Secrets of Samarkand: How to Explore Uzbekistan’s “Crossroad of Culture” Like a Local
Born and raised in Samarkand, Abdu Samadov is full of inside information about Uzbekistan. He has studied in England and the U.S. and is fluent in English, Farsi, and Russian. Abdu guides MIR travelers throughout Central Asia and enjoys sharing his knowledge. Here, Abdu offers his insider tips for how to explore the legendary oasis city of Samarkand like a local.
Perhaps the most well known of Silk Road towns, Samarkand, the fabled oasis on the fringes of the Kyzyl Kum Desert, has been settled since the 6th century BC. Its strategic location between China and the Western world secured its importance as a center for trade and cultural exchange, and made it an attractive target for famous conquerors, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane, who made it his capital city.
Assembling the finest architects and artisans of the time, Tamerlane and his grandson, Ulug Bek, transformed the city into a stunning treasure trove of decorative art and architecture. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Samarkand bears the indelible stamp of these two men, and their legacy can be found in such extraordinary monuments as majestic Registan Square, the Bibi-Khanum Mosque, and the avenue of ancient mausoleums called Shah-i-Zinda.
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With such astounding architectural brilliance, it’s no wonder that Samarkand still holds near mythical status for many modern-day travelers. But while its glittering mosques and madrassahs are important to understanding the region’s rich history and artistic heritage, your travel experiences will be much more rewarding and memorable when you veer a little off the beaten tourist track and dive right into the ways of everyday local life.
You’ll not only discover unique hidden gems, but also enjoy more opportunities to connect with the culture and experience the real heart of Samarkand’s timeless character.
Here are just a few of my favorite ways to explore the legendary Silk Road oasis of Samarkand like a local would.
1. Discover the Spiritual Side of Shah-i-Zinda
The row of tombs and mausoleums collectively called Shah-i-Zinda, or “place of a living king,” stretches between the present and the past. At its front is living Samarkand, and at its back the dusty slopes at the edge of ancient Afrosiab. Even on hot summer days the mausoleums remain shady and cool, and seem to lure the traveler to approach the oldest tomb at the far end. Behind the complex and set into the hill lies an active cemetery with grave sites dating back as far as the 9th century, and as recently as the present day.
Shah-i-Zinda is a favorite tourist site, but it’s also an important place of pilgrimage for today’s Uzbeks. Many come here by the thousands each day to pay their respects to past leaders and historic figureheads of the city. One place inside the complex where you can see ancient traditions at work is at the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammad who was believed to be the first person to bring Islam to the region. If you have some time to spare, sit on one of the benches nearby and watch as locals perform special blessings and pilgrimage rituals.
During such rituals, an imam will recite a series of special prayers or songs — the acoustics generated between the mausoleum walls amplifies voices to an even greater level. Men and women open their palms during the blessing ritual, which they believe allows them to gather positive energy to purify themselves. This is a unique experience for visitors to observe, and allows you to get a deeper insight into the everyday customs and culture of the local people.
Elders wandering among the grave sites can often be seen dressed in traditional costumes. I always encourage MIR travelers to strike up a conversation with them if they can — they are friendly, open to chatting with visitors, and love posing for photos, making this a great site for portrait photography.
2. Admire Turn-of-the-Century Architecture in the Colonial Quarter
Because of Samarkand’s favorable geopolitical location on the Silk Route, the city saw its fair share of conflicts between various khanates in Central Asia and global empires abroad. The last foreign power to rule here was Russia, which conquered the city in 1887 and made it a provincial capital.
Beginning from the late 19th century and continuing into the 20th, Samarkand entered a new stage of development as Russian architects built an entirely new quarter west of the Old Town, today known as the Russian, or Colonial, Quarter. Blending local materials with colonial-style architecture, the Russians built schools, universities, hospitals, and shopping malls, as well as the Trans-Caspian Railway, which transported valuable Caspian oil reserves through Samarkand en route to Moscow.
Hidden away from the more heavily visited tourist areas, the Colonial Quarter is a fantastic place to interact with locals, enjoy a moment of quiet, and learn about a very different, though equally important, part of Samarkand’s history.
I recommend starting with a walk around University Boulevard. Built by Russian general Alexander Konstantinovich Abramov, the boulevard is lined with turn-of-the-century university campus buildings and schools. Local students often come here for a walk or just to sit and relax on the benches. You may also see a few wedding parties strolling through the parks and green spaces, as they are popular places for photography.
Another place you may wish to explore is the Museum of Local Lore, housed in the former home of a Jewish merchant. The museum’s interior contains wonderful examples of local art and craftsmanship, including a room covered in intricately carved and painted plasterwork known as ganche, as well as a small exhibit with old photos, books, and everyday objects from Samarkand’s once flourishing Jewish community.
Don’t forget to check out the quarter’s Eastern Orthodox and Catholic church buildings. The Colonial Quarter has several well-preserved cathedrals that date back to the city’s czarist era, including the Orthodox St. Aleksey Church and St. John the Baptist Church. Nearby, you’ll find two popular cafes, Coffee Time and Cafe Magistr, where you can drink good European-style coffee while meeting and chatting with local university students. Be prepared to walk about 3 miles and spend 2 hours of your time for a walking tour in the Colonial Quarter.
3. Shop the Ancient Silk Road in Urgut
Samarkand is a wonderful place to buy authentic Silk Road souvenirs. While the local Siab Bazaar is fantastic, I recommend going off the beaten tourist track to browse the labyrinthine Urgut Market, located in the town of Urgut, about an hour’s drive away. This is old Samarkand, without the flash and modernized updates of the city, where merchants and shoppers may greet you with surprise and delight simply because you’re a foreigner.
A fabulous place to people-watch, the Urgut Market draws local people, and a few foreigners, from miles around. Yes, cheap plasticware and synthetic clothing from China is available if that’s what you need, but hidden away behind these everyday items are the wonderful textiles and adornments of the Silk Road.
Stalls spill from the covered area to form wandering lanes way out in the open air, where women draped in ikat robes and men in black and white tubeteika caps sell their handcrafted wares. Sumptuous suzani, the finely embroidered coverlets that Uzbek women have designed and created for hundreds of years, are handed down for inspection with long poles. Nearby, hundreds of brilliant quilted, tasseled, beaded, and embroidered caps display themselves like flowers.
4. Go for a Hike in the Gissar Mountains
Samarkand’s sheer brilliance of tilework is absolutely stunning, but it can also be overwhelming and at times crowded with other travelers. If you need a peaceful escape from the bustling city and have extra time to spare, head for the nearby foothills of the Gissar Mountain Range.
The Gissar Mountains form the western portion of the Pamir Alay Range, and can be reached via an hour’s drive south of Samarkand by car. Dotted with unusual granite, sandstone, and crystalline rock formations, Gissar’s landscape shifts remarkably as you move further west, changing from sprawling grasslands, to rugged mountain canyons, to colossal weathered peaks. The diverse landscape makes it a wonderful place to go for a day hike, and it’s also possible to spot native wildlife such as the Tien Shan brown bear, snow leopard, Turkestan lynx, or golden eagle.
The Gissar Range is also a great place to get a taste of rural life outside the major caravan cities of Uzbekistan and Central Asia. This area has been inhabited since the time of Alexander the Great, and many villagers still live and farm on the fertile lands here much as their ancestors did centuries ago.
I recommend visiting the villages of Ohalik and Aman-Kutan. Both places are conveniently located close to hiking trails, and you’ll have a chance to meet with villagers and visit their traditional homes built of local stone. The locals here are friendly, and often invite travelers to chat with them and learn more about their daily lives and about the plants and animals that graze the area. Having the support of local tour guides is key, as it will provide you with a much deeper learning experience and interaction with the shepherds, village farmers, and ordinary people of the region.
5. Bask in the Glow of Samarkand’s “Blue Hours”
The Silk Road is brimming with iconic sights that travelers love to photograph, and Samarkand is no exception. Most come to see these majestic tile-wrapped monuments during the daytime, but to truly capture Samarkand’s legendary beauty, you simply must experience it before dawn or after dusk during the “blue hours” of twilight.
Avid photographers love to shoot photographs during this brief period of time, when the sky takes on a vivid blue or purple hue, and the deep lighting can imbue pictures with richly saturated colors and an emotional, atmospheric quality that harsh daylight can’t provide. During the blue hours, Samarkand’s fairytale-like buildings are even more photogenic, as their breathtaking architectural features become remarkably pronounced against a brilliant blue backdrop of sky.
The streets are much quieter during these hours, which gives you an opportunity to take in the sights without the heavy crowds — you may even feel like you have the entire city to yourself as you walk around. In the evenings once the sun goes down, many landmarks will be illuminated with special LED lights, adding a striking pop of color to the desert squares.
Here are three must-visit places I encourage travelers to explore and photograph during Samarkand’s beautiful “blue hours”:
- Registan Square: Registan Square is the centerpiece of Samarkand, and the most recognizable landmark for visitors. The three emblematic madrassahs frame the square, and loom over the empty space in the center. It was this central space that originally gave the place its name, for “registan” simply means “place of sand.” This sandy place was at the center of ancient Samarkand and was a public square and marketplace before the Ulug Bek, Tillya-Kori, and Shir Dor madrassahs were built. In its reconstruction, the square maintains the majesty that it has radiated through the ages.
- Gur-Emir Mausoleum: Gur-Emir Mausoleum is the final resting place of Tamerlane, but was originally built for his grandson after the latter’s death, at the turn of the 15th century. The interior of the mausoleum has been restored and is brilliant in gold leaf and fresh tile. The heavily gilded central dome opens over the set of tomb-markers resembling sarcophagi (the bodies are located well below, but are on site). All are marble, with the exception of Tamerlane’s, which is a slab of solid jade reportedly from Mongolia.
- Bibi Khanum Mosque: Visit the Bibi Khanum Mosque, built by Tamerlane to be the largest mosque in the Islamic world, and dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife. Architects from India and Persia were brought in to build the mosque, and it is said that 95 elephants were used to transport the marble and other building materials from India to Samarkand.
Expert Tip: Capturing photos in low light can be a little tricky for novice photographers, so if you want to have more lighting, I recommend walking during the “golden hours” of dawn or dusk instead — you’ll still be able to snap plenty of great photos, and you can also see many locals walking the streets of the Old Town and enjoying the sights.
6. Learn About the Traditional Craft of Paper-making
Uzbek crafts are some of the most vibrant and authentic in Central Asia, and many items are still produced by hand using traditional methods. For centuries, Samarkand’s specialty was paper-making, and today’s visitors can see this extraordinary handicraft being made the old-fashioned way in the workshops of local artisans.
Paper-making began in Samarkand over 1,000 years ago, when it was thought to have been learned from the Chinese. Local craftsmen adapted the Chinese production process to make better use of regional raw materials, substituting hardy mulberry bark for bamboo fiber, and polishing each individual piece of paper to create a smoother surface for ink-writing.
The result was an incredibly strong and long-lasting paper that became renowned throughout the Islamic world for its high quality. Even Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane and founder of the Mughal Empire in Northern India, was known to have praised Samarkand’s prized paper crafts, once noting that, “The world’s best paper is produced in Samarkand.”
You can learn more about Samarkand’s traditional paper crafts during a visit to a workshop where handcrafted paper is made according to traditions handed down from the 8th century. Founded in 1997 with the support of UNESCO, the workshop of Abdurakhim Mukhtarov, located in the village of Koni Gil on the outskirts of Samarkand, produces lovely paper crafts and stationery as you watch.
7. Postcards from Samarkand
Many MIR travelers have read stories about Samarkand during their early childhood years, and even hearing the name of the city today can conjure those same evocative feelings. Having an opportunity to explore the city and see its sublime architecture the same way it must have been centuries ago is, as they tell me, a dream come true.
I encourage travelers to not only take lots of pictures when they can, but to also send their good wishes to loved ones on postcards from the city. They are fun and inexpensive souvenirs, and a wonderful way to share your memories of Samarkand.
Not far from Gur-Emir there is an old house that was built during the communist years — it has a courtyard and some rooms reminiscent of a typical neighborhood home in Samarkand during the Soviet era. Today, it accommodates a very cozy self-service post office. Here, you can choose from a wide selection of postcards, buy unique stamps, and mail cards and souvenirs to friends and family at home.
Travel to Samarkand & Uzbekistan with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Central Asia and has an affiliate office in Uzbekistan, with a roster of contacts that can take you to places that you didn’t even know you wanted to go. Our full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Experience the brilliant country of Uzbekistan for yourself on one of these MIR itineraries that travel to Central Asia:
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- Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘Stans
- Silk Route Odyssey: Caravan Across Uzbekistan
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- Backstreets & Bazaars of Uzbekistan
- Silk Road Backroads & Byways
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- Essence of the Silk Road by Private Train (Eastbound / Westbound)
- Essence of the Silk Road & Beyond by Private Train
- Caspian Odyssey by Private Train
- Republics of the Silk Road by Private Train NEW!
- The Silk Route by Private Train
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Top photo: A MIR traveler shares his photos with a Samarkand local. Photo credit: Michel Behar.
PUBLISHED: June 18, 2018