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Our September 2006 holiday


  • Introduction
  • Uzbekistan
  • Tashkent
  • Khiva
  • Bukhara
  • Shakhrisabz
  • Samarkand
  • Conclusion


    "We travel not for trafficking alone,
    By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
    For lust of knowing what should not be known,
    We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand."

    "The Golden Journey to Samarkand" poems (1913) by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1015)

    After a couple of visits to the Near East (Egypt and Jordan) and several holidays in the Far East (including India and China), Roger & Vee decided to venture into Central Asia for the first time by taking a trip to Uzbekistan. It was actually Vee's choice and reflected her interest in the historic Silk Road. For Roger, Uzbekistan was his 45th country visited.

    As on many other occasions since we started these more adventurous holidays, we travelled with Voyages Jules Verne [click here]. It was an unusually small group of just nine. The seven others were a distinguished collection of individuals that included a lord, a countess, and an honourable. Three of them had been to Oxford University, three of them had history degrees, and two of them held doctorates (some overlap here). One is the Curator for Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and another had spent 21 years as Senior Picture Conservator to the Queen. Three of them were women in their mid 70s and very sprightly, encouraging Roger & Vee that they might look forward to many more years of foreign travel.

    Roger prepared for the trip by reading the memoirs of the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan "Murder In Samarkand" [for review click here] and, during the holiday, he read the book "Islam: A Thousand Years Of Faith And Power" [for review click here].

    Islamic script from the Registan in Samarkand


    Today, for many people, Uzbekistan seems like the end of the world. But in the 14th century this was the centre of the world. It was here that the ancient Silk Road traversed and that the great warlord Tamerlane lived.

    From 1860 onwards, the local Khanates came under increasing Russian control and in 1924, when the Soviet government reorganised the Central Asian borders along ethnic lines, they created a republic of Uzbekistan.

    In August 1991, Uzbekistan reluctantly declared independence from the Soviet Union. In subsequent ethnic tensions, two million Russians left the country for Russia. A number of laws were deliberately designed to pressure and ultimately force the Russian population to leave Uzbekistan.

    Uzbekistan is surrounded by five other '-stans' - Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (the word 'stan' means land) – and more strategically located between the giants of Russia and China. It is one of only two countries in the world that has the dubious honour of being doubly landlocked (that is, goods must pass through two other countries to reach a port) - the only other country which shares this trait is Liechtenstein.

    The current population of Uzbekistan is 26 million. Most of these (around 70%) are actual Uzbeks and many of these are Muslims of the Sunni persuasion. The demographics of the nation make it a very young country in terms of its citizens.

    Typical cloth for sale as suzaines

    Uzbekistan is the most populous Central Asian country and has the largest armed forces. There is no real internal opposition and the media is tightly controlled by the state. A UN report has described the use of torture as "systematic". It is estimated that there are several thousand political prisoners in the country – most of them Muslims. In Andijan in May 2005, hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed and injured.

    Islam Karimov has dominated the leadership since 1989 when he rose to be Communist Party leader in then Soviet Uzbekistan. The following year he became Uzbek president and continued in the post after independence.

    A referendum held in 1995 extended his term until 2000 when he won the presidential elections unopposed. A further referendum in 2002 extended the presidential term from five to seven years, so the next presidential elections are due in 2007.

    Confident statement from Uzbekistan's president

    As a result of the imposition by Stalin on the country of a cotton monoculture, Uzbekistan is one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and, although technically voluntary, in practice harvesting the cotton is compulsory for many people. The nation is the world's fifth largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton.

    The country is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and gold. However, the rigidity of political control is mirrored in the tightly centralised planning of the economy, although private enterprise is now developing in the retail and service sectors.

    The national dish is plov: pieces of lamb cooked in saffron rice and shredded carrot. Apparently there are 220 regional variations. A standard feature of any lunch or dinner is the provision of non, large roundels of unleavened bread, of which there are some 20 varieties.

    A range of non breads

    Official Government site click here
    Wikipedia click here


    Our Saturday afternoon flight from London to Tashkent was on an Uzbekistan Airways Boeing 757-200 and took 6 hours 20 minutes. Thanks to a four hour time difference, it was 2 am on Sunday morning local time when we landed to be met by the representative of Marco Polo Discoveries Gulya Khamidova. Gulya – half Uzbek, half Tajik, and fluent in English - proved to be an outstanding guide, combining enormous knowledge of all the places we visited with kindness and good humour.

    We were driven to the centre of the city to our accommodation at the Uzbekistan Hotel [click here]. The hotel was bulit in 1974 and it is the largest in the city with 900 rooms. The previous day, it hosted the wedding celebration of local pop sensation Sevara Nazarkhan [for more information on her click here]. The rooms were huge but, as everywhere on our journey, there was nothing in them except the basic furniture: no tea & coffee making facilities, nothing in the fridge, and no Bible or Koran or even telephone directory. It was about 4.15 am when we were able to climb into our beds.

    We had been offered the chance of breakfast between 7-10 am but Roger & Vee chose to sleep through to about 10.30 am and only go down for the lunch at noon, prior to our city tour at 1.15 pm (our local guide was a woman called Natasha).

    Over its 2,500 year history, Tashkent has had many names and the present one is Turkish for 'stone village'. Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, after Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev and it has a population is 2.5 million. However it is a dour place: many of the buildings were destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 1966 and much of the city features the utilitarian design of the Soviet period.

    Still much poverty in Uzbekistan

    The starting point of the tour - Amir Timur Square - typifies the historical changes that have constantly reshaped Uzbekistan. The statue that dominates the square used to be that of Konstantin Kaufman (the first Governor-General of Russian Turkestan); then it was replaced by one of Joseph Stalin; next it was the turn of Karl Marx; and now the figure on horseback is that of the Uzbek national hero Tamerlane.

    Our first stop was the Earthquake Memorial constructed in 1976. A granite cube displays the time (5.22 am) of the first tremor, while a giant statue shows an Uzbek man shielding a woman and child from the earth opening up before them. We then drove to the old town in the north-west of the city where many homes survived the earthquake because they are built of adobe bricks without windows.

    Here, on Kast Imam Square, we saw the Barak Khan Madrassah which was founded in the 16th century by a descendent of Tamerlane. Directly opposite is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque (also known as the Khastimam Mosque) which was first built in the same era and now houses a beautiful Islamic library of 646 old Korans. The most famous – locked in special wall case - is the oldest in the world: the Osman Koran of 655 written on the skins of gazelles [for more information click here].

    Passing various ugly structures, such as the 4,000-seat Palace of People's Friendship and the Oliy Majlis (the Uzbek Parliament where democracy is a mirage), we arrived at the Abulkasim Madrassah. A madrassah is an Islamic seminary or college and all of them contain the hujra or student cell. In this madrassah, the hujras had been turned into workshops for the production of wooden and other artifacts. Vee bought a lavkh which is a special bookstand for the Koran. Ingeniously it is carved from one piece of wood and can be set up in several different positions.

    Our final stop was the Museum of Applied Arts. This building was originally constructed as a palace for the Russian diplomat Alexandrovich Polovtsev and completed in 1907. This was our first sight of the ubiquitous Uzbek creation the suzaine, a colourful wall hanging. Other objects on display included local skull caps, local clothing, pottery, and snuff boxes.

    Link: Tashkent site click here


    Effectively, our time in Tashkent was simply an opportunity to get over our jet lag before the trip proper began with some time in Khiva. For this purpose, we flew from Tashkent north-west to Urgench. The aircraft was an Uzbekistan Airways Tupolev Tu-154 which was a pretty grim experience that fortunately only lasted an hour.

    At Urgench airport, we were subject to an example of the bizarre way that Uzbeks sometimes do things. As we left the aircraft, we were ushered, not into the airport but through a tall metal gate and off the airfield. Here we had to wait in almost total darkness for three-quarters of an hour until our luggage was brought on huge trolleys to the airfield side of the gate. The gate was then opened and everyone scrambled around trying to find their own suitcase. You might be surprised how similar cases can look in near pitch darkness.

    Having obtained our luggage, we boarded a minibus and took the dark road to Khiva, only 22 miles (35 km) south of Urgench. Our accommodation was the small and modern Asia Khiva Hotel [click here] just opposite the south gate (the Tosh Darvoza) to the old city. Dinner at 9 pm was very welcome, since we had eaten nothing since lunch eight hours previously.

    Next morning (Monday), in bright sunshine, our holiday really 'took off' as we had a tour of the old city with an enthusiastic local guide called Saida. We started at 8.30 am and concluded at 12 noon and just saw a sample of the historic locations.

    Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were all caravan cities on the legendary Silk Road, the ancient trading route that led from China through the Middle East and into Europe. Khiva is the most intact and the most remote of these Silk Road cities.

    The place has existed since pre-Biblical times and it was at its most powerful in the 16th & 17th centuries, although the oldest remaining buildings are only 19th century. Since 1967, Khiva's status as a museum city has ensured that it remains the most homogeneous collection of architecture in the Islam world.

    Today it is a city of 50,000, some 3,000 of them located in the legendary inner walled city known as Ichan Kala. The walls are 26 feet (8 metres) high and run for over a mile (2.2 km). We entered the Inchan Kala by the west gate known as Ota Darvoza (Father Gate) which was rebuilt 40 years ago after the original was pulled down to open the medieval city to motor traffic.

    The walls of Khiva's Ichan Kala

    The first place we visited was on the right of the road: the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (1852-1855), the largest of its kind in the city. As a madrassah, it housed 250 Islamic students, but today it accommodates 137 fortunate tourists. In between these two incarnations, it was a prison, then a museum, and then a hotel for Russians. Nearby is the imposing Kalta Minor (Short Minaret) which was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to stand at 230 feet (over 70 metres) as the biggest in the Islamic world, but abandoned in the wake of his death while standing at only 85 feet (26 metres). It is still a beautiful sight with bands of different coloured tiles glistening in the sunshine.

    The Kalta Minor (Short Minaret)

    To the left of the road, there is the complex known as the Kukhna Ark (Old Fortress). The foundations of the Ark date from the 5th century but most of the structure was added to piecemeal in the 19th century. At the heart of the complex is the Summer Mosque which is also known as the Ak-Sheikh Bobo Mosque. Black elm pillars support a structure of majolica tiles housing the usual mihrab (a niche facing Mecca) and minbar (a pulpit). The other impressive feature of the complex is the Kurinsh Khana (Throne Room) which was built in 1804-1806. Here the khan would grant public audiences. Climbing then to the top of the watchtower, one has classic views of old Khiva, looking along the west wall and over to the Kalta Minor.

    Back down on the main roadway of the Ichan Kala (Plovon Qori), a little further eastwards we came to the Sayid Allauddin Mausoleum. This Mongol-era 14th century tomb is known as the earliest standing building in Khiva and was restored in 1825. It is decorated with gorgeous majolica tiles. Very close by is the Khojash Magram Madrassah built in the 19th century and now a wood carving workshop. Here we saw creations of the lavkh bookstand that could be manipulated into up to nine different positions. Next stop was a suzaine centre cum workshop.

    One of the Domes of Khiva's Ichan Kala

    Round the corner, we visited the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, named after a character who lived from 1247-1325 and – unlikely as it sounds - managed to combine being a wrestler, a poet, and a furrier. This mausoleum was created between 1810-1835 but, during the Soviet era, it was transformed into The Khorezm Museum of Revolutionary History. Close to the mausoleum (by now, we were near to the east wall) is the Islam Hodja Madrassah (1908) and the Islam Hodja Minaret (1910) named after the Grand Vizier of the time and constructed by a poor architect who was subsequently buried alive. The minaret stands 146 feet (44.8 metres) high, only a little shorter than the Kalon in Bukhara.

    The Islam Hodja Minaret

    A short walk away and back by the Polvon Qori street, we viewed the Juma Mosque of 1788. What makes this particular mosque memorable is the forest of black elm pillars which makes it reminiscent of La Mezquita in Spain's Cordoba. In total, there are 213 pillars, each 10 feet (3.15 metres) apart, but they are of very varying ages (the four oldest being 10th century). A scene from the movie “Orlando” was filmed here in 1992.

    Children on one of Khiva's balconies

    Finally we visited the Tash Hauli Palace built between 1830-1838 on the orders of Allah Kuli Khan. It is a complex of 163 rooms and three courtyards, consisting of a harem for the four wives and 37 concubines, a reception court (Ishrat Hauli), and a court of law (Arz Hauli).

    Link: Khiva site click here

    This fascinating walking tour of what is a kind of living museum being over, we returned to the hotel for lunch and then set off by road for Bukhara - a distance of 300 miles (470 km). Ideally we should have flown such a long distance, but there are very few internal flights in Uzbekistan because local people cannot afford to fly. So we had to travel overland which was a challenge, partly because much of the journey was through desert, partly because the road was so poor, and partly because comfort facilities were non-existent.

    The desert was not of the white sand-dune variety but instead a flat yellow terrain with clumps of green but absolutely nothing else (unless you count the snakes and scorpions). The single-lane road was so bumpy because each summer the 40-45C temperature melts and breaks up the tar. Nowhere was judged clean enough for us to stop for refreshments and public toilets seem to be missing in most of Uzbekistan.

    So, in the course of a journey of seven and a half hours, we never once stopped for food or drink and only stopped twice for comfort reasons. One of these stops provided access to a concrete bunker that pretended to be a toilet and the other stop provided strategic bushes for relieving oneself. Besides these pleasant occasions, there was one unscheduled halt when there was a weird screeching which announced the collapse of the air-conditioning on our minibus. This problem was met by simply opening some windows, so that curtains were flapping, hair was flapping, and clothes were flapping.

    Our bus stops in the desert
    so we can investigate the screeching

    The other distinctive feature of this journey – and all our other road journeys – was the number of checkpoints that we had to navigate. Uzbekistan is a repressive regime and the authorities maintain a regular system of roadblocks so that, at the first hint of trouble or opposition, they can clamp down on movements.


    It was 9.10 pm after a rattling journey of seven and half hours when our minibus rolled up to the Bukhara Palace Hotel [click here], a huge affair built in 1997. It was the first chance to eat for nine hours and bed (hard mattress) was not long after.

    The name Bukhara means 'monastery' in Sanskrit. They say that the 20th century has not yet arrived in Bukhara, yet alone the 21st century. Although the city's origins are lost in time, the local authorities arbitrarily chose 1997 to celebrate Bukhara's 2,500th anniversary. Bukhara is a centre of the great Tajik culture and the vast majority of the city's population is still Tajik-speaking.

    Much of the Old City's appearance dates to the 16th century when Bukhara was capital of the Bukhara khanate and the city boasted dozens of caravansaries (merchants' inns) and bazaars, 100 madrassahs (Islamic colleges), and 300 mosques. There are almost 1,000 places of historic interest and over 140 buildings are protected architectural sites. The dominant colour is brown or mustard and overzealous restoration has been kept at bay here.

    So, in spite of the previous day's travelling, the group was enthusiastic to explore the city and Gulya was keen for us to have an early start (8.30 am on a sunny Tuesday morning).

    First stop was on the west of the city: the Ismail Samani Mausoleum situated in Samani Park. This place was discovered in 1934 by the Russian archaeologist Shishkin who found it buried in accumulated sand and earth which had ensured its survival during the Mongol destruction. It was built in the 10th century, making it around 1,000 years old. Indeed it is arguably the oldest intact structure in central Asia. It is a 35 foot (10.8 metre) cube made of baked bricks laid out so that the ornamentation is never the same when the light shines on it.

    The Ismail Samani Mausoleum

    Close by in the same park is a structure called Chashma Ayub which translates as Job's Well. Since there is no evidence that Job ever visited Bukhara and since he lived in pre-Biblical times and the original construction dates from the the 12th century, this might simply be a legend. As all but two of our group of nine were women, they were constantly on the lookout for opportunities to shop and in the park we found our first market.

    Across the road from the park, our next monument was the Bolo Hauz Mosque of 1712. The 39-foot (12 metre) high diwan still stands as one of the highest, most graceful and most beautifully decorated in Central Asia. A distinguishing feature of the mosque is the 20 pillars. In fact, the building is often referred to as the 40 pillar mosque because of the reflecting pool in front of it, but sadly the water is so turgid these days that the proper effect is much diminished.

    Exterior of the Bolo Hauz Mosque

    Opposite the Bobo Hauz Mosque is the Registan Square, the heart of the old town (or shakhristan) and the scene of many historic events ranging from the execution of the British 'Great Game' adventurers Charles Stoddart & Arthur Conolly in 1842 [for further information click here] to the overthrowing of the emirate and the raising of the Red Flag in 1920.

    On the square is the main entrance to the Ark Fortress with its high sloping walls and bulbous towers that swell out at the bottom. Home to the rulers of Bukhara for a millennium, the Ark is as old as Bukhara itself. The first fortress to be documented as built here dates from the 7th century, but the present form of the fortress dates from the 16th century. The Ark was 80% destroyed in September 1920 by a fire started by Bolshevik bombardment.

    Entrance to the impressive Ark is through a western gateway built in 1742 and up a stone ramp. At the top of the walkway, one reaches the 18th century Court Mosque with its deeply-carved mushroom-topped stalactite pillars. This is now a small museum. Then there is the 17th century Throne Room (or Kurinesh Khana) which has witnessed a series of coronations of new emirs. This was largely destroyed by the fire of 1920 and has been the subject of much restoration. Next is the Reception Hall (or Salaam Khana). This now houses a local history museum.

    In this museum and as we walked from the Ark through the Registan, Roger befriended a small group of Uzbek children who spoke a little English. He exchanged addresses with the 14 year old Dilbar so we will have to see if she makes contact.

    Roger befriends schoolgirls including Dilbar (right)

    Hidden behind the Ark is the Zindan, the old water tower that served for centuries as the city jail. There were three appalling cells, the most infamous known as the Bug Pit because, when a prisoner was judged to be too ill to be fed, he was given over to the spiders. Access to this pit was only down a six metre long rope. The pit housed the British adventurers Charles Stoddart & Arthur Conolly before they were beheaded.

    Walking east along the road known as Khodja Nurobod, we came to perhaps the jewel of Bukhara's old town: the magnificent square called Poi Kalon (literally the 'Pedestal of the Great One'). At the south end, it contains the famed giant brick Kaylan Minaret, spared by Genghis Khan, and standing 155 feet (48 metres) high. A minaret has stood here since 919 and the present one was started in 1127.

    On opposite sides of this graceful square are the Mir-I-Arab Madrassah and the Kalon Mosque.

    The Mir-I-Arab Madrassah is now the largest Muslim school in Uzbekistan. The name means 'Prince of Arabs' and refers to Sheikh Addullah of Yemen, the spiritual adviser to the Shaybani Ubaydullah Khan who had the madrassah built in the 16th century. Today it houses around 140 students who study a four-year course of Arabic, theology and the Koran.

    The Mir-I-Arab Madrassah

    The Kalon Mosque forms a 415 by 255 feet (127 by 78 metre) open rectangle with four iwans on its axis and seven entrance gates. The name means 'Great' and, not only is it one of the most ancient mosques in Central Asia, it is also the second biggest, capable of accommodating some 10,000 worshipers. A mosque of one kind or another has stood here since 795 and the present structure was completed in 1514.

    The Kalon Mosque

    Last stop in the morning was a bazaar. At the height of its commercial power, Bukhara had five main vaulted and domed bazaars or toks. They straddled convergent trade arteries and and were accessed by entrance arches tall enough for a laden pack camel. Today three of these bazaars survive. We strolled around the northern-most and largest of the three: the Tok-i-Zagaron (Jewellers' Bazaar) of 1570. These days the objects for sale are much more variegated and here Vee bought two packs of tea spiced with cardoman, aniseed, mint, cinnamon, balsamic and honey (it gave her suitcase a wonderful smell for the rest of the holiday).

    After returning to our hotel for some lunch, at 2.10 pm we were off again, this time to travel a little out of the city to a place called Sitorai Makhi Khosa. This is popularly known as the Mir's Summer Palace since it was built by the Russians in 1911 for the last Emir Alim Khan to persuade him to leave the Ark Fortress. There are three main courtyards and these days the buildings are mainly occupied by local art & craft museums. We looked at the Museum of Ethnography and Art Embroidery where Vee bought a beautiful pashmina.

    After this, the group returned to the city and to the area of the Jewellers' Bazaar to view a pair of madrassahs standing directly opposite one another – such a pair is called kosh madrassahs. On the north side is the Uleg Beg Madrassah of 1417. This was named after the grandson of Tamerlane and star motifs reflect his fascination with astronomy. On the south side is the Abdel Aziz Madrassah of 1652. Today it is – like so many former madrassahs – full of stalls selling to tourists.

    Finally we went around a second of the three surviving old bazaars. This one was the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon (Cap Makers' Bazaar). By this stage, Roger & Vee were less interested in shopping than in something to drink. Our guide Gulya introduced us to a friend who was a shopkeeper in the bazaar and this lady kindly served us with a couple of cups each of refreshing green tea. At the exit to the bazaar, Roger found himself talking to a seller of suzannis and carpets who had a remarkable command of English. Rushana, aged 20, was one of the few people we met in Uzbekistan with an e-mail address, so hopefully we can keep in touch with her.

    Vee & Roger sample a welcome cuppa Uzbek-style

    Vee & Roger always like to sample some local culture during foreign visits, so we eagerly took the opportunity (together with three others in our group) to attend an evening event in the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah.

    This was an unusual venue for an usual event. This particular madrassah – dating from the 1630s – has a tympanum decorated with two flying phoenixes with white does clamped in their talons (a rare type of design since humans and animals do not normally feature in Islam art). The performance alternated between traditional dances in local costume and modelling of contemporary clothing from a local boutique called Ovatciya. As well as the location and the entertainment, we were delighted with the food for the dinner, the main course being a mixture of meat dumplings and pumpkin dumplings known locally as manty. It really was a wonderful evening.

    Cultural evening at the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah

    Link: Bukhara site click here


    In Bukhara, Wednesday morning dawned bright and sunny again, but at 8.30 am we were off on another journey. We were driving to the highlight of our holiday: Samarkand. There are two main routes from Bukhara to Samarkand. The northern route via Navoi is much more direct, but we were taking the longer southern route via Karshi and Shakhrisabz in order to visit the latter, famous as the birthplace of Tamerlane. Bukhrara to Shakhrisabz is 170 miles (268 km) and the Shakhrisabz to Samarkand is a further 55 miles (90 km) on those poor Uzbek roads with those regular checkpoints. So we had a full day ahead of us.

    In fact, the road was much better than the desert road from Khiva to Bukhara and there was much more to see. The land is a lot greener in these parts and, on the later part of the journey, we could see the hills of Gissaro-Alay which dominate the south-east of the country. What was no different about this road journey compared to our last one was that we were given no opportunity to stop for refreshments or to find a toilet. So we just made one stop in the middle of nowhere to use the local bushes as an open-air urinal.

    We reached Shakhrisabz at 12.50 pm after a journey of 4 hours 20 minutes. The town is famous as the birthplace of Tamerlane who gave it its present name which in Tajik stands for 'Green Town'.

    A local of Shakhrisabz

    Timur bin Taraghay Barlas (1336–1405) was a 14th century warlord of Turco-Mongol descent, conqueror of much of Western and Central Asia, and founder of the Timurid Empire (1370–1405) in Central Asia and of the Timurid dynasty which survived in some form until 1857. He is also known as Timur-e Lang which translates to Timur the Lame or Tamerlane, as he was lame after sustaining an injury to the leg as a child.

    He was born in Shakhrisabz on 9 April 1346 and later ruled over an empire that extended in modern nations from south eastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, through central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, even approaching Kashgar in China.

    Tamerlane's legacy is a mixed one, for while Central Asia blossomed, some say even peaked, under his reign, other places such as Baghdad, Damascus and other Arab, Persian and Turkic cities were sacked and destroyed and many thousands of people were slaughtered. He is therefore one of history's greatest and cruelest conquerors responsible for an estimated 17 million deaths as a result of his 14 military campaigns.

    Under the current Karimov regime, Tamerlane is revered as the founder of the Uzbek nation, but in fact he was not an Uzbek, he did not speak Uzbek, and massacred large numbers of Uzbeks.

    Before lunch, we visited the Ak Serai or White Palace. The open park in front of Ak Serai used to have a statue of Lenin but, since 1996, it has displayed a statue of local hero Tamerlane. The palace is named as the colour denoting noble descent, not as the visual impression, since blue, green and gold patterned the vast mosaics.

    When Tamerlane had it constructed at the beginning of the 15th century, two towers of 215 feet (65 metres) flanked a portal arch of 130 feet (40 metres) high and 70 feet (22 metres) wide, but the central arch collapsed a couple of centuries ago and the two remaining towers are in a sorry state of repair. Nevertheless it remains awesome and underlines Tamerlane's boast “Let he who doubts our power and munificence look upon our buildings”.

    Statue of Amir Temur (Tamerlane) before
    the remains of the Ak Serai (White Palace)

    At this point,we broke for lunch and it was a wonderful setting for delicious food. We ate in the courtyard of a private home under an arbour with suzaine wall-hangings around us. Food was the traditional four courses: a wide range of salad items, a meat soup, meat and vegetables, and a little cake. Water, wine and tea refreshed us and the sun warmed us.

    Besides the Ak Serai, the other main place to be visited in Shakhrisabz is a pair of ensembles called Dor-us-Siadat (Seat of Power and Might) and Dor-ut-Tilavat (Seat of Respect and Consideration) and we went here after lunch.

    Dor-us-Siadat is a crumbling mausoleum that was built to honour Jehangir, the eldest and favourite son of Tamerlane who was killed in 1375 aged only 22 when he fell from a horse. Behind the mausoleum is a crypt discovered in 1943 when a child playing football fell through the ground. This is still called Tamerlane's crypt although he was never buried here and the simple musty room seems far too plain for such a conqueror.

    Dor-ut-Tilavat is dominated by the Kok Gumbaz Mosque with its beautiful blue dome. It was built by Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg in 1435-1346. Another of the buildings in the ensemble is the Gumbazi-Sayyidan or Dome of the Sayyids which houses a number of tombs. Finally there is the tomb of Sheikh Shamseddin Kulyal, a spiritual adviser to Tamerlane's father Taraghay.

    Blue dome of the Kok Gumbaz Mosque

    At 4.50 pm, our minibus left Shakhrisabz and headed north for Samarkand which we reached at 7.10 pm after another 2 hours 20 minutes travelling (no stops this time).

    Shakhrisabz site click here
    Tamerlane site click here


    In Samarkand, we were staying at the Afrosiab Hotel [click here]. Afrosiab - the word means 'through the black water' - was an old name for Samarkand. This hotel was so close to the famous Registan that we could see the top of the madrassahs from the balcony of our room, but the hotel is a Russian-style affair with no character.

    Samarkand - 'samar' means land and 'kand' means sweet - is situated in the valley of the river Zarafshan. The first settlement here was constructed in the 6th century BC and was first conquered by Alexander the Great some 200 years later. He spent two years here and married Roxanne. For some 2,000 years, it was one of the most important stops on the Silk Road.

    The city fell to Islam when Qutaiba ibn Muslim invaded it in 712. Tamerlane made it his capital of the relatively small region of Transoxiana in 1370 and then proceeded to expand his empire. It is a centre of the great Tajik culture and the vast majority of the people there is still Tajik-speaking. It is the second city of Uzbekistan with a population of 500,000 and it is usually cooler than much of the rest of the country.

    Most of the time we spent in Samarkand, we drove through pretty streets lined with trees but, just off these main thoroughfares, were tiny lanes housing people living in desperate poverty.

    Our Thursday tour of the city started a little later than usual (9.15 am) when we drove out to visit the Ulug Beg Observatory. This is located in the foothills overlooking the district of Afrosiab to the north-east of Samarkand and it was built in 1428 by Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg who was much less interested in warfare than in science. The complex housed the largest 90 degree quadrant the world had ever seen, although it is called a sextant because only 60 degrees were used, but it was destroyed by fanatics in 1449. It was only discovered in 1908 by the Russian archaeologist Viatkin. All one can see today is a section of the quadrant located by Viatkin (36 foot or 11 metres) embedded in the rock, but there is also an interesting little museum next door with all the exhibits described in Uzbek, Russian and English.

    Sculpture of Ulug Beg in observatory museum

    Next we visited the holiest site in Samarkand: Shah-I-Zinda (The Living King). This complex of 22 buildings is a necropolis of mausoleums dating mostly from the 14th & 15th centuries which climbs up a hill via a series of steps (the Staircase of Sinners) and passages.. Master Persian and Azerbaijani craftsmen created stunning works of terracotta, majolica and tile work. The most famous tomb is that of Qusam ibn-Abbas, believed to have been a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, which was constructed in 1460. Three pilgrimages to it are deemed the equivalent of one to Mecca. Restoration work is a constant process. We met one of the restorers Kholid Turdialiyev and Roger & Vee bought four of his wall plaques.

    The beautiful architecture of Shah-I-Zinda

    We returned to our hotel to a lunch of traditional plov (pieces of lamb cooked in saffron rice and shredded carrot) which was delicious. Then we resumed our tour and, for the first time on our holiday, the weather was overcast (but still warm).

    Just up the road from the hotel was the greatest set of buildings on our tour: the Registan. The name means 'sandy place' and it is said that sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held there until early in the 20th century. The central square is the size of a football pitch and the whole complex is considered by many to be the noblest public square in the world.

    Vee & Roger in front of Samarkand's Registan complex

    The Registan of Samarkand consists of three great buildings around this central square. They were originally built by the children and grandchildren of Tamerlane. However, with the exception of the Ulug Beg, they were later destroyed and replaced in the 17th century, so the three structures were built over a period of 230 years. The two later buildings were the work of the architect Abd al-Jabbar who drew his inspiration from the earlier Timurid style which is why the three buildings are so harmonious in spite of construction over a period of more than two centuries. All three contain a central courtyard with large iwans (arched portals).

    The three madrassahs comprising the Registan

    Islam forbids the representation of living things and even symmetrical patterns, so the buildings are covered with intricate Kufic quotations from the Koran, inscriptions extolling the magnificence of the buildings, and various ornate patterns. The dominant colour of the tiles is deep blue. Sadly only about 10% of the tiles that one sees today are original. Most of the tiles that look old and damaged in fact date from the Soviet restoration of the 1970s. The Registan is today designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    One approaches the complex from the fourth, open (southern) side.

    On the left hand side is the Ulug Beg Madrassah constructed between 1417-1420 shortly after the death of Tamerlane. It was built by Tamerlane's grandson Ulug Beg. He was a mathematician and astronomer and encouraged the teaching of science as well as religion. The elaborate tiling of stars reflects Ulug Beg's passion for astronomy. Having room for over 100 teachers and students in 52 cells positioned around the courtyard, effectively this building was a university. This period brought the cultural flourishing that led to the medical discoveries of Abu Sinna (known to renaissance Europe as Avicenna) and the mathematical breakthroughs of Al Khorezm (for whom algebra is named).


    The Ulug Beg Madrassah

    On the right hand side is the Sher-Dor Madrassah built between 1619-1636 and modelled on the earlier Ulug Beg Madrassah. The name means 'Lion Bearer'. Although the Koran forbids the depiction of animals and people, the tiling on the pishtaq (porch) shows two lions stalking gazelles and behind each lion is a sun portrayed with a human face. This was the badge of Tamerlane. The unorthodox representation is attributed in part to the ego of the governor who built the madrassah and in part to the continued influence of the Persian Zoroastrians who revered the power of the sun.

    The Sher-Dor Madrassah

    Both the Ulug Beg Madrassah and the Sher-Dor Madrasah have minarets at each of the four corners. However, these were used more for decoration than for calling the faithful to prayer because the buildings were primarily colleges rather than mosques. Indeed, in Tamerlane's day, they were used for public executions with criminals being thrown from the top of a minaret in a sack. Apparently, if one pays a guard and one ignores the safety problems, the north minaret of the Ulug Beg Madrassah can be climbed for an impressive view.

    In the Sher-Dor Madrasah, we came across the shop of a local musician called Bobir Sharipov who demonstrated for us the playing of no less than nine traditional Uzbek instruments. Roger & Vee bought one of his CDs as a memento of the holiday.

    Straight ahead between the Ulug Beg Madrassah and the Sher-Dor Madrasah is the Tillya-Kari Madrassah built between 1646-1660. The name means 'Gold Decorated'. This building looks different from the other two. There are no minarets on the corners, but instead a dome chamber to the left which covers the mihrab facing Mecca. The dome was restored in 1969 and on the inside looks breath-taking.

    The Tillya-Kari Madrassah

    We spent almost two hours at the Registan and it was an unforgettable experience. If there were reservations, they were threefold. First, the buildings are already showing new signs of wear and clearly restoration needs to be a continuous and expensive business. Second, the central courtyard was – when we visited – covered in a low wooden platform for the holding of open-air concerts. Third, the hujras (student cells) in each of the three madarassahs were all occupied by shops aimed at tourists and the women of our group seemed to find these irresistible. These three factors slightly took the edge of what was otherwise a truly magical experience. Certainly Roger was moving around taking lots of photographs from every conceivable angle and perspective.

    There was one more visit today - this was to the Gur Emir Mausoleum. Originally this mausoleum was built by Tamerlane for his grandson who died in 1404, but more significantly it was used to house the tomb of Tamerlane himself who died the following year. The term Gur Emir means 'Tomb of the Emir'. Tamerlane's two sons and grandson are entombed here and beneath a two-metre slab of dark-coloured jade – in the ancient world more precious than gold – there is the tomb of Tamerlane himself. Eight tombs stand here altogether under a sky-blue dome reaching up to 105 feet (32 metres).

    The tombs of the Gur Emir Mausoleum
    - the dark one is that of Tamerlane

    The ornate ceiling the Gur Emir Mausoleum

    It had been a full day and we had a full evening too. Four of us - including Vee & Roger - went to a short concert in a Russian Orthodox Church dating to 1882 but now a totally secular building. We heard around a dozen brief classical pieces from a mixture of pianist, flutist, string player and female singer which was a relaxing change from all our rushing around. Inevitably it seems, the 'church' contained side rooms selling all kinds of wares, including what was clearly the contents of the homes of Russians who had felt compelled to leave post-independence Uzbekistan.

    Finally most us in the group wanted to eat dinner outside the hotel and Gulya found a sufficiently clean place for us (apparently there are still not that many) called the Astoria on Timur Street. As usual, we started with salad items; then we had a soup called salyaka; next the main course was a dish of lamb with dry apricots; finally there was some ice cream. It was good to sample genuinely local fare - even if the service was still reminiscent of Soviet times (four requests for milk for the coffee eventually resulted in the explanation that there was none).

    Friday saw us back to the usual bright and sunny weather that we had experienced throughout Uzbekistan. Still in Samarakand, we had a couple more places to see and set off at 9 am.

    The Bibi Khanum Mosque was built on the orders of Tamarlane in 1399-1404 by 600 slaves and 100 elephants brought from India and 200 architects, artists, master craftsmen and masons from the rest of the empire. It was once one of the Islamic world's largest mosques, but over the centuries it crumbled and it finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897. The name 'Bibi Khanum' means elder wife and there is a legend about the building of the mosque that probably stems from Tamerlane's chief wife Sray Mulk Khanum [for information on the legend click here]. The ensemble consists of two small side mosques and the large central mosque before which stands a huge marble pedestal that used to hold the famous Osman Koran that we saw when we were in Tashkent.

    Koran pedestal at the Bibi Khanum Mosque

    Next to the mosque, we were able to stroll around Samarkand's main bazaar. This mainly sells dry foods, especially such items as non bread, melons, apples, apricots, and raisins. Some stalls had small mountains of honey which was unusual for us. Compared to markets that Roger & Vee have seen in most other parts of Asia, this one was conspicuously clean. Of course, we took photographs but, not for the first time, one of the locals wanted a picture with his camera of him with us.

    Pomegranates in the bazaar

    We returned to the hotel once more and were given one and a half hour's free time - the longest we had had on a very intensive trip. Roger & Vee took the opportunity to walk back to the nearby Registan and take some more photographs in the better weather compared to the previous afternoon.

    Following lunch at the hotel, we had our last road journey - the one from Samerkand back to Tashkent. Until two years ago, this would have taken us through neighbouring Tajikstan, since this is the shortest route, but Uzbekistan and Tajikstan now have some diasagreements between one another and so we had to take the longer route. This was around 220 miles (350 km) but at least the roads were better than we had previously experienced.

    The intention, once again, was that we would not stop, but some of us really were insistent that we needed a break and we wanted to see something of the local life, so this time we pulled up by some roadside stalls. One of the items for sale was huge jars of honey on offer for $5 a piece and Vee was delighted to purchase one. We found an open air stall where we could drink some tea. However, when we sought a toilet, we were directed to an extremely basic facility in a plot at the back. Roger & Vee have seen some spectacularly bad toilets on their exotic travels but this one probably wins a special award. It was literally a wooden hut with just three sides and an oblong slit in the ground with excreta-encrusted sides. But, when you gotta go ...

    It was 7.15 pm when we rolled up outside the Uzbekistan Hotel in Tashkent. We had been travelling for another 5 hours 20 minutes. That meant that, in the course of the week in Uzbekistan, we had been on the road just short of 20 hours.

    Once we had refreshed ourselves, the whole group had a farewell dinner on the 17th floor of the hotel which gave us good views even if the food was nothing special (although we did have fish for the first time). The meal was made more interesting though by the arrival of the friend of a friend of one of our number: Tim Yates, delegate to the armed and security forces in Central Asia for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He was able to give us a fascinating insight into some of the politics of the country and the region.

    Saturday morning saw our return home and we had to be up at 6 am in order to reach the airport in good time for our Ubekistan Airways flight back to London - a venture of just over 7 hours.

    Link: Samarkand site click here


    In many ways, Uzbekistan is a mystery. It is not clear historically who the Uzbeks are and when they appeared. The name comes from the two words 'uz' meaning I and 'bek' meaning ruler. Clearly the most famous Uzbek of them all is Tamerlane, except that it is not totally clear that he was Uzbek and his image as a brutal warlord is currently receiving a major makeover by the Uzbek authorities who now represent him as the epitome of Uzbek nationalism and a kind and inspirational leader. Local politicians do not even want his lameness to be mentioned these days.

    Old woman in Khiva

    What is beyond doubt is that modern day Uzbekistan is a desperatly poor country that is still run in a repressive fashion. The average income is a mere 55,000 sum (local currency) a month which is around $50 or less than $2 a day. Nevertheless we found people surprisingly open and friendly and young people in particular are anxious to make contact with tourists and try their English. They are adapting to the new post-independence environment in dfferent ways, embracing capitalism or religion as the case may be. We heard the story of how a Soviet-era teacher of atheism had now become an imam, telling his friends: "We must be like the fish who swim with the tide".

    For anyone remotely interested in Islamic architecture, Uzbekistan is a magical world of madrassahs, mosques and minarets and we brought back many warm memories, reinforced by almost 300 photographs and three CDs of local music.

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