The dust seeps into every crevasse of our old, beaten down car. Our driver, an ancient Uzbek man, cranks the speaker’s volume on high, blasting out the cords of Uzbek tunes and folk tales. Crammed beside me in the car is a middle aged man, a child, and her mother, who are all eating fermented sour cheese balls called Kurut. It’s been over four hours of this of this already, having to transfer cars twice. My friend, Matt, and I are making our way from Tashkent to Samarqand in Uzbekistan.
Just Like a mirage teasing us in the desert, the signs of civilization begin to appear. A power line, a billboard, a large herd of goats and sheep. We were finally getting close to the legendary Silk Road city of Samarqand. In the distance, the waves of heat dissipate and the tall blue domes of mosques rise from the desert. After hours of sour cheese, dust filled lungs, and bumpy roads, we had arrived!
Getting a Visa for Uzbekistan
This story actually starts in Bishkek, the Capital City of Kyrgyzstan. My friend and I are following the Silk Road and, as most weary Silk Road travelers will tell you, the biggest challenge faced when traveling this region of the world is obtaining visas. Some tourists of certain nationalities are required to produce a letter of invitation in order to obtain a visa. Luckily, as Canadians, this wasn’t required of us.
I had gone to the Uzbek embassy countless days in a row in my attempt to obtain as visa. I filled out endless forms and dealt with some of the rudest embassy workers imaginable. Every day I am told, “Wait two more days.” It had now been nine long days in Bishkek waiting for this visa.
On the tenth day I arrived once again to the Uzbek embassy. Feeling very discouraged, I began contemplating whether I should even go to Uzbekistan now. When I reached the front window and gave my name, the women handed me my passport. Like a dream, I slowly opened it to reveal an Uzbek visa. I could have sworn I jumped and did a heel click.
Getting to Uzbekistan
The original plan was to get the Uzbek visa, and then follow the Silk Road overland through Kyrgyzstan to Tashkent, the Capital city of Uzbekistan. Now that the visa had taken ten days to acquire, I was running out of time, however.
Right after obtaining our visas, Matt and I hopped into a cab and went straight to the airport in Bishkek. Lucky for us, there was indeed a direct flight with Kyrgyz Air flying to Tashkent. Tickets purchased, visas stamped, we were on our way.
The plane was a sort of “Frankenplane.” The windows had Russian writing on them, while the seats had Greek. Looking above, the smoke detectors had Italian. The adrenaline from the day had not worn off yet, so the obvious signs that this plane had been pieced together and was probably not air worthy did not set in.
The plane miraculously landed in Tashkent at 9pm. How this happened without some disaster occurring; who knows? What I did know was that we were finally in Uzbekistan.
The Capital City of Uzbekistan, Tashkent
One thing everyone should be familiar with before traveling to Uzbekistan is dealing with the money. Uzbekistan currency is called Uzbek Som. Technically, the conversion rate is $1 US to 2900 Uzbeki Som. This is the bank rate. Nobody in Uzbekistan uses the banks, however. The Black Market is king here. At the Black Market you will receive almost 30% more Som for your dollar. Strange, I know.
Exiting the airport, we had our first experience with the Black Market. Now, most travelers already know that taxi drivers tend to be shady. In Uzbekistan they are extra shady. They are Black Market money dealers, hustlers, and sometimes drug dealers. These cabbies bring a whole new meaning to the word shady.
Our driver gave us quite a good rate for our US dollar, of which we paid a portion back to him so he would drive us to our hotel.
We arrived to the Gulnara Guesthouse late at night. They welcomed us with the ubiquitous Uzbek green tea, and we crashed for the night.
The next morning we ventured into the Tashkent Old City Bazaar. We had heard rumours that this is where the Black Market was. We had changed some money with our taxi driver but saved a lump some of our US dollars for the “REAL” Black Market.
Wandering the long corridors of this ancient Bazaar is brilliant. The brick halls are lined with shops that have workers hand making clothing, farming tools, and musical instruments. Wander around long enough, and the black market men will find you as they did us. This Black Market is not shady at all. Most of the dealers are just normal men who do this as a side job.
Getting to Samarqand
From Tashkent, our next destination was Samarqand. There are a couple of options for this leg of the journey. One being the train that leaves at 8am, but we had already missed it. The second is the bus or mashrutka. Taking a mashrutka, (a small mini bus or car), is the easiest option, as they tend to just leave when they fill up, which, in most cases, only takes a few minutes.
On the outskirts of Tashkent is an area called prospect Bunyodkor. This is where all the mashrutka pile up and find passengers. When we arrived, a young Uzbek man ushered us into his car, assuring us that we would pay the cheapest rate. In fact, he charged us exactly what our hotel had told us to pay.
The journey was supposed to only take around four hours. This was not the case. Our driver, who did in fact drive like a madman, had to make multiple stops for, music, melons, fermented cheese balls, and Noz (Uzbeki chewing tobacco). Our four hour drive turned into a six hour, multiple car changing, Uzbekistan montage. During one leg of the journey, our young driver even abandoned us in a small desert community, where the other passengers and I had to find another car. In the end, a nice, ancient looking man did take us in.
With the smells, stifling heat, and Uzbeki folk music on repeat, we made it after six brutally long hours.
The Legendary Silk Road City, Samarqand
The taxi dropped us off in the old town at Jahongir B&B. I highly recommend this place. Not much has changed in this guesthouse in the past hundred years. It’s decorated with carpets and has grape vines growing everywhere.
As we left the hotel that evening it was nearing sunset. We walked to the end of the street. What a surprise we were in for at this street’s end. With soaring blue domes, mystifying islamic architecture, the Registan lay before our eyes. It’s hard to believe so much beauty like this can be concealed in a nation that most travelers know relatively very little about.
The Registan is at the centre Samarqand. It’s, quite possibly, the most amazing sight in all of Central Asia! The three blue, domed medressas are thought to be the world most spectacular and oldest known. Everything else here was pretty much destroyed by Chinggis Khan.
Walking around the main square of the Registan is simply magic. You can spend hours gazing into the marvelous architectural wonders. The murals painted on the medressas tell stories of Samarqand’s royal past. This was, at one time, the centre of all of trade within Central Asia. As the sun was setting, the domes took on a fiery orange glow, and the countless blue tiles glimmered in the last bit of sunlight.
At the end of the square, one of the security guards asked if I would like to climb to the top of the tallest Minaret. This is, of course illegal, but I succumbed to this opportunity, gave him his bribe, and climbed to the top. When I finally reached the top, I was awestruck by the absolute beauty and grand scale of the city. Samarqand is beyond all expectations. There are very little descriptive words I can put here to explain how I felt looking upon this scene.
Sun set, minds blown, hunger began to set in. Our guesthouse recommended a traditional restaurant right across from the Registan. They served us plov – Uzbeki oily lamb rice, naan bread – flat bread cooked on the side of a clay oven, laghman – thick flat noodles, and steamed goat dumplings. All of this for less than five dollars per person. Uzbeki food is a blend of nearby cultures, making for a great feast!
The Registan, Mausoleums of Shah-I-Zinda and Bibi-Khanym
The next day, we started by visiting the Registan again. Now that it was early morning, there was more life to the scene. Carpet dealers, artists, and antique dealers set up shop in the square, just as they had for hundreds of years.
Leaving the Registan, heading north into the old town, we explored more gigantic blue mosques and mausoleums, just as spectacular as the Registan itself. Bibi-Khanym Mosque dominates the skyline. This masterpiece was finished shortly after Timur’s death and was one of the largest mosques in the world when it was completed. Across from it is the Bibi-Khanym mausoleum which has been restored recently.
The halls of these behemoths remain relatively empty, given the lack of tourism here. Hang around long enough in one and you will, however, see tour groups that come by every so often. As for lone travelers, there are very few.
Even further north of the old town lies Shah-I-Zinda Cemetery. This massive cemetery is home to some of the most intricately detailed mausoleums in the world. The walls are covered in small, ornate blue tiles that were all hand painted with Persian designs. You can spend hours upon hours just exploring here, let alone actually seeing the sights themselves.
Ancient Cities, Bustling Bazaars
Venturing past this cemetery, you will find yourself in Ancient Samarqand. At first sight, it looks like nothing much other than a deserted field with the odd mud wall and some hills. But, if you explore deeper into the place, you will begin to notice how these are not hills at all, but instead the remnants of fortresses and the fortified walls that surrounded this ancient place.
As you walk, you will see shards of pottery scattered about, I even found an old coin that dated back to the Bactrian period. The so called Ulugbek’s Observatory is the shining archaeological discovery here. To the untrained eye, it looks like a hill with stone walls, but it was once a massive mud fortress at one time. This is where Ulugbek, one of the world’s most famous astronomers, discovered many constellations we know to this day.
Samarqand really is one of the most incredible cities along the Silk Road, albeit the world. A visit to Uzbekistan and Samarqand will open you up to a whole new side of the planet that you most likely knew never existed. This hidden culture will keep you earning to discover more of these regions.
From Samarqand the next destination was Kiva, which is reached by train that pushes us weary Silk Road travelers further into the legendary road made famous by kings and explorers from before.
Location: Samarqand, Uzbekistan, Central Asia
Accommodation: Jahongir B&B – jahongirbandb.com, 25 – 35 $US
Daily Budget: 35 $US
Top Tips: Make sure you use a map, the Mosques are quite spread out. Samarqand is easily traveled alone, but hiring a local guide is very cheap, and they know much about the history. Dress modestly and be respectful, Uzbekistan is quite open minded, but it is still a Muslim Country. Cab drivers tend not to know much English, get the hotel workers to write down directions in Uzbek.
Currency: Uzbek SOM 1 $US – 2100 SOM. Covert money with the Black Market, You tend to get a much higher rate, usually around 2800 SOM.