The cradle of culture for more than two millennia, Uzbekistan is home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the fascinating history of the Silk Road. In terms of sights alone, Uzbekistan is Central Asia's biggest draw and most impressive showstopper. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva never fail to impress visitors with their fabulous mosques, madrasas and mausoleums, while its other attractions, such as the fast disappearing Aral Sea, the fortresses of desperately remote Karakalpakstan, its boom town capital Tashkent and the ecotourism opportunities of the Nuratau Mountains, mean that even the most diverse tastes of visitors can be catered for. Uzbekistan is an extremely friendly country where hospitality remains an essential element of daily life and you will be made to feel genuinely welcome by the people you meet.
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 and even gold was transported between West and East. Also transported were 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.
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 Madrasas 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 impressed Genghis Khan almost eight centuries ago.
Khiva: One 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. Khiva is at its best by night when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and Madrasas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic. Walk through the Abdulla Khan Madrasa 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.
The Registan: This ensemble of majestic, tilting madrasas – a near-overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces – is the centerpiece of the city, and arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The Registan, which translates to ‘Sandy Place’ in Tajik, was medieval Samarkand’s commercial centre and the plaza was probably a wall-to-wall bazaar. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrasas, anything older having been destroyed by Genghis Khan.
Khudayar Khan Palace: The Khan’s Palace, with seven courtyards and 114 rooms, was built in 1873,though its dazzling tiled exterior makes it look so perfect that you would be forgiven for thinking it was as new as the modern park that surrounds it. Just three years after its completion, the tsar’s troops arrived, blew up its fortifications and abolished the khan’s job. Today, six courtyards remain and their 27 rooms collectively house the Kokand Regional Studies Museum, with displays of varying degrees of interest, and rudimentary signage in English.
Savitsky Museum: This museum houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union. It owns some 90,000 artifacts and pieces of art – including more than 15,000 paintings – only a fraction of which are actually on display. About half of the paintings were brought here in Soviet times by renegade artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, who managed to work within the system to preserve an entire generation of avant-garde work that was proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the country for not conforming to the socialist realism of the times.
The museum has impressive archaeological, ethnographic and folk art collections to match its collection of paintings, as well as high-quality temporary exhibits. The huge collection is rotated every few months, so you could visit many times and continue to see new works.
Chorsu Bazaar: Tashkent’s most famous farmers market, topped by a giant green dome, is a delightful slice of city life spilling into the streets off Old Town’s southern edge. There are acres of spices arranged in brightly colored mountains; Volkswagen-sized sacks of grain; entire sheds dedicated to candy, dairy products and bread; interminable rows of freshly slaughtered livestock; and – of course – scores of pomegranates, melons, persimmons, huge mutant tomatoes and whatever fruits are in season. Souvenir hunters will find kurpacha (colourful sitting mattresses), skull caps, chapan (traditional cloaks) and knives here.