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Traveller's diary: Samarkand


Traveller's diary: Samarkand

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The name Samarkand immediately makes me think of 1001 nights of fairy tales. For me it has always been an exotic destination I dreamed of visiting one day. And when I did, I went straight to the famous Registan Square, even though it was nighttime. It’s an experience every visitor should have. The three famous “madrasas” – Islamic schools – are beautiful illuminated. The first was built by Ulugh Beg in 1417. It’s breathtakingly beautiful! We were lucky to catch an amazing light show during which the country’s history was projected onto the walls of these unique monuments. To me it is definitely one the most beautiful squares in the world; more impressive than I ever imagined.

The three madrases are in unique harmony with each other; and the coloured tiles are just stunning. I felt I was breathing in hundreds of years of history, and found myself picturing the era of the Silk Road when merchants flocked into the city and the streets were bustling with people from all around the world.

To explore the influence of the Silk Road on Samarkand, we visited a local paper maker. When we got there, we realised how much he loved his workshop in Koni Ghil, just outside Samarkand. He is also so passionate about his work, he has revived a centuries-old paper-making tradition. The secret technique originally came via the Silk Road from China, and he calls it “Samarkand paper”. It is easily recognisable by the sound it makes, and its quality has been renounced for centuries. In his old water mill he uses the same techniques that have been used for 1,000 years. He calls the results “silk paper” because of its sheen, which comes from the mulberry bark. He told us that this paper could survive thousands of years because mice and insects cannot digest it.

To make the paper, the bark is boiled for five hours until it is soft. Then it is pounded into pulp by the watermill. After adding water the pulp is removed with a sieve and pressed for an entire day. Then it’s time for Zarif Muhtarov’s favourite step: polishing the paper by hand with a shell or stone.

But mulberry trees have other uses too: they’re also used to make local instruments. As a violinist myself, I was particularly interested in visiting an instrument-maker and meeting musicians from Samarkand. They have many traditional instruments, including the Dutor, the Támbur, the Chang, and the Doira. We took a closer look at the famous Rubob, a string instrument. It can take up to a year to carve a Rubob out of mulberry wood. Its sound is unique and it blends perfectly with the beautiful surroundings of this fairytale city. Our trip ended with a lovely concert in the courtyard of one of the madrasas in Registan Square; at the crossroads of culture, the atmospehre was magical.

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