Uzbekistan is a country rich with history. In ancient times, the territory where present day Uzbekistan lies included the main artery between east and west, between Europe and Asia, also known as the Silk Road. The land that stretches for thousands of kilometers from the Caspian Sea in the west to the TianShian Mountains in the east is some of the most inhospitable and driest on earth. Travelling across this land is not a comfortable, luxurious experience, even in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. Naturally, the ancient travelers had to have places along the way to rest.
Because the Silk Road was such an important trade route between Asia and Europe, many great cities were able to survive and thrive along the way. Many of these cities have some of the most beautiful and impressive architecture in the world, and have in turn become UNESCO World Heritage sites. These incredible cities include Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. There is a lesser known but equally impressive city on the UNESCO list, however, that is an easy day trip away from its more famous neighbor, Samarkand. What’s more, it’s a great place to visit to enjoy the wonderful Uzbek architecture without the usual horde of foreign tourists. This is the city of Shakhrisabz.
Shakhrisabz lies about sixty kilometers south of Samarkand, and though it requires a trip over the 1,700m Takhzakaracha Pass, it is still easy to get to. During the peak tourist season, taxis going to Shakhrisabz wait just outside the Registan in Samarkand. The prices are extremely reasonable, especially since drivers will try to fill their cars as much as possible, maximizing their profit while minimizing the passenger’s costs. It doesn’t take very long for taxi drivers to fill their cars, although I found myself traveling with local Uzbeks rather than other tourists. The drive to Shakhrisabz is rather uneventful over the dry rocky pass and its desert landscape, but takes less than two hours. Naturally, the local Uzbeks were curious of the foreigner traveling with them and it did not take long before it felt like I was their best friend. When we arrived in Shakhrisabz, I was dropped off in the center of town but not before my Uzbek companions genuinely invited me to their place with the hospitality I have come to learn was typical of central Asia, even though we didn’t exchange any contact information and barely knew each other’s names. Although I would probably never see them again, their warm welcome was a lasting impression on my image of Uzbekistan.
The claim to fame for Shakhrisabz is that it is the birthplace of Amir Timur, one of the greatest leaders of Central Asia. He reigned during the fourteenth century and not only conquered and ruled much of Central Asia, but was also a great patron of art and architecture. Much of the amazing architecture that we can see in the famous cities of Uzbekistan and beyond came from the Timurid dynasty. The beautiful, arch-filled, turquoise-domed buildings came from his reign.
Leaving the taxi, the first thing that drew my attention was the huge remains of the Aq-Saray palace, the city’s most famous landmark. This was a big change from its neighboring UNESCO cities in which the famous architecture is so well kept and maintained that the buildings seem almost too perfect. All that remains of the Aq-Saray palace is two sides of the gate-tower rising sixty five meters like twin towers and dominating the central square of the city. The grandiose palace was supposed to be Timur’s summer palace. Had it been in existence today, it would have dwarfed anything that Samarkand and Bukhara had to offer. Still, the ruins are very impressive and definitely well worth a visit. One of the towers is closed to the public, but the other tower allows visitors to climb to the top and offers an amazing view of the small city of less than 100,000. The steep winding uneven stone staircase to the top is just wide enough to allow people to squeeze by each other, presently accommodating two-way foot traffic that it was never meant to have. Coming into the bright sunlight onto the top observation deck, I saw the wonderful view. We are clearly higher than anything else in the city, and most of it consists of low earth-toned buildings separated only by some brightly colored turquoise domes of the Timurid architects. Shakhrisabz is a unique blend of typical Uzbek with a hint of Soviet city planning. The square down below has the stereotypical Soviet-style concrete slab walkways geometrically crisscrossing patches of green grass and the centerpiece fountain surrounded by carefully groomed flowers. On the opposite side, I noticed the remains of a city wall left from centuries before next to an unkempt park full of dilapidated amusement park rides left from decades ago.
Back on the ground level, I made my way towards some of the turquoise colored domes that I had seen from the top of the gate. The road led me past the central market place, where all kinds of products – perishable and otherwise – sat in the unrelenting heat, while the fragrance of shashlik, or Russian-style meat shish kebabs, competed with that of the lagman, a local noodle dish in broth. I took a short break to gulp down some kvas, the ever popular Russian summer drink sold from a bright yellow barrel on wheels, and then it was a quick walk from the central market to the turquoise-domed complex that is commonly found throughout Uzbekistan. Near the complex is another set of ruins which apparently houses a tomb originally meant to be the final resting place for the great Amir Timur, who, of course, now rests in Samarkand. A tomb does exist, however, and an unofficial looking Uzbek wanders around the general area collecting money from unsuspecting tourists curious enough to pay. I ended up being one of those unsuspecting tourists descending down into the subterranean level which from the outside looked quite grand, but ended up being a claustrophobic room with a sarcophagus and a bunch of western tourists. There wasn’t a single Uzbek in there, which was a completely different demographic to the tourists who were on top of the gate. Fortunately, the fee to see this room wasn’t that great and I was secretly impressed at the way this cunning Uzbek found an easy business opportunity.
Having spent a couple of hours in Shakhrisabz, I was ready to head back to Samarkand. It was the late afternoon, and I headed back towards where the taxi had originally dropped me off. Of course, Shakhrisabz is a much smaller and less popular city than its northern neighbor, and there weren’t any taxis waiting around the center of town. After asking around, I found out that I needed to take the bus to the outskirts of the city on the highway back to Samarkand to find a ride back. A simple bus ride got me to the outskirts, and walking off the bus I walked into a hoard of drivers wanting to fill their cars quickly for the ride back to Samarkand. I was greatly amused that I was the center of a tug-of-war between two drivers who claimed that they had talked to me first. Both drivers only needed one more passenger to fill their car, and in the chaos, I ended up in one of the driver’s Ladas with two Uzbeks and a Russian, and within minutes, we were on our way back to Samarkand. Once again, there was a general curiosity about the foreigner traveling among them.
Back in Samarkand, I was pleasantly tired as I walked back to my hostel. It was twilight, the crossroads between day and night, when the lights that brighten up the arcs of the city’s famed Registan slowly take over for the setting sun. The perfection of this building still impressed me, but I was very glad to have had the opportunity to see the building that was never meant to be. Shakhrisabz was the perfect day trip to see something other than the completed architectures of the amazing Silk Road period.