Monday, August 1, 2016

Glimpses of Samarkand

Unique geometric patterns on a mausoleum in Samarkand

‘Where are you from?’ a man in a white Daewoo slows down to ask us this question as he passes.

‘America,’ says Flounder.

‘How is my country?’ he asks, the car now past us.

‘Great!’ says Flounder.

‘Beautiful!’ I chime in.

The man drives off smiling.

We’re in Samarkand now, our sixth stop in Uzbekistan, and we’ve been met at every turn with warmth, curiosity, enthusiasm, and kindness.

Hours later, in the relief of the evening, we walk down the same small street—barely wide enough for one car—passing a mother with her two small children. The boy, toddly and a bit uncertain on his legs, greets us.

‘Hello how are you I’m fine thank you!’ he squeaks, the words sliding together to make a single sentence.

Next his sister, not older than five, takes her turn.

‘Hello how are you I’m fine thank you!’ Again the words slide together, this time in a melodic song, one that’s stuck in my head through the next day.

He asked Flounder to take his photo

It’s hot in Samarkand. It’s been hot everywhere in Uzbekistan, but somehow I feel it more acutely. Maybe it’s the wide, shadeless lanes and the grand, sun-beat plazas.

The majesty of the city is unmistakable, and even for one who’s not a history buff, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by the history of Samarkand. Situated firmly on the Silk Road, visited by Alexander the Great, by Chenggis Khan, ruled by Amir Timur (a venerated hero in Uzbekistan) and educated by his grandson, the renowned astronomer Ulugbek.

Registan at night

Much has been written of the Registan, a collection of gloriously tiled medrassas facing each other and somehow still standing through the buffeting of hundreds of years of earthquakes. There’s nothing new to say. Indeed, facing the fluted domes and the glittering tiles of the lion-tigers of the Sher-Dor Medrassa as the sun set and the colors shifted and glowed, I sat content in a wordless state. I couldn’t find the words, but in that moment I really didn’t need any.

The Sher-Dor Medrassa

We’re sitting in the precious shade near the Bibi Khanym Mosque. It’s midday and the air is starting pick up heat. Two teenage boys stand near us and it’s clear they want to approach. I smile and they come over, gesturing to their camera phone. Flounder and I stand up to pose for a few photos with the younger boy.

‘Rakhmat,’ he says.

‘Thank you,’ the older boy translates.

Commotion as the market closes

We’re walking past the Bibi Khanym Mosque when we spot a commotion near the Siob Bazaar. It’s 15 minutes past closing time and the sellers are keen to unload their wares before the trip home, while the buyers are looking to score a bargain. It’s whirl of activity, with changing money and bundles of herbs changing hands. We walk closer and the vibrant smell hits us. First a wave of dill, a high note above the medley of parsley, cilantro, mint, and basil. There are green onions too, small and pungent.

The fluted dome of the Bibi Khanym Mosque

Behind us the sun sets on the fluted dome of the mosque, tiled in designs and Arabic writing in shades of blue, and I turn away from the bazaar to admire the gleaming majolica of the dome and to notice the stock-straight weeds that have somehow burst from between the tiles of the 600-year-old and some 40-meter-tall dome.

From the dwindling din of the bazaar, a halvah seller calls out to tempt me. I bargain for a chunk of the fresh, flaky halvah made, unlike the more common sesame variety, from sunflower seeds.

The day is ending and we’re quickly losing heat and light as we climb a hill northeast of Samarkand. We pass through a modern cemetery, haunted by the etched portraits of the deceased looking down on us from each gravestone. Then, without warning the cemetery shifts from modern to centuries old. We’ve entered the Shoh-i-Zinda street of mausoleums, a row of beautifully tiled mausoleums from the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s a revered site and there are locals praying around us. As we walk, we hear the somber and melodic singing of a priest reverberating through the street while the pious gather around him, cupping their hands in a gesture of receiving blessings.

The doorway of a mausoleum

Walking back through the old city, we stop for two glass-bottle Cokes, the kind you drink in the shop because the small bottles are collected, sterilized, and reused. I don’t really like Coke, but I like these tiny, eco-before-it-was-cool bottles.

It’s our last night in Samarkand and we’ve spent the day among ancient ruins of the eleven-cities-deep Afrosiob and among young curious teenagers of Samarkand, excited to hear about our impressions of their city and country.

Cotton candy sellers in the fading light

After dinner, the light has faded by the time I walk back to the guesthouse and pass dozens of families, strolling and chatting, enjoying the night air. As I walk, I can feel the heat break and, at last, release its choke hold on the city. The clouds darkly roll in and for the first time during our travels in Uzbekistan, the sky opens, rain pours down, and I feel shiveringly, happily cold. Flounder, gone ahead to our guesthouse, somehow finds me with his umbrella and we walk back arm-in-arm through the narrow, dark lane.


  1. Thank you for the glimpse of Samarkand through your words and luscious photos. I'm so enjoying your blog.

    1. Thanks so much! Those great photos from Flounder really make the blog shine!


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