We visited Uzbekistan because of Peter Hopkirk. What an inspirational story teller. Fascinating tales of adventure on the old Silk Route motivated us to tackle the dreaded “Stans” bureaucracy and we applied for our visa three weeks out. Amazingly, getting an Uzbek visa is really simple and Americans are blessed with multiple entry, 4 years tourist visas, no questions asked. We absolutely love Uzbekistan…our experiences there were wonderful and we strongly urge everyone to visit the best that Central Asia has to offer.
In June of 2003, we decided to join Travelbag Adventures (later renamed The Adventure Company www.adventurecompany.co.uk) for a group trip to Uzbekistan. The “Golden Road to Samarkand” tour covered all the highlights of Uzbekistan that we hoped to experience. In fact, after reading the bare essentials of the tour, we were thrilled that we’d be able to see and do so much in such a short period of time. Becky convinced Robby that Uzbekistan was “the place to see” in 2003 after being inspired by Peter Hopkirk (author of several excellent books including “The Great Game: Struggle for Empire in Central Asia”, “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” and “Like Hidden Fire: The Plot to Bring Down the British Empire”). Hopkirk brings the fabled Silk Road to life, retelling stories that occur along its route from China to the Mediterranean…interspersed throughout the journey are the fabulous and mystical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. Robby was easily swayed after he read the following excerpts of the tour: Central Asia – the very name brings to mind nomadic warriors raping and pillaging their way across the steppe. The playground of Russia and Britain in the ‘Great Game’, Uzbekistan was fought over for hundreds of years before – Alexander the Great came from the west and Genghis Khan from the east. It is Tamerlane, however, whose name is most closely associated with this land. Our trip into the very heart of Central Asia offers the lover of culture and civilization an opportunity to discover some of the Islamic world’s most beautiful buildings. There’s the splendor of Samarkand, capital of an ancient empire, which blended refinement and savagery in almost equal measure. In Bukhara there’s still an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue – once destroyed by Genghis Khan, who left only one tower standing. Bukhara is the holiest city in the entire region, having over 350 mosques and madrassas. Old Khiva, on the other hand, is so perfectly preserved, it seems we have stepped onto a film set.
Highlights of our tour included:
Samarkand & the Registan After seeing Tashkent’s medrasa and bazaar we drive to legendary Samarkand. Here, minarets and domes are bathed in the clear light reflected by ornate blue and turquoise tiles that cover the facades of stunning buildings in the Registan Square. A comprehensive city tour reveals this pinnacle of Central Asian architecture in all its glory and gives an insight into the legacy of the great warrior Tamerlane.
Bukhara – an oriental gem Where Samarkand dazzles with the beauty of its faience tiles, Bukhara’s appeal lies in the atmosphere generated by its ancient city centre and the graceful architecture of its buildings. We can easily imagine how life was at the time of the Samanid rulers of the 10th century as we wander the mud-walled streets of the old town, where ornate carpets lend a splash of color. Alternatively, take a step back in time and sit and drink chai in one of the many outdoor teahouses, as travelers have done for centuries.
Khiva – as old as the Bible When the tribe of Shem (son of Noah) struck water whilst wandering in the desert, they were responsible for founding a settlement which eventually grew into Khiva. It is now the most complete Silk Road oasis city in existence – even its walls remain intact. However, Khiva is only a small town and its winding passageways and little courtyards are best explored on foot.
Our small (8 pax) tour group was headed by Evgeniy Trofimov, an excellent Central Asian guide. Evgeniy is based out of Tashkent and little did we realize, but he was mentioned in another book that Becky read, written by Alexandra Tolstoy (yes, related to famous author Leo Tolstoy) entitled “The Last Secrets of the Silk Road”. We teased him about being “famous” but he was disgruntled over Alexandra’s write up of him in her novel (Evgeniy is mentioned on page one and introduced as a “young man” who spoke broken English). After having spent significant time with Evgeniy, we can definitely assure everyone that his English is top-notch and he is a fantastic guide (anyone that is able to get a group of strangers to bond over bottles of Vodka while feasting on lamb shashlik is a winner in our book!) We were the only two Americans on the tour and everyone else hailed from the UK. It was really nice to have such a small group as we felt everything was personalized for us.
Our Daily Itinerary:
14 June: We flew from London Heathrow to Tashkent on Uzbek Air (nice, comfy flight…big chairs and plenty of snooze space). Good thing we could nap on the flight since we arrived in the wee hours of the morning and had only a few hours of sleep to catch before our first full day of sightseeing. Evgeniy greeted us at the airport, got us through luggage collection and customs and took us to our hotel where we caught a few hours of sleep.
15 June: Today we explored Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Travelbag informed us that Tashkent was “Uzbekistan’s cosmopolitan capital, although an ancient settlement of strategic importance, was always dominated by whichever ruler held sway over the region and was never a major player in its own right. It came to prominence in the political machinations at the end of the last century when the ‘Great Game’ was being played out between Russian and England as rival powers jostled for strategic advantage, and gradually assumed its present role as regional hub”. During our half-day tour, the group struggled with jet lag, immense heat and sleep deprivation. Towards the end of the afternoon, we noticed that during our lectures, everyone on the tour would take a seated posture (no matter where we were in the city!) Our local Tashkent guide read body language pretty well so he wrapped up his briefing as quickly as possible and released us to explore the city on our own. We were warned not to take photos of the Metro, as the Tashkent police were pretty touchy on that subject. We ended up wandering around the Amir Timur Maydoni (a square where the bust of Marx has been replaced with Timerlane on horseback…the gardens and fountains in this area are the nicest in Tashkent). After exploring downtown Tashkent for a while, we went to Chorsu, a central bazaar for the old town. What a colorful and invigorating experience! The locals were super friendly and hospitable. In a futile attempt to capture the atmosphere, we snapped loads of pictures. However, it is indescribable to tell you what it was like wandering through the bazaar. Women dressed in colorful dresses and headscarves, men wearing the doppilar or dopy (a black, four-sided skullcap embroidered in white) and the sights and smells! We thought the locals squatting down beneath hand-held umbrellas (to beat the heat) in an effort to sell their wares was a pretty funny sight to behold. And there were literally hundreds of people all lined up trying to sell something (from spices to cheese to plastic flip flops). We definitely didn’t have enough time at the bazaar and wished we had gotten up early that day to explore it further on our own. That evening, Evgeniy took us to a local restaurant where we chose our shashlik sticks and downed them with locally brewed vodka. Excellent way to spend the first day and everyone crashed pretty hard that night.
16 June: Today we woke up excited to be on the road to Samarkand. Travelbag’s write up of the day’s itinerary includes the following: “The morning’s drive takes us over high steppe, across the Syr Darya River and past a break in the foothills whose local name – ‘Tamerlane’s Gate’ – gives a clue to the area’s history. Along the way we passed pastoral scenes of small villages set amidst fields – principally of cotton. Samarkand is an oasis on the edge of the Kizyl-Kum desert and we have our first glimpse of the extraordinary empire built by Tamerlane – the one man who dominated his epoch and a great swathe of the globe. Our afternoon sightseeing takes in the remarkable Registan, a huge square at the heart of Tamerlane’s capital with the most exquisitely extravagant ensemble of three great madrassas. The unadulterated splendor of the towers, domes and glittering ceramic facades of these Islamic seminaries or universities are guaranteed to quicken the pulse of even the most jaded traveler. Tamerlane now lies buried, with two sons and two grandsons, in unexpectedly modest style in the Gur Emir, the mausoleum originally built for one of his grandsons who died before him. We’ll also visit the heavily reconstructed Bibi Khanum mosque, attributed – as the name suggests – to Tamerlane’s Chinese wife. The Shah-i-Zinda, a hilltop pilgrimage site, contains a street along which stand a series of royal mausolea where members of Tamerlane’s dynasty are entombed. The oldest site in the city, it contains some of the finest glazed tile work to be seen in Central Asia. Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulug Beg, was an educated man with a passion for astronomy. The remains of his observatory (the most advanced of its day) stand atop a hill to the north of Samarkand. His detailed observations and calculations show him to be the equal of any other mediaeval stargazer.”
We arrived in Samarkand and immediately dropped off our bags at a conveniently located hotel. From the hotel, we had a short 10-minute walk to the Registan which was absolutely phenomenal to see in person. Evgeniy advised us that we would all be back here tomorrow since we were getting a Samarkand local guide to give us an in-depth brief of the area. However, that did not deter us from admiring the Registan for hours.
17 June: Today was our in-depth tour of Samarkand, which we had quickly discovered to be an absolutely amazing city. We started off at Shahr-i-Zindah, which is a street of tombs located to the east of Bibi-Khanym mosque. Shahr-i-Zindah means “Tomb of the Living King” and the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas (cousin of the prophet Mohammed) is located here. It is a pilgrimage site and we were all urged to dress conservatively and pay respect while in the complex. After admiring the incredible blue tile-work, we went to Bibi-Khanym mosque (Tamerlane’s wife). It is a massive mosque that was once the envy of the Islamic world, measuring 35 meters high for the main gate! However, in the late 1800s, an earthquake destroyed the mosque and today it is under UNESCO support in restoration. According to legend, the mosque has a dicey history. Tamerlane’s wife, Bibi-Khanym, ordered the mosque to be built as a surprise to her husband. However, the architect fell for her and demanded a kiss before he would complete the finishing touches. When Bibi kissed him, it left a mark on the architect’s face which enraged Tamerlane so much that he ordered all women to wear veils (as to not entice the hapless men!) Inside the courtyard stands a gigantic Quran stand carved out of marble. We were told by our local tour guide to crawl underneath it if we wanted a lot of children. Needless to say, none of the women on our trip shimmied underneath the stand! The last portion of our formal tour included the mighty Registan, which is the highlight of Samarkand. We would dare venture that it was the most amazing sight to behold in all of Uzbekistan. The complex consists of several medressas (schools). On the west side stands the imposing Ulughbek Medressa (Ulughbek is Tamerlane’s favorite grandson and an avid astronomer). About 100 students used to live in the two storied dormitory cells. Opposite the Ulughbek is the entrance portal of Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa. Completed in 1636, the portal is absolutely amazing with roaring lions depicted in the upper left and right corners of the portal. It has been said that the lions really look like timid tigers, but in any case, it is a miracle that the figures exist today since Islam prohibits the depiction of live animals. In between these two monstrous medressas is the Tilla-Kari (Gold-covered) medressa, which was built in the 1600s and provides a nice backdrop for the Registan Square. That night, we decided to check out the sound-and-light show, which was totally cheesy but showed the Registan off from a different perspective. We duly paid our entrance to the VIP seats and laughed when we found out that all the locals simply gather round and watch the show for free. Little did we know that we were the group of suckers everyone was waiting for in order to catch a free viewing of the Registan at night!
18 June: We boarded our bus early and headed towards Bukhara. Becky was eager to see the city where the two British officers, Stoddard and Conolly, met their fate with the cruel Bukhara emir, Nasrullah Khan. The prologue from Hopkirk’s The Great Game intrigued even Robby, so soon we both became anxious to reach our next destination. “On a June morning in 1842, in the Central Asian town of Bokhara, two ragged figures could be seen kneeling in the dust in the great square before the Emir’s palace. Their arms were tied tightly behind their backs, and they were in a pitiful condition. Filthy and half-starved, their bodies were covered with sores, their hair, beards and clothes alive with lice. Not far away were two freshly dug graves. Looking on in silence was a small crown of Bokharans. Normally executions attracted little attention in this remote, and still medieval, caravan town, for under the Emir’s vicious and despotic rule they were all too frequent. But this one was different. The two men kneeling in the blazing midday sun at the executioner’s feet were British officers…” To get the full story of what happened to these two unfortunate souls, we recommend you check out The Great Game.
The Travelbag dossier informed us that today we would “leave Samarkand and head southwest on the long drive to Bukhara”. Along the way, we might “see the two-humped Bactrian camel. This remarkable beast of burden has for centuries been the transport of choice in this part of the world, as well as providing food, drink, clothing and shelter to the nomads of the desert. Being able to carry some 200 kilograms of merchandise, it was favored over the single-humped dromedary, which could cope with the same payload but was not as fast. For protection against marauding bands, merchants formed great caravans of up to 1,000 camels, protected by armed escorts. Heading on past the ruined arch of a caravanserai (merchant’s inn), which would have been used by traders making the arduous desert crossing, we arrive in the most holy city of Central Asia – Bukhara – at the end of the day. After the color and splendor of Samarkand, Bukhara presents a more austere appearance. Its magnificent monuments, which depict a thousand years of history are in the drab colors of the desert and impress in a different way. Despite its history, this is still a living city, whose austerity is somehow in keeping with its former position as a seat of Islamic learning and culture. The rich trading city reached its height in the 10th century when, as capital of the first independent Moslem state in Central Asia, its population was larger than it is today and its power extended as far a field as Iran and Afghanistan. Students arrived from throughout the Islamic world to study in its 250 madrassas. Relatively little is known about the ruling Samanid dynasty, but their exquisite mausoleum with its delicately patterned brickwork, is the sole building to survive from that era – it lay buried deep in desert sand which saved it from the wholesale destruction wreaked by Genghis Khan. We also visit the Ark Fortress – an entire town containing the residences of the Emir and his wives, mosques, a mint, government buildings, storerooms, a prison and a square for public executions. The decoratively banded Kalyan tower – in its time the tallest minaret, maybe even the tallest building in the world – dominates the city skyline. Its nickname – Tower of Death – dates from the days when criminals were flung to their death from its 47-meter high lantern. Later we may pause for a cup of fragrant green tea at the chai-khana beside Lyab-i-Khauz – a peaceful pool flanked with lovely buildings.”
When we finally arrive to Bukhara, we are ready to get going. We have a few hours to kill before our organized group dinner so we wander through the mazes and alleyways towards Lyab-i-Khauz (Labi-Hauz), which is a circa 1620 plaza built around a pool. Lonely planet describes the areas as “the most peaceful and interesting spot in town-shaded by mulberry trees as old as the pool and peopled with street-sellers, crazies, old men hunched over chessboards or gossiping over tea, and anyone else with nowhere else to go.” And indeed, Labi-Hauz is an interesting place to sip a cup of tea while relaxing on a chai-khana. In fact, our free entertainment included watching young men jumping from atop the tree branches into the lurid-green pool. We were amazed that they didn’t break their necks, as the pool didn’t seem to be very deep. Nevertheless, tree jumping was a popular pastime the locals indulged in to escape the unbearable heat! For dinner that night, we were taken to a local house-cum-restaurant, and the food was marvelous. Too bad the pristine moment was lost when a busload of Germans infiltrated our serene setting. Still, everyone was having a marvelous time and good conversation over excellent food.
19 June: Today we explored Bukhara with a local guide. She warned us not to talk to the ever-charming kids milling about the Kalon minaret as we would never lose them and they would end up following us all day long until we bought something from them. However, Robby did not heed her remarks and struck a conversation with a few of the entrepreneurial kids…he quickly became totally smitten by their charms and super cute faces…soon he was like the pied piper with about a dozen children following him everywhere! They would hold his hands, play with his hair and refused to let him be until he promised to buy something off of them! Much to the amusement (and dismay) of some group members, the children followed us for hours and acted as if they were part of the tour group. Thus, our group doubled in size and together we visited the Kalon mosque (big enough for 10,000 worshippers), Mir-i-Arab madrassa (still functioning as a working medressa where students learn about the Quran and Islamic teachings), and the covered bazaars (Taqi-Sarrafon, Taqi-Telpak Furushon, Taqi-Zargaron…which translates into moneychanger bazaar, cap-maker bazaar and jeweler bazaar). After our Bukhara tour was complete, the children finally bade Robby a sad farewell and the group breathed a sigh of relief at our newfound freedom. We ate shashlik for lunch at the labi-hauz and then had the rest of the day free for further explorations. Of course, since we were in Bukhara of the legendary Bukhara carpet fame, we simply had to check out some carpets. And they were such bargains! We ended up getting a beautiful medium sized carpet for a steal and spent the rest of the evening wandering through alleyways and befriending little kids who were only too happy to practice their English. While most of the children were content to amuse us with impromptu games of soccer, one little girl horrified us with her pet snake. She kept placing it into her mouth. Whenever she would open her mouth, the small snake would slither back out…we begged her to stop as we were afraid that the snake would end up biting her…and we refused to take her picture in a vain attempt at making her stop. It was all a bit too much and the children’s insatiable curiosity exhausted us after a couple of hours, so we bid them farewell and made our way back to our Bukhara lodgings. We can honestly say that the Uzbek children are the most curious and friendly children we have ever met along our travels thus far…and they delight at being able to see their own image on our digital camera display screens. Every time we would snap a child’s picture and show it to him or her, the local townsfolk would surround us and jostling hands would grab the camera and pass it around for all to see. It was a strangely uplifting feeling to be able to please so many people with such a simple gesture. It almost played out our National Geographic photographer fantasy…if only we could take Nat’l Geog quality photos! 🙂
20 June: We left Bukhara and were on a brutal path towards Khiva. The journey today ended up taking most of the day. However, Travelbag had amply prepared us with their write up: “Most of the day is taken up with the long drive northwest. Our route more or less traces the line of the River Amu Darya and the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, between the deserts of the Kara Kum to the south, and the Kyzyl Kum to the north. The largely flat and featureless terrain gives us an accurate impression of the difficulty of traveling through this area in the days before motor transport – it used to take some twenty days to cross the infamous Kara Kum from Merv to Khiva! In those far off days the gardens and orchards which surrounded the city were legendary; now the area around it is intensely cultivated with cotton. Skirting the modern town of Urgench, we finally arrive at the City of Nightingales. Best seen on a walking tour, the densely packed monuments of Khiva’s walled centre are not as old as those of Samarkand or Bukhara. Founded in early times, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once in its history, but the compact inner area we see today was created in an astonishingly intense burst of construction (1780-1850). The techniques used – and the resulting style – date from centuries earlier, as Central Asia lay in a time warp for over 400 years. The architecture may be strikingly simple but distinct differences in decoration can be seen, such as the ubiquitous Persian-influenced floral motifs and plaited geometric designs, plus the use of turquoise (as opposed to the now familiar cobalt blue) ceramics. Few of the mosques, minarets, madrassas and palaces are still actively used, other than as museums. In the nineteenth century, Khiva became a pawn in the Great Game as the two great empires of Britain and Russia vied to establish a controlling interest in the area. We have the full day to explore this eerily atmospheric ghost town.” We finally arrived to Khiva in the afternoon and were thrilled to find out that our hotel (Hotel Arqonchi) was conveniently located inside the city walls. We had free time to explore so we wasted no time in dropping off our bags and getting lost within Khiva’s nooks and crannies. What is startling about Khiva is how well preserved it remains…attributed to the Soviet conservation program from the 1970s and 80s. When Becky was reading about it in The Great Game, Khiva stank of slaves and barbary. Today, it is a quaintly preserved historic town with densely packed mosques, tombs, palaces, alley and medressas. We climbed our hotel rooftop for a spectacular sunset overlooking the Islom-Huja minaret (Khiva’s highest and newest minaret, measuring 45 meters tall).
21 June: Our last full day of the tour! We woke up and met our local tour guide bright and early. She walked us throughout the Ichon-Qala (old city), starting at the West gate and the Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa (built in the 1850s and now functioning as a hotel!). Outside the Amin Khan is the Kalta Minor minaret. It is a short and stubby turquoise-tiled minaret that has only been partially completed. Given how round the base is, if the minaret were completed, it would easily be the tallest structure in Khiva, easily surpassing Bukhara’s Kalon minaret. We next visited the Kukhna ark, where Khiva’s rulers housed their harems, mint, stables, arsenal, barracks, mosque and jail. The complex is impressive and we spent a while admiring the ornate roofs. While there, we met a young dance troupe who were in costume and performing short 2 minute increments of local song and dance routines as a “teaser”. We loved them and begged our tour leader to give us more information on how we could see more. Leave it to Evgeniy, who organized it where the group would meet us at a nearby palace for dinner (to perform a live one hour show specially for us!). We ended up visiting a few more sights within Khiva to include Khiva’s token camel (it really has been there for years, waiting for passing tourists to pose next to it), Juma Mosque (amazing mosque with 218 intricately carved wooden columns), Tosh-Khovli Palace, and the Alloquli Khan Medressa, bazaar and caravanserai. After finishing up our sightseeing expedition, we gathered together for one last group dinner at a nearby palace. It was a really nice way for us to end our wonderful (but all too short!) tour….recanting stories and memories shared over the past week. The Khivan dance group was absolutely amazing and we thoroughly enjoyed their spectacular performance. That night, a group of us drank beer and stayed up to the wee hours of the morning, unwilling to believe this was really the end of the tour.
22 June: Today we made our way to the local Urgench airport and fly back to Tashkent. From there, we board a plane headed for London and ultimately, back to Germany. Uzbekistan will always remain in our memories as being an absolute gem of a country. In fact, we have already started plotting our next return to Central Asia since we both find the region to be incredibly pristine and ruggedly beautiful. We have decided that we will definitely give Evgeniy a call to be our tour guide for whatever Central Asian trip we decide to do…he is top notch. (For anyone interested in checking out this corner of the world with Evgeniy, he can be contacted through Asia Travel at +998 71 1735107 or firstname.lastname@example.org)