Travel Website Logo
Travel Journal
Dan Walker’s Travel Website
Travel Photos

Travel Journal

Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Monday, October 20, 2003 07:40:29

Central Asia 2003: 12 - Samarkand

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

We headed off at 8 AM on divided highway, but the road was not a lot smoother. We stopped at a famed pottery factory which, much to my surprise, was very interesting. They use traditional methods, right down to a donkey to turn the grinding wheel that creates the powder to the colours of the glazes. It is a four generation old family business which has been visited by many famous people - there is quite the photo gallery on the wall. Some of their work has been in museums we have visited.

The two guys didn't want to stop for anything to eat, although Marilynn and I were starved. Jim has been suffering with the tacky tourist tummy for a couple of days, and when he saw the animal carcasses hanging outside the restaurant we were going to stop at, that was it for him! Here all restaurants and meat markets have carcasses hanging outside.

We arrived in Samarkand, a city founded in the 7th century BC, to find there was a problem with the hotel. They would not give us rooms as the tour company had not paid the previous bill. Marilynn and I were starved so went and had the buffet lunch and a beer while all the arguments were going on. The timing worked out right, as something had been worked out by the time we arrived back at the lobby.

We are staying at what is supposed to be the best hotel in Samarkand, the Hotel Afrosiyob Place, but I would certainly not recommend it. There are apparently a lot of small family owned hotels here that would be a much better bet - something like the super place we stayed in Bukhara. Laundry service demands cash in advance in US dollars, there is no room service, maintenance is pretty much non-existent and the same buffet is served every day for lunch and dinner - using the left over food from the time before. As part of the room price it is necessary to pay for breakfasts and dinners whether eaten or not. The one tiny packet of shampoo and half roll of toilet paper in the bathroom was a far cry from the Iranian hotels which supplied toothbrush and paste, shoe shiner, lots of shampoo and body lotion, slippers, robes, combs and so on.

One interesting event out of the lack of maintenance - Jim stayed in the room due to his stomach problem while Tom went exploring. When Jim had to use the toilet, he couldn't get back out - the door latch on the inside was broken. He had to wait until Tom got back to set him free!

This is the area of the Dervishes, whose dancing gave them the name "Whirling Dervishes". They are Muslims who have travelled from here all over, using their dancing to spread the faith.

There have been more and more beggars in the streets and around tourist attractions. Unemployment in Uzbekistan is running at some 50%, which would likely account for that. Women with babies make a career out of begging from tourists.

On the drive from Bukhara we pulled into every gas (petrol) station along the route. We are travelling in a diesel vehicle, and during cotton picking season each year there is a shortage of diesel due to the farm and transport vehicles. The state owns all the cotton plantations, so they get priority. My question as to why no forward planning, as this happens every year at the same time, was met with a shrug. We were lucky, though, and after trying several dry stations we hit one with diesel to sell.

The state also owns all the natural resource producers, such as oil and mines, and ownership of property is not possible for people who are not citizens. Foreign businesses must enter into a joint venture partnership with the state. They are getting away from the Communist system very slowly!

After settling into our small room Marilynn and I headed off for a walk, stopping at a pharmacy to buy some Imodium for Jim. There are some beautiful buildings, mosques, mausoleums and monuments around, plus lots of parks. We hadn't gone to far when Marilynn started to feel really sick, so we headed back to the hotel. She is sure she has food poisoning from the soup she had for lunch, which fortunately I didn't try. I went down for the same buffet at dinner that I had for lunch and brought Marilynn back bread, tea and rice, but she is too sick to eat anything.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Yesterday morning Marilynn was still down for the count, so she opted to stay in bed for the day while the rest of us headed off to Shakhrisabz. It is a three and a half hour drive to get there by the prescribed route; however it is one and a half hours over a range of mountains. This road was closed to all vehicles with over 7 seats after a disastrous bus accident on the switchbacks, with guards at each side of the mountains supposedly enforcing. It turns out that for a payment of $50 they will allow prohibited vehicles to pass, though. As Timur says, everything is possible in Uzbekistan - it just depends who gets paid and how much.

This was the favourite palace and city of Emir Temur, and is another World Heritage Site. Temur was a warrior ruler from the 14th century who conquered all of Turkey, the Caucus countries, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, a large part of India, a considerable part of China and even had his armies at the gates of Moscow. He died while on a campaign to conquer the rest of China. Samarkand was his headquarters, but he made Shakhrisabz a monumental city in a show of wealth and splendour.

It took 24 years to build his Ak-Sarmi Palace. The entrance arch and two towers are all that a left of it, but the arch was 22.5 meters wide and 38 meters high, the largest in the world at the time. Unfortunately, the Emir of Bukara, in a fit of jealously over the beauty of the city, trashed it in the 16th century, something which he is said to have regretted for the rest of his life. Tom, Timur and I climbed to the top of the tower from where there is a great view. On the way down the crumbling spiral staircase I slipped but got away with mere flesh wounds.

The area in front of the palace is a favourite for weddings. There were a dozen brides, grooms and wedding parties being photographed and parading about behind drummers and the traditional 3 meter long horns. Sunday is the busiest day for weddings.

We stopped in the mountains on the way back at an open roadside restaurant for a lunch of salad and shish kebabs of various types. Jim has settled down to the point where he was able to get past all the meat carcasses hanging in the sun. Tom and I shared the only beer in the place, but it was a good lunch.

Because of the extra four hours we had gained by using the mountain route, we headed to another town to have a look at a newly constructed mosque and mausoleum built by the Saudi Arabians in honour of a revered Imam, Al-Bukhari, who died there in 870 AD. He had a fairly humble tomb until a couple of years ago when this massive, glittery complex was built. It shows that they can do as well now as they could in older times, although I'd think the building equipment available today made the job a lot easier!

The complex is partially supported by several shops selling items to pilgrims. One of the tackier items offered was a plastic mosque shaped clock radio that played the 4:15 AM call to prayer instead of an alarm. Jim and Timur picked up sunglass with designer names on them for $1.50 per pair.

Marilynn was still down for the count when we returned to the hotel, and couldn't face the thought of food. We got a little cake and a pot of tea to the room for her to have in bed. Tom and I decided to pass on the included hotel meal and head out to a recommended place on the top of the Samarkand Hotel, which is nearby. It wasn't what one would expect from a large hotel - plastic chairs, mostly broken, and a mess hall atmosphere, but the staff were friendly and helpful. We had a couple of beer and a not bad dinner.

Today Marilynn skipped breakfast, but joined us on a tour of Samarkand. Although we dodged Italian, French, German and Israeli tour groups we were told that we were the only people from the Americas that had been seen this year. That's surprising, considering the sights and experiences that Uzbekistan has to offer the tourist. US$ are acceptable interchangeably with local currency. One noticeable thing here is how east meets west, and north meets south. There is huge cultural influence from the many people from China and other Asian counties, from India, from the Arab and European countries and from Russia. Even the teas meet - one is always given a choice of black or green tea.

The dental work here stands out. Gold teeth are the big thing - with some people flashing a whole mouthful of gold. I take it that this is a major prestige item.

The tour covered most of the major 14th century buildings and monuments which were built in the reign of Emir Timur. Many have been beautifully restored. Timur turned the area into a centre of culture, learning and power. Some of the structures have to be seen to be believed.

Timur's grandson took over from him, but he was a man of science and literature rather than a warrior, and the empire became much smaller under his reign until after many years he was killed. He built one of the finest universities in the world at the time, an astronomical observatory with a giant sextant and turned Samarkand into one of the world's great centres of science and learning.

There is an interesting shrine to "Holy Daniel", which I found fitting, being the name of grandson Daniel and I. They apparently brought a bone here from the body of the prophet Daniel and buried it. Not being certain exactly where the bone was buried when the mausoleum was built, the memorial stone on the grave was built 18 meters long to be sure they were in the right spot. As the guide said, it was a grave I'd fit in with room to spare!

The area where the shrine is located is on the site of the ancient city of Afrosiyob, which was totally destroyed by the Mongols. A very small part of it has been excavated. Marilynn found a piece of patterned 12th century pottery which she is making off with. Until I visited this area I really had no concept as to how destructive the Mongol Hordes were. They set civilization back a long way by burning mountains of books, levelling cultural cities and killing millions and millions of people. They were definitely a nasty lot, with no redeeming characteristics.

We have been having cold nights and hot sunny days. Tomorrow we head for Tashkent, where we are told it will be even hotter. It is also an important day for me as we are going to try to get across the border into Tajikistan to see an ancient city there. The Uzbek border is apparently closed to try to stop drug smuggling, but we are going to give it a shot anyhow. We'll see if Timur is right about everything being possible here for the right price!