Saturday 25 June 2022

2022 Uzbekistan: Samarkand, Khiva, Bokhara, Tashkent

Samarkand 13.6.22

In Samarkand – amazing to be able to write these words.  Sitting in the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, on the left of the Registan Square.  Glorious blue sky overhead, matching the dominant tone of the tiles.  Swifts swoop and chirrup.  Sun already beating down at 10.30am.

This is the third time I've been in Samarkand – well, second, really – once was only passing through the station on my way to Bokhara.  But the first time was for real, back in 1982 – the year Brezhnev died.  It was during Soviet times, and I travelled as part of a small Intourist group.  It was autumn, the weather was cold and grey – raining, I think I remember going out on my own to gawp at the most beautiful square in the world.  Back then, I was the only one there.  Today, there are hundreds of tourists – but few Westerners.  Travel is hard after Covid.  Quite a few Russians, fleeing the hardships of the war against Ukraine.

I've been speaking in Russian, mostly, since people generally understand it here.  

In the Madrasa garden, thick mulberry trees with their fruit stains on the ground.  Only 50,000 Som to enter – about £3. I just took out 1.3 million Som from an ATM next to our hotel.  We are staying at the Bibi-Khanym hotel, which has the most amazing position next to the eponymous mosque.  Its dining room has one of the most spectacular views in the world, with the mosque and domes looming up in front of you through high windows.

We arrived last night at 5.30am.  Our plane from Istanbul arrived at 4am, but it took an hour for the luggage to arrive.  We are grateful, nonetheless, since we checked it in at Gatwick, to be sent through directly.  And not only for that efficiency.  As we were sitting in the departure lounge, waiting to board, I noticed a member of the ground staff pushing a case.  "Hey", I thought.  That looks like our case.  And it was. As the man moved away from the gate, I leapt after him, with visions of our case being left behind.  It turned out that the sticker was changed for some reason, and so I needed a new one.  But I was shaken.  I was not convinced it would come with us to Samarkand, and when it did, I was relieved.

Back in the hotel.  In fact, we shouldn't be here at all.  Originally, I planned to fly to Tajikistan – the route is almost identical – four hours to Istanbul, then four to Dushanbe.  But Tajikistan requires a visa.  It has – or seemed to have – an e-visa system.  I applied two weeks before I was due to go, and it worked well.  Then silence.  I waited a week, and then sent two messages asking if there was a problem.  No reply.  Finally, on the Friday afternoon, just 36 hours before I was due to fly, the 
e-visa came through.  But not before I had changed my ticket – to Istanbul then Samarkand, not Dushanbe.  The process was easier than I expected, and meant that I did not lose all my money, but merely had to pay for the difference.  Pity, I was really looking forward to spending today, Monday, in Dushanbe – the Tajiki word for "Monday", named after the day of the market in that place.  One day – maybe next year.

Anyway, back to the Registan.  After the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, to the Tilya-Kori Madrasah, which is the most majestic, with its huge 75 metre facade, the extra space used for students' rooms.  Inside, to the left, a mosque, now resplendent with its gilt interior restored.

Then to Sher-Dor Madrasah, with its crazy sun-lions on the facade.  Reminds me of the similarly forbidden birds on the face of the madrassa in Bokhara, where we will go shortly.  Today, we "only" saw the Registan.  But considering we arrived at 5.30am, that's not bad.  And we walked a lot – I had always thought Samarkand was small.  Not at all.  Tomorrow is likely to prove that most painfully….


After a surprisingly deep sleep, given that my body clock is re-setting itself by four hours, out in the already strong sun.  Past the great 
Bibi-Khanym mosque, which we will see tomorrow, and heading towards the the "old" city, to Shah-i Zinda, the street of the mausoleums.

As we pass over the footbridge spanning the major road below – like many in Samarkand, recently renovated, its tarmac smooth and devoid of markings – we turn right by the Hazrat Khizr mosque, apparently one of the oldest Muslim buildings in Samarkand.  

As usual, lots of Uzbeks visiting the Shah-i Zinda site, which is great, particularly school groups.  The brilliant blues glisten in the morning sunlight, with the different shades varying the basic tonality.  Impossible for a non-expert to do justice to the use of Arabic calligraphy as ornamentation.  Inside, some tombs are plain, but many are gloriously complex with geometric patterns and even the odd plant.  The scooped-out cornices look like negative space, defining a shape that is not there.

I have vague memories of visiting here back in 1982, of ascending and descending the hill.  But then, everything was in a state of disrepair.  Now it gleams with its original glory.  The site culminates in a little group of mausoleums that are particularly fine.  But the path continues through the large Muslim graveyard.  Rather disconcerting to see the faces of the deceased etched on the tombstones, a mournful army of the dead.  Far better to just turn to ashes and be scattered.

We followed the main path, which led to a dead end, retraced our steps, took the small path down to the main road, and then began walking.  And walking.  Samarkand is like India in this respect, hugely spread out.  Not  only was the road long, it was empty – a car every few minutes.  Combined with the heat it was a rather depressing journey.  But we arrived eventually, at the Afrosiab Museum.

It was quite new, and totally bereft of other visitors.  It held the findings from excavations conducted on the nearby archaeological site, the "old" Samarkand – the city of the Sogdians.  An interesting, forgotten people, who dominated the Silk road trade in this part of the world for centuries.  Most of the stuff in the museum was the usual pots, but also some striking wall paintings.  They showed emissaries from China and Tibet, another showed the Dragon Boat festival.  Cosmopolitan people.  One of the reasons for wanting to visit Tajikistan was to see the ruins of the Sogdian palaces near Panjakent, which is itself very near Samarkand, across the border.  Another reason to visit.

After the museum, back on the road, to the Ulugh Beg observatory.  Not much to see there – just the existing huge stone quadrant.  To the museum, which would have been nice except for the geezer who sneezed wetly without restraining it at all.  Hope it wasn't Covid.  

Then a taxi back – too far to walk in the near midday heat.  But before we found an official taxi, a bloke asked if wanted a taxi, even though his car was private.  He asked where, I said 
Bibi-Khanym, he said 200,000 Som – about $20.  Nope.  We walked off.  Then he said $2.  Nope.  We carried on walking.  Finally, he said $1 – that is, one twentieth of his first rip-off price.  That was fine, we got in, he drove off, not very calmly (no seat belts in the back, of course…), but we arrived safely….


A strange day ahead of us: we are taking the ten-hour train to Khiva – which leaves at 1am.  So we have taken our room for an extra night so that we are comfortable as we wait.  This also means a relatively easy day compared to the strenuous exertions of yesterday.

First, to 
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, next to our hotel.  The gate huge and stunning.  Even though everything here is mostly reconstructions – the place fell into ruins soon after being built – the impression justifies the work.  Through the courtyard, full of trees and a book – a huge one-metre square Koran, encased in glass.  Not clear if this is original or a copy – the latter presumably – it was taken to St Petersburg in the nineteenth century, then brought back.

The blue-domed mosque is closed off, ruined inside, but magnificent.  The Koranic text along the top has letters that rise high up to the edge; they look like the dripping letters in the Matrix, but reversed.  Still lots of restoration work going on, one side looking very perilous.  The great thing is you get a sense of the scale of Timur's vision.  Apparently, the mosque was funded by plunder brought back from Delhi – a reminder of how close we are to India, and how pivotal Samarkand was to the ancient world.

After the mighty glories of 
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, across the road to the Bibi-Khanym mausoleum.  A modest building with an unusual feature: a crypt below the main chamber, reached through a simple brick passageway and stairs.  More religion – to the Hazrat Khizr Mosque – which we passed yesterday.  Not much to see, but great views over Bibi-Khanym Mosque towards the "new" city.

Finally, down Ulitsa Tashkentskaya to the gardens alongside the Registan, but turning the other way into the old city.  Which is just like the backstreets of Bokhara, and the old part of Tashkent.  That is, narrow streets, no pavements, gutters either side, lost of building going on, weird architecture, blind walls, children running around.
We were in search of the Abu Mansur al-Maturidi Mausoleum.  We found it fairly easily, and it turns out to be another cubical edifice, like the one I saw in Bokhara – but nowhere as beautiful.  For the first time, we have to take off our shoes to walk on the soft carpet within.

Since our train leaves at 1.01am, and the taxi is coming an hour before, we needed to fill the evening, so back to the Registan, where half the city is watching the illuminations.  These add a real 3D element to the facades.  Great – until the light show begins, all purple and puces – yuk.  But the atmosphere good, very relaxed, very safe.  Unlike the road back, where small children are allowed to drive electric bikes and vehicles fast.  There are also bigger caddies for conveying people, as in Bokhara.  All electric, very quiet, but slightly dangerous.  Finally down to 
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, majestically illuminated, looming out of the Samarkand sky.

16.6.22 Somewhere between Bokhara and Khiva

On the splendid, Soviet-style train, whose idea of "luxe" is two bags of tea and hot water in the corridor.  Outside, near desert under the blistering sun.  No settlements, no animals, just a powerline or two.

Last night the hotel called a taxi for us, which as is so often the case here, was just a bloke and his car.  A bloke how managed to get lost even just going to the station.  Which is a surprisingly long way out.  Luckily, I could spot signs to "vokzal" every so often, so I had hopes we were going in the right direction.  Samarkand station splendid – its facade lit up in electric blues, the dominant colour of Uzbek Railways (which are incredibly efficient, and have a great smartphone app that I used to book all our tickets from the UK in about five minutes…).  Once past the external security checks, we saw a fine Soviet design that would not have been out of place in a nuclear power station.

Weirdly, the departures board was ordered by train number, and included all trains.  I asked one of the station staff which platform the train from Tashkent would arrive on, and he said he didn't know yet – probably why the board had no info about platforms.

The train turned up on platform 1, on time, and was a huge three-eyed monster.  It only stopped for a few minutes, so there was the usual anxious rush by everyone to find their berths and seats.  Ours was in wagon 7.  Not exactly luxurious, but we had it to ourselves, and there was clean bed linen to put on the seats.  I slept pretty well for four hours (the journey lasts ten hours), disturbed only when some crazy French people tried to get into our (locked ) compartment.

Woke at seven o'clock, went along to the restaurant car, where a man was frying pirozhkis.  Probably not the best for our delicate guts.  Good job we brought some Italian biscuits – all the food we will get until Khiva.

Stopped in Urgench – another 40 minutes or so.  The countryside now very green – amazing the contrast.  Looks almost like Italy.  Urgench looks pretty grim.  Met at Khiva station by taxi, then to Arkanchi Hotel.  Which is inside the ancient city walls and fantastic: luxurious, cheap – and was have a view of the main minarets from our room.  Just one flaw: restaurant only serves breakfast.  So out into the 34 degree heat to find one of the few restaurants here.  In Teahouse Farrukh – nice ambience, Uzbek music, limited menu.  Plov generous, dry, with rather fatty meta.  Non, flat and hard, unlike the soft fluffy kind in Samarkand.  But all edible, and in a nice, shady location.  Not just temperature rising, but humidity too – in Samarkand, the air was pleasantly dry.

After a snooze, out for a quick recce.  Starting from the west gate – Ata Darvoza – where a turnstile ensures people pay to enter if they are tourists.  The main road east from there is the Grand Canal of Khiva – a central artery, with architectural masterpieces on either side.  In fact, Khiva feels like Venice – without the water – the same narrow alleys, old brickwork, washing out to dry.  It also feels like Italy in general, medieval cities like San Gimignano, with high walls baking under the sun.  Out to the east gate with its triple doors.  Lots of beautiful old carved doors here, as in Bokhara.  Again, Khiva like that city, except compressed, squeezed to its Silk Road essence.  Bokhara is more expansive, less concentrated, more relaxed.

We went north, then west, then south to the great Islam Khoja minaret.  And at this point, as I was taking all the obvious but necessary photos, my phone shut down – from the heat.  It was clearly time for us to take refuge in the hotel again.

Khiva 17.6.22

Glorious day here, of which more anon.  First, the obligatory catch-up with yesterday, which was a strange day for obvious reasons.  So, after letting my phone cool down – and recovering from the heat myself, out into the still exhausting evening heat.  Across to the east gate, to try a recommended restaurant, Khorezm Art, which was opposite the Kutlug-Murad Inaka Madrassa, and with views southwest to the Islam Khoja minaret.

Great location, with the swifts swirling and screeching around and around overhead, darting under canopies, effortlessly avoiding the pillars there.  Alas, the restaurant was a bit of a disaster.  It had a promising menu, but half the dishes were "off" ("the cat had it", presumably).  We accepted the proffered substitutes, and waited.

A bowl of soup came.  We had ordered two.  It went back, and returned with another – tepid.  We found out the owner was French, and broke out into remonstrations in that language.  Two other uninspired dishes followed.  We paid and left.  Great location, though…

Then a slow walk back to the hotel as the minarets gradually loomed out of the increasing darkness – just as the Kalon minaret did in Bokhara.  To the hotel, which among its many virtues is a roof terrace that overlooks the town.  Atmospheric now, aided by Uzbek music wafting over from a nearby restaurant.  Sounded amazingly like Western medieval music – which is no wonder, since the Crusaders brought back the influence of this region's music.

And so to today, which began early so we could avoid the fiercest sun.  After a disappointing breakfast – food is this hotel's only weakness – up to the terrace to see the town in early morning light.  Then out through the west gate to buy the special ticket that give admittance to almost everything in Khiva, and for two days – great idea – and only 120,000 Som – about $12 each.  It doesn't cover extras like climbing the minarets, but sadly, the ticket lady told me the minarets were closed.  But she helpfully recommended visiting  the Kurya Ark, which lets you climb up to the battlements.  So we did.

Up a steep staircase, views of the walls, bricks made of mud and straw.  Down to beautiful courtyards, one with a roof supported by two slender pillars, very common here in Khiva, and also found in Bokhara, in the mosque opposite the Ark; the other roof held up by six of them.  Both with beautiful, complex tiles.  Then into the throne room, rather gaudy, but attractive in small quantities.

Out, past a few minor buildings, to one of Khiva's main attractions: the Juma mosque, with its origins in the tenth century.  Inside, an amazing geometrical forest of slender elm pillars – some 213 of them.  Each is carved, and unique, supported on stone blocks.  The ceiling is very low, making the dark space very intimate.  Reminds me of the mosque/church in Cordoba, which I saw 40 years ago, even if very different in detail.  A curious aspect: two tiny gardens growing amidst the forest of dead trees.

To the nearby Tash Khauli palace.  The only part that can be visited is the harem, but that is splendid.  The ornamental design is very particular: it is based around rectangles and right angles, and so has a distinctly Mesopotamian feel to it.  There are four open sections, one for each wife of the khan.  Each section has an ornate ceiling in very different colours.  There is the khan's bed chamber, complete with the khan-sized bed.

Along to the Pahlavi Mahmud Mausoleum – a local wrestler and poet, who somehow became a saint.  Impressive burial chamber, with a high dome – and chandelier.  Final stop before lunch, the Museum of Applied Arts, located in the Islam Khoja madrassa.  Nice enough collection of ceramics, textiles, metalwork etc, though hardly exciting.

Among the many amazing aspects of this trip is that everything – flights, hotels, trains – were booked just a week ago.  If nothing else, this shows how the Internet has made this kind of last-minute expedition possible.  

Lunch under the trees at the restaurant opposite the music museum.  Nothing special, but atmospheric setting that made me think of Greece.  The trees, the heat, the souvlaki being roast…

After lunch, a rest, then a sauna, since the hotel has one.  The out to support, to the Zarafshon Cafe right by the Islam Khoja minaret.  Our table was right next to a statue showing a group of boys playing musical instruments – one of the many statues around the town.  Although rather tacky to my eyes, the young musicians were popular with the locals, who came to have their pix taken with them.

The meal was the best we have had in Khiva, culminating in perhaps the best watermelon and melon I've had – sweet but not sickly.  All accompanies by two teapots of green tea, which is a life-save here: drinking a full pot each hydrates you for the night perfectly.  And then back here, along the streets as the vendors finally pack up their stalls, of which there are many here, all selling the same furry hates, scarves, T-shirts, break stamps (a characteristic of Khivan non is the geometric shapes made on them with sharp stamps; it's also much thinner and crispier than the fluffy non in Samarkand.)  Air cooling delightfully.  A good end to a great day.


Up early again, to avoid the 35+ degrees coming.  We walk around the walls – which are amazingly intact for almost the entire town.  The mud and straw always visible.  At one point, towards the south, there was a graveyard with the characteristic Muslim tombs, built on a slope running up to the wall.  The houses around here quite poor and basic, but also a lot of B&Bs – for Uzbeks, I presume.  On one house, we could see the brick construction covered by a coating of mud and straw – making them look traditional, but built using modern materials.

Following the circumvallating street, we rose northwards to the east gate, where the fort and caravanserai seemed closed, then back to the Tosh Khauli palace, where a second entrance gives access to the Khan's state courts, not accessible from the harem.  Both deeply impressive – the first with a yurt, as was used at the time, the second with a large circular platform, but no yurt.  Both had a canopy with a high roof supported by a single, stunning carved wooden column.  Being so early, we had the place to ourselves.

The Tosh Khauli was the high point of Khiva, complemented by the equally impressive but very different 
Juma mosque.  But the Tosh Khauli was a place of such suffering – of slaves and concubines, the latter forced to abort if they became pregnant, since only the khan's four queens could bear heirs.

Afterwards, back along the wall, moving north.  To the north gate, wider than the others, with two domes overhead.  Steps led up to the battlements – a d good ten metres off the ground, and zero safety measures.  Great view of the city.  To the Ark along the battlements, but no way down.  Then back through the slightly richer northern part of the city, to the hotel.

Since we take the 4pm train to Bokhara, arriving at midnight, we need to buy food.  There are no corner shops in Khiva it seems, but there is a baker very close to our hotel.  We went in, asked for two of the big circular non – and the lady baker cooked them on the spot, in her big, gas-fired clay oven, slapping the dough on the walls, as in other countries such as Georgia.

On the train to Bokhara.  Outside the endless scrub rolls by.  The road – the only one – follows the rail track.  The train appears to be the one we came out on – even some of the staff are the same.  However, we left in the afternoon heat, and arrive at 00:15, so the first part, with an hour-long stop in Urgench, no aircon, was pretty hellish.  Interesting how you begin listening for the slightest external sound that indicates the train starting to move.  Your entire, sweaty being focuses on that one hope.  Now it's cool, with the aircon working, the sun no visible.  We've eaten our Khivan bread – like hard tack – as well as some indescribably flavoured crisps, sold by a little man with two buckets of such snacks and water.  We paid him far too much, but were too hot and hungry to care.

Bokhara 19.6.22

Back in the most perfect building in Bokhara – the Samanid Mausoleum in the park.  It's a stormy day, overcast, pleasantly cool, and the wind is whispering through the mausoleum's brick lattice work.

Back in Kulkaldosh Hotel – nice design, poor service.  This morning was spent doing the classic Bokharan trek: past Lyab-i Hauz, then the various domes, and along to the great Kalon minaret.  In to the mosque, which has changed little since I was here three years ago.  Then on to Registan Square, now full of bicycles and a horrible temporary music venue.  No camel.  Into the Ark, mostly fully of Uzbeks.  In the museum, noted something I'd missed before: a few plates made in Russia, an indescribable red/scarlet/maroon colour I've never seen before.  To the Zindan, as a reminder of how awful things were here not so long ago.

To the Bolo Haouz Mosque, sadly closed.  But its charms slight diminished after the incomparably better carved columns of Khiva.  Then through the park to 
the Samanid Mausoleum.  On the way back, passed the Mavlono Assiri Madrassa, and then Qo'sh Madrassa – open, but nothing special.  Lunch in Lyab-i Hauz restaurant; good food, slow service.

It is strange to be back here so soon.  After three years, most of my memories are fresh.  But as an "exotic" location, I never expected to return here so soon – though I'm glad I did.  It all feels very familiar.

As did Khiva, which as not only completely new to me, but did not match my expectation at all, at least in terms of how I visualised it.  I imagine something much more crowded, but is (now) a spacious town.  Also clean and well looked after.  In this, it contrasts with another isolated desert trading post – Jaisalmer, which was more authentic, but possessed fewer great buildings than Khiva.  They also share the same geographical isolation: I remember it took me 11 hours of train along a single track to get to Jaisalmer from Jodhpur; it took ten hours of train to get to Khiva from Samarkand, eight to return to Bokhara.

This afternoon, the clouds were blown away by a strong wind, leaving a scorching sun.  We walked to two of my favourite madrassas, that of Abdulaziz Khan, and of Ulugh Beg.  The facade of the latter is glorious, while the former's inverted 3D beehive (ghanch) is unusual in its colouring.  Inside both the usual hard-sell ladies, plus the never-ending restoration works.

The wind and sun very dehydrating, so along to the Silk Road Teahouse.  Despite its cheesy name, the setting was atmospheric – beautiful carpets hung around the high walls – and the menu original: things like ginger tea, saffron tea, with typical central Asian sweets.  The tea a little overwhelming, but it was an interesting experience.

Bokhara 20.6.22

Sitting in the Lyab-i Hauz restaurant by the pool – but not that kind of pool.  Excellent plov – good and greasy, which I now rather like.  Green tea, of course.  Quieter today.  Leaving on the 15.30 train to Samarkand.

This morning, out along the backstreets to the crazy Chor Mina.  As ludicrous as ever, but this time open.  We enter the shop occupying the entrance, pay the 5000 Som, and ascend a very low staircase to the main chamber.  Interesting carving by each window.  Up gain to the roof, clambering over the domes.  Views not anything special, but nice to be among the four towers, looking like big stubby pencils with huge blue rubbers.

Last night, along to the Mirzina restaurant.  I booked a table earlier, and was get with curious stares.  Three years ago, booking was indispensable.  Now, not so much.  When we arrived at 7.30pm, it was practically deserted, with only one waiter, and him with an injured hand.  The menu much reduced, nothing special.  We took the Uzbek white wine, sharp but refreshing.  The food disappointing, as was perhaps inevitable given the good memories of 2019.  Even Bokhara suffers a little from this: going back to a place where your experiences were so good is dangerous.  As Heraclitus almost said: "It is not possible to step in the same River Oxus twice…"

One of the interesting side-effects of being a Westerner here among only a few other Westerners, is that you begin to recognise people from previous sights and meals.  It feels as if you are gaining a Sherlockian superpower.

One thing I don't remember from last time is all the Myna birds – the sparrows/blackbirds/starlings of the place.

On the Afrosiab – using this horrible biro because my main pen fell out in the station's X-ray machine.  Fab train as ever, even better in the business class – bigger seats and fewer people.  Short trip to Samarkand – only one hour 30 minutes.

Good news: the station changed pounds – most places don't (thanks, Brexit…).  Interestingly, they refused three of my £10 notes, because of tiny marks.  So I only received 6,420,000 Som.  Feeling poor…  I need cash because our final hotel won't accept cards.  

Landscape outside quite scrubby, though more green than on the way to Khiva.

Tashkent 21.6.22

In the waiting room of the station, about to return to Samarkand at 6.30pm, whence we came with a hideously early 6.11am train.  A day trip to Tashkent seemed like a good idea – and so it proved.

Weather fresh when we drove in a taxi to the station, then on to the wonderful Afrosiab fast train (two hours 15 minutes) to Tashkent.  Dozed on the way here, reasonably refreshed.  Then out into the warming air, across to the metro station to buy a jeton.  Except they don't use them any more – just a flimsy bit of paper with a QR code (1,400 Som, up from 1000 three years ago) – these things are everywhere in Uzbekistan. 

To Ozbek – "my" stop from 2019, then east towards the Museum of Fine Arts. This was closed for renovations last time I was here, and the Bradt guide (admittedly an older version) said it was closed on Tuesdays.  So we arrived with little hope of seeing its holdings, but...miracle, it was open, and we were practically the only people there.  Most were art students, copyright old masters in time-honoured tradition – and rather well.

The interior of the museum was typical austere but effective Soviet style.  The collections were a little random in their organisation, but contained amazing treasures.  For example, the ground floor had a section devoted to paintings of all the main sites – Samarkand, Khiva, Bokhara.  But they showed them as they were, 50, 100 years ago.  Thus, before the major but respectful reconstructions that have been carried out recently.  Especially of 
Bibi-Khanym, a ruin before being re-built.  The pix very atmospheric, not just because they show a lost world, but also because of the art employed.

Elsewhere, lots of carpets, carvings, furniture, metalware etc.  But also hundreds of local and European paintings, including big names – Canaletto, Kandinsky etc.  And a beautiful sculpture by Canova.  Very strong in Russian paintings and icons, but not only.  Really a jewel of a collection, even if rather higgledy-piggledy in its arrangement.  So glad it was open this time.

A short walk to Amir Timur Square.  As well as the Hotel Uzbekistan, where I was trapped the day Brezhnev died, there are two huge new buildings going up.  True in every place we've visited: Uzbekistan is booming.  Evident too in the flash phones that many have, the smart watches and the Airpod-type earphones.  Also evident in the number of pregnant women, many very young.  Also, families with three kids seem common.  Really is a self-confident country surging forward.  I predict it will become a leader in the region.

For lunch, to the outrageously expensive Khiva Restaurant part of the Hyatt Hotel.  Great food - I had the Murgh Afghani – two interesting Uzbek red wines (but nowhere near as good as Georgian).  We couldn't eat it all, and suffered somewhat thereafter.  No wifi available – the connection was there, but no Inter net.  In general, Internet is good here, fast even – another sign of progress.

To the gaudy but rather good State Museum of The Temurids.  A good run through of Central Asian history: the more I learn about Timur, the more impressed I am about his achievements.  Very well done, wide, spacious, well explained.

After half and hour of failing to hail a taxi, we took the metro to Chorsu bazaar.  The metro very crowded, still very clean and very fast.  Great way of getting around.  And Chorsu as amazing as ever: huge, bustling, full of wonderful wares – especially the brilliantly coloured fruits, the nuts, the piles of spices.  Busy even at 3pm.
Then straight down the number 2 metro line to the station.  Early, very early, for the 6.45pm train back to Samarkand, but we were exhausted – up since 4am – and needed aircon.  Station busy, trains arriving and leaving promptly – another feature of Uzbekistan.  And the people so good-natured – even the sales people urge you very mildly.  It's another aspect that I love about this place.

Samarkand 22.6.22

Back in 
Bibi-Khanym Hotel's restaurant Zarafshon, with its incomparable view of Bibi-Khanym.  Yes, I know it's reconstructed – even more so after seeing the paintings in Tashkent of how it looked.  But the reconstructions are tasteful and work, and are justified – you a sense of the majesty of what was, albeit briefly.  Strange to see the birds skimming high over the opalescent dome.  I wonder how they see it.  The other two domes glistening in the sun, more complicated in their designs.

Late rise this morning after yesterday's exertions.  Good, peaceful breakfast in Hotel L'Argamak's courtyard, filled with fig trees and vines.  A strange but welcome oasis of calm, in contrast to the rather squalid road outside – the open gutter running down the middle of the road.

From the hotel, to the great Amir Temur mausoleum.  To get there, we decided to turn right, not left, and ended up in a warren of tiny backstreets, full of Uzbeks rather curious why Westerners were wandering here.  Eventually we hit the main road, too far along to the Registan, but easy to turn back.

Had some Uzbek red win with meal – a little acetic – now about to try Uzbek cognac on the grounds that I probably won't get another chance to do so for a while…  Cognac more or less indistinguishable from Armenian cognac – or, indeed, French cognac.  Pretty good.  Goes well with apple cake, which is rather fine – all the cakes we have had here have been rather tasty.  The Great Uzbek Bake-off…

When we eventually reach the Amir Temur mausoleum it was clear what a fine piece of architecture it was.  However, inside was even better – not just glistering gold everywhere, but amazing 3D encrustations, cleverly picked out by the intelligent uplighting.  Once more, large parts reconstructed, but validly so.  Afterwards, across to the simple Rukhobod mausoleum – plain on the outside, plainer insider.

Samarkand airport 23.6.22

Up at a hideously early 2am, taxi at 3am, to the new airport – only opened three months ago, and rather dramatic in its open book-like design.  Check-in line quite long, Uzbeks with no sense of personal space. 

Yesterday evening, we concluded our trip by re-visiting the Registan.  It was an obvious way to end an amazing time – and a good way to spend some of the surplus Som we still have.  Inside, much quieter, more peaceful.  In Ulug Beg's madrassa we went up two pairs of stairs to the first floor – wonderful new perspectives of the minarets and domes.

Then back to Bibikhanum Teahouse, dodging the constant high-speed stream of electric scooters, electric trikes and caddies – weirdly modern aspect of ancient Samarkand (also striking: all government officers have their blood group displayed on their uniforms – great idea).  There for a final, symbolic plov in one of our favourite venues.  But they had run out.  So next door to the  Zarafshon at our first hotel – and they had run out too… Sigh.

When we rose this morning, there was a crescent moon hovering over Amir Temur's mausoleum…

Back in the insanely large Istanbul airport, sitting at the same Sinit Sarayi cafe we were in just 11 days ago.

I can imagine coming through here quite a lot: it is already the key hub for flights to Central Asia, with more being added – for example, to Bokhara.  And I happened to notice on the departure board a flight to Ulaanbaatar

This airport is a manifestation of Erdogan's megalomania, but it also reflects the growing economic and geopolitical might of Turkey – aka Turkiye.  Given this, and the similarity of most Central Asian languages (not Tajiki, which is Persian), to Turkish, I think I shall start learning the latter in earnest.  I've already dabbled, and find I remember quite a lot of the vocab.  The problem as ever, is the verbs.  Although agglutinating languages are nowhere near the level of Georgian, which I must get back into now that my digital copyright book "Walled Culture" is more or less done...

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