Next morning, rest day over, we decided to travel to Samarkand. I was not due in Tashkent until the Sunday night and so we had all of Saturday free to reach our destination. Another colleague had already recommended an inexpensive bed and breakfast in Samarkand and so we were set. I asked again about a map at this point. Umar told me that you couldn't buy a map of Uzbekistan in Tajikistan, which I suppose I had already guessed, but one often lives in hope. But he felt sure he knew the way as he was there twenty years ago and most probably it hadn't moved.
The open border crossing with Uzbekistan, is not far from Khujand and was a surprisingly smooth crossing, all things being considered. I was impressed how all officials met us politely and appeared to make the necessary bureaucratic processes and checks as trouble free as possible. I suppose it helped that we were the only car crossing and a diplomatic one at that and so the vehicle registration and other formalities were a little easier than for others.
Once on the open road in Uzbekistan we seemed to make good early progress towards Samarkand. I still felt uneasy not having a map, but Umar reeled off the names of towns and villages we should pass through, which indeed we did and so all was well. We had the latest 'Now That's What I Call Uzbek Music' on loudly in the car as we enjoyed the relatively empty roads and tucked into tasty fruits picked up from a roadside stall overflowing with autumnal mellow fruitfulness. Thirty minutes later and things changed. The road which runs from Tashkent to Samarkand disappeared. And then from the depths of my memory I recalled reading that part of Kazakhstan jutted into Uzbekistan and that the original main road, which we were looking for, had been diverted some years back after some dispute or other over the border. I made a note to research the story later, but in the mean time we needed to re-join the permanent diversion needed to avoid crossing the blocked Kazakh quasi-isthmus. After 10 minutes of swearing at google maps on an iphone we sought the help of some men working by the roadside. As is customary in most parts of the world, in my experience, the answer to the question 'which direction?' is usually 'straight ahead!', but fortunately in this instance it was to be right. Soon we were back on track and hurtling past cotton fields alive with weekend cotton pickers and dancing storks.
After Tajikistan the Uzbek landscape at this easterly end of that country is quite uneventful and without dramatic feature, consisting mostly of either arid plain or cotton fields. But this doesn't matter and in fact makes the arrival in Samarkand all the more special. Interesting old buildings, the buzz of city life and soviet style tree line boulevards almost appear from nowhere. Travelling deeper into Samarkand in search of our budget guesthouse, we passed the Registan, Bibi Khanym Mosque and the Shrines of the Zakhi Zinda complex. I was already drawing a mental note of my walking tour for later.
Guest house found, safely checked in and refreshed, we ventured out in the late afternoon heat. Even the autumn can still be warm during the day in southern Central Asia. I was keen to get an early feel for the size and grandeur of the Registan square and attendant mosque and madrassa buildings. I was not disappointed. There are those who are sniffy about the reconstruction and improvement which are often made to such ancient sites in order to satisfy tourists brought up on CGI and theme parks, but in this case, at least, I believe it works well. I would rank this place among one of my favourite ancient sites.
We spent an enjoyable 24 hours in Samarkand. Umar and an old school chum, now living in Samarkand, showed me around the city and introduced me to the bazaars. I am not ordinarily a keen shopper for souvenirs, but the atmosphere and earnest bargaining in the bazaars was exciting and persuaded me to part with my money. Suzani embroidery, atlas and adras fabric and colourful ceramics are all tempting here. And had I had more time I would like to have dug deeper for other markets offering antiques and collectibles – my nose for these things told me they were out there - somewhere.
After a tasty Samarkand plov lunch in the Stolovaya attached to the main Bazaar, Umar and I bade farewell to our Samarkand friends (several by now) and set out for Tashkent. We made good time on the road and this time remembered the Kazakhstan detour! We were in Tashkent by teatime and well in time for the beginning of the next part of my official programme. As we sat eating Naryn (a bit like a horse meat spag bol as far as I could see) that evening in a Tashkent canteen we talked about the political issues holding back full intra-regional integration in Central Asia. However, in an odd way, I had been glad that closed borders and a lack of direct flights had allowed us to see and experience so much more than an hour long flight would have delivered. Strangely we were already looking forward to our return journey, wondering what new experiences it might afford us. But for now we satisfied ourselves with the tasty naryn and looked forward to a very comfortable Tashkent hotel.
Greg has lived and worked in Central Asia since 1997. His hands-on understanding of the people, culture, and tourist destinations provides our clients the opportunity to feel comfortable knowing that they are in good hands. His travels throughout Central Asia have given him the opportunity to interact with many professionals in the tourism industry that enables him to providing the highest quality of services anywhere in the world.