October 19, Sunday – Samarkand (group to Penjikant, Tajikastan.)
The group was headed for a short drive across the border for a daytrip into Pendzhikent, Tajikastan. For a variety of reasons I decided to stay in Samarkand and a skip a repeat of this daytrip that I did three years ago. However, I’ll post in my comments from the 2005 visit below before describing my day in Pendzhikent.
We drove east out of Samarkand to the Uzbek/Tajikistan border, where, as always is the case, the Uzbeks go out of their way to make their side of the crossing as miserable and time consuming as possible, despite bribes to border officials to provide us with an "express" crossing. We drove a few miles into Tajikistan. Just inside the country's western border you arrive at the ancient ruins of Old Penjikent that date back to the 5th C. Though the remaining structures of the city have largely been consumed by wind and rain, the site is impressive in its setting, surrounded by spectacular mountains.
The Rudaki Museum, in the modern city a few kilometers away, has some findings from the site and interpretive exhibits that help you create a mental image of what Penjikent looked like 15 centuries ago. The fresco remnants were the highlight of the museum although the really good finds have been spirited off to museums in Tashkent and St. Petersburg.
The local market in the modern city was exceptionally colorful with both buyers and sellers outfitted in the finest local fashions. We had a distinguished and knowledgeable elder Tajik gentleman for a guide together with three of his best and brightest students from the local university who are trying to master English.
We then had to make the tedious border crossing again and returned to Samarkand. Every time I have entered or departed Samarkand by land, it has been very tedious. Bribes, cadeaux, bon-bons, baksheesh or whatever you care to call it don’t guarantee speedier processing at their border crossings. The Uzbeks are border bureaucrats of the finest tradition and insist on rigidly following the letter of the law even if you think you have bought your way into the Express Lane.
After the group left for Tajikstan, I had a leisurely breakfast and then walked to the nearby 14C Rukhobod Mausoleum that is possibly the oldest surviving structure in the city. In 1220 Jenghiz Khan leveled the city to the last brick so there is nothing remaining prior to his era. However, by 1370 Tamerlane (Timur) arrived and took the city’s grandeur to a new level.
There was a group of provincial teenage girls accompanied by their teachers at the Mausoleum. They relished the idea of being photographed by a Westerner with an expensive looking camera and as soon as their elders signaled their approval, the girls assembled themselves in a photogenic group pose without any coaching on my part. They tested out their very limited English vocabulary on me but it was too limited for conversational purposes. English is the fourth language in these parts after Uzbek, Farsi and Russian.
I then flagged down a taxi and made my way to the Shah-I-Zinda (avenue of mausoleums). The mausoleums house various and important and unimportant figures from the city’s history and their wives. Perhaps more important than the people in the tombs is the exceptional glazed tilework that decorate these structures. The color schemes are elegant and the designs elegant. The bright midday sun hindered my photography but it was a real joy to spend and an hour exploring the compact complex.
I walked back toward town passing a vast Muslim cemetary and stopped at the Hazrat-Hizr Mosque. The roof and minarets of the mosque provide panoramic views of the city to the southwest.
From there I made my way to the buzzing and colorful Siob Bazaar. (Go to the open air section on the north side rather than the covered section next to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque). After you explore the market the Bibi-Khanym will attract you like a magnet to its towering walls and minarets. The 1897 earthquake leveled the place but restorations efforts are fairly true to the original even if the quality of the reconstruction won’t likely survive the next inevitable earthquake. I taxied back to the hotel and recharged my batteries and my legs.
In the late afternoon I took a long walk through Navoi Park area in the newer part of the city. There isn’t a lot to see but it was interesting to watch the locals go about their daily live. Another taxi took me back to the Registan for some sunset photography.
I had learned through Lonely Planet and a couple of other sources that if you offered a modest cash gift to the Registan security staff, they will let you scale the interior stairway of one of the minarets to gain an eagle-eye view of the huge complex. It did not take long to locate the toll collectors. They were charging considerably more than the going rate suggested in the LP guidebook. Offended by their usurious price, I bargained harder than I might under other circumstances but they refused even a token price concession. Anxious to enjoy the view from above, I ponied up the money but not without letting them know my opinion of their greediness.
I ascended to the second floor where you must traverse a large room with heaps of rubble strewn on the floor in order to get to the staircase. The staircase is narrow, steep and dark. As you approach the top the staircase ends and you must make your way up ladder that is strictly a one person at a time affair. At the top of the ladder, there is a 2 meter in diameter metal roof on the minaret. One panel of the roof is open. When you stand on the top step of the ladder, your body, from the waist up, pops through the opening and you are treated to a magnificent 360 degree view below if your body is slender enough turn in the tiny space you occupy.
I begin photographing in every direction and then put the camera on a timer and set it on the opposite side of the tilted metal roof to take a picture of myself on top of the minaret. By then people at the bottom of the ladder were screaming at me in languages I didn’t understand, presumably demanding that I come down and make way for them to have a look However, I wasn’t satisfied with all my photos and was still resentful about the amount of the fee I paid. So, I ignored their demands and continued to snap the shutter on my camera. A couple of minutes later, the Security Guy scaled the ladder behind me and began tugging mightily on my pants cuff. I finally acceded and descended at my own pace rather than endure more off his hard yanks. By the time I got back to the ground, darkness had fallen and I returned to the hotel.