TWO ragged stone pillars stand open like jaws in the dry riverbed near the road. In the old days, camel caravans passed between them on their way to Samarkand. These natural rock columns are called the Gates of Timur, because the 14th-century ruler, Timur the Lame, once extracted tariffs here. Our Intourist bus bumps past them, on a road roughly paralleling the ancient Silk Route. Soon we're rolling across the open steppe, where cotton and mulberry bushes seem to grow right to the edge of distant, treeless mountains. Women in bright silk harem pants stand apart from men at bus stops.
Here we are - some 2,000 miles southeast of Moscow, in Soviet Central Asia. A Muslim city of 500,000, Samarkand lies about 200 miles from the Afghan border in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Since extended families live nine or 10 to a room in low, shedlike buildings, the city is much smaller than its population would seem to require.
Indeed, Samarkand does not appear large enough to hold all the medieval Islamic monuments and ruins we have come to see. Along the narrow main street, outsize images of Lenin look down at us benignly, the familiar face modified to reflect Central Asian features. Below, street hawkers sell deep-fried meat pies.
Natasha, our urbane, Russian Intourist guide, takes us first to the ruins of the Ulughbek Observatory. Ulughbek was the favorite grandson of Timur the Lame, who is known as Tamerlane in the West. Timur may have decreed Samarkand his grand capital, but it was Ulughbek who gave up the life of wars and conquest to make it a center of learning. One story has it that the poet Omar Khayyam studied mathematics here.
At his observatory Ulughbek achieved a remarkable feat, estimating the length of a year to within 62 seconds of modern-day calculations. Built in 1428, the observatory itself was a wonder, housing a giant marble sextant with a radius of 131 feet and an arc 207 feet long. We look down on the long stone tunnel where the pendulum once swung in the musty coolness; Natasha tells us that Ulughbek was beheaded by his son, who wanted to get on with the business of empire-building.
Ulughbek was eventually buried next to his grandfather at Guri-Emir, a stately mausoleum known for its large and intricately tiled blue fluted dome, as striking a beacon against the white light of the Central Asian sun as a lighthouse is at sea.
As we enter Guri-Emir's mosaic-covered portal, young Uzbek girls timidly approach, asking us in faulty Russian for gum and souvenirs. Inside, a fledgling contingent of the Red Army, in heavy wool olive-drab uniforms and black boots, listens to a Russian-speaking guide.
Their eyes wander our way over Timur's dark green nephrite tomb. We hear what they hear: that the day after archaeologists opened Timur's graves in June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia, perhaps fulfilling the superstition that led ancient Egyptians to put curses against graverobbers on their hallowed tombs.
Fortunately, modern warfare has never made it as far as Central Asia, and so has never scorched Samarkand's largest and best-known mosques and mausoleums, which have survived countless wars, earthquakes, and neglect. The Soviet government, much to its credit, made it a priority after World War II to restore both Registan Square, at the town center, and the Shakhi-Zinda necropolis, where Muslim pilgrims still come because it is fabled to hold the grave of Kusam ibn-Abbas, Muhammad's cousin.
Shakhi-Zinda is a labyrinth of 20 mausoleums and mosques behind an elaborate towering portal; we stretch to mount the steep, baked brick steps and pass through a small entrance. Bright webs of blue, green, and white cover the mausoleums in patterns of infinite diamonds and stars, their extended lines crossing and recrossing almost as if woven. Natasha tells us that archaeologists haven't found the formula for the unfading cobalt and aqua tiles, which gleam like porcelain in the sun.
Registan Square opens wide as a fairground, bordered on three sides by madrasahs - Muslim religious schools - of a grand scale. Minarets, domes, and towering lancet arches dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries face off, all decorated in Escher-like mazes of blue tile and majolica. The Sherdor (Lion) Madrasah breaks with Islamic tradition: Its outer portal bears mirror images of a lion chasing a deer; a rising sun rides in the arc of the lion's back, a stylized Asian face peering out from its center.
In a shady corner many feet below, a girl with a glossy black braid that brushes the hem of her tunic is selling lapis lazuli earrings behind a makeshift stand. They cost 35 rubles, almost $60 at the official exchange rate; we settle for terra-cotta dragons for 2 rubles and 35 kopecks.
Natasha wisely advises us to save our money for the open-air market, which spreads itself out behind the ruins of the Bibi Khanym mosque. Once it was a towering affair, among the largest mosques in the Muslim world. The 14th-century architects' imagination exceeded their engineering skill; the mosque fell in almost as soon as it was finished.
Behind wooden counters in the market, Uzbek men size us up over mountains of golden raisins or logs of dense, sticky melon that has been dried and braided, or open cloth bags of spices that would bring a Muscovite to his knees.
I approach a young Uzbek who pretends not to understand my Russian. He takes long sips of tea from a blue-and-white china cup before he finally warms up to me, offering me a sample of his white, creamy honey. I carried his little jar nearly 8,000 miles home. I still haven't finished my Uzbek delicacy.
The usual jumping-off point for Samarkand is Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, about four hours away by bus. To arrange a tour, contact the Soviet travel department, Intourist, in New York at (212) 757-3884, or inquire at any American travel service specializing in tours of Soviet Central Asia.