“Uzbekistan isn’t the first destination that comes to mind when most travellers plan their next holiday, but this little-known country is unmissable if you’re after untainted adventure and endless intrigue. Boasting centuries of history, rich with the journeys of warriors, the founding of empires, the birth and nurturing of major religions, and written with the strength of the human spirit against all odds, Uzbekistan is for the travellers who crave more than a drink by the pool, who need a whole other world to get to grips with.
When my plane touched down at Tashkent International Airport, I was filled with a deep feeling of uncertainty; arriving in a culture widely untouched by Western travellers, unexplored and barely known, I had only the unfounded fear of the ‘-stan’ suffix and the foreignness running circles in my mind. As we stepped out and headed towards the car park, however, the clues that I had been entirely wrong came flooding in. Ahead of us stood crowds of people, all hugging and greeting the emerging passengers with wide smiles, hurriedly taking their luggage and sinking into excited, energised conversations. Among the crowd stood our tour guide, Bekruz, who was going to accompany us on our adventure over the next seven days. “My name is Bekruz, like Tom Cruise,” he said with a wink.
As we drove through Tashkent, a little disoriented and tired from the flight, I peered out in an attempt to get a taste for this foreign world. Echoes of a long Russian history poked through onto the roads and in the architecture around the capital, rattling old cars and blocky Soviet structures hugging the spaces between new offices and apartment buildings, all nestled in with the arches and Islamic artistry so familiar to Central Asia.
We strolled around Independence Square – formerly Lenin Square – and enjoyed lunch at Caravan, a styled hub of traditional cuisine, before exploring the city some more. As we discovered the quiet subway system, the gardens kempt to perfection, the clean streets and the bazaars, this modern, cosmopolitan city of legend opened up before us.
The week that followed saw us fly over into the north to visit Khiva, an ancient city founded – legend has it – by the son of Noah after the great flood. In the blue glow of the Kalta-Minor minaret, we came face to face with one of the masters of mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi; we explored the ancient madrasahs, stumbled upon palaces hidden down narrow alleyways, and bartered with locals in the bazaars. Next stop, Bukhara – but first, we had to actually get there.
As we drove out of the city on bumpy, broken roads, through Urgench and into the beginnings of the Red Desert, we stopped by a roadside melon stall – an Uzbekistan melon, bought in autumn, may be one of the most sweet and luscious fruits anyone can experience and something not to be missed, if you have the opportunity. After a day of driving, with stops along the way for sight-seeing and tucking into delicious local kebabs, we arrived in Bukhara. Here the monumental ‘Ark of Bukhara’ stands, a giant fortress casting back to the days of dynasty and empire. As in Khiva, the kindness of the local Bukhara residents is humbling, many of whom welcome us in to watch them in their workshops. Others invite us into their homes and share their food with us. After another day of exploring mosques and synagogues, buying silk scarves and drinking a lot of local tea, it was time again to take the road, this time to Samarkand, stopping at Shahrisabz.
Shahrisabz is an awe-inspiring introduction to Amir Timur, the great conqueror whose ambition for victory eventually took his life during his journey China, the next target in his imperial conquests. A couple of hundred yards from the feet of the towering statue that commemorates him stand the remnants of his once magnificent Ak Serai, or “White Palace”. Now only a half-standing skeleton of what was once a centrepiece in the Central Asian portfolio, it’s a message to all would-be invaders that the Uzbek people are not to be underestimated when it comes to conquering both the ground and the skyline. As the sites and the people stole away our attention, we suddenly became very aware that we were late for Samarkand – with rocky roads ahead that stretched into the mountainous horizon, we were going to have to race the setting sun.
By the time we arrived in Samarkand, night had enveloped the city, bright lights shone out, a glow swelled around the centre and the outskirts alike that drew in crowds around restaurants and stalls packing up for the night. The following morning we explored Amir Timur’s tomb, Ulugh Beg’s observatory, whose calculations in the night sky have remained some of the most precise ever recorded, before visiting the vivid blues and intricate designs of the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. We closed the day at world famous Registan, the site of two madrasahs and a mosque facing one another across an expanse where travellers and locals together stand in silent appreciation, craning their necks to the top of the minarets. After that we took the high speed train back to Tashkent, ready for our flight the following day.
As we once again drove through the streets of Tashkent, I saw none of the foreignness that had first struck me upon arrival. Instead of unrecognisable, unreadable faces, I saw only a community; one where people of different backgrounds and religions support one another, where doors are opened to strangers and welcomed in, where what is important is not what you don’t agree on, but instead what you can share and learn. As we said our goodbyes to Bekruz, our guide who had supported, educated and entertained us every step of the journey with unfaltering passion, we were choked up. We didn’t want to get on the plane and leave this magical place. Uzbekistan, its people, its food, its culture, is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you will want to repeat, over and over again.”
Is it time you took your own tour of Uzbekistan?
Find out what our expert Holiday Creator SDL has to say about this intriguing country…