Once a hermetic country with very strict visa policies for foreigners, Uzbekistan is slowly opening its borders to show the world the majesty of what used to be the core and center of the ancient Silk Road, a country filled with impressive shrines, mosques and perfectly shaped old cities.
It’s a snippet of the Silk Road’s best bits…
If you’re intrigued by the ancient Silk Road but don’t have the time to travel its length from China to Turkey, you’ll find three of the route’s most important cities in Uzbekistan. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were key stop-offs for traders, and have all been painstakingly restored to their former glory – think glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics. With a little planning, you can squeeze them all into a week, making this the perfect bite of Silk Road splendor.
It’s a bit like time travel
The walled city of Khiva is a living museum, protected by Unesco but still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. It was founded in the 6th century, and thrived as a Silk Road trading city – with increasingly ornate mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools) added to its labyrinth of streets, all of which have been artfully restored. It’s a popular spot for wedding parties, who visit for photo opportunities under the vibrant turquoise mosaics, and its streets are lined with souvenir stalls hawking everything from handmade teapots to traditional woolly hats. But after 5pm, the local tourists head home – leaving you to explore the city in peace. Wander its streets while swallows swoop in the fading light, its mud brick walls rosy under a pinky sky. It is easy to imagine you’re in the 12th century.
You’ll have the place to yourself
Uzbek wedding parties embark on grand tours of Uzbekistan’s ancient cities, armed with camera crews and copious relatives – but aside from them, you’ll only find a handful of tourists in every major site. It’s refreshing to visit a place where domestic tourists far outnumber international ones, and the wedding groups are always in the party spirit. The novelty of seeing a bride posing in full white gown regalia beneath a technicolour 10th-century minaret never wears off.
It’s easier to get around than you think
The transport options have improved somewhat since the days of Silk Road camel trekking. All of Uzbekistan’s main draws are served by low-cost domestic flights, great road links and high-speed trains. You’ll find shared taxis and bus services in all the cities, plus Tashkent has a decent metro with some wonderfully ornate stations.
It’s an amazing place for shopping
Timur and his descendants called on ceramicists, artists and architects from all over the empire to beautify the cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara. Their mosques were adorned with the finest murals and mosaics, with techniques and materials imported mainly from Persia. Happily, Uzbekistan’s artisan skills live on and you can pick up handmade ceramics, needlework, silk cloth and miniaturist paintings for just a few dollars in most madrassas, which have largely been transformed into bazaars.
It’s surprisingly cosmopolitan
The cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in particular have a rather European vibe – think lakeside beer gardens, landscaped public parks, and cafés next to most of the main tourist attractions. Fuelled by ice-cream and endless pots of green tea, sightseeing in Uzbekistan is all rather jovial.
The food is… interesting
Not for nothing people from all over the world like and honor the Uzbek cuisine. It is one of the most savoury and various in tastes cuisine in Central Asia. Only names of appetizing Uzbek food make one’s mouth water. Plov, manti, shurpa, shashlik, lagman, samsa have such wonderful smell that one can’t resist the temptation to taste all these dishes piping hot.