Golden Eagle’s Reservation Manager, Zoe Chittim, shares the final part of her travel diary through the fascinating regions of Samarkand, Tashkent and Almaty on her Taste of the Silk Road experience in September 2015.
SAMARKAND – MONDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER
We arrived in Samarkand, Uzbekistan’s third largest city in the early hours of Monday morning – The Golden Eagle stayed on the platform until we began the tour following breakfast. I had been looking forward to visiting Samarkand and its vibrant colours and hoped it would be the highlight of my visit. I was certainly not disappointed. The city is located centrally on the Silk Road route through Uzbekistan between China and the West and is considered a crossroad of cultures. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Samarkand is a very lush, green city given its location in the large oasis of the Zeravshan River valley.
After a short drive through the newer part of the city, we arrived at Gur-e-Amir, a mausoleum housing the remains of the Turco-Mongol leader Timur, who died in 1405, along with 2 of his sons, 2 grandsons and other acquaintances. The mausoleum is in the typical, yet still breath-taking, mosaic style of Central Asia, the entrance decorated with Arabic calligraphy and inscriptions. The hand-crafted detailing is astonishing. The interior has been hand-decorated using a process called ‘mosaic faience’, whereby each tile is cut, coloured and fitted individually. Timur’s tomb in the chamber below is marked by a single piece of jade.
Our next visit, a short drive away, was the awe-inspiring Registan Square, the heart of the ancient city where people gathered to hear public speeches, including those made by Royalty, and also to witness public executions. The square is bordered by 3 Madrasas (an ancient Muslim higher education institution). Nowadays, the square is home to colourful market stalls within the madrasa courtyards, with the old student’s dormitories now housing small souvenir stores and exhibition areas, as well as being a popular location for local weddings. Our visit was no exception, with many couples having wedding and engagement photos taken. We visited one of these small dormitories to watch a short musical performance by a talented local man who demonstrated a variety of Uzbek musical instruments. Those who wished to could also attend a short talk on local ceramics.
We took a walk through the well-kept gardens surrounding the Square and the nearby main pedestrian street and headed to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It was lovely to see the extremely polite and smart local schoolchildren on their lunch break. Our guide explained to us that there are so many children in Samarkand of school age that they have to have two ‘sittings’ during the school day. Some children attend from 8am until 1pm and then go home, whilst others attend from 2pm until 7pm.
The non-operational Bibi-Khanym Mosque was, in the 15th century, one of the world’s most magnificent mosques with its statuesque, mosaicked walls surrounding the peaceful courtyard and the magnificent blue domes. However, by the 20th century, it was largely in ruins. Major restoration has meant that in parts, the complex has been brought back to its grandiose origins. Conflicting legends suggest that Timur ordered the construction of the mosque in honour of his favourite wife, Bibi-Khanym. Other fables state that Bibi-Khanym had the mosque built for her husband whilst he was away and during construction, she fell in love with the architect. On discovering the liaison, Timur had the architect executed and ordered all women to wear veils so as not to tempt men. The complex, like many of Samarkand’s oldest buildings, is dominated by blue mosaic, a common colour amongst these constructions with a significant meaning.
Blue was used by Timur to reflect a large range of ideas. Blue was the colour of mourning in Central Asia and the shades used in the Gur-e-Amir echo this. Blue was also thought to ward off the ‘evil eye’ and also represented water, a scarce resource during this time. Adorning the walls and domes in this colour was seen to symbolise the wealth of Timur and his city.
After a morning of historical sites, we were set a mission for our next stop off. We would be visiting the enormous Central Food Market, where locals buy and sell all their produce. Handed the equivalent of $1 (5000 som), we were tasked with discovering how much we could buy amongst the maze of stalls selling fresh meat and fish, colourful fruit and vegetables, spices, sweets, fresh breads and home products in 30 minutes. We returned with a gigantic collection of watermelons, pomegranates, pumpkins, sweets, nuts and fresh bread and even a bottle of Johnson’s Talcum Powder.
At lunchtime, we split into two groups. Whilst one group went to the local Registan Hotel for a buffet lunch (with free Wi-Fi!), the second group enjoyed a traditional Uzbek meal in the home of a local family. We came back together after lunch as we visited the Ulugh Beg Observatory. Built in the 1400s by Ulugh Beg, an astronomer and grandson of Timur, it was considered to be one of the finest observatories in the Islamic world. Destroyed in 1449, its remains were discovered in 1908 and restored. Now all that remains are the instrument’s curved track. The observatory also allowed fantastic panoramic views over the city.
After a long morning and afternoon of sight-seeing in near 30-degree heat, the group were then given the option to return to the train for some rest before our evening activities. The majority of the group took this, whilst the remainder visited the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis – a complex of mausoleums and other ritual buildings from the 9-14th centuries – or enjoyed a presentation at a local carpet museum and factory.
That evening, after a few hours rest on the train, we returned to Registan Square to view their spectacular evening light show. For 15 minutes, the 3 madrassas and deserted square were lit up in a variety of colours and special effects, whilst we enjoyed a glass of champagne to toast our wonderful day in the stunning city. We then continued on to the Astoria Restaurant, where we enjoyed a meal in the exquisitely decorated dining room and a fashion show from a local Uzbek fashion designer, showcasing beautiful handmade clothes and scarves for ladies. After purses had been emptied, we returned to the train with our purchases at around 10pm, where our Golden Eagle train was waiting for us on the platform for our onward journey to Tashkent.
TASHKENT – TUESDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER
Our city tour of Tashkent, the capital and largest city of Uzbekistan, began shortly after breakfast with a visit to the Tashkent Railway Museum – home to a large eclectic collection of Soviet locomotives. The locomotive that ‘killed’ Anna Karenina in the Russian version of the film can also be seen here.
We visited the old part of the city that still remains. The majority of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1966. The epicentre of the quake, which measured a magnitude of 7.5, was in central Tashkent and killed around 15 people and left between 200,000 and 300,000 homeless.
We visited the library of the Muy Muborak Madrassah, home to the Uthman Koran, the world’s oldest Koran. We also saw reminders of the role Central Asia once played in Muslim history, visiting the Mausoleum of Kaffal Shashi, the Patron Saint of Tashkent, and the Teleshayakh Mosque.
Next on our tour was the Museum of Applied Arts – a small museum set in the former home of the Imperial Russian diplomat, Alexander Polovtsev, showcasing unique and traditional handicrafts from Uzbekistan. The museum houses over 7,000 samples of applied crafts – handmade embroidery, skull caps, jewellery and carpets amongst them.
After a short coffee break in the courtyard Café, we drove back through the city towards the train station, passing various sites: University buildings; the Russian Orthodox Holy Assumption Cathedral; Amir Timur Square and memorial; the statue of Vladimir Dzhanibekov, Tashkent’s cosmonaut who made five flights into space and memorial to the 1966 earthquake, based at the epicentre of the tremors.
We departed Tashkent shortly after lunchtime and enjoyed a traditional Russian meal of Borsht – a beetroot and vegetable soup served with sour cream, garlic bites and a shot of Piertzovka (Chilli vodka) – whilst the Uzbek and Kazakh border patrol assisted our journey from Uzbekistan onwards to Kazakhstan.
As the train headed to our final destination of Almaty, we enjoyed an on board lecture from our guest speaker, Max Lovell-Hoare, on life in China and Russia. This was followed by a piano recital by our resident pianist, Vadim Sheglov, in the Bar Lounge car ahead of our farewell Caviar Dinner in the restaurant car. We enjoyed Russian delicacies such as Sturgeon and Pacific Salmon caviar with traditional accompaniments, authentic chicken kiev and a Russian favourite, Napoleon Cake. After our meal, we all headed to the Bar Lounge Car, along with the train staff, to enjoy a Talent Show hosted by various passengers.
ALMATY – WEDNESDAY 30TH SEPTEMBER
Former capital city, Almaty, birthplace of the apple, was the final destination on my Silk Road journey through Central Asia. The name Almaty comes from the Kazakh word for apple ((алма)) and is often translated as ‘full of apples’. The orchards above the city in the Tien Shan Mountains are home to over 25 varieties of apple, which can be seen on market stalls throughout the city.
We spent a leisurely morning on board the Golden Eagle, enjoying brunch as we travelled through Kazakhstan, close to the borders of Kyrgyzstan, arriving in Almaty at 12 noon.
Almaty was the final destination for 10 of our passengers taking the Taste of the Silk Road tour, whilst the remainder of the group would travel onwards towards China and ultimately, Beijing. We spent our final night in Almaty at the Intercontinental Hotel before our onward journeys.
Upon leaving the Golden Eagle, our luggage was taken directly to the hotel for our arrival later that day, whilst we went off to enjoy the city of Almaty.
Our first visit was to Panfilov Park in the centre of the city, a large green area popular with local residents and dedicated to the memory of the 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit, who died fighting off Nazi tanks in a small village outside Moscow in 1941. They are commemorated at the fearsome war memorial, which depicts soldiers from all 15 former Soviet states bursting out of a map of the former USSR. Alongside this monument is the Eternal Flame, commemorating victims of the Civil War (1917-1920) and WWII (1939-1945).
We visited the brightly coloured Zenkhov Cathedral, also found within the park. Constructed between 1904 and 1907, this Russian Orthodox Cathedral was built entirely from wood and is the second tallest wooden building in the world, after the Kizhi Pogost Church on Kizhi Island, North West Russia. This building survived the devastating earthquake of 1911 and has been home to many public organisations, as well as the Central State Museum of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Control of the cathedral was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995 and has been open to the public since 1997.
Our next visits were to the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, where we learnt about the history of music in Kazakhstan and the National Museum, where we discovered artifacts that had been recovered in the country over many centuries, from handmade carpets, jewellery and clothing, to a full reconstruction of a yurt to see how people lived.
Our day in Almaty ended at the Intercontinental Hotel, where we said our final farewells and enjoyed a night’s stay before our onward journeys, mine being a wake-up call at 3.30am!
It is so difficult to summarise all of the wonderful experiences I had in just a few words. These are destinations that have captured my imagination more than many and I have so many lasting memories to take with me. If you want to experience the major highlights of the Silk Road in a relatively short time, this journey from Moscow to Almaty or vice-versa in 13 days is absolutely ideal. Alternatively, if you want to see the sights and sounds of China too, then our complete Silk Road journey from Moscow to Beijing provides the ultimate adventure in 21/22 days, depending on direction. Please feel free to contact me for further advice or information.