Does Samarkand really exist? And the Registan?
How many differences can you find between the inhabitants of Tashkent, Khiva and Bukhara?
How do I get overland to Iran?
With Kazakhstan now behind me, it was time to find it all out.
In a long-imagined country, and finally in front of me: Uzbekistan.
23 September, towards Tashkent ◀ Day 361 🇰🇿 – 🇺🇿 ▶
I did it.
With a chain in my hand and a broken camera, but I did it.
Let’s start the game now, Uzbekistan!
24 September, Tashkent ◀ Day 362 🇺🇿 ▶
No damn idea of how I will spend this suffered and tremendously hot Uzbek Sunday, in Tashkent!
25 September, Tashkent ◀ Day 363 🇺🇿 ▶
For, after a nice round of celestial misfortunes, you must help your own karma.
Or, as in this case, kick it away for good.
27 September, Tashkent ◀ Day 365 🇺🇿 ▶
After Samarkand – I’ll be there in few days – here another piece of this travel and a new part of this Silk Road slightly taking shape.
Another little dream soon becoming real: Iran!
29 September, Tashkent ◀ Day 367 🇺🇿 ▶
From the “things to do in Tashkent”:
Fix bicycle chain: done.
Iran visa: done.
Turkmenistan visa: applied and waiting.
Repair the camera or buy a new one: done today.
My dear Olympus, in the end, didn’t reach the third month of travel; it would require an accurate inspection and perhaps some spare parts. Not feasible in Tashkent. Too much waiting.
So I managed to sell my Panasonic lens and buy another device, without leaving a kidney.
A simple Canon, beginner model. I was not ready to spend as much as I do during one month of travel (or more), but still I needed to find a solution. I hope I’ll not be disappointed and to be able to continue sharing some other good pictures. At least, not too bad ones.
Meanwhile autumn came to Uzbekistan: it was 30 degrees two days ago, and today suddenly went to rain, gray sky, 10 degrees and bitterness.
Due to awkward cold and an unexpected expense, I felt the need for a hot dish: Plov.
A rite, a worship, a culture, a god in Uzbekistan, more than a dish.
Each city boasts its own special recipe – obviously considered unique and inimitable – throughout the entire country.
Basically it is a tasty and important combination (in calories and filling feeling) of rice + carrots + meat, cooked in gigantic pots.
Ah, and oil.
Quite a bit of oil.
Yea, a very light dish.
You can also get it by its sound: Plov.
30 September, Tashkent ◀ Day 368 🇺🇿 ▶
Who knows something about Uzbekistan?
I mean, besides knowing that it is in Central Asia, that is a former soviet of the Union and that Samarkand is there … who knows something more?
To be honest I also knew very little or nothing before I came.
Even today, one week after my entry, I’m still in the dark.
Tashkent alone has taken my attention and my days, between bureaucracies and unexpected troubles; a young Capital, entirely rebuilt after a terrible earthquake in 1966, an example of pleasant and enlightened Bolshevik urbanism that today, thanks to a perfect sky and a new camera (which I could be more satisfied of though), gave me the sparkling and flashy side of itself.
Here it is.
Uzbekistan discovery has begun.
Attachment to day 368
Yesterday I wrote about “the most sparkling side of Tashkent”.
But actually there is another, and much more important one.
People escorting you at the border to get you across the line as a sign of welcome, people accompanying you to fix the bicycle chain in exchange for nothing, people giving you advices and tips if you need help (and even if you don’t), people stopping you to take a picture, people smiling and embracing you, people asking you to practice English together, people sitting in front of you and offering whatever they have, people simply looking at you and greeting you with a hand on their heart.
People treating you like a friend and a brother for a whole week (thank you from the bottom of my heart, Umid).
The most sparkling side of Tashkent – and Uzbekistan – is just one.
The Uzbek People.
1 October, Samarkand ◀ Day 369 🇺🇿 ▶
First October, two thousand and seventeen.
And try to ask me if I’m happy today.
2 October, Samarkand ◀ Day 370 🇺🇿 ▶
The mythical Samarkand.
Present in my biggest travel fantasies since my very youth (as certainly many of you too); along with Perito Moreno and Mostar, was part of the triptych of wonders I wanted to see at least once in my life (and, together with Iran, a fundamental milestone of this journey).
It was, because it is not a wish anymore.
After dreaming about it for years, Samarkand became reality yesterday.
That’s why I felt a strange and incontestable happiness.
The only idea of being here – and having done it all with my own strength – gave me a kick of adrenaline and enthusiasm I hadn’t from very long time. Maybe from the first time I saw the Bajkal Lake.
So strong to leave me almost exhausted.
Today, in fact, I woke up idle and quite moody.
Due to an uncertain weather – with a ferocious wind that started blowing from the south, bringing warm and sand – I decided to wait to dive into the epic recalls of the city, whose glint I had already enjoyed yesterday.
As always, in these cases, I jumped on my bicycle and started riding. Randomly. Following the streets, the corners, the sensations. Getting lost in Samarkand was what I wanted. And so I did.
Today’s Samarkand has nothing to do with Tamerlane’s splendour, the wealth of caravans or with the Soviet iron fist which rebuilt and changed it all; it is a big city, not a very beautiful one to be honest, where normal people live a normal life with normal thoughts and normal habits.
The days, in Samarkand, are normal; as in every other city in the world.
But there’s history and magic all around, that’s a fact.
And the sunset always likes to come back to remember it.
3 October, Samarkand ◀ Day 371 🇺🇿 ▶
Even today, in Samarkand, I’d have a lot of stories to tell.
At the end of the day, however, while I was returning to the hostel, I heard some kids playing soccer.
So I found out that just behind the Registan (which is like the Colosseum in Rome or the Champs Elysees in Paris) there is a park where children play soccer.
And nobody says anything.
I find this incredibly beautiful.
Then of course I couldn’t help but challenge them.
PS: sorry for the picture quality, but it was taken by a kid who enjoyed playing with my camera; it is blurred (even if I don’t know how the kid managed to focus on me while running), but for me it still represents a lovely moment, to remember … and to share.
5 October, Samarkand ◀ Day 373 🇺🇿 ▶
When I arrived in Samarkand, 4 days ago, I was immediately struck by a strange enthusiasm.
Still in the station, as soon as I got off the train from Tashkent, I needed to sit down for a moment to realize where I was.
I took the phone and set my hostel on the maps; I knew it was very close to the Registan – the most important point of the city and probably all of Central Asia – but I had to cycle 9km from the train station to get there.
After driving 7km, I decided to turn off the GPS and follow the huge blue majolica domes I had seen from far.
No longer I needed a map.
My heart was beating like crazy.
When I came across the mausoleum I felt a unique emotion, impossible to tell, and laughed out of happiness.
I was really in Samarkand!
I passed the door and started walking in a dream for half an hour.
When I woke up, I asked some French tourists to take a photo of me and then I made it to the exit.
So, hungry, I walked to the nearby Bazaar to find a place to refresh myself.
I found a restaurant used almost exclusively by Uzbek and sat down; the rare beauty of the young waitress who welcomed me left me stoned. I ate slowly, looking at her occasionally anytime she passed close offering me a shy smile, until my tea pot got dry.
“So much stuff, Samarkand!” I said to myself.
As I totally came back to myself, I started thinking rationally.
“Strange, though … I expected it more impressive, the Registan,” I whispered.
Then, resetting the map on the phone, I rode to the hostel, now less than a kilometre away.
When I was almost cycling in front of it, I noticed on my right some other blue majolica domes, surrounded by gigantic palaces.
I widened the map to figure out what it was, and I couldn’t help but smiling: the place where I lost my senses almost three hours before was not what I thought, but Bibi Khanym mausoleum.
The Registan – the imposing Registan – was what I was looking at from the back, without even noticing it before.
“What an idiot …”
That was how I saw it for the first time.
But then I came back every day.
At all times and with every climate.
Watching it invaded by tourists and enjoying it in solitude shortly after dawn, imagining how it might have been to see it from afar, centuries ago, when it was surrounded only by huts and desert.
Losing myself – as I will soon do again, before leaving tonight – in every colour, in every nuance and every reflection.
Every time staring at it like the first time.
Every time without being able to totally come back to myself.
Perhaps because, dazzled by so much beauty, it is not something humanly possible.
Or maybe because, in front of such a masterpiece, I simply never really felt the desire to do it.
6 October, Khiva ◀ Day 374 🇺🇿 ▶
12 hours on a train plus 3 on the bicycle, against the wind, to leave Samarkand and reach the Citadel – Museum of Khiva.
Was it a good choice?
7 October, Khiva ◀ Day 375 🇺🇿 ▶
Although being very small (from the Northern to the Southern Gate it’s only a few minutes), the citadel of Khiva has a huge history.
Ancient caravanserai on the Silk Road, it was the capital of numerous Khan and a famous crossroad for merchants and slaves traders. It was defended for centuries and then destroyed by the Bolshevik invasion. In the modern age it has returned to its ancient splendour thanks to the help and money of UNESCO, and is today a major and wonderful destination for travels in Uzbekistan.
There are two Khiva.
One made of reconstructed walls, parked buses, guides, Japanese storms, towers and madrasas, selfies, souvenir, carpet and clothes shops, hotels, restaurants and tickets to buy.
And then another made of minarets, bazaars, old sandy streets, muddy homes, timeless sunsets, children playing, children peeking from a door and simple daily hard life.
One Khiva where it is impossible not to walk around amazed by everything and shoot dozens of photos, and one Khiva where a pictures would be a shame.
A place where today, as I was walking alone in the Southern part of the citadel, I came across a gorgeous alley where a woman was walking in the dark; the perfect picture actually.
Suddenly, though, the woman leaned against the wall, and went slowly on her knees. I approached her to ask if she needed help and then I saw, all wrapped in scarves, a very old suffering woman. She was carrying a bag in one hand and a walking stick in the other.
She was breathing heavily, clearly in pain. She looked at me with two sweet blue eyes, bringing a hand on her heart as to tell me that the problem was coming from there. Silently I helped her to get up and, after taking her light bag, I hold her hand. We walked together not more than a few hundreds meters, slowly, as the pain was not releasing her. When we reached a small patio, I held her up to the house entrance where she finally sat down and melted in a toothless smile and a deep maternal hug. At her “Rahmat” (thank you in Uzbek) I caressed her hand for a few more seconds, feeling a very strong energy coming out from her centenary flesh, warm heart and gentle soul.
A woman I will never see again, but that l’ll not easily forget.
She, my Khiva’s most indelible memory.
(I didn’t take a picture of this woman. For a moment I thought to ask her – and I think she would have let me – but I’m sure I would have felt like a coward if I did it)
8 October, towards Bukhara ◀ Day 376 🇺🇿 ▶
Since this funny travel story with a folding bicycle has begun, more than two years ago, many times I was asked how I could keep up with the money, without working.
Where do you find the money?
Who does sponsor you?
The answer is that I’ve always done all by myself, using the savings I’ve made in years and trying to keep my daily expenses as low as possible; I’ve never looked for sponsors, especially because I was not able – nor I wanted – to guarantee something to someone, but I just wanted to see where I would have been able to get to, by being completely free.
So it was in Greece and for the first part of this long trip, from Milan to Bangkok.
Until the Restart, last July, when I met a tour operator (Metamondo), specialized in Central Asia, who saw potential in what I was doing and decided to take part in this second part of the journey on the Silk Road.
Yesterday, in Khiva, I found this tour operator again. In one of their organized groups in Uzbekistan; I heard some voices speaking Italian and came across a familiar logo, and then being immediately welcomed by Monica (the gentle tour leader, aware of my project), Bakhshillo (the excellent local guide) and all the participants of the trip.
They all offered me a bus ride to Bukhara, my new destination, making me save money and time and giving me, for a whole day, that kind of joviality only a happy group of Italians can generate, when they are together.
Something I really missed.
A totally unexpected gift.
9 October, Bukhara ◀ Day 377 🇺🇿 ▶
Is it possible to spend one day in Bukhara and see almost nothing?
Especially when the morning is completely taken away by an almost unexpected news: Turkmenistan has approved my request for a transit visa, starting in 6 days.
I have to go back to Tashkent quickly to collect the visa, then again to Bukhara to continue the journey towards the Turkmen border and maybe start thinking how to cross in a few days a completely unknown country.
So honestly today I didn’t have time and “head” to discover Bukhara.
Anyway, for the very little I could see in a simple couple of hours, Bukhara really looks like an incredible new wonder.
10 October, Bukhara ◀ Day 378 🇺🇿 ▶
It is reported that Bukhara’s last emir, during the market days, used to launch his opponents from the top of Kalon Minaret, in order to get rid of them and to educate the people.
The Kalon Minaret, nearly 50 meters high, was for centuries the tallest building in Central Asia.
Alim Khan, the last emir of Bukhara, ruled until he was defeated by the Red Army … in 1920.
I think that’s enough to give you an idea of how much history and fascination lie behind this delicious and inimitable pearl of Uzbekistan, and of the whole world.
11 October, Tashkent ◀ Day 379 🇺🇿 ▶
So it wasn’t a joke.
The visa request was really accepted.
One of the most forbidden coutries in the world for solo travellers – maybe coming just after North Korea – gave me 5 days to cross it.
And now? …
Anyway, long live Turkmenistan!
13 October, Tashkent ◀ Day 381 🇺🇿 ▶
After returning to Tashkent to pick up the Turkmen visa, I chose to spend the last Uzbek days in this city, where autumn climate is pleasant and I’m surrounded by parks and some generous friends.
Days run smoothly, reading about the next countries, walking (or cycling) among the trees and enjoying moments of everyday life; in short, there is not much to tell and share.
Then today I go back to a week ago, more specifically to my visit to Samarkand paper factory: a production imported from China several centuries ago which for a long time has remained one of the most valuable in the entire world. Re-discovered in recent years, here is a small photo-documentation of one of the most renowned treasures of the ancient Silk Road.
And to quote a friend … it all “happened, of course, in Samakand”.