If you are a Silk Road romantic with a penchant for riding horseback across the Eurasian steppe or haggling for carpets in an Uzbek bazaar, then make a beeline to Uzbekistan where you can experience the best of the ancient Silk Road, while nibbling on some of the best kebabs in Central Asia. Though the Chinese stretch of the Silk Road is world famous, the central Asian section, with a significant part of it lying in Uzbekistan, is far less travelled, but has no less to see.
Uzbekistan is renowned for its ancient cities filled with early architectural and historical monuments that have survived down to present day. Created in different epochs, the monuments testify to the Uzbeks’ rich material culture of the past. Among the inhabitants of these ancient cities were outstanding thinkers and poets, brilliant philosophers and scholars, and highly skilled craftsmen, who contributed enormously to the ancient Orient’s overall significance to world culture.
More than 4,000 architectural and archeological monuments scattered throughout the country are now protected by UNESCO, with four of them being granted the organization’s World Heritage Site status.
Traveling the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, from post-Soviet Tashkent, through the beautiful blue-tiled city of Samarkand, to un-spoilt Bukhara, the large, desert-like expanse of sandy terrain spreads out. With a continuous history spanning thousands of years, the Uzbek land, often threatened by waves of invaders and conquerors, is a veritable museum of Central Asian culture over several millennia.
Uzbekistan is a country whose exotic-sounding place names resonate to distant school history lessons and takes you daydreaming about Gengis Khan and his Mongol hordes galloping across the vast plains of Central Asia.
Tashkent: The capital of Uzbekistan and its most cosmopolitan city, Tashkent, due to its position in Central Asia has over the centuries come under the influence of various dynastic periods. The city, which was built, destroyed and then re-built by various rulers down the ages became one of the major trading centers along the Silk Road on account of its multi-ethnicity and strategic location. To this day, the city remains one of the largest exporters of cotton, silk and textiles to Eastern Europe. Mild winters lure an enormous number of mountain-skiers to the Chimgan Mountains located in the province. Tashkent also holds the Uthman Qur'an, the earliest written copy of the Islamic holy book, which has been located in the city since 1924.
Ancient Samarkand: The historic city of Samarkand is one of the planet’s longest inhabited cities. Positioned at the crossroads of the world’s greatest trade routes, the city has a multi-millennial history. The sands of this town have seen Alexander the Great ruling it and centuries later Turkish invaders sweeping in Islamic art and culture. Samarkand was the route that merchants and traders traveled with plenty of goods: spices, ivory, silk, wine and even gold was transported between West and East. But, it was not only goods that were transported here, but also religions and philosophies. The city was famed for being an Islamic center for scholarly studies and has many Islamic schools. Mesmerizing tile work, soaring blue domes and a massive sense of scale are the rule here, including at Tamerlane’s own resting place, the Gur-i Amir.
The Registan, a large public square fanned by three Madrasas, was the ancient city center where people once gathered to socialize at its bazaars and take part in festivities; it is also where public executions took place. Thanks to the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg who taught mathematics and transformed Samarkand into a centre of culture and learning, the city has many centers of learning. The first Madrasah built by him is an awe-inspiring complex of tiled emerald-colored buildings in a series of airy courtyards flanked by students’ former dormitory rooms turned souvenir shops. Craftsmen here still practice ancient jewelry making techniques, and a wide selection of beautiful earrings, necklaces and other adornments can be purchased.
Medieval Bukhara: An economic and cultural centre dating back 25 centuries, Bukhara was once one of the largest cities of Central Asia for its position on a rich oasis at the crossroads of the Silk Road. Wander through the dusty winding streets of Bukhara’s citadel, where dozens of azure onion domes dot the skyline. Once a particularly Sufi city, Bukhara was home to over one hundred Madrasahs (places of learning) and two hundred mosques.
The city’s most impressive sights include the mausoleum erected as a family crypt for Ismail Samanid, founder of the Samanid dynasty who ruled Bukhara in the ninth and tenth centuries. The labyrinthine old town is a great place for a wander, but do not miss the 5th-century fortress, home of the last Emirs of Bukhara, or the 47m-tall Minaret that so impressed Genghis Khan almost eight centuries ago.
Khiva: The third of Uzbekistan’s great caravan cities requires a long desert journey but it is worth the trip to wander the almost-perfect walled city of the slave-trading khanate. An excursion into the surrounding desert takes in the enigmatic ruins of a dozen medieval fortresses. The historic heart of Khiva, unlike that of other Central Asian cities, is preserved in its entirety – but so well preserved that the life has almost been squeezed out of it. As a result of a Soviet conservation programme in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s now a squeaky-clean official ‘city-museum’. A few of the historic buildings in Ichon-Qala are functioning mosques or shrines, but most are museums.
Khiva is at its best by night when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and Madrasahs, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic. Walk through the Abdulla Khan Madrasah to the Islom Hoja Madrasah and minaret – Khiva's newest Islamic monuments, both built in 1910.
You can climb the minaret. With bands of turquoise and red tiling, it looks rather like an uncommonly lovely lighthouse. At 57m tall, it is Uzbekistan's highest. The Madrasah holds Khiva's best museum, the Museum of Applied Arts.
Nukus: Visit the city of Nukus near the Aral Sea, driving through the Red Sand desert or Kyzyl Kum from Bukhara or Samarkand, stopping at grand mosques, ancient wineries and Tamerlane, the Mongol emperor and conqueror’s summer residence along the way. The Kyzylkum Desert, or Red Sand Desert, is home to many rare species of animals, and the fauna in the Kyzylkum Nature Reserve, based in the Amu Darya tugai forests, is astonishingly diverse and impressive. Plenty of streams and rivers flowing down the slopes of the Tyan-Shan and Pamir Mountain systems form the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, the biggest rivers in the Central Asian region. These waterways also give rise to green oases of cotton fields, blooming orchards and luscious vineyards, encircled by mountain ranges with gleaming tops. The city houses Nukus Museum, one of the finest in the country.
Nurata: The dazzling bazaars, ancient fortresses, and an impressive array of largely unsung natural sites at Nurata are often overshadowed by other attractions in the country. But at least this means you will have the hiking and adventure-sport opportunities of Chimgan and around to yourself. Modest Nurata is most famous for its old, circle-patterned suzani, which can sell for thousands of dollars at international auctions, but it also has a few quirky tourist attractions, most notably an old fortress of Alexander the Great.
Behind the fortress, a path leads 4km to the Zukarnay Petroglyphs, which date to the Bronze Age. Ask the curator at the museum how to find the trail. More experienced trekkers can get a ride 10km east and launch an assault on the 2169m camel-humped Oq Tog mountain; plan on at least a full day if you want to go the whole way.
Beneath Alexander’s fortress you will encounter the anomaly of several hundred trout occupying a pool and well next to a 10th-century mosque and caravanserai. This is the Chashma Spring, formed, it is said, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali drove his staff into the ground. These ‘holy’ fish live off the mineral-laden waters of the spring and canals that feed it.
Hospitality has been at the heart of Uzbek culture for thousands of years, since early times. Do not be startled if you find the smell of steaming plov or pilau (Uzbekistan’s national rice dish) waft through the air, and a bowl soon finding its way in front of you, along with a piping hot piola, a small ceramic cup, of freshly brewed tea accompanied by innocent, harmless questioning by Uzbek women.
The attractions of Uzbekistan go a long way to eclipsing the violent memories evoked by names like Genghis Khan, Timur, Nasrullah Khan and Stalin. It is remarkable that through it all, the Uzbek people have remained good-spirited and genuinely hospitable — this undoubtedly is one of the prime attractions in this oddly endearing country.