Samarkand: Uzbekistan’s Ancient Silk Road City
Uzbekistan’s Ancient Silk Road City
The ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand has long drawn travellers, traders and tyrants to its gates.
For centuries this Central Asian city has been a real crossroads, a stopping point on the trade networks of the old Silk Road where east meets west in the dry deserts of Uzbekistan.
The legendary name of Samarkand conjures images of the Orient, of grand minarets, city walls and ancient civilizations, and this rich history is what first drew me to the city.
Travelling through Uzbekistan, I was tracing a path through the ancient trade networks, connecting dots on maps that have altered little since the days of Genghis Khan, with only the names of the nations calling sovereignty over the city changing. Samarkand’s history extends back through countless civilizations. It’s one of the oldest inhabited cities in Asia and countless rulers from Alexander the Great through to the Soviets have marched through its gates.
After crossing the deserts of Karakalpakstan from the West of Uzbekistan, I passed through the other Silk Road cities of Khiva and Bukhara, before finally arriving in Samarkand.
The city is awash with historic, Islamic inspired buildings, many of which are intricately maintained and proudly restored to their former glory. Samarkand’s most infamous ruler was the merciless Tamerlane, a 14th Century descendant of Genghis Khan who ruled much of Central Asia and built the towering structures I found dominating the skyline to this day.
The centre of Samarkand revolves around the Registan, an inspiring and colourful Islamic Madrassa- a place of learning- built by Tamerlane. The architecture is classic Silk Road, with intricate designs, motifs and inscriptions inside and out.
I found the centre comprised of beautiful buildings and full of history. But more than this, it was the people of Samarkand that really made my trip. While I was fascinated by the Silk Road history and architecture, it was the locals that really showed me real, modern life in Samarkand.
Walking the Registan, I was approached by local University students eager to practice their English with one of the few foreign tourists in Uzbekistan. They became my informal guides to their home city, showing me both the best of the city’s ancient history while guiding me through bustling local markets and into local eateries, all the while proudly explaining Uzbekistan’s history, culture, languages and diverse people.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Uzbekistan is a large country, and it’s easy to underestimate the distances involved when travelling from city to city. International flights to Uzbekistan will land in Tashkent. Domestic flights connect regularly to Tashkent while there is also high speed, comfortable and modern fast trains several times a day between the two cities and onwards to other Silk Road cities such as Bukhara and Khiva.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Samarkand is full of history and culture, and losing yourself amongst the architecture and in the local restaurants is the best part of any trip to the city.
The Registan is the centrepiece of the city, and nearby this old, colourful and pleasingly symmetrical Madrasa are countless more buildings, and mosques evoking the spirit of the Silk Road.
A trip to the central markets, to walk amongst the local sellers, cooks and artists of Samarkand is a must and a visit to Gur-e-Amir, the monumental tomb of Tamerlane, will help you to understand where the glory of Samarkand really all began.
Stay – Accommodation
Samarkand is Uzbekistan’s most visited tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean it is even particularly touristy. It does mean though that there are plenty of accommodation options available, from hostels to five-star hotels. The most emphatic part of the city to stay in is the old town, where hostels and hotels are situated amongst the winding, narrow alleys, and near to the main sights too.
Eat – Restaurants
Uzbek cuisine revolves around the staple, yet deliciously crafted Plov, a rice dish slow cooked with meat and vegetables. Each city claims their Plov to be the best in the country, and each city has their own particular way of cooking it!
Other delicious Uzbek dishes include the thick, saucy and spicy Lagman noodles, and the deliciously filled Manti dumplings. The streets usually waft with the smell of Somsa cooking at any time of day too. These meat and veg pastries are a gourmet snack at local prices, and perfect throughout the day to keep you on the go!
Any local eateries will serve up big portions of these classic Uzbek dishes for cheap, just look for where all the locals are heading at lunch and dinner time!
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The majority of Uzbekistan, including Samarkand, has a harsh, arid climate with huge temperature fluctuations throughout the year. The summers are scorching hot and brutally dry while winters can be surprisingly cold, and at night, even frosty. The best time to visit is the cooler months of Autumn and Spring when you avoid the brutal heat or the depressing cold.
Safety – Possible risks
Uzbekistan is an incredibly safe country for tourists to visit. The nation doesn’t have a great reputation for its human rights, it’s still in the post-Soviet hangover period, but this does mean there is a huge police presence and low crime rates, at least for petty crimes such as theft- not that this justifies their autocrat government in any way. For tourists, the real danger is on the long, potholed and badly maintained roads that connect the cities, but stick to the trains and this is avoided entirely.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
The local currency is the Uzbek Som, but this is a notoriously inflated currency, and not possible to find outside the country. Travellers should bring with them enough US Dollars to cover their trip, as ATMs catering to foreign cards are almost non-existent. The exchange rate can fluctuate wildly, and sometimes the ‘black market’- easily found on the streets, look for the guys with huge plastic bags full of money who will offer a better rate than government banks and exchanges, so check before converting your money.
Budget dorm beds hostels and in some cases budget rooms too can be found for between 10-15 USD, and food at local eateries and markets is extremely good value, costing no more than 1-2 USD for a big plate of Plov. The cost of the train or bus to Samarkand can vary but from Tashkent to the city for example, this should cost no more 20 USD.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
In Samarkand, local business is growing to cater for increasing tourism each year, and it’s easy to stay at local guest houses and to eat at locally run restaurants to support the local economy in the area.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Uzbekistan is still an emerging tourist destination, and until recently visas were hard to acquire and travel here was difficult. Things are slowly changing, and Samarkand is becoming an easier city to travel to and around, but for English speakers, outside of hotels and guesthouses it can be hard to communicate without a basic knowledge of Russian or Uzbek, and booking simple things like transport or ordering meals can be a challenge at times!
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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