Lying in the foothills of the Zarafshan Mountains. just 40km from Samarkand, the small town of Urgut is where you'll find the region's biggest - and some say oldest - market. Wednesday and Sunday are the main market days but it's busy, busy, busy here every day of the week. People come from everywhere, by bus, by car, by donkey cart, by shanks' pony - out of the city and the smallest country village they come and to join them is to see the unchanging face of Central Asia.
Divided into several sections, the market is huge. Much to MrL and the only other male in our group's disgust, girl-power won the day and we spent almost all our time in the textiles section - they could have wandered off had they wanted to - whether we'd have ever found them again in the scrum is debatable. Anyhow, there we were, surrounded by textile and needlecraft of every sort - miles and miles of the most gorgeous fabrics; enough traditional bridal gear to outfit a battalion of wedding parties; hats, hats and more hats; boots and shoes; clothes for every age and size; cobweb-fine knitted shawls - we'd seen all this before but never in such quantities. Among the things we hadn't seen on sale in other bazaars were the elaborately braided traditional hair pieces (photo 2) and the braid used to trim the trousers worn under the ubiquitous tunic - some already embroidered but stacks more waiting for the wearer to add her own embellishments (photo 3).
One sign that Uzbekistan's Islam is all its own - I can't imagine ever seeing women in the Middle East selling clothes to a man, but the young fellow in photo 4 was more than happy to be buying his new winter chapan from the female traders here.
The aisles were all absolutely packed, stall after stall selling everything anyone could possibly want or need - if it was made from spun fibre, it was here in some form or another. Move through to another section and there will be brooms and baskets, carpets, ceramics, spices, traditional medicines, whatever you care to think of, there's an area of the bazaar devoted to selling it. They say this market is 1000 years old and if it continues to be this well patronised, it could well be going still in another thousand years.
As well as the regular market traders at their stalls, there were scores of women keeping an eagle eye out for tourists. What were they selling? Suzanis of all shapes and sizes, old and new, handmade and machine sewn. This is the hardest sell you'll find in Uzbekistan and hard bargaining is mandatory. Don't worry if you can't see something you like in this lot, turn around and there will be a half a dozen more women holding something up for your inspection.
Urgut is regarded as the major centre for buying and selling all the traditional embroideries of Uzbekistan, you'll find examples of every local style of work here and prices are way cheaper than anything you'll find in Samarkand or Bukhara.
And when it all gets too overwhelming, follow your nose to the stands where the shaslik are grilling, the plov is steaming and the tea is brewing. A bit of sustainance and you'll be all set to head back into the melee and bargain hard for that gorgeous suzani you know you have just enough room for in your luggage.
Buses for Urgut leave from the road between the Registan and the museum. Ask anyone and they'll point you to the right one.
How many times have I typed this as I've written about the craft traditions of Uzbekistan? "Soviet rule saw the demise of the ancient art of ....... With the help of UNESCO it is slowly being revived" . Now it's the turn of paper-making.
Uzbek poet, Alisher Navoi called paper "wings that spread around the thoughts of wise men". Long the secret of the Chinese, paper-making is first recorded in Samarakand in the 7thC CE and it was from Samarkand that the art spread through the Muslim world, taking just 50 years to reach Baghdad, and finally reaching Christian Europe (vis Muslim Spain) in the 14th C.
From the 7th to the 20th century, hundreds of paper-mills lined the rivers of the Zerafan Valley, but by the 1920s all were gone as new technologies took over. The first small step in reviving the craft has been taken by paper-master, Zarif Mukhtarov, with the construction of a traditional paper mill in a small village on the outskirts of the city. Mulberry bark provides the fibre, an ingenious system of simple water-driven machinery in an adapted rice mill is used to pound the stripped bark into the desired softness and a dedicated band of apprentices works with the master to create sheets of hand-made paper.
The paper-mill's homely farmyard is a tranquil spot, a nice break from city streets and grand monuments.
Konighil village lies ten kilometres from the centre of Samarkand, on the Bukhara road. Booking ahead is necessary - either via your hotel, tour agency or phoning (+ 998 662) 33 32 27
Of course tea will be served, and lunch or dinner can be arranged. It's also possible to arrange a practical session in paper-making.
....there was Afrosiab, and, compared to Afrosiab, Samarkand, a mere 800 years old, is definitely the new kid on the block. Despite a presence in Central Asia that lasted 1800 years, all physical evidence of the Sogdians, the founders of Afrosiab (and a chain of city-states that dominated the region), lay buried beneath the mysterious grassy mounds that lay outside the newer city. It wasn't until Russian archaeologists began digging in those mounds in the 1880s that Afrosiab began to reveal its secrets and the long-lost Sogdians began to emerge.
And what an amazing city Afrosiab turned out to be. Beneath the thin crust of loess soil and sparse grass lay a city of an unimagined sophistication. Massive walls surrounded an orderly layout of streets and canals that divided the city into guzars - living and working quarters where the houses and artisan's workshops were supplied with water from local reservoirs. Temples and shrines indicate that Zoroastrianism, Nestorian and Manichean Christianity, Buddhism and local pagan cults were all practiced in an extraordinary tolerance of different faiths. The finds that indicate all this have found their way into museums - the best in St Petersburg it's true, but enough remain in Samarkand's Afrosiab museum to illustrate the wealth and culture that existed here for 1800 years.
The greatest treasures were revealed with the excavation of the citadel - frescoed walls of such vivid colour and lively character they immediately brought the court of the ruler to life. Again, the best were taken off to Russia but those that remain here are still quite entrancing, one depicting the arrival of a royal bride and all her entourage, another the king receiving gifts from foreign lands and a third a Chinese princess being rowed across a river.
Exposure to the air caused the frescoes to begin to fade almost immediately and that, combined with the necessary very low lighting in the gallery makes photography difficult. I have no doubt however, that it won't be long before no photography is allowed and the day may come when access to the real thing ceases and visitors can only see reproductions in an attempt to preserve these fragile masterpieces.
Visiting the museum first and seeing the artifacts and frescoes really helps put the site itself into perspective. Without that, and a good guide, it's just a vast hillocky wasteland. With a knowledgeable guide, the lumps and bumps take the shape of the ancient city and, maybe, reveal a tangible link to the past in the form of a shard or two of turquoise glazed pot with the unmistakeable pearly sheen of of long contact with the earth.
Museum open daily - 9-5.
Location: Tashkent road, 10-15 minutes walk north of the bazaar, about halfway between the bazaar and Ulugh Beg observatory
...and, truth to tell, probably no Daniel either but local legend says that Temur brought the Old Testament prophet's remains back to Samarkand and had them buried on the slopes of ancient Afrosiab and, ever since, Muslim, Jewish and Christian pilgrims have come to the tomb to pray. That other places, notably Susa in Iran and Hillah in Iraq, also claim to be the lion-taming prophet's last resting place doesn't seem to worry anyone and there can be no doubt this shrine has an air of peaceful sanctity that speaks of centuries of deep faith witnessed here.
Old Testament prophets are renowned for their miraculous abilities and this Daniel - known locally as Khodja Doniyor - is no exception. The relic is encased in an 18 metre long sarcophagus, evidence it is said of the saint continuing to grow even after death. It's believed he will rise again when he reaches his final height - that's going to be quite a sight!
A narrow entrance leads through a short defile that opens into an open space beside a small stream. A steep flight of steps leads up to a second terrace where a nomad's horsetail grave marker hangs high above the mausoleum and a 500 year-old pistachio tree - itself said to have miraculously come back to life after being blessed by the Russian patriach. More steps behind the gatehouse on this level lead up to the grass-covered mounds of buried Afrosiab.
The shrine lies close to the main Samarkand-Tashkent road, not far from the bazaar and the Shah-i-Zindar mausoleum complex (see map - photo 3)
Samarkand lies just 30 kilometres from the border with Tajikistan and, provided you have made the necessary arrangements before your arrival in Uzbekistan, a visit across the border is an interesting excursion.
First and foremost, you must have a multiple entry visa for Uzbekistan and you need to have the dates that you wish to exit from and return to Uzbekistan organised as you need to provide them with your visa application. It is almost impossible to arrange a re-entry visa once you are in the country so, if this side trip appeals, you will have to make some sort of booking via an Uzbek travel agent if you are not travelling on an organised tour. If you are a lone traveller, it will not be cheap.
Panjakent will be your destination for the day. With a typical market, a mosque and a small museum, it's just your average provincial Central Asian town but one with an important addition. High on a bluff above the town lies the pre-Islamic Sogdian city of Bunjakant. The discovery of the city in the 1940s was a major archaeological event as it had lain totally untouched ever since it was abandoned 1200 years ago.
If mud walls and mysterious mounds are your thing, Bunjkant will be right up your street. If you're a stamp-in-the-passport hound, Tajikistan is quite a trophy. If you're in need of a respite from blue domes and relentless retail, Panjakent will provide welcome relief - a laid-back, lazy day - we all need those if we're not to collapse from culture overload.
This page on Panjakent describes what you can expect in more detail along with immigration and customs procedures, what's for lunch, etc.
One interesting place to visit, culturally, if for no other reason, is the Jewish Cemetary- apparently there's a decent Jewish population in the region!
Anyway, if you're heading to Afrosiab, it's on the way!
I liked this church very much. Good proportions and simple, but nice decoration inside. It's an ortodox church and it's near of St. Alexei Cathedral so if you're in this area don't hesitate to visit it. Usually it's closed inside, you can only see it when the mass, at 17:30.
M.Koshgari Street, in front of Hotel Sherdor
Most of uzbek people are muslims but russians were here since 18th century and they left their footprint in religion too. For this reason you will find some examples of ortodox temples in this area. This is St. Alexej Cathedral and although the decoration is a little poor inside it's worth to have a look
Khoji-Daniyar mausoleum is situated in the nothern side of Afrosiyab Hill, near a curative spring and old wall. According to historical sources Khoji-Daniyar is Prophet Daniel mentioned in holy Koran and Bible so this is a holy place for Christians, Jewish and Muslims. The remains of Daniel were transported and buried here by Amir Timur. Local tradition says that the saint possesses life-giving energy, owing to which he continues growing in his tomb. For this reason his tomb was periodically enlarged in the past and nowadays it's 18m long. The long mausoleum with vaulted domes that we can see today was built during XIXth-XXth century (it seems Daniel has stopped growing :-) ). A very particular visit
The best way to go to Daniel's Tomb is by taxi
Shahrisabz (green town in tajik) is a little town 90kms south of Samarqand. It's important because it was Timur's birthplace and he built here his palace and other important constructions. Although Samarqand was the capital of Timur's Empire he always dedicated a special attention to his homeplace. In essence Shakhrisabz was the second capital of his empire. It had to be the place to his eternal rest too but sometimes things don't happen like we want or like to.
Since year 2000 Shahrisabz forms part of the unesco world heritage list
For more information please visit my
On Afrosiyab there are the excavations of ancient Samarkand (called in early times Marakanda). You can see some important pieces from this archeological site in Afrosiyab Museum. Nothing special, but there are some 7th century frescoes painted by local rulers (hunting and ambassadorian processions scenes) that are interesting.
The best way to go to the museum is by taxi
Shakhrisabz's bazaar is a delight. A long covered market hall is packed with stallholders selling the usual dried fruit, nuts, bread, sweetmeats, fabric, etc that are the backbone of markets everywhere in Central Asia. Huge piles of folded chupans (the long padded coats worn by young and old in the cold winters here) are stacked waiting for sales that must be hard on a hot summer's day, but the stall-holder will unfold one or two for you so you can see how they are made and warm they must be. As you walk between the rows you are offered a handful of nuts, sugar-coated dried mulberries (delicious), a sun-dried apricot bursting with flavour, sugar candy of excruciating sweetness and dentist-visit-inducing stickines. The open area outside the hall is a sea of sacks of dried goods and piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, the meat section not quite so appealing. Outside in the street a smiling woman explains how an Uzbek cradle works - no need for nappies here - and outside a metalworker's workshop an array of patterned tinware tap and basin units glint in the sun. The smell of grilling shashlyk is a lot more tempting than the huge bowls of thin foamy yoghurt-soup filled with herbs or apples and green peppers, but the locals seem to enjoy them both.
If in Shah-i-Zinda’s upper parts (north of Qusam Mausoleum) it is surely interesting to walk a bit further and visit Samarkand’s cemetery. It is huge and stretches almost along the whole rest of the hill slopes between Hazreti Hizir Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda. The graves are very much similar to the ones in the western world, well, to the ones I know from Germany.
It is also a quiet place, shady as well in some parts, if you want to rest a bit on benches during your visit of the otherwise very much unshady Shah-i-Zinda.
On the way from the bazaar to Shah-i-Zinda we’ll see a mosque on the road to Afrasiab/Ulug’bek Observatory, which should be worth a visit, however from the outside only (for non-Muslims). It is old, at least the fundaments, and had been restored early 20th century. The entrance hall is supported by wooden pillars and the ceiling is beautifully carved and painted. It looks a bit like Buhkara’s Bolo Hauz Mosque.
Oh, and the mosque is devoted to Hazreti Hizir, a pilgrim of pre-Islamic days, patrons for travellers.
Although Uzbekistan is an Islamic country (well, almost), it guarantees religious freedom and so it is no wonder that the big Russian commune (?) has her Orthodox church at the southeastern part of the university park (ok, just outside of it).
The Orthodox cathedral is devoted to St. Alexej (Alekseevskii), as a little sign says, and is definitely worth a visit. Make sure, you donate a small amount, although it is not asked for.