The great city of Samarkand

Samarkand is what most people imagine when they think of Uzbekistan. Well, that is… most people who know something about it’s heritage (others probably just imagine desert). It’s the classic post card picture, pretty in every way, and the mosques and medrassa’s that are restored here put a spell on me right after I first heard about them. Now I was indeed very much looking forward to my visit, and dearly hoped it wouldn’t be an anti-climax (like, in a way, Bukhara had been).

Family spending time inside the Registan

Uzbekistan continued to bless me with great encounters as I journeyed further and on the train to I met Louis, from France. His nationality really didn’t come as a surprise. I’m quite sure that at least 50% of the backpackers and 80% of the tour groups in Uzbekistan are made up of French people. However I was lucky to mostly meet the ones who speak perfect English – which made communication so much easier – and after sharing a taxi to the centre, Louis and I went out for dinner to celebrate our arrival in the great Silk Road city.

As both Louis’s and my hostel were right next to the Registan, this was the first thing I saw when I got out of the taxi. Not bad, huh?

My hostel had the most wonderful location, in a street right next to this amazing place: the Registan. Some people will complain that the sights in Samarkand are too lavishly restored (and not always completely faithful to the original). When you see pictures of the city at the end of the 19th century, you’d be surprised because all of these sparkling facades were in ruins. However I don’t think there is anything to complain about. The heritage of Samarkand is breath taking; it’s size is beyond imagination and the decorations blow you off your feet (just the way they were supposed to). Let’s be honest: most of Europe’s cobble stone streets and classic façades are restored copies of the original, too. My home town, Leuven, for example, has been burned to the ground twice. Many of the facades one can see today are less than a 100 years old and yet I hear nobody complain about the buildings looking “too prettily restored”.

At the Shakhi-Zinda memorial complex

I fell in love with Samarkand instantly and swooned even more once I started exploring the different sites. It’s a city that’s very much alive, much bigger than Bukhara and much less aimed at tourist. Here, I indeed felt that Uzbek life and tourist sights were blended together. Every square and street is buzzing (that is, until 9pm, after which the whole town seems to shut down) and there’s a balanced mix of locals and tourists even around the Registan.


Inside the Registan

As I walked into my hostel (which had a lovely courtyard but tremendously uncomfortable dorm beds and a bathroom so run down and filthy I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything worse) I saw Jean again – another French guy I had already spoke to on the dessert tour in Khiva. It took us a moment to realize we had met before, but then we ended up spending the next two days together.

Inside the amazing Registan





As I walked into my hostel (which had a lovely courtyard but tremendously uncomfortable dorm beds and a bathroom so run down and filthy I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything worse) I saw Jean again – another French guy I had already spoke to on the dessert tour in Khiva. It took us a moment to realize we had met before, but then we ended up spending the next two days together.


First we set of to the Siab bazar, were we where approached by a young guy who wanted to practice English with us and asked if he could show us around. Why of course he could!

Busted! This clever boy clearly saw straight through my attempts to sneak a picture from atop the upper floor balcony in the bazar.

Jean politely made sure the man wouldn’t ask any money for his services, but he confirmed that he just wanted to help us, as he was practising to one day become a tour guide. It’s a very double feeling: on the one hand you always have to be careful about who is asking money for what, and on the other hand there is a remarkable hospitality and friendliness in Uzbekistan. In the end, it’s definitely the latter that will stick with me most.

I love this picture of two men at the market.

Once inside the bazar, our new found guide introduced us to a bunch of food we never tasted before, like Kurt: little balls of fermented milk mixed with spices. There was also raw honey to be sampled, and lots and lots of great photo opportunities. God knows I love to roam foreign markets!

The sounds, buzz and smells of a food market are such a great joy of travelling and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get tired of them!

Next on our menu was the nearby Bibi-Khanym mosque, which is truly huge! Pictures don’t do justice to the scale of the entry gates and the grandeur of this complex while, at the same time, the courtyard is super cosy and quiet.

We sat for a while under the mulberry trees, digesting the fact that tourists have to pay soooo much more than locals to get inside, when out of nowhere a nice lady came to offer us some of her bread. Her little snack was much nicer to digest than Samarkand’s double pricing. Of all of Uzbekistan’s cities, this is by far the most expensive one in terms of entrance fees!

After the mosque our tour guide had to go. As we parted, he was visibly uncomfortable to leave us behind, because he had initially promised to accompany us to the mausoleum as well and clearly felt that he betrayed us for leaving “early”. In fact he didn’t leave early at all, we had just spend a crazy amount of time roaming the bazaar and mosque.

Renovation work in progress at the Shakhi-Zinda complex

At the heat of day, we strolled through the charming Samarkand streets to what is probably my favourite sight in the city: the Shakhi-Zinda memorial complex. Basically, this is a narrow lane, winding through beautifully decorated mausoleum buildings. It feels like you’re walking through a palace, but in fact you’re at a graveyard, surrounded by the relatives of Temur the Great and century old architecture. It’s truly an amazing sight and at the same time, again, a very relaxing and serene spot to just be, watch and breathe. Needless to say we again spend a lot of time hanging around.

Look at the decoration on these interiors though! They’re just mesmerising!

We used the solemn atmosphere to ponder about the seemingly tolerant Uzbekistan. As a tourist, you can’t but notice the big differences in how people dress, for example. There are women who wear super traditional or conservative attire: colourful outfits with long trousers and sleeves or even a scarf on their head, but then there are just as many girls who dress in tight, fancy dresses and shiny high heels. Even the school uniforms are extremely neat, with fitting white blouses and dark blue skirts.

Woman and child inside the mausoleum complex

At the surface, it seems like no one even notices these contradictions, let alone they’d be offended. One would easily be lead to believe that centuries of invasions, trade and migration have made Uzbeks some of the worlds most tolerant people, blending their many different backgrounds and weaving them into a new identity with pride. Yet still I wondered if there is another side to this story? A we/them culture that is invisible to the tourist eye? A complexity in the society that is there, but went unnoticed?

Boys wanting to pose for a picture, inside the Registan

As the sun set, we found a the little gate off Taskent street that leads into the traditional “old town” of Samarkand, where there are some smaller, local mosques, a hammam and a synagogue. It’s however the feel of the neighbourhood that makes a visit worthwhile, as it is a world apart from the broad lanes and glitzy heritage. On a corner, behind a large iron gate, we found the shop of a man who clearly collected everything, from dusty clothes to old spoons and pins, over Soviet currency and rusty chandeliers. It was great digging through his mountain of things and I even ended up buying some propaganda post cards from the old days, complete with drawings of Russian rockets making their way into space.

The man I bought the post cards from, proudly posing in his “shop”

On our second day, Jean and I went to send our post cards when the owner of the “post office” (read, souvenir shop) recommended us a place called Pivzavod. He described it as a narrow lane full of little cafés that sell draft beer, straight from the factory they surround. That sounded like a great place to be to us, and so we jumped into a taxi.

In front of the Pulsar factory. Not actually “local” beer since it’s not an Uzbekistan brand, but I guess it’s the closest we’d get.

As it turned out, Pivzavod doesn’t fit the European image of a “narrow lane filled with bars” at all. It was more like a quiet backstreet with a couple of rather sleepy cafés, and even though the man had told us “you can go now, it is beer-hour”, almost all of the bars were empty. None the less, we had some fun taking pictures in the area. Highlights included the Pulsar beer factory, an abandoned water park, soviet cars and a school sign that looked too communist not to pose with.

Then we had beer of course, and lunch. Most restaurants here serve only one thing: bbq. But as it happens, bbq and beer go decently well together and so we spend the better part of the day lying on a topchan, getting a bit drunk and (as tipsy people do) discussing politics.

Decoration inside the Registan

To conclude the day, we went to visit the Registan, where I said goodbye to Jean (as he left early to catch his flight home) and spent the evening watching shimmering ceramics in the golden light. You might think that, by now, I’d gotten used to this sight but believe me: it’s nearly impossible to get tired of a spectacle like this.

Inside the Registan

Around midnight, I said goodbye to the friendly folks in my hostel and to Mr. Chicken, the hostel’s pet partridge. It’s a really funny animal to keep as a pet, isn’t it, and I’m also pretty sure the Angry Birds are modelled specifically after this one: just look at it! He has an eternal grumpy expression (probably due to that giant black unibrow) and hopped around the garden freely most of the time. Because Jean and I didn’t know the name of the species in English, we initially referred to the bird as Mr. Chicken. However when we observed it trying to eat the concrete one morning, we changed that to Hei Hei (Moana reference).

Mr. Chicken, aka Hei Hei

I eventually found a safe-looking cab to the train station (“Sister my sister it’s late! Were are you going?”) and had the full 2 hours of sleep in the hot and cramped platzkart sleeper wagon. They’re quite the experience, those old Soviet trains… I can’t say I’m hugely looking forward to using them again, but I will soon; to get tot Almati. Yet That’s a different story.

For now, let me tell you some more about Tashkent and my border crossing into Kazakhstan.






3 thoughts on “The great city of Samarkand”

  1. How better way to close this chapter of Samarkand than doing it with a nice introduction of Hei Hei, the National Mr. Chicken of Uzbekistan ♥

    Thanks for the article, thanks for reminding me these memories -one year later-
    That’s truly a passionnating country filed by wonderful people in a spirit of love and sharing…
    During your world tour, if you met another country in with you felt the same kind of hapiness, please tell me, i’m hearing very carefuly 😀

    Cheers Kimmy Kim Kim,
    Look forward to see you (singing) again



    1. How cool was Mr. Chicken ay? Never met any pet like him 😀
      I must say, I haven’t met many places that captured me like Uzbekistan. I’ve really enjoyed the rest of my travels, but the Central Asia part is undoubtedly the highlight still. Have you ever been to Georgia or Armenia? They’re very different from the Stan’s, but if there’s another place that put a spell on me like the Stans did, it’s there. The people are generous with a good sense of humour and an amazing love for life, food therefore is amazing and always fresh and home made, scenery is inspiring (especially in Georgia where you have the high mountains), wine is delicious, architecture (churches rather than mosques) is ancient and precious af. I have absolutely NOTHING bad to say about these countries. They’re safe and easy to travel, just like Usbekistan. Yet SO underrated. And cheap! What’s not to like 🙂


      1. Ahah nice ! There is a reason why you met my best friend in Armenia or Georgia (i actually don’t remember which one of these two).
        It seems that cats like cats (as well as HeyHey likes concrete)
        Great, so it absolutely confirmed my expectations and my will to reach this countries asap! thanks for advices, i’m always aware what people i like like. hehe weird sentence, i love it, i keep it 8-D


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