Takeaway

Samarkand shines bright

Raul Dias | Updated on March 06, 2021

Crowning glory: Named just like the Hindi word for desert, the Registan Square is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful squares   -  ISTOCK.COM

Uzbekistan’s grandest city dazzles tourists with its history, architecture and food

* Call me morbid, but I simply had to visit the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis and one of Samarkand’s most mysterious and inimitable architectural gems

* All that walking about simply had to be rewarded with a meal. And so off I went to the compact Siyob Bazaar, adjacent to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque

* When translated into English, a famous proverb in Uzbek goes like this: Leave alone one trip, even one lifetime isn’t enough to truly appreciate the beauty of Samarkand

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For most travellers to Uzbekistan — that elusive, exotically uncharted, former USSR country nestled in the very core of Central Asia — the historic city of Samarkand is one of the first places they visit. But not me. Saving the grandest city in Uzbekistan on my week-long travel itinerary for last, Samarkand with its world-class monuments and unrivalled hospitality proved to be the proverbial cherry on my Uzbek cake. A city so alluring that I actually came back to it the same day I left it. Confused? More on that a little later...

Taking the evening Afrosiyob bullet train from Bukhara, en route to my hotel in the heart of Samarkand, I was rewarded with the sight of the greatest of the city’s calling cards — Registan — bathed blushing pink in the soft light of the setting sun. But I’d have to wait till the next morning for a proper introduction.

Monumental brilliance

Named just like the Hindi word for desert, the Registan Square is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful squares. It consists of three buildings that form a part of the beautiful architectural ensemble that it is. The Ulugbek Madrasah, the Sherdor Madrasah and the Tilla-Kari Madrasah attract scores of tourists and newly-wed Uzbeks who come here to get photographed against the turquoise tiled backdrop of the madrasahs.

The day I was there, I happened to chance upon five wedding parties jostling for that perfect frame — all caught in a blinding flurry of white tulle with the heady fumes of incense and perfume swirling around.

A short walk away lies the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. As the family vault of Uzbekistan’s greatest hero, the Turco-Mongol conqueror Amir Temur and his heirs, it was built in 1404. There, I met a rather chatty security guard, who, on learning where I was from, told me that the mausoleum is believed to be a prototype for two well-known Indian monuments: Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and Taj Mahal in Agra. Touché.

Call me morbid, but I simply had to visit the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis and one of Samarkand’s most mysterious and inimitable architectural gems. This tomb complex consists of 11 dazzling shrines covered in turquoise porcelain tiles, each dedicated to a noble man or woman, including Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of Prophet Muhammad. A short walk from the complex, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque is the well-preserved grand mosque (that, according to a legend, was named after Amir Temur’s beloved wife.

Flavours exotic

All that walking about simply had to be rewarded with a meal. And so off I went to the compact Siyob Bazaar, adjacent to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The main covered section of the market is divided into various sections selling meat, pickles, fruits, vegetables, and dairy along with the salty sheep’s milk cheese called kurt. The perimeter of the market is lined with bakers selling round loaves of bread from tiny little prams. Called non, these breads are a Samarkand speciality that both locals and visitors love to munch on as they shop.

Puffed up: A savoury pastry, the Central Asian somsa is a cousin of the Indian samosa   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

As for me, I kick-started my foodie innings with a juicy lamb and onion somsa — similar to an Indian samosa, but with a flaky, puff pastry shell — that I bought from a small hole-in-the-wall shop lining the main market area. This section also houses souvenir shops selling everything from beautiful ikat printed winter jackets to Russian fur hats called ushankas to beautiful ikat printed platters called a lagan, one of which I am now the proud owner of.

For mains, I wolfed down a plate of fragrant plov or osh at a nondescript market café. Very similar to a spice-bereft biryani, where cumin-dusted pieces of lamb are stewed with sweetened carrots and rice, the plov is served with boiled chickpeas and slices of horsemeat sausage called kazi that I actually loved the taste of. This was then washed down with a salty lassi-like yogurt drink called ayran.

Encore worthy

When translated into English, a famous proverb in Uzbek goes like this: Leave alone one trip, even one lifetime isn’t enough to truly appreciate the beauty of Samarkand. When I first heard of it, I brushed it aside like one often does of similar sayings with a chuckle. But little did I know that I’d be given a dose of it all too soon.

Daily bread: The Uzbek non   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Scrambling to take the same Afrosiyob bullet train to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent where I was to board my flight back home, I bid Samarkand a hasty adieu at its spotlessly clean train station. Clutching on to several packed non breads to give as edible souvenirs to friends and family, I boarded the train and managed to make it to Tashkent in time to catch what was to be my non-stop flight to Mumbai.

And while Mumbai was ultimately my final destination, a medical emergency on board half an hour into the flight had us make an hour-long stop at — yes, you guessed it right — Samarkand. A city that apparently couldn’t have enough of me, and vice versa.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Published on March 06, 2021

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