Our afternoon trip was outstanding. We went to Ulug Bek’s Observatory and Museum (the curved track of the observatory is the highlight of the complex, but the beautifully arranged museum has many notable exhibits including old manuscripts), Afrosiab Museum (the museum’s highlight is the astounding 7th century fresco of the Sogdian King Varkhouman receiving ranks of foreign dignitaries as they ride elephants, camels and horses, but other exhibits give an insight into all the civilisations that have thrived at Afrosiab, the ancient city that existed not far from the centre of modern-day Samarkand), Shah-i-Zinda (the stunning Avenue of Mausoleums, which ascends a gently inclined hill. The mausoleums have some of the most remarkable ceramic tiles in the Muslim world. I had some time to examine part of the cemetery surrounding the avenue and liked everything so much that I knew I would return to do the area more justice) and Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum (Timur, along with two sons and two grandsons, lies beneath the monument’s beautifully fluted azure dome). By the time we arrived at Gur-E-Amir the sun was low in the sky, which meant that the visibility was at its best. However, yet again high walls separated the monument from the old housing nearby.
When we entered one of the mausoleums at Shah-i-Zinda, a hafiz in one of the most ornately conceived rooms chanted some verses from the Qur’an in a beautiful voice. The experience reminded us that Shah-i-Zinda is an important place of pilgrimage for Muslims, above all because, according to legend, Qasam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, is buried nearby. Qasam ibn Abbas is said to have brought Islam to the area in the 7th century.
We were driven to the vast Samarqand Restaurant where an enormous downstairs dining room had live music, flashing lights and many Russian diners, the latter dressed as if they were at a wedding reception (perhaps they were at a wedding reception, or attending an event organised by a local crime syndicate), but we were ushered to an upstairs room about a third of the size. The room had been filled with kitschy items and architectural features so it fulfilled a contemporary idea of what a traditional inn in the Russian countryside would look like. We were served salads with a Russian spin and grilled meats in the Uzbek style. Alcoholic drinks cost the usual 9,000 som a shot, but the measures in the wine glasses were small (we stuck with the bottled beer).
Once back at the hotel I went for a walk around the nearby residential streets. Except along one main road the lighting was poor. There were a few shops and other businesses such as a barber’s, and two B and Bs in the side streets. Many of the houses had been built around courtyards and no space existed between them, but I got the impression that many of the houses, even those conceived in the traditional style, were not very old. Had a bar existed I would have stopped for another beer, but I did not see one. At least the walk helped me digest the vast quantity of food so recently consumed.