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The Travel Journal of Jacqui and Lars

 

Uzbekistan - 28 August, 2002

 

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Location Latitude Longitude Elevation

Travel Distance

Start Samarkand (Xarina Hotel) N3939.265' E06658.547' 720 meters .
-  Tour of Samarkand . . . 15 km
Finish Samarkand (Xarina Hotel) N3939.265' E06658.547' 720 meters

10 km (by Volga taxi)

Total Leg 2:

328 km

Total Leg 1:

3,018 km

Grand Total:

3,346 km

 

Weather: Clear, sunny and very hot.  Cool at night.

 

 

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Lars gets up early this morning to go to The Registan for sun rise.  Due to the positioning of the buildings, some were in heavy shadow yesterday evening during sunset, so we wanted to see these buildings in the light of the rising sun.  The place is pretty much deserted and it is wonderful to be able to just sit there and admire the fantastic buildings in peace and quiet.

 

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Then back to the hotel for breakfast and to get ready for our morning tour of the city.  We will be very busy as there is so much to see and do.  We take the truck and we are joined by our local guide who will tell us all about the sights.  He is a professor by training and experience, but he can make more money doing this.

 

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Our first stop is at the Guri Amir Mausoleum.  The great Emir Timur, two sons and two grandsons, including Ulughbek, are buried here.  Timur the Lame (or Tamerlane) is known as the tyrants' tyrant and patron of the arts.  He was able, after the fracturing of the Mongol empire, to wrest control of a territory that included modern day Iran, Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey and the Caucasus.  He also despoiled northern India and one of his grandson's was the founder of India's Moghul dynasty.  He plundered riches and captured artisans that he poured into his capital at Samarkand.  The city grew and became a very grand place.  He died an old man in Otyrar in 1405 having just set out to conquer China.

 

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The mausoleum is fantastic inside and out.  The facade is covered with the usual stunning tiles, majolica, and azure mosiacs.  Inside, it just glistens with gold and other brilliant colors.  The tomb markers themselves are simple.  The actual tombs underneath have been excavated and it confirms that Timur was lame and that Ulughbek was beheaded in a conspiracy arranged by his son.  Timur's grave had an inscription that said in effect "whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I".  It was opened in the middle of the night (so as not to disturb the locals who consider it sacred ground) and that morning, 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

 

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From there we headed to Ulughbek's Observatory.  Ulughbek was the favorite grandson of Timur and took a few years after the death of his grandfather.  But he broke the pattern of savage grandeur with his intelligence and focused more on the development of knowledge than the expansion of the empire and an on religious matters.  In the end, this led to his downfall.  The generals were not happy with the lack of military adventures and the religious leaders were not happy with the rights given to women, the focus on general knowledge rather than on purely religious knowledge and their loss of power.  His son arranged for him to go on the hajj to Mecca and had him assassinated by beheading on the way there.

 

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Anyway, Ulughbek's primary passion was astronomy.  During his reign, he built the biggest and most advanced observatory of his time.  At this three story observatory with an immense (30 meter) marble astrolab he was able to make some of the most precise astronomical measurements of his time, including the length of the year.  The star charts that he created were so detailed and precise that they were used around the world and were not supersede for hundreds of years.  After his death, it was razed to the ground and only in 1908 were the foundations and the portion of the huge marble semi-circle track that were underground  found.  It is still very impressive to this day.

 

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Our next sight, the Shahr-i-Zindah ensemble, may be one of the most interesting and moving.  It is a lane of tombs, with the innermost and most sacred being the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who is said to have brought Islam to this area.  It is one of the oldest standing buildings in Samarkand.

 

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Except for this tomb and a few others at that end, the rest of the tombs belong to Timur's and Ulughbek's family and favorites.  Many have not been restored and it is possible to see some of the finest, original majolica tile work that has not been restored or renovated.

 

From here we drove to the market, got off and walked through the market to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque.  As usual, the walk through the market was an orchestra of different sounds and smells as the many vendors tried to hawk their wares to all people who passed nearby.  But we had other things to see and do, so despite all the temptations, we made our way through to the other end and the relative quiet of the ruined, giant mosque.

 

The history of this mosque, as seems to be the case with many buildings in this part of the world,  is surrounded in legend and wild stories that seem to involve vision, love, murder, deceit, revenge and many other human vices.  Timur's Chinese wife, legend has it said, ordered the construction of the mosque as a surprise while he was away.  During construction, the architect fell madly in love with the wife and refused to complete construction until he got to kiss the wife.  In the end, she relented so that the mosque would be finished in time.  To make a long story short, Timur found out and had the architect executed and ordered that all women wear veils so that they do not tempt men.  Alternative storied tell of the architect fleeing to the top of one of the minarets and flying away.

 

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Anyway - the bottom line was that the largest mosque in the world at its time was built (the main gate alone was 35 meters high) and it must have been the crown jewel in Timur's empire.  The only problem - they pushed the construction envelope a bit too far and it started to crumble soon after completion and finally collapsed completely in an earthquake in 1897.  Restoration work is underway, but even in its ruined state, a clear image of the vastness of it can captured.  In the courtyard stands a huge marble Quran stand that you can crawl under (local lore says that a women who does so will have lots of children).

 

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We then headed off to finish our tour at the centerpiece of the city - the Registan.  This is a cluster of majestic and well proportioned medressas covered in bright azure mosaics that just overwhelms you.  You stand in the middle of the square, which in medieval times must have been a bustling wall-to-wall bazaar, and are surrounded on three sides by some of the most awesome buildings and towers in all of Central Asia.

 

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The oldest of the buildings is the Ulughbek Medressa on the west side that was finished in 1420 under Ulughbek.  He was said to have taught mathematics there, along with the other subjects offered such as theology, astronomy and philosophy.  One hundred students lived here and studied in the lecture halls on the ground floor.

 

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The other two buildings were built by Shaybanid Emir Yalangtush.  On the east side is the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa which was finished in 1636.  The entrance is decorated with roaring lions, flouting the Islamic prohibitions against depicting live animals.

 

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In between these two monumental buildings is the Tilla-Kari (Gold Covered) Medressa, completed in 1660. This building is very similar to the other two, having been built in the same style.  We had a quick look through all the buildings and then called it quits for the morning - it is time for lunch (and a cool drink as we have been out in the boiling sun all morning).

 

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We take an hour for lunch, across the street at the same local restaurant where we were yesterday.  After a quick meal of shashlyk, noodles and cool drinks, we are ready to head off and do some shopping.  While we were touring this morning, there were so many shops tempting us that we had  a tough time holding back.  But we knew that we would never be able to complete the tour of we stopped at all the shops that we wanted to.  So now, back to the shops.

 

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We spent most of the afternoon back at the Registan wandering through all the shops that that have been set up in all the small cells that once served as class rooms or student dorms.  Progress ....

 

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Anyway, it was an exhausting afternoon.  As each of the rooms is small, there must have been over two hundred shops spread through out the three buildings.  And we must have checked out all of them (if only to be polite to all the shop keepers politely pleading with us to check out there stores - tourism has been down since September 11).  It was hard to find the jewels amongst lots of junk, but through perseverance and lots of sweat, we were able to do a fair bit of damage.  It is a great shopping opportunity, for those willing to put up with the heat and the sifting through piles of stuff.  Part of the problem was that we had a tough time remembering which shop it was that we saw something - in the end, if we saw something we liked, we just bought it.

 

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We stayed so long that we had another chance to enjoy the sunset at the Registan.

 

We returned to the hotel at 6:30, exhausted and thirsty, but very happy with our purchases.  After a short rest and a wash, we were ready to head out for dinner.  Tonight we are going to a local's house for some truly local food.  We jump into a number of taxis - our is a Volga this time, and hold on for another wild ride through the dark, pot holed streets of Central Asia.

 

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We make it in one piece to the local's home and settle down around a large table in the courtyard of the house.  The table is piled high with food and drink.  The food includes nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits, various pickled dishes, cheese, bread and other local delicacies.  The drink includes bubbly water (which explodes if not opened carefully), soft drinks, wine (in name only) and, of course, vodka. By the time the soup and main course come around, we are almost (but not quite) full.  

 

After dinner is over and we have picked through the remains as best we can and having completed the vodka, we waddle out to our taxis for the ride back to the hotel.  It is unclear if it is because we are so stuffed and filled with drink, but the ride back seems more wild then ever.  The taxi driver either has a death wish or an urgent appointment as he roars through the streets with no regard for other cars, pedestrians nor pot holes, depositing us at the steps of our hotel to the sound of the squeal of his tires.

 

Then off to bed with a full stomach and just happy to be alive.

 

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