15th June 2012
Uzbekistan, in the ancient cradle between the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya rivers, is arguably the most fascinating of the Central Asian republics. A key link on the Silk Road connecting China with Western Europe, it contains some of the oldest towns in the world, such as the legendary, powerful cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.
We have put together a list of our 'Top Tips' for things to do & see on a trip to Uzbekistan.
Explore Medieval Bukhara
See the Ark Citadel, the royal fortress palace and the Zindan Prison in which two British officers were kept during the "Great Game" in the 19th century, before being executed in the Registan Square; the Bolo-Khauz Mosque with its beautiful carved wooden pillars; Kalyan Square with its great minaret, from the top of which used to be thrown the town's criminals; and the delightful Ismael Samani Mausoleum dating from the 10th century. As you wander the narrow streets of the old town you will come across other mosques and mausoleums and perhaps pause to visit the 11th trading domes, which are now house to handicraft sellers.
Bukhara's Last Emir's Palace
The summer palace of Bukhara's last Emir, just outside the city. It is an eclectic mix of Oriental and European design and contains a good collection of suzanes (Uzbek traditional embroidery) and Chinese porcelain brought to Bukhara by camel caravan in the 19th century. On returning to Bukhara you will have time to see the Lyabi Hauz Mosque and Lyabi Hauz Square with its shady trees. The central pool is surrounded by crowded tea houses, filled with old men wearing their traditional clothes, sipping tea and playing chess.
Dine with an Uzbek Family
Between the high mountains and harsh desert, what probably distinguishes Uzbek culture most from its nomadic neighbours is the centuries long tradition of settlement, exploiting the fertility of the soil and rich agriculture of the region. Uzbeks have come to pride themselves on their hospitality and there is no better way to taste local culture than dining with an ordinary family. Break lepyoshka, unleavened bread, try a myriad of vegetables and rich mutton dishes, and drink tea with welcoming local people in their warm and colourful homes.
Enjoy The Exquisite Registan Square
It means 'Sandy Place' in Persian, but Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand, and it is its magnificent madrasahs, dating back to the 17th Century, that have turned the dust into an explosion of gilded gold and holy blues. Although you will no longer hear the haunting blasts of the giant copper pipes used to summon Uzbeks to hear royal proclamations, the Registan is still the place to touch this city's ancient Silk Road heritage, and illustrates just how powerful an empire Tamerlane controlled.
Visit remote desert citadels
Visit the ancient desert citadels, located about 80 km northeast of Khiva, on the fringes of the Kyzyl-Kum Desert. First explore the imposing Toprak Kala, which was settled in the 1st century BC and later flourished in the 3rd century AD, as the capital of the Khoresmshah Dynasty. The still visible plan will allow you to picture how the fort would have looked 25 centuries ago. Continue to Ayaz Kala, an impressive mud-walled hilltop fortress dating from the 6th-7th centuries that offers magnificent views over a nearby lake.
Stay at a traditional hotel
Uzbekistan is full of wonderful small traditional guesthouses built in Uzbek style. One of our favourties is the Malika Prime hotel in Samarkand, just by the Gur Emir Mausoleum and a couple of minutes walk to Registan Square. The marble entrance and stairs lead up to a huge terrace which serves as a summer restaurant and bar where you can enjoy a drink and magnificent views of the blue domes of Samarkand. There is also an air-conditioned restaurant downstairs. The 22 en suite rooms are quite small but spotlessly clean, with wooden floors and all feature satellite TV, telephone and air-conditioning.
Visit Penjikent in Tajikistan
From Samarkand drive up into the mountains and cross the Uzbek/Tadjik border on our day trip to Penjikent in Tadjikistan. Established in the 5th AD by the Sogdians, Penjikent is now mostly in ruins. With your guide explore the ruler's fortified citadel, the Shakhristan (inner walled city), that contained two Zoroastrian temples, and the necropolis.
Visit the Aral Sea
If you want a dramatic lesson in the idiocy of man, and a micro-climate of global warming, there's no more shocking example than the Aral Sea. Since Mathew Arnold celebrated the 'Sea of Islands' as a 'luminous home of open waters', the Russians diverted its main feed river in 1960, and this once thriving source of fishing, trade and wildlife shrunk to 10% of its former size. The devastating fate of the Aral Sea has been described as 'the world's worst environmental disaster' and the wreckage of ships, industry and communities left in its wake have turned the area into a literal 'skeleton coast' that has to be seen to be believed.
Visit the Opera in Tashkent
The gorgeous Navoi Opera house in Tashkent, with its glittering fountains outside, and finely mosaicked interiors was something of a Soviet triumph, yet encompassing ancient Uzbek artistic traditions too. Music is as vital to the Russian and Uzbek soul, and an evening here, where locals most definitely dress for the occasion, is to touch an artistic quality that is beginning to achieve international recognition. And with ticket prices of only $3-$8 dollars it is also great value for money.
Do you have any more suggestions for people wanting to visit this exquisite Silk Road country?