Scintillating Samarkand : Jewel of the Silk Road

While checking into the hostel in Tashkent, I spotted a Taj Mahal magnet on the fridge in the lobby. I told the receptionist with considerable pride that it is in India, where I come from. With a broad smile and equal pride, she responded that Babur, whose descendants had it constructed, hailed from the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan. And thus began my trip to Uzbekistan, with this beautiful reminder of our shared history. 

Ever since I had seen images of Registan Square in the Lonely Planet magazine, with its turquoise tiles glittering brilliantly in the sunlight, I knew I had to go there someday. After the trip around Kyrgyzstan, extending the trip for a short sojourn to Uzbekistan was a no-brainer. Before the visit, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were both distant specks on the globe to me, conveniently grouped together into the mystical, unexplored region called Central Asia. I am now embarrassed at my ignorance and naivety in thinking that they would be anything like each other. 

Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous and is a bastion of nomadic traditions. It is teeming with pristine natural beauty. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is mainly flat and has been populated by settled communities since antiquity. Kyrgyzstan draws tourists to its snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes. Uzbekistan is all about larger than life architectural marvels at the epicentre of the Silk Road. Both countries speak Turkic-derived languages. Both share a passion for Plov, their rice and meat-based national dish. After emerging from the Soviet Union, both are asserting their ethno-national identity that celebrates their unique differences. 

Uzbekistan: Practical Information

Uzbekistan is well connected with Delhi through reasonably priced daily direct flights by Uzbek Air. The e-visa is super easy to obtain, requires minimal documentation, costs just $20 and takes just only 2-3 days. Very tempting, I know! The local language is Uzbek and Russian is also spoken in the cities. Tashkent is the capital though most tourist itineraries revolve around the silk road cities – Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

Samarkand – Registan Square & Bibi Khanum Mosque 

I had just 72 hours in Uzbekistan. I decided to spend most of them in Samarkand, the crown jewel of the Timurid Empire. After a thrifty but comfortable sleepover at the hostel in Tashkent, I took the Afrosiyob train early the next morning. For approx $10 and in just 2 hours, I was in Samarkand. 

The very mention of Samarkand invokes mystique. This is what Colin Thubron, the legendary travel writer, says about Samarkand in his classic, The Lost Heart of Asia – “ ‘Samarkand’ conjures no earthly city. It is a heart-stealing sound. Other capitals of Islam – Cairo, Damascus. Istanbul – glow with an accessible, Mediterranean magnificence. But Samarkand inhabits only the edge of geography. For centuries after it slept in obscurity, it shimmered in people’s imagination”.  

After dropping off my rucksack at the hostel, I headed straight out to explore.  

If there’s one single image that typifies Central Asia in the popular imagination, it is that of the magnificent Registan Square in Samarkand. I could scarcely believe that I was standing right in front of it. 

Registan Square

The square has three madrassas. Ulugh Beg Madrassa, built by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg in the early 15th century is the oldest in the triumvirate. It was among the best religious colleges of the period and drew luminaries as well as students from across the Islamic world. Ulugh Beg, himself an accomplished astronomer, also taught here. 

Intricately decorated ceiling of Ulugh Beg Madrassa
Inner Courtyard of the Madrassa

The two other Madrassas, Sher Dor madrassa and Tilya Kori madrassa were constructed more than two hundred years later but follow the same architectural style. The Sher Dor madrasah is remarkable for its mosaics depicting tigers, contravening Islamic norms against depicting living creatures.

Sher Dor Madrassa with tigers above the portal

It is hard to imagine a sight more imposing than Registan Square on a sunny day with glittering mosaics. Centuries of wear and tear had left the monuments in ruins before extensive restoration in the Soviet era reinstated their former glory. 

But after my time in Kyrgyzstan which is still a raw, unexplored gem, the commercialized veneer of Samarkand was unsettling. The guided tour of Registan Square was overpriced and adds little beyond the Wikipedia page. The guide kept trying to sell me more guided tours of other monuments in Samarkand and prodded me to buy souvenirs so she could make a commission. The rooms of these ancient Madrassas, which once housed students, are now souvenir stores. The handicrafts may be beautiful but pesky retailers rob the place of its charm.  

After a hearty lunch of Plov, I headed to the Bibi Khanum Mosque. While Registan is the centrepiece of Samarkand, this mosque is the single largest monument in the city. Standing below its enormous portals, I felt dwarfed – as much by the audacity of human ambitions as by the scale of the structure itself. Opposite the mosque is the relatively humble tomb of Bibi Khanum, Timur’s favourite wife. Timur’s plunder of India purportedly funded the construction of this grandest of mosques. 

Bibi Khanum Mosque

The inside of the mosque was closed to entry. When I peeked in, I saw the crumbling interiors being hidden by the glittering exterior. It was a bittersweet feeling to glimpse this unrestored part. Restoration is obviously essential to counter natural wear and tear. To not restore monuments is to lose them irreversibly to the vagaries of nature. But with every restoration, we also lose a little of the original and somehow diminish their standing as markers of antiquity. 

Registan Dazzles under the lights

Samarkand – Gur-e-Amir & Siob Bazar

The next morning, I headed to Gur-e-Amir, the tomb of Timur. Timur, despised in India as a marauder, is revered in Uzbekistan and is arguably the country’s most prominent icon. His statues adorn city squares and the architecture left behind by him and those who followed in his footsteps draw tourists from across the globe. History is all about perspectives. 

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

The architectural style of Gur-e-Amir has heavily influenced Mughal architecture in India. The interiors of the mausoleum, intricately restored, dazzle in the soft lighting. Buried beneath lie the remains of one of the most feared conquerors in history. People say that Timur’s grave is marked with an ominous warning for whoever dares to exhume his remains. Two days after a Soviet archaeologist opened his tomb in June 1941, Hiltler’s army invaded the Soviet Union. The story is apocryphal and the chain of events may be a mere coincidence. But if you are prone to believing legends, Timur continues to terrorize those who dare to defy him, centuries after his death.  

These grand architectural complexes, all deftly restored, make Samarkand look gorgeous but made up. I felt that rather than ticking off more grand monuments from the checklist, I should tread off the tourist grid to see a little of the authentic local life. Quite aimlessly, I headed into an unmarked alley. And immediately I became an object of curiosity for the local residents who invariably greeted me with a warm smile and the custody “Salam Alaikum”. At a nondescript local bakery, I saw a couple of young men preparing the ubiquitous Uzbek bread, Lepeshka, in the tandoor. We tried our best to converse with the help of Google Translate. I was touched when they gifted me a big warm loaf of bread, calling it a gift from Uzbekistan to India. I walked into an unmarked eatery with only local patrons and had delicious plov.  

Hot Lepeshka out of the tandoor

In the evening I went to the Siab Bazar, a one-stop shop for everything from dry fruits to garments and souvenirs. This is the main market for the locals so the prices are more reasonable than at the souvenir shops in Registan, though one still needs to bargain them down further. 

Tashkent – Central Asia Plov Centre & Amir Timur Square

The next morning, I caught the train back to Tashkent. Among my co-passengers on the journey was a high school student, Shaxriyor, who was well conversant in English and also translated for the other passengers. Russian was the lingua franca of the region and the older generation hardly speaks any English. But the youth see America as the land of opportunities and English as their ticket to America. The hours passed by quickly, with me answering their curious questions about India and vice versa. Their warmth and friendliness left a deep impression.  

I had just a few hours in Tashkent before I had to fly out. There was time for just one meal in Tashkent, my last meal in Central Asia, so it had to be at the Central Asian Plov Centre. To call it the Mecca for Plov is an understatement. It sprawls over a huge area, the size of a mini theme park with seating for hundreds of guests and Plov cooking away in gigantic cauldrons.

Central Asia Plov Centre

I took a plate, found a spot and dug into that plate of bursting flavors. I had tasted plov elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and always found it nice, but this place does it like no other. Hospitality comes very naturally to Uzbeks and the gentleman sharing my table offered me bread and tea. 

The Plov at Central Asia Plov Centre is Love

I spent an hour people-watching, sprawled on a bench in Amur Timur Square. The winter sun was oh-so-pleasant and I quietly counted my blessings. Just as I was starting to leave, I met a young Uzbek man who spoke to me in fluent, unaccented Hindi and could easily have passed for an Indian. He had spent four years in Delhi studying Engineering and recalled his time in India with deep fondness. And the trip ended the way it had begun – with an encounter that reminded me of our shared bonds. I will remember Uzbekistan as much for the people I met as for the things that I saw. 

Amir Temur Square

Kyrgyzstan Snow Drive: An adventure for a lifetime

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was compulsively scrolling on Instagram, rummaging through every single Reel in existence. That’s when I came across a Reel announcing a Snow Drive in Kyrgyzstan. A snow drive! In Kyrgyzstan! A splendid idea. Unless it cost me a kidney, I was definitely going. If it cost me a kidney, I would still consider the idea very seriously. 

The post that started it all

Central Asia has always exerted a magnetic charm. The prospect of exploring these little-known lands and their culture by driving around in a swanky Toyota Sequoia on snow. Phew. 

The organizers, Beyond Xpeditions, are an adventure travel outfit run by the very passionate Kaniyshk Malick. I booked the tour on a whim. And then spent three months incessantly daydreaming. 

The trip was in January, in the middle of the school session. This had to be a solo trip sans la familia. My very understanding wife generously managed the home front while I went on the trip. 

Kyrgyzstan in a nutshell

Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous with a strong nomadic tradition. Much of that tradition has survived to the modern day, albeit adapted for the times. The Tian Shan mountains and the gigantic Issyk Kul lake are its dominant geographical features. The Kyrgyz language is derived from Turkish and the people are a mish-mash of many ethnicities. Kyrgyzstan shares much of its culture with its Central Asian neighbours but is also fiercely proud of its unique differences.  

The Logistics

Not too long ago, obtaining a travel Visa to Central Asian countries was an arduous task. Now obtaining a Kyrgyz e-Visas is a breeze and takes less than a week and costs around Rs 4500. Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is connected to Delhi via Almaty, Kazakhstan by daily flights operated by Air Astana costing approx Rs 40k round trip. The currency is Kyrgyz Som and 1 Indian Rupee is ~ 1.05 Kyrgyz som at the time of writing. The costs of accommodation, dining and internal travel are comparable to India.   

Day 1 – Delhi to Bishkek via Almaty 

The flight to Bishkek will remain memorable for the breathtaking views from the window. All of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was draped in a sparkling blanket of powdery snow. 

Captivating views from the flight
With Kaniyshk & Saathvik en route Bishkek

At Bishkek’s Manas International Airport, we met Nazir, our local guide and the lifeblood of the group. His irreverent humour generously peppered with profanities would have us in splits throughout the trip.

Our man Nazir

After checking in, we headed to cafe Arzu for our first meal in Kyrgyzstan. The first meal in a new country always gets me excited. Everything on the menu looks exotic and I fight the urge to try everything at once. And by the last day, the excitement of exploration is replaced by the comfort of familiarity. There’s a sense of satisfaction from having explored a culture through its food. 

I tried Boorsok, the sweet, fried, fluffy squares of dough that would become a staple over the next few days. I also tried Laghman, a delicious Uighur dish of noodles and meat that’s relatively spicy by Kyrgyz standards. 

Day 2 – Kashka Suu Ski Base

The next morning, I got the keys to my ride for the next week – a sexy black Toyota Sequoia. It was love at first with Ana and I could hardly wait to get started on our escapade.


Splendid views of the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains greet you as soon as you exit Bishkek. A short drive out of the city is Ala Archa National Park. The park is home to impressive peaks, glaciers and hiking trails but they are all more accessible in the summer. We contented ourselves with a walk in the park and some juvenile entertainment involving snowballs.

Ala Archa National Park

At lunch, I had my first taste of Shorpo. This traditional soup is a clear, flavour-packed broth with meat, potatoes, carrots and herbs. The Indian Shorba, which looks and tastes very different, gets its name from this soup. 

Shorpo – Traditional Kyrgyz Soup

Post lunch, we headed to the Kashka Suu ski base, our first stop on the trip and the venue for my first stab at Skiing.

Kashka Suu Ski Base

Day 3 – Kashka Suu Ski Base to Kochkor

After breakfast, we geared up for Skiing and took the Ski lift up the peak. I put on my Skis and instantly had a crashing fall. I got up, brushed off the snow and tried again with identical results. With zero control over my legs, it didn’t seem very wise to persist, what with the edge of the mountain being right there. God has blessed me with many talents, but balancing my ungraceful body on slippery ice is not one of them, I admitted to myself with humility. 

But Nazir encouraged me to try some more. To be more accurate, he insulted and embarrassed me into trying harder. After an hour of toiling, I started finding my feet (pun intended). I managed to slide very slowly on a very gentle slope but it felt exhilarating. It was a humble reminder that getting better at anything starts with a willingness to look foolish in the beginning. 

Kashka Suu Ski Base

In the early afternoon, we left for Kochkor. The road skirts the border with Kazakhstan and passes through the starkly beautiful Konorchek Canyon before reaching Kochkor. The Kyrgyz obsession to name things with a K rivals Ekta Kapoor! 

Enroute Kochkor
Konorchek Canyon – Enroute Kochkor

Kochkor is a small village famed as a centre for traditional Kyrgyz crafts. Here we witnessed the intricacies involved in making felt from wool and weaving it into Shyrdaks. Shyrdaks are the omnipresent traditional Kyrgyz mats. The patterns on Shyrdaks originate from petroglyphs or rack carvings that are thousands of years old. These patterns are ubiquitous – from wallpapers to table mats, crockery to garments and even the emblem of Air Astana. 

Dinner was with a local family. Fatima welcomed us with a warm smile to a very elegantly laid-out table. The spread was very elaborate and delicious.

Dinner with a local family – Nazir can’t stop grinning

But the highlight of the evening was the time spent with the family at their home. Especially Fatima’s adorable grandchildren. The children had no inhibitions and thoroughly enjoyed our attention. The community-based tourism model is the bedrock of tourism in Kyrgyzstan with families opening up their homes to host tourists for both meals and/or stays. With hosts like Fatima, the model has a bright future. 

Fatima’s Adorable Family

Day 4 – Karakol

The next morning we left for Karakol. Karakol is a base for excursions into the nearby mountains. It is culturally rich, housing sizable minorities of Russians, Dungans and Uyghurs.

En route Karakol

The road meanders along the southern shore of the Issyk Kul lake. The sight of the blue waters of the majestic Issyk Kul, with the lake’s beach covered in snow and the faint outlines of snow-capped mountains in the background is mesmerizing. 

Blue waters of Issyk Kul

We were treated to Yak meat at lunch at a family guest house in Bokonbayevo. It’s a delicacy for important occasions or for visits from special guests. With a bloated sense of self-importance, I dug in. It was surprisingly delicious. While I shy away from non-vegetarian food at home, on travels, and particularly on international trips, enjoying local food without prejudice is both an indulgence and an essential part of cultural immersion. 

Yak wasn’t Yuck
Eagle Show – Golden Eagle with her Papa

After lunch, we attended the famed Eagle show. The tradition of Eagle hunting among nomads in Central Asia and Mongolia goes back centuries. Fledgeling Golden Eagles are extracted from their nests when they are barely months old and then brought up by their human parents and trained to hunt. Witnessing the show felt bittersweet. There’s a visible bond of mutual affection between the eagle and its human keeper. It’s an attempt to keep long-cherished traditions alive. But there’s also a realisation that they belong in the wild and this is a violation of the natural order. 

We were in Karokol by dinnertime and had dinner at Dastorkon – the most popular cafe in Karakol. How words travel always fascinates me. Dastorkon, meaning tablecloth, originates in Turkish and is in circulation across Central and South Asia, including in my native Bengal. Several restaurants in India also go by the same name, including an iconic one in Lucknow. Take also for example Samsa, a meat-stuffed puffed pastry that’s possibly the most common snack in Kyrgyzstan. Its cousins Sambossa and Samosa are found from Ethiopia to India. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now. 

Day 5 – Karkara

Before leaving Karakol, we made a quick stop at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Russian Church, a quaint and pretty wooden church that’s more than a century old. 

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church

The drive from Karakol to Karkara (there’s that love for K again!) was the most spectacular stretch of the entire trip. There was white snow on the road below, panoramic views of snow-covered mountains on either side and expansive blue skies above. Some stretches tested my driving chops, but Ana and I were a formidable pair.    

En route Karkara (quite proud of this composition!)

In Karakara, we stayed in yurts. Yurts are the circular tents of nomads made of a wooden frame draped in sheepskin. They are modest dwellings but meticulously designed to maintain warmth inside in the bitter cold and are easy to mount and dismantle to suit the nomadic way of life. Our yurts though were luxuriously touristy, with ornate upholstery, an attached bathroom and of course electricity. 

Here we also enjoyed rides on Snowmobiles, the beastly powerful bikes that can glide on soft snow. We drove along pristine slopes where no other mode of transport can venture. The feeling of being alone in the wilderness, surrounded by a spotless, undisturbed blanket of white snow is nothing if not magical. 

Breathtaking Views from the top

Day 6 – Cholpon-Ata

The next day we drove to Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on the northern shore of Issyk Kul lake. 

At lunch there, I tried Besh Barmak, a delicacy of flat noodles with horse meat. Besh Barmak literally means five fingers, indicating that it was time to set aside the cutlery and dig in with the hands. The horse meat is coarsely minced and that made it palatable. It comes with fatty horse sausages called Kaza on the side. The idea of consuming horse meat had initially repulsed me. But here I learnt that horse meat is not a staple but a seasonal delicacy. Families that rear horses sacrifice one horse in the winter and preserve and savour it throughout the winter, cooking it on special occasions. 

Besh Barmak – Noodle with horse meat

Cholpon-Ata, apart from being a resort by the lake, is also known for the petroglyphs found here which date back to the 2nd century BC. These patterns have inspired the designs on the Shyrdaks we encountered in Kochkor and from there have permeated the design elements of all things Kyrgyz. 

Open-air Petroglyph museum at Cholpon-Ata

Our stay at Cholpon-Ata was at the fabulous Karven Four Seasons Hotel, on the edge of Issyk Kul. The beautiful cottages with their roofs and yards covered in snow looked straight out of a winter wonderland. We had the resort willy-nilly to ourselves, a privilege one can only expect in the low season and in places like Kyrgyzstan which have hitherto escaped mass tourism.

After dinner at their restaurant, we jived with the restaurant staff to everything spanning English hits, Russian and Kyrgyz songs as well as 70s Bollywood hits. Mithun Chakrabarty is a legend here. His Jimmy Jimmy and Disco Dancer are anthems in Central Asia. It is unanticipated experiences like these that make a trip memorable. 

Day 7 – Ashu

After luxuriating in the temperature-controlled pool of the resort in the morning, we set off for the last stop of our trip, a tiny village called Ashu. It lies at the base of the mountains and has just a handful of residents. The lovely lodge we stayed in is rapidly transforming from a small homestay into a full-blown resort with increasing tourist arrivals to this beautiful village. 

Gorgeous views from the Guest House at Ashu Village

The hostess is a jovial lady and we got chatting in the evening with Nazir interpreting. She told us how she grew up on dubbed Bollywood movies and Raj Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and Amitabh Bachchan are as familiar to her as they are to me. 

After an early dinner, we spent the evening barbequing next to a bonfire, accompanied by some Bishkek cognac which had become a regular companion for the evenings. As the evening advanced and the cognac took a firmer hold, I played back in my mind the many highlights of the trip and lamented its imminent end. The next day, we would complete our circuit around the country and head back to Bishkek. We tend to use the phrase trip-of-a-lifetime quite liberally, but this trip, without a doubt, was a trip of a lifetime. 

Bishkek Cognac added much colour to the evenings

Day 8 – Back to Bishkek via Burana

On our way back to Bishkek, we stopped at the Burana Tower. It is among the oldest architectural constructions in Central Asia, dating back to the 9th Century. Through a narrow winding staircase inside the tower, we went to the top and enjoyed splendid panoramic views of the snow-covered valley. 

Burana Tower

If there’s one image that defines Kyrgyzstan, it is that of men on horses. Our last stop on the road was to catch a glimpse of the traditional Kyrgyz horse games.

While some games are innocuous, the most iconic of the games, Kok Baru, is anything but. It is like polo with the ball replaced by a headless goat carcass. The game is fiercely competitive and invariably results in injuries. The notion of using a goat carcass in a sport certainly feels revolting at the outset. But it’s an important part of Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic heritage. The game originated thousands of years ago when nomadic shepherds hunted foxes that predated on their flock. They found a use for the fox carcass by using it in horse games.  Over time they replaced the fox carcass with that of a goat and the sport evolved into Kok Baru. 

Kok Baru – the rider is clutching the “ball” with his feet and heading towards the goal

On one hand, a nationalistic re-assertion of nomadic traditions and identity after a period of Soviet suppression is bringing games like Kok Boru to the forefront. On the other hand, the carcass is being increasingly replaced with rubber moulds in many places to make the sport more palatable for modern sensibilities.     

After witnessing this anachronistic spectacle, we drove on to Bishkek. Parting ways with Ana after 8 days and 1600 kilometres together was painful. But we both knew that our relationship would be ephemeral. 

Goodbye Ana

On the last evening, we went to what is probably the best cafe in Bishkek – Chaikhana Navat. Fittingly, the last dinner was the Kyrgyz national dish – Plov. The food was excellent but the highlight was the decor. Every inch of the cafe is covered in Shyrdaks, ornate carpets, wall hangings and ceramics. It is easily the most ornate restaurant I have ever been to. Navat is a Kyrgyz dessert of sugar crystals with grape juice and spices. It seemed like an apt metaphor for the country as a whole. 

Day 9 – Bishkek 

On our last morning, we made a quick trip to Osh Bazar, a humongous local market for everything from produce to garments, dry fruits to bread and souvenirs. It’s a great place to shop for authentic wares at reasonable prices.  

The traditional bread – Tokach – at Osh Bazar

And just like that, after 8 memorable days, the Kyrgyzstan chapter was over. But I was leaving Kyrgyzstan fully convinced that it will keep drawing me back every now and again.