November 2017

Uzbekistan: the most fascinating country you’ve never been to

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If you’re intrigued by the ancient Silk Road but don’t have the time to travel its length from China to Turkey, you’ll find three of the route’s most important cities in Uzbekistan.

Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were key stop-offs for traders, and have all been painstakingly restored to their former glory – think glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics.

If you’re intrigued by the ancient Silk Road but don’t have the time to travel its length from China to Turkey, you’ll find three of the route’s most important cities in Uzbekistan. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand were key stop-offs for traders, and have all been painstakingly restored to their former glory – think glittering minarets, voluptuous domes and hypnotic mosaics.

With a little planning you can squeeze them all into a week (handily, Uzbekistan Airways’ Heathrow-Tashkent service departs on Friday evenings and returns a week later), making this the perfect bite of Silk Road splendour.

The walled city of Khiva is a living museum, protected by Unesco but still populated by Uzbek families and businesses. It was founded in the 6th century, and thrived as a Silk Road trading city – with increasingly ornate mosques, mausoleums and madrassas (religious schools) added to its labyrinth of streets, all of which have been artfully restored.

It’s a popular spot for wedding parties, who visit for photo opportunities under the vibrant turquoise mosaics, and its streets are lined with souvenir stalls hawking everything from handmade teapots to traditional woolly hats. But after 5pm, the local tourists head home – leaving you to explore the city in peace. Wander its streets while swallows swoop in the fading light, its mud brick walls rosy under a pinky sky. It’s easy to imagine you’re in the 12th century.

Uzbek wedding parties embark on grand tours of Uzbekistan’s ancient cities, armed with camera crews and copious relatives – but aside from them, you’ll only find a handful of tourists in every major site. It’s refreshing to visit a place where domestic tourists far outnumber international ones, and the wedding groups are always in the party spirit. The novelty of seeing a bride posing in full white gown regalia beneath a technicolour 10th-century minaret never wears off.

Go Travel to Uzbekistan

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The transport options have improved somewhat since the days of Silk Road camel trekking.

All of Uzbekistan’s main draws are served by low-cost domestic flights, great road links and high-speed trains. You’ll find shared taxis and bus services in all the cities, plus Tashkent has a decent metro with some wonderfully ornate St Petersburg-style stations.

The transport options have improved somewhat since the days of Silk Road camel trekking. All of Uzbekistan’s main draws are served by low-cost domestic flights, great road links and high-speed trains. You’ll find shared taxis and bus services in all the cities, plus Tashkent has a decent metro with some wonderfully ornate St Petersburg-style stations.

Not many people can find Uzbekistan on a map, so make it your first job to pinpoint its location with ease. Then you can gleefully point it out to everyone who’s bamboozled by your choice of holiday destination, and wow them with the trivia that it’s one of the world’s only two double-landlocked countries (the other is Lichtenstein). You’ll also be asked repeatedly why on earth you’d want to go to a ‘Stan. What about terrorism, they’ll bleat. Surely there’s nothing to see? Direct all naysayers to this guide.

It’s easier to get around than you think
Traveling in Uzbekistan is cheap, safe and exotic!

Timur and his descendants called on ceramicists, artists and architects from all over the empire to beautify the cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara. Their mosques were adorned with the finest murals and mosaics, with techniques and materials imported mainly from Persia. Happily, Uzbekistan’s artisan skills live on and you can pick up handmade ceramics, needlework, silk cloth and miniaturist paintings for just a few dollars in most madrassas, which have largely been transformed into bazaars.

The cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in particular have a rather European vibe – think lakeside beer gardens, landscaped public parks, and cafés next to most of the main tourist attractions. Fuelled by ice-cream, cold beers, and endless pots of green tea, sightseeing in Uzbekistan is all rather jovial.

Registan – The Heart of the Timurid dynasty

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It was on a bright, clear afternoon that I went to the Registan and walked to the centre of the tiled expanse.

All around me loomed impossibly ornate portals, patterned minarets and glistening cupolas. The world was suddenly rife with glazed mosaics in liquid shades of blue.

It was on a bright, clear afternoon that I went to the Registan and walked to the centre of the tiled expanse. All around me loomed impossibly ornate portals, patterned minarets and glistening cupolas. The world was suddenly rife with glazed mosaics in liquid shades of blue. The motifs around me would have been impressive enough on a teacup, but in such profusion and on so massive a scale they soon had me dizzy. The effect, it seems, was intended.

They’re part of the legacy of king Timur in his ancient city of Samarkand, located in modern-day Uzbekistan. One of Timur’s monuments bears the proverb: “If you want to know about us, examine our buildings.” Centuries later, in 1888, the traveller and future viceroy of India, George Curzon, called the Registan “the noblest public square in the world”, the article reads.

The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand
The name Rēgistan (ریگستان) means “Sandy place” or “desert” in Persian.

These buildings – the Registan and other wonders of Timurid Samarkand – were the result of the coming together of craftsmen and builders from across the empire in the late 14th century. Their influence would likewise range far, and shape the character of distant cities.

The Safavid monuments of Persia and Mughal architecture in what is today Pakistan and India drew inspiration from here. In the Imam Mosque at Isfahan, the Taj Mahal at Agra, and even in the early 20th-century mosque at St Petersburg, traces of the Registan can be seen.