Find out how the lovely Joanne got on in beautiful Uzbekistan as she travelled along the world’s oldest trade route; The Silk Road.
After a pleasant flight from London we arrive at our Tashkent hotel with time to freshen up and a quick breakfast before heading out to see the city. At first glance Tashkent seems like any large city – pretty if bland. However, it soon becomes clear how much Uzbekistan has to offer.
Our first stop is the stunning Hast Iman Square. Following centuries of wear and tear the square has under gone faithful reconstruction during the Soviet years and on into independence. The square is the perfect introduction to Uzbekistan containing the 3 M’s we’re all going to soon get familiar with – Mosques, Mausoleums and Madrasah (schools). Within the Square is the Uthman Qur’an, thought to be the oldest in the world.
Lunch is our first opportunity to try genuine Uzbek food as we stop as a street side café. Traditional bread is soon followed by soup, dumplings and plov, all washed down with green tea. Refreshed and revived we head out to Independence Square, the site of Amir Temur’s statue, and the grounds around parliament. The latter is reached via one stop on beautiful Soviet style tube stations. Our last visit of the day is to the Museum of Applied Art. Here we see a wide range of various textiles and handcrafts unique to Uzbekistan.
We’re all up bright and early for our flight but just as we’re about to leave we hear that it has been delayed. It pays to have well connected tour guides! Frank, the aforementioned well connected tour guide, has a quick word with the hotel and they kindly let us reverse our check-outs allowing us to spend the time comfortably in our rooms and not at a cold airport. Some of us (okay most of us) even sneak down for a second breakfast. Bilbo Baggins would be proud.
When we finally arrive in in Khiva (via Urgench) we are happy to find we will still have plenty of time to explore a large part of the Kunya-Ark fortress. Although sited between the outer and inner walls of the fortress, our hotel still feels safe and welcoming, and we’re not too worried about marauding Huns. We head straight out and despite out best intentions to make up lost time we are soon slowed down taking photos of the amazing 10-metre-high walls and the Kalta Minor Minaret – impressive at 29 metres high, it would be astounding if it had been finished to the originally intended 70 metres. And, as with Tashkent, there are multiple examples of the three M’s everywhere. Some simple, some ornate, all transporting us to another time and another world.
The following morning we’re off into the Kyzl Kum desert for a must see visit to the ruins of Ayaz Qala. Upon arriving we have a short, if at times steep, walk to the fort which is said to date back to at least 4 century BC. The complex allows you to take in the stunning views and sense of history that is incredible. What it must have felt like to have been a simple foot soldier contemplating the vast desert all around you.
Nearby is the Toprak Qala which “only” dates back to 1 century BC. Smaller than the Ayaz Qala it is still well worth a visit. We arrive back in Khiva in time to finish our explorations and enjoy a pleasant meal. Plov’s not on the menu (restaurants tend to only serve it at lunchtime) but we all enjoy a local delicacy of sausage roll pancakes (our name for it not theirs).
We travel from Khiva to Bukhara once again crossing the Kyzyl Kum desert. It’s a long journey but we have a couple of opportunities to stop and have a lovely meal of salad and freshly cooked kebabs. Oh and probably the best of the bread that we had in Uzbekistan. Considering how much bread we ate, this really is high praise. Once at the hotel its time for a quick freshen up and then out for dinner. Most of us have kebabs again but we’re not complaining.
We have the whole day to explore Bukhara and what a city it is! We’re dropped off at one end of the city and then make our way back taking in the amazing sites. It’s hard to choose a favourite. The towering minarets from which criminals, tied into sacks, were thrown to their deaths. The Ark of Bukhara the massive fortress where two British emissaries were beheaded in the 1840’s (it doesn’t pay to offend the Amir of Bukhara). The alleyways and corridors of shopping a feast for the eyes and a temptation for the pocket. And all around these are more mosques and madrasahs and mausoleums. It drives home the history and beauty of this city.
There’s time after our city tour to relax before dinner but who wants to do that when there’s still more of Bukhara to see?! We set out, catching an impromptu puppet show before browsing the stalls and chatting to a local lad wanting to improve his English. We’re a mixed bunch at Solo Travellers, so he’s a little confused by all the different accents. Dinner tonight is outside beside the pond in the centre of town and we all enjoy the lights and sights of Bukhara at night.
We say goodbye to Bukhara and set off to our yurt camp in Yangikazgan. Just over halfway there we stop at the Chasma Complex in Nurata. As well as mosques and a bath house, the complex is next to the Nur fortress, founded by Alexander the Great in around 4 century BC. It offered a welcomed chance to stretch our legs and take in the views high up on the hills.
Lunch is a pleasant soup and samosa in a street side café but we’re all eager to get to our yurts and when we arrive the village does not disappoint. Nestled in low hills there’s about 16 yurts all sleeping four. We’re amongst the first to arrive so go for a ramble amongst the camels, goats and sheep with the camp dog (newly nicknamed “Solo”) by our guide. Back at the camp we chat with some new arrivals from Denmark, France, Germany and even some fellow Brits. After dinner we all gather around the fire and are serenaded with Kazakh and Karakalpak songs before the Brits are comprehensively out sung by the French. Heads hanging in shame we head to bed with some still trying to remember the words to “Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”.
After a relaxing night’s sleep dreaming about sheep and missing song lyrics it’s a lazy start to the day as we drift around enjoying the solitude for a little longer. Eventually the lure of Aydarkul Lake is too tempting and we drag ourselves on to the bus. Formed after a natural disaster in 1969, it is nonetheless a beautiful location and perfect place to have our lunch before heading onward to Samarkand.
Samarkand is our last city to visit and it feels like each of the previous cities has been building to it with the yurt camps a palate cleanser before the main event. We arrive early evening and have a light dinner before retiring with the promise of a gorgeous sunny day ahead and boy does Samarkand deliver. There is so much to see in Samarkand that buildings that would be a highlight elsewhere such as the Bibi-Khanym Mosque or Gur-e-Amir (Timur’s mausoleum) fade to the background. But what they are outshone by is stunning, and top of the list has to be the Registan, a public square formed of three madrasahs. As someone in the group says “this is what you show people when they ask ‘why are you going to Uzbekistan?’”. It is beautiful but still accessible and un-spoilt. It is a pleasure to wander the buildings, taking in the incredible architecture inside and out, and even just to take some time to sit, enjoy the sun and breath in the history. Then it’s on to the Afrasiyab Museum. The highlight of the museum is the 7th century fresco and after a short explanatory video it is fascinating to see the real thing. Frank takes us through the rest of the exhibits explaining their history and significance before we go outside to explore the site of the fort that was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Lunch is the meal we’ve all been waiting for “the best plov in Uzbekistan” (Frank, our guide, comes from Samarkand so he may be biased). Served in a large sharing bowl any fear about us being able to eat it all are soon banished. It is a lovely dish and enjoyed by all. Bellies full we visit the Shah-i-Zinda which is a series of mausoleums and other buildings all clustered together. It is a brilliant showcase of the artisan skill that went into each of the buildings. We all take photo upon photo of the different styles of mosaics. As an added bonus by climbing the 40 stairs, all our sins have been absolved. Culturally assuaged we partake in some shopping at the bazaar and the many souvenir shops surrounding it. After dinner we head out to see the Registan looking pretty and serene in the night lights.
In the morning we visit the Ulugbek Observatory before continuing on, back to Tashkent. The observatory is the original site of an 11 metre sextant which, when it was built in the 1400’s was the largest of its kind in the world. Only part remains but even that is impressive. The museum attached to the observatory clearly shows the pride the Uzbek feel in their many contributions to science and maths.
It is with a little sadness that we arrive back in Tashkent – knowing that our holiday will soon be over. Our last meal is at a modern restaurant but the food and hospitality is traditional Uzbek. Our tables were uncomfortably close to the live music so the staff moved them for us… as in, picked up the tables and moved them outside.
After breakfast some of us take the opportunity to explore the Chorsu Bazaar. It is loud, chaotic and the smells (especially in the spice section) assault your senses. Others take the time to revisit the parks nearby. It is a beautiful day in Tashkent and the tulips are in full bloom. All too soon we are in the bus for our return flight, sad to be leaving but full of happy memories (and bread!).