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8 things to do in Samarkand

Samarkand. City of Legend. Although these days most people have probably never heard of it. It’s in Uzbekistan, which in all fairness a lot of people haven’t heard of either. Samarkand was founded by the Sogdians, sometime between the 7th & 8th Centuries BC. It profited from it’s prime location on the Silk Road, and all sorts of things have been traded in its bazaar (still open today). It is a city visited by Alexander the Great, and some even theorise this his wife Roxanna was a local of the legendary city. If you are heading out on the Silk Road journey, the city of Tamarlane is a must do – don’t even bother trying to conquer this journey with out it. If you haven’t been to Samarkand, you haven’t truly travelled the Silk Road. If you want to know what a potential day in Samarkand can be check out this blog here...

1. The Mausoleum of Amir Timur (Tamarlane)

The mausoleum is a beautiful blue domed building, set away from the main square of the city. In the grounds you will find, ruins of the madrassa which was once adjoined to the mausoleum and the crypts of Timur. These were opened during WWII, it was said if they were opened than the world would end, they were opened in the year Russia was drawn into the war – Russia and the Soviet Union having dominion over Uzbekistan at the time. Being drawn into a war of such epic proportions must have seemed like the end of the world to the Uzbeks at the time, however somewhat unspectacularly, the crypt now houses a souvenir shop! Inside the mausoleum, watch your footing – I often see people looking up and the magnificent ceiling and gold tiling on walking up the few stairs to the main chamber and tripping over. Apart from the opulence of the chamber, you will also find the graves of Timur, his teacher and his family.

Mausoleum of Tamarlane

2. The Afrosiab Museum & Tel

This museum contains artifacts from the city’s earliest foundation, to Alexander’s time to the time of Timur. It’s fairly rustic as museums go, and not everything is in English. There is a small movie theater where you can pay an extra 2500 sum to watch a short film on this history of the city. For me the real magic is outside, there is what appears to be a hill next to the museum, it is in fact an archaeological “tel” or mound of the place in which the city was first founded. Some paths and features are discernible, but for the most part there is nothing left, except the feeling that you are walking the same path and seeing the city from the same vantage point as Alexander the Great did when he first conquered it – like I said magic.

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3. The Bazaar

No trip to Samarkand would be complete with out a trip to it’s bazaar, one of the original Silk Road trading posts, still open and doing business. This is a proper local bazaar it isn’t for tourists, although off to the right as you walk through its gates, some shops have opened up selling the odd tacky souvenir. In this bazaar you will find, buckets of raspberries for less than $1USD (if you’re from Australia you’ll know how exciting that is!), the traditional fruit of the area, pomegranate being sold by various fruit sellers some cut open to show the quality (know by how many seeds are inside) and you’ll find spices and spice mixes ready to go to make the local dishes at home. The best souvenir to buy here is the traditional bakers stamp, used all over Uzbekistan to mark patterns on bread or you could try the nougat which is my favorite – I always get some for the onward travel day to Buhkara.

Samarkand Bazaar

4. Bibi Khanym Mosque

Located right next to the bazaar this is another thing you can’t miss. Literally. It is huge! Built by Timur in 16th Century to out do his wife's mosque which is nearby. The story goes that Timur returned from a campaign, and not in the best of health, ordered the mosque completed in the shortest time possible, by whatever means necessary so he might live to see its completion. Unfortunately, because of its hasty and somewhat haphazard construction, earthquakes over the years have taken their toll on the structure with visible cracks in the wall visible from the outside and visitors not permitted inside the buildings due to their unstable nature. The grounds are beautiful and make for lovely photos, no doubt some guard wanting a bribe will charge you for the privilege though.

Bibi Khanym Mosque

5. The Registan

The Registan Square marks the centre of Samarkand and is the main attraction in the city. The square is flanked by 3 beautifully, blue domed madrassas many of which now contain merchant selling souvenirs – oddly, it’s probably the only place in the world where you can buy Christmas decorations inside an Islamic structure! It’s also probably one of the only places where you can “pay” (bribe) the guards to let you climb one of the minarets, which are a bit unstable and only one person can go up at a time, but what a view! The interior and inner domes are also very ornate, but not quite as stunning as the Tomb of Timur. The most interesting feature is the “grave of the butcher”, the butcher was a man who lived during the time the Registan was constructed, he offered to provide free meat for all the workers, every day and in return he wanted to be buried in the central square. You can find his headstone off on its own, in front of one of the structures.

The Registan Minaret

6. Shah i Zinda

This is probably the most interesting place in the city, the necropolis. It includes beautiful blue domed mausoleums and crypts from 9th-14th and 19th Centuries. Legend also has it that the cousin of the prophet Mohammed is buried here, he was apparently beheaded for trying to preach Islam in the city in 7th century. The grounds are tiered, there is a lower, middle and upper structure, be prepared for stairs. There is a mosque at the back (top) dedicated to Kusan-ibn-Abbas (Mohammed’s cousin), this consists of several buildings all rather old and dusty but still with spectacular interiors. The other tombs which are open, can be wandered in and out of, some have been restored and some have not – it’s a really interesting place to spend an afternoon wandering about and siting among the domes.

Shah i zinda

7. The Ulugh Beg Observatory

If the necropolis gets the interesting vote, this one definitely gets the weird vote. Ulugh Beg was a relative of Timur and a ruler of Samarkand in 14th Century. He is considered one of the finest astronomers of his time. On a hill in Samarkand, he built his observatory and device for observing the heavens. You can visit the immense chamber than once housed the device but very little remains of it. There is also an adjoining museum where you can learn of Ulugh Beg’s exploits and achievements in the scientific field of astronomy.

Ulugh Begs sextant

8. Try the Plov!

The original Uzbek food, “Plov” is a rice dish, made with lamb and vegetables – commonly yellow carrots and raisins are added, along with yogurt on serving. You can see Plov being made in some of the bazaars and outside in restaurants in huge, iron woks. Definitely give it a go, it will become a staple in your diet on your trip through central Asia.

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