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Discovery Uzbekistan Travel Guide #14/2010

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Even those who know nothing about Uzbekistan have some flicker of recognition when it comes to the mythical city of "Samarkand". Countless travellers have passed through here over thousands of years and told glowing tales of the city's splendour. Browse the internet, read the travel tales, legends and firsthand accounts of travellers from all over the world who have been to Samarkand.

Samarkand is a multifaceted city; it is neither a museum town such as Khiva, nor does it have the old world feel of Bukhara's narrow winding lanes. Samarkand is a busy city with a flair and a bustle that complement its stunning artefacts. Once a Russian garrison, the centre still boasts many lovely Empire style houses; these are presently going through a revival and being renovated and their charm preserved, Art Deco elements included. Stroll down the shady University Boulevard at any time of day for some people-watching and then turn right towards the downtown area, where many trendy and original cafes and restaurants have opened. And give it a few more months and the first boutique hotel will open its doors as well. We're working on it...

From Tashkent by car or coach with driver the journey takes about 4 hours as the shortcut through Kazakhstan is now closed. By plane, twice daily, but seats on the IL or YAK may be hard to get; we recommend the smart way: by rail. The Registan train Business Class is a classy way to travel on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. 3? hours in a comfortable, clean, brand new 6-seat compartment with a glass door you can close, complete with TV and a view over the Uzbek country side, from lush to arid, through quaint villages and the Jizzak hills, and friendly hostesses who serve you breakfast on the morning train, all this for around only 10$.

Where to stay
The range of accommodation is wide, from luxury chain hotels to tiny family B&Bs where hardly anyone speaks English but where you will still have no problem understanding your host, for providing food and shelter for travellers has always been and still is the very essence of the Great Silk Road and the people of Samarkand are champion hosts.

The President Palace and Afrosiab Palace are the largest hotels in Samarkand right opposite Gur Emir featuring different cafes and restaurants, pool area and spa. The Orient Star Hotel is a mid-size hotel with all conveniences, bar, souvenir shop, pool and a beautiful dining hall, a few minutes by car from the Registan square. Deep in the heart of the old town is a charming B&B, Legends of Samarkand, which has been lovingly restored, and the rooms selectively furnished using local textiles. Sit under the shade of the old mulberry tree in the antiques-filled courtyard. Two sisters, one fluent in English, one in German run the quaint B&B Muhandis, right beside the Gur E Mir, a real insider tip for those in search of delicious home cooking, a wild courtyard garden, cosy rooms, an intellectual conversation with the owners or an exchange with interesting travellers from around the globe.

Where to eat
The choice is now excellent, unlike a few years ago. The downtown area around Sharof Rashidov street has developed into the restaurant square mile. Don't get mislead by the term cafe, what we consider restaurants are often called cafe in Russian. Starting from the upscale Cafe Afrodite, eat your way further towards downtown through Old Town, the cosy wood-furnished restaurant and beer bar with original design ideas; do you long to bite into large, juicy chunks of meet with no fat? The Kavkaski Shashlik next to the Sher Dor Hotel is where you should head to, pork, beef, lamb, they all taste delicious straight from the charcoal grill. Along Sharof Rashidov Street you find the entirely wood-lined Traktir opposite the Museum of Local Lore (Kraivetsheski Muzei) and to the right around the corner past Restaurant Tumor, one of the best now in Samarkand, stop by Cafe Platan, whose outside deck is a great success in the evening, Cafe Blues serves delicious snacks and great cocktails while Edward plays fabulous live jazz. Finally, do not forget your own hotel, upon request, most everyone will be glad to serve you a meal of your choice.

However many photos you have seen of the Registan, that first view will still be an awe-inspiring moment. The gigantic facades, the intricacy and quantity of the tiling and the wonderfully rich colours create a truly magical effect as you approach the 'sandy square' (nowadays tiled). The morning sun shines onto the Ulug Beg Madressa and the afternoon sun lights up the lion/tiger and the deer on the Sher Dor facade, worth remembering for your photo shoot. Visit the Tilla Kari mosque, its stunning interior laid out entirely in gold as seen on our cover page. Take your time, wander around, sit down for a few minutes, a local may get into a conversation with you, and just enjoy the privilege of having arrived at the end of a long journey.

This beautiful little mausoleum is where Amir Temur (Tamerlane) and his descendents lie. The stones above are just markers, the real tombs are in a chamber beneath. Ask about the story surrounding the excavation of the tomb in the 1940s. Legend has it that an inscription on the grave stated that 'whoever opens this will be defeated by an enemy more fearsome than I'. The guides will be happy to elaborate. If you ever get a chance to watch the Russian documentary on the "Amir Temur affaire", don't miss out.

Bibi Khanum
The first blue cupola that you see as you approach the big bazaar at the entrance of Samarkand is that of the Bibi Khanum Mosque. Bibi Khanum was the wife of Amir Temur and is said to have had a major influence on the cultural development of the Timurid empire; little research has been done so far, legends are our main source of information about this descendent of Ghengis Khan but we know that Bibi Khanum was a great beauty, a patron of the arts and a truly exceptional woman of her time. Look for the enormous marble Quran said to aid fertility of any woman that crawls underneath it.

This Tomb of the Living King is the necropolis where Amir Temur's most influential advisors and teachers and his immediate family are buried, each in separate mausoleums lining one long narrow street. Each one is unique and intricately decorated with some of the city's finest majolica tilework and the effect is magical and strangely moving. The innermost shrine is thought to be the grave of a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed so it is also a place of pilgrimage. If you are interested in the majolica, you may want to visit the state workshop out near the airport which is in charge of restoring these precious relics of the Middle Ages.

Discovery Uzbekistan #2

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