While we were planning our trip to Turkmenistan (where you need to either be with a tour company or limit your stay to a transit visa), our tour company offered us an option that combined both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It was a great itinerary and a pretty good deal, so we decided to take the package for both countries and really travel down the Silk Road in style.
After a week in Turkmenistan, we walked across the border into Uzbekistan and met our new driver. We passed through the city of Nukus, stopping at the Savitskey art museum en route, as well as an old mud fortress in what used to be called Karakalpakstan. Along a very bumpy road, we made our way to Khiva, and settled in at Meros Guesthouse inside the fortress city.
Khiva is billed as Central Asia’s only open-air museum city- the entire town inside the reconstructed fortress walls is a living museum. Originally an independent khanate, Khiva was a literal oasis in the desert, the next stop along the Silk Road for traders buying and selling silk, spices, slaves, and cotton. The beginnings of the city date back to the beginning of the Christian Era. One legend states that it was Shem, a son of Noah, who found the city of Khiva when he was digging for a well and was pleasantly surprised at the sweet taste of the water there. Using original 10th century foundations, the city was rebuilt in the 16th century after being conquered and destroyed by Persians.
Inside the fortress walls, the minarets, mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums have all been restored, with brilliant blue, green, and white tiles and delicate alabaster etchings. Dozens of small buildings, living quarters and courtyards are renovated and accessible, and inside are old photos and artifacts from days gone by. Visitors can purchase a ticket that allows entry to all sites (100,000 soms/$12 or 150,000 soms/$18 if you want to add a few minarets and towers).
Bukhara is in the middle of three deserts, yet green mulberry trees are planted everywhere throughout the city. That’s because Bukhara was one of the centers of silk production in the Middle Ages. Even today, silk scarves, tunics, even silk paper are for sale here in the domed trading bazaars, to tourists and to wholesalers. Dozens of families in the area still make their living from silk production, using centuries-old techniques.
Like Khiva, Bukhara has a legend associated with a well- it is said that Job discovered a well in this spot and founded the city. The city later fell under the control of Alexander the Great, and later still it was said that Bukhara was second only to Baghdad for its beauty and its intellectual scholars. Genghis Khan sacked the city in 1221. Over 100 years later, Ibn Battutu passed through in his travels, and the city was still in ruins. Eventually the city became a colony of the Russian empire on the 18th century. Later, as an independent Soviet Republic, then absorbed into the Uzbek Soviet Republic, the city was reconstructed to an approximation of its former glory.
The fast train only takes 90 minutes to reach Samarkand from Bukhara, where we met our next guide. Samarkand is the pearl of the Silk Road, and Registan Square is majestic in its beauty. The heart of the Timurid dynasty, the square is framed by three madrasas, forming a square where royal proclamations were read, visitors were received, and executions were carried out. In 1924, women burned their traditional face-covering veils here in the square, as Islamic traditions were forbidden by the Soviets.
Timur, or Tamarlane as he was known in the West, was born here, and he and his grandson Ulugbek expanded and ruled the empire for nearly 100 years. Fascinated with both Islam and with science, Timur built mosques and madrasas for learning knowledge, while Ulugbek built an observatory that measured and named over 1,000 stars.
Largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, Tashkent was completely rebuilt by the Soviets, who had moved the capital of Uzbekistan here in 1918 in an effort to secure the Fergana Valley as part of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. The city is a fairly modern one, with upscale hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, and a metro. One of the ancient highlights of the city is the Khazrati-Imam, an architectural monument named after a 10th century imam (later a saint). Here visitors can see one of the first written copies of the Koran, in ancient Kufic script, dating to the 8th century- it was penned less than 100 years after Mohammed’s death.
We visited the Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, a huge market where absolutely everything from horse meat to underwear is for sale. We explored the underground metro- very 1970s Soviet style- and enjoyed lunch with our driver at a local working man’s restaurant- total price $5 for the three of us.
And then our tour was done and it was time to head to Tajikistan. We really enjoyed our trip to Uzbekistan- we learned so much history, ate delicious food, and had great weather the whole time we were there. The people who live there are very welcoming, and curious about foreigners and excited to meet Americans. A surprising (to me) number of European and Asian tourists travel there- I hope in the future more North Americans will find their way along the Silk Road as well.