Azure City. How the pearl of Uzbekistan looks like now and why it is worth a visit in winter

40-50 years ago, Samarkand was one of the main tourist destinations in the USSR: people who did not have access to “foreign countries” went there for the Central Asian exoticism, preserved partly by miracle, partly due to the efforts of Soviet restorers. But since the early 1990s Uzbekistan became an independent state and is developing tourism on its own.’s correspondent traveled to Samarkand and was convinced that this destination is a must have in 2022.

“Get in, sister, I’ll take you there!”

The journey to Samarkand so far begins in Tashkent: Samarkand airport is currently under reconstruction. When the work is finished, as the representatives of the airport promise, it will accept all types of passenger planes (except for the giant A380), will increase the number of flights to 120 per week (both domestic and international), and the passenger traffic to two million per year (and 180 thousand of them are tourists only).

For now, the ultramodern airport building, designed in the form of an open book with diagrams of constellations on the “pages” (the roof), is still in the woods. The book and the constellations are not accidental: it is a tribute to one of the most celebrated Samarkand citizens in the history – Mirzo Ulugbek: the ruler, astronomer and mathematician (Ulugbek is a kind of a “trademark” of Samarkand).

However, all these prospects are still only in the plans, and the tourists arrive at Tashkent airport, where they are met by hospitable Uzbek cab drivers. There are so many of them at the exit of the building that one is reminded of the 2000s at Domodedovo. “Where are you going? Get in, I’ll take you all there quickly! – one of them shouts. “Get in, sister, I’ll take you there, I have a better car!” – Shouts out the other one cheerfully, his golden teeth flashing in the Soviet fashion.

In fact, the cars are almost all the same: most residents of both Tashkent and Samarkand drive Chevrolets, which are assembled in Uzbekistan. Especially popular are the small cars, which look like “nano-buses”. In the end, the driver is chosen and we are transferred to the train station, where the Afrasiab express train goes to Samarkand and further to Bukhara. It is named after the most ancient Samarkand settlement, the history of which counts at least fifteen centuries. The first mention of the settlement is VIII century, and archeologists excavate constructions dating back to VI century and earlier.

All this we have yet to see, but for now the windows of the express train stretches flat semi-desert with rare clumps of trees or shrubs, and the stations flash by (incidentally, very similar to stations in other cities of the former Soviet Union – from Murmansk to Vladivostok). Although Uzbekistan is doing a lot for its own development, the “Soviet spirit” is still felt in it. For example, most of the buildings in Samarkand were built under the Soviet Union, although the city has grown and continues to grow in the decades since its collapse.

There will be a garden city

Samarkand is a real, genuine pearl of Central Asia, its medieval architectural masterpieces – the mausoleum of Timur-Tamerlane conqueror Gur-Emir, Registan Square madrasah ensemble, Shahi Zinda necropolis and others – are included in lists of specially protected sites (in particular, in the UNESCO World Heritage List).

Therefore, the government of Uzbekistan is trying to attract more tourists to the city – even in spite of very unfavorable pandemic times. Already in 2022, two major events are planned in Samarkand – the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the international music festival “Sharq Taronalari” with participants from more than 75 countries.

So if we were to visit next year, we could appreciate how modern Samarkanders see hospitality. In 2022, in time for the SCO summit, a large-scale hotel cluster Silk Road Samarkand will open there: eight hotels, including the five-star Regency, four-star Minyoun, medical hotels, a congress center and the “Eternal City” – a cultural center with buildings in the ancient style, ethnic restaurants and craft workshops, invented by Bobur Ismailov, an artist famous in Uzbekistan.

The cluster occupies an area along the Soviet rowing canal that was built for the USSR national team to train for the 1980 Olympics and has been cleaned. Construction is still in full swing, but 15 thousand seedlings have already been delivered for a tropical park with a bamboo grove, and soon Silk Road Samarkand should become a “garden city. There is even an artificial “volcano” with a waterfall, surrounded by a swimming pool, and a large fishing pond.

Moreover, popular triathlon competitions for professionals and amateurs are being considered. The length of the canal is more than two kilometers, it is a unique facility in Uzbekistan with open water, suitable for long swims. Around it are hills and roads, which are being repaired at present, along which a running and cycling route for triathletes can be laid.

“I will rise up, and the world shall tremble.”

The advantage of this location, among other things, is that it is located less than half an hour from the center of old Samarkand. The city’s main advantage is that it is less than half an hour’s drive from the center of old Samarkand.

The tour usually begins with the Gur-Emir Mausoleum, which the conqueror Timur-Tamerlan built for his beloved early dead grandson, Muhammad Sultan. A Persian, Mahmud Isfahani, was invited to build the building. He erected an infinitely harmonious structure with a blue dome lined with ceramic tiles (this decoration is a distinctive feature of all medieval Samarkand architecture) and four minarets. Unfortunately, the minarets collapsed because of earthquakes, which are not uncommon in this region. The remaining two are newly built and were erected during the restoration.

Inside the mausoleum is beautiful, like a box, the interior of which is lined with gold brocade. European tourists are fascinated, like a fairy tale, listening to the story of the guide: “These tiles with reliefs are made of papier-mache, covered with gold leaf and fixed with golden carnations…”. Local tourists (now, as the guide says, intra-Uzbekistan tourism is on the rise) listen with no less interest to the story about dervish Mir Sayyid Barak, who was Timur’s mentor and is buried next to him.

Like any world-famous tomb, Gur-Emir has its own mystical story about tomb diggers. In June 1941, a scientific expedition that included the famous scientist Mikhail Gerasimov, who restored the appearance of the dead from their skulls, opened Timur’s tomb and discovered his remains, as well as those of his grandson Mirzo Ulugbek and other Timurids. On June 21 the Soviet newspapers told about it, and a day later Germany attacked the USSR and the bloodiest war began

There were rumors that it was because of Tamerlane’s curse: supposedly a warning was carved on his jade tombstone, “When I rise, the world will tremble. In fact, the Arabic inscriptions on the stone are Tamerlane’s genealogy and quotations from the Koran, harsh but not apocalyptic. The beginning of the war coincided with the excavations by accident and was planned long before the opening of the tomb. The remains of medieval rulers were examined, Gerasimov molded their portraits, and modern people can imagine, with a certain degree of accuracy, what the conqueror Timur and his grandson, the great astronomer Ulugbek looked like.

Gur-Emir is the largest but not the only mausoleum in Samarkand. The most impressive ancient cemetery of the city is the necropolis of Shahi Zinda, where Timur’s sisters, wives, children and military commanders are buried. This is not only a very beautiful architecture, which attracts tourists from all over the world, who spend hours photographing the unique, different in each tomb painted ceramic tiles and “honeycomb vaults” (mukarnas). It is also a Muslim shrine, which is also very much counted on in Uzbekistan, planning tourist flows.

In Shahi Zinda is the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Qusam ibn Abbas, who allegedly came to Samarkand with an army to establish Islam, but was killed by pagan Zoroastrians. He was either struck by an arrow or had his head cut off. But the holy cousin of the prophet did not die, but hid from the eyes of the infidels (according to one version, with his own head in his hand), and since then has remained hidden in the territory of his tomb and the mosque attached to it.

Whether or not Qusam ibn Abbas has his remains under his tomb is unknown, but there are always many people praying and seeking healing there. To worship the tomb of the saint is considered a “small hajj”, which a Muslim seeks to perform before the pilgrimage to Mecca.

“You found out, too.”

While Timur-Tamerlan was engaged in conquests and political transformations of his country, his grandson Mirzo Ulugbek was fascinated by the sciences, especially astronomy, from an early age. A legend says that the boy, who was born in a military campaign and grew up in field tents, was impressed by the sight of the starry sky as a child and devoted his life to it.

After becoming the ruler of his grandfather’s empire, Ulugbek was little engaged in military and political affairs. He was much more interested in scientific research.

On the Kuhak Hill on the outskirts of Samarkand, by his order and with his participation, one of the largest observatories of the Middle Ages was planned and built, which was a perfectly round three-storey building. There, Ulugbek and other outstanding astronomers of his time compiled the Gurga zij, a catalog of the starry sky, and also found out the duration of a stellar year with an error of just plus 58 seconds.

Ulugbek was so obsessed with science and education that he paid little attention to politics. A conspiracy involving his son Abdallatif arose against him. The son sent his troops against his father’s troops and Ulugbek’s army was defeated and he had to flee. As Haji Muhammad-Khisraw, companion and fellow-exile of the ruler, later recalled, the fire burned the coat of Ulugh Beg during his last resting place, and he said, turning to the flames, “You have also found out”. The same night, assassins sent from Abdallatif’s camp beheaded the great scholar.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the remains of the observatory, destroyed centuries ago (after Ulugh Beg’s death the astronomers were dispersed by the religious obscurants and the building was taken apart into bricks) was found by Russian archeologist Vasily Vyatkin. Now the cyclopean staircase with an arc of a giant quadrant is all that remains of the observatory and can be seen in the museum of Ulugbek. There are manuscripts, miniatures, coins of his time and models of buildings built under his order, first of all a great number of madrassahs (religious and scientific schools), the largest of which still decorates Samarkand Registan Square.

“Buy, everything is cheap now.”

Registan is one of the most beautiful places in Samarkand. In addition to the Ulugbek Mosque, the oldest and perhaps the most harmonious, the square is surrounded by two more: Tillya-Kari and Sherdor, built in the 17th century. Nowadays, on holidays on the square there is a show of music and flowers, and in the cells, where the madrasah students lived and studied at one time, there are many souvenir shops.

Walking through the shops is a joy not only for the shopaholic, but also for the curious tourist.

Each vendor, in addition to promising discounts, tries to lure the guest with something interesting. In one shop they hold calligraphy master classes – a master writes in Arabic with a reed kilim on a piece of thin leather stretched over a frame, and the tourists imitate him unskillfully.

In another – the owner tells in detail about the difference between Samarkand and Khiva ceramics: in general, Uzbekistan has dozens of different ceramic schools, and they differ in painting techniques, motifs, composition of clay, and many other technological subtleties. In the third is a working loom, on which the traditional silk-ikats with geometric patterns are woven. In the fourth, they talk about the ritual of the Uzbek wedding and show the bride’s attire.

The owner of the fifth store gathered a grandiose collection of men’s and women’s tyubeteikas and can tell for hours about their differences. Girls wear white tyubeteikas with embroidery, young married women – the tyubeteikas, decorated with gold, mature ladies – velvet ones with restrained ornamental decorations. Men’s tyubeteikas are black with a white ornament which also has symbolism: by the pattern, for example, it is possible to understand if the owner is married or single.

In the shop with the most expensive goods – suzane embroideries – a master embroiderer sits and demonstrates her art to tourists. Suzane is not embroidered with a needle, but with a hook: it speeds up the process and makes the embroidery more relief

“Buy, everything is cheap now,” laughs the owner of the store. Indeed, the pandemic and the drop in tourist traffic make Samarkand merchants a little more accommodating (here, as elsewhere in the oriental bazaar, one can and should bargain for a long time). But even after haggling, a hand-embroidered caftan suzane (even fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev came to Samarkand for them) is worth several hundred, if not a thousand dollars.

“Eat, eat, all natural.”

Those wishing not only to see and buy souvenirs, but also to participate in their creation go with Registan to the village of craftsmen Konigil. Here the atmosphere of the old city is recreated – with narrow canals-aryks, mud-brick fences-duvals, behind which each family hides their private life.

Everyone living in Konigil does the same crafts that their ancestors did. One family makes clay jars and toys (the funny horned dragon is especially popular). Another makes handmade paper from the inner layer of silkwood bark (bast). The bark is boiled, the boiled mass is shaped into sheets and dried, then dyed. But the most popular master class is making pilaf, which is delicious and useful in life.

Tourists are attracted to peeling vegetables right at a long table in the courtyard. Some distance away, sheep are bleating in a pen: one of them was unlucky enough to go to the pilaf. One of the girls-tourists is cleaning a local specialty – yellow carrots, the hallmark of Samarkand pilaf (by the way, it is served not mixed, but in layers: rice, carrots, meat).

She looks around furtively and takes a bite out of the carrots, and the hostess notices. “Eat, eat, all natural,” she laughs. Everything is indeed natural, and the pilaf, after two hours of waiting for it to be ready, tastes simply divine.

Before leaving Samarkand and taking the Afrasiab to Tashkent, tourists make sure to stop by the bazaar to buy “natural” for the road. Even in winter, the market sells large tomatoes, herbs, local sweet radishes and many varieties of spices and nuts. Especially good are candied almonds and large black raisins – sweet as Uzbek hospitality.

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