Travel to Uzbekistan

Registan, Samarkand. Photo by Colores de India

In December 2018, we made our trip to Uzbekistan, a country that was part of our bucket list, not only because of its legendary history of the Silk Road, but also because I had a friend who had promised a time ago to visit her and that was an extra motivation to go.

When we commented on our intention to trip to Uzbekistan, nobody knew how to locate it and it still remains an enigma, so here we told you about our trip.

Uzbekistan along with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, was part of the former Soviet Union. It is one of the only two countries in the world, along with Liechtenstein, that need to cross two borders to reach the sea.

More than 31.5 million inhabitants live in its territory. Uzbek is the state language, but Russian is the language used for international communication. Within its limits is the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.

Uzbekistan's economy is strongly based on the export of its natural resources (gold, gas, oil and cotton) whose international prices have allowed a continued growth of its economy in recent years.

From his independence from the USSR in 1991 until his death in 2016, its president Islam Karimov ruled the country with an iron hand. In December 2016, the new president-elect, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has been making efforts for opening the country in order to attract investment, tourism is a very recent and growing industry. In this sense, they have incorporated fast trains sent from Spain, to go from Tashkent to Samarkand and Bukhara.

For more references, the Lonely Planet guide and National Geographic have chosen this country as one of the main destinations of the year 2018.

The caravan cities of Uzbekistan

The architecture of Uzbekistan is a true beauty. Madrasas, mosques, minarets, in all imaginable shades of green and blue, in addition to colorful bazaars, all transported us to a journey in times past.

If the Silk Road evokes adventures in places as exotic as it is challenging, getting to know the caravan cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva made us feel like being Marco Polo.

Let's see the jewels of Uzbekistan, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Samarkand, crossroads of cultures

"Samarkand, the most beautiful face that the Earth has turned towards the sun". Amin Maalouf

Samarkand is located in the heart of the cultural crossroads of the Silk Road. Was founded in the 7th century B.C. like Afrasyab, reached  its heyday in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under the Timurids. Its main monuments include the Registan Mosque and Madrasah, the Bibi-Khanum Mosque, the Shah i-Zinda and Gur i-Emir architectural ensembles and the Ulugh-Beg Observatory.

Unesco declared this 2700-year-old city a World Heritage Site in 2001, inscribed as "Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures".

Samarkand was once the center of the world, capital of the great Tamerlán empire and axis of the Silk Road. And its Registan Square is one of the most beautiful in the world where people gather to listen to the royal proclamations.

Alexander the Great said "Everything you heard about Samarkand is true, except that it is even more beautiful than I had imagined."

Samarkand was the capital established by the great Timur (Tamerlane), the last of the great Mughal conquerors of Central Asia. Tamerlan's grandson Ulug Beg, a famous astronomer, built the first of the three madrasas erected in the Registan for the teaching of mathematics, theology, astronomy, and philosophy.

It is true everything that is said about its beauty, once there you are left breathless. It is a magnificent complex, and despite its obvious restoration, it does not change the feeling of its greatness and of being in the presence of its millennial history.

Another of the inescapable places and perhaps the most beautiful in Samarkand, is the Shah-i-Zinda or the necropolis. If there is a sky for photographers, it is undoubtedly this.

Excavations have shown that until the first half of the 11th century, luxurious mansions were found on this hillside. But entering the second half the land nearby started to use as a cemetery, until the Necropolis of the Timurid Dynasty was built in the years of the government of Tamerlán, where is more than twenty mausoleums for each member of the royal family.

Then we went to the northeast of Samarkand to visit the archaeological site of the ancient Samarkand or Afrasyab. The Museum has some Sogdian frescoes from the 7th century. It is supposed to house the tomb of Daniel, the Old Testament prophet. The building is long, under the structure with five domes, there is an immense sarcophagus 18 meters long. According to legend, Daniel's body grows an inch per year, hence the length of the grave.

Khiva, an architectural oasis in the desert

 Almost on the border with Turkmenistan and located between the deserts of Kara-Kum and Kizil-Kum, Khiva is part of, along with Samarkand an Bukhara, the golden triangle of  Central Asia as true oases of the Silk Road.

It is not just a city-museum, it is a real jewel of the Silk Road architecture. All its 250 monuments are protected by the state and the city has been classified as World Heritage by Unesco in 1990. Poets and philosophers have called it the Pearl of the World. It is also a small city, where it is pleasant to walk slowly through its alleys with shops, tearooms and restaurants.

Itchan Kala or the walled city of Khiva is protected by a brick wall about 10 meters high was the last stage of the caravans before beginning the desert journey to Iran. Notable buildings include the Djuma Mosque and the two magnificent palaces built in the early 19th century by the Khan Alla Kulli, as well as several mausoleums and madrasahs.

Bukhara, the city of a thousand and one nights

Bukhará (Bujará) is over 2,000 years old. It is the most complete example of a medieval city in Central Asia and has been preserved intact for the most part. It has several monuments, including the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, the 10th century masterpiece of Muslim architecture, and several 17th century madrasahs. It has been and still is an important religious center and one of the sacred cities of Sufism.

The historic center of Bukhara has been declared a World Heritage Site in 1993.

Skilled artisans can be found in this city and it is the best place to buy some souvenirs. Ceramic art is very popular in Uzbekistan and the art of jewelry has a long tradition.

Being Bukhara one of the oldest cities in the world, Uzbeks believe that above all Muslim cities, the blessed light descended from paradise and only from Bukhara rises to heaven. That's how beautiful this city is.

 Bolo Hauz Mosque - Built in 1718, with 22 entirely walnut columns, all  different.

Kalyan Minaret. Surrounded by legends, it was saved from the destroying sword of Genghis Khan

Food in Uzbekistan

The food of Uzbekistan is delicious and served in a very abundant way.

There is a proverb that says that a guest cannot leave his host's house without being offered the pilov, a traditional dish prepared and eaten communally. It is cooked in large deep pans. The main component is rice, which is accompanied by beef, raisins, carrots, onions, garlic and exotic spices. It is also sold on the street, near the bazaars and in other places that are found when walking through the cities. It is always accompanied with a tomato, onion salad and some condiments such as fennel, dressing only with vinegar. Its popularity extends to all social classes and is offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality. The preparation and common consumption of this traditional dish allow to strengthen social ties, promote important values such as unity and solidarity, and perpetuate local traditions. It is accompanied by green tea.

Bread is also a food of great significance to the Uzbek people. The breads are circular, crispy and have an excellent flavor. They are made with wheat flour, some spices and have semolina seeds sprinkled on their surface. It is baked in a cone-shaped oven (tandyr) with a small hole in its upper part, the bread being placed on the interior walls until it is ready.

Tashkent, mix of cultures

 The Uzbek capital and gateway to the country also has its charms. This is where the russian influence is most noticeable but it is also a vibrant, modern city where the openness and development that this country has had in recent years is best perceived. Mix of modern and traditional Soviet architecture, it has wide boulevards, avenues full of shops with the presence of great international brands, places of entertainment, friendly people, dismantle the stereotypes that someone may have about this country. It is the richest city in Central Asia.

There is the impressive statue of Amir Timur, the great Tamerlane and greatest conqueror of Central Asia in the 15th century, whose figure was claimed by Uzbekistan after independence from the Soviet Union in search of a national identity.

The Tamerlán mausoleum (XV century) is considered a landmark of the Taj Mahal (Agra, India), built two centuries later.

Chorsu Bazar, the oldest and most popular market in Tahskent. PHoto by Colores de India

Uzbekistan is a country worth visiting to learn about the great Mughal empires and their wonderful architecture. It was far beyond our expectations. Another aspect in favor is its people, they are very friendly and hospitable, they are very surprised when they find tourists and it is common that when they find foreigners they ask to be photographed with them. It is very funny that with foreigners they try to communicate in Russian, for them that is the "international" language, they are so little used to tourism that we received an invitation from a lady to know their town, 500 km away, and of course to share a lunch. This is part of the hospitality of this people, and the more one ventures into the interior of Uzbekistan, the more these invitations will happen.

Leaving the caravan cities and jewels of this country, we have been in a small town called Nurata, in the Navoy region, surrounded by the Nur mountains, the steppes and a few kilometers from the Kyzil Kum desert. Nurata is known because there are the remains of a fortress, legacy of Alexander the Great, built in the 4th century, although only a few sections of a wall made in earth remain, but it is still in the process of excavation and remains of ancient villages are found in the zone.

Nurata is not only famous for the ruins of Alexander, but it is also a place of pilgrimage because in its mosque there is a well that they say never dries and whose temperature is constant at 19.5 degrees Celsius. Healing properties are attributed to water.

Nurata is the only place in Uzbekistan where a unique system of underground water channels has been preserved and is used by the local population for consumption.

Nurata village. Photo by Colores de India

We have yet to go to the desert and sleep in a yurt (called gers in Mongolia), the home of the nomads, because it was very cold and they are closed to visitors at that time. For the next trip, in a favorable climate, we will surely go.

We hope we have sparked your interest in this unknown corner of the world.

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