Simoon Travel's Amelia has just returned from a tour of Uzbekistan. In the first of a series of blogs, Amelia gives a flavour of what it's like to be on a Simoon Travel tour...
Starting in Samarkand
From Samarkand we head south east along the dusty road to Shakhrisabz - once a major Silk Road branch on which the armies of Alexander and Tamerlane marched en route to India. Mulberry and walnut trees line the road and beyond the fields carpeted in poppies rise gentle hills and then wide steppe with the shadowy outline of mountains in the distance. We stop at a local farmers house and wander up a hill past calves lazing in the grass to sit under a plane tree, sip green tea and eat warm 'non' - fresh bread straight from the tandoori style oven in the courtyard. Women and young girls weave brightly coloured kilns that hang on display and we watch them work, their fingers moving deftly threading the wool across the looms. Down below in the field a donkey pulls a plough through the rich brown soil and women bent double work over the land with their hands. The scene is so bucolic - so peaceful, you would be hard pushed to remember this is rural Uzbekistan and one in which a peasant's life is not so heavenly year round; no running water or electricity and life during the brutal winter months are particularly tough. Yet for now the sun is shining and for us Simoon escapees it's a little slice of Eden, and the shared contentment seems mutual.
Shakhrisabz was the birthplace of Timur and home to his once sumptuous summer White Palace (Ak-Serai) dating from 1379. Little remains of the Imperial Palace itself except the staggering seventy metre high towers flagging a forty metre entrance portal, decorated in intricately fine calligraphic tiles, the work of slave artisans from India and Persia. Yet another of the tyrants' grandiose projects that took twenty years to complete - to add to his collection of architectural jewels in his capital Samarkand, some one hundred miles north.
...is outside in the courtyard of a local house, a grapevine entwined up a trellis and singing birds in cages near the small fountain. The table is laden with small blue ceramic bowls filled with apricot kernels, peanuts, and juicy black raisins. Dishes of lemony sorrel leaves, blood red tomatoes, baby cucumbers and fresh yoghurt accompanied spinach samosas and steaming plates of roast chicken with rice and sweet onions. More green tea and pastries as the nearby chaikana was eyed up longingly (a day bed thoughtfully positioned near the dining table). People wrongly assume that all Uzbek food is dull, heavy, oily and consists solely of mutton or horse meat and endless meatball soup… This is more a thing of the past though and eating in the country has got much better over the last four years I've been visiting, and I find it delicious - fresh, healthy and plentiful (you don't have to eat it all of course…)
And to finish
We arrive back into Samarkand at sunset, driving through Timur Square where yet another statue of the great man sits thoughtfully head in hands whilst a local bride and groom pose for photos beneath him. The evening sun glistens bronze off the turquoise dome of Bibi Khanum Mosque and swifts fill the warm evening air. We head back to Registan - the extraordinary complex of Madrassahs that have emptied out of people. It's the perfect opportunity for an ice cream as we sit and contemplate these vast monuments where part of an inscription still survives: 'Let he who doubt our power and munificence look upon our buildings…'