taste and shop! We bought a bag of halva and Turkish delight with pistachios!
We headed to the next mosque, strengthened by tasting excellent halva, nuts and dried fruit. Its size took my breath away. Not surprisingly, in the Middle Ages Bibi-Khanym was the largest mosque in the world. The oldest Qur’an in the world was once preserved here and is now in Tashkent.
Over time, the building began to deteriorate and disintegrate. By the end of the 19th century, an earthquake struck Samarkand, and the building was almost destroyed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Soviets began a reconstruction that has not been completed. During our visit, we saw how much more remained to be done. So perhaps one day they will finish its restoration.
We spent almost an hour absorbing the atmosphere and, of course, taking pictures. I always regret Lee having to wait for me all the time.
Registan Square has been the heart of Samarkand since the 15th century. Its name in Persian means “sand place” or “desert”. The square is surrounded by three huge madrasas (Islamic schools). The first building was built by Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur, in 1417. He taught there astronomy, physics and mathematics. Two other madrasas were built in the 17th century.
At first, we were fooling around the square for about half an hour where I was trying to take a picture of Lee with one of the madrasas without tourists. I failed. Fortunately, I am carrying a tripod with me, which I used to take about 20 different photos and combined them into the final photo without tourists. Yay!
Madrasa Tilya Kori, built between 1646-1660, houses a breathtaking mosque. At the entrance to the mosque, I was dazzled by its beauty. Tilya Kori means decorated with gold. The name really describes the view that awaits you inside. The fact that they made all the decoration and painting by hand is unimaginable. I wonder how many years out of the 14 years of construction they spent painting all those ornaments.
After visiting the mosque and the shops, we paid one of the guards 20,000 sums per person and he let us climb up to one of the towers. I don’t recommend it to anyone who is claustrophobic. The view was definitely worth the effort. Beautiful views of the city and the square although a bit cramped. In addition, we could explore the second floor and enjoy being there alone without tourists.
The mausoleum of Gur-i-Amir, which means “Tomb of the King”, was awaiting us last. The most famous ruler Timur is buried here together with his grandson Ulugh Beg and other members of the royal family. The place is beautifully renovated and we have long enjoyed the mausoleum from outside. When we got to the inside of the tomb, we were surprised by the white walls. We were expecting something more. But the white corridor led us into the tomb room, which ultimately did not disappoint us in our expectations.
We did not want to spend Sunday returning to Tashkent by train, so we paid for a Monday morning flight, which cost us only $20! That’s just $8 more than a train ticket. The hotel helped us book a taxi for an early morning departure.
The flight to Tashkent was at 6:30 am and from there we flew back to Kazakhstan. Two days in Samarkand, as a photo lover, were definitely not enough. I fell in love with Uzbekistan and I want to go back one day. At least for another two weeks. In addition, I have to explore other areas and cities of this beautiful country before it becomes a tourist attraction.
Where to stay in Samarkand
The best location to be based is close to the Registan square as most of the monuments are within a walking distance. As I mentioned earlier we stayed in a hotel Rahmon which cost us aroun $10 per nigh with breakfast included. The staff were really nice and were constantly offering us their local tea.
If you don’t mind paying a bit more and wish to experience something unique I would recommend you to stay in Bibikhanum hotel which is right next to the biggest monument Bibi Khanym in Samarkand where you can see it right from your terrace.
When to go to Samarkand
The best time to visit Samarkand is during spring or fall as it is warm and dry. We went to Samarkand at the end of March and the morning were a bit chilly, however, later on it got pretty hot. The best was that late March and early April are still fairly quiet times to visit, and the country’s main sites of interest will continue to be relatively uncrowded.