Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Aug 25 - Samarkand

Up for a 7:30 breakfast - the breakfast atTimur the Great B & B are fantastic - crepes, eggs, some raspberry jam, french fries (delicious but maybe superfluous), apples, pears, watermelon, bread, tea.

We decided to go to the Hoja Ismail about 20 km north of town.  According to the guidebook, the bus leaves from Umar Bank. The guidebook map shows Umar Bank about 200 m "off the page".  So we walked past the Registan to the road going north to the Umar Bank.  The road runs through a nice residential/commercial neighborhood.  We passed another decommissioned mosque, stopped for a dill pickle, and were far from tourist Samarkand.  The walk was nice, but the 200 meters was more like 1.5 kilometers.

Anyway, Umar Bank turns out to be a busy intersection, as chaotic an intersection as we have seen in a while.  On the road leading north from the intersection is a branch of Umar Bank.  At 10:15 am the line to get in and do banking business was way out the door.  We needed to change some money, but this was not the right time.

We soon figured out that the 411 minibuses to Chelek left from here, but there were no buses going the extra 4 km off the road to Hoja Ismail.  A discussion ensued and the result was that we paid 1000 sum each(more than the usual fare, it appears) and the bus to Chelek would detour especially for us.

And so about 11 am we reached the mausoleum of Ismail al-Bukhari.  This Muslim scholar lived from 810-887.  He spent 25 years of his life collecting and codifying the sayings of Muhammed into the Sahih al-Bukhari, which for Sunni Muslims is the equivalent of the Mishnah.  This book (1) became the second most holy book for Sunnis, and (2) made Bukhara the center of Islamic scholarship for many hundreds of years.  Even though there hasn't been a lot of scholarship in Bukhara recently, for many good reasons Bukhara is a much more holy place than Jerusalem.

Apparently at some time Ismail al-Bukhari made the bad move of refusing to tutor the children of Bukhara's governor, and was forced into exile.  This mausoleum and shrine (2800 sum apiece) is spectacular, made of yellow marble and inlaid with majolica.  Maybe now Ismail al-Bukhari can rest in peace.

On the way back, an unmarked minibus offered us a ride back to Siob Bazaar for 1000 apiece.  Pretty soon, he had three more women, and we were off.  I don't think they paid what we paid, but no matter.  Transport is pretty informal in this part of the world, and so the driver stopped and picked up people going in his general direction, and filled up.

By 12:30 or so we were back at the bazaar bus stop, which is near but not at the bazaar.  We were heading for the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque, with its pink dome visible from the distance, and sitting way up on the hill.

But first we needed something to eat.   Under the road overpass was a ragtag collection of minibuses and big buses, all going to the nearby northeast towns.  Behind the buses were tables and cooking stands.  We were walking past a fellow scraping the small burnt spots off hundreds of freshly baked samsas.  Samsas are baked in tandur ovens, where they are slapped against the wall of the hot oven, and peeled off with a paddle when ready.  The samsa were being sold as fast as he could scrape them.  In perhaps a half an hour, the woman who seemed to be the chief samsa cook sold perhaps 200 samsa.  When we left, the gas fired tandur was being heated again, and potential customers asked when the next batch would be ready.

Carol wanted two and so as soon as we could get in line and sufficient clean plates were available, we had two hot samsa and a pot of tea (1000 sum).  Mike was attracted to another gentleman who had a huge pot of lagman and bowls of freshly pulled noodles, so he got a large bowl of lagman (1500 sum).  Carol then saw a different soup, called shorba, a clear broth with chickpeas, vegetables, and large chunks of tender lamb.  She got a small bowl of this, which came complete with a dish of chopped herbs (1000 sum).  By this time, even the plov seller could not tempt us.

The path led up some steps, along a road, and then right up a hill, near the Afrosiab ruins.  At  the top, we were all alone looking over the city, and walking along.  Only a donkey cart or two shared our space.  Eventually, we turned the corner and were at the Mosque.

Hazrat-Hizr was a folk prophet who was the impetus for the 8th century mosque at the Samarkand high spot.  Travelers on the silk road were lodged here.  The building lasted until destroyed by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.  Today's structure dates from 1854, and was only restored in the late 1990s.  For 3800 sum you get admission.  We negotiated a total of 4000 sum and got in.  Well worth it.  We even got a small tour in French, a cup of tea, and a chance to climb the minaret.  The domes are painted in a "see it from miles away" pink.  In the back were a couple of bricks painted in different test shades of pink.

With bad judgment, we ignored the Shah-i-Zinda complex about 500 meters away.  We walked back through the bazaar, and took a bus back toward the center of town.  Soon, we recognized the neighborhood, and got off.  We were back at Umar Bank intersection, and the line was shorter.  So we went in to try to sell $100 for sum.

Eventually, we were in the right line, and had the attention of the manager of the bank.  It turns out that we were the first people to try to exchange money that day, and they had to open a special window for us.  We have a knack for being the only tourists in a situation (remember the Internet Cafe in Kashgar that closed down rather than selling us another hour).

While this was all taking place, Mike had a fascinating conversation with this manager.  It turns out that most of the people there are depositors in their accounts.  

This bank has introduced both debit cards and credit cards (Visa and MasterCard) and is trying to get the local Uzbeks to use them.  They have a hard sell explaining why the depositor should open an account with a 3000 sum minimum ($2.25 US) in order to get a debit or credit card.  Possibly this is a chicken-and-egg problem because almost no merchants will accept debit or credit cards.

He also complained that the bank was trying to install modern banking software, but that the international software companies (he mentioned Oracle) are way too expensive, so they had to write their own, and it was not necessarily hooked up into all of the modern international networks.

The word he used was "transition:"  from communism to capitalism; from Russian to Uzbek; from cyrillic to latin alphabets; and from a cash economy to a credit economy, etc.

20-30 minutes later we had our 133200 sum, and our education.

It was now about 3:30 pm.  The next bus went downtown.  We got off, having passed several landmarks that we had seen the afternoon before, but we were on a different street, going in a different direction.  It took us 10 minutes or so to reestablish our bearings, but there we were, at the store selling 5 liter bottles of water, and at the internet cafe.

So we spent 2 hours or so at the internet, bought a second 5 liter bottle of water for good measure, and water and all, took a bus back to the hotel.

It was now after 6 pm, and we still had not fully explored our neighborhood around the hotel.  We had been told there was no synagogue in Samarkand, but surely there was an abandoned synagogue.  So at 6:30, we headed out, down dusty alleys asking for the synagogue.

The instruction was always go down this road a long way, then turn left (or sometimes right) and then turn again.  One informant told us that the synagogue was now a homom (bathhouse).  We passed the Legend Family Guest Hotel where (wonder of wonders) we saw our French friends from the Kashgar-Osh bus trip again and exchanged e-mail addresses.

A little time later, as the sun was setting, we finally found the synagogue.  The caretaker showed us around, speaking in Russian and Hebrew.  He showed us the conjoined Bukharan synagogue, Bet Yosef, and the Ashkenazi synagogue, Mulla Iskiyah, both in a small compound at
Badalov 5/1
Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

None of the internet sources we had checked had this address.  God knows what the addresses they have are, but it is a shame that two American tourists had to work so hard to find the functioning synagogues for an old community that still has 400 Jews.  (The same is true for Bukhara.  Lonely Planet shows two synagogues, but the internet has neither correct address, and but for the fact that our hotel was 30 meters away from one, we might have found neither.)

Back to the hotel in darkness.  A brief stop to pick up a makeshift meal at the minimart.  A half pound of halal salami, with enough for our trip the next day, and (yum yum) a liter bottle of tomato juice. (The tomato juice cost more than the salami.)

To bed at 9:30 or so.

1 comment:

Timothy said...

This is truly one of the most fascinating blogs I've read! Thank you for sharing it!

Tim (Froggy)