Walking in Memphis, sorry… Tashkent and Samarkand

This blog was never meant to be a travel guide or a diary, with a day by day account of my travels. That would be really dull – "Wednesday: sat on bus to Samarkand for 6 hours". Who wants to read that? It was more a place to gather my thoughts on stuff and record the occasional story. So, I'm going to cover about 5 days and 2 cities in one post…

Tashkent is not a particularly attractive city. There are a few parks and wide open boulevards, but when you're trying to hide from the relentless sun burning a hole in your head a little bit of shade would have been nice. It also has, like a lot of cities in underdeveloped countries, a sense of being unfinished. Buildings are either half built, or half demolished (it's hard to tell which sometimes) and the roads are uneven.

As I wandered into a random park on Sunday afternoon I noticed a fairground. It was closed, possibly abandoned, so I decided to explore the rusting old rides with their flaking paint and memories of happier days. It reminded me a little of my visit to Pripyat, the abandoned city next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. In 2010 I'd spent a couple of days there looking at the city and learning about that fateful day in 1986 when reactor number 4 failed, leading to the worst nuclear disaster in history. It was an eerie, unsettling experience, and one which included walking through an amusement park with dodgem cars and Ferris wheel, their frames decaying, forever unable to fulfil their raison d'être of bringing fun and delight to the people of the city.

And then my melancholy thoughts were interrupted by the sound of children laughing, and I came back to the present. Yes, this part of Tashkent was perhaps not the cleanest, or well maintained, or affluent but it was still a place that children laughed and I sat on a bench for a while watching passers by and soaking up the sun.

On my walk back to the hotel I stopped in a supermarket to pick some essentials (my bag hadn't arrived at this point) including some Splat Professional, which I assumed was toothpaste and not haemorrhoid cream, but whatever it was at least it was the professional version.

I like walking tours. As much I like wandering around and exploring it's good to have someone who knows what you're looking at to tell you about things. The following day would be the first of many I was looking forward to on this trip.

The tour started with a walk to a bus stop and a bus ride to a metro station – so far so "not exactly a walking tour". However, not only is the Tashkent metro a convenient way to travel without burning to a crisp in the sun, it's also a picturesque way to travel as each station is decorated with pictures, coving, chandeliers, marble and other finery. They are also themed. The one we started at happened to be themed around Cosmonauts and the proud tradition of Uzbekis going into space. The first man in space, Uri Gagarin, was from Uzbekistan.

As communist metro system decorations go, it's up there with the Pyongyang metro in North Korea, which I visited in 2007. On this occasion though no photography was allowed so you'll have to take my word for it until you visit both for yourself. You are going to do that, right?

Over the course of the morning we visited the main sights of the city, and apart from the relatively newly refurbished Independence Square they were either closed or, to my eyes, not particularly interesting. I hoped my next stop, Samarkand would be better.

Samarkand (Marakanda to the Greeks) is one of Central Asia's oldest settlements, dating back to the 5th century BC. When it was taken in 329 BC by Alexander the Great it is said that he remarked, "Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except is is more beautiful than I ever imagined".

Samarkand has 5 main sights and trying to cover them all in a single 8 hour walk in 38C after you've had next to zero sleep because you spent the night on the toilet is not the best way to do it. I'm just putting that out there.

My introduction to Samarkand was an 8 hour walk in 38C after I'd had next to zero sleep because I spent the night on the toilet. The guide, Jalol, was very knowledgable and passionate and the sites were a distinct step above anything Tashkent had to offer so it was well worth the general feeling of not being quite there sometimes, and constant threat of unpleasant interruption.

We started at the Ulugbek Observatory where we learned about how, in the 15th century, Leader of Uzbekistan and Astronomer Ulugbek was able to observe and calculate the movements of the planets with amazing accuracy. We moved on to the Shah-I-Zinda, an avenue of mausoleums with stunning tilework. Next up was the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, then Registan Square, a collection of medresssas around a large square. I did wonder whether the heat was getting to my at that point but I'm assured there were a few 'not quite right angles' and it wasn't just me who thought they looked a bit wonky. They were still very impressive though and the short side trips inside to the shade were very welcome.

The final stop for the day was the Guy-e-Amir Mauseleum. Here was the final resting place of Timur, father of Uzbekistan, two of his sons and Ulugbek all housed in a reasonably modest building, in comparison to the wonders we had seen before. It had been a really fascinating day, with some impressive sights and for the record I managed no 'accidents' and no falling asleep for the duration. All in all a great tour!

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