A Guide to the Ancient City of Samarkand, Uzbekistan
“For lust of knowing what should not be known, we take the golden road to Samarkand”
– James Elroy Flecker
Samarkand (“The Mirror of the World”) is located in the south-east corner of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. It is one of the most ancient cities, having served as one of the key trading centres along the Great Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. The city boasts of history and culture and as you walk the streets, through bazaars and past colourful turquoise tiled architecture, you can’t help but feel the city’s richness and allure.
In this post, I’ve included a guide to help you plan your trip and 8 things for you to do in the ancient city of Samarkand!
Tips Before You Go:
The main airport in Uzbekistan is located in the country’s capital, Tashkent. The Tashkent International Airport is humble so don’t expect a fancy international airport. From Tashkent, take the surprisingly modern high-speed train, Afrosiyab, to Samarkand. The journey will take about 2 hours and cost $30 for an economy class ticket. Outside of the train station, you will be confronted by many taxi drivers ready to take you into the city and your hotel. Make sure to haggle your taxi price down before getting in one!
– Walk – if your hotel is centrally located, it will be very easy to see much of Samarkand by foot.
– Hire a Driver – another good way to get around Samarkand is to hire a driver. This will usually cost around $20 -$50 a day, but can be negotiated with the driver. It’s easy to find a driver through whichever hotel you will be staying at.
– Group / Personal Tours – if you are a weary of navigating Uzbekistan on your own there is also the option of going on an organized tour.
When to Go
The best time to visit Samarkand is in spring (March to May) or fall (September to November). Although this is the best weather and therefore the “high” season you’ll never really have to worry about loads of tourists as Uzbekistan is still very much off the beaten track. If you decide to visit in the winter or summer months, just be aware that Uzbekistan can get VERY cold and VERY hot.
Where to Stay
– Bibikhanum Hotel ($45) – centrally located with great views from the terrace of the hotel
– Hotel Samarkand Safar ($50) – also centrally located and has a pool
– Antica B&B Samarkand ($35) – family run, great food and has a beautiful lush garden
Some Insider Tips on Traveling in Uzbekistan
– Visa – Visas for most nationalities are required for most nationalities visiting Uzbekistan. Check on your governmental website what the process is for your country.
– Carrying ID – Everyone is required to carry an ID in Uzbekistan, and although you’re unlikely to be asked as a tourist, keep a photocopy of your passport with you at all times.
– Accommodation Registration – You need to register at every place you stay and keep the registration slips for everywhere you stayed. They could ask for these at the airport when you are leaving.
– Money – The Uzbek Som isn’t available outside of the country and you will therefore have to obtain it on arrival. There is a government rate (2500 Som to the $) and an black-market rate (4500 Som to the $). This is obviously a big difference, but be aware that exchanging money on the black market is illegal. That being said, it is fairly easy and common practice to change money this way and can be done in a bazaar or with a trusted driver. Also note that the internationally accepted currency is $. There are some ATMs around the country but, overall, Uzbekistan is very much a cash-based country. So be prepared to be carrying a lot of $ and Som!
8 Things to Do in Samarkand:
1. The Registan
One of Samarkand’s most beautiful and largest sites is the Registan, which sits at the heart of the city. The complex is made up of three madrasahs (educational institution) around a central big plaza area. As with many of the turquoise tiled sites in Samarkand, it’s really beautiful against the big blue Uzbek sky. Visit at night too, when the whole square is lit up!
No trip to Uzbekistan is complete without a plate of Plov. The dish consists of rice with onion, carrots and raisins, mixed with either mutton, lamb or beef. In Samarkand, two great places to get Plov are at Labi Ghor and Bedonali Kazi Palov.
3. Siyob Bazaar
Visiting the bazaars in Uzbekistan are a highlight to any trip. They are buzzing with people buying vegetables, bread and meat, haggling over handicrafts and eating at food stalls. Siyob Bazaar in Samarkand is the perfect spot to experience this part of Uzbek daily life.
4. The Old City of Afrasiyab
The old city of Afrasiyab doesn’t look like much, as it was destroyed by Ghingis Khan and the Mongols long ago but it’s an interesting spot to see a panorama of Samarkand and all its minarets and wander the Museum of City History.
5. Visit the Gur-Emir Mausoleum
Near to the Registan, you will find the impressive Gur-Emir Mausoleum. The famous Timur (you’ll hear about him a lot on any tour of Samarkand) is buried here, and his gravestone is made out of a single piece of massive beautiful jade.
6. Shah-i-Zinda – The Avenue of Mausoleums
By this point, you might have realized that there are a LOT of beautiful blue and turquoise tiled mosaic buildings to see in Samarkand. One of the best sites to see these beautiful tiles is at Shah-i-Zinda or The Avenue of Mausoleums, which is an avenue of 20 mausoleums.
7. Uzbek Textiles and Handicrafts
Uzbekistan has a wealth of beautiful handicrafts – from wood carving, to ceramics, suzane embroidery and jewelry. Unlike many tourist destinations, you can still easily find a lot of these handicrafts in Uzbekistan that are made by local artists rather than shipped in from China. Urgut Market in Samarkand is the place to find beautiful handicrafts, and especially tapestries. Make sure you haggle the price down!
8. Ulugh Beg Observatory
Ulugh Beg is the grandson of the emperor Timur and built one of the greatest observatories to ever exist and was an important center for astronomical study.