Brrr. Winter arrived. Joel's bringing my winter coat when we meet in Istanbul in a couple of weeks, so I'm trying to survive without buying a coat until then. I'm up to five layers.
Alain de Botton says this: "A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain". In other words, "Ok, this monument was built in the Shaybanid dynasty? So what? Why do I care?". I was kind of braced for this feeling in Bukhara and Samarkand. I tried to read some background information and quickly build an understanding of 14th-16th century central Asian and Islamic architecture, but my eyes kept glazing over. It takes some time before it's interesting and you start to care.
Luckily, Samarkand and Bukhara are magnificent. Even if you can't remember the difference between an emir and a khan, you can stand there with your jaw dropped at how big everything is, how striking the blue tiles are, and what a great job the restorers have done.
The Registan is the obvious attraction here, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. It's impressive that Ulugbek's
madrassa, built in the 1400s, has withstood earthquakes and chaos better than anything built since. It's good to have a nerd running the country. Today I also saw the tomb of the prophet Daniel from the Old Testament (probably; there's a contender in Iran). These were both great and fascinating things to see.
However, the thing I found most interesting in Samarkand, which isn't on any of the tourist maps, is a modern graveyard attached to the Shah-i-Zinda avenue of Mausoleums. Rather than just names and dates, the gravestones have lovely etched pictures of the deceased person. Maybe this is a common thing, but I haven't seen it before, and I spent an enjoyable hour guessing people's lives and personalities, looking for family resemblances and so on. After some internal debate, I decided that photographing gravestones is only disrespectful if anyone sees you who is likely to be offended (This is my philosophy on a lot of things) so I have a bunch of pictures of the people I liked the most. It was interesting: couples tended to match in attitude, some solemn, amused, friendly, thoughtful, etc, but usually matching.
Walking around here is still fraught with pestering, worse than in Tashkent. It feels like every second Uzbek who passes is all "Hello! Madame! Signora! Where are you from? What is your name?". It's a prelude to money changing, tour guiding, buying appalling junk, etc, so after a couple of days I started only responding to the kids. The problem is that the police do the same rigmarole, and it seems less wise to blank them. The ones around the Registan come up close and, after we've ascertained what everyone's name is and where everyone is from, whisper "Climb a minaret? Very cheap!". Grr. I don't object to paying a few quid to get a better view, but there's no way I'm lining their pockets to do it. And I'd rather not be in a tiny enclosed space with them. Taxi drivers are the other worst: they slow down and crawl along beside you in case maybe you remember that you did need a taxi after all. It's creepy at night.
On the other hand, yesterday I was kidnapped by a delightful middle class family of four who saw me reading my map under a streetlamp after getting out of a shared taxi from Bukhara (That's the problem with travelling in winter; you always get to new cities after dark) and decided that taking me to my hotel was their good samaritan duty. I promise I don't usually get into cars with insistent randomers, but the 17 year old pharmacology student, her baby sister and their mum and dad were the least threatening people you can imagine. And they did indeed get me to my hotel :-)
One day each is enough in both Bukhara and Samarkand (or two if you cleverly visit a city of mosques when they're all in use on a Friday and you can't come in). It's easy to travel between them and Tashkent, the other point of the triangle that tourists usually see. Actually, Uzbekistan would make a good one week holiday, if you're looking for a place to go. Let me know and I'll tell you all about it. Madame! Signora! Where are you from? I give you good advice for Uzbekistan!