Fulfilling a lifelong dream of traveling to Uzbekistan


Photo: Saffron costs an arm and a leg in the west for little more than a pinch, but I bought one of these huge packs for the equivalent of one U.S. Dollar. In fact, everything in Uzbekistan is extremely affordable for most visitors. I found myself to have budgeted a lot more cash than I needed, so when I returned to Tashkent for a final night in the country, I treated myself to a night in Hotel Uzbekistan.

I TRACE MY BURGEONING INTEREST IN visiting the “’stans” of Central Asia back to a single verse by English poet James Elroy Flecker. It piqued my curiosity when I read it years ago and claimed a place in my dreams ever since. The poem — The Golden Journey to Samarkand — though it was written in 1913, could easily be written today, just with #travelstoke pinned onto the end.

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

Samarkand was the ancient capital of the Timurid Empire; now it is a city in modern-day Uzbekistan.

The lust of knowing what should not be known simply cannot be satisfied without the act of going. I took a direct flight to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.

Here are 18 of my favorite images from my long-awaited golden journey to Samarkand — and beyond.

1

Statue of Amir Timur in front of Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent

Photo: On my first day in Tashkent, I came across this statue of Amir Timur -- better known to the west as Tamerlane, the ruler of the Timurid Empire. Behind him stood Hotel Uzbekistan -- a giant concrete block of Stalinist architecture. Two symbols of this region -- ancient and recent, Islamic and secular, Middle-Eastern and Russian -- coming together to represent the biggest influences on the Uzbekistan of today.

2

Government buildings in Independence Square, Tashkent

Tashkent's biggest surprise to me was its modernity. I loved walking along the leafy boulevards, taking rides on the Soviet-era subway system, and feeling free to enjoy a beer in one of its outdoor park bars. There is, however, a heavy security presence. Soldiers checked my documents and scanned my bags each time I entered a subway station. Uzbekistan is still a strictly-controlled police state.

3

Two women walk beside the fountains of Independence Square, Tashkent

Photo: The golden globe in the picture is the Monument of the Independence of Uzbekistan. It replaced a statue of Lenin after Uzbekistan's proclamation of independence in September 1991. A secular democracy replaced the governance of the USSR. In reality, the country has been under the authoritarian leadership of one man, Islam Karimov, for the last twenty-four years.

4

At the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a local lady walks between mausoleums before disappearing around a corner, Samarkand

Photo: The stunning blue tiles of ancient warlord ruler Tamerlane’s capital and Flecker’s poem, the city of Samarkand, are still made from clay and by hand to this day. His empire from 1370 to 1507 AD once stretched all the way from Turkey to northern India. Marvelling at such beauty, it’s easy to forget that in the process of spreading his empire, he is said to have killed more than seventeen million people.

5

External arches of Tilya-Kori madrasah, Samarkand

Photo: The deep blue of the tiles that adorn the walls of each of the three madrasahs – Islamic schools – in the Registan, are exquisite. I learned that these tiles are still made as they have been for centuries; painstakingly by hand and out of clay.

6

Flower atop a grave at Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, Samarkand

Photo: Shah-i-Zinda necropolis is located in Samarkand. I entered, at first walking between Islamic tombs topped by blue-tiled domes, before entering into a Russified modern graveyard. Realistic images of the dead were engraved onto each tombstone, all showing the deceased in their youth or middle-age, no matter how late in life they passed away. I thought to myself that I'd also want to be remembered as I appeared in the prime of my life.

7

Carpet salesman showing off his wares, Samarkand

Photo: I had asked a vendor to see a traditional carpet from the Ferghana Valley, a place in Uzbekistan I wanted to visit, but knew that I didn't have time for. From Tashkent, it lies over a high mountain pass to the east. On a map, the valley presents contrived borders drawn up hastily by bureaucrats after the collapse of the USSR, and the declarations of independence from each of the new Central Asian states. Enclaves of one country are found within the borders of another, with frequent cross-border fire occurring to assert territorial rights. Knowing I couldn’t get to the Ferghana Valley, the vendor was kind enough to show me the carpets from this region, and even kinder to allow a photo.

8

Man in traditional clothing, Bukhara

Photo: I found this man in his shop inside the Ark of Bukhara -- a military fortress built in the 5th century AD. He winced into the sunlight and allowed me to take his picture, before bidding me farewell. There were no hard-sell tactics to pressure me into buying anything; something I found to be the case all over Uzbekistan.

9

Local lady walks by the Tilya-Kori madrasah, Samarkand

Photo: Eighty-eight percent of the population of Uzbekistan claim Islam as their religion, but it's the societal norm for women to leave their hair uncovered. This is one of the ways in which the traveler can witness the very relaxed form of Islam that's the norm for the majority of those 88 percent. I consider this fairly similar to the banal effect that the Church of England has on my home country, England.

10

Saffron salesman in Siyob Bazaar, Samarkand

Photo: Saffron costs an arm and a leg in the west for little more than a pinch, but I bought one of these huge packs for the equivalent of one U.S. I found myself to have budgeted a lot more cash than I needed, so when I returned to Tashkent for a final night in the country, I treated myself to a night in Hotel Uzbekistan.

11

Left: White arches inside Po-i-Kalyan religious complex, Bukhara. Right: The sun sets near Lyab-i Hauz, Bukhara

Left photo: Bukhara is Uzbekistan's second-most famous ancient city after Samarkand. For the left image, I found these white arches at the Po-i-Kalyan religious complex, in the shadow of Bukhara's Kalyan Minaret. Islamic architecture is everywhere in Uzbekistan, but after a spate of bombings in Tashkent in 1999, President Karimov blamed Islamists and stamped down on Islam with an iron foot. He banned the call to prayer from every mosque in the country, sent spies into the mosques, and demanded that all clerics praise the government in their Friday sermons. Right photo: For the right image, Lyab-i Hauz is the name given to the area surrounding an old pond in the center of Bukhara. It was here that I fell for a beautiful local woman named Sabina in a bazaar nearby Lyab-i Hauz. She was selling fabrics, clothing and other tourist wares. Sabina held my hands, stared into my eyes, promised me she'd remember my name, and asked me when I could take her away from Bukhara. The next day, I went back with a can of iced tea for her, hoping for more flirting. She couldn't remember my name. I was gutted.

12

Carp being slaughtered at a roadside fish restaurant, Karakum Desert

Photo: Other than flying, there is no public transport further west than Bukhara. I pushed on by private car, through the Karakum desert, where my driver and I stopped in the middle of nowhere for some deep-fried carp. I was invited back into the preparation room to meet the family who owned the restaurant. The father killed the fish, the mother descaled, and the six year old son washed the blood away in a knee-high bucket of reddish-water. The man had taken over the job from his own father, and told me that twenty years from now, I should come back to see his little boy running the place.

13

Truck drivers sharing stories, Karakum Desert

Photo: Opposite the carp restaurant in the middle of the desert, truckers stopped to smoke and chat. They were pushing on along this desolate sandy route, probably to reach the city of Urgench; or perhaps like me, they were aiming for Khiva, another major UNESCO world heritage city along the ancient Silk Road.

14

Camels and camel-skin yurts, In the desert of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan

Photo: North of Khiva, lies the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan -- a country within a country. I hired a driver and ventured out into the desert of this little-known republic. I was greeted by camels, bottles of Karakalpakstani Vodka -- famous in these parts -- and a night spent in a camel skin yurt. Before the sun set, I climbed alone up to a desert fortress known as Ayaz Qala. Not many people have been here, I wagered to myself.

15

Boy and girl play in a dusty backstreet, Khiva

Photo: A few minutes later, I asked to take a picture of the boy and girl in this photo. They agreed, before rushing towards me to have a look. “Hmm. It's okay”, said Dayana, the little five year old girl in English. Ouch. How could I explain to her that a RAW file requires post-processing before looking its best?

16

View from the top of the Friday Mosque's minaret, Khiva

Photo: The 360-degree view that climbing this minaret affords, allowed me to gaze upon sun-baked mud roofs spreading out into the distance, blue-tiled domes rising above that mud-roofed sea, the heads of camels bobbing in between houses, traders milling though streets; I swear I'd traveled back in time a thousand years. Certainly at least 100 years, for I knew this is the Samarkand that wanderlusting Flecker penned so eloquently about in 1913. I had arrived.


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Mountains this way

Silk Road and Central Asia countries were on my radar since my early twenties. So, when I learned about Uzbekistan abolishing tourist visas, I knew this is the time! The places to visit were Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand. I was very keen to add some trekking too. It was less popular idea and I must say I struggle a bit to find any information. To be honest we left Ireland with a very vague idea where to walk, hoping to find more information in Uzbekistan.

This trip was going to be bit different than our previous travels. The plan was to fly to Moscow and then to travel by train to Uzbekistan. Train trip from Moscow to Urgench takes three full days. Yes, three days to leave Europe, enter Asia, roll through Kazakhstan, west of Uzbekistan and to reach our destination. Three days to feel the vastness and endlessness of this part of the world. Three days of living on a train, sleeping, reading, talking to our travel companions, sharing food, alcohol and experiencing the local hospitality.

The second part of the trip, between Volgograd and Urgench was a true immersion into Central Asian life. We were the only tourist on the whole, very long train. I was in a party compartment, while John ended up in more family orientated setting. Our travel companions invited us home, and made sure we were neither hungry, nor thirsty….. The train is full of traders selling hot food (samosas, I lost count how many we bought), jewelry, fur coats, alcohol, smoked fish (yes!). Exchanging money was also possible. Our train journey finished at Urgench, where we took taxi to our next destination.*

It was already dark, when we arrived in Khiva. Finding our accommodation was not easy. At night the old town is sparsely lit and finding our hotel was a bit of a challenge. After asking few times for directions, we were walked to our destination by an eight year old local, keen to help. Nice welcome.

Khiva in the evening light.

Khiva is full of beautiful old buildings. The historic part was very well preserved and it retained much of an old charm. Inner walled city is called Ichon-Qala. The main building is Kuhna Ark, the former Khiva’s rulers fortress and residence.

Another worth visiting place is nearby Juma Mosque. It has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof. Few of them come from the 10th century, the rest dates from 18th century. Believe me, walking between all the columns is an special experience. And this is not all, there are numerous medressas, residencies and other places of interest. Old Khiva is a great place just to walk, awe and take it all in.

Juma Mosque.

Beside old buildings are shops selling souvenirs and restaurants catering for tourists. During our train trip we learned, that soups, potatoes and cabbage are Russian fare, having nothing to do with traditional Uzbek food. The first restaurant we ate in, was serving pumpkin soup, french fries etc. Bit disappointing, although the food was very tasty. The following day, we wanted to eat something truly local. In our quest we had to take marshrutka and go to the new town. There we found eatery with menu only in Uzbek and Russian, with no soup, french fries etc on it. We had the nicest possible lagman** with fresh tomato and cucumber salad and green tea***. Feast.

View at Khiva.

The indisputable highlight of our visit to Khiva were the old town walls. It is believed their foundations were laid in the 10th century. The walls were rebuild in the 17th century and they are 10 metres high. Perfect spot for taking photos of the old town in the evening, or for a jog early mornings.

Town walls in Khiva. Morning jog on the walls.

Our next stop was Bukhara. We took a taxi to go there. The landscape between the two cities is flat and arid. The trip would be long and uneventful, if not an unexpected stop. Our taxi was overtaken by another car and made to pull over. That was followed by a lengthy discussion between our driver and the men from the another car. Judging from the body language our driver was in troubles. We worried for a moment, we may be left without a driver on a side of the road! Luckily all ended well and few hours later we arrived in Bukhara. After checking in we had a stroll through the old town. Another marvelous place. More medressas to admire.

Bukhara at night.

The following day we hired guide to show us around. It was a great idea, as I started to suffer from so called ‘medressa overload’. Our local guide made fabulous job at breathing life into all this marvelous old buildings. I specially loved her story about Kalon Minaret, 47m tall with 14 ornamental bands. When Chinggis Khan stood at the front of the minaret, wind blew his hat off and he had to bend in order to pick it up. This small bow of the powerful man towards the tower spared it from plundering.

We spent few hours with our guide walking from site to site. In Bukhara there is plethora of old buildings. One of my favourite was Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa dated from 16th century.

We spent as well few hours in the Ark, a royal town-within-a-town. It was occupied from the 5th century to 1920. It hosts few interesting museums inside royal quarters. Beside them are Juma Mosque, Reception and Coronation Court. All well worth seeing.

During our guided sightseeing we found time to sat for cappuccinos and cakes at the so pleasant Lyabi-Hauz plaza. We were taken to carpet shop, suzani workshop and few other traditional artisan places.

Our next experience was a week long trek in Nuratau Mountains more details here.

Practicalities:

* There is new train station in Khiva, but it was easier to take a taxi from Urgench.

**Lagman is a traditional dish served in Uzbekistan based on noodles, meat, bit of broth, veg etc, fried egg might be added. Fulfilling, very tasty, very local.

***Green tea is served in jugs, left to brew. Before tea is ready, cup must be filled with the tea and then emptied back to the jug. Repeat 3 times. Enjoy.

Accommodation in both towns was booked through booking.com. In Khiva we stayed in B&B Zafarbek Ichan-kala Toshpolatov 28 str [email protected] Generally accommodation in Uzbekistan is easy to find, easy to book, and it is still a great value!

For travel between towns we were using taxis. There is option to use shared taxi, or be on your own. In both cases the fare is the same, you just pay your share. Always agree on price before, but remember the price is PER PERSON, so ie if you agree on 5000 som and there are two of you, the fare comes to 10000 som.

The best connections for flights were from Moscow, Riga and Istanbul. We flew Cork, Heathrow, Moscow then took train to Urgench. On the way back we flew from Samarkand to Moscow, then Heathrow and Cork. Flights with British Airways and Uzbekistan Airways. Important: if traveling through Moscow check your visa requirements!

Language to use: Russian. English is spoken only in touristy spots.

Recommended read: guide book ”Central Asia” by Lonely Planet, ”A carpet Ride to Khiva” by Christopher Alexander, ”Beyond the Oxus” by Monica Whitlock, ”Murder in Samarkand” by Craig Murray.


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Do you sit at your work space and browse through pictures of all the wonders in the world longingly more than a little often? Most of us do, and then we feel blue and probably go drown our sorrows in unhealthy habits. There is chance for redemption though! If you just put your mind to it, there are a host of jobs for people of different qualifications just waiting to be picked up.

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Uzbekistan by Sarah Khan

My father, the unofficial family historian, can trace our ancestry back 40 generations and across nine modern-day countries, including Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan, India, and the United States. I’ve lived in or traveled to many of those places: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, I’ve been to Spain and Turkey, and I return to India every year. But one thread of my heritage has always felt enigmatic: What, I wonder, were the lives of my ancestors like in 16th- and 17th-century Uzbekistan?

I had lofty goals of tracing the footsteps of that branch, the Rifaees, in 2020, when I started plotting a family trip to Samarkand and Bukhara, both prominent stops along the Silk Road. Landlocked Uzbekistan was, for centuries, a vital hub for Islamic scholarship and culture, and its location drew travelers from across the Muslim world—including many who, like my ancestors, decided to stick around for a few generations.

I sketched out a dream itinerary, based on years of late-night research. I’d take my parents to the imposing Registan Square in Samarkand at sunrise, to see the morning light gild the turquoise tiles of the three grand madrassas, or religious schools. We’d pray in the Bibi-Khanym mosque, once the largest in the Islamic world. There’d be a break to try pumpkin manti—traditional stuffed dumplings—at a rooftop café overlooking Bukhara’s Po-i-Kalyan complex. We’d search for references to our ancestors in madrassas and necropolises, looking for any clues that could help us see them as more than just names on a family tree. I figured out all this detail before I’d even booked a flight—and then the pandemic put the brakes on my Uzbek aspirations.

My parents are the reason I travel: They carted me all over the world growing up, and thanks to them, some of my earliest memories are of scampering down airplane aisles. I had envisioned this Uzbekistan adventure as a way to say thank you for passing the torch, that now it’s my turn to take them around. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that the next flight is no longer something to take for granted—and once it’s safe to venture out again, this long-overdue holiday is something I won’t put off any longer.

Award-winning travel writer Sarah Khan has lived in five countries on three continents. You can find her byline in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Saveur, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @BySarahKhan.


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