The Central Asian nation probably isn’t on your list of places to go, but here’s why it deserves to be
Friday, 3rd January 2020, 4:25 pm
Driving through Tashkent at night you can see millions of bright lights adorning the capital’s wide boulevards and the Phoenix-like huma bird takes centre stage.
Uzbekistan’s national emblem, a mythical bird stretching out its wings, symbolises a nation rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union. It also has resonance for a country taking flight in a new direction since the death of former president and dictator Islam Karimov in 2016.
It’s no revolution, but Uzbekistan is changing fast and embracing reform to attract more visitors to its world-class attractions, not least its jaw-dropping ancient Silk Road cities. Visas are no longer required for most nationals – including British – while high-speed rail links are improving and new airlines are circling. Tourist numbers doubled from 2017 to 2018, reaching 5.3 million; the target is 9 million this year.
Before I can get a glimpse of crown jewels Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, my adventure starts in the capital Tashkent, a city that’s around 470 miles north of Kabul.
It’s nearly dark by the time I meet the national hero, the empire-building 14th-century warlord Tamerlane. His bronze horseback statue sits in a park, his back turned to the brutalist Soviet architecture of the gigantic Hotel Uzbekistan, which illuminates with garish adverts in the fading light.
The city has centuries of history but has little to show for its age, having contended with the destruction of Genghis Khan (Tamerlane’s great-grandfather-in-law) in the early 13th century and an earthquake in 1966. Yet a genuine delight lies below the streets of Tashkent. The ornate Soviet metro network, completed in 1977, is a photographer’s dream, not least since the ban on taking photos was lifted in 2018 (a hangover of the Cold War when the lavish stations doubled as nuclear bomb shelters). Rides cost the equivalent of 10p, with station highlights including the mosque-like Alisher Navoi and space race-themed Kosmonavtlar.
Oasis of culture
More previously hidden Soviet treasures lie some 500 miles west, in the desert. The Savitsky Museum or the “Louvre of the Steppe” in Nukus is the world’s most remote, globally renowned art gallery.
Remarkably, one man, Igor Savitsky, made it his mission to collect avant-garde art banned by Stalin, far away from Moscow censors. Vladimir Lysenko’s ‘The Bull’ is the signature work. The obscure artist paid a heavy price for his forbidden art: two years in an institution and nearly 20 years in prison. Thankfully, Savitsky managed to avoid any such fate.
Although Nukus itself is no oil painting, I am fascinated by the bleak capital of the autonomous Uzbek republic of Karakalpakstan – if you thought you didn’t know much about Uzbekistan, then what about the Stan that barely anyone has heard of? And there is barely anyone here on a chilly November day. A small wedding group is having photographs taken on the steps outside the museum. The mother of the bride flashes her gold teeth and beckons me over. Westerners are still a novelty here so she wants me to join the picture. I happily oblige, shuffling in behind the bride and groom, though my bobble hat is a sartorial let-down.
There’s not much else to see here, but the desert fortresses Topraq Qala and Ayaz Qala are archaeological highlights on the drive to Khiva. One is the ruins of a 2,500-year-old city – and capital of the Khorezm kings who ruled here in the third century – whose mud brick walls and doorways are still visible; the other is a hilltop fort which offers unforgettable sunset views across the seemingly endless Kyzylkum desert.
It is the diversity, and the collision of cultures, that I find most fascinating about Uzbekistan.
“Our land was always a melting pot of different cultures through invasions and trade, says Jamshed Safarov, a former diplomat who now works in tourism.
“Modern Uzbekistan represents influences from Greek and Persian empires, then Islamic and Mongol eras to more recent Russian and Soviet periods.”
He recalls growing up in Samarkand, a trilingual city (which to emphasise his point was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329BC and Genghis Khan in 1220). In a street of 32 households, he counted 12 different ethnic groups and nationalities as his neighbours: “There were Volga Germans, Tajiks, Tatars, Koreans, Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Afghans, Armenians, Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Luli Gypsies,” he says. Most were families evacuated from Russia during the Second World War.
Skull caps and vodka
The country’s complications and contradictions are confusing but captivating. Uzbeks say they are Muslim but many don’t pray. They might eat pork and drink alcohol.
Tolerant, diluted Islam reigns, though this is a secular state. Traditional social values and customs coexist with modern influences. It’s a land of skull caps, arranged marriages (80 per cent) but also “white tea” (vodka disguised in a tea pot).
“When choosing a wife, you don’t look at the face,” explains my straight-talking guide Viktoria Yalanskaya, “you look at her suzani” (embroidery). Traditional crafts – carpets, ceramics, jewellery – are a big deal here, as I learn at Tashkent’s Museum of Applied Arts. It’s the Silk Road after all.
‘When choosing a wife, you don’t look at the face’
Incidentally, weddings get so out of hand in Uzbekistan that the government was this week due to bring in a new law to save the people from themselves. Bulging guest lists were causing too many bankruptcies, so now there is a 200-guest limit.
By the time I reach Samarkand, the bar for architectural eye-candy is so high I feel that I might be hallucinating. I have been mesmerised by minarets, mosques, madrasas and mausoleums. I have delighted in Khiva, which manages to feel untouched by tourism thanks to the cocoon of its city walls and decades of Unesco protection; and Bukhara, with its 140 ancient monuments that lead some to rank it as the most impressive place in Central Asia.
But for me, Registan in Samarkand, Tamerlane’s capital, manages to top the lot, for sheer scale and splendour. A trio of grand madrassas (Islamic schools) face off across a vast public square. The Ulugh Beg, the Tilya-Kori and the Sher-Dor schools have been beautifully restored to their former glories – with intricate patterned mosaics that make the Taj Mahal look dull. I marvel at the craftmanship here and at the nearby Shah-I-Zinda necropolis. It’s a perfect end to my sightseeing spectacular.
Uzbeks are right to brace themselves for another invasion; not from marauding Mongols, or conquering kings, but from tourists.
When to go
High season is May, June, September and October. July and August are best avoided as temperatures can reach the high 30°Cs. November and March are good times to beat the crowds.
How to get there
Jules Verne’s 11-night Golden Road to Samarkand itinerary (vjv.com) starts from £1,995pp and includes Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, with an optional extension to Karakalpakstan.
Where to eat
You can’t avoid plov – the national dish of rice with onion, carrots and lamb slow cooked over hours in layers – so visit the Plov Centre in Samarkand to sample some of the best.
The elegant Manas restaurant in Tashkent is an excellent spot for lunch and has a modern feel, though the torture equipment displayed downstairs is a little unnerving.
Tea House Mirza Bashi, known locally as Zainab’s house, is a good lunch stop inside Khiva’s city walls.
What to see
If you like Soviet statues, visit the Earthquake Memorial in Tashkent. Also in the capital, the Museum of Applied Arts is a great introduction to traditional crafts.
When in Khiva, visit the Juma mosque and see its 213 wooden columns. Climb the stairs at the North gate of the Ichan Qala mud wall for amazing views at sunset.
In Bukhara, check out the Magok-i-Attari, a ninth-century mosque, and the towering Kalyan Minaret – both among the few structures to survive Genghis Khan.
Head to Samani Park to see Bukhara’s oldest muslim monument, Ismail Samani Mausoleum, built in 905. And don’t miss the Bukhara Fortress, whose walls reach 789m high.
In Samarkand, the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is Tamerlane’s resting place, notable for the best story ever about tomb tampering.