Three Weeks in Central Asia (Part 9): Uzbekistan – Samarkand, the Silk Road awaits

Intricate designs both inside and outside

The Silk Road. The series of interconnected trade routes between western Europe and eastern China operating during the 2nd Century BC and 15th Century AD. At it’s epicentre, the ancient city of Samarkand. Uzbekistan’s most visited city is one of the oldest continuously populated cities in Central Asia. It was a true meeting place of cultures, and people. At one stage it was the capital of the powerful Central Asian state, the Timurid Empire. Under the reign of Timur and his dynasty, Samarkand flourished as an ideological, academic, cultural and architectural centre of the region.


Samarkand can be easily reached from Tashkent by 1.5 hours on a high speed, efficient train. The train itself has assigned seating, there is space for your luggage (big luggage racks and an overhead bin for smaller bags) and there is a trolley service offering refreshments – cash only.

Following our tour leader Mirza we boarded our sightseeing bus and our tour of this fascinating city began. Many of the city’s significant sites are within walking distance of one another. That, in my opinion, is a city well planned out. There was so much more to see in the city than just Registan Square which I didn’t know about. The following “must do’s” were done in 1.5 days from mid morning one day until the early evening the next day. Achievable? Yes. You can also easily do more time here if you want to take your time.

The highlights below are in the order I did them as part of my time in Samarkand. It is important to remember that all sites, except the Bazaar, have admission and photography fees that can be purchased in cash before entering the site. A list of the prices at time of writing is listed at the end of the post.

Siyob Bazaar

The largest bazaar in Samarkand is bustling and full of life and at the foot of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. This view, the sights of people admiring artifacts, foods, spices, and just the general atmosphere of the place really makes you wonder what this city would have been like during the times of the Silk Road. I was already in awe by being in this bazaar and just watching people go about their normal routines.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque

Around the corner from the bazaar, within walking distance is the central Mosque of Samarkand. The Mosque took just 5 years to construct during the reign of Timur in the 15th Century. However, the structural integrity was never completely stable. Over the time the mosque collapsed and has slowly been restored and constructed. At its peak it became one of the largest and most significant mosques in the Islamic world.

Around the corner from the Mosque on Tashkent road is a small food court with a few restaurants and cafes. We ate lunch here and the food was good. My favourite Uzbek delicacy was pilaf! Bathrooms, here, are a little basic and cost a small fee to enter. Following this road down for another 10 minutes you will find Registan Square.

Registan Square

This. Is. It. What everybody comes to Samarkand for. The image you instantly associate with Uzbekistan – Registan Square

A panorama of the famous square.

For me this was a real pinch myself moment. Finally arriving to this famous square that I have seen and heard about so many times. But why is it so famous? In Persian, registan means ‘sandy place’. It was a public square where the community would gather for royal proclamations, lively markets and public executions… So normal routine stuff….
Seeing as how all roads in the old city of Samarkand led to Registan, in one of the central regions of the Silk Road, it became synonymous with the image of the ancient trade route. Framed by three impressively decorated and adorned school buildings known as madrasahs.

The three madrasahs were each built after Timur’s passing but its grandeur and beauty really exemplify the vision of greatness Timur had for the city. Each madrasah can be visited.

The madrasah on the left, Ulugh Beg Madrasah, holds an elegant courtyard filled with souvenir shops of both the authentic – textiles, instruments, crafts – and touristy – magnets, postcards – kind.

The madrasah on the right, Sher-Dor Madrasah also has some shops and we were lucky enough to be treated to a mini concert of a man who played multiple traditional Uzbek instruments.

It is the central madrasah, Tilya Kori Madrasah, that is truly spectacular. The name Tilya-Kori means decorated with gold and it is just that. Inside there is a room decorated with pure gold and built as an illusion to make it appear the roof has a dome but in actuality it is just flat.

When I visited Samarkand on 1 September 2018 it was the Independence Day of Uzbekistan. Mirza took us back to Registan Square in the night hoping for some sort of celebration – fireworks, a light show, anything.

We didn’t get that.

What we did get was something authentic. A true insight into how locals really celebrate. Blowing whistles, waving flags, dancing, playing music, beeping their car horns, laughing, smiling, happy and proud to be living in Uzbekistan.

Registan, at night, is even more beautiful…

Gur-e-Amir

First stop the next morning was a visit to Timur’s Mausoleum. Built in 1404 it translates to ‘Tomb of the King.” As modest as always, the words “here is buried the most powerful and humble sultan of his time” are constructed into the facade of the entrance. Also lying here next to Timur are two of his sons, two of his grandsons including Ulugh Beg and Timur’s spiritual teacher, Sayyid Baraka.

Ulugh Beg Observatory

Ulugh Beg was the grandson of Timur. With his observatory, built around 1429 and considered to be the largest in Central Asia, he was able to make ground breaking astronomical discoveries making him an influential astronomer at the time. There is even a crater on the moon named after him.

Shah-i-Zinda

The necropolis. A series of stunning mausoleums all built between the 9th and 14th Centuries. Many of Timur’s relatives, including sister and niece, and military personnel are buried in some of the twenty intricately designed mausoleums that make up the Shah-i-Zinda ensemble.
There is a dress code here, though I never saw anyone be turned away, dressing a little modestly is always best. Shoulders and knees covered for both men and women. Men, it is better to wear trousers.

For each of the above mentioned sites there are admission fees and camera fees. All should be paid in cash. I do recommend visiting all of them but if you only want to choose one to pay extra for the photography fee choose Shah-i-Zinda and if you want to choose two also choose Gur-e-Amir. Registan has no extra photography fees. But each to their own!

SITEADMISSION FEEPHOTOGRAPHY FEE
Bibi-Khanym Mosque22,000 soms
AU$3.33
5,000 soms
AU$0.76
Registan30,000 soms
AU$4.54
0
Gur-e-Amir22,000 soms
AU$3.33
5,000 soms
AU$0.76
Shah-i-Zinda10,000 soms
AU$1.51
7,000 soms
AU$1.06
Ulugh Beg Observatory22,000 soms
$AU3.33
5,000 soms
AU$0.76

Where to stay?

As part of the tour I stayed at the Grand Samarkand Hotel. A classy hotel with 24 hour reception, an on site restaurant which serves a decent breakfast, souvenir store, a rooftop pool and friendly staff. The rooms were big and has a beautiful interior garden courtyard. It is located close to restaurants and bars for your nightlife and 3kms, or a 35 minute walk, from Registan and the main highlights.

After dinner near our hotel we were back to the train station to catch “the midnight train going anywhere…” Well really it was 10pm and we were going to our next stop, on the Silk Road, Bukhara!

VIP lounge entrance at Samarkand station.

Is Samarkand on your bucketlist? Share your thoughts below!
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