It was Christmas morning (2019) and the weather was unusually warm for winter. Our second road trip, in Uzbekistan, would take us from Bukhara to Samarkand. Most tours skip Shakrisabz — cutting down the travel time by a couple of hours. Shakrisabz is a hidden gem and definitely worth a visit.

Chor Minor Madrassah

We started early to get a head start and reach Samarkand before dark. En route, we stopped at Chor Minor Madrassa — a monument that we hadn’t explored on our walking tour of Bukhara. Chor Minor Madrassa gets its name from the four minarets (minor) that rise above a central arch. The madrassa was built in the 19th Century and was a place of learning for female students.

The Road Trip

“Welcome to another day in Central Asia!”

A, our guide, was in a good mood and babbled away. He had stopped saying inshallah (by the will of Allah), possibly because we hadn’t had any hitches on the trip so far, and the weather was turning warmer. Allah was on our side.

A teased us for not inviting him for dinner (or wine) and enjoying a ‘romantic’ dinner on the earlier night. It was hard to explain the concept of Christmas Eve. It was stranger because Christmas trees were ubiquitous in every city that we had visited so far. A and T (the driver) didn’t wish us for Christmas and it took me a while to understand why. All around the globe, the Christmas tree has become a symbol of New Year, the holidays, and is a pretty decorative prop. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I do get nostalgic on Christmas, and reminisce how we’d celebrate it in my childhood. But all was not lost. The fact that two muslims and two christians could spend christmas, under the same roof, in peace, and traverse the same path together, proves that we can mutually coexist — despite having diverse beliefs and opinions. There’s room for everyone. I guess: that’s what Christmas was really about.

Kitab Mountains

We passed factories and vast patches of brown land on either side. Unlike the earlier drive through the Kyzylkum Desert, there was quite a bit of traffic on this route. And then, from nowhere, when we woke up from our slumber, we spotted the white outline of the Kitab Mountains.

The brochure didn’t prepare us for such a gorgeous sight. We were spellbound and couldn’t get enough of these mountains. A seemed unaffected by this natural beauty. He had other worries. If the snow didn’t melt, the roads would be closed, and we’d have to skip the mountain trail. That would delay our trip by another hour.

The Historic Centre of Shakrisabz

We reached Shakrisabz around noon. T recommended a hotel for lunch and we were lucky to get a table without a reservation. As the three men tucked into their protein, I settled for a clear vegetable soup and tried to ignore the nuggets of meat floating in my meal. I was surviving on soups and craved for a meal that I could eat.

Ak-Saray Palace

Shakrisabz (or green city) used to be called Kesh and its 2700-year-old history has witnessed the rise of power and rebellion in equal measure. Although Amir Timur was actually born in the neighbouring village, Shakrisabz is widely accepted as the birthplace of the Timurid Dynasty. Timur was believed to be a direct descendant of Mongol ruler: Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, and is quite the local hero in Uzbekistan. The towering ruins of Ak-Saray, Timur’s summer palace, can be spotted far away and is quite striking in the afternoon sun.

Although Amir Timur had his roots in Shakrisabz, he made Samarkand the capital city of his empire. During his rule, Ak-Saray Palace was a fine example of opulence and grandeur. The central portal (gate) was about 75 m tall and was decorated with exquisite majolica work. Today, the remnants of the main portal are about 38 m high.

The palace would have probably had around 134 rooms for both genders and the main courtyard would have been about 125 m in width and 250 m in length.

The Historic Centre of Shaksirabz is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modernity and ancient ruins dot the sprawling complex of the historic centre — set against a backdrop of gorgeous snow-capped peaks. We were so captivated by the mountains and A suggested a possibility of a helicopter tour. He did add that it may be as expensive as the cost of our tour. I laughed and said that we’d rather save that money to explore the other ‘stans.

Amir Timur Monument

In December, it’s not uncommon to see bridal couples seeking blessings from the towering statue of Amir Timur. Few groups of local tourists also took photos with the statue.

The alleys of the historic centre were desolate in December. Few handicraft shops were open and the owners eagerly called out. Few teenage couples had found quiet corners, in the shade, to whisper sweet nothings to each other. It was surprisingly hot, and A, dressed in winter wear, was struggling with the heat. We had left our winter jackets in the car — making the heat more tolerable. Global warming is quickly affecting weather patterns and becoming a reality sooner than we thought it would.

Dor-us Siyodat

Dor-us Siyodat was tucked in the far end of the historic complex. The towering monument cast a shadow on the ground and we were glad to escape the heat for a few minutes.

Dor-us Siyodat was built as a family mausoleum for the Timurid dynasty. Timur’s eldest son, Johongir, was the first member of the dynasty to be buried here. Timur wanted to be buried alongside his son in this family mausoleum. However, his followers chose to bury him in Samarkand.

Like the Summer Palace, Dor-us Siyodat was destroyed by the Bukharan ruler, Abdullah Khan, from the Shaybanid Dynasty. It’s believed he wanted to destroy Timur’s legacy. It’s interesting to see how little we have changed, and how historical monuments are collateral for any war — no mater which century we live in.

Dor-ut Tilovat Ensemble

The Dor-ut Tilovat is famous for the tomb of the founder of sufism, Shamsiddin Kulal. He was also the spiritual guide for Amir Timur. Ko’k-Gumbaz or the Blue Dome mosque was constructed across the tomb in the 15th century.

Intricate patterns decorate the outer walls of the mosque. The monument is a work of art.

The elevated platform of the memorial gives a bird’s-eye view of the mountains and historic complex. We could have stayed here for a very long time.

Kitab Mountains

T said, “Dinosaura!”

A was skeptical. He wasn’t sure if dinosaurs roamed here and wondered if T was cracking a joke. T felt the shape of the mountains resembled the shape of a sleeping dinosaur. He also believed, it’s possible that dinosaurs may have roamed here. The landscape reminded me of some of the places we’d visited in Mongolia and I thought T could have a point.

This part of Uzbekistan is very close to the borders of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Military checkpoints stop most vehicles to check for drugs or arms. We weren’t stopped. A did mention that sometimes even tourist vehicles could be checked for identification.

The sun had done us a favour. The mountain path had cleared and we would cut across the Kitab Mountains to reach Samarkand.

T stopped the car at a vantage point. Whilst A bought sheekh kababs, we enjoyed the view of the cascading mountains. The average height of the peaks range between 1350 m and 2250 m. Sadly, these pictures don’t do justice to the true beauty of the mountains.

“A like to eat meat! 1 Kilo meat!”

T felt obliged to lighten the mood with a joke because A was the only one left to get in the car. We laughed and waited for A to join us.

The drive to the top was scenic with stunning views of the white mountains. Who would have thought we’d celebrate Christmas like this?

The local market was bustling with vendors selling dry fruits and local produce. A stepped out to check if there was anything interesting.

I like to see diversity whenever we visit a new place. And I’m also aware that no matter what the guide tells you, conflict and prejudice are integral parts of any diverse ecosystem. Besides native Uzbeks, Uzbekistan has descendants from the neighbouring ‘stans, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, as well as diasporas from Korea, Iran, Germany, Armenia, Georgia, and Lithuania. The list can keep going on. Languages and features are noticeably distinct and this diversity breaks the myth (perpetuated by popular/non-travel media or even on some Uzbek local channels) that all Uzbeks look the same. T and A were of Russian descent and spoke Russian at home.

I could also see why some Koreans would think I’m Arabic. I remember meeting a Uzbek-Korean (in Seoul) who was so convinced I was Arabic that I started doubting my own ancestry. But, it’s also possible that we place too much emphasis on our own roots, on what we’re lead to believe, without understanding how complex human evolution and migration is.

Like all good road trips, this one came to an end in Samarkand. The day had been a pleasant surprise.

Christmas Dinner

T was happy to return home and he spent the rest of the night with his family. A made a reservation at a popular restaurant in Samarkand. This restaurant was the best we’d visited so far. A had fine taste.

A opened up over dinner. For a change, he wasn’t our guide and we weren’t his clients. We were just three travellers, enjoying a meal. He wasn’t cautious and didn’t have to worry about his words. We learned how big groups can be difficult to manage. We learned how people from different countries behave. We learned how some people trust dated guide books more than locals. One could think he was mildly xenophobic and misogynistic. However, we had also watched him sweat in the heat in Shakrisabz and freeze in Khiva. The weather didn’t affect his enthusiasm or his commentary. Winter dips tourist footfalls and there’s no work for the next few months. The uncertainty can be a trying time for anyone in the tourism industry.

How often do we take our own lives for granted, often getting lost in a mindless existential crisis? Until then, we didn’t realise how our spur-of-the-moment trip had turned out to be an unexpected gift for him and his family. We saw life from his perspective and made a new friend.

Posted by:twobrownfeet

Writer-Photographer Duo. Now in Seoul.

30 replies on “A Christmas Road Trip from Bukhara to Samarkand (via Shakrisabz)

  1. What an incredible journey you shared with him. It sounds like it was quite a remarkable trip. So interesting to see other cultures and countries at Christmas time. So very different to what we’re accustomed to here. And those mountains are simply breath taking. Fabulous post Cheryl. For some reason your posts have dropped off my WP Reader so it’s great to read your words again. Hope all’s well with you my friend. Hugs from a gray and moody Melbourne. xx 😊

    1. Hi Miriam! It’s so good to hear from you. I thought you’ve stopped blogging because of the new course you were taking. 🙂 WP Reader can act quite funny. I did take a longish break in autumn. I know I needed it. Things have been difficult for the past 2 months because of the semi-quarantine we’re all in. I try to stay calm and write. I think it’s paying off. 🙂 Can’t wait for life to get back to normal. Hope things are well with you! Warm hugs from a sunny Seoul! xoxo

      1. Hi Cheryl. No, I didn’t stop blogging at all, maybe just slowed down a tad but it’s all systems go again now. I finished the course and have had such a busy year so far with my freelance writing which is just booming. Super chuffed! 😊 Hope you’re okay over there. Staying calm and writing is a great idea and that’s what I’m doing too. It’s all a bit crazy out there with this virus and all the quarantines. Keep well won’t you. Big hugs back from a hot sunny Autumn day here. xx 😍

      2. I’m so happy for you! You always wanted to do freelance writing and you’re a fantastic writer. Your posts brightened my day. And you know how to spread kindness on the internet. We really need that these days!
        I’ve had my moments of panic, anger, and calm. Tried reason and science and even meditation! Basil and I are cooped in the same space for weeks and it’s not as much fun I thought it’d be! lol.
        We’re all in this together. It will pass hopefully. Do you still have family in Italy? I hope they’re ok! Stay safe my friend. xoxo

      3. Aww thanks for your kind words about my writing. It’s been a passion for a long time but finally I’m able to devote 100% effort to it.
        I can well imagine how hard it would be to be cooped up for that time Cheryl. Yes, we are all in this together and it will pass, like everything though it is a worry. I do have many relatives in northern Italy. Cousins, aunts, uncles … I pray they’ll be ok. You take care and stay safe (and sane!) Hugs xx

      4. Very few can make their passion a job. So it’s quite something you’ve achieved there. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear more on that front.
        I’m so glad we don’t live in a studio apartment anymore. We would have gone crazy in the same room. 🙂
        I do hope (&pray) your family in Italy (& Australia) is safe and gets through this difficult time. I really feel for everyone on that top 5 list! It’s not easy seeing numbers rise every day. I’ve really wondered how much longer I can stay sane! lol. Thanks Miriam. So good to hear from you. And thanks for the support! xoxo

  2. Wow I’m so amazed by the Palace, blue dome and the views of the white mountains. I love your narrative way and photography as always. It’s such a beautiful post again. The local market experience seems very unique. I didn’t know you spent your Christmas Day like this. What an epic journey ! 😉

    1. hahah…This is what I was trying to tell everyone who was trying to get in touch with me on Christmas. We didn’t have WIFI till we reached the hotel and I was so pooped by then. It was a memorable way to spend Christmas! 🙂

  3. Thank you for taking me to places it would never occur to me to go, or that I didn’t even know existed. I love the colourful architecture and that snow-capped mountain backdrop. 🙂 🙂

    1. We’re all taking each other to glorious places on our planet Jo. I need to thank you for those wonderful walks that you take me on. I’ve wanted to visit Portugal for such a long time and it’s never happened so far. xoxo

  4. I really love this post for so many reasons…The photographs of the ruins of Ak Saray are simply stunning, and the Blue mosque., gorgeous. Your story telling and writing is completely captivating. I know so little about this part of the world that it makes it all the more interesting to me.

    “it’s also possible that we place too much emphasis on our own roots, on what we’re lead to believe, without understanding how complex human evolution and migration is.” This quote, yes, I agree… I often think that about the fact that if we go back far enough, well we are all connected eventually and from the same roots.

    Terrific post.


    1. Thanks Peta! It’s so good to hear from you. Your comment brought a smile to my face. Thank you! Uzbekistan is quickly becoming a tourist hotspot. We were lucky to visit when it was the low season. I hope you and Ben can visit it someday.
      You know, I really feel that we’re all connected and I just hope more people can understand that. The world would be a better place to live in! 🙂

  5. Really enjoyed this post, your story telling, Cheryl and the scenic visuals. The opening view – the road over into the beckoning far distance adds to the beguiling unknown. The geography looks huge – an expansive canvas, so wide and the mountains contained within. So much here in the telling of the historic aspects. Interesting to read the about the mosque built for female students. The architecture is extraordinary, the exquisite details in the decorative aspects. I’ve followed BBC documentaries lately led by Sam Willis, who also covered Timur, Samarkand. Intriguing details in Sogdia and the Yaghnobi descendants. The diversity of people and ethnicities is so fascinating. This ‘armchair’ traveller is enthralled by your adventures.

    1. Thanks a bunch Liz! 🙂 You know how to make my day. Travel means a lot to us. We take each trip as a learning opportunity — to broaden our own skewed vision. Uzbekistan was on our list for a very long time and I’m so glad we got to visit it.

  6. A pity that many of these beautiful buildings have lost their famous blue tiles — though still magnificent. You might be surprised to know that Islam (like Judaism) is very similar to Christianity. Both revere Adam, Moses, Jesus (etc). The difference is that Jesus is respected as a prophet in Islam rather than the son of god. The rest is cultural differences rather than religious. And lastly, that “Arabic” heritage could be explored if you had DNA testing. You never know as I recently found out about my ancestors.

    1. I know what you mean. It was fascinating — the whole experience! It’s nice to see that they’ve taken more care to preserve what’s left behind. It would have been great if we could have seen the entire structure.
      I’m aware of the common link between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. That’s why I find it strange when wars are fought or people differentiate between the three. It doesn’t make sense to me.
      It’s quite possible I have Arabic heritage. Back home, some think I’m Parsi. It would be interesting to do DNA testing for fun! 🙂

      1. Wars have never truly been about religion. They’re always about power and greed and often over land.
        Bukhara is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, but it’s not an easy place to reach from where I am so I’ve enjoyed these posts.

  7. LOVED everything here! The opening photo of the town with that magnificent mountain range towering over it was a great appetizer, and the meat of the post was just as good. A sounds like just the kind of guide I hope to find on my travels – energetic, open, and trustworthy.

    Random question: did you actually go down that 12% hill in all that snow? That would have freaked me out! And random note: that shape on the Samarqand sign looks like an upside-down state of Texas!

    1. You would love Uzbekistan! There are so many hiking opportunities (if you have more time) and it’s definitely off the tourist trail. I’m so glad we went for a local tour agency and got to see more than we expected. A was one of the best guides we’ve had. He knew what we were looking for. He asked us few questions and adapted the tour for us. He took us to places that weren’t on the list. And we didn’t take a meal plan, so we had the freedom to take his suggestions and try out the local cuisine.
      I don’t think there was any other way to go down. 🙂 The road was clear and I wasn’t scared. You would be fine. It was a nice drive! Trust me. 🙂

  8. What a lovely post, Cheryl. A good thing I only got to it now, as it is a welcome relief from all the coronavirus stories that surround me these days. What a lovely country. I am so glad you had such a wonderful guide as it can really make or break a journey. Stay safe and sane!

    1. Hi Jolandi! I know what you mean. I’ve been trying to avoid writing about it for as long as I can. These days it’s everywhere. 😦 Uzbekistan is a lovely country and it will be very special because I’m not sure when we’d get to travel again. Hope you’re well! How are things there? Stay safe and take care! xo

      1. Fingers crossed for your situation, Cheryl. South Korea has been very pro-active from the beginning, and I trust it will be a safe place for you. We are effectively in lockdown – no one is allowed to enter the country, and Emirates and Etihad had basically stopped flying. We are still in compulsory self-quarantine, since we arrived back in the country on the 13th after we spent time on our quinta in Portugal. When Michael started to feel unwell, and ran a fever, we went to get tested. Still waiting for the results, but trust we will be cleared. Good luck with staying sane during these times. Wishing you and Basil good health.

      2. I agree! Korea has been very efficient with their plan of action to counter the clusters in February. We never had a lockdown, not even Daegu. That what was so amazing. I hope Michael is feeling better. I know many who developed fever during this period because of the changing weather or stress. Sending you positive vibes and hugs! Staying sane was most difficult in this period. Take care and get well soon Michael!

      3. Thank goodness it was just a combination of changing weather and stress for Michael too. We have both been cleared, which is a great relief, and although we are only supposed to go out for essentials, at least we can now step outside the door, even just for brief moments. I really marvel that you never had a lockdown in S Korea, Cheryl. Sending a hug right back to you.

      4. Gosh, I took so long to reply. 😦 I’m so happy to hear this! Grocery shopping is the most exciting thing to do these days! hahaha. I can’t believe we didn’t have a lockdown. Even Daegu, the major cluster, wasn’t on lockdown. Technology is really big here. And Democracy is important. However, privacy has taken a beating. But that’s a price one has to pay I guess. Two more weeks of social distancing. We’re free to step out whenever we like and everything looks so normal. That’s what is worrying. Or maybe I’m paranoid. 😦 Take care and stay strong! xo

      5. Being paranoid is perhaps the new ‘normal’. 😉 I find it very interesting how different countries are dealing with this. You were lucky. Take care! x

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