It’s hard to believe, but we made it to the center of the silk road, or at least the cross roads where all the silk roads came together. At one time it was the center of an empire (and then another and another and another and another) and was a bustling bazaar filled city with the widest array of goods available in the world at that time. For centuries, fabrics, exotic spices, teas, foods, metalwork, crafts, animals and slaves were all traded in the bazaars of Bukhara and Samarkand. He who ruled those cities ran the trade, and profitable that it was, it’s no surprise Bukhara and Samarkand were a sought after war prize.
What’s left in Bukhara today is a surprisingly good amount of the old city- madrassas, caravanserai’s (silk road inns), several mosques, minarets and even a fortress. Having been sacked by Genghis Khan in the 14th Century, the city was completely destroyed except for one minaret, 40m high, which Genghis himself couldn’t bear to bring down and neither could the Russian Red Army in the 1920s when they took over the city. Although there are throngs of French tour groups (oh la la!), in the evening Bukhara quiets down and we found ourselves alone at sunset in the Kalon Mosque. Peaceful as it was, it wasn’t hard to imagine a courtyard full of merchants (like modern day souvenir sellers) hawking their goods, camels resting near by, trying to unload and reload before continuing their journey.
Samarkand however was a different story. While the buildings that are left are striking in size and design, there is no “old city” left. Everything near the sites has seemingly been torn down, sanitized, landscaped and paved. The architecture that is left is absolutely stunning, the tiled designs are for the most part in excellent condition and the “Registan” area is probably the most impressive single area that we’ve seen thus far. That being said, there’s an entrance fee for everything and its not a pleasurable wander, it feels more like tourist site to tourist site amidst a bustling city.
We also found a few sites, not right in downtown Samarkand, to be more interesting and a different than most of the larger sites we had visited so far. One, the Ulugbek Observatory featured the site that pioneered the science of Astronomy hundreds of years before Galeleo and Newton, and housed a museum detailing much of what was done there. We also took a day trip (shared taxi across the street from the Registan) to escape the “just for tourist” feel of Samarkand to Shakhrisabz, where the buildings haven’t been completely renovated and there is still life to it all. We were in Shakhrisabz on a Wednesday and counted at least 12 brides in full puffy gowns.
To our great dismay the atmosphere in Bukhara and Samarkand is a bit like Disney World. The main square of old Bukhara, with its mangrove shaded pool, was surrounded by upmarket tourist restaurants with Christmas lights strung about. The entire old city of Bukhara has been sanitized by the government (literally, much of the old has been bulldozed) and although we were in Central Asia, there weren’t any signs of that developing world vitality- local vendors, children playing in the streets, animals grazing in the grass. Samarkand was similar, the historical sites have all been turned into souvenir shops and the former classrooms and dormitories of the Madrassas now house mass produced souvenirs from China.
Last year the government knocked down the main pedestrian street in Samarkand and rebuilt a beautiful shop lined boulevard. A decorative wall blocks tourists view of real-life. Even the market had been torn down and renovated, and its gleaming gate and newly decorated walls shout new rather than old. Our couchsurfing host in Tashkent lamented the government changes, and frankly we couldn’t agree more. It’s as though the government has come through with a huge checkbook, cleaned, renovated and made the whole place “perfect” for all those French tourists. It’s a real shame, in our opinion the sites we came all this way to see have lost their sense of place.
IF YOU GO: Transportation between the cities of Uzbekistan is easy with shared taxis making the trip for twice as much as the bus. The taxi is faster (and therefore a dangerous roller coaster ride) but is still cheap. We traveled between these cities, mostly via bus, for approximately $5 each with some rides lasting 8 hours. Food is similarly priced and we generally paid $16-$20 for a private room. In Samarkand we recommend the Bahodir B&B; despite the plumbing problems mentioned in the guidebooks it was a very comfortable and cozy place to stay.