Uzbekistan is home to selection of ancient Silk Road cities largely unfrequented by westerners. But this hidden gem of Central Asia is not going to stay a secret for long. According to the State Committee for Tourism, there’s been a whopping 40 per cent increase in tourism since last year. With infrastructure investment gushing in from China, now may be the perfect time for intrepid travellers to hit the road while the path is still unbeaten. Here’s why Uzbekistan is worth a trip:
The ancient bazaar cities like Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand stand remarkably intact with memorizing architecture that spans the centuries.
Samarkand dates back to the 7th-century BC and counts Alexander the Great as one of its conquerors. It features the unmissable Islamic architecture of Registan Square, an ensemble of three madrasas (schools) restored to their 15th-century and 17th-century glory in iridescent blue tile work. The square’s massive arched portals, soaring minarets, and blooming domes are dressed in hypnotic mosaics and majolica (painted tiles) in motifs of flowers, calligraphy, and dizzying geometric patterns.
A city of sand-coloured clay bricks, Bukhara is officially 2,500 years old according to UNESCO’s measurement system, though it’s most likely much older. This city is known as “a beautiful lady without makeup” because of the undecorated brick structures that punctuate the streets. You’ll find the 12th-century Maghoki-Attar Mosque, the oldest mosque in Central Asia. You will also find the towering Kalyan Minaret, which captivated Genghis Khan so thoroughly that he refused to destroy it during his invasion of the city; as well as the mystical, geometric Samanid Mausoleum – a rare example of Zoroastrian motifs (one of the world’s oldest religion) blended with Islamic designs.
If formidable Soviet architecture is your jam, take a spin through the metro stations of Tashkent, where portraits of cosmonauts decorate the walls of Kosmonavtlar Station and Art-Deco-esque chandeliers dangle overhead like icicles in Mustaqilliq Maydoni Station.
Uzbekistan has a rich artisan scene of hand-painted ceramics, needlework and silk work that’s now being rejigged for the 21st-century. Because traditional craft workshops aren’t subject to government taxes, younger generations are compelled to learn the applied arts of previous generations like suzani, an intricate silk embroidery, and ikat, a tie-dyed, loom-weaved textile. The colourful ceramics, handmade mulberry paper and hand-woven silk carpets are also full of skill and intricacy and can be found throughout the country. Along with an array of authentic souvenirs to buy, most workshops offer master classes for tourists as well.
Unlike some of the other ‘stans, Uzbekistan is an incredibly safe and welcoming country for travelers. Locals are warm and friendly and tea—black and green—is almost always offered to guests, as is a spread of oriental sweets like dried apricots, roasted sesame-covered nuts, and halva.
There are direct flights from London to Tashkent via Uzbekistan Airways. Jules Verne offers a comprehensive 11-night tour, which covers the key cities including Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand.