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.
These final lines of James Elroy Flecker’s 1913 poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand evoke the romance of Uzbekistan’s most glorious city. No name is so evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. For most people it has the mythical resonance of Atlantis, fixed in the Western popular imagination by poets and playwrights of bygone eras, few of whom saw the city in the flesh.
On the ground the sublime, larger-than-life monuments of Timur, the technicolour bazaar and the city’s long, rich history indeed work some kind of magic. Surrounding these islands of majesty, modern Samarkand sprawls across acres of Soviet-built buildings, parks and broad avenues used by buzzing Daewoo taxis.
You can visit most of Samarkand’s high-profile attractions in two or three days. If you’re short on time, at least see the Registan, Gur-e-Amir, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda.
Away from the main attractions Samarkand is a modern, well-groomed city, which has smartened itself up enormously in the past decade. This process has involved building walls around some of the less sightly parts of the old town, which many consider to have made the old city rather sterile, blocking off streets that have been linking quarters for centuries. While this ‘disneyfication’ of this once chaotic place is undeniable, it’s also true to say that Samarkand remains a breathtaking place to visit.