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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.