The ancient Silk Road city.
The train from Tashkent to Samarkand was like something out of a decades-old film. It was old style, uncomfortable old seats, no air con, the tobacco-stained curtains doing their best to shield passengers from the blistering sun. And it rocked along at a slow pace. I opted for the slower train to Samarkand partly because it was dirt cheap and partly because I simply wasn’t in a rush. I like slow train travel. I love staring out the window watching the world go by. On this trip that meant watching the desert go by the window as the train slowly worked its way south.
If you look at typical tourist websites or apps then they won’t show a great deal to do in Samarkand. In fact, they paint the impression that it can be “seen” pretty much in a day, and while I would say that is true for many of the main places to visit, taking it slowly can be so much more rewarding.
Starting on the southern side of the centre of the city, there’s the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. Having just arrived from the more modern Tashkent, this was already a fantastic site and a wonderful place to explore inside and out. Around this area, if you explore some of the narrow little streets, are a few shops and cafes/restaurants which don’t seem to appear in typical tourist info.
Also in this area is the Rukhobod Mausoleum, which, given how quiet it was each time I walked by, seems to be overlooked by most visitors.
Walking north crossing over a busy junction and past a fountain arrives at the jewel in the crown of Samarkand: the Registan. This is the main draw of the city for most people and is beautiful to look at from a distance and explore up close. The Sherdar Madrasa, Tillya-Kori Madrasah and Ulugh Beg Madrasa are each unique and have a variety of parts to explore, plenty of traders following the long history of selling on the Silk Road, a mosque, and some peaceful squares to relax in.
Travel blogs suggest heading here early in the day will offer the chance to bribe a police officer for entrance to the top of one of the minarets. I was asked many times – even during the busy periods – if I wanted to climb one of the towers so maybe it’s a thing they’re happy to offer now, albeit unofficially. However, the tower looked so lopsided that I decided to give it a miss.
The Registan, while stunning in the sun with a blue sky behind it, looks breath taking in the evening while the sun is setting and the buildings are lit up.
Continuing north from the Registan, along a modern road with some shops and a couple of lovely cafes and restaurants, is the trio of the Bibi-Xonum Mosque, the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum, and the Siab Bazaar – a reasonable sized market which seemed to be mostly selling fresh food.
The Bibi-Xonum Sosque is one of the largest in the world and the entrance really does tower over the street in an imposing manner. Inside it’s a mixture of authentic, ruined, and renovated architecture set around a picturesque square. Like most places in Uzbekistan, the entrance fee is really next to nothing and it’s a must-see in the city.
Across the road at the mausoleum, there isn’t as much to see but the square provides a view of the mosque, of the Hazrat Khizr Mosque in the distance across a busy junction, and towards the Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble.
The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble is another must-see in Samarkand. It marks the end of this stretch of the city from the Gur-e-Amir complex heading north. Shah-i-Zinda is a stunning area with a tight street of many mausoleums, places of worship and some stunning architecture, all set in front of a massive cemetery. It can get busy if there’s a group of visitors but is otherwise a very peaceful spot in the city.
Straying further there is certainly more to see in Samarkand. Stand outs being the Ulugh Beg Observatory and St. Daniel’s Tomb. And there are other historic sites that are set a bit more off the beaten path.
I had expected to struggle a bit in Samarkand. Not just because of the language barrier – which turned out to be almost non-existent – but on arrival in the morning it was already mid 30s, the sun was shining down without a cloud in sight. I struggle in heat. But taking it easy, seeking a bit of shade when needed and stopping for plenty of drinks, manti and plov to escape the sun made it far easier than expected.
All in all, you could see Samarkand in a day. Or rather, you could see the main parts of the city centre in a day. But like many places, it’s worth a little more time to dig a little deeper and see more. It is a beautiful city but does lack what Bukhara and Khiva offer. Samarkand is almost like a living museum, a bit of taster of the Silk Road, whereas some other cities in Uzbekistan offer what feels more like a trip back in time, immersed in an ancient city.