Uzbekistan is the heavyweight of central Asia. It has distanced itself from Russia and made overtures to the USA but its one man government, Islam Karimov, is not moving towards democracy and aspires to re-establish Tamerlane's dominant regional power. Its economy, which has regressed like that of all ex soviet countries since 1991, has not been privatized much but it is showing signs of improvement thanks to foreign investment in new industries. Uzbekistan does not encourage tourism, visas are hard to get, expensive and subject to tight police control.
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I had been in Tashkent before in 1971 so I skipped it this time. I went directly by bus from Osh to Samarkand crossing the fertile Fergana valley and an part of Tajikistan without stopping. This great valley between the Tian Shan range to the north and the Alay mountains to the south enjoys the best agricultural land and climate of all Central Asia. A good place for apricot orchards such as this one.
Greek, Persian and Chinese envoys came here as early as two centuries BC to trade with the prosperous kingdoms they found here. The Arabs came in the 8th century and converted the Buddhist turkic population to Islam. The Russians took the valley in the late 19th century along with the rest of Central Asia and introduced the intensive cultivation of cotton seen here. The communists went one step further and used the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to irrigate vast tracts of desert to grow cotton. They drew so much from these rivers that the volume of the Aral sea fell by 75% and its area by 50%. An ecological catastrophe!
Osh to Samarkand was a 17 hour bus ride with three border crossings (Uzbek, Tajik, Uzbek). Uzbek and Tajik police and border guards have a bad reputation with independent travellers many of which have suffered both extortion and expulsion. I was somewhat uneasy because I had no Tajik visa and only a single entry Uzbek visa. Having had a taste of soviet style bureaucracy in Almaty where I lost two weeks trying to do things right, I decided to take a chance to cross Tajikistan without a visa and to re-enter Uzbekistan with my single entry visa. I was the only foreigner but a lucky one, Wacob, the driver of the bus, second from the left here, did all the talking at the borders and I got through without a hitch. The other passengers on the bus were also so friendly that I took this picture to remember that nice experience.
It was 5:00 am when we pulled into the bus terminal near the main Samarkand bazaar. I slept in the bus until seven and took a cab to the Zarafshan Hotel where I had a nice room for 15 US$. After a welcome shower, I explored the immediate neighbourhood and, since I knew no one in town, I went to the Samarkand University to see if I could get access to the internet.
Samarkand is a very hot place. It was 45 degrees Celsius when I was there in July. The shade on Mustaqillik street near my hotel was most welcome! The University did not have full internet access so I tried the biggest hotel, Hotel Samarkand and a couple other places. After some research, I found out that only a limited form of off-line e-mail going through Tashkent was available and that it would not be possible for me to fetch my e-mail from my Montreal server while I was in Uzbekistan.
I was somewhat astonished since full internet access was readily available to me in China which is actively criticized as totalitarian while the ex soviet countries are said to be democratic. Once more, my real life experience did not match the politically correct images thrown at me by the media back home. Naturally, I felt insulted! Anyone would have...
This mausoleum, simply called Guri Amir (tomb of the emir), is the resting place of Timur Lang also known as Tamerlane who carved himself an Empire in Central Asia. Some of his close family, including his scholarly grandson Ulugh Beg, and favorites are also buried here. (Another grandson, Babur, followed his example as a military leader and founded India's Moghul Dynasty.)
Tamerlane, (below left), plundered and systematically terrorized his subjects but he spared architects, artists, poets and philosophers and brought them here to make his capital Samarkand the greatest cultural center of his time. On the right, the older Rukhobod Mausoleum.
This medressa, on the west side of the Registan, was built by Tamerlane's grandson Ulugh Beg in 1320.
The scholarly mathematician-astronomer-philosopher Ulugh Beg, who made Samarkand the intellectual center of the world during Europe's dark ages, was murdered by conservative mollahs in 1449 who feared his liberal policies would restrict their power and privileges. What else is new! Just think of the Inquisition and more recently, how most of the educated people had to flee Iran to save their lives when the Ayatolla and his cohorts of fanatical but ignorant mollahs took over that country in 1979.
Inside the Ulugh Beg Medressa. Medressas were the equivalent of our universities, places where the learned pass on their science and experience to students eager to push back the limits of knowledge.
The Sher Dor Medressa, built on the eastern side of the Registan by Amir Bahadir two centuries later, was meant to be the mirror image of the Ulugh Beg Medressa it faces.
Like our universities, some medressas were liberal and progressive and others were conservative, depending on the masters who controlled them.
Inside the Sher Dor Medressa, teachers and students crowded in two-storied living quarters built into the medressa behind each arcade..
Below left, an architectural detail of the Sher Dor (lion bearing) Medressa. Below right, a domed hall inside the Tilla-Kari (decorated with gold) Mosque-Medressa
Detail of the Tilla-Kari Mosque-Medressa built around 1650 on the north side of the Registan.
The golden Mihrab of the Tilla-Kari Mosque-Medressa.
This 14th century cemetery called Shahi-Zinda is said to hold the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhamad, and the tombs Tamerlane's family and friends. On the left below is the entrance to the tomb of one of Timur's nieces, on the right, the ancient wooden door to the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas.
The domed hall and gigantic main gate shown below are all that is left of a great mosque built in 1404 by Tamerlane for his Chinese wife Bibi-Khanum. The remainder of what was then the world's largest mosque was destroyed by an earthquake in 1897.