Samarkand Stories and Tips

Getting to Samarkand

The name had always been there, somewhere in the back of my mind. Samarkand. It conjured up images of caravans of camels, spice girls, travellers from distant lands. IT was on the list of places I would like to see, but /I never really expected that I would do so. Expense and distance, the need for visas and my lack of language skills had made me think that I would need to be an armchair visitor to Uzbekistan.

Unexpectedly I was given the opportunity to live and work in Kazakhstan, and from my home in Almaty Samarkand was a mere twenty hours away. An Uzbek visa was secured without too much difficulty, requiring only a short stroll to the embassy and an uncomfortable wait on the snow. The much hyped warmth and comfort of my new boots proved to be a successful piece of advertising with little basis in fact.

~My patience paid off, and armed with my limited Russian, I was able to secure a ticket for the overnight train to Shymkent from a smiling gold toothed woman at the station. I headed for the border with a mingling of excitement and apprehension. I shared my compartment with delightful people. I could easily have had twelve hours in a confined space with men stinking of vodka who either had no plans to sleep or who snored noisily. I was fortunate to be billeted with a young couple and their infant son. We pooled our provisions and ate happily together, teaching each other words in Russian and English. The boy was filled with excitement, screeching with delight when he saw a train. This was his first journey. We talked a bit more, then settled down to sleep. I lay happily on my narrow bunk as we rattled towards Uzbekistan.

At the station persistent taxi drivers demanding ridiculously exorbitant sums for delivery to the border fought with each other for my custom. Was I wearing a sign saying, "I am a gullible tourist"? I walked purposefully to the bus, banged my head on the low roof, tripped as I tried to stow my bag in the tiny space available, and landed in a heap on the floor. Loss of dignity was a small price to pay for procuring transport at a fraction of the taxi fare.

Safely at the border, I needed to be granted permission to leave Kazakhstan. The border guard seemed confused, but I couldn’t quite understand why. She kept looking at my visa for Kyrgyzstan, though it had no relevance to my current journey. My Kazakh residence permit seemed to cause confusion too. I waited nervously, trying not to look her directly in the eye. I never liked letting go of my passport, but the grim official clung to it firmly. Eventually she reached for her stamp and I was released from Kazakhstan. But now I was in No Man’s Land. Getting into Uzbekistan was straightforward, though, and I looked for means of getting to Tashkent. This time I opted for a taxi, and found a friendly driver who first bought me lunch, them took me to a hotel in the price bracket I had indicated. Perhaps I paid too much, but I never mind doing so on the first day. It takes time to work out costs, and hanging around at the border isn’t very appealing.

I liked Tashkent. Its charms were not instantly obvious but there was a sort of solid Soviet appeal to the place. There were not magnificent buildings on every corner. There were good museums and art galleries. There was green space and street life. Sizzling shashlik smelled irresistible and tasted good too. Kettles boiled on pavement stalls. When the sun shone life moved outdoors. Men played chess in the parks. There was plenty to do in the evening but my first choice was the opera. The ornate Russian building was attraction enough, but good value, good quality performances were the real reasons to go. Tashkent had a peaceful, friendly atmosphere and I enjoyed walking around and taking it in. There is an impressive metro system, not just the efficiently running trains but also the splendid stations. The depth of them- the escalators seemed to go on forever was memorable enough, but each station had painted walls and different design. The decoration of Kosmonayt station, with depictions of space travel, was particularly striking.

On days when I was tired, or the weather was unappealing, just trundling around the circle line was entertainment enough. But the focal point of this holiday was Samarkand, and I was keen to get there. I investigated different travel options and found that a fast train left at 7 the next morning. I nearly missed it. Trying to be too clever, I took what I thought was a shortcut to the metro, and found myself lost in unfamiliar territory. I had left myself plenty of time, but departure time was approaching alarmingly quickly. I wandered around aimlessly but more by luck than judgement I found myself at a different metro station, one closer and more convenient for the station.

I arrived with five minutes to spare. Fortunately my train was easily identifiable, being new and sleek, with its name "Registan" boldly emblazoned on the outside. The train was full but the compartment was spacious and comfortable. Copious quantities of tea were included in the price, and a surprisingly palatable slice of cold pizza. My travelling companions were friendly but we sat in restful silence, reading or watching the passing scene. I looked with interest when someone pointed out another country, Tajikistan, close by. Perhaps one day I would visit there.

The arrival at Samarkand was not dramatic. The station was some distance form the centre, and was not on first sight in a particularly interesting area. But I set out to walk, and see what of interest I might stumble across. Like many cities across the world, boys played football, dodging the traffic and carelessly hitting the balls into windows. Life happened on the streets here too, though it was a dull day and the wind blew strongly. I walked quite a long way but had no idea where I was going.

I was ready to hit the tourist sights now, and though it easiest to go back to the station and take a bus from there. First, though, something needed to be done about my footwear. I have never liked shoe shops, and put off buying new shoes until either the discomfort or the appearance is too offensive to be endured. My last purchase had been particularly unpleasant, trying to communicate in Russian in a tiny space in the Chinese market, trying on numerous unsatisfactory articles. Eventually I found something I was happy with, and I was not keen to lose them, though they were now shabby and, more to the point falling apart and letting in water. I had put off getting them fixed, though there are numerous shoe menders in Almaty, but I could delay no longer.

Near the station I found a small well stocked trolley, either the means of repairing any type of shoe, presided over by a smiling little man. He spoke no English, I spoke no Uzbek, but we managed in Russian and sign language. He sat me down, and kindly produced a piece of comfy carpet on which I could rest my stockinged foot. I had expected a quick fix with super glue, but I had clearly chosen a man who took pride in his work. He eased the body of the shoe even further from the sole, undid a few stitches, and then began to stitch.

IT was interesting to watch his fingers deftly wield the needle, and I was confident that I would soon be furnished with a serviceable shoe. Not as good as new, it was too scuffed and well worn for that, but at least leak proof and less likely to be tripped over. He finished to job by cutting pieces of carpet to shape and making cosy insoles. All this for about £1. So, re shod and rested, I felt ready to be a tourist.

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