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22/05/2011 – 23/05/2011 – Samarkand: Dodging entrance fees

August 15, 2011
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We found ourselves a great hotel, Bahodir’s was a backpackers heaven a Lonely planet pick of the bunch and it was plain to see why, cosy courtyard with plenty of space to lounge around, great home cooked dinners and a wall plastered with maps, stickers and postcards from the huge number of travelers passing through.

With a great base it was time to explore. Samarkand had a more open plan feel to it than Bukhara which despite its charms felt a little claustrophobic. In many ways it felt more ‘real’ than Bukhara and certainly Khiva, despite a manicured main tourist strip which looked like it had been pulled from Disneyland Florida, plastic camel and all, away from this there was little in the way of boutiques and tacky tourist souvenir shops.

That’s not to say they didn’t manage to squeeze the tourist crap in somewhere. There seems to be a real lack of respect towards these majestic historical sites in Uzbekistan, I think firstly it stems from the fact that a lot of the sites are Medrassas (Islamic schools) rather than mosques and so have less religious importance nowadays and secondly Uzbekistan seems to have a weaker tie to Islam, than say Iran. The result is that stuffed into every corner of these beautiful grandiose structures someone is trying to sell you some tat.

Every site requires a ticket and bent cops stroll around with big swaggers offering tourists the chance to see ‘secret’ areas for an additional cost. Site seeing was made a lot more exciting by breaking into the sites by finding an alternative route in, or sneaking past guards to avoid the hefty ticket prices.

But I must be careful to paint a balanced picture of Samarkand, ok it had a lot of tourist crap and the trappings this entails but the place is architecturally spectacular and it would have to become a theme park before it was truly ruined. There’s also more of a range of sites here, some of which are well kept, such as the Registon and others which are crumbling and decayed providing an entirely new aesthetic and a welcome departure from the manicured and preserved.

Manicured or falling apart, I think in all honesty having seen some of the most beautiful Islamic sites in the world since Iran it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Our capacity to see these places with fresh eyes was dwindling, blue dome after blue dome, beautiful tile after beautiful tile we had become saturated and tired of site seeing. I looked forward to Tajikistan with an excitement I hadn’t felt on the trip for quite some time, the prospect of a month cycling in some of the most beautiful and remote nature was tantalisingly close.

On our final night in Samarkand, early train tickets in hand we met a Belgian couple, Ludo and Jessie in the hotel. We caught a glimpse as they arrived with their touring bikes and then got to hang out with them later on in the evening. We instantly hit it off and spent a great night telling stories and listening to their Indian horror stories. They’d travelled an interesting route, cycling from Belgium to Turkey getting a train to Iran to cycle there before flying to India, cycling in Nepal getting a flight to Northern China and then cycling West through Kazakhstan and then down into Uzbekistan in order to loop back east into Tajikistan. It was shame we only got to spend a night together but we swapped emails hoping that our paths might cross again.

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