Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Green Tea and Tamerlane’s Tomb

Rapid, loud Uzbek voices echoed loudly off the ceiling and pillars of the Samarkand bazaar. White cakes and opaque candy treats contrasted with the weathered and cracked brown hands of the locals offering a sample. Several moments later, Hannah and I walked away with some sesame seed covered peanuts and bright yellow sugar crystals meant to be coupled with tea. When we arrived back at our small hotel each evening the host provided some traditional green Uzbek tea. It warmed us nicely from the long day of walking in the cold.

Past the towering square Islamic styled madrassas and mosques, rolling bumpy hills formed on the outskirts of Samarkand’s historic district. The area was called Afrasiyab Settlement. It was reminiscent of some early Native American settlements where I grew up in an area called “Cahokia Mounds”. Long whispy grass blew in the soft wind along the rise and fall of the bright green knolls. Beneath them lay centuries of history from Samarkand’s first settlers.

The Arabic dynasties invented Algebra and were some of the world’s finest astronomers. We walked about 45 minutes in the cold one day to learn a bit more about this legacy. The Ulugbek Observatory showed some of the early depictions of instruments and readings used in the 15th century. A long, narrow chute sloped into the ground with a small hole above to allow the moonlight in for measurements. As we left the museum and observatory, large flakes of snow descended quickly soaking our jackets and hats. We opted for a $2 taxi ride rather than the 45 minute walk home.

Uzbekistan was unquestionably the most difficult destination on our trip. A number of factors played into this. Among them, a significant absence of any common or close to common language was a leading cause. In many countries, a Latin derivative or English influenced language allowed us to make educated guesses and determinations. Many of the words were also written in the Cyrillic alphabet with some characters we had somewhat started to recognize from our time in the Balkans, but still remained largely unable to read. Another factor was the lack of restaurants and grocery stores. They appeared more like tiny ransacked 7/11’s, at best. Finally, the general past isolationism of Uzbekistan meant we pointedly stood out, and awkwardly, at times. Long, unabashed stares followed us. Often, smiles and curious questions about where we were from and remarks about loving America followed those stares. Nevertheless, we felt out of place.

We tried to keep a low profile during our travel, truly making a concerted effort to not draw attention to the fact that we were foreigners or outsiders. Nevertheless, it was far too obvious that we did not fit in sometimes. In Samarkand, I struck out for a run in shorts on a rainy, chilly 36 degrees Fahrenheit day. Several tourist police ogled me as I rounded a corner and I gave them a small wave and received one back with a smile. An older Uzbek man waved me down and hurriedly pulled his wife and her friends in and motioned to his phone. He wanted to take my picture, they rarely came across Americans or westerners. This was not the first time in this country that we were asked to take a picture by strangers. I politely abided and continued my run, amused by the interaction. Never had I felt like a celebrity until Uzbekistan. Running was also not the best way to keep a low profile as it was not an activity…On one run, a man stopped me, asking if everything was ok. In his mind, the only reason to run would be to get help or run from something. I tried to explain that I run to lose weight. He did not speak English so I simply rubbed my belly and said “too much plov”, which was met with a hearty laugh and clap on the back.

Samarkand served as the capital of the Timurid Empire after its conquer by Tamerlane (Timur). His prowess on the battlefield was only surpassed by rumors of his ruthlessness. Historians often reference him as one of the most decorated military leaders. Pictured below are pictures from the Gur-e-Amir, which is his mausoleum and an example of Persian-Mongol architecture. The Soviets purportedly exhumed in 1941 before the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Their discoveries indicated that Tamerlane walked with a pronounced limp. Needless to say, the beautiful, eastern architecture and the significant history left me enthralled with the city.

One chilly evening, I struck out alone to the main boulevard in search of a quick meal. Hannah had a sniffly nose and left dinner up to me. With approximately 3 options to choose from, I picked up 2 take-away kebabs. Hannah elected to forego most of hers, so I took the hero’s path and finished hers as well as mine. What a mistake. I marked the following two days with intense stomach cramps and numerous bathroom visits. In the end, we think it was a mild case of salmonella or perhaps some giardia from the shower. It was not the first time on the trip.

We spent our final day in awe of the Registan, the primary tourist destination of Samarkand. Three towering madrassas gates reflected beautifully in the sunlight. The same blue, yellow, and green designs graced the front and insides of each building. I imagined the small windows and doors of the 3 storied complex full of young students studying the Quran. During our visit, a small gaggle of tourists occasionally ducked in and out of the complex. The small inner chambers no longer espouse Islamic teachings, but now hold vendors selling ornate ceramics, carpets, and metalwork. I mused about what the original creator would think about that were he alive.


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