“Why would someone want to travel to Uzbekistan?
My city guide asked this rhetorical question during dinner on my last night in Tashkent. He went on to explain: “Only two reasons: its history and more than 4,000 architectural monuments --many of which have been restored to their original glory. ”
However, Uzbekistan’s fascinating customs and way of life also contribute to making its ancient turquoise domes an alluring “new” Silk Road adventure destination for a rapidly-growing number of intrepid world travelers seeking something out of the ordinary.
THE HISTORY AND POLITICS OF UZBEKISTAN
Up until about 22 years ago, Uzbekistan (which is slightly larger than California) was a Communist republic under the repressive Soviet Union, as were its four Central Asian neighbors - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan - collectively known as the “Five Stans.”
Since independence, the secular government of Uzbekistan under Islam Karamov, its lifelong autocratic leader, is experiencing challenging economic and cultural changes geared toward increasing tourism. To promote political stability, under the rhetoric of thwarting -terrorism or anti-state disturbances, Uzbek authorities maintain highly aggressive security measures. (For Human Rights record sees sidebar).
“Security is our government’s number one goal, both for its citizens and tourists,” asserted Hushed Narimov, my private guide, as we were seated on the comfortable new high-speed train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand.
Narimov’s reassuring words helped me enjoy my 12-day journey of Uzbekistan’s four major cities.
The Uzbek capital of Tashkent is a vibrant large city that is becoming known for its unique cosmopolitan lifestyle. In 1966 it was devastated by an earthquake which allowed the Soviet designers free reign to rebuild the city with lots of monuments, fountains, open public spaces and wide boulevards bordered by towering trees.
Visitors should take a ride on Tashkent’s Russian-built underground where each of the magnificent marble and granite stations have beautiful chandeliers, ceramics and enamel artwork which resemble a museum or a palace .
Tashkent has a surprisingly rich cultural scene. The State Opera and Ballet’s impressive concert hall, for example, offers many excellent productions. Meanwhile, Chorsu Bazaar located in the center of Tashkent, is one of the largest markets in Central Asia.
There, I first enjoyed the country’s delicious national dish of “plov”, a savory mixture of lamb, shaved carrots and onions, with a sprinkling of raisins and black peppercorns atop a mound of rice. Super-fresh salads of tomatoes, beets, carrots, and cucumbers were also served at every meal.
Samarkand ‘s 27 centuries of history features the ruthless and powerful leader Tamerlane (also known as Timur) who rebuilt it as the capital of his Silk Road empire while gathering the most talented scientists, architects, artists, and poets.
The Registan, the city’s gigantic central square, was a majestic medieval commercial center that once housed three of the world’s oldest and most impressive madrassas (Arabic for school). No longer functioning as institutes of learning, the madrassas are now full of artisans’ workshops of authentic goods, from expensive silks and beautiful ceramic articles to miniatures on Samarkand paper.
In 2015, a grand biennial international music festival called Sharq Taronalari will be held in Registan Square. It is one of Central Asia’s most exciting events, where talented musicians, composers, performers and musicologists from all over the world come to represent their cultures.
After bumping along a barren desert road all day, it was sizzling hot when we arrived in Bukhara. My large modern hotel (one of many that are not yet tourist-oriented) was not as charming as some of the boutique hotels that had been converted from former merchants’ houses.
Equally disappointing was the nightly musical folklore and fashion show provided for the tour bus crowd.
But, then I discovered how fascinating Bukhara can be at night. In Lyab-i-Hauz Square, the magically-illuminated heart of town, everyone gathered to enjoy the gentle breezes and enchanting live music. Families sat eating ice cream, kids played, and ducks paddled around the fountains in the cool green pool.
My guide and I got an early start the next morning to explore the bazaar, a shopper’s paradise full of handicrafts that had been sold for generations. Then, while exploring the city’s many holy places, I had a rare opportunity to discreetly listen to madrassa students attempting to follow the lead of their mullah (a Muslim man or woman who is educated in Islamic theology and sacred law) while chanting from the Koran. Although a majority of the citizens profess to be Muslims, many do not worship at the mosques.
Khiva is a maze of alleyways lined with brown mud huts surrounded by a high brick wall and four corner gates that lead into an ancient city that is frozen in time.
Workshops abound to teach the crafts that were suppressed during Soviet rule and holy sites such as Mahmoud’s tomb make the city a major place of pilgrimage.
Near the once powerful Khan’s castle and harem, there’s a former madrassa that is now a popular hotel.
It’s interesting to walk these back streets in the early morning as people go about their daily business and women diligently scrub their humble entries to “please the angels”, I was told.
At night, lights and shadows make Khiva mystical . I felt quite safe aimlessly wandering through the narrow streets after dark, knowing there would always be a friendly child to show me the way back to my hotel nearby.
I would return home to the 21st century the next morning, sad to be leaving this fairytale land of madrassas, mosques, and minarets.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Award-winning tour companies that specialize in Central Asia’s Silk Road:
• Silk Road Treasure Tours – www.silkroadtreasuretours.com
• MIR – www.Mircorp.com
• Remotelands – www.remotelands.com
Search “Uzbekistan” at www.travel.state.com for visa requirements, human rights record, currency, and other helpful information.