|REGISTAN SQUARE, SAMARKAND|
A BRIBE OF MANY COLOURED SMARTIES
The flight to Samarkand was a short hop over barren desert. At times we seemed to be following the long straight line of a road then the line would fork away in a different direction and all the eye could see for mile upon mile was parched, empty sand.
I had a window seat and next to me sat an Uzbek man nursing his daughter, a little girl of about five or six. Across the aisle sat his wife with their baby son, a grubby little boy with a snotty nose. This was their first flight and they were nervous and excited.
The father kept trying to peer out my window and I felt an absolute heel. The good part of me wanted to exchange seats, let these simple people watch their world whizzing by underneath, but the selfish side reasoned that this would probably be the only time I would pass this way, while they would doubtless make the journey again.
I hoped Allah would understand and forgive me, softening my stand with small packets of brightly coloured Smarties from home.
Samarkand was vastly different to both Bukhara and Frunze. One of the oldest cities in the world dating from the 4th century BC and a contemporary of Babylon and ancient Rome, this ancient city is also known as the 'Muslim Pearl'.
The taxi drive to the hotel, through busy congested streets where the traffic seemed to obey no set rules whatever, kept me on the edge of the seat. I had bargained with drivers at the airport who started their price in dollars, moving along to 60 roubles before finally completing their haggling at 25 roubles. This had been accomplished with a sense of humour on both sides and in front of a vast audience who seemed hugely amused.
The driver I settled on was a jovial bear of a man whose baggy trousers were held up with old fashioned braces. He installed me in the passenger’s seat up front, and proceeded to drive with one hand on the wheel while he pointed out the sights with the other. I didn't understand a word of his commentary but I swivelled about as we passed archaeological diggings side by side with residential buildings. I tried to imprint on my mind our progress through busy streets and tree lined roads.
Samarkand, at last I was in Samarkand and I felt my heart swell to bursting. Then suddenly through the huddle of suburbia, above the roofline of shops and double story apartments emerged a huge blue dome.
I gasped, loudly, I couldn’t help myself. I may even have clutched the drivers arm, I can’t remember because the beauty of that dome, its splendour amid the mundane knocked the breath out of me. The driver slammed on the brakes, oblivious to tooting horns and vehicles behind us, coming to a stop in the middle of traffic to give me a better look. As my eyes met his I could see he was beaming, our pleasure instantaneous and mutual.
I couldn't wait to dump my bag at the hotel, get out and explore. Frunze, for all its charm and Kirghiz people was really a comparatively modern Russian town, Bukhara a friendly sleepy sprawling village, but Samarkand was vibrant and alive; a living page of history I couldn't wait to explore.
But first I had to face the routine inquisition of booking into the Intourist Hotel; the women behind the front desk here was more sophisticated than Bukhara but still unsure about foreigners wandering in off the street; the staff were mainly Russians speaking laboured English.
It wasn’t that I had to plead; rather they had to convince themselves that they were permitted to take me in as a guest, a lengthy procedure. This time the charge was US$70 with breakfast only. I insisted they include lunch for no other reason than pure devilment, and they did...though later the Uzbek head waiter made me accompany him to the front desk to have that confirmed.
The hotel was on the busy intersection of M.Gorky Boulevard and Registanskaya Street, broad thoroughfares that buzzed with traffic. I turned right and headed towards Registan Square which means ‘place of sand’.....and had been the site of some nasty executions down through the centuries.
Would I tap into the ancient history of the Square, or would I be disappointed, its mystery and intrigue swamped by the modern world.
Robyn Mortimer ©2010