Monday, August 25, 2008

Aug 24 - Samarkand

At 6:45 am, we walked out of our hotel (where, incidentally, a plaque commemmorates that a Jewish family lived here from 1909-1999), past the synagogue (where morning services were in full swing), across Lyabi-Haus (nothing stirring but the ducks), and up to the spot for catching the mashruta and taxis.

We had not purchased any bottled water the night before, with the hope of picking some up at the train station before leaving.

No mashrutas were in sight, so we took a taxi the 9 or so km (5000 sum) to the airport. We got there at 7:10 am. The train on the tracks was the overnight train from Tashkent to Bukhara, discharging its passengers, not our train. There was no water to buy, so we sat down and waited.

That train pulled away, and about 7:50 am the Bukara-Tashkent pulled in. We had seats 33 and 34 in car 8, a first class car. For 14400 sum ($10.80 US) apiece we had a comfortable seat and space for our backpacks between the seats. The train left exactly on time (8:05 am). An Uzbek movie could be watched on our seat-front television. The car was relatively empty until we reached Navoi, about 9 am. Then nearly every seat filled.

No still (without gas, as they say) water on the train, but Carol was able to purchase a 1 liter bottle of soda water (with gas, as they say) in the dining car.

We arrived at 10:50 am in Samarkand, walked out, caught an immediate bus into town (200 sum apiece), and got off at the Registan (more about this famous place later). Our hotel was not far away, and after a few minutes hesitation, while we got our bearings, we were at the Timur the Great B & B.

For our quoted price of $40 per night, everything looked great. Nice room, air conditoner works, beds comfortable, shower and toilet look nice. The hostess of the hotel served us a pot of tea (Mike's first liquid of the day) and bowls of peanuts, candied peanuts, and soynuts.

We unpacked, and then set out to explore. We were at the south side of the Old Jewish Town, so we wandered. Each of the alley streets in Samarkand has a small spillway in the center of the street, so you can better guess if the alley will continue or lead to a dead end, by following the water.

After a while, we passed a house with Hebrew on it. We stopped to take a picture. The lady of the house invited us in. She was a non-Jewish Uzbek who had worked for 5 years outside Tel Aviv, but then had visa problems, and returned. We communicated in pidgin Hebrew, Russian, Uzbek, and English. We sat on a tapchan (tea-bed) and shared family photos. She served us a pot of tea, delicious watermelon, and introduced us to some daughters and grandchildren. Only in Uzbekistan.

After a nice 30-45 minute visit, we were up and away. The alleys in the neighborhood emptied out into an area 1+ km north of the Registan (also 1+ km north of our hotel) called the Bibi-Khanym. Here are a wonderful madrassa, mausoleum, and mosque. The mausoleum finished just shortly before Timur's death in approximately 1400. The original mosque, one of the largest in the Islamic world, collapsed in an earthquake in 1897 and was rebuilt.

Unlike Khiva, all sites in Samarkand have their own price tag, with tourist-special ticket prices. Our task was to decide what to enter and what to view from the outside.

Here we soaked in the majestic gateways, peeked into the mausoleum, and left with wallets still zipped.

Just north of here was a major roadway. Across on a hill stood a mosque with a cemetery cascading down to its left. There were large tombstones with pictures like in Bukhara. Could this be a Jewish cemetery? We crossed the road and looked briefly. The cemetery stones looked like a cross section of the whole Samarkand demographic was buried there.

We were actually pretty hungry and thirsty by that point. We had passed a huge bazaar, the Siob Bazaar. We went back and walked through. At the other side, we smelled smoke, and found the shashliks cooking. Each was priced clearly. We ordered 4 sticks, and went upstairs to inside the chaikhana. They arrived with a pot of tea and a loaf of the local bread (which is glazed with an eggwash, and has a firmer crumb). We ordered what must have been the world's freshest salad - tomatoes, cucumbers, and green pepper were all cut up while we watched. The meal cost 7200 sum ($5.40 US) and revived our spirits.

We walked back through the market and passed the sweets section. We saw what looked like an iced and decorated white cake, and discovered that it was all made of halvah. We bought some halvah chunks from the lady in charge, who really wanted to sell us one of the cakes. We couldn't determine if this was something special for Uzbek Independence Day on Sep 1, or for the beginning of Ramadan on Sep 1, or an everyday sweet.

By the way, all the TV stations and many of the billboards say: Bayramingiz Mubarak Bo'lsun. In Uzbek we think this means "Have a Happy Holiday (or else)."

As we left the market, we bought a 1 liter bottle of soda (with gas) for Carol, and a 1.25 liter bottle of sweetened flavored tea for Mike.

Then out to the Registan. The Registan is the most prominent place of Samarkand. When you see any picture of this part of the world, it is likely to be one or three of the buildings of the Registan, three majestic madrassas. The guidebook says the admission price is 3700 sum, but we were astonished by the 6500 sum price, and chose to think about entering. We soaked up the atmosphere, took some photos, and came to the realization that the entrance portal of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medrassa, has been copied verbatim on a structure in Bukhara. The famous feline is also on the 200 sum bill. So what is original, what has been restored, and what has been co-opted is all a matter of judgment. We were also not up for visiting yet another madrassa turned into art and souvenir shops.

Across the street, to purchase the local map of Samarkand at a small map stand. Map in hand, we tried to walk into another old neighborhood, but got turned around, and exited the neighborhood, after seeing two decommissioned mosques, and coming out roughly where we went in.

In Uzbekistan, there are large numbers of decommissioned mosques. Our guess is that Stalin and his cronies closed a lot of these down, and they are now just boarded up and fenced in, waiting for a new day.

We came out not too far from the Rukhobod Mausoleum (1380), probably the oldest surviving monument in Smarkand. Next the Rukhobod Mosque, next door. Down the street was the Guri Amir Mausoleum, known for its fluted azure dome. This was Timur's final resting place, along with his son, Ulugbek, the astronomer. We walked around it. The building is fascinating, because it is engrafted on a much older khanaka (used by the sufis). Finally, we came to the Ak-Saray Mausoleum, which was being closed up, but was kept open just for us, the last customers. Here we finally paid some admissions for a look at a beautiful building, and a chance to walk underneath to see the stone mausoleum itself.

All of the sites we just described are active places of worship.

It was now past 5:30 pm, and we still had purchased no water. It is our practice to buy a 5 liter bottle every day. In this hot dry climate, two people need 8 - 10 liters a day, and without the large bottle to fill up your small bottles, you will dehydrate quickly.

We found ourselves walking west into the non-tourist part of Samarkand. Here, broad boulevards are lined with allees of tall trees in the Franco-Russian manner. Walking along, we saw a wedding party in process - (these pre-Ramadan days may be a time of many weddings) - the dressed up bride and groom are videographed as they walk into the picture studio. We also saw our first real jogger of the entire trip.

More wandering. By now, the need to find a 5 liter bottle of water was acute. We were dehydrated and grumpy. We walked through an extended linear park with theaters and stadiums, but nothing commercial. Finally, near another kilometer along, we found (1) water, (2) a bazaar, and (3) an internet cafe.

Waiting at a bus stop, and drinking water (finally) we were hailed by the first local, who immediately associated Atlanta with the Olympics. It turns out that this gent is a raconteur and a collector of color post cards of cities and sites from around the world. So we askour faithful readers and their friends all over the world to go out and buy a postcard from your locality, and send it to:

Roma Azimov
53 Orzu Mahmudova St, Room 2
Samarkand, Uzbekistan 140129

Having promised to send the postcard, when we got back to Atlanta, and lugging the newly purchased bottle, we passed the Laghman Center. This restaurant promised to specialize in laghman, and recalling the wonderful plov we had at the Plov Center in Tashkent, we decided to give it a try.

So two bowls of really good, vegetable laden, and really fatty laghman soup (and of course isn't laghman supposed to be fatty, just like first-class Jewish chicken soup) were enjoyed al fresco while watching R-rated local music videos projected on the wall. As promised the price was 4600 plus 10%.

It was now well past 8 pm, the sun had set, and the downtown streets were really dark. There might be mashrutas coming along, but they couldn't see us and we couldn't see where they were going. Thus when an English speaking guy in a car offered us a ride to our hotel, we accepted. Treating it like an informal taxi, we offered him a 1000 sum bill, and were back to the hotel. We had a small English tour to boot.

In fact, walking around Samarkand after dark without a flashlight is a dangerous enterprise. All of the midstreet and curbside drainage is very unpleasant to step into, unawares, and the street lighting is pretty spotty.

Back at the hotel, with no TV in our room, we were asleep well before 9 pm.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

I was just watching Casablanca earlier! I can't help but associate the film with your travels!