Samarkand

No name is as evocative of the romance of the Silk Road as Samarkand. For most people it's as mythical as Atlantis or as remote and legendary as Timbuktu. The reality, as usual, is harsher, but not by much. The sublime larger-than-life monuments of Timur, the technicolour bazaar and the city's long, rich history work a special kind of magic, though outside the historical core is a sprawling Soviet-style city with few redeeming features.

Most of Samarkand’s high-profile attractions are the work of Timur, his grandson Ulughbek and the Uzbek Shaybanids, who between them made the city Central Asia’s economic, cultural and intellectual epicentre in the 14th and 15th centuries. Almost everything of interest is in the sun-dried old town, whose layout has remained unchanged since this period.

The centrepiece of the city and one of Central Asia’s most awe-inspiring sights is the Registan, an ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas offering an overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, beautifully proportioned spaces. The gigantic congregational Bibi-Khanym Mosque nearby is powerful and shapely, even in ruin, and was the jewel of Timur’s empire. It’s a victim of its own grandeur, since it was once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques and pushed construction techniques to the limit; slowly crumbling for centuries, it finally collapsed in an earthquake in 1897.

The most moving of Samarkand’s sights is Shahi-Zinda, a street of tombs mostly belonging to Timur and Ulughbek’s family and favourites, including one said to be that of a much revered cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Though disfigured by donation boxes, the tombs are decorated with some of the city’s finest majolica tilework. The best live show in town is the main bazaar around the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. The kinetic, colourful main farmers’ market is a regular Tower of Babel, and full of the dresses and shawls, hats and turbans, of just about every ethnic group in existence in the region.