We’ve had a crazy week in our fifth country on the Silk Road, Uzbekistan. Not only did we in Samarkand see one of the most stunning sights in the whole of Central Asia, but we were also held by security authorities in Tashkent for almost two hours.
Intention to take a picture
Let us begin with the last. Uzbekistan is one of those countries in Central Asia that are not very open and have some strange rules. One of the things to mind while traveling in Uzbekistan is that it is forbidden to take pictures of anything that is deemed of importance to national security (like the metro in Tashkent, which has some pretty stations). We were aware and mindful of that, but apparently that is not enough.
We are interested in Soviet architecture and love the tile mosaics on the walls of buildings. Walking around on our second day in Tashkent we spotted one such mosaic and walked towards it to take a picture. Just as I was about to take the shot a gorilla-like man in black came out of a side door demanding our passports. Behind him I saw someone in the door in military dress.
We immediately knew what the problem was, but hadn’t taken a picture yet, so thought this was not going to be a biggie. The building looked just like any other building in the area, so how could we have known. Just show the guy our camera so he could see for himself that we’d not taken a picture yet and be done with it. How wrong we were.
We were taken to the other side of the building, where we saw a lot of military presence, and led into a bare interview room. After a while a friendly enough officer who could speak some English arrived asking us some questions and also demanding to see our pictures. After he left we heard a lot of conversation with Niederlande (Netherlands), passport, visa and Bishkek (where we’d picked up our visa) as the only recognizable words.
Time was moving slowly as once in a while someone peeked in to the interview room. Then a new person was brought into the room who was introduced to us as a representative of the national security service. He didn’t speak any English, though, but also wanted to see the pictures on our camera. All the time no explanation was given why they were holding us: our intention to take a picture?
Bad spy movie
We were told that we were going to be taken to another location where our visa were going to be checked. It was all like some bad spy movie: getting into a car with the middle-aged, taciturn security official and his younger aide/chauffeur who tried the little English he spoke on us.
After about a ten minute drive we arrived at a heavily guarded, wire-fenced building where we waited outside with our senior security man while his aide went inside. After he came outside again he wrote down our passport and visa details (but not our passport numbers) on a crumbled piece of paper while his boss took a photo of our hotel registration card with his cell phone.
Welcome to Tashkent
Next he asked: where do you want to go? Huh? Are we finished? Yes. Welcome to Tashkent, was repeated for the third time during this strange Uzbekistan interlude. Next the two of them drove us to Independence Square where we could resume our sightseeing. Both of them saying ‘I’m sorry’ as we got out of the car.
Was this the end of it? We don’t know. Maybe we’re getting paranoid but a black sedan with tinted windows drove away in front of our guesthouse as we got back that same evening. The next morning an older guy walked up to us asking us where we wanted to go and if he could help. I saw he kept watching us as we walked away. That night and the morning we left for Samarkand there were again different cars with people inside in front of the guesthouse, the guy in the last car intensely watching us as we got into the taxi. Coincidence? The first days the street was mostly deserted.
Getting into Uzbekistan
Getting into the country on the other hand had been easier than expected. We’d heard of all your money being counted (you have to declare how much you bring in) and all medicines being scrutinized at immigration. Some over the counter medication like codeine is considered narcotics in Uzbekistan and you cannot bring it into the country.
To be sure we had checked all the medication we have with us against the long list of prohibited substances before we got into Uzbekistan, but nothing was looked at. After taking a taxi-marshrutka-taxi combo to get from Khojand in Tajikistan to the border and six passport checks (one cheerful lady on the Tajik side writing down all our passport details in an exercise book the old fashioned way) we could just walk to a taxi in Uzbekistan that would take us to Tashkent without any problem.
Another pleasant surprise was that exchanging money had become much easier since the beginning of September. Before that it was advisable to change money on the black market because exchange rates on the street were almost double that of the official bank rate. To eradicate this black market the government had decided, however, to raise the official rate of the Uzbek Som against the US Dollar to just above the black market rate.
Also new higher denomination bills have been brought into circulation reducing the amount of money you have to carry around. Still we found ourselves with a huge stack of Uzbek Som as we exchanged US$ 200 the first time, getting only 5.000 Som notes (each worth about 50 eurocents) in return. No wonder Uzbeks are among the fastest money counters in the world…..
But back to Tashkent. Tashkent was hit by a big earthquake in 1966 destroying eighty percent of the buildings. Soviet city planners had a field day rebuilding the city, resulting in broad avenues, large open spaces, a lot of Soviet style apartment buildings and some communist concrete architecture. This makes Tashkent a great city to explore for those who like a bit of old school USSR.
The most impressive examples of this are the History Museum of the People of Uzbekistan, the Exhibition Hall of the Academy of Arts, the Istiklol Palace theatre in Navoi Park, the UFO-shaped Circus and the Hotel Uzbekistan on Independence Square (Mustakilik Square), where you’ll also find the huge post-Soviet Dom Forum, built in the same imposing style.
Train to Samarkand
The Sharq train took us in a little over three hours to Samarkand, once one of the most important stops on the Silk Road. The city thrived because of it and in the fifteenth century even had more inhabitants than it has now (over 600.000 people). Its former richness can be seen in some of the ancient structures that have been preserved.
The most famous one is the Registan, an amazing ensemble of three medressas (koran schools) in the old center of the city. One was built in the 15th, the other two in the 17th century. The buildings have been overly restored and inside are many souvenir shops, but still it’s an awesome sight. This is especially so at night when most of the tourists are gone, the majority of tourists stalls are closed and the three medressas are beautifully illuminated.
We visited the Registan three times, first just admiring it from a distance the evening of the day we arrived in Samarkand. Luck had it that we had our tripod with us and that we arrived half an hour before a sound and light show was about to start. It is only held when enough tickets are sold to tour groups who want to have a seat up front. We were fortunate enough to have the last spots at the front on the viewing platform opposite the Registan (which is free) to have a clear view of the Disneyfied spectacle.
The next morning we bought the cheap entrance tickets and wandered around the complex for a few hours, returning at the end of the day with our tripod again to take some great ‘blue hour’ shots up close of the buildings. The Registan was such a photogenic place that after selection – and deleting many perfectly good pics – we still had about eighty photos left.
Avenue of tombs
While the Registan is one of the most impressive sights in Uzbekistan and all of Central Asia, the city of Samarkand is home to some other beautiful examples of Islamic architecture as well. We found the avenue of tombs at Shah-i-Zinda the second most picturesque spot here. The oldest tombs can be traced back to as early as the fourteenth century. Mostly family and favorites of the great Uzbek rulers Timur and his grandson Ulugbek are interred here.
Another interesting sight between the Shah-i-Zinda and the Registan is the mostly unrenovated Bibi-Khanym Mosque. Between these sights there was some spruced up tourist road separated from the rest of the city. Walking there almost felt like walking around in an open air museum instead of a living and breathing city.
The last great sight in Samarkand was just outside this tourist zone. In the Gur-E-Amir mausoleum the remains of Timur and two of his sons and two grandsons (including Ulugbek) are buried. Like the Registan this mausoleum was also beautifully illuminated at night.
As we were staying in a guesthouse in the old city a few minutes’ walk from the Registan and close to most of the other sights we could easily see all the important sights in 1,5 days and revisit some of them. Staying three nights we also had time to visit the city of Shakhrisabz, a 1,5 hour shared taxi ride away. Shakhrisabz was the hometown of Timur and therefore of great historic importance.
The past few years they have renovated the shit out of the historic core even more than in Samarkand, creating a soulless and lifeless stretch of park surrounded by low, empty buildings connecting the two touristic spots in the city. It was like walking through a deserted vacation resort. While the ruins of the Ak-Saray Palace (only one pishtak (tower) is remaining) had some grandeur and the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque had a nice interior, but for the rest we found it all pretty underwhelming.
We found Shakhrisabz our most uninteresting Silk Road stop this far. That isn’t saying much as we loved almost all of our other stops. And there’s still a lot to come! First one more week of Uzbekistan.
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