Day 67 - Wednesday 7th June - Tashkent to Samarkand

It was 320k from Tashkent to Samarkand. We refuelled before we left town. Before we had finished doing so, we were puzzled to see that a queue of cars had formed out the driveway and on to the street. Maybe everyone just wanted to join us. We filled with the only available option, 80 octane plus a bottle of “booster”.

There are 2 major rivers running through Uzbekistan. The Sirdariya out of the Tien Shan and the Amudariya (otherwise known as the Oxus in previous times) out of the Pamir. They both head inland to the Aral Sea. I say they head that way, because today they don’t make it. They are diverted into irrigation and hydro dams along the way. As a consequence. The Aral Sea has shrunk to little more than a puddle. Fishing fleets lie marooned on parched land hundreds of kilometres from the water. Its an environmental disaster of immense proportions. While there is some recognition of the issue, it does not appear that much is being done about it for a couple of reasons, the first being that it involves a number of countries along the rivers and surrounding the Aral Sea. 

The other challenge is that the water is currently used for irrigation of thousands of square kilometres of what would otherwise be desert. It blooms with water. In Soviet times it was committed to growing cotton. Uzbekistan was the cotton bowl of the Soviet empire. Today there has been a significant diversification of the cropping. Cotton is still a major crop, but is complimented with grains and vegetables. Production is intense.

As we head towards the main cities, the cars have changed. The old Ladas seem to be the agricultural vehicle of choice loaded with bails of hay or the roof is attacked with timber, pipes or trees. In the cities white, locally made Chevvy’s dominate.

As we headed south we had our first view of the Pamie range. Only the tail end fingers stretch into Uzbekistan. The bulk is to the east in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It joins the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya. A long and slow dirt section that kept trucks to a crawl filled our cars with dust. 

We were into Samarkand just after lunch, in time for an afternoon of exploring. First stop was the Registan. On the way we drove through University Boulevarde, a wide, tree lined parkland full of students, gathered in small groups.  

Nothing older than the 14th century exists in Samarkand following Ghengis Khan’s levelling of the city when he conquered the place in the 13th century. Tamerlane took control back in 1370 and moved established his capital in Samarkand. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about 5% of the world population at the time. In Soviet times he was portrayed as a butcher. Post independence he is regarded as a hero of Uzbekistan.

The historical parts of Samarkand today date from his rule.

The Registan is the cultural focus of Samarkand. A large square faced on 3 sides by the imposing tiled facades of opposing madrassas and a golden mosque in the middle. It is the iconic heart of the town and image used to portray the Silk road. But there was no one there. The square was empty, save a few security police who were on the make to take us up the closed minaret for $10.

The facades of the buildings are imposing with their gold, turquoise and blue majolica and mosaic tiling. Intricate calligraphy adorns the edges with quotes from the qu’oran, various prophets or the funder of the building. But while the buildings nominally were constructed in the 14th century, by the early part of the 20th century they were in a serious state of disrepair and the Soviets did little to protect them, with the consequence that roads and markets were built around them. By the 1920’s and operating madrassa or mosque was closed by the Soviets.

With Independence, the structures have all been restored or rebuilt and like the Great Wall when you look at them today, you wonder whether you are looking at a structure of historical significance or a modern reproduction.

Following the Registan we headed off to the Mausoleum of Amir Timur, or in the vernacular Tamerlane’s grave. Not all of it has been rebuilt, but the main vault containing the tombs of Tamerlane and his grandson Ulugh Beg who was not only the second ruler of the Timurid empire, but also an astronomer of historical note. The Mausoleum with its gold and blue interior is a place of great beauty and serenity, if not age.         

Tony and I wandered back to our hotel down the leafy and cool University Boulevarde into the old town with its ramshackled buildings and broken foot paths where we foundthe still functional Catholic Church dating back to the 1880s.

On returning to the hotel, we found we had a problem. Zahid our guide reported that not only does the country have lousy 80 octane petrol, it does not have much of it. As a result of the shortages there was no petrol in town. All the petrol stations had closed. But not to worry yet as he was working on a solution, the black market.