Glitzy TashkentCapital city Tashkent has a rich history but is now known as the glitzy city of Central Asia. However, it has no shortage of historical buildings, ancient relics, and authentic bazaars.
Ancient walled city of KhivaSurrounded by 10-meter-high plastered brick walls, the ancient inner city is filled with many historic monuments such as mosques, medrassah, bathhouses, mausoleums, harems and an ark.
Bukhara, ancient intellectual centre of the Islamic world
Located on the ancient Silk Road, the city was the intellectual centre of the Islamic world and now a showcase of colourful mosques and madrases.
Samarkand, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Samarkand is located on the Silk Road and was once described by Marco Polo as a “very large and splendid city…”
CAPITAL CITY - TASHKENT
With a population of over 2 million people, Tashkent has a strong and rich history, and with some luck on its side it should have a strong and rich future. Dating back to between the 5th and the 3rd centuries B.C., this area was settled by the peoples of ancient Persia (now Iran), the Chinese, the Turks, and many others. In early times it was known as the principality of Chach and then went through an Islamic period in the mid-seventh century under the Persian Zoroastrian Samanid dynasty (819–999). In 1219 Genghis Khan, founder and Great Khan (emperor) of the Mongol Empire, found it his duty to destroy the town and kill much of its population. However the city was rebuilt and culture gradually revived and it grew substantially as a strategic town on the ancient Silk Road.
In the early 1800's it was annexed to the Khanate of Kokan which consisted of modern day Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and southeastern Kazakhstan. The Russians under Mikhail Grigorevich Chernyayev then felt obliged to conquer the city in the mid 1800’s and Mikhail declared himself "Military Governor of Tashkent” even though the Tsar was initially against the invasion. Tashkent, then became the capital of the new territory of Russian Turkistan. With the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, many factories were relocated from western Russia and Ukraine to Tashkent in an effort to preserve the Soviet industrial power. The city grew substantially under Soviet rule but on April 26, 1966, much of the city was destroyed by a huge 7.5 earthquake. Sadly, due to the earthquake and redevelopment programs by the Soviets, little architectural heritage has survived of Tashkent’s ancient history. Since the breakup of the USSR in 1991 Tashkent has gone through an entire revival and rediscovery of itself.
Today Tashkent is a vibrant city with modern buildings, fast cars, glitzy balls, and fortunately a few historical buildings and authentic bazaars are still standing. Notable modern buildings in downtown Tashkent include the 22-story National Bank of Uzbekistan, an Intercontinental Hotel, the International Business Center, Xalq Bank, Dom Forum (modern congress hall) and the Plaza Building. Among the most interesting sights in town are the Khast Imam complex, Kukeldash Madrasah, Telyashayakh Mosque, Yunus Khan Mausoleum, Palace of Prince Romanov, and the bustling Chorsu Bazaar located next to the Kukeldash Madrassa. Several museums are worth visiting such as the Navoi Literary Museum, Amir Timur Museum, Fine Arts Museum, History Museum, and Museum of Applied Arts. One of the most beautiful religious buildings is the Holy Assumption Cathedral Church (Uspensky Cathedral) which is not far from the central train station.
While homestays are popular across Central Asia, it is not yet permitted in Uzbekistan. All accommodation for foreign travellers must be registered with the local government office. However, the cozy Gulnara Guesthouse located close to the Chorsu Bazaar offers a homestay environment with several rooms arranged around a pleasant inner courtyard outfitted with tables and chairs.
WALLED CITY OF KHIVA
A rather interesting 19-hour overnight train travels from Tashkent to the town of Urgence from where it is a 30 minute taxi ride to the ancient city of Khiva. The people of Central Asia, including the Uzbeks, are friendly and very hospitable. During long train rides be prepared to act as an entertainer to the entire carriage as people will congregate around a lonely foreigner to listen to stories, see photographs, and to share their food and drinks. While few people speak English across Central Asia, body language with constant smiling opens up the hearts for understanding and for developing fond memories. Modern day Khiva is a city with more than 50,000 inhabitants.
The ancient inner city (Itchan Kala) is surrounded by 10-meter-high plastered brick walls whose foundations were laid around the 10th century. The current walls were erected in the late 17th century and have often been repaired and rebuilt since then. The Itchan Kala retains more than 50 historic monuments such as mosques, medrassah, bathhouses, mausoleums, harems and an ark, as well as more than 200 houses built during the 18th and the 19th centuries. In the centre of the city is the Juma (Friday) mosque, which was established during the 10th century and rebuilt in the 18th century. However, of the 212 carved wooden columns inside the mosque, several date back to the 10th century while others are from the 15th to 18th century.
While three to four days are enough to explore the entire Itchan Kala with all of its interesting buildings, an additional few days could be spent on exploring the surrounding areas such as the Aral Sea and the town of Moynaq to the north. The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest saline body of water in the world, but over the past 50 years it has been steadily drying up mainly due to Soviet mismanagement of the natural resources. The town of Moynaq once was a thriving fishing town on the shores of the lake but today it sits high and dry about 150 km from the current coastline. Ships that once floated in the blue waters now stand rusting in the sun and wind at the famous ship graveyard. Moynaq is about 400 km north of Khiva and is best reached by hiring private transportation.
Khiva has a wide variety of accommodation in guesthouses, most notably the B&B Meros which is a lovely old house right in the old city of Itchan Kala, to more grand accommodation such as the Orient Star Khiva and Hotel Malika Kheivak.
There is no train line between Khiva and Bukhara, but a shared taxi takes about five hours to cross the 450 km. Its a boring road which crosses the desert and half-desert terrain not far from the border with Turkmenistan. Bukhara, with a population of about 270,000, is one of the larger cities in Uzbekistan and certainly also one of the oldest. While settlements in the area were founded in the 6th century B.C., most of the current buildings date back between the 15th and 17th century while some were built during the 9th and 10th century. Being part of the Persian Empire for many years, many of the current inhabitants can trace back their roots to the Persians.
Located on the ancient Silk Road, the city was not only well known for its trade in copper, but also as the intellectual centre of the Islamic world. As such, the city is dotted with numerous mosques and madrases, most notably the Kalon Mosque and Minaret, Ulugbek Medrassa, Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa, Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum and the Bukhara Fortress (the Ark). Bukhara lost some its most precious and ancient structures during the Arab invasion and again when conquered by Genghiz Khan in 1220.
Unlike Khiva, several notable sights are away from the old city of Bukhara but can be reached on foot or by bicycle. There is much to experience around town which includes the many primary sights but also many lesser visited sites and the authentic Kukluk Bazaar. The Char Minar (meaning “four minarets) once was a gatehouse of a large medressa which no longer stands. Built along with its medressa in 1807, its architecture is more Indian in style than Uzbek. In 1998 UNESCO restored one the towers which had collapsed.
The Fayzulla Khojaev house belonged to one of Bukhara’s most famous and wealthy family of traders and is styled as the “House of a Wealthy Local Merchant”.
The Bolo-Hauz Mosque was built during the early 18th century and was a place of prayer for the Emirs and their entourage. The pool in front of the mosque is the oldest part of the ensemble and is one of the few remaining in Bukhara. In honour of this pool the mosque is called Bolo-Hauz, which means "children’s pool”. Its slender, 40 elegantly carved wooden pillars hold up a beautifully restored painted ceiling.
Close to the border with Tajikistan, with a population of over 300,000 people, Samarkand is the second-largest city in Uzbekistan after the capital city Tashkent. Along with Bukhara (and a few other Middle Eastern cities), Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was described by Marco Polo as a "very large and splendid city…” and Marco also wrote interesting tales about Christian churches in the city. Just like other great cities in the region, Samarkand was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 B.C. when it was known by the Greeks as Maracanda. Alexander ransacked and destroyed much of this “splendid city”. Fortunately, during the Hellenic period, it recovered and even flourished thanks to the Greek’s superior methods of masonry and other creative initiatives. Then came the Mongols and the fearless Genghis Kahn, followed by another Mongol conqueror named Khan Baraq so it took many decades to recover from these disasters. Fast forward to more recent times: Samarkand city came under Russian rule in 1868 and since then has been under the Soviets for much of the time.
Thanks to its rich history, some interesting architecture has been preserved. While the city’s main sightseeing areas are a lot more dispersed than those in Khiva and even Bukhara, they are still within walking distance for travellers who don’t mind the legwork. Arguably the most interesting is the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis (meaning “the living King”) which is an ensemble that includes several mausoleums and other ritual buildings dating from the 9th to 14th and also the 19th centuries. The ensemble comprises of the lower, middle and upper levels which are connected by four-arched domed passages. Beyond the upper level is a very interesting graveyard shared by many ethnic groups indicating the city’s cosmopolitan history. The Russian section, in particular, has some of the most impressive gravestone complete with brilliant stone carved busts and full figure statues. Another highlight in the city is the ensemble of three major buildings in a U-shape arrangement: The Ulugbek Medressa, Tilla-Kari Medressa, and the Sher For Medressa.
Also, don’t miss the impressive Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, as well as a few smaller sites such as the Rukhobod Mausoleum, Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum. One of the best markets in Central Asia is the bustling Siob Bazaar. Stock up on fresh herbs and spices, breads, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The grapes, peaches and both the yellow and red figs are locally grown, succulent and very affordable.
Uzbekistan in a Nutshell:
Uzbekistan is most famous for its old cities packed with mosques, medrassah, bathhouses, mausoleums, harems, and mud built houses. Outside the cities are vast stretches of desert, ancient ruins, and the drying Aral sea to the north.
The most convenient entrance to Uzbekistan is via the international airport at Tashkent. It is also possible to enter from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by land. Few visitors also arrive via Turkmenistan which has a very strict and complicated visa regime.
When to Go:
Summers are extremely hot and best avoided. The best time to visit is outside the summer months, which are August to March.
Uzbekistan is the only Central Asian country with a sizeable train network. In fact, it’s really the only country where you would, and should, consider train travel. Trains travel vast distance across Uzbekistan and it is generally a very pleasant experience.
Where to stay:
Accommodation in Uzbekistan is still strictly controlled by the government so you can’t stay with locals or self catering apartments as you like. Only government approved accommodation places are allowed to host foreigners and they also must register you with the local authorities upon arrival. Technically, you should keep all accommodation receipts to show upon leaving the country, though this rule seems to be relaxed nowadays.
Cost of travel:
While the entrance fees at many historical buildings add up to a hefty amount, generally costs are fairly low especially at the local bazaars. Uzbekistan is the most touristy of all of Central Asia so with it comes money sharks and cheaters, in particular the taxi mafia. Money is best exchanged on the streets with the roving money changers who are generally trustworthy. Bring a bag to carry the many small bills.
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