Day 15: Scrambling through Samarkand

Our biggest worry in Uzbekistan had been fuel. After fuel, it was our cash-flow. Both were in short supply and we spent much of the day chasing these with minimal success.

We had a lazy breakfast at our B&B in Bukhara and started for Samarkand at about 11am that morning. We found a fueling station based on directions from some locals. It seemed to be the only one in the vicinity. As a result, everyone else also had the same idea of refueling there. We wasted the next hour standing in line, only inching forward every 10 minutes or so, until we could eventually fill up our tank.

The road to Samarkand was manageable and the drive somewhat uneventful. We had good roads most of the way and made the drive in 3.5 hours, which by now felt like a ‘short’ drive. We had been averaging 8-9 hours driving time on most days, which tends to take a toll on your sanity.

We were hungry by the time we rolled into Samarkand, and decided to head to a highly recommended restaurant named Platan. The restaurant had a wonderful summer terrace where we got comfortable. The service was excellent and so was the food. But we were low on cash and confirmed prior to sitting down that they’d accept our credit cards.

Unfortunately, after the meal ended, we struggled to pay. None of our cards worked. We scrounged up our last bits of cash and cleared the bill. It was befuddling. The same cards had worked earlier in Bukhara. I was even more surprised to discover that the exchange rate had jumped from 3335 Som to the US Dollar to 4000 Som from one day to the next.
We found our way to the B&B we had called earlier and booked. When we did show up, it didn’t seem like they had been expecting us. The very confused manager of the B&B escorted us to a room, told us how much it would cost and checked us in. Despite the lukewarm welcome, the Jahongir B&B was known to be one of the best deals in town. The rooms overlooked a cute little courtyard with lots of plants. It seemed like a breath of fresh air, away from the dusty streets.

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Once settled in, the quest for money began. With our last bit of cash gone, we needed to find a way to pay for the accommodation and our onward journey. We tried our luck first at the Asaka Bank but their ATM was inside their offices, which was closed. The guard told us to come back the next morning.

We then tried the Hotel Registon Plaza, a dusty, soviet looking hotel, which apparently has the only ATM that’s not in a bank. The Lonely Planet guide for Central Asia did warn us that that ATM is rarely in use. Indeed, when we got there, the ATM looked completely shut down and as if it hadn’t been turned on in years. The helpful hotel receptionist explained to us and another fellow traveler also looking for cash how to reach a branch of the National Bank of Uzbekistan, which had a working ATM.

It was a good 20 minutes drive away, and yes, that machine did work. But it refused to dispense any cash to us. So after 2 hours of jetting back and forth across the city, we decided to try again the next day. Despite feeling frustrated, we wanted to go sight-seeing with whatever time we had left of that evening.

Our first stop was The Registan.

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The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty and is arguably the single most awe-inspiring site across all of Central Asia. With its majestic, azure blue mosaicked structures, it serves as the centerpiece of Samarkand. It used to be a public square, where people gathered to listed to royal proclamations as well as witness public executions. The square also served as a commercial center and the plaza was probably a wall-to-wall bazaar. The open space is enclosed by three formidable looking madrasahs (Islamic schools), each displaying stunning works of distinctive Islamic architecture. These structures are known to be the oldest preserved madrasahs in the Islamic culture, since anything older had been destroyed by Chinggis Khan.

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It was intimidating yet stunning, but we weren’t allowed to get close. It was getting dark and the area had been closed off. While I tried to take some discreet photos, an angry guard tried to shoo me away. I didn’t want him to confiscate my camera and make me delete the photos I had taken – I had already seen him do that to another tourist. So I walked away. I couldn’t quite get my head around why photos from such a distance were problematic. But rules are rules.

Some accounts of The Registan claim that if you slip a few notes under the radar to the guards, they’ll escort you inside for a private tour even after the area has been closed off. We didn’t try.

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Next we headed to Timur’s mausoleum.

The Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum is Timur’s (or Tamerlane’s) final resting place. The mausoleum is surprisingly modest, given his place in history as a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. He was also the first ruler of the Timurid dynasty. Timur is considered the last of the great nomadic conquerors for the Eurasian Steppe, and his empire set the stage for the rise of the more structured Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires.

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Timur, along with two sons and two grandsons, lie beneath the mausoleum. Like most Muslim mausoleums, the stones are just markers and the actual crypts are in a chamber beneath.

The entire structure was well lit and the guards were more relaxed. We couldn’t enter the premises, but could walk around it. The blue color was a bit ghoulish, but the intricate works on the walls were still visible and were gorgeous.

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We realized that we would not have enough time to experience Samarkand properly. The city is teeming with historical sites, and deserves at least 3-4 days. Unfortunately, we were planning to head to Tajikistan the next day.

Our highest priority for the following day was to find cash. We’ve been told that there’s a National Bank of Uzbekistan that handles Visa card cash advances. That is our last hope before we head for Dushanbe in Tajikistan. It will also be our last chance to decide whether we go ahead with the Pamir Highway or not. We were still hearing that sections of the highway are closed off due to floods.

This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.

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