We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
__James Elroy Flecker, 1913

No name is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. Founded in 700 BC, it is one of the most ancient cities of the world and the most famous city of modern Uzbekistan. In 329 BC, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” During the centuries that followed, Samarkand became the key trading center along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean Sea. Fast forward to the present, and you’ll find that even after the capital was moved to Tashkent, Samarkand continued to play an important role in the region’s cultural and economic life. After Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991, the city became an important industrial, cultural, and tourist center.

Samarkand was relatively unknown to the western world until 2001 when the city was added to the World Heritage List. The 2,750th anniversary of the city, a contemporary of Rome, was celebrated internationally by UNESCO in 2007. Today, tourists can enjoy architectural masterpieces as splendid as the greatest monuments of India, Egypt, Greece, and ancient Rome.

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Gunter and I were blown away by the Registan Square in Samarkand—arguably the most splendid sight in all of Central Asia. If I saw nothing else during the trip, I’d have seen the best. An ensemble of three majestic madrassas built during the 15th & 17th centuries form the public square, the centerpiece of the city. I loved the expanse and grandeur of the square combined with intricate carvings and exquisite blue mosaic gracing the portals and domes.

Ulugbek's Observatory

Lois and Gunter rest after touring Ulugbek’s Observatory.

We walked on to visit mosques and mausoleums that dripped blues and greens; however, we were most fascinated by Ulugbek’s Observatory, one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century. Ulugbek was more famous as an astronomer than a ruler. He built his three-story observatory to observe star positions in the 1420s; all that remains is the astrolabe’s curved track. We had seen a similar observatory in India, but our guide claimed that Ulugbek’s lab preceded that one!

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Most tours of Uzbekistan begin at Tashkent, the capital, and circle around to Khiva or to Samarkand. We ended our tour with Samarkand.

Our Uzbekistan itinerary had saved the best for last. Samarkand ended our tour. Our guide and driver took us back to Tashkent, the capital, where we relaxed for a day and then flew via Turkish Airlines back to Istanbul and then to San Francisco and on to San Diego.

Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace

Lois writes in her journal in the courtyard of the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace.

If You Go:

Contact Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, Office: 888-745-7670, Cell: 908-347-4280. Her company manages independent and luxury travel tours throughout the Silk Road Countries of Central Asia, as well as to Mongolia and Georgia.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

This is the final blog in the Uzbekistan series. Lois’s next blog will be about Iceland, where she will travel next week.

Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.