Friday, August 04, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map IV

Samarkand.  Now we were getting into the classic Silk Road, the names reverberating with legend.  Sadly the weather was still not in our favor, the skies dark with the threat of rain.  I am sure I shared with my fellow travelers the desire to see these old cities and their monuments beneath the flawless blue skies of the travel posters.    

Our first stop was Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum, Timur’s burial place.  This is one of the most visited sites in Central Asia, probably so that people can guarantee the old murderer is still dead.  The dark skies begat strong icy winds that seemed fitting somehow, until the novelty wore off.  There were a few dozen other visitors braving the cold, a good number of them (male and female alike) asking to pose for photographs with me.  This had happened quite few times over the past few days, and strangely it was only myself and one other fellow who were asked, every time.  The attention was quite fun, today made more ridiculous by the felt hats (his with the sad droopy ears of a basset hound) that he and I had bought as protection from the chill.  Yet we were just a sideshow to the magnificent structure rising behind us, the tiles and domes a bright blue that wasn't diminished in the least by the grey above.


A shade of blue equal in brilliance could be found a short drive away at Ulugbek’s observatory, it a spiraling mural behind a proud statue of the man.  This grandson of Timur proved a better astronomer than ruler, and was particularly shortsighted in not foreseeing his eventual murder by his son (who in turn was killed by a group of amirs, limiting the Timurid dynasty to a mere century.)  Despite Ulugbek’s constant reaching for the heavens, the madrassa he founded here was more earthbound, lacking the towering domes and minarets common to the style, and of a hue more akin to the swirling sands.  The real masterpiece was just in front, a large tube-like structure that crawled up this man-made hill like the noborigama kilns of Japan.  Entering the tube was like climbing into a massive sextant, the parallel grooves burrowing three stories downward. 

Old Samarkand itself too is subterranean, as the Mongol invasions of the 13th century obliterated it completely. (It was Timur, surprisingly, who rebuilt the city just to the west, serving somewhat like Shiva in bringing creation out of destruction.) The Afrosiab kept a 7th century fresco that depicted a Sogdian king receiving dignitaries from as far off as China.  Yet the deserted hillocks and dusty plain outside betrayed little of the great city that had dazzled Alexander 1700 years before. 

After lunch, our group went on to a carpet factory, but LYL and I decided to go to our hotel and rest, the street in front so pockmarked it was like multiple speedbumps.  Though the rambling traveler in me hates to admit it, it was pleasant to catch up on the world after three days without wifi.  Dinner beckoned eventually, a perfunctory meal served in a somewhat sterile, oversized banquet room.  But the highlight of the evening was a good night’s sleep, in a room that refused to move. 

The sky this day too was bleached out, the surface of The Registan, not to mention my spirit damp with rain.  Nonetheless it was a majestic sight, these three madrasas staring each other down a square that had once served as marketplace and execution ground.  The age of each of these structures was betrayed by their inability to stand up straight, none more so than the minarets, and a shoddy Soviet reconstruction job did little to prevent them from leaned in odd directions as if blowing in the wind.  But despite the imperfections, their beauty was mesmerizing, little doubt since Timur had deliberately brought here any artisans that he had captured during his wide raids. Even the poor weather couldn't hide the intricate detailed of their facades, of lions and blue onion domes.  The inner courtyards were all flanked by doorways that led to shops now occupying the former student cells.  In one, a musician demonstrated his merchandise, playing each and every instrument with perfection.  Here again I found my own personal Silk Road, one defined by music, the sounds overlapping across cultures.  

Most impressive to me was the Tilla Kari Madrasa, the most weathered of all, but whose solid gold interior froze me for a good ten minutes.  Each and every madrasa or mosque I had visited so far had not failed to stun me, their colors hypnotic, with the intricacy of their spirals, the honeycomb geometry of their stalactites, the flawless slope to the ceilings.  It made it worth it I suppose to sit through all those seemingly useless algebra classes back in school, to be able to stand beneath these domes and marvel at their perfection.           

We followed a long promenade toward the central market.  Sunday strollers smiled and meandered with little regard to destination.  I paralleled one old man, beard stretching toward his chest, his posture and spectacles marking him as a scholar.  I wondered his view of life, the political and social changes that had determined his life trajectory.  Yet he pottered on.

Likewise, what changes had been seen beneath the domes of the Bibi Khanym Mausoleum, itself curling with gravity toward the earth?  The interior was a ruin and off-limits, bricks strewn about where they fell.  Despite this, sellers peddled their wares in some of the less dusty corners, perhaps a spillover from the larger, bustling market next door.  I gave this a skip, having earlier spied a shop advertising coffee.  After a week of instant coffee on the train, the strong ground of Arabian coffee nearly took off the back of my head.   

This all focused my attention on the ride to come, along the streets of new Samarkand.  There were many signs here for avocat, the legal profession apparently quite lucrative.  There was one store called Papa Jobs, which appeared to repair Apple computers.  On one corner, a man gave a handful of money to a babushka.  A towering mansion looked constructed as if by a child, its owner constantly building and adding to it in a childlike lack of self-control.  And as the road took us more and more into suburb, there was a marked increase in fish sellers  

We arrived at a quiet estate on the outskirts of town, the compound a handful of buildings made of earth and barely hewn tree limbs.  A waterwheel jutted from one wall, its spindly arms pounding sticks of mulberry into pulp to be used as paper.  It all had a delightfully quiet dignity, a place of repose after a week in near motion. 

This motion propelled us again back to the old city, for a visit to Shah-i-Zinda, the part of Samarkand that I had most wanted to see.  This place too was reminiscent of a noborigama kiln, each tomb the size of a small mosque, climbing side by side up the slope toward the ancient city.   A trio of old women clad in black set the tone for the visit, sitting upon a bench at the base of the hill, opening their palms toward the sky, toward the old teachers, toward God.  Yet further up was spoiled somehow, mainly by the number of tourists clustering in the narrow confines.  I hadn't really been bothered by tourists on this trip, as the scale of things thus far (as true for the work of Christianity as for Islam) had been large and momentous, the body given space by the open courtyards, the eyes pulled heavenward by the pitch of arch and dome.   

Nowhere else was this as true as during a return visit to The Registan, this time at night.  The madrassas simply hung in the air against the dark, their surfaces miraculously devoid of any color but for a brilliant white, minarets holding up the featureless black sky.  It was if encountering the gates of heaven itself.   

On the turntable:  Dean & Britta, "13 Most Beautiful"

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