If you have read my previous blog about my 2017 aborted visit to Uzbekistan after a brief one day tour of Tashkent – you are aware that I was unable to reenter the country after a short side trip to Khujand. As a result, I missed the best that Uzbekistan offers – Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva. All three cities are rich in history, culture and Central Asian tradition. And I was determined to see what I missed on this trip.
BoBo, my driver, and I left Panjakent before 8 am for the short drive to the Uzbeki border. Our plan was to be first in line and zip right through the border crossing. Hussain (my guide and Central Asian trip facilitator) had told me we would be thru the process in less than half an hour and my Uzbeki guide would be waiting on her side of the border fence. As it turned out – Hussain had never crossed the border in a car and BoBo and never been outside of Tajikistan.
Our half-hour express crossing turned into over a four-hour wait in the hot Central Asian sun. Uzbekistan, it turns out takes protecting their border from drugs, terrorists, and dumb ass American tourists very seriously. And I can’t blame them – the country to the south of Tajikistan is Afghanistan. And even the most casual of news watchers know that the Afghanistan is a hotbed of both heroin production and terrorists.
As a result, every automobile, truck or bus entering Uzbekistan is searched by both bomb and drug dogs then completely taken apart and manually searched. They take the seats out of the car, everything including the spare out of the trunk, go through the engine compartment and under the car with mirrors and remove all four tires to check the wheel wells.
And they only have the man and dog power to do one car at a time. As we sat in line on the Tajiki side of the fence I watched a half dozen cars routed around us and given preference. So, after 2 hours, I asked BoBo why they were getting special treatment. He had no idea since he had never crossed a border. I asked him to go find out! Turns out the autos passing us up in line were given special treatment because they contained western tourists.
My exact words were, BoBo where the hell do you think I’m from? Go tell someone that President Trump’s more handsome brother is in your SUV and wants to jump the line. And that at least got us thru the Tajiki checkpoint and 100 yards closer to the Uzbeki car search.
But we still had to wait for all the autos that crossed ahead of us to complete the search process. I was instructed to take my small bag and day pack to the building all the pedestrian crossers were entering for inspection and a review of my passport and visa. Which turned out to be sort of fun. These border guards were much nicer than the guys I dealt with in 2017.
There were four of them and they all spoke some English and were smiling and courteous. At one point one of the guards asked me if I was carrying more than $2000. I try to be as honest as practical in these situations so I said yes. How much? Somewhere between 6 and 8 thousand. And that is when one of the lady guards asked if I needed a wife – which the other three thought was pretty funny. I told her with a wink and smile that I would be spending the next two nights in Samarkand if she would like to try out for the job. We all enjoyed her crimson faced shock. (I was just joking of course!)
After they had me fill out a declaration about the money I wandered back outside to watch them search the cars from a distance. After another hour, a soldier in a clean pressed uniform complete with a sidearm in holster came out holding a paper with my name written in block letters. I thought – now what! He pointed to the paper then to me then back at the paper and nodded. I nodded back that he had found me. He then turned and motioned to someone inside the building and pointed to me.
Out of the building came a beautiful woman with long black hair, dark eyes and skin coloring, and features straight out of central casting for a Persian princess. She walked up to me stuck out her hand and announced she was – Mubashira Bakhshillaeva but I could call her Shira and she was my guide.
As we sat at the curb watching poor BoBo’s SUV be taken apart she asked me why in the world we tried to bring a car across the border and how exactly was BoBo going to find his way around Southern Uzbekistan. Shira who lives in Bukhara had taken an hour and a half train to get to Samarkand then a 45-minute taxi ride to the border to be on-site at 8:30. She had been standing out in the hot sun for the entire morning since there was not a single structure or tree for shade on the Uzbeki side to seek refuge from the sun.
She told me that had I just walked across the border with my bags and taken a taxi to Samarkand the crossing would have taken 15 minutes max. That is when we decided together to send BoBo back to Tajikistan and she would hire an Uzbeki car and driver for the next week. As the days passed and I saw how complicated the streets in the cities were and the conditions of the roads between cities the decision was definitely the correct option.
The car was finally released and we drove to Samarkand for lunch and to begin a tour of a very beautiful city. First stop was the 15th-century Mausoleum of Amir Timur. Timur (also sometimes referred to as Tamerlane) was part Mongol and conquered all Central Asia, India, Persia, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria during his long life. He died at the age of 72 of pneumonia while on a campaign to conquer China.
The tomb complex has been restored and includes a beautiful blue dome, the remains of the madrasah, khanaka, entrance portal, and minarets. Inside the blue-domed Mausoleum are the tombs of Timur, his sons, grandsons and Timur’s beloved teacher Sayyid Baraka. I have included photos of the entrance portal, exterior, interior including the tombs, a painting of Timur and a map of the lands he conquered.
Next, we visited Samarkand’s Registan Square. The word Registan means sand place in Uzbeki and in the long ago past this square was covered in sand. Even before the three great madrassahs were constructed this square was used as a gathering place for the Khan’s announcements, public executions, gathering of armies, and impromptu outdoor markets.
The first madrassah was built by Timur’s heir Ulughbek in 1417. In addition to being the ruler, Ulughbek was also a renowned mathematician and astronomer. The madrassah could hold up to 100 students and they were taught philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, and theology.
The other two madrassahs were built in the 1600s by Yalangtush Bahadur. Over the centuries. the buildings and square have survived earthquakes and a decline in Samarkand’s fortunes that at one point had its population down to 1000 people and the madrassahs used to shelter animals. Fortunately, the Soviet state saw its historic value and invested years and rubles to restore the Registan to its former glory. Photos of the buildings by day and night are attached.
Our next stop was to visit the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. As Shira told me, the mosque was built by Timur’s favorite wife (a Mongol Princess) who he would leave to rule the empire while he conquered new lands. Apparently, Timur was a lot like President Trump in that he loved erecting big ass fancy buildings glorifying his name. To please him while he was off in India conquering new lands Bibi ordered the biggest and best Mosque complex be built by the time the Khan returned.
None of the established architects would touch the project in the timeframe she demanded. One young and new architect was willing to take on the project but he demanded a kiss from the queen as payment. After much back and forth and counter offers of slave women the queen reluctantly agreed to his condition. He built the project on time and on budget and demanded his kiss. The queen tried her best to talk him out of it but finally agreed to the kiss.
The young impudent architect’s lust for the queen was so hot that his kiss burned a red imprint upon her cheek. When she rode out to meet the Khan on his return he admired the beautiful shiny blue dome from miles away and asked her what it was. As she was telling him what she had built in his honor Timur noticed the red on her cheek and she confessed to the terms of the construction.
The king sent his soldiers after the architect but no one ever saw him again. But from that day forward Timur ordered that all women in his domain were to be veiled in public. Shira shared that she thought the young architect probably got much more than a kiss and I certainly hope so!
Photos of the mosque complex are attached. And, again, this is an example of the Soviets stepping up and restoring an important historical site. Notice the large huge pedestal in a couple of the photos. This is a king-sized Quran stand. Notice the woman crawling under the stand thru a hole. It is believed that if a woman is having difficulty getting pregnant if she walks around the stand three times then crawls thru she will have her child. Notice that one of the holes is a little more worn smooth. That is the hole the woman crawls through if she wants a boy.
One of the things that made Shira such a fantastic guide is that she is not only an expert on Uzbeki history thru the ages – but she is also a virtual fountain of knowledge about her culture, traditions and legends. And when you combine all of that with her inherited gift for storytelling. (I think oral storytelling is ingrained in all Central Asians) and her incredible gift for languages (she speaks English like a native, Russian, Italian, Uzbeki, and Tajiki)- Shira makes an incredible guide that can make the places and long dead people come alive. It is a truly special gift. And I highly recommend her for anyone headed to Uzbekistan.
Next morning our first stop was a visit to the Shakhi Zinda Necropolis. The complex of eleven beautifully designed and tiled mausoleums built along both sides of a narrow street in the 14th and 15th centuries is also sometimes referred to as the Street Cemetery. To reach the street of eleven twinkling blue domed tombs you must walk up 36 magical steps. I say magical because Shira says that if you make a wish then count 36 stairs as you climb up to the street and then count the same number of steps on your way back down each time counting 36- your wish will come true. Unfortunately, I miss counted so I’m still overweight and losing my hair.
Each mausoleum houses the tomb of one of Tamerlane’s relatives – wives, sons, daughters, and favored generals. I have included photos of the street, some of the mausoleums as well as several magnificent pieces of tomb art in tile.
Our next stop was by far the most surprising and interesting for me. The remains of the Observatory of Mirzo Ulugbek was one of those eye-opening experiences I have come to most enjoy in travel. A moment when my entire perception of a culture or people is changed in the blink of an eye by replacing my ignorance with a kernel of knowledge. I have mentioned Ulugbek before as the builder of the first madrassa in Registan Square during his rule in the 1400s. But in addition to ruling this vast land, he was a mathematician and astronomer centuries ahead of his times.
He constructed a beautifully tiled three-story round observatory where he erected a huge sextant precisely placed on a line or axis from north to south. Using a small window from the top of the building Ulugbek measured with incredible exactness the seasons, months, weeks, days hours, minutes and seconds in the year. Modern calculations indicate that his recorded length of a star year was off by mere seconds.
Ulugbek and his associates created charts showing the locations of over 1,000 stars without the aid of telescopes. He studied and charted the planets’ movements and preserved all his findings in a book for future stargazers.
Ulugbek’s reign and interest in science was not popular with the Muslim clerics of his day and they talked his own son into murdering him and taking his throne. Once the great Khan and astronomer was gone they destroyed his observatory and burned much of his library and research and then the corrupt mullahs created a bullshit story about the hill being the grave of “Forty Virgins” and built a mausoleum to hide the observatory remnants.
I had no idea that Central Asia at one time was a cradle of scientific advancement. Shira shared with me that we have an Uzbeki to thank for the mathematical constructs of algebra, algorithms, our current number system, and the concept of zero. Our entire modern scientific world was spawned from the 10th-century mind of the amazing Uzbeki mathematical genius Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.
And who knew the father of modern medicine was a 10th-century physician from Bukhara. Abu Ali ibn-Sina (Avicenna) wrote a five-volume book on medicine (The cannon of medical science) that was translated into Latin in the 15th century and became the basis for all future medical texts.
My obvious question was “what happened” how was this bright flame of knowledge and enlightenment in such a small corner of the world during the Dark Age extinguished? Shira’s one word response – Genghis! The Mongol leader and his armies marched across central Asia burning, murdering and razing entire cities. This one man was responsible for the destruction of an entire civilization’s advancements. Such a pity for the people of Central Asia and the world.
Photos of the remains of the great sextant, models of the observatory, and statue of the great Ulugbek attached.
Next blog will be on Bukhara…