If it is said that a paradise is to be seen in this world, then the paradise of this world is Samarkand.
— Exaggerating quote by ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini
From Dushanbe I joined a couple that I had met in the guesthouse and that wanted to cross the southern border to Uzbekistan. A cursory glance at the map reveals a border crossing that makes a beeline for Samarkand, but it has been closed for years now. My original plan was to travel to Khojand to the north of Tajikistan and then cross the border to Samarkand the next day. But this looked like an opportunity: two people to share a taxi with and I would be in Samarkand that evening. For reasons unknown to me, Central Asia doesn’t have any kind of long distance bus system and the shared taxi system is cumbersome for foreigners. First you have to find out where the taxis to a certain place leave. This is more often than not just a cluster of cars with their drivers hanging around. Then you have to pick a car, negotiate a price, which is never clear, and with people that insist on speaking Russian. It is important to establish a price and to make certain whether is per person or per car and if any more people are needed to share the car or if the price is for the private use of the car. Otherwise you end up driving around forever trying to find other people to fill up the car.
The southern border crossing we were hoping to use was called Denau and it has a bad reputation for having difficult border guards who make you wait unnecessarily, search everything thoroughly and giving travellers the third degree. In short: border guards that take their job seriously.
Notwithstanding its ill fame we decided to take our chances and took a taxi to the shared taxi stand where taxis would leave for Denau and found a driver that was prepared not to extortionate us disproportionately. The border crossing was not as bad as I had expected. Leaving Tajikistan was slow but not problematic. I had read reports that border guards demanded bribes if you don’t have the immigration card that you should have received upon arrival in the country. None of us had such a card, but fortunately we were never asked for it. The no man’s land saw another wait till some guards had leafed through our passports and had made a long phone call. Slowly but surely we were getting there. In the customs buildings on the Uzbek site, we had to fill out two forms that stated the exact amount of foreign currency we brought into the country which were signed and stamped. After that a friendly officer (welcome to Uzbekistan) searched my bag. He found a memory device that I had forgotten I even had, and he asked: No erotic? and I assured him that no such perversity was on the device. I can check? he said. I shrugged. Of course, I said cooperatively. Okay, I go check. he said. He turned as to leave, but then came back and gave the memory device back to me. After I had repacked my bag, I waited for my two friends. Heloise had her camera checked and it had taken a while till the officer had clicked through all her photographs. In the end we were through. The whole affair was not nearly as painful as I had anticipated. We found a taxi that would bring us to Samarkand for 20 US$ each and since I hadn’t researched the option I relied on Thiago who said it was a good price. It’s a long way to Samarkand, he said.
We had a nice lunch in Uzbekistan and I had my first laghman in Russian Turkestan. The word derives from lamina noodles and had spread with the Chinese Hui and Uyghur to become a staple food along the Silk Road. There’s a charming legend of how it came into existence. Three travellers met on the Silk Road and when evening fell they got hungry. One had some flour and butter, another had meat and the third had some vegetables and spices. This last traveller appeared also to be a talented cook and so, with some water from a nearby well, he cooked up a tasty soup: the first laghman. When they were devouring the meal, a Chinese dignitary passed and smelling the food, asked for a serving. He was so entranced with its taste that he granted the three travellers hospitality and safe passage through his lands.
The drive to Samarkand was scenic and while we were listening to wild Uzbek music on the radio we watched the sun set over the desert landscape. The weather was warm and by the time we arrived it was still very nice. We found a hostel virtually next to the Registan and after having checked in we walked over to the Registan which was beautifully lit. It was awe inspiring.
During this travel day the weather had been nice and warm and on our arrival in Samarkand the evening was still mellow. The next day it rained and the temperature dropped. I had set off in the morning with sandals to see the city, but I came back with my toes freezing off. Timur, the successful fourteenth century conqueror who made Samarkand the capital of his empire, did all his conquering in the summertime and it is easy to understand why. Marching through this region in the winter must have been far from pleasant, even though a lot of raping, pillaging and killing was to be done in relatively rich and comfortable cities. It’s unclear to me what comforts the Mongols enjoyed but it seems unlikely they had thermal underwear, and it is difficult to imagine how to shoot arrows if your fingers are stiff from the cold.
In the park next to the Registan I watched women raking the fallen leaves together. They battered the trees with their broomsticks to collect the last leaves and thus make the park nice and tidy. Most of the women had golden teeth. They were clothed in velvet, velours and furs.
I had always thought of Samarkand as the quintessential Silk Road city, but to my dismay, I found out that Marco Polo had never even been to Samarkand. He took a much more southernly route through Afghanistan and the Wakhan Valley.
Another great traveller, Ibn Battuta, whose tomb I visited in Tangier, did travel to Samarkand, but his story is really boring and not worth retelling here. It was mainly about the Shah-i Zinde (i.e.The Living King), the mausoleum which I think I photographed (see below). Ibn Battuta was a bit of a religious zealot, mainly preoccupied with tombs of holy dead men. Tedious bloke, Ibn Battuta.
Apart from those travellers, if there’s one person who is connected to Samarkand, it must be Tamerlane, the 14th century conqueror. He is less famous than Gengish Khan, because he managed to kill fewer people and his empire didn’t quite stretch as far. During his conquests it’s estimated that he killed 17 million people, which constituted 5 percent of the world population at the time. He (Timur) sacked the cities of Baghdad, Delhi and Isfahan and slaughtered their populations, a reputed 100.000 in Delhi alone. He frequently built large pyramids of skulls outside the cities he destroyed. To make a point, one imagines. After his conquest of the Ottoman Empire, he took the emperor prisoner and kept him in a cage while the wives of the emperor had to serve food and drinks to Timur’s guests. Naked.
So lots of pillaging and plundering here.
Tamerlane has been officially recognised as a national hero of Uzbekistan. They love him.
Reading about Tamerlane, I inevitably came across the Mongols:
‘Although his army was extensive, the Shah had not counted on the brutal efficiency of the hordes. A horde would number as many as eighty thousand men at a time with thousands of local prisoners forced to march before them as a human shield. ‘They came, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and then they departed,’ was how one citizen of Bukhara was to remember their invasion. It was said of the ruthless Mongols, who worshipped water and considered it far too precious to be wasted on washing, that you could smell the hordes coming before you could see them‘
Bukhara is my next stop on this main section of the Silk Road.