After breakfast, we were driven 10 kms south-east to the station at Kagan, which is the closest the emir at the time would allow the railway to be built to Bukhara itself. We were travelling to Samarkand by train while our large bags were taken to our destination in the coach.
Quite strict security checks were required before we accessed our platform, where the carriages of the 8.05 to Tashkent were lined up behind a large diesel locomotive. We were allocated compartments in the last carriage of the train. Later, when I walked through the carriages to see what the other facilities were like, it became apparent that ours had the slightly better conditions in terms of comfort and cleanliness, but, in truth, the whole train was in good condition. I particularly liked a carriage with no compartments which evoked train travel about 30 or 40 years ago. It felt comfortably old fashioned and, of course, spacious. As in the days of the Soviet Union, a large samovar existed at one end of many of the carriages. When the samovar was fired up, passengers could order cups of green or black tea.
Navoi, about a third of the way to Samarkand, is where some hills lie to the north and the south. They were the highest points so far seen in Uzbekistan, but hills they remained. For most of the way to Navoi, very flat and barren conditions prevail, but we passed two stretches of water, a small reservoir near the railway and much larger Tudakul Lake just beyond. Both stretches of water have reeds around their edges. As we approached Navoi, the railway passed a very large industrial installation with tall chimneys that looked derelict or semi-derelict. Navoi’s suburbs have lots of modest, mud-walled houses occupying square ground plans. East of Navoi, fields and pasture made a welcome change and livestock included cattle.
Between Navoi and Samarkand a high-speed track was being laid close to the existing track; high-speed trains will soon run from Tashkent to Kagan and vice-versa (at present, high-speed trains operate only between Tashkent and Samarkand). Trains will utilise electricity from overhead wires. In Samarkand we saw one of the high-speed trains. In appearance it was exactly the same as the new generation of Talgo trains in Spain. It had been built in Spain on behalf of the Uzbek rail network.
At present, trains between Kagan and Samarkand have to negotiate quite long stretches of single track, which means that in larger settlements trains run around one another when there are additional tracks.
Agricultural production persists east of Navoi (this is made possible by irrigation and the Zeravshan River. The latter lies to the north of the railway) and to the south a ridge of hills occasionally ascends to a height to justify being called mountains. Near Kattakurgan is another reservoir and lots of livestock graze on the surrounding pasture.
We were travelling through one of Uzbekistan’s more densely populated rural areas where the land gently undulates. Hamlets and villages are plentiful and some look as if their inhabitants are quite prosperous, by Uzbek standards at least. Sheep, goats and cattle graze on the pasture, trees grow wild and fields and orchards look productive. However, there are also lots of industrial installations, but most are abandoned or operate below full capacity.
The green and undulating conditions persisted to Samarkand, which meant we saw donkeys, sheep, goats, cattle, birds, old tractors and lots of men and women working in the fields together. Moreover, to the south another ridge made its presence known, but on this occasion the summits were unquestionably those of mountains (later on the trip we would drive through the mountains).
Studying the map of Uzbekistan, I was intrigued that there are occasions when railways between Uzbek urban centres leave the country to travel some distance in a neighbouring nation state. It soon dawned on me why this is so. The railways were constructed during the tsarist and the Soviet eras when it was assumed Russian rule in Central Asia would endure for, if not eternity, at least a very long time, so the tracks could be laid without regard for independent nation states that might emerge if/when Russian or Soviet colonial rule ever ended. Journeys between some Uzbek urban centres provide you with the opportunity to also spend time in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
We arrived in Samarkand where a very imposing glass and concrete building overlooks the platforms. Two or three passenger trains stood along the platforms, one being a high-speed train for Tashkent.
We walked to where our coach with our large bags had been parked and the drive to the city centre began. The station lies almost on the north-west extremity of Samarkand, a city which grew very large during the Soviet era when a period of intense industrialisation rapidly increased the population. The Soviet character of Samarkand is most apparent in the suburbs enclosing the old city, although, in recent years, the Soviet character of some of the districts has been tempered by the construction of glass and steel boxes of bright but uninspired design. Free enterprise has also led to lots of intrusive advertising and bright signs meant to encourage greater consumerism. Because I do not like excessive consumerism (the globe’s resources are finite and existing consumer goods should be more fairly distributed before we produce/buy yet more), and because such advertising and signs make it difficult to assess the architecture they so often disguise, this aspect of free enterprise I can do without. But it was good that the suburbs have lots of cafes, restaurants and places to buy food for the home, all of which would have been unusual during the Soviet era. Moreover, because the suburbs are largely or completely devoid of tourists, local people enter such cafes, restaurants and shops knowing the prices are reasonable.
By the time we arrived at the Hotel Asia Samarkand, our base for the next two nights, we had driven beside or through some of the older residential districts of the city. Although the districts looked very interesting, I was shocked that many of them are partially hidden from view by tall walls built in recent years to disguise the fact that some people in Uzbekistan live in very old houses in rundown condition (similar walls exist in Bukhara, but are fewer in number). The fact that such areas of old housing are one of the main reasons sane and sensible people want to visit Uzbekistan, not least because such areas often contain monuments of considerable architectural and/or historical importance, the construction of such walls is incomprehensible. The official explanation for the walls? Tourists, whether foreign or otherwise, do not want to encounter such urban areas. Yes they do, if they have any curiosity about how ordinary people live their lives!
By the time we arrived at the hotel, Samarkand was beginning to cast its spell over me, and not only because of the old residential areas that lurked behind the high walls. We had already seen enough domes, minarets, towers and pishtaks, many covered with stunningly beautiful tiles, to realise that the next two days would provide much worthwhile interest.
The Hotel Asia Samarkand is a slightly more dated and not so appealing version of its chain members in Khiva and Bukhara, but the staff were unfailingly polite and helpful (although, when one group member ordered a beer and a bottle of tonic water, the latter to add to gin in her room, she was charged a ridiculous amount of money at the bar). Being located in an old residential area, many interesting monuments are nearby, and the Registan, the square enclosed on three sides by Samarkand’s best-known ensemble of buildings, is only a ten-minute walk away. Between the hotel and the Registan is a mosque with the roof of a porch or veranda supported by carved wooden columns. Within the mosque courtyard is a free-standing, tapering, circular brick minaret with ceramic tiles that add to its appeal. Beside the minaret is a deep water tank octagonal in shape. Sadly, almost as much litter as water filled the tank.
Hilary and I walked through a rather sterile landscaped area just to the east of the Registan (whether dating from the Soviet era or later, old housing may have been destroyed to create what is in effect parkland) before arriving at the raised viewing area immediately to the south of the square to admire the three medressas facing it. Because we knew we would visit the Registan with Davron the following day, we did not pay the admission fee to enter the square, but admired the ensemble, the majolica, the azure mosaics and the well-proportioned spaces before visiting some nearby streets to the south to engage with less formal Samarkand. The streets were a pleasant mixture of houses, apartment blocks, shops and a few stalls. We visited a supermarket to look around and buy an ice cream each (before leaving the hotel for the walk, we ate an apple and a boiled egg each, the boiled eggs deriving from the breakfast in Bukhara).
I walked Hilary back to the hotel and, with over an hour to spare before we were to leave for a late afternoon tour of some of Samarkand’s most important monuments, I examined part of the residential area around the hotel, the walls blocking off the area from landscaped spaces north and west of the Registan and the backs of the medressas facing the square itself. I was rewarded with many excellent views, some with the Registan’s medressas in the background. At one point I found an open wooden gate leading onto the north-west corner of the square, but I had taken only five steps when a man in uniform approached me to advise that I could enter the Registan only by paying the full admission price or, for much less, slipping him 3,000 som! I smiled and politely declined his generously discounted offer, then continued to examine the medressas from the back. To be honest: the medressas from the back look almost as stunning as they do from the south side of the square.