New Year’s Eve in Samarkand


The next afternoon we took the golden road to Samarkand. It wasn’t golden and it wasn’t a road. It was steel, and they were rails. 

We rode the Afrosiyob, Uzbekistan’s high speed showcase, built by the Spanish company Talgo and capable of flinging us across the desert at up to 250 km/h. It wasn’t as smooth as a Japanese shinkansen but it provided a level of comfort and speed I hadn’t expected in Central Asia.

The fast train to Samarkand

We would experience all classes of rail travel during our time in the country, with the exception of freight — and that was only because I couldn’t figure out how to ship myself.

The journey from Khiva to Bukhara was a full-day desert crossing by slow Soviet train. We shared a 4-berth kupe with a friendly Colombian woman and her Spanish daughter, with occasional visits from the Spanish husband who rode in the next compartment. The trip passed in a blur of conversation. 

The slow train to Bukhara
Holiday cheer on the slow train from Khiva
4-berth kupe on the Khiva to Bukhara train
On the slow desert train from Khiva to Bukhara

Khiva got a shiny new train station in 2019, and a rail upgrade to high speed is expected any year now.

Khiva railway station

When the time came to return to Tashkent from Samarkand, we would take the Sharq express — slower than the Afrosiyob at 140 km/h, but still no slouch, and with a better on time record than Germany’s rarely-punctual Deutsche Bahn.

Bukhara train station

We arrived in Samarkand on New Year’s Eve, and all the restaurants seemed to be closed. 

We checked in to our small family-run guesthouse just around the corner from Timur’s mausoleum and walked to the Registan, the vast public square that became the city’s showcase long after the conqueror was gone.

Registan, Samarkand

There wasn’t anything to eat in that area — and even if there was, it’d be tasteless fast food at silly tourist prices.

A promising Google review sent us by Yandex taxi to an establishment on the Russian side of town, but the windows were dark and the door was locked.

We trudged towards the traffic circle with the enormous statue of Timur, stopping to check out a restaurant whose blaring music we heard from the street. After being shown to a table and told we could eat, the waiter mentioned the existence of a cover charge just to sit down. I’m not sure if anyone really paid more than €50 each or if it was a way of giving us the bum’s rush. The place was shabby and the food didn’t look very good. I laughed in his face and walked out the door.

Just beyond the Timur statue, large crowds passed through a security check to a barricaded street where families rode pedal cars around a Christmas tree, ho ho hoed at by costumed Santa’s who weren’t Santas at all but something related to New Year.

New Year’s Eve in Samarkand

I still held faint hope for food vendors on the fringes, but all we could find was a single old woman selling dry chicken sandwiches from a plastic pail. We choked one down and chased it with a cob of steamed corn, and later a bag of caramel popcorn. Candy apples were possible too, but I didn’t think my teeth could take it.

The trip had largely been a dry one apart from the occasional dinner beer or glass of local wine, but this was New Year’s Eve. It seemed sad to pass the occasion without a drop.

I found a craft beer bar on Google Maps over by the Registan, and so we trudged back through bitter wind to a bare room of mismatched furniture scattered with regulars deep in conversation. The crowd was friendly, but the stout I ordered was mediocre at best, and the music competed with my hacking cough to make conversation impossible.

When the clock struck twelve we were reading in our ground-floor room next to the lobby, where light came through the glass in the door from a dim hallway. It didn’t seem like an auspicious way to start 2024.

New Year’s Eve in Samarkand

Photos © Tomoko Goto 2023

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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