As soft as silk – romantic Uzbekistan beckons

By | Category: Travel destinations

Uzbekistan in Central Asia has associations with Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Marco Polo not to mention the nation’s own conqueror and hero, Tamerlane, or Temur. The heart of the historic Silk Road has a romantic image, and the towns here are indeed filled with fabulous Islamic architecture, blue and gold filled mausoleums and mosques with magical minarets and domes.  Some cities, like Khiva, feel as if they have been frozen in time while seductive Samarkand looks as if Aladdin has just left on his magic carpet.

some of the crafts hat you will see in Uzbekistan

Today a new breed of adventurers is discovering Uzbekistan and the Uzbeks are welcoming them with open arms, hearty meals and colourful dancing displays.

Last month, the 5th International Uzbek Tourism World of Leisure exhibition took place in Tashkent to demonstrate the tourism potential of Uzbekistan and its many attractions. Stands showcasing the 14 regions of the republic participated with 233 Uzbek travel companies taking part, showing off their tourist offerings, local music, food and drink and arts and crafts.

A number of UK tour operators already offer tours to the country, or tours which include Uzbekistan as part of a wider Silk Road experience. I am told that the destination has grown in popularity recently following the ‘comeback’ of Iran which has regenerated interest in that part of the world. The cultural and historic sites of Samarkand and Bukhara can be visited as well as the Nutara Mountains, where one can spend the night under the stars in a yurt or tent.

I travelled independently by train from Tashkent to Samarkand on the efficient Afrosiab high-speed train. The country is safe to explore and in the towns and cities, hotels are comfortable with many in Tashkent and Samarkand of a five star quality. English speaking guides are easy to find and most places take US$.

Food

Don’t miss the national rice-based dish plov (traditionally cooked by men) or the many different kinds of decorated loaves (traditionally cooked by women). Plov is usually meat-based ( lamb or beef) although a vegetarian variety is available using vine leaves and I am told in Bukhara plov is made using carp. Uzbekistan is double land-locked, so fresh fish is not always on the menu, but I did sample some good smoked trout.   Tea is the national drink and is served at most meals as well as at the traditional tea ceremony. Despite being 95% Moslem, alcohol is available in Uzbekistan and indeed the country prides itself on its wines which have been produced here for centuries.

Shopping

Ceramics, clay figures, silk rugs and scarves are among the many beautiful crafts available to buy in the bazaars or at the roadside. Boxes of fruits and nuts are often given as gifts and wood carvings, ikat fabrics and  jewellery make wonderful souvenirs.

 

Highlights:

the museum and statue of Ulugbek

Samarkand: The highlight of any trip here is the breath-taking Reghistan Square (built between the 15th-17th centuries)  a space of  majestic madrassas (religious schools)The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrassas, a wealth of azure ceramics, with interiors of gold. Other fascinating sites in Samarkand which is a UNESCO World Heritage site is the observatory of Ulugbek, grandson of Temur or Tamerlane, Ulugbek was an astronomer, scientist and architect and one of the highlights of the observatory is the collection of instruments including a major astronomic instrument, the lowest part of which was in a deep trench. Ulugbek is buried next to his grandfather and One can visit  the tombs in the beautifully reconstructed Gur-Emir Mausoleum before walking through the narrow streets of Samarkand, called a ‘noble and great city’ by Marco Polo.

Tashkent– Uzbekistan’s capital – was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule, but is now rebuilt and among other things is home to the world’s most elegant underground stations, decorated with mosaics glass and ceramics.  Don’t miss the atmospheric Chorsu Bazaar and the Kukeldash Madrasah built in the 16th century.  Being a busy capital,Tashkent has a good selection of  high quality restaurants most also offering music and entertainment.

Bukhara. One of the oldest cities in the world, it is home to the Kalon Minaret, one of its defining symbols, built in 1127. At 47 metres high it is thought to have been the tallest building in Central Asia – kalon means ‘great’ in Tajik. Between the two covered bazaars, in the former herb-and-spice bazaar, is Central Asia’s oldest surviving mosque, the Maghoki-Attar, a mesmerising mixture  of a 9th-century facade with  16th-century reconstruction.

Khiva. The walled open-air city of Khiva is a living museum where it seems time has stood still. Protected by UNESCO it is still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. Dating from the 6th century, it was a successful and valued Silk Road trading city. A beautiful emerald green dome topped with a large brass finial marks the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud – the holiest site in Khiva. It is the shrine of Khiva’s patron saint, Pakhlavan Mahmud, who was a fur hat maker and a famous poet of Khiva, and the dynastic burial complex of the Khiva Khans.

Reghistan Square in Samarkand

Khiva is also the centre of Uzbekistan’s traditional carpet making industry and intricately patterned examples can be found draped throughout the bazaars and ancient thoroughfares.

Natural wonders. As well as the cities with their fascinating mosques and mausoleums, Uzbekistan has mountain ranges with great skiing, wild open spaces and waterfalls, rivers, lakes and deserts. You may witness some camel racing  and you can take a jeep safari through the Kyzyl-Kum and Kara Kum Deserts. Walking tours include hiking  in the Chatkal Mountains northeast of Tashkent and an excursion into the Kyzylkum desert to see impressive forts dating back to the 4th century BC. You can also take in  a visit to the fertile Fergana Valley, filled with pomegranate and apricot orchards.

Fast facts:

Uzbekistan Airlines flies direct from London Heathrow to Tashkent.

Time: GMT+5

Language; Uzbek, Russian and Tajik.

For more information about Uzbekistan, click here.

 

 

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