Uzbekistan is a landlocked country that lies in the heart of Central Asia. With a rich history spanning from 3,000 years ago, the nation is akin to a museum of the early human civilisation. A visitor will find himself engrossed in history retold, from the time the first Iranian nomads arrived from the northern grasslands to Bukhara, all the way to the more recent mercantile days of Silk Road trade.
(The front part of this post is about the history of Uzbekistan - if you would like to skip ahead to the itinerary, scroll down until you see the ITINERARY section.)
Its physical location served it well - cities in what is now Uzbekistan was at the centre of action of almost all global trade flows. They prospered and flourished because of the plentiful tax earnings from commerce and the expenditure spent locally by travelling merchants. They became the centre of religious studies and intellectual life as ideas were heavily exchanged at these crossroads, and scholars eventually chose to settle here in large numbers to pursue their education. In particular, Bukhara and Samarkand were extremely wealthy cities.
But its success was reason for its downfall. The wealth of the region was a constant magnet for invading tribes from the northern Steppes and eastward China. The Uzbek cities changed hands continuously under the great conquerors of the past, namely - Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, to name a few.
The modern Uzbekistan as we know it now was established in 1991. It had gained independence from the Soviet Union under the leadership of Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan is bordered by 5 other -stan nations - its giant neighbour Kazahkstan to the north; the nomadic Kyrgyzstan to the northeast; Tajikistan to the southeast with its world famous Pamir Highway; Afghanistan to the south; and finally Turkmenistan to the southwest.
Hence it is not surprising that while the majority of its population are Uzbeks (80%), other ethnicities can also be found, namely: Russians (5.5%), Tajiks (3%), Karakalpaks (2.5%), Tartars (1.5%), and various smaller minority tribes.
Over the past decades, the country had been shaking off its Soviet past and trying to find its place in the modern world. While preserving their distinct cultural identity, the nation is endeavouring to build modern institutions and technological corporations. This blend of old and new is what makes it so special, and is why it is the perfect time to visit Uzbekistan now.
In the winter of 2018, I found myself back in Central Asia. We were on a trip limited by time and season - with only 10 days on hand, it was only possible to visit the 3 main cities apart from the capital city of Tashkent, and since it was winter, many natural attractions like the Ferghana Valley were out-of-bounds and even in the cities, most people preferred to stay indoors because of the cold. The streets were mostly quiet and dull, deprived of the action and vibrancy that visitors to Spring/Summer/Autumn Uzbekistan tend to recollect after their trips.
Nonetheless, Winter Uzbekistan is perfect if you want to avoid the tourist crowds. You will often find yourself having the whole place to yourself at the major attractions - how great is it for taking photographs! You can also get great accommodations at lower prices, since the demand is generally lower in the season. This trip is primarily focused on architecture and culture, because there were simply numerous historical monuments to see, and we were constrained to stay within the cities.
Here's our itinerary:
Days 1-2: Khiva
Day 3: Travelling from Khiva to Bukhara
Days 4-5: Bukhara
Days 6-8: Samarkand
Day 9: Tashkent
Day 10: Flight home
From Singapore (where I'm from) to Tashkent, it was a 8-hour direct flight on Uzbekistan Airways. This cost us about US$630 for a return ticket. We arrived at Tashkent at the worst possible time (3:25am in the morning), and then boarded a transit flight to Urgench, a town just 40km from Khiva. Thereafter, we took a 30-minutes car ride to Khiva.
Notorious for its extended and brutal history as a slave trading post located in the middle of the vast deserts of Kyzylkum and Karakum, the present-day Khiva is a quiet and sleepy oasis with caravanserais full of tourists instead of captives. The main attraction at Khiva is the Itchan Kala, the inner town of the oasis, which has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
We spent the first 2 days in the fortress Itchan Kala, which is the walled inner town of the city of Khiva (хива), Uzbekistan. Most tourists flock here to witness one of the most homogenous examples of Islamic architecture in the world.
Itchan Kala houses over 50 historical monuments, most of which date from the 18th to 19th centuries. A desert oasis, it was the final rest stop for silk road merchants before they crossed the desert into Iran.
We wandered along the quiet streets within the walled city, looking for signs of life. We passed by plain mud and brick houses that had their doors and windows tightly shut, but I imagined the interiors to be cosy and warm. Further down the alleys there were workers getting busy with the renovation of an old building, presumably to get ready by the next summer. Construction material scattered at the entrance of the building, spilling from sacks onto the pavement.
At the end of one alley, we came to a family making flatbread (non) in an open air stove. The grandma baked while the family plucked weed to sustain the fire. She offered us some non which turned out to be more flavourful than it looked - it is a must-try in Uzbekistan!
Further in another alley, a pair of metal wheels was firmly grounded on the tiles. I had no idea why they were there blocking the passageway, and I could not help but let my imagination run - maybe they were from a large wagon that transported rolls of silk to and fro the bustling bazaars, or one that carried construction material as repair and restoration of the walled city took place from the 18th to 19th centuries. But why is it that they remain here, unshifted? Has anyone ever tried to move them?
We stayed in Silk Road Caravan Serai, which was conveniently located right outside the West Gate of the Itchan Kala.
For more pictures of the Itchan Kala, check out my Uzbekistan photography page.
Next up - Bukhara, also spelled as Bukhoro. We arrived after a 6-hour drive from Khiva. A private car cost us US$45 for the one-way trip.
A medieval city situated on the Silk Road, Bukhara was the centre for Islamic theology and culture. Its strategic geographical location, being at the crossroads of the East and the West, made it a valuable chess piece for the great conquerors of the past - Tamarlane, Genghis Khan, to name a few.
We checked in to our hotel, which, to our pleasant surprise, was located right in the middle of the action - in front of the Lyabi-Khauz!
My personal favourite was Po-i-Kalyan, which is the site where a number of completely ruined and burnt architecture used to stand. Since the 6th century the main mosque had been repeatedly razed and restored by invaders and new rulers. One of the arsonists was Genghis Khan himself, who wrongly thought that a complex of this grandeur could only be a khan’s palace, and hence, must be destroyed immediately as a symbolic act.
What a curse, in chaotic times, for a building to be too beautiful.
After dusk, the city took on a different personality. Monuments were lighted up and crowds began to appear for the Christmas market. The Kalyan Minaret in particular looked strikingly majestic.
The Kalyan Minaret has a nickname - the Tower of Death. It served varied purposes to the inhabitants of Bukhara. Five times a day it called to the Muslim faithful for prayers, during times of war it was an observatory for soldiers to scan the horizon for approaching enemies, and in darker times it was the executioner’s playground. Quite recently the public had gathered round while executed criminals were tossed off from the rotunda at the top of this 48-metre minaret, who presumably landed on the stone courtyard below with a blood-curling thud...
There was a strong atmosphere of festivity as it was the Christmas season - families and friends came to town dressed up as Santa Claus and snow bunnies. The DJs had the music blaring at an impossibly loud volume, but the people seemed to enjoy it. A dance floor formed right in front of the Christmas tree, which was in front of a splendid Islamic architecture, as the crowd swayed to 'Despacito'. The haphazard potpourri of cultures was a sight to behold.
We stayed in Hotel Fatima Boutique, located right next to the Lyabi-Hauz.
We travelled by train to Samarkand, which also spelled as Samarqand. Train stations are called 'Vokzal' in Uzbekistan, as you can see in the picture below.
An interesting quote:
"All train stations in the former Soviet Union were known as voksal – a result of two Russian 19th-century engineers who had visited London. They emerged, blinking, from their first ride on the London Underground at Vauxhall station, and assumed its name to be the generic term for all train stations.
- Christopher Aslan, in his book ‘A Carpet Ride to Khiva’, on how the train stations of Uzbekistan got their unusual name.
Known as Maracanda in the 4th century, Samarkand was capital of the Sogdians, who were well-known for their industrious nature and for being the main caravan merchants of the Silk Road.
Fast forward a few centuries later, the Mongol invaders were defeated and hence the Timur era began. The city's monuments centre around various historical periods - from the 14th to the 20th century - the mosque of Bibi-Khanom, commissioned by Timur's favourite wife, and the Gur-e Amir mausoleum, the tomb of the Great Tamerlane himself.
More sights and scenes around the city:
We stayed in Orient Star Hotel, which was pretty far away from the attractions but was very comfortable. Breakfast was great too!
At the end of our cultural tour, we headed back via train to Tashkent, the capital, for our final day in Uzbekistan. We arrived at Tashkent late at night, around 11pm.
Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan, and it vastly differs from the previous 3 historical cities that we visited. Since Uzbekistan's independence, new development had taken over the obsolete icons from the Soviet Era. Soviet buildings were replaced by new modern architecture.
Despite the modernisation, the Tashkent people have renamed monuments and erected statues to honour their ancient hero, Amir Timur.
We had some time on hand, so we took a Yandex (the local ride-hailing app) and visited the renowned Chorsu Bazaar, located in the centre of the old town. You can find all sorts of daily necessities and commodities sold here.
The bazaar stands out for its unique architectural design. My 55-mm camera lens was unable to capture the bazaar in its entirety, so I will borrow some images from Google -
Beautiful, isn't it? Even though we did not need to buy anything, we just had to go and see it for ourselves. Apart from the central dome, there were outdoor stalls littering the sides of the complex.
What took me by surprise when we entered was that most of the grocery stalls that greeted us first were selling... horse meat.
Soon, our day came to an end as the sky began to turn dark. We took one last walk in the downtown of Tashkent to soak up the atmosphere, before we would return to the busy metropolitan life of Singapore.
I almost forgot to add - if you are in Tashkent, be sure to drop by the State Musuem of History of Uzbekistan as well! The exhibits are very informative, and you can spend up to a few hours just reading them. Besides, there is an exhibit on the modern development of Uzbekistan, which gives a glimpse of the nation's future.
We stayed in Topchan Hostel, which is a backpackers hostel but they have private rooms too. The breakfast was not fancy (just bread and tea/coffee) but the owners were really welcoming.
That's how we spent 10 days in Uzbekistan!
If you would like to know more, feel free to contact me. :)
Another interesting country in Central Asia is Kyrgyzstan - it is extremely safe, tourism-friendly, and their well-preserved nomadic way of life is sure to be eye-opening to anyone. You can check out my blog series on Kyrgyzstan here.