Along the ancient Silk Road

Posted on 2019-06-23

Somewhere in northern Iran, we had left the main route of the ancient Silk Road to explore the old Persian cities to the south. We then rejoined the Silk Road in Merv, Turkmenistan, but it was only in Uzbekistan that we fully realised this. The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are world famous for their Silk Road heritage, and still feature some impressive old buildings from the time when they were important centres of trade and power.

We entered the country from Turkmenistan, after one of the easiest border crossings since leaving Europe. Uzbekistan has a horrible reputation for harassing tourists at its borders with tough customs checks, lots of bureaucracy, and unfriendly guards. But in 2017, the new president decided to boost the tourism industry, and since then, travellers from more and more countries (including Singapore and Germany) no longer need a visa, and the border guards have become very welcoming and don't really seem to check anything anymore. The previously overpriced accommodation market has also been liberalised, allowing not only for big hotels, but now also for small, affordable guesthouses and homestays.

From the border, the first town we reached was Alat, where we arrived barely in time to change some money and buy a simcard. We continued to the next town, where, while looking for a hostel, we were abducted into an unofficial guesthouse in someone's home. The next day, we finally reached Bukhara, where we stayed two full days for sightseeing, catching up with photos, and for a little break after rushing a bit through Turkmenistan. On the first evening, a heavy thunderstorm passed over the city, with winds so strong that they shattered our hotel's glass door, and intense lightning that resulted in a blackout of the whole city for several hours. Based on our weather forecasts and climate tables, we had not expected any rain at all in this region at this time of year, and indeed, speaking to our hotel owner, he confirmed that this weather was highly unusual.

On our first evening in Bukhara, there was such a strong thunderstorm, with crazy winds, lightning and thunder, that caused a blackout across the whole city. To our surprise, when looking out the window later that night, we could see the Kalon minaret, Bukhara's landmark, lit up in between the dark buildings of the city.

On our first evening in Bukhara, there was such a strong thunderstorm, with crazy winds, lightning and thunder, that caused a blackout across the whole city. To our surprise, when looking out the window later that night, we could see the Kalon minaret, Bukhara's landmark, lit up in between the dark buildings of the city.

Bukhara was impressive though, and the centre of the city is full of historic buildings.

Ark citadel in Bukhara. From the 5th century onwards, the Ark was the fortified residence of the rulers of Bukhara, up until it was bombed by the Red Army in 1920. Nowadays, there are a few remaining royal quarters inside housing museums, but most of the Ark is in ruins and not accessible to the public.

Ark citadel in Bukhara. From the 5th century onwards, the Ark was the fortified residence of the rulers of Bukhara, up until it was bombed by the Red Army in 1920. Nowadays, there are a few remaining royal quarters inside housing museums, but most of the Ark is in ruins and not accessible to the public.

Inside the Ulugbek Madrasah in Bukhara

Inside the Ulugbek Madrasah in Bukhara

All the way since leaving Iran, the roads have been very flat, and it continued like this until Samarkand. The road quality in Uzbekistan was noticeably worse than the previous countries though, and while the biggest roads are mostly okay, we still lost a lot of time and energy navigating around and across big bumps and potholes. The ride from Bukhara to Samarkand was otherwise quite uneventful, except for Heiko's stomach bug that forced a rest day onto us midway. Outside of the cities, toilets are often just holes in the ground, allowing flies to come and go as they please, and soap is generally not available for washing hands. Shouldn't have eaten that free salad... In any case, we managed to find nice campsites in this relatively populated area, and enjoyed the flat landscape that resembles the flag of Uzbekistan: Green fields, white clouds and blue sky.

A herd of cows passing by where we camped between Katta-Kurgan and Samarkand

A herd of cows passing by where we camped between Katta-Kurgan and Samarkand

Typical landscape of the Bukhara region - blue skies, white clouds, and green land, similar to the colours of the Uzbekistan flag

Typical landscape of the Bukhara region - blue skies, white clouds, and green land, similar to the colours of the Uzbekistan flag

We had also planned to stay two full days in Samarkand, but extended our stay, because we really liked our small, family-run guesthouse, and the relatively stable WiFi connection that allowed us to finally start planning our trip through the Pamirs. We also roamed all across the city searching for gas canisters for our camping stove, but it seems like these things are entirely unavailable in the country (according to shopkeepers we ask - though we think they should be available in the capital Tashkent). The closest we got after hours of scavenger hunting was a car mechanic with a blow torch, but he had imported his canisters from Moscow and they were not for sale.

Of course, the city had some very impressive sights to offer as well, the most impressive being the Registan Square. However, what caught our imagination the most was the Ulugbek Observatory, built by the Timurid Sultan Ulugbek. Recognised by many scholars to be one of the most important observational astronomers of the 15th century, he is said to have neglected his governing duties in the pursuit of science. After his father died, he was assassinated during the war of succession and his observatory destroyed by religious fanatics. We felt like we could somehow relate to him, and spent an inordinate amount of time nerding in the museum next to the remains of the observatory.

Registan Square, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand during the Timurid dynasty. On the left is the Ulugbek Madrasah, in the middle the Tilla Kori Madrasah, and on the right the Sherdor Madrasah.

Registan Square, the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand during the Timurid dynasty. On the left is the Ulugbek Madrasah, in the middle the Tilla Kori Madrasah, and on the right the Sherdor Madrasah.

Cross-sectional view of the Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand, built between 1424-1429, one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world and the largest in Central Asia at the time. The largest instrument in the observatory was the sextant, with a radius of 40.4m. Destroyed in 1449 by religious fanatics after Ulugbek's assassination, the site was rediscovered by Russian archaeologists in 1908, with the underground, lower portion of the instrument still intact.

Cross-sectional view of the Ulugbek Observatory in Samarkand, built between 1424-1429, one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world and the largest in Central Asia at the time. The largest instrument in the observatory was the sextant, with a radius of 40.4m. Destroyed in 1449 by religious fanatics after Ulugbek's assassination, the site was rediscovered by Russian archaeologists in 1908, with the underground, lower portion of the instrument still intact.

From Samarkand, we turned south towards Shahrisabz, another ancient Silk Road city, albeit less well known. Samarkand and Shahrisabz are separated by the westernmost flanks of the Zarafshan mountain range, with the shortest road going across the Takhta-Karacha pass at 1676m. We spent two days crossing the mountains, camping just before the pass with a view of the valley below.

View down the valley towards Shahrisabz. Snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance on the left.

View down the valley towards Shahrisabz. Snow-capped mountains can be seen in the distance on the left.

Rolling all the way down the next day, we stopped first at Kitob, where we had a Couchsurfing host, our only host in the country. Our host himself lives in Tashkent, but his parents hosted us, and what an experience! Not only were we fed and treated like family, we also got a glimpse into the work that they do. His parents are observers with the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), and they have an observatory with four telescopes that are mostly used for the observation of space debris. Every night, one of them works the whole night through, taking astronomical photos that are sent to the headquarters in Moscow for analysis. With the data collected by observers like them from all across the globe, active satellites can be steered away from potential collisions with space debris, an increasing problem in space.

In our hosts' observatory in Kitob. They have four telescopes, which they use in the observation of space debris as part of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). Definitely one of our most unique Couchsurfing experiences!

In our hosts' observatory in Kitob. They have four telescopes, which they use in the observation of space debris as part of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON). Definitely one of our most unique Couchsurfing experiences!

With our hosts (or rather, our host's parents) in their large garden home in Kitob. They are observers with the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) and have an observatory in their backyard!

With our hosts (or rather, our host's parents) in their large garden home in Kitob. They are observers with the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) and have an observatory in their backyard!

From Kitob, it was just another 12km south to Shahrisabz, one of the most ancient cities in Central Asia, dating back to the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. The hometown of Amir Timur, Shahrisabz was a major city in the early years of the Timurid Dynasty, before the centre of activity moved to Samarkand. In recent years, unfortunately, a state plan aimed at developing tourism led to the bulldozing of Shahrisabz's historic city centre, replacing the medieval residential quarters with a modern park, leaving the historic buildings marooned within the park. The buildings were nevertheless still quite impressive. As we are heading for the Pamirs, Shahrisabz will be the last Silk Road city on our route for a while.

Statue of Amir Timur in Shahrisabz, in front of the remains of the grand entrance arch of the Ak Saray Palace. Shahrisabz is the birthplace of Amir Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire that ruled the region from 1370-1507.

Statue of Amir Timur in Shahrisabz, in front of the remains of the grand entrance arch of the Ak Saray Palace. Shahrisabz is the birthplace of Amir Timur, founder of the Timurid Empire that ruled the region from 1370-1507.