A Journey on the Silk Road: Uzbekistan

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.

Ayoz Kala, built 2000 years ago

Khiva

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.

Chris and Deah in Uzbekistan

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).

Poi Kalon Complex

Bukhara

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.

Silk production with natural dyes

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.

Site of Ayoub’s (Job’s) well
Artisan knife makers, Bukhara
Masjid Kalon

Samarkand

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.

Registan Square
Registhan Square

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.

Timur the Lame
Chris And Deah in Samarkand

Tashkent

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.

Uthman Koran, Tashkent. No photos allowed on site, so this pic is from Wikipedia. CC by SA3.0

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.

Chorsu Market
Cosmonaut Metro Station
A local dish called “plov”- rice, vegetables, mutton, with raisins and chickpeas

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.

Turkmenistan: Across the sands of the Karakum Desert

turkmenistan Mosque

We started working on planning our Turkmenistan trip back in December, knowing that we’d need a Letter of Invite from a tour company, a package tour, and a visa before arrival- all of which takes time. After receiving our LOI by email, we took it to the Turkmenistan embassy in Tbilisi, where for $55 they issued us a visa (you can also get it done at Ashgabat airport for $87). We let Travel Notoria plan our tour, and we just showed up with a load of cash (no ATMs in Turkmenistan!) after catching a flight on AirDubai.

The flag shows the symbols of the five regions

Ashgabat

We spent the first two days in Ashgabat, which, aside from Pyongyang, might be the strangest capital city we’ve visited. Called the “White (Marble) City”, it has the most marble buildings- 543- monuments, statues, parks, etc. Yes, certified by Guinness Book of World Records and everything. There’s a lot you can’t take pictures of, but we got enough shots that you’ll get the basic idea. Blindingly white and eerily empty by day, the city is transformed into a kind of “neon-Vegas-in-the-desert” vibe by night. Only white or silver cars are allowed in Ashgabat; you can get a ticket for having a dirty car; and smoking is illegal in any outdoor public space.

The White City
Ashgabat at night. Don’t worry- the state pays everyone’s electric bills

Most of the city was planned by the first President of Turkmenistan, who not only renamed himself “Father of the Turkmen”, but he also renamed the month of January for himself, the month of April for his mother, the word for “bread” for his mom, and had himself declared “President for Life”. He even wrote a book called the Runahma, which was basically a spiritual guidebook, and required civil servants to be tested on it- and even students to answer questions on it during their driving exam! Turkmenbashi ruled from 1991-2006, when he died, and the second (and current) President was elected.

A city planned by a megalomaniac

One highlight of Ashgabat was the carpet museum. From rare double-sided carpets, to carpets using over 270 colors in them, to the world’s largest handmade carpet (it was supposed to be the curtain to the Moscow theater but it was too heavy)- it was all really fascinating. They had examples from the five regions of the country, with each region’s distinctive motifs. The guide was really knowledgeable, but each photo cost 11 manats! In the official exchange rate, that’s $3.14, but at the black market rate, only 75¢. (We exchanged our USD at the black market rate of course).

The Carpet Museum

Mary

We left Ashgabat to go see some very old settlements out in the desert. An ancient Silk Road settlement named Abiverd was a particularly pretty stop due to the red poppy field spread out all around. Closer to Mary, we toured Gonur Depe, a city that existed 7000 years ago and was noted in an inscription by Darius I of Persia. A tomb was found here a few years ago that includes four bronze-rimmed cart wheels, evidence of Bronze Age civilization. Both of these settlements have been excavated by archaeologists, but now just sit out untended in the desert, and visitors can walk around them at will. Turkmenistan doesn’t get many tourist visitors per year, which is probably a good thing, because these ancient mud walls which have stood for centuries won’t last long once the Instagram crowd geo-tags them and the tourists start arriving in droves.

Chris at Abiverd ruins
Bronze Age cart wheel

After Gonur Depe, we spent a day driving out to another old city, Merv. It was an oasis that was part of Alexander the Great’s empire. Sacked by the Mongols in 1221, the mud fortresses, mosques, and battlements can still be seen today. We even watched a whole herd of wild camels arrive at the oasis for their daily watering, with baby camels just a couple of days old.

Khan Khala, built by Timur’s son 15th c
A life-saving oasis in the desert

Darvaza Crater

Our final stop in Turkmenistan was the Darvaza gas crater. From Mary, we took a quick 40 minute flight back to the capital, spent the night, and then met our driver the next day. We loaded up with dinner and breakfast supplies at the huge Tolkuchka bazaar, and headed out towards the Uzbekistan border. After a lot of sand dunes and some bumpy four-wheel driving, we arrived at the gas crater. In 1971, an oil rig hit a pocket of natural gas and caused a collapse, losing all the equipment. Geologists decided to burn off the gas, thinking it would just take a week or two. 47 years later…. it’s still going, and it’s quite a sight to see! We stayed in a yurt just a few hundred meters from the crater. It was definitely a highlight of our trip there!

Chris And Deah at Darvaza Crater

Turkmenistan was a fascinating place to visit. Secluded for so long from much of the outside world, they have only recently made their visa requirements a bit easier. Turkmen people still wear traditional hats, scarves, and dresses, and drive around in old Lada cars or in carts pulled by donkeys. Proud of their heritage, but with an eye to the future, change is coming to Turkmenistan, so I’m glad we got it see it when we did.

Turkmen women climbing a sand dune, wearing their traditional scarves

Azerbaijan 🇦🇿

Baku Flame Towers

We arrived in Azerbaijan via the overnight train from Tbilisi, which was cheap ($20) and easy. It left Tbilisi’s Station Square at 8:40 pm, arrived at the border just before midnight, and made it to Baku by 9 am. We had already applied for an e-visa for Azerbaijan ($55), which we printed out in Tbilisi, and they do the immigration stuff on the train. We had a 4-person sleeper berth which was fairly comfortable, aside from being super hot for a couple of hours before they turned off the heater.

Chris in our train cabin

Baku:

Our first day in Baku, we dropped our bags at our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to look at the huge Caspian Sea (the largest inland lake in the world). We got a late breakfast/early lunch at a cafe, and went back to the hotel and checked in and took a nap. We were staying at a hotel next to the train station/metro station so it was very easy with the transport. When we went out to dinner that night, we found a little basement tavern where no one spoke English. One patron who knew a few words helped us order, and we wound up with this delicious meal for under $20.

Pork chops, pickled veg, bread, cheese, herbs and beer

The next day we went on a walking tour of the capital city, Baku. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned a lot. It’s a very interesting place, visually, with parts of the walled old city dating back to the Middle Ages, plus European-style buildings funded by oil-rich oligarchs in the early 1900s, and ultra-modern skyscrapers built with new oil money in the last few years. It’s quite a blend and yet it works.

Maiden Tower, 12th c
National Academy of Sciences, 1908
Baku is growing, up and out!

A brief history:

Early residents of this area of the world were Zoroastrian fire worshippers. When Islam arrived in the early 700s, the Zoroastrians were expelled towards India, and the area became Muslim. Assaulted by the Khazars and the Rus for the next few centuries, the city of Baku was also invaded by Mongols. The Persians finally took over the region in 1501, and even earlier than that were written records of oil being produced in Baku. The Russians and the Ottomans fought over Baku in the 1700s, with Russia eventually winning. Then the Russians fought the Persians for control of Baku (and their oil). By the 1890s, Baku supplied half the world’s oil. In 1920, the Russian 11th Red Army rolled into town and gave Baku an ultimatum: join Soviet Russia or be annihilated. Finally, in 1991, Azerbaijan achieved lasting independence.

Baku in 1861

Day trip to Qabala

We signed up to go on a day tour to Qabala, about 200 km from Baku. On the way we stopped in Shemakhi, to see Azerbaijan’s oldest mosque site. Built in 743, the mosque has been damaged and rebuilt after fires, earthquakes, and Soviet occupation. The residence of an Arabian caliphate in the 8th century, the mosque is the largest in the Caucases.

Inside Shemakhi Dzhuma

Then we drove to Qabala, an ancient capital city along the Silk Road. The area has a long and rich history, but was mostly destroyed during Soviet times. Now Qabala is undergoing a cultural comeback, with parks, green spaces, and recreational activities. We visited a ski resort there and a lake, which is probably really fun in deepest winter and in spring/summer. Although spring was just arriving in Azerbaijan while we were there, with warming-up temps and green buds starting to show, there was still snow in the mountains, but melting quickly.

Tufandag Ski Resort

Modern Baku

Back in Baku from our day trip, we took the metro to the Flame Towers (helpful hint: the funicular is closed on Mondays) and walked all around that area of town. When Chris visited Azerbaijan the first time in 2011, they were still constructing these towers. We also took the metro up a few stations to see the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center. Surrounded by a large park, we brought a picnic and sat by the “I ❤️ Baku” sign and ate lunch. The city gets winds coming in from the Caspian Sea- the name Baku actually means “wind pounded city”- but this day was warm and not too breezy. On the front steps leading up to the cultural center was an open-air exhibit of work by a photographer named Reza, which was really incredible work. His website can be found here. Inside the cultural center, designed by Zaha Hadid, are rotating exhibits- right now there’s one on classic cars and another on dolls.

The Flame Towers
I really need to stretch first next time

We enjoyed visiting Baku and Azerbaijan, but we’re ready to head back to Tbilisi to explore Georgia some more and then Armenia. We took the sleeper train back and got ready for our next adventure. Stay tuned for more Caucasus updates soon!

Country costs:

Train ride in: $20

Visa: $55

Per day costs: $90 for two people