I went to Uzbekistan knowing very little about the country, so landing in the dark late at night left the capital Tashkent still in a mystery. Now, Uzbekistan may not be on everyone’s list of must-see destinations, some may even wonder where it is, but this country sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan was once central to the Ancient Silk Road route and is full of rich culture and history. I found very early on during my trip that it is full of hidden surprises and wonderful people that should definitely be on more people’s radar.
Waking up in my hotel I couldn’t wait to get out and explore, I wanted to see what this ex-Soviet country had to offer. The hotel was in a great location, opposite Amir Temur Square, one of the central points of Soviet era Tashkent. With a clear blue sky and a fully charged camera I set out to explore my first ‘Stan’.
The main soviet era sights are close together so walkable, but definitely make time to take a ride on the highly decorated underground train system. Amir Temur Square is a welcome respite from the heat of September Tashkent, the park is lush and full of trees shading chess players of all ages. As you move through the park you are inundated with fountains that get more and more elaborate the closer you get to the ministry buildings. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch, ice cream or do some people watching.
Coming out the other end of the park you are faced with huge Soviet era ministry buildings. These imposing giants are surrounded by large walkways, grass and more fountains. Statues of Soviet heroes fill the green spaces, reminding you of this countries long history. For art lovers the main museums and galleries are also in the area and the Modern Art Museum is definitely worth a visit.
For a touch of old Tashkent and traditional life you want to head a few streets away to Alay Bazaar a hub for old Tashkent. It’s a huge sprawling market selling everything you could imagine. The covered centre is stunning and sells fresh food and huge piles of nuts and fruit.
The train to Urgench
I was heading to the train station for an overnight train to Khiva where lonely expanses of sand awaited. The normal tourist trail heads across the desert to Khiva, then travels back through the main sights of Bukhara and Samarkand to Tashkent. Most people fly to Khiva, it’s certainly the quicker option, but taking the train is a great way to really see the country. You meet people on board and pass through areas you wouldn’t normally visit. Setting off in the evening from Tashkent, you wake up the next morning in a vast sprawling desert, feeling a million miles from the buzz of the city.
A short drive from Urgench is Khiva, Central Asia’s most intact and remote Silk Road city. Khiva is a stunning architectural example. This walled city was our first glimpse of the iconic azure blue buildings Uzbekistan is famous for. Minarets tower above you, the arches and domes of the mosques and the yellow-brown sandstone changing shades as the light hits them.
Desert yurt camp
One of the highlights of being in the desert is getting to sleep in it. After a night in Khiva we took to the desert road and spent the night in a delightful yurt camp which was at the base of an ancient ruined desert fort. There is something magical about being in the desert at night, the stars were bright, it’s quiet (except for the camels!) and peace washes over you. Staying in the desert yurt camp really gives you an idea of life on the Silk Road.
The next day we took to the bumpy road again, passing through little villages along the way. Our destination was the town of Bukhara, one of the loveliest places I have ever been. This town is dominated by its historic blue tiled mosques and buildings. The people there were so friendly, the bazaar full of wonders and around every corner there was something new to find. Lyab-i-Hauz square is a leafy green spot surrounded by open air cafes and restaurants. This is a great place to head for a relaxed dinner with the locals. Try a shishlek, meat cooked on open coals and served with salad, fresh warm bread and a cold beer.
Mountain village hospitality
Bukhara needs a couple of days to explore properly, but eventually you do have to leave, and leave we did. Also save space in your bag as this is a great place to shop, especially for ceramics.
To really get off-the-beaten-track, head into the mountains and stay in a local village. We headed to a beautiful little village located alongside a stream and spent the night with a local family. Their simple home was picturesque, vine covered and surrounded by mulberry trees. Beside it was a stream, on the banks of which were beds for whiling away the day. Idyllic indeed.
Heading up hill we started a walk through the village aiming for the site of an abandoned village further into the valley. The scenery was spectacular and so peaceful, the only noise coming from the streams or the local goat herders scuttling up and down the rock sides.
I could have quite happily stayed in this village for longer, watching the life of the local people and pottering around the valley on more walks, but alas the ancient capital of Uzbekistan called. Samarkand was our next stop, and the signal that the trip was almost over.
There is a lot to see in Samarkand, the Registan, the Mausoleum of Tamerlane, Bibi Khanum Mosque and the grandiose Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis of mausoleums. This is the place to experience the truly stunning beauty and colourful historic architecture of Uzbekistan. It was the seat of Tamerlane’s power and the cross roads and emporium for the Silk Road. It continues to excite travellers today. Samarkand’s sights are fairly spread out so if you are not with an organised tour you will need to brave a local taxi. You can fit a whirlwind tour of the main sights in just over a day, so if you are stretched for time you can do everything with just one night here.
Along the Silk Road
After a night in Samarkand we took the long drive back to Tashkent and after a final dinner I left this magical and mysterious place. Uzbekistan opened up a whole new part of the world to me, the ancient Silk Road, the route that brought silk and spices from China and India to Europe.