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.