Further south of Samarkand
Beyond Samarkand, the M-39 continues its odyssey from Tashkent to Termez by climbing into the Zerafshan Range, a Pamiri spur, towards the Takhtakaracha Pass. Along this major Silk Road branch marched the armies of the Greats, Alexander and Tamerlane, en route to India. Soviet tanks bound for Afghanistan also came this way. In 1395 Tamerlane ordered a palace and garden built here, between his imperial capital and his birthplace Shakhrisabz, 80 kilometres south.
The finished park was typically Timurid in extent-when a builder lost his horse, it was only discovered six months later. Nearby stone quarries fuelled the tyrant's lust for construction. The road passes the village of Amankutan, resting in the shade of white acacias, Persian walnut, pine and plane; a legacy not of Tamerlane but of General Abramov, first Russian ruler of Samarkand. Nearby, past the Mologaya Gvardia Young Pioneers Camp, is an 80-metre deep cave, the deepest in Central Asia, where Russian scientist Lev found remains of a Palaeolithic settlement, now on display in Samarkand's Museum of Regional Studies.
Elsewhere in southern Uzbekistan, you can explore the vast cave grotto that hid Tamerlane and his robber band; go heli-fishing in glacial lakes; ride horses along the Hissar range; trek up holy mountain Khazreli Sultan; or hunt for rock paintings and Jurassic dinosaur tracks. But given security concerns in recent years, seek first the latest travel advice. From Amankutan, the road winds up to the 1,675-metre pass for a fine panorama of the Kashkadarya river valley and the ancient town of Shakhrisabz.