The legendary city of Samarkand was the center of Timur's (Tamerlane's) empire in the 15th century and is today home to what is probably Central Asia's most famous architectural sight, the Registan. Given that, it's strange that most Americans have probably not even heard of Samarkand or its once mighty ruler, whose empire extended almost to Moscow and Kiev in the northwest, and well into India to the southeast. Timur didn't quite accomplish his goal of conquering the world, but he came damn close. Anyway, a little time on Wikipedia will tell you all you need to know about the history of Samarkand and Timur.
Today Samarkand is one of Uzbekistan's "Big Three" tourist attractions, the others being Bukhara 250 km to the east and the isolated former khanate of Khiva about 300 km east of Bukhara - three stupendous oases in the middle of the Kyzyl Kum desert. In late October the weather is damn near perfect, sunny and dry six days out of seven, with temperatures in the high sixties.
For my journey westward out of Tashkent I dug up an old friend - my backpack, last used in any significant capacity during my around-the-world trip in 1997, the tail end of which brought me to Kiev. In my two previous gigs with Lonely Planet I didn't have much need for my old amigo because I was traveling mainly by car. But there's no reason to drive through Uzbekistan, so I had decided months ago that I was going to keep it real with the backpack. And to be honest, I was quite looking forward to it.
When I rolled into Samarkand after 10 days in Tashkent I naturally headed straight for the backpackers' joint, a grubby little shack called Bahodir B+B that passes off 30-year-old dishrags as bath towels and kits out its rooms with saggy beds that wouldn't be acceptable in the worst Soviet hotel. It got a positive write-up in the last LP, which also labeled it the cheapest place in Samarkand. All that translated into an instant windfall, as the place is now crawling with backpackers. To be fair, it does have a good atmosphere, decent food, and friendly enough owners. And it's one of the few places in Uzbekistan where you're guaranteed to find a few crusty, like-minded backpackers with whom to break lepyoshka (leavened Uzbek bread - delicious). But it's clear that, three year's after its Lonely Planet windfall, it's definitely resting on its laurels.
Anyway, the situation with Bahodir typifies what some call the "lonelyplanetization" of certain destinations and establishments. The idea, roughly, is that in some places LP is so popular that authors, whether they are aware of it or not, end up playing kingmaker. In two previous jobs with LP, I'd yet to visit a destination that qualified for potential lonelyplanetization. Even though LP presumably has a 90%-plus guidebook share in the Philippines, the country frankly is not touristy enough for authors to be playing kingmaker. Pawn- or even prince-maker, maybe, but not kingmaker. As for the Baltics, a dearth of hostels meant that backpacker joints in Vilnius and Riga fill up regardless of whether they are recommended LP or the many other guidebooks doing business there. A good word from LP will certainly help a place in the Baltics, but it ain't gonna make or break it.
Samarkand is a different story. LP is the only publisher still publishing a guidebook on Uzbekistan, and just about any tourist who isn't on a package tour is toting a copy. It's thus a prime candidate for lonelyplanetization, as the example with Bahodir clearly showed. Our words and opinions definitely have a little more weight in a place like Samarkand.
This is something that Samarkand hotel owners are keenly aware of. I generally try to avoid revealing my identity to hotels, but I'm quick to identify myself with fellow travelers who, with few exceptions, tend to proffer great advice once they find our I'm working for LP. I'll also reveal my identity to certain hotel staff for the same reason, but usually only after I've been staying there for at least a night. However it happened, after I'd been in Samarkand for a few days word got around the B+Bs - there's a local B+B association that obviously peddles in gossip, as well as rooms - that I was in town. Suddenly every hotel owner knew exactly who I was the minute I entered their premises. I swear there must have been a "wanted" style poster of hanging on the wall of every hotel in B+B in the city. I found myself being offered gifts, free meals and other perks, all of which is great except that I was bound by ethics to decline them. The kingmaker cannot be bought.
And just what surprises does the kingmaker have in store for the B+B owners in Samarkand? I'm not sure yet, but I'll probably leave Bahodir B+B in the book, as most of the backpackers I talked to seem to like the place (to be sure, a few despised it) and it really is the only place in town set up to be a backpacker oasis. But there will be a few caveats in my review this time around. First and foremost: For the love of Pete, buy some new towels.