Place names have always been the strongest kind of magic to me. Being able to say that today, we are taking the road to Samarkand puts a big smile on my face. A town whose name holds its place firmly amongst the most romanticised on the planet. Up there with "Timbuktu"... "Kathmandu"... It is in the realms of mythology... A place surely, that you must reach by shimmering portal, not by road? A real life Shangri La. The word alone is intoxicating, conjuring images of epic journeys and exotic ADVENTURE even if you couldn't place it on a map. It's a place you want to go to simply to have reason to legitimately use its name aloud.
So, we head out across the flat plains from Tashkent, until the white peaks of the Zarafshan mountains come into view. Vast meadows of poppies, roadside stalls selling the biggest strawberries you've ever seen, by the bucketload, and mulberry tree lined avenues, all under the most brilliant of blue skies.
We had been invited for lunch with a family in Sazagan, a large village 30km outside of Samarkand, and so, saving our first sights of the fabled city for the golden late afternoon sun, we broke our journey here.
Saodat had sent one of her daughters to meet us on the roadside to guide us to her home and we first caught sight of her by the sequins of her dress shining like a glitter ball on the horizon. Walking the paths through the fields, the kids running excitedly ahead of us, we were all welcomed like family with not just hugs but cuddles. Saodat had been widowed early in her life, bringing up her 4 beautiful daughters (all were here to have lunch with us, along with the full contingent of grand kids) and 4 sons, on her own. She has never once left the village (which we were apparently the first tourists to visit), but her children are all university educated and working as teachers and doctors. We were welcomed with a humbling banquet of food - very much the Uzbek way - most had come straight from their garden. Still-warm breads, simple salads, fruits and nuts. And Plov. Our guide said that it was the best he had ever eaten and this is the ultimate compliment from a man from Tashkent! Every region argues that it's take on the national dish is the best. Saodat welcomed this accolade with a look that said nothing more than "Of course it is".
To say that we had to drag ourselves away from our hosts to see the sights of a place that we had all dreamed of forever says everything that needs to be said about their welcome.
So this evening, as we stand in awe at Registan Square, watching murmurations of starlings swarming through the sunset, we have the very tangible sense that we are walking in the footsteps of millennia of travellers on one of the greatest journeys on earth - the Great Silk Road.
Kat Hart is a tour leader for Wild Frontiers who led their "Cities of the Silk Road" trip through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in May 2013. Wild Frontiers is a multi-award winning independent travel company specialising in stylish and original tailor-made holidays and small group adventure holidays to some of the most interesting countries in the world including Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, the Congo and Georgia.
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