Judith Baker discovers a different and extraordinary travel experience in this fascinating country
Uzbekistan, called the pearl of Central Asia, has prided itself for millennia for its place on the Silk Road, the romantic route that meandered through regions of the Asian continent connecting East and West. The route had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Nowhere is this truer than in Uzbekistan, which produced some of the region’s greatest scientists and thinkers, such as Ulugbek the astronomer whose observatory can be visited in Samarkand.
The names of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great are associated with the nation, drawn by its access to riches and treasures, but the most famous face in Uzbekistan is that of the conqueror Timur, or Tamerlane, whose Gur Emir mausoleum is also found in Samarkand.
Today the nation of Uzbekistan, independent from the Soviet Union since 1991, is ripe for modern adventurers to explore. Offering a different and extraordinary travel experience, Uzbekistan offers tours no just of cultural and historic interest, but also trips to see the mountains, deserts and open spaces of this fascinating country quite unlike anywhere else in the world.
Recently 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.
As well as the fascinating cities with their minarets, domes and twinkling azure mosaics people flock to Uzbekistan to purchase its wealth of crafts, which were also on show. Ceramics, silks, ikat fabrics, rugs and clay figures were spread out as in olden times.
Days later I was haggling over two blue and green ceramic bowls in the bazaar in Samarkand, and came home laden with these and a swathe of delicately printed cloth.
Food here plays a big part at any occasion and it is impossible to visit the country without sampling a least one variety of plov, the famous Uzbek dish of rice, vegetables and meat, usually lamb. It is served after a course of fresh salads and crusty bread. Traditionally, men make the plov and women the bread, often decorating and colouring it until it becomes a work of art. Although Uzbekistan is nearly 90% Muslim, alcohol is widely available – the Uzbeks have been producing some of the region’s finest wines for centuries, although their national drink is tea which is served at every meal.
Islam here is more cultural than religious. Expect to see as many young women in T shirts, jeans or summer dresses as those in more traditional dress and hijab.
There are more than 2000 mosques in the country, ranging from the simple to the dazzling.
The highlight of any trip here is the breath-taking Registan square in Samarkand, (built between the 15th-17th centuries) a space of majestic madrassas (religious schools) ––the centrepiece of the city, and some say the most awesome sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrassas, a wealth of azure ceramics, with interiors of gold.
Uzbekistan’s capital was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, while the country was under Soviet rule, but now rebuilt the old and new stand side by side. Dont miss the atmospheric Chorsu Bazaar and the Kukeldash Madrasah, the best known historical monument in town built in the 16th century.
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.
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 – and its ornate mosques, vast mausoleums and madrassas have been painstakingly restored.
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 can take a jeep safari through the Kyzyl-Kum and Kara Kum Deserts and even stay in a traditional yurt.
In the towns and cities, hotels are comfortable with many in Tashkent and Samarkand of a five star quality.