If I had £10 for every time someone said “Where?” when I said I was going to Uzbekistan, it would have paid for a fair few meals in that Central Asia country. But while it might not be an obvious travel choice, it offers a host of fabulous experiences that make Uzbekistan a destination well worth considering. Here are just eight of them.
1. Early morning exploring in Khiva
Khiva was the first Silk Road city on my tour and the furthest away from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent, where most visitors arrive in the country. But it’s worth the trip to see a city that’s a living museum and has gorgeous madrasas, mosques and minarets at every turn of its narrow streets. Set your alarm early to soak up the atmosphere before it gets busy and then go back later to explore inside the buildings once they’re open.
2. Eating homemade plov, the Uzbeks’ favourite dish
I wouldn’t say Uzbekistan is known for its cuisine and I definitely didn’t have high expectations being a non-meat eater. Being a double landlocked country fish is a rarity, but I did have a surprisingly good range of veggie meals. And the highlight was eating homemade Plov, Uzbekistan’s national dish, which is made with meat but our host family served up a veggie version too. Our guide was the kind of guy who knows a guy, so we ate in the courtyard of a family home, watching how the Plov is made before enjoying eating every morsel.
3. Evening walks around Tashkent’s peaceful parks
Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent was already hot in early May so early evening is the perfect time to join the locals and meander through its green spaces. Despite being in the city centre, Independence Square and Amir Timur Square are surprisingly peaceful and teeming with monuments, flowers and fountains. Linking the two is lively Sailgokh Street, known locally as Broadway and lined with stalls and street artists. A great place to see a slice of Tashkent life.
4. Learning the story of silk
If you visit the Silk Road you can’t leave without learning a lot about its history, but there’s also plenty of current silk stories to experience. Our journey across the Khorezm Desert from Khiva to Bukhara passed through the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan where we had a chance encounter with a family and their silkworms. Once in Bukhara, we visited a tiny shop where a silk weaver shared his skills and sold his beautiful silks.
5. Marvelling at the simplest of mausoluems
Uzbekistan is bursting with colour. As well as the silks, bright blue and green painted buildings are its architectural signature. But another Bukhara highlight is the strikingly simple Ismail Samani Mausoleum, a perfect cube of what looks like woven brickwork, but built years before silk weaving brought riches to the city. Although it dates back to the 10th century the building is extremely well preserved, partly because it was made from fired bricks rather than the usual sun-dried mud bricks, but also because it was partially buried under sand until the 1930s. It’s one of the most unusual structures I’ve ever seen.
6. Walking through an avenue of exquisite tombs
At the other end of the simplicity scale are the stunning tombs that make up the Shah-i Zinda necropolis in Samarkand. Although much of the brilliant mosaic, majolica and terracotta work is now restored rather than original, it’s still a remarkable sight and an important place of pilgrimage for the people of Uzbekistan.
7. Bazaar shopping for all sorts of everything
Uzbekistan’s bazaars are where you’ll find every kind of produce and product you can think of. At Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, we saw people shopping for traditional wooden baby cradles in one area, big slabs of meat in another and a bewildering range of spices in a third. At Samarkand’s Siyob Bazaar we sampled delicious sweet treats and saw traders selling clothes, fruit, cakes and a lot of bread. Every area in Uzbekistan has its own type of bread and in Samarkand it looks a bit like a bagel and is denser than in other areas as they use milk instead of water. It’s a bit chewy but the locals love it.
8. Standing in awe of the jewel in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road crown
Save the best for last must be the mantra of all travel tour planners. It’s certainly been my experience when on a tour, which is definitely the easiest way to see Uzbekistan unless you speak the local language. Our tour with Central Asia specialists Kalpak Travel finished in Samarkand, home to the country’s most spectacular sight, Registan Square. Much like the Taj Mahal, I found it very hard to look away. Day or night, it’s undoubtedly the jewel in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road crown.