This is an account of my travels through Uzbekistan from the border crossing with Kazakhstan to the border crossing at Turkmenistan, a period of 11 days through the traditional Silk Road towns of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva as well as wild-camping in the Kyzylkum Desert and, finally, by the ships’ graveyard in what once was the Aral Sea.
Before I planned to visit Uzbekistan I had hardly even heard of the place. Maybe it was in the very back of my mind from reading a Solzhenitsyn book but I never really thought about it. Even when I started researching the Silk Road, Uzbekistan was just a sound and I had no impression of it.
Well, I certainly have an impression of it now. It is by far my favourite country to date on the road from Europe, through Russia and China and several Silk Road countries. My impression is of colourful friendly people, great bread, wonderful timeless cities and the sense of passing through the cradle of civilisation
The women are amazing with a great and strong sense of self and place, it seems to me.they appeared very strong and capable as I guess women in Islamic countries need to be. I noticed that they often travel in groups. I mentioned this to a woman on my trip and she said that this was for safety. Sadly’ I agreed with her.
We were travelling a week or so ago from Tashkent to Bukhara, I think. We stopped for lunch, all 24 of us, at a cafe in a small village in the middle of nowhere. I don’t think they knew what hit them or what to do with us. They finally shepherded us to a room at the back used exclusively, we thought, by women. There were about 20 of them, older and old, around a table, noisy, boisterous, with huge smiling faces set off by gleaming gold teeth. They were having great craicski. They welcomed us into their domain open-heartedly. A few minutes later one of them came over to our table with plates of roasted salted pistachio nuts. None of them spoke English, naturally and none of us spoke Uzbek although one of us spoke some Russian.
Tashkent (Uzbek: Toshkent, Тошкент; Russian: Ташкент) is the capital city of Uzbekistan. We arrived there from wild-camping, or bush-camping as the Aussies call it. The journey from the campsite to the hotel in Tashkent wasn’t too long and we arrived there at around 11am. As checking time wasn’t until 2pm, we had time to have a ramble around.
Surprisingly, the hotel was a 4* one. I was expecting a hostel or similar budget accommodation given the low cost of the trip. However, 4* prices are very cheap in Uzbekistan. We all arrived in this gleaming hotel grubby and dusty from camping out the previous night and from the road trip to the hotel. They didn’t mind, through; our money was clean. It was nice to have clean sheets and air conditioning. The transition from – 4* to +4* was huge and welcomed.
Tashkent is an ancient city on the Great Silk Road from China to Europe. Little remains of the ancient city after the 1966 earthquake and earlier modernisation work following the 1917 revolution. Tashkent is a very Soviet city but fortunately, I love the brutalist impressive Soviet style. This means that it has little remaining from its ancient Central Asian past. The city has a mixture of modern new office buildings, hotels, parks and crumbling Soviet style apartment blocks. The streets are generally clean and there are not too many potholes in the city center. Further out, the infrastructure is not so good. But this is to be expected in Central Asia.
The bus service is brilliant and very cheap. There are regular single decker buses but also some really clapped out marshrutka type ones. They all stop at designated bus stops. Hopping on and off buses is my favourite way of seeing a new city. You get to see the living city and not just the tourist version. The tourist version is fine as, after all, tourists want to see things because they are worth seeing. I also enjoy getting a felt sense of the political and social history of a place and a bus journey and a good guide seems to tick this box for me.
All journeys cost 1200 Som, the Uzbek currency. 1€=9000 Som so 1200 Som is about 13¢. Cheap as chips at twice the price. You get onto the bus through any door and grab a seat. One of the advantages of being a bit elderly is that, when the bus is packed, someone will jump up and offer you a seat. Shortly afterwards a person with a huge fistful of grubby notes comes around to collect fares and tears off a ticket from a numbered roll. They have no uniform or badges, just ordinary clothes. They are very helpful if you’re not sue where to get off.
Over the last few years the Uzbek government has embarked on a major reconstruction program in the centre of the city. Roads, government buildings and parks are all being reconstructed (many historical buildings and sites are bulldozed in process). To the visitor, the new city looks very impressive, although many of the local residents have yet to see any improvement in their residential areas.
Tashkent is waiting for a boom. The infrastructure, hotels and shops are there but the influx of people and business has failed to materialise. This is caused in part by a combination of government policy and bad publicity, according to an article I read on Wikipedia.
Samarkand (Uzbek language: Samarqand; Persian: سمرقند; Russian: Самарканд; Greek: Σαμαρκάνδη), alternatively Samarqand, is a city in modern-day Uzbekistan and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. It was my favourite place to date. It feels very ancient and I loved walking around the sites. The Registan was even more that I had expected. I have researched the Silk Road for about two years now and the Registan seemed to me to be the epitome
There is evidence of human activity in the area of the city from the late Paleolithic era, though there is no direct evidence of when exactly Samarkand was founded; some theories propose that it was founded between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Prospering from its location on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean, at times Samarkand was one of the greatest cities of Central Asia.
By the time of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, it was the capital of the Sogdian satrapy. The city was taken by Alexander the Great in 329 BCE, when it was known by its Greek name of Marakanda. The city was ruled by a succession of Iranian and Turkic rulers until the Mongols under Genghis Khan conquered Samarkand in 1220 CE. Today, Samarkand is the capital of Samarqand Region and Uzbekistan’s second largest city.
The city is noted for being an Islamic centre for scholarly study. In the 14th century CE it became the capital of the empire of Timur (Tamerlane) and is the site of his mausoleum (the Gur-e Amir). The Bibi-Khanym Mosque (a modern replica) remains one of the city’s most notable landmarks. The Registan was the ancient center of the city. The city has carefully preserved the traditions of ancient crafts: embroidery, gold embroidery, silk weaving, engraving on copper, ceramics, carving and painting on wood. In 2001, UNESCO added the city to its World Heritage List as Samarkand – Crossroads of Cultures
The journey from Samarkand took about 6 hours and we stopped halfway for lunch.
Bukhara is one of the most ancient cities of Uzbekistan, situated on a sacred hill, the place where sacrifices were made by fire-worshippers in springtime. This city was mentioned in a holy book “Avesto”. Bukhara city is supposed to be founded in the 13th century BCE during the reign of Siyavushids who came to power 980 years before Alexander the Great. The name of Bukhara originates from the word “vihara” which means “monastery” in Sanskrit. The city was once a large commercial center on the Great Silk Road.
Bukhara lies west of Samarkand and was once a center of learning renowned throughout the Islamic world. It is the hometown of the great Sheikh Bakhouddin Nakshbandi. He was a central figure in the development of the mystical Sufi approach to philosophy, religion and Islam. In Bukhara there are more than 350 mosques and 100 religious colleges. Its fortunes waxed and waned through succeeding empires until it became one of the great Central Asian Khanates in the 17th century.
Bukhara with more than 140 architectural monuments is a “city museum” dating back to the Middle Ages. 2,300 years later, ensembles like Poi-Kalyan, Ismail Samani Mausoleum, Ark, Lyabi-Khauz are attracting a lot of attention. The city consists of narrow streets, green parks and gardens, historical and architectural monuments belong to the different epochs, but locate very close to each other.
The journey from Bukhara to Khiva, our next stop on the Silk Road, was too long to travel in one day so we camped overnight in this desert region. This was real desert; an ancient timeless land with real sand, camels, scorching heat, cool nights, dazzling glittering stars and, naturally, scorpions, spiders and snakes. Why do these creepy crawlies begin with an ‘s’. And huge black ants.