Over the last few years, city planners have completely redesigned Samarkand to seal off older sections of town from tourists’ view. Roads have been rerouted, and statues of Navoi, Gorky, Gagarin and others have disappeared or been relocated. Hideous walls have been erected around Gur-e-Amir and behind the Registan, and virtually all access points between the old town and touristy Tashkent and Registan streets have been closed off.
Plucky travellers who do manage to find their way into the old town will be rewarded with an authentic slice of mahalla (neighbourhood) life. The most interesting neighbourhood is the old Jewish Quarter, accessible by a gate off Tashkent kochasi. From the gate, walk east along the main lane, Abu Laiz Samarkandi, and find the gloriously faded Koroboy Oksokol Mosque down an alley on your right. Continuing along Abu Laiz Samarkandi, pass the diminutive Mubarak Mosque on your left and proceed to the neighbourhood Hammomi. Take a left on unmarked Denau kochasi opposite the hammomi and look for a working 19th-century synagogue a few houses down on the left. Hidden in the back alleys this is Samarkand's main synagogue, built in 1891 by millionaire trader Abraham Kolontarov. Of an original population of 20,000 to 30,000, only around 40 Jewish families remain in Samarkand, worshipping in this well-maintained courtyard. The decoration is Central Asian with a twist. Photos of rabbis decorate the walls, menoras enliven the metal gutters and a Star of David anchors the ceilings.
Wander through the lanes south of the hammomi until you locate the tidy new Mausoleum of Imam-al-Matrudiy (Buhoro). Just west of here is the more interesting Makhdumi Khorezm Mosque (Buhoro), with a colourful ceiling under its aivan and some fine interior tilework. Other neighbourhoods worth wandering are west-southwest of Bibi-Khanym and behind Gur-e-Amir.
Just round the corner from the synagogue is the Hammom Davudi, a traditional bathhouse built at the same time as the synagogue, with nine cupolaed rooms offering varying grades of heat. Women use the facilities Monday to Wednesday (7am to 8pm) with men Thursday to Sunday (4am to 9pm).