Daniel Allen details the unexpected delights of this Central Asian country, which is finally opening its doors to tourism.
Take a nocturnal taxi ride through Ukbek capital Tashkent, along the city’s bustling, beautifully illuminated carriageways, and giant, neon-clad representations of the mythical huma bird are much in evidence. As Uzbekistan’s national emblem, this fabulous avian embodies a country taking flight once again after decades of Soviet occupation, followed by a 25-year period of dictatorial government by strongman Islam Karimov.
With Uzbekistan gradually opening up to the world in the post-Karimov era, the country’s tourism industry is now undergoing a period of rapid development. There’s still a way to go before this Central Asian nation can be considered a beacon of democracy. But growing numbers of international visitors are already flocking to experience the landlocked republic’s fascinating culture and stunning architecture, both of which rival anything on offer across the continent.
In the past, just getting to (and into) Uzbekistan was an ordeal, which was reflected in the country’s meagre number of international tourists. Yet things are now changing fast, as red tape is slashed and investment in tourism infrastructure surges.
From February 1, 2019, UK citizens have been able to visit Uzbekistan for up to 30 days without a visa, while high-speed rail – which now connects the UNESCO World Heritage-listed cities of Bukhara and Samarkand – is being rolled out across large parts of the country. The modernising fleet of Uzbekistan Airways has been bolstered by a burgeoning number of Boeing Dreamliners, all Uzbek hotels have been instructed to offer accommodation “regardless of the place of residence, citizenship, kinship and marital relations of individuals”, and ubiquitous photographic restrictions have largely been lifted.
All in all, there’s never been a better time to visit Uzbekistan. With ABTA already naming the country in its 12 places to visit in 2019, those who choose to follow in the footsteps of the Silk Road explorers today are simply beating the rush.
Like a lot places that travellers pass through to get somewhere else, sprawling Tashkent – the largest metropolis in Central Asia – takes its time to win visitors over. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and fascinating city, boasting some of Uzbekistan’s finest eateries, nightlife and cultural institutions.
One of the most ancient Silk Road cities, which lay along a complex network of trade routes connecting China with Europe, Tashkent was almost totally flattened by an earthquake in 1966. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless overnight, but a huge Soviet reconstruction and restoration project saw the city rise from the ruins in double quick time.
Tashent’s eventful history has produced a city of striking juxtapositions. Here you’ll find exquisite 14th-century mosques and classical, pastel-facaded Russian buildings rubbing shoulders with monolithic, Stalinist architecture, typified by the iconic, retro-cool Hotel Uzbekistan, a gargantuan concrete slab of an edifice that dominates the very heart of the city. From sleepy Uzbek suburbs with their fruit markets and mud brick buildings, to the soaring, 375-metre high Tashkent Television Tower, the Uzbek capital is a fascinating melange of East and West, ancient and modern.
Completed in 1977, Tashkent’s ornate metro system not only makes navigating the city cheap and easy (single rides cost around 10p), it offers a unique artistic journey too. The design of each lavish station takes inspiration from its name, with the mosque-like Alisher Navoi and space race-themed Kosmonavtlar particular highlights. With a ban on taking pictures here lifted in 2018, subterranean photographers can snap away to their heart’s content.
Lying to the west of the Hotel Uzbekistan, architectural enthusiasts should also take in Tashkent’s Independence Square (Mustakillik Square), with its symmetrical lines and white marble columns upholding a huge silver globe and trio of dancing storks. Dotted with leafy parks and fountains, this is the perfect place to buy a slice or two of super-sweet watermelon and people watch on a balmy summer evening. Independence Square’s subway station, with its gold, Art Deco-style light fittings, is one of the most beautiful on the metro system.
Silk Road splendour at speed
From Tashkent in the east, Uzbekistan’s new high-speed train network (the Afrosiyob) now whisks travellers to the major cities and tourism hotspots of Samarkand (2 hours) and Bukhara (4 hours). This heightened convenience makes visiting these legendary Silk Road destinations all the more appealing.
Like Tashkent and Samarkand, Bukhara dates back more than 2,000 years. As the most complete example of a medieval metropolis in Central Asia, the city’s urban fabric is remarkably well preseved. Restoration work here has been carried out more subtly than in other Uzbek cities, which means the entire place feels incredibly authentic.
Bukhara is separated into two distinct areas – the old and the new. Most residents live in the new city, but it is the older one which draws most visitors, with the lion’s share of the most beautiful madrassas (Islamic schools). Particular highlights include the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a masterpiece of 10th century Muslim architecture, the Ark of Bukhara – a massive fortress that acted as the royal residence of the Bukhara khans – and Poi Kalyan, an elegant Islamic religious complex clustered around the iconic Kalyan Minaret.
No name evokes the Silk Road’s enticing exoticism like Samarkand. Arriving here from Tashkent, Khiva or even Bukhara, visitors are already well acquainted with the jaw-dropping splendour of Uzbek minarets, mosques and mausoleums. Yet nothing compares to Registan, the capital of Turco-Mongol king Timur (Tamerlane), which sits at the heart of the city. This majestic square, with its trio of exquisitely decorated madrassas is, in essence, the symbol of Uzbekistan, and no visit to the country is complete without a viewing. Arrive early to beat the crowds and vendors.
Other Samarkand highlights include the nearby Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, one of the city’s holiest sights and the final resting place of a number of Timur’s relations, the gigantic Bibi Khanym Mosque, and the mausoleum of Timur himself at Gur-e-Amir, yet another masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
A huge expanse of sand sitting at the centre of Uzbekistan – the Kyzylkum Desert is the Central Asia that springs to mind when you look at a map: desolate, forbidding and incredibly hot. As a detour between Bukhara and Samarkand or Tashkent, it combines well with a visit to the verdant Nuratau Mountains. Today numerous yurt camps and Bactrian camel trekking tours make a Kyzylkum experience far less perilous (and far more enjoyable) than in times gone by, when Silk Road traders would spend weeks braving its ever-shifting, terracotta-coloured dunes.