Denov was a pleasant little town but, for me, it was just a hotel stop on the way to one of my major goals in Uzbekistan, the ancient city of Samarkand.
But Samarkand was still a long way off yet.
Up until a few years ago the main route to Samarkand from Dushanbe went directly north through the Anzob Tunnel in the Fan Mountains to Ayni, then west to Penjikent, the border and on to Samarkand. However some years ago this border was closed – apparently due to massive landslides in the area obliterating the road. Consequently, all vehicles now took the route directly west from Dushanbe to Denov, then detoured south to Boysun and finally northwest to Guzar. From Guzar the road swung north back up to Shakhrizabs. Unfortunately this route is many hundreds of kilometres longer than the original Penjikent route.
The main road from Denov heads south for Termiz near the Afghan border but I was taking the shortcut via Boysun and the Temir Gate. The Temir Gate is a pass in the Gissar Range and is named after Uzbekistan’s favourite son, Timur or Tamerlane as he is better known in the West. From Denov it was about 370km to Samarkand. I didn’t know what the condition of the shortcut via Boysun was like so I aimed for Shakhrizabs instead. If I wanted to I probably could have made it to Samarkand in one day but I chose to take it easy.
At first the countryside was relatively lush, part of the fertile Surxondaryo valley. However as I climbed up to the Temir Gate pass the countryside started to dry out and, after the pass, eventually I was back into semi-desert terrain. There wasn’t much to keep one’s attention in this part of the world. After many weeks in the very mountainous terrain of the Pamirs I was now entering the lands of the low, flat Central Asian deserts. And with it came the return of the blistering heat. It was now early August – traditionally the hottest month in this part of the world. While it had only been in the mid/high 30’s in Dushanbe, the temperature was now back up over 40 degrees.
Guzar came and went in a blur of midday heat but, by mid-afternoon, I was in Shakhrizabs and the search for a hotel began. With my well-practised routine, I thought I had found a hotel called the Aksarai. But when I went looking for it nobody knew of a hotel by that name. Finally I found a hotel and decided to stay even though it looked quite expensive (but, in fact, was quite reasonable). In the lobby of the hotel was a photo of an amazing ruin and when I asked what it was and where it was, the desk clerk said it was the Ak-Sarai and it was just around the corner. The locals had been trying to direct me to this hotel near the Ak-Sarai NOT the Aksarai Hotel. Bloody stupid tourists!
It was too late in the afternoon to visit the Ak-Sarai ruins but as I only had about 90km to ride to Samarkand tomorrow I would have plenty of time to visit them before I left.
Next morning I had breakfast in the hotel dining room – alone! I appeared to be the only guest in the huge, modern, western-style hotel. The first course was the usual – bread, cheese, apricot jam, more bread, more cheese and more jam. When the second course arrived I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the chef’s idea of food presentation. It looked like some sort of alien lifeform.
After breakfast I took the short walk from the hotel to see the Ak-Sarai ruins. Even though Timur had made Samarkand the capital of his empire he was born in Shakhrizabs and intended to make his hometown every bit as grand as his capital. The Ak-Sarai was built between 1380 and 1404, and was the biggest building in Central Asia at that time. The internal courtyard was 250m by 125m. It was intended to be a place of relaxation and recreation when Timur was taking time out from his day job in Samarkand. A bit like a fishing hut at Cungulla or the Barrattas – except a little bit bigger!
Most of the palace has been destroyed either in battles or earthquakes. All that remains are the two pillars of the entrance portal which was originally 70m high and was spanned by an arch 22m wide – an astonishing feat of both architecture and engineering 600 years ago.
My totally unplanned sight-seeing trip to the Ak-Sarai in Shakhizabs had been an unexpected bonus but it was time to head back to the hotel and pack the bike.
For soon I would finally be on the road to Samarkand!