Samarbland

Samarkand

I’ll be honest, I didn’t like Samarqand. It could have been the intense cold that nipped sharply at any exposed flesh or the continued snowfall that had us slipping and sliding over the paved streets. I think that I had huge expectations of the once great silk road city in my mind yet I found it contained little spirit of it’s past, much less than it’s diminutive sister, Bukhara.

Compared with Bukhara’s small lanes that allowed you to lose yourself in the history of the place whilst drifting between colourful bazars and historic buildings Samarqand was more spaced out; wider streets for cars that wizzed past, honking as they went. The madrassa, mosques and monuments were interlaced with mundane modern shopping complexes and concrete monstrosities from the Communist era. This gave the place a staccato narrative that hindered any feeling for it’s undoubtedly rich past.

The Registan, however, was impressive. The three Madrassas imposing, neatly restored and maintained. I was discouraged from entering by the ‘fee’ requested by the young police officer in order for me to take photos. Most monuments in Uzbekistan seemed to operate a two tier system of entry – one payment for entry, another, subtle payment, to be allowed to take pictures.

My favourite building was the tomb of Amir Temur. A ferocious leader who commanded the remaining scraps of the Mongol hoard and tore a path of conquest from here, into China, India, Iran and Russia. His rise from obsure tribal warrior to founder of the Timurid dynasty is an amazing tale.

Temur’s spectacular morsoleum was richly decorated with 4kgs of gold leaf covering the domed ceiling in an intricate pattern, or so the caretaker told me whilst pestering me for money to take a picture.

Despite a layer of mushy, brown snow on the road I was glad to depart Samarqand. I felt a bit stagnant there. Beyond the pretty Registan there was nothing going on. We didn’t meet any of the locals beyond hotel staff, it was all a bit quiet, a bit sterile. We hoped that this would change when we arrived in Tashkent, the capital city.

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We rode for three days through the barren cotton fields, staying in hotels each night in order to collect OVIR slips required by the police in order to account for our whereabouts.

OVIR would even be required in Tashkent where we had the fortune to be invited to stay in the home of Zarema and her husband, Iskender.

The parents of a family friend, we knew little about them apart from their address, this would surely be enough to locate them. Alas it was not. Taxi drivers were oblivious to road names, relying on each fare to direct them to their required destination.

It was late when we eventually found the small, snow covered road where our hosts lived. Tucked behind a larger main road and a row of utilitarian apartment blocks.

At first we didn’t know what to expect, especially as Zarema could only speak a little English and Iskender none at all

But once the tall, shaven headed figure of Iskender had helped us put our belongings away, he welcomed us into his warm home with a shot or two of cognac and vodka and plenty of food that helped set both parties at ease.

After an uneasy nights sleep due to some unnaturally loud snoring we were treated to an enormous breakfast of sausage, cheese and delicious fresh bread (the Uzbeks are rightfully proud of their bread!) washed down with copious amounts of tea with honey from Iskender’s own bees.

The jolly figure of Zarema fussed over us like all mothers fuss over children. Making sure our plates were full, speaking in half Russian and half English, laughing heartily at her own mistakes and Iskender’s jokes about us. Once her face had creased into a delta of wrinkles and the laughter from her flowed uncontrollably it was impossible not to join in.

Once fed our minds turned to more serious matters, our mission in Tashkent was to attain Chinese and Kyrgyzstan visas. As long as those went without a hitch we’d have completed the most taxing of our bureaucratic endeavours.

We had heard that the Chinese visa was the toughest to collect, especially for cycle tourists (“don’t mention the bikes!”). But having thoroughly researched how to complete the forms we felt certain we’d get the visas.

Forms complete it was time to find the consulate. This task was made complex by the recent name changes made to the city’s streets and the taxi drivers lack of knowledge. Eventually we were able to find the correct place, 6km from where google maps had told us it would be.

As we drove to the consulate, forms in hand, I took note of the city. It was devoid of any tourist attractions and seemed to be struggling with it’s own identity; it was an up and coming economic powerhouse, all neon lights, shopping malls and cafĂ© bars and also a decaying relic of concrete slums gradually falling into disrepair.

Fresh snowfall lay on the treelined streets around the diplomatic quarter. High fences and small green police sheds helped identify each consulate.

We were early to arrive, plenty of time to autograph a card for one officer who’d emerged from the shed outside the Chinese consulate to welcome Wayne Rooney to Uzbekistan.

Once inside we handed over our forms, passports, crisp dollar bills and headed out into the snow, knots in stomachs, to wait for the processing to be completed.

Seven hours later we returned to our residence in jubilant mood. Proudly displaying our new Chinese visas to our hosts.

Now all we needed was our Kyrgyzstan visas, reputed to be simple to collect, what could possibly go wrong!?

2 Responses to “Samarbland”

  1. Kamol says:

    Hi guys hope you still have enough power to cycle :-) read your stories about Uzbekistan need to say it’s really embarrassing but, wish I could help you out in samarkand as I was there as well . Safe cycling to Sydney .

  2. […] previous British cyclers (just before being deported from Uzbekistan) had rebranded Samarkand as Samarbland due to its now sterile atmosphere. Similarly, I was soon to discover that my best moments on the […]

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