Uzbekistan Off The Beaten Path Tips by TheWanderingCamel Top 5 Page for this destination
Uzbekistan Off The Beaten Path: 25 reviews and 46 photos
Tajikistan's coat of arms
70km from Samarkand, the ancient Sogdian city of Bunjikant, a once thriving and cultured city of the Silk Road, sits high above the Zerafshan River that flows from the high Pamirs, through modern Penjikent and on to Samarkand and Bukhara before finally joining the Amu Darya - the fabled Oxus of Alexander (who married a Sogdian princess), Ghengis Khan and Timur. All traces of the Sogdians disappeared when Bunjikant fell to the invading Arabs in the 8th century CE, leaving the city's baked mud walls to slowly melt into mysterious mounds covered in the grasses and wildflowers of the valley's southern slopes. 1200 years were to pass before the mud mounds began to reveal their secrets - a large city complete with citadel, Zoroastrian and Buddhist temples, Nestorian and Manichean churches, two- and three-storied houses built for rich merchants. The invaders had left the city in ruins and no-one had built on the hilltop since then, leaving a wonderfully unspoilt and intact find for the archaeologists who finally arrived in the mid 1940s.
Nowadays the archaeologists have gone, the fabulous wall paintings that once adorned the palace and temple walls have been removed to museums along with the other artifacts they found, grass and flowers are growing over the mounds again. It takes a practiced eye to interpret the lumps and bumps strewn over the open ground so a guide is necessary to make the most of your visit but wandering through the silent streets and courtyards of the ancient city, a monchrome landscape of mud brick and sere grass, it's easy to think yourself into the dust of past centuries .
Getting here is not something to do on the spur of the moment however - Penjikant is actually in Tajikistan and a visit entails a deal of bureaucratic toing and froing. You'll need a visa for Tajikistan for a start, and if you are returning to Samarkand rather than going on further into Tajikistan, you'll also need a multiple entry visa for Uzbekistan. Added to this there is the possibility of at least a couple of hours to be spent coming and going through the border post. Is it worth it? Well, I certainly think so and I'm sure any archaeology buff will too, as will lovers of Persian poetry - Rudaki, considered the father of classical Persian poetry was born near here.
A day trip will give you time to visit Bunjakent and spend time in modern Penjikant, visiting the bazaar, the mosque and the museum, and having lunch. It's not a very long day - an 8.30am start saw us back in Samarkand by about 5.00pm.
Details of this excursion, including the practicalities of making arrangements and the cost can be found here.
Dorut Tilovat - 2005
Like virtually all the wonderful domes in Uzbekistan, those in Shahrisabz are as vivdly blue as the day they were built. Blue, the colour of water and the colour of heaven, symbolic of life on earth and paradise, is the universal choice, in every hue and shade from purest sky to almost jade green. Here in Shahrisabz, the tiles that cover the domes of the 15th century complex of mosque, madrassa and mausolea known as the Dorut Tilovat - Seat of Respect and Consideration - are clear, bright turquoise. In fact, the mosque is called the Kok Gumbaz - the Blue Mosque.
The colours on glazed ceramic tiling are incredibly durable but the skills and secrets of the 15th and 16th century have been lost and the purity and clarity of the colour of the glazes coloured with natural materials cannot be replicated by modern chemicals and, sadly, salinity and other problems associated with cotton's insatiable thirst add to the difficulties of restoration. Add rushed work (there was a great push to complete the restoration to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Ulug Beg's birth in 1994) Photo 1 was taken in 2005, the small domes of the Dorut Tilovat still looking as good as new. Take a look at photo 2 to see how they are faring now. The dome on the mosque is not in such bad shape, maybe that job was done properly.
Dorut Tilovat was built by Ulug Beg in 1435. Members of his family are entombed in the medressa. One of the tombstones - the Kok Tash (Blue Stone) is thought to have curative properties - anxious parents have worn a deep groove in it over centuries of pouring water on it to give to ther sick children
Roses for a bride
Delicious bread is not the only thing sold in the Shahrisabz bazaar. Gaily painted traditional cradles, a neat line in pressed and pierced tin bathroom fittings, a witch's brew of fermenting yoghurt, whole vegetables and fruit , padded coats wide enough to cover a family of four were some of the more unusual things we saw as well as the usual array of spices, nuts, fruit, honeycomb and all the other goods that a Central Asian bazaar has to offer. Not as crowded as some but, like all bazaars in Uzbekistan, this one is wonderfully untouristy, the sellers are (for the most part) friendly and welcoming without being at all pushy and you can spend a great hour or so wandering up and down the aisles of the covered bazaar, out in the open-air section and strolling along the shady main street as you make your way from the palace to the other historic buildings you have come to see here.
2009 update And the roses? It was cotton harvest time when we were in Uzbekistan this time. Mid-October is late for this but failed early crops had meant resowing and now the chill and rain of late autumn was expected at any time so it was all hands on deck as they raced to beat the weather. The bazaar opened early to allow the pickers to do their shopping before leaving for the fields so a dawn walk found the stallholders already setting up for their day. There were none of the general goods that had caught our eye on our first visit - no cradles or bathroom fittings this time but October is wedding season so bouquets of red roses were lined up ready for the wedding guests.
The small town of Shahrisabz sits at the foothills of the Zerafshan mountains about 100km from Samarkand. The shorter mountain pass route takes you over the spectacular Tashtakaracha pass but this is often closed and is unsuitable for buses so it is possible you will have to go via the longer, lowland route - a journey of some 3 hours by car. Whichever way you go, the town is well worth a visit.
Once known as Kesh, and renamed Shahrisabz (Green Town) by Temur whose birthplace it was, there are several important buildings here that date from his time. Two massive towers, part of the entrance, are all that remains of the great palace he built here but their size and scale are enough to give an idea of how vast the palace must have been, and the scraps of tiling that remain speak of a splendour that must have been quite dazzling in its opulence. An enormous statue of Temur stands in what would have been the centre of the palace, now a huge open plaza.
It is possible to get day tours to Shahrisabz from Samarkand. Alternatively shared taxis leave from Suzangaran St, near the museum in Samarkand. The daily bus takes 4 hours on the lowland route which would make it a very long day.
If you choose to stay in the town (and if you can, do - it's a charming small town) the Orient Star Hotel is your best, if not only, option, if somewhat reminiscent of Soviet times. As well as allowing you more time in Shahrisabz itself, an overnight stay will give you time to stop along the way. We spent a very pleasant hour at a farm, taking tea and enjoying the country air. We also enjoyed a home-cooked meal in a private house - a better option we thought than the cavernous dining room at the hotel.
Mediaeval architects and masons were not the first master craftsmen to leave their mark on Uzbekistan. Thousands of years before the Silk Road was even thought or heard of in a continuum that lasted well into the early Middle Ages, the gorge at Sarmysh saw the shaley surface being used as a canvas for some astonishing works of art. Stretching over some 10 kilometres, the walls of the gorge are covered in thousands of petroglyphs of men and beasts in a parade that is remarkable both for its vitality and skilful representations of rituals and hunts as well as a veritable zoo of the animals that were to be found here.
Getting here is not easy, and not something you can decide to do at the last minute. The gorge is situated some distance from the town of Navoi and as well as there being no public transport within reasonable reach, arrangements have to be made to enter the locked and abandoned children's campsite that lies between the road and the gorge. Realistically, unless you are on a tour that includes a visit here on its itinerary, an expedition to the gorge is only possible by making the arrangements well in advance through a tour company and using hired transport. It is a full day's excursion from Bukhara. That said, and once there, it is something quite different and well worth the effort.
Be prepared for a long, hot walk, and some rough scrambling - the petroglyphs are not laid out in neat rows! Bring a hat and water and wear good, stout shoes.
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