Monthly Archives: November 2016

To Samarkand

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


Samarkand (photo of an advertisement)

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.



Formerly known as Stalinabad.

Maybe because they didn’t like the original name which means Monday in Tajik.

My days in the capital were pleasant because Dushanbe has a nice climate. In winter the surrounding mountains shield the city against the cold winds from Siberia.

Except for walking around, I didn’t do anything in Dushanbe.


The Pamir Highway

The first leg of the Pamir highway led from Osh to Murghab. On the day of our departure, a car picked us up at the guesthouse in Osh and from there we drove around the city to collect other passengers, cargo and even letters. After several hours we finally left and it wasn’t until well in the afternoon that we arrived at Sary-Tash, which is at the junction where the road splits into the one to Chinese Turkestan, over the Irkeshtam pass, to Kashgar, and the other one leading into Tajikistan. It was here that we had lunch with soup and bread.


soup with animal parts

When we wanted to pay the bill, the proprietor tried to find out where we came from.
Korea? He asked my Japanese companions.
No, separate please…, they said.
They are from Japan, I explained.
We paid and resumed our journey to the border of Tajikistan. It kept snowing but it wasn’t too bad. The crossing of the borders, separated by many kilometres of no man’s land, was comparatively straight forward. We got our passports stamped and after that I asked if I could use the toilet (tuvalet in Russian, which is easy to remember). A guard gestured towards some decrepit building. The toilet was, as expected, a primitive affair, and when I was done, I washed my hands with a handful of fresh snow..

The road on the Tajik side was in a bad state of repair, but there was considerably less snow on this side of the border. After dark it got very cold and we had some stretches with washboard road which added greatly to our discomfort. We stopped to check if a car that stood still was alright, and when we found that this was so, we got out for a short break. I looked at the night sky which was so bright that I had problems finding the familiar constellation of Orion. This is because all the stars were so dazzling that it was difficult to recognise a pattern. There was a strong breeze and it was exceedingly cold.


Western toilet in Murghab

When we finally arrived in Murghab (3600 m), the driver brought us to a hostel. Our host served us tea, bread, butter, cookies and even some potato mash. It was delicious. The toilet was the customary hole in the ground in a small outhouse, but that was ingeniously concealed with a locally made sit down toilet.


Bazaar in Murghab

The  next day we woke up and I had a light headache because of the altitude (at 3600 m there is roughly 40% less oxygen in the air), but after some deep breathing that went away. After breakfast we tried to find a vehicle to Khorugh and so we  walked to the bazaar. The sun was shining but it was still very cold. The bazaar was not like anything you might expect from  a market place on the Silk Road. It was just a collection of metal containers and only a few were open. The lot next to the bazaar, where vehicles with various destinations congregate, was nearly empty and no cars seemed to be leaving for Khorugh anytime soon. Discouraged we walked back to the hostel.


salt lake along the Pamir Highway

It then appeared that our host happened to be the owner of an old Land Cruiser. We negotiated a price and after jump-starting the car we were on our way with his son, who was the driver.

Marco Polo: The plain is called PAMIER, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but a desert without habitations or any green thing, so that travellers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you do not even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of this great cold, fire does not burn so brightly, nor give out so much heat as usual, nor does it cook food so effectually.

We followed the river Panj and when we descended trees started to appear, garbed in their autumnal colours. Not far from Khorugh, we passed  a flock of sheep. The driver slowed down but unfortunately one of the sheep bolted and found itself miraculously under our right rear wheel. Our driver got out of the car and I feared a big brawl and outrageous requests for money, but none of this happened. Several men got their knives out, but only to help the spasmodic moving sheep out of its misery. We got back in the car and continued our way.

Khorugh is spelled Xopyf in Cyrillic, although later I found out that the last letter is not an f, but the Cyrillic capital G with a bar. The town was very pleasant and at an altitude of just over 2000 metres, it was considerably warmer than Murghab.

The Tajik currency is the Somoni, which seems a variety on the Kyrghyz som, but is actually named after Ismail Samani, the father the Tajik nation. Adopting this man as the father of the Tajik nation, seems rather arbitrary, as he is the founder of the Samanid dynasty and mainly ruled from Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
It was not until several days later that I found out that there were also coins in circulation, called dirams, which, similarly to the dirham, seemed to actually have derived, via Persian, from the Greek drachme.
Curiously, there was a note of 3 somoni, another example of the 1-3-5 series of denominations that I now know stems from the Soviet era ruble.

The Tajik language is not a Turkic language (as Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Kazakh), but a Persian language, and, for that reason, Indo-European. A quick glance at a Tajik vocabulary shows many cognates for numbers, family members and animals. Daughter is ‘duchtari’ in Tajik and brother is ‘barodari’.

There were several ATM’s in Khorugh, but none of them seemed to work. When I asked at the bank, a woman told me: no money. It seemed to me that money would be a rather critical commodity for a bank, but there was nothing else to do but wait. The next day there was a queue at the ATM, but when I was getting nearer to the dispenser, another line started to form at the other side of the machine. Irked by this I told them not to do that and to my surprised they came (joking and smiling) over to my side to get behind me in line. When it was my turn I found it had been a fortunate provision that I had taken a visa card as a backup for my maestro debit card as the latter was not excepted. I took enough somonis out to last me until Dushanbe.
When I left the ATM I noticed that the line had dissolved into a loose crowd with people chatting away and seemingly unconcerned with ever getting any money. Later that afternoon, the maximum amount one could withdraw had shrunk to only a few dollars and soon after that it was empty again.

From Khorugh I took a shared taxi to Dushanbe and it was only then that I found out that Tajikistan has a different time zone from Kyrgyzstan, but fortunately it meant I had arrived too early, rather than too late. The road follows the Panj river, that marks the Afghan border. From my seat in the back of the car I watched famers in Afghanistan ploughing their fields with oxen as they had done for over 3000 years. Carpets were drying on the flat roofs (which indicated sparse rainfall) and on several occasions I saw Afghan flags fluttering in the wind.

The woman in the front had a sack with apples from which she shared liberally with the other passengers. Most of the time she slept, her head dangling in an awkward angle to the left.




We had dinner at a roadside restaurant and travellers that needed the toilet could use the one in the boxing school in the adjacent building. A woman asked me for one somoni. Presumably for using the toilet, though I wasn’t sure, but I gave it to her anyway.

We arrived in Dushanbe at around ten in the evening.