The Silk (and not too bumpy) Road to Samarkand

After our morning exploring Bukhara, we set off for Samarkand.
James Elroy Flecker wrote in his 1913 poem:

We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are tanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the golden road to Samarkand

This verse evokes the romance of Uzbekistan’s most glorious city. A legendary place that has a mythical resonance.
This was a town we were looking forward to. Samarkand is one of Central Asia’s oldest settlements. It was probably established in the 5th century BC. In 393BC it was taken by Alexander the Great, who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda (it’s Greek name) is true, except it is more beautiful than I ever imagined”
Samarkand sits on crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia, and this brought in trade and artisans and it grew into a city larger and more populous than it is now. It changed hands every couple of centuries. Western Turks, Arabs, Persians, Karakhanids, Seliuj Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah have all ruled here.

Like a lot of Uzbek roads ,the motorway we took had its bad sections. The 260 kms took 5 hours. It had some good smooth parts but also a 7km section that brought up visions of no-mans land between the trenches of World War 1. The locals in the cars ahead of us weaved from side to side bouncing up and down as if on trampolines. It was impossibly bad.

On the motorway we crossed over many irrigation canals and the farmland beside the road was covered in green. This water enables Uzbekistan to be one of the biggest growers of cotton in the world. During Soviet times these canals contributed to the draining of the Aral Sea, the desert wasteland in Kazakstan where large ships lay abandoned on sandy desert. We picked one of the buds on the plants, and sure enough, inside was a ball of white stringy material!

A big win for us on the motorway was to find fuel! Uzbekistan cars run mainly on gas due to government policy. There are hundreds of abandoned petrol station along Uzbek roads. There are many new gas stations and only rarely can you still find petrol or diesel. A number of these stations we approached had run out of diesel, even if they still had the pumps, but, a win, we found some and filled up, reassuring us that we could now traverse Uzbekistan without the stress of running out of fuel.

Arriving in Samarkand we set off to explore. Nearest to our hotel was Amir Temur’s mausoleum. Timur was the Emir who rebuilt Samarkand in 1370 after it was devastated by Chinggis Khan 150 years beforehand.

We then walked over to the Registan, that ensemble of majestic, tilting (due to numerous earthquakes over the centuries) medressas. An overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast well proportioned spaces. As we approached, we heard loudspeakers and saw fences with police patrolling. The Registan complex was closed due to rehearsals for an upcoming festival. We could only look at it from a distance, with overly officious police shouting “No photo!”. Very disappointing.Oh well, you cannot win them all!

C-YA Andrew and Jeff

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