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600 years wrapped in a 5 km run

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

Perhaps one of my healthiest habits, something I've been doing steadily for almost 45 years is running - I dread the day that my knees finally force me to get exercise on an elliptical or some other form of machine based torture. So after about a week of getting settled I finally asked colleagues here at the Samarkand Institute for Teacher Education if they thought it would be alright to take a morning run. Their response was a curious "yes - of course you could - but why would you?" I had been advised that it always best to keep a low profile as an American here in Uzbekistan, but my need for those endorphines overcame any fear and last Saturday I took off for my first run in over a week.

The obvious starting point is my apartment, located in a quiet block of 4 Soviet era 3 story apartment buildings.

Just standing outside instantly takes me back to teaching in Rostov-na-Donu, USSR in 1988 - a typical utilitarian brick building with 5 nondescript entrances.

But despite that 1970's exterior, the inside is 100% 2020 - in fact it was completely renovated and completed just a month or so before I arrived. Comes complete with a washing machine (definitely don't miss washing jeans in the bathtub), full kitchen with refrigerator, freezer and microwave, cable TV with over 50 international channels and a full king bedroom. My "front yard" is a nice concrete deck complete with a picnic table and three neighborhood cats that are always begging for some dinner scrap. They really aren't much of a replacement for my usual running partners - Ushi our german shepherd and Kenai our husky but at least my daughter Sasha will be happy to know that they are likely the first cats I've ever befriended - which means we won't have to get one back in Vermont, ever :-)

So from here - my route takes me down one of the main boulevards and within a kilometer I'm already at Gur-Emir Mauseoleum, which was originally built in 1403 by Timur (aka Tamerlane) in honor of his grandson Mohammed Sultan who was killed in a battle. It now houses the graves of him as well as many of his family from the 1400's.

Timur was the last of the great nomadic conquerors of Europe and Asia, and his goal was a restoration of Genghis Khan’s great Mongol Empire. Samarkand was the center of his empire and his home. In his lifetime, Timur conquered more than anyone else except for Alexander the Great. Towards the end of his reign, Timur controlled all the remnants of the Chagatai Khanate, the Ilkhanatate and the Golden Horse, and he also attempted to restore the Yuan dynasty in China.

Just another kilometer up the road I come to what is considered to one of the crown jewels of Central Asia and a World Heritage Site - Registan Square. It's a huge open area, the size of four football fields surrounded by three enormous madrasah - which as the primary learning center for all of central Asia during the middle ages. Hundreds of students would live and study here, learning not only Islamic theology but also mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

I'm learning that during this time from 1400-1600 this part of the world was actually considered its intellectual center with scholars often traveling the Silk Road from either direction - China and Europe - in order to learn from prominent Uzbek, Tadjik, Kazakh and Kirgyz scholars. In the evening the Registan is especially stunning - with the colored mosaic tiles that make up the exterior glowing under the floodlights.

My turnaround point is a new square located just another half kilometer beyond the Registan, in what used to be known as Lenin Square. Of course when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, every town had an obligatory square centered around a large statue of

Lenin, I've seen them from Magadan in the Far East all the way to Murmansk in the west. But when Uzbekistan gained it's independence in 1991, their first President became Islom Karimov who ruled the country until his death in 2016.

Islom had actually become President in 1989 when the country was still the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Everyone I have met speaks of Islam with great reverence, talking about how he had such a difficult time holding the country together after it gained it's independence and as such Lenin Square has now been renamed Karimov Square and features a large sculpture of him looking east to the Registan and to Mecca beyond.

It's an incredible run - hard to believe that within the space of these few kilometers are visible pieces of Central Asian, Uzbek and Soviet history covering over 600 years. I also quickly discovered that for whatever reason I'm much more unnoticeable on the streets as I run. As I walk around town it's clear from the looks and reactions of every day Uzbeks that I'm something of an unusual site as heads turn and children point - despite my best efforts to blend in with my black coat, black pants and often a black stocking cap which is definitely the very standard look.

However when I'm running folks rarely give me a second glance. Might be my choice of running attire - took a bit of shopping but I've done my best to match of the Timur warrior look in the morning - must be I have it nailed :-)

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