It’s clichéd but true to say that Uzbekistan offers a little something for everyone. Whether your idea of a trip of a lifetime is wandering amongst the medieval tombs of Samarkand, shopping in Tashkent’s vast Chorsu Bazaar or trekking across the Kyzylkum Desert by camel and sleeping in a nomad’s yurt, you won’t be disappointed. The challenge is how to pack everything into the time available.
A museum city
It is rare to come across an entire city that is a museum. Khiva is akin to a film set, the local population, rightly or wrongly, sidelined in order to preserve historic buildings and present a manicured scene to tourists. Whatever you feel about such a policy, Khiva remains one of the greatest cities on the Silk Road: the Ichon Qala in particular is a labyrinth of madrassas and mosques, minarets and trading domes that, at least on the surface of it, look just as they would have done at the end of the 19th century before Soviet town planners, demolition crews and modernist architects got their hands on Uzbekistan.
On a cold winter’s evening, after the wedding parties have departed and the few tourists are enjoying their supper, you can be entirely alone with the ghosts of the past, wandering the narrow streets and soaking up the atmosphere. Which decade, indeed which century, you care to imagine yourself in is entirely up to you.
You might find that camels are invariably smelly, badtempered and jolly uncomfortable to ride. However, the Silk Road would never have got going without them, and so you’ll need to saddle up if you want the full, authentic experience.
The best camel treks are around Nurata in the Kyzylkum Desert and they combine well with a yurt stay and some splendid star-gazing.
The finest collection of Soviet avant-garde art
There would be little reason to come to Nukus at all if it weren’t for the Igor Savitsky Museum, an unexpected treasure trove of Soviet avant-garde art from the 1920s and 30s.
The 2010 documentary Desert of Forbidden Art provides an informative and moving account of Savitsky’s life and work and will certainly whet your appetite and motivate you to make the trek out to what feels like the other side of the moon.
Most people come to Samarkand for the Registan but, though it is undoubtedly impressive, the city’s real gem is the collection of medieval tiled tombs known as the Shah-i Zinda (the Living King). Arriving at dusk, the experience is magical. The tour groups have retreated to their hotels for dinner, as have the schoolchildren; if you’re lucky you’ll have the place to yourself.
You can expect to see every variety of turquoise- and lapis lazuli-coloured glazed tiles attached to the façades of the tombs of female members of the Timurid dynasty, as well as generals, advisors and holy figures.
This bazaar is the first and only place where we have seen the boot and back seat of a Lada stacked to the gunwales with decapitated cow heads. The sight was truly gruesome. Quite what they were doing there we can only dread to think, but they didn’t look a bit out of place.
The modern incarnation of Silk Road trading posts now long gone, the market buzzes with energy and everything conceivable (and, like the cow heads, a few things normally inconceivable) is for sale.
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